Obama Must Get Afghanistan Right
President-elect Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraq, he argued for the need "to end the mindset that took us into" that war. So it's troubling that he ramped up his rhetoric during the campaign about exiting Iraq in order to focus on what he calls the "central front in the war on terror"--Afghanistan. His plan now calls for an escalation of 20,000 to 30,000 additional American troops over the next year--nearly doubling the current 32,000.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman criticized the Dems' position on Afghanistan as ill-conceived "bumper sticker politics." Too many of the leading Dems have become part of a poorly reasoned bipartisan consensus that threatens to entrap the US in another costly occupation--a war that New York Times columnist Bob Herbert describes as "more than seven years old and which long ago turned into a quagmire." It currently costs the Pentagon $2 billion per month to support the US troops in Afghanistan. An escalation would drain resources that are vital to President-elect Obama's goals for an economic recovery, health care, and social justice at home, while impeding other critical international initiatives such as the Middle East Peace process and a regional diplomacy in South Asia.
Once again, as in the run-up to the War in Iraq, too few people in Congress and the mainstream media are asking tough questions. There are some notable exceptions--see Friedman and Herbert--and in Congress, there's Senator Russ Feingold who writes in a recent op-ed:
Few people seem willing to ask whether the main solution that's being talked about- sending more troops to Afghanistan--will actually work. If the devastating policies of the current administration have proved anything, it's that we need to ask tough questions before deploying our brave service members--and that we need to be suspicious of Washington 'group think.' Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
There are strategic reasons to oppose a military escalation and occupation. On national security grounds, a US occupation would be counterproductive to the stated goal of defeating Al Qaeda. The moment for action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was immediately after 9/11. Now, Al Qaeda operates out of Pakistan, and the key to reining it in lies with a democratic Pakistani government. Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, wrote about the "sinkhole" of Afghanistan in Newsweek:
The chief effect of military operations in Afghanistan so far has been to push radical Islamists across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications.... To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake."
US occupation is also exacerbating tensions in South Asia where the Kashmir conflict and Mumbai attacks have nuclear-armed Pakistan and India at "each others' throats."
At a moment when US diplomatic leadership is needed to pursue peace, and cooperation is required to take on Al Qaeda, major groups within Pakistan's military and intelligence services are now providing support to Islamic extremists with the aim of thwarting US policy. The US is viewed as propping up an unpopular and corrupt Karzai government that New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describes as "seem[ing] to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it," and "contributing to the collapse of public confidence... and to the resurgence of the Taliban." The Karzai government also aids and abets a flourishing narcotics trade. All of these factors fuel anti-American/anti-government sentiment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But perhaps nothing causes rage towards the US more than mounting civilian casualties.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch documenting airstrikes and civilian deaths, the majority of deaths caused by international troops come from airstrikes. Using statistics provided by the US Central Command Air Forces, the report noted that US aircraft have dropped about as many tons of bombs in June and July this year as during all of 2006. At least 321 civilians were killed in NATO or US aerial raids this year--triple the number in 2006. A UN report now estimates that up to 500 Afghan civilians are dying monthly from US cluster bombs, most of them children and teenage boys. Finally, a UN study shows that civilian deaths have not only increased Afghan resentment of foreign forces but also motivated many of the suicide bombings. As an Afghan vegetable stand owner told the Washington Post, "I never heard of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan until the Americans and this government came."
The other often cited national security objective--ensuring that Afghanistan doesn't become a haven for terrorists--doesn't call for this kind of escalation. First, it doesn't make sense to fight an unwinnable war to prevent Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan if they can operate relatively freely in Pakistan. Also, it would be difficult to find a less attractive place strategically than Afghanistan from which to direct an international terrorist network or threaten US interests or global commerce.
What is required in order to pursue peace in the region is better delivery of targeted aid and reconstruction that improves the daily lives of the Afghanistan people. In a recent statement, the international relief and development organization Oxfam America urged a change of focus: "Unless the next American President...builds on the existing commitments to help lift the Afghan people out of extreme poverty and protect civilians, it will be impossible for the country to achieve lasting peace." Many argue that only increased presence of US troops will create the security needed for delivery of aid, but the Karzai government is too corrupt and too weak outside of Kabul to ensure that the aid goes to the people who need it. A negotiated settlement with elements of the Taliban would create far greater stability than we could ever hope to achieve through an escalation, arming militias, and doling out Viagra to tribal leaders--as the Washington Post reported last month is the practice of US intelligence officials.
Some raise human rights concerns about the consequence of a US/NATO departure. In particular, some groups feel that US troops are needed to protect Afghan girls and women. But many Afghan women activists and organizations -- like former Afghan parliament member Malalai Joya and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--have called for a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Here's how Joya put it: "Over 85 percent of Afghans are living below the poverty line and don't have enough to eat. While the US military spends $65,000 a minute in Afghanistan for its operations, up to 18 million people (out of a population of only 26 million) live on less than $2 US a day, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.... As soon as possible, the US/NATO troops must vacate our country. We want liberation, not occupation. With the withdrawal of occupation forces, we will only have to face one enemy instead of two." We currently spend $36 billion annually on military operations in Afghanistan which would climb with escalation. We've spent $11 billion since 2002 on non-military development. Withdrawal of troops doesn't end US aid--it allows resources to be spent more wisely, focusing on creating opportunities and rights for women, and alternatives to the narcotics trade for poor farmers. As Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of Afghan Women's Mission said, "For this, or any other idea to work, the US occupation must end. That's the first big step to recovery."
While President-elect Obama has the possibility of re-engaging with a world repulsed by the destructive polices of the Bush Administration, it is likely that escalating the war in Afghanistan will endanger that possibility. Escalation may cause a rift with European allies whose people have turned against this war, and our ability to extricate ourselves from the quagmire will only get harder. Consider the warning of former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski: "We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made.... Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper." Russian military officers caution that Afghans cannot be conquered, as the Soviets attempted to do in the 1980s with nearly twice as many troops as NATO and the US currently have in the country and with three times the number of Afghan troops that Karzai can deploy.
The best prospect for more concerted action against Al-Qaeda is a planned withdrawal of US forces, and for reconstruction to be taken over by a multinational coalition that has as few American fingerprints as possible. The fact that this is an American project is the principal reason why Pakistani groups support the Islamic insurgents. To be fair, President-elect Obama has spoken on the importance development aid and resolving the opium trade; but military escalation remains the centerpiece of his plan. The point of withdrawal is not to abandon Afghanistan, but to take a different approach to targeted aid, smart diplomacy, and intelligence cooperation. A regional solution will be tough--one that involves Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Iran (who opposes the Taliban and also has its own fight with Afghan drug warlords on its border), as will a negotiated settlement between the Karzai government and the Taliban. But these should be the priorities of the Obama Administration, rather than sending more young men and women to die in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and making this President Obama's War.
I will be blogging regularly on this issue as part of a campaign to stop the escalation. You can find others doing the same--and opportunities for action--at the soon to be up and running website, getafghanistanright.com.
© 2009 The Nation