Although it may surprise many insular people in the United States, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and the region they inhabit want nothing more than what most Americans dream of. They want peace, a chance to raise their children with good healthcare and education, and an ability to earn a decent living. They do not want to be invaded or occupied, nor ruled with an iron fist. Decades of war have damaged Afghanistan and Iraq and destroyed the fabric of their societies. Their intellectuals and middle class have either been targeted by internal militancy or have left to seek a better life, ironically in the United States and the West, the occupying force and source of their current discomfiture.
The best hope for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan from the new US administration that took office yesterday is that it will set in motion plans for a military exit but launch a sustained assault on poverty and help inoculate both countries against the rise of autocratic systems of rule. Both are tribal societies with centuries-old traditions and mores. Devolving power to the provinces and districts and to local councils and encouraging the formation of a national consensus along the lines of the previously stable “Meesak-i-milli” (People’s Concord) of Afghanistan will be one way to assure stability. Start rebuilding socio-political structures from the bottom up not top downward.
But a US military withdrawal must not mean a political or economic exit from both countries, the worst nightmare of the people of both war-torn lands. The US abandoned Afghanistan once before, after the Soviets left in 1989. In the words of General Brent Scowcroft, it had to go back in 2001 to complete the job that it ought to have done at that time. It also left Iraq to its own devices after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It cannot risk making the same mistake again. For there are broader implications of such actions.
To enhance regional harmony, the new US President will also need to build better and longer relationships with both countries’ neighbors: re-open dialog with Iran instead of painting it into a hostile corner, and build a longer-term relationship with the people of Pakistan rather than with any single ruler or autocrat. This will restore stability in the region and allow Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan to contribute towards peace rather than war in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of the world today. If they could, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan would vote for a US president who waged peace not war.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. An edited and translated version of this piece ran in Foreign Policy Edición Española.