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Reflections on Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan

On Wednesday June 22, President Obama announced that 10,000 US combat troops will return from the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and that all troops will be withdrawn by 2014. The news is profoundly welcomed by the military families.  It’s also hailed by the significant majority of Americans who do not think the war is worth fighting and the growing number of Americans who feel that the killing of bin Laden achieved the original US goal of the war.

The US mayors have listened to their constituents and taken the message farther than President Obama’s modest cut in troops. At the June 20 plenary session of the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors, they voted to call on the federal government to stop funding wars and to bring the war dollars home.  As the Mayor of Eugene Oregon, Kitty Piercy, explained the vote: “Mayors call on our country to begin the journey of turning war dollars into peace dollars…of focusing our national resources on building security and prosperity here at home…It is past due.”  At the city and town level, mayors feel more viscerally than Washington the painful tradeoffs between $122 billion spent in Afghanistan in 2011 and laying off teachers and police, cutting social services, and negligible job creation (other than military-related jobs). While at the federal level, budget deficit debates ignore the elephant in the room – a nearly $1 trillion steroidal defense budget that sucks life out of the commonweal and swells the deficit.

The news of troop withdrawal and timeline for ending the war must also be welcomed in Afghanistan, where Afghanis have seen no improvements in day-to-day life throughout the 10 year US Army-run counterinsurgency war. The war was billed originally as hunting down Osama bin Laden and improving women’s rights and more recently as “nation-building” – a vague, arrogant goal.  Ten years later, Afghanistan ranks next to last of the 182 countries on the UN Human Development Index and near the top of the Failed States Index.  Malalai Joya, a feminist elected to the Afghan Parliament in 2003 and exiled from it for exposing criminal warlord parliamentarians, spoke recently in Northampton.  She pleaded for support in getting US-NATO forces out of Afghanistan and for solidarity with the people of Afghanistan in their struggle for democracy and women’s rights.

The war in Afghanistan is poorly understood by most Americans for more than a few reasons. We receive minimal media coverage of the war, estimated at 2% in American news reporting in 2011; and the topic is absent in political campaigns and key political speeches. How many of us are aware that nearly as many American soldiers committed suicide in 2010 as were killed in battle?  Can anyone explain the difference between Al-Qaeda against whom we went to war and the Taliban whom we now fight? Who has heard of the investigative piece which revealed that in 2010 General David Petraeus, US commander in Afghanistan, knowingly inflated figures of Taliban captures to spin a story of progress after our “surge” of troops there?  Up to 90% of those “Taliban” captured were quickly released as civilians, not insurgents.  Who knew that US war aid in Afghanistan has been replacing local sustainable agriculture with a mechanized, fossil-fuel based model and that it by-passed building small scale wind and solar systems in the rural country to develop oil, gas and coal reserves, as was reported on the eve of Obama’s announcement in the New York Times?  How many realize that our government is engaged in negotiating a long-term agreement with Afghanistan to keep troops, spies, and air power in that country for decades?  

All of this signals concerns to carry with us: Are troop withdrawals sincere political acts with the goal of ending war? Or are they token gestures to a restless Congress and disapproving public? Are they signs of any substantive change in bringing war dollars home and investing in health, education, jobs and well being here? Or will the defense budget continue to enjoy its immunity to budget cuts? Will the government, having learned so little from the ill-fated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continue to pursue air wars, drone wars, and special operations combat elsewhere as it is currently doing in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and other countries covertly. If so, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is like administering aspirin where radical surgery is needed.

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H. Patricia Hynes

H. Patricia Hynes is a retired Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health and current Chair of the Board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. She has written and edited 7 books, among them The Recurring Silent Spring. She writes and speaks on issues of war and militarism with an emphasis on women, environment, and public health.

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