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What the President Won't Say About Afghanistan

Few were surprised that the Obama Administration reports "signs of progress" in Afghanistan in their assessment of strategy in Afghanistan, released today. Yet numerous publicly available analyses -- including the Pentagon's own November 2010 "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability" to Congress -- point to fundamental problems with the current military-led strategy. The significant escalation of troops over the past 22 months has only exacerbated these problems, and a long-term foreign military presence will only continue that trend. In light of these sobering facts, the President should immediately begin taking the political and diplomatic steps necessary to end the war and withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

  • Nationwide, security in Afghanistan has not improved. According to the Pentagon's own report to Congress in November 2010, the portion of the population living in districts with a ‘satisfactory' security rating "remains relatively unchanged over the past three quarters." In fact, "the number of Afghans rating their security situation as ‘bad' is the highest since the nationwide survey began in September 2008. This downward trend in security perception is likely due to the steady increase in total violence over the past nine months."
  • Violence has dramatically increased in Afghanistan over the last year. Kinetic events -- Pentagon speak for violence -- "are up 300 percent since 2007 and up an additional 70 percent since 2009."  The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office reports a 59% increase in insurgent-led attacks in the 3rd quarter of this year over and above the 2009 level. They state: "By any measure 2010 has been the most violent year since ANSO's records began in 2002."

    Any progress toward increased security in the south has been more than offset by increased violence elsewhere in Afghanistan. Insurgent attacks in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan "rose 200% in June compared with June 2009."  There are reports that "in northern Afghanistan, security has been deteriorating for the past two years in Kunduz and surrounding provinces" and that "the Taliban also have spread their influence in western Afghanistan and now control several districts."  

  • American and allied casualties are higher than ever. Taliban small-arms attacks against U.S. and allied troops are nearly twice what they were a year ago  and more than 680 international troops have been killed so far this year, well above the 502 killed in the whole of 2009.
  • Troop increases have fueled the growing insurgency. A U.S. intelligence estimate presented to President Obama in October 2009 showed that the number of fighters in the insurgency had ballooned to 25,000 from only 7,000 in 2006.  Now Matt Waldman, former Head of Policy and Advocacy for Oxfam International in Afghanistan, reports that "today [the NATO force] estimates the Taliban as 35,000 to 40,000. One of the points we have to bear in mind is they have a very large pool of recruits inside Afghanistan and Pakistan."
  • The Taliban's capacity to fight remains undiminished. The Pentagon recently reported to Congress: "Efforts to reduce insurgent capacity, such as safe havens and logistic support originating in Pakistan and Iran, have not produced measurable results... the insurgents will retain operational momentum in some areas as long as they have access to externally supported safe havens and support networks... The insurgency continues to adapt and retain a robust means of sustaining its operations, through internal and external funding sources and the exploitation of the Afghan Government's inability to provide tangible benefits to the populace."
  • Corruption runs rampant, fueling the insurgency. The Pentagon's own polling from September 2010 "shows that 80.6 percent of Afghans polled believe corruption affects their daily lives. This is consistent with the view that corruption is preventing the Afghan Government from connecting with the people and remains a key reason for Afghans supporting the insurgency..."

    As the New York Times reported, after a meeting with President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Walid Karzai, Ambassador Eikenberry wrote that "one of our major challenges in Afghanistan [is] how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt."  

    And just this past weekend, Afghanistan's Attorney General asked their Supreme Court to nullify the results of recent parliamentary elections due to allegations of fraud and to "issue sentences against 14 top officials who organized the vote and oversaw fraud investigations."

  • Nationwide, governance has not expanded. The Pentagon reports that only "38 percent of the population live in areas rated as having ‘emerging' or ‘full authority' Afghan governance. This reflects no substantial change since March 2010."  "Shadow governments" run by insurgent forces continue to operate in many parts of the south and east, "extracting taxes and carrying out ‘official' functions like trials and determining land and marriage disputes."
  • The militarization of aid is failing those we seek to help. Over 100 aid workers have died this year, far more than in previous years , and a recent report of 29 aid organizations led by Oxfam International found the likelihood of attacks on aid workers has been increased because the distinction between military and civilian efforts has been "severely blurred to the point of being unrecognizable to many Afghans." The report continues that a failure "to re-establish the civil-military distinction in Afghanistan ... will have dire consequences for the Afghan civilian population -- particularly once the IMF [International Military Forces] withdraw."
  • The war is undermining the American economy and burying the nation in debt. As Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently explained: "Afghanistan itself is no longer a vital interest of the United States, but continuing the war there tears at our own nation's very vitals. With America drowning under a $1.5 trillion deficit for next year and an almost $15 trillion overall debt, we are verging on banana republic-hood. Most of the $125 billion being spent in and for Afghanistan could better be deducted from those bills. How on earth can the administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America's physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing? Of course, I feel for the Afghans; but I feel far, far more for Americans"  

    In fact, 23% of the combined budget deficits since 2003 are a result of spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,  and Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard budget guru Linda Bilmes now believe the wars will cost the American economy between $4 and $6 trillion in total.  Even Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted this past August that "the most significant threat to our national security is our debt."

In writing his Final Orders for Afghanistan Pakistan Strategy, President Obama selected December 2010 to assess that strategy because one year would provide "sufficient time to assess progress and proof of the operational concept."  And while senior military officials tout an "expansion of the security bubbles"  in parts of Afghanistan, an overall assessment of the war only shows proof that Petraeus' current strategy is failing. The United States should immediately begin the political and diplomatic process necessary to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

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Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews, a former Member of Congress from the first Congressional District of Maine, is the President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Tom also served as National Director of Win Without War, a coalition of forty-two national membership organizations including the National Council of Churches, the NAACP, the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, and MoveOn.  He is also co-founder of New Security Action.

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