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


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
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

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

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
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
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,

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