Rethinking Afghanistan

If elected, Senator Barack Obama has the possibility of reengaging with a world that seeks an America which isn't defined by Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo -- but by the democratic ideals to which we aspire. His election, allied with smart and humane policies, could help restore this country's global reputation -- and turn a page on the reckless and destructive policies of mad men.

Obama has shown how capable he is of good judgment. His original opposition to the war and his still-firm commitment to an expeditious withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq -- a war which long ago lost any strategic purpose -- are both good measures of that judgment. (His position on keeping residual forces and mercenary troops in Iraq is one The Nation disagrees with.)

So it is troubling that as he shows sound thinking on Iraq, Obama also continues to talk about escalating the US military presence in Afghanistan. (This holds true not just for Senator Obama, but for most Democrats in Washington, who argue mantra-like that we need to leave Iraq in order to free additional troops to serve in Afghanistan.) Shouldn't serious thought be given to how Senator Obama's necessary agenda for healthcare and progressive economic reform might be sacrificed to yet another trillion-dollar war without end?

That's why I would urge Senator Obama to read three documents and think long and hard about the dangers to his agenda -- both domestically and internationally -- of extricating the US from one disastrous war and heading into another. I believe there are alternatives which need to be explored at this critical juncture before such a commitment is made, and some of those ideas are found in these documents.

A statement from the international relief and development organization Oxfam America urges both Senators Obama and McCain to expand the debate regarding Afghanistan beyond a discussion of troop levels, examining the importance of targeted development, sustainable aid, and the danger of increasing civilian casualties: "Alleviating poverty and protecting civilians from violence are essential components of a strategy to bring peace and stability to the country. 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...."

In a Financial Timesarticle, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser and a supporter of Senator Obama, warns the US of the trap of another Soviet-style occupation in Afghan -- and he should know, given that he's the guy who set it. "It is important for US policy in general and for Obama more specifically to recognize that simply putting more troops into Afghanistan is not the entire solution," he said. "We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made . . . Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper."

Finally, an editorial in the Guardian writes of, "... the temptation.... to throw more military forces at the problem in a replication of the Iraq 'surge'.... For many, it is becoming clear that it cannot be won, framed in military terms." The editors go on to argue for targeted micro-financing used towards sustainable rural development.

There is no easy answer here, but certainly we need to think beyond the almost reflexive response of troop escalation in order to find sane and humane alternatives. When Senator Obama met with President Hamid Karzai, the talks focused on Al-Qaeda, no discussion of sustainable development, no discussion of poverty, or how record opium production is fueling the warlords. Military escalation will increase civilian casualties and further tarnish the nation's reputation internationally. It's time to do some tough thinking before we are bogged down in another occupation and we continue to bleed more lives and resources.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation.

Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

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