Retired US Army Colonel Discusses Why the War in Afghanistan is Unwinnable
We've spoken with Ret. Col. Ann Wright of Oahu before-about her decision to resign from the State Department on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, about the follies of the Bush Administration, about Israel, and about the importance of dissent.
Now, recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan, Wright has plenty to say about America's oft forgotten, decade-old war.
You went to Afghanistan in September 2009, and then again last month. What, if anything, has changed?
The change that I noticed and that was talked about the most by Afghans was the huge increase in U.S. military bases-now over 400. We saw the construction of a huge base just north of Kabul. The high wall on the front side of it stretches over two miles and encloses a large training area. In the shadow of the wall, just across the road in an internal displacement camp, are tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled the fighting in the South and East of the country. They are living in abject misery in small dirt hovels, with no water or sewage and only a few sticks of wood each day to cook a tiny meal. Yet across the road are hundreds of millions-if not billions-of dollars spent on infrastructure for military training and operations. Villas built with the huge profits from the multi-million dollar U.S. logistics contracts to support our military presence are rented back to the international community contractors and non-governmental agencies for $10,000 to $15,000 per month. Yet most Afghans live in poverty.
In travelling outside of Kabul north of the Panjshir Valley, we went past the turn-off to Bagram Air Base, now an American city with over 20,000 U.S. military living and working there, as well as an infamous prison with over 10,000 detainees who are being held without any judicial process, many for years. We observed two new, 'smaller' U.S. military bases on the way to the valley-with the standard and expensive bomb-blast protective walls with at least 50 pre-fab buildings in each and an American flag flying above each base.
With its latest $500 million expansion project, the United States Embassy in Afghanistan will be the largest in the world, even bigger than the mammoth U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. Over 1,400 U.S. government employees will reside inside the walls of the compound, which is expanding to take over the Afghan Ministry of Health grounds and part of an Afghan Ministry of Defense area. The U.S. is building two consulates, one in Heart and one in Mazir Sharif. Each will cost $50 million.
The United States' presence in Afghanistan is so large that it has its own air terminal at the Kabul International Airport, plus the two mega air bases at Bagram and Kandahar, and the air base in Kyrgyzstan.
This huge infrastructure build-up is to support the Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan. That strategy-which increased the U.S. military presence by 50,000-was opposed by the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, retired three-star General Karl Eikenberry. Eikenberry was the former commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Two of his secret State Department cables to Obama during the strategy review-with his recommendation that a military increase was not what was needed-were leaked to the public, not through Wikileaks, but apparently directly to a major newspaper in the United States. Obama chose to ignore his own Ambassador and former military commander and approve Generals Patreaus and McChrystal's recommendation of a dramatic increase in military troop strength.
Do the Afghan people want us there under any circumstances, or is the overwhelming sentiment that we should leave?
Afghans do not want the international community to abandon or forget them, as happened after the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. But they want the killing of Afghan civilians to end.
Afghans are concerned about their security, but with the United States, NATO forces, Afghan National Army and Taliban all shooting at them, they have nowhere to turn. In fact, Nowhere to Turn: The Failure to Protect Civilians in Afghanistan is the title of a study endorsed by 29 international organizations that have done community development work in Afghanistan for decades. It documents the dramatically increasing number of civilian deaths, displacement of families across the country escaping the fighting, cutting off access to basic services and reduction of the ability or aid agencies to reach those who need assistance.
Many Afghans with whom we talked say that the aggressive U.S. military operations for the 'security' of Afghanistan are counterproductive. They believe that as long as the U.S. military is in Afghanistan there will be many who will fight against the U.S.-just as they did against the Soviet soldiers-and will destroy the schools, clinics and roads that the United States has built.
Some believe a different type of international security force is needed, one that does not include the U.S. military. Others-including the brave, outspoken former Afghan Parliamentarian Malalia Joya, are calling for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces. They believe that the Afghans must ultimately sort out their own problems without foreign interference.
What would you say is the biggest misconception the average American has about Afghanistan?
I think many Americans believe that there always has been fighting in Afghanistan because the Afghans love to fight. They don't realize that Afghans have had to repeatedly defend their tribal areas-and then their country-from foreign invaders. The geographic location of Afghanistan on the route from Asia to the Middle East has made it a target for many occupiers.
No matter what our political leaders tell us about the rationale for the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the United States is the latest invader and occupier. Most Afghans in the countryside haven't even heard of the events of September 11 or al-Qaeda training bases. What they see is another foreign military force in their country killing Afghans.
Is there any way for the U.S. to "win" this war?
First, the Obama administration has to decide what 'winning' is. If winning is denying al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, we have won. That's according to the CIA, which says no more than 50 al-Qaeda are ever in Afghanistan.
If it's defeating the Taliban, then we need to know who the Taliban is. The CIA estimates there are 17,000 Afghan Taliban, mostly farmers who get paid $10 a day to shoot at U.S. and NATO forces. In opposition to the 17,000 'Taliban' are 550,000 international and Afghan personnel working to provide security in Afghanistan-100,000 U.S. military, 40,000 NATO, 60,000 U.S. contractors, 175,000 Afghan National Army, 175,000 Afghan National police. If it is a military 'win' the U.S. is looking for, then with that overwhelming number challenging the Taliban, we have to be winning-and if we're not, why?
The answer is that there is no military solution, as expressed by virtually all the leaders of the countries that have been a part of the international coalition-except U.S. leaders.
Proponents of the war often point to the plight of women and other oppressed groups, and say that if we were simply to leave, things would get even worse. How do you respond to that?
We have to look honestly at the plight of women and children in Afghanistan. The U.S. involvement over the last ten years has not increased the lifespan of women or men in Afghanistan--it is still at an appalling 45 years. Afghanistan has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, with 151 deaths out of 1,000 live births. One in five children in Afghanistan die before they reach five years of age and 850 children die per day. Thousands of Afghan women have been widowed or killed and children have been made orphans by U.S. forces, many more than were ever harmed by the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
The Karzai government that the United States helped create in 2001 supported the 'Taliban style' Shia Personal Status Law, which legitimizes marital rape and prevents women from stepping out of the home without their husband's consent. Karzai's wife, a gynecologist in a country in great need of doctors, does not practice medicine and stays at home. Only one minister in Karzai's cabinet is a woman--the head of Women's Affairs, the only minister who has no regulatory powers.
Why do you think the U.S. has been unable to capture Osama bin Laden? Do you believe he's still alive, and in either Afghanistan or Pakistan?
I believe that Osama bin Ladin is alive and is living, protected by the Pakistani ISI, in the tribal region of Pakistan. The U.S. placed a $25 million bounty on bin Laden in 2001, but the loyalty to a person [and] organization that has stood up to United States' war policies is incredibly strong in many countries around the world--particularly in the areas of Pakistan where bin Ladin has been well-known since his arrival in the 1980s, through the assistance of the United States, to help the Afghans defeat the Soviets. His picture is found in village markets all over the border regions of Pakistan--not a bounty photo, but posters of reverence.
I believe the United States had the opportunity to capture bin Ladin in 2001, but according to Afghan warlords that had been hired by the CIA to go up into the Tora Bora mountains to pursue bin Ladin, they were called off by the CIA. Speculation is that if the U.S. captured or killed bin Ladin, the reason for continuing the 'war against terror' would have been eliminated and the subsequent curtailing of civil liberties for American citizens through the enactment of the Patriot Act would not have been as easy as it has been, with very little push back from the frightened American public.
So for a variety of reasons, the Bush administration did not want to capture or kill bin Laden--he was and is more useful to U.S. war policies alive than dead.
What, to you, would a good outcome in Afghanistan look like?
From what I've heard from Afghans, they want a country that has no fighting [so] they can return to their occupations in agriculture and farming in the rural areas, where their children can have medical care to stay alive and go to school. They want a country free from the interference of other countries-the United States, Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. They want the war lords who have raped, pillaged and plundered brought to justice instead of being paid millions of dollars by the U.S. government as hired guns and later appointed to key jobs in the government.
Considering the history of international involvement in Afghanistan, I think it'll take a miracle-but miracles do occur. Corrupt systems are overthrown by the people, not through foreign interference.
While we were in Afghanistan, we met with a group of brave young peace volunteers who are challenging the war policies in their country. They asked us to listen to the Afghans instead of imposing on them what we think they need.
You've expressed frustration with the Obama Administration before. Do you have any faith the President can-and will-end this war in a politically and morally justifiable way?
Yes, I am very frustrated with the Obama policies in Afghanistan. I do acknowledge that Obama as a candidate warned us that he believed the U.S. war in Afghanistan was the 'good war' and that he would increase U.S. involvement. On this one campaign promise he has followed through, despite warnings from many in the U.S. government-including his ambassador-and many outside the government.
Contrary to Obama's statements that the U.S. would begin withdrawal of troops in 2011, this administration is lengthening the war. In the past two months, the timeline of withdrawal has gone from 2011 to 2014-and now to no end in sight.
I don't believe the Obama Administration really knows what they intend to do in Afghanistan or how long it will take. In November 2010 Vice President Joe Biden said that the 'drop dead date' for the U.S. to turn Afghan security back to Afghans is 2014. While I was in Afghanistan in December 2010, U.S. Ambassdor Karl Eikenberry told the Kabul Times that Biden 'is a colorful character' but he is misinformed on how long the U.S. military will be in Afghanistan. Eikenberry said the U.S. will be there longer than 2014.
Then, on January 11, 2011, Vice President Biden changed his comments and stated in a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "The United States, if the Afghan people want it, are prepared, and we are not leaving in 2014," and the U.S. would continue to provide aid and military training past 2014.
I strongly believe the U.S. military-at the cost of $1 million per soldier per year-will be in Afghanistan for a long time, unless a U.S. President finally listens to the people of the United States who say, 'bring the troops home.'