At the height of the Reagan Administration, it was not uncommon to see a bumper sticker promoted by the College Republicans: "What About Afghanistan?"
The implied argument was along the lines of: those who object to the Reagan Administration's efforts to overthrow the government of Nicaragua should be dismissed as hypocrites, since they are apparently unconcerned about the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
It was a silly argument. The citizens of every country have a primary responsibility to concern themselves with the crimes of their own government, and what the Soviet Union was doing in Afghanistan in no way justified what the U.S. was doing in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
But today this bumper sticker seems far more appropriate. Perhaps we can scoop some up for cheap at a College Republican remainder shop and put them on our cars.
What about Afghanistan? A majority of the U.S. population and the Congress -- like the majority of Iraqis and Iraqi parliamentarians -- want the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq by a date certain. Senator Obama, the Democratic nominee, is expected by his supporters to get the U.S. out of Iraq if he is elected President.
But about our other war, the war in Afghanistan, there is little public debate. Why not?
We know how Afghanistan and Iraq were different. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan did appear to have some relationship to the September 11 attacks. Unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Taliban did have a relationship with Al Qaeda.
Legitimate questions can be raised about the justifications and international legality of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But suppose we put those arguments to one side. Even if the original U.S. invasion were justified, would that mean we must acquiesce to an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan?
Nearly seven years after U.S. forces invaded and occupied Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government, perhaps we could consider what Afghanistan and Iraq have in common.
- U.S. soldiers are still being killed and wounded there. While fewer U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq (517 vs. 4094, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count,) if you compare deaths to forces deployed a different picture emerges. There have been 189 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in 2008 vs. 42 in Afghanistan, while there are about 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and about 30,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. So from the point of view of an individual soldier being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, your chance of being killed is about the same.
- As in Iraq, in Afghanistan, civilians are regularly killed by U.S. forces in military operations that have not been authorized by the supposedly sovereign government.
- As in Iraq, in Afghanistan, citizens are detained indefinitely by U.S. forces, without the protection of internationally-recognized human rights.
- As in Iraq, U.S. military operations are justified as part of a "war on terror," but are entangled in internal political conflicts that have an ethnic and sectarian character, contributing to the belief that the objective of the U.S. is not simply to establish security in the country, but to ensure the dominance of one group or political faction over another.
- As in Iraq, current U.S. policy includes no plan or efforts for a political resolution that includes all major factions and all neighbors.
- As in Iraq, there is an open-ended commitment, no exit strategy and no plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
What is especially worrisome is the sense that the Democratic leadership in Congress has decreed, for domestic political purposes, that the war in Afghanistan is "the good war," regardless of how long the war goes on, and regardless of what is actually happening on the ground. In this view, it's convenient for Democrats to "triangulate," to protect themselves against the argument that they are "weak on defense" because they want to get out of Iraq by having another war they can point to which they can say they support.
That may be useful in terms of domestic politics, but it's not good policy, either from the point of view of people in Afghanistan or of military families and taxpayers in the United States.
Moreover, the continuous reinforcement of the idea that it's the "Democratic position" that the war in Afghanistan is "the good war" and beyond question stifles debate necessary to reform U.S. policies. In 2006, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist reasonably suggested that the war against Taliban guerillas couldn't be won militarily and that "people who call themselves Taliban" should be brought into the Afghan government, he was attacked by Democrats for trying to "cut and run." And that was the end of that discussion. Almost two years later, are we any closer to "victory" in Afghanistan, whatever that is? This week Peter Beaumont noted in the Guardian that claims that foreign forces were "routing" the Taliban "would surprise Afghans."
What is needed now, at least, is to begin public debate. And Members of Congress, if they want, know how to begin debate on such a topic. It was in a similar environment, when Members of Congress wanted to introduce into discussion a dose of politically controversial reality that wasn't being acknowledged or addressed by policy, that they formed the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
How about an Afghanistan Study Group? It would be a start. Perhaps it could issue its report just after the November election, when there will be less temptation to spin its findings.
Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst at Just Foreign Policy.