After an intense review, President Obama recently ordered about thirty thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The question is, should this decision have been made by the U.S. government? The goals for the United States are to prevent an Al Qaida threat in the homeland and to stabilize the Afghan situation, allowing for some level of central government control and a face-saving withdrawal. But who else could or should have weighed in on this decision, and what are their motivations?
The Afghan government realizes that any downsizing of the U.S. presence could threaten its hold on political power. President Karzai recently stated that he expects the U.S. military presence to continue until 2024. The U.S. public is split, mainly along party lines, between those who want an early withdrawal of troops to prevent a quagmire, and those who support the U.S. military presence and fear that withdrawal would squander the investment already made.
The missing voice among these acknowledged players is that of the Afghan public. No country can impose on another a decision that country cannot abide. History is filled with attempts by strong powers to force actions upon weaker ones. This has worked sometimes in the short run, but usually crashes in the long term. The power of democracy is its dependence upon the will of the people who are impacted by a decision.
Indeed, the Afghan citizenry seems to have no say, yet is the group that stands to gain or lose the most from the U.S. occupation. Modern warfare kills and wounds more local civilians than armed actors (about 80 percent, compared to 20 percent). Yet those civilians have little or no ability to choose their own participation.
What if Afghani citizens were to determine whether the U.S. military continues a surge or withdraws troops? Certainly this is a fitting step in encouraging democracy. It would also provide the incentive for Afghanis to really own and support a chosen policy on the ground. And perhaps the Afghanis themselves know best how to create a stable nation that does not house terrorists.
In January 2010, Iraq was to hold a referendum on withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops. This plan was scrapped when it became clear it would only reduce U.S. presence by a few months and so was not worth the logistic and financial costs. If a referendum on U.S. troop presence is of merit for Iraqi citizens, is it not also for Afghans, before U.S. troops become more firmly entrenched there?
Who knows what the Afghans would decide if the choice was theirs. Poll results in Afghanistan have varied by region and ethnicity, with a fairly large margin of error. But Afghanistan could hold a national binding referendum on U.S. military presence at the same time as planned parliamentary elections in May. (Given the experience of their last public vote, for president, improved preparations and precautions are needed.) First, the U.S. President or Congress must assert their intent to open a space to hear the voice of the Afghan people. They could encourage Afghan lawmakers to consider such a referendum as a way of respecting the will of the people and of seeking the support of their own citizens.
Would a referendum change the dynamics of the war? If the Afghanis voted to keep troops there, then the U.S. could expect better cooperation from the public (in both Afghanistan and the U.S.) and would be confident it is respecting the will of the citizens. (This is especially so if there is strong voter participation and the results show a wide margin.) It might also convince mainly skeptical world opinion and governments to provide more military and other aid. If the Afghanis voted against the troops remaining in Afghanistan, and the U.S. honors that, again we are respecting what Afghanis want for their own country. Then U.S. options might include undertaking training of police and military personnel; providing support for building the country’s economic, political, and educational systems; and making payments to militia in the same way that the U.S., perhaps in large part, bought its way out of an insurgency in Iraq. Significant resources could be made available in all these ways if there was no combat presence to financially support.
Our nation asserts that it sends its military overseas to protect freedoms at home and promote freedom and democracy elsewhere. The United States can take another step toward democracy in the world by encouraging it in Afghanistan—and it might even bring other benefits, as well. The United States can let the people of Afghanistan choose.