As violence in Iraq continues, and Israel escalates its brutal assault on Gaza, the human tragedy of boundless war and militarism could not be more clear. Yet, despite overwhelming U.S. public opinion that the so-called War on Terror (which amounts to a war on a military tactic and/or a political strategy) is a failure, the U.S. continues to wage and back open-ended military aggression, including in the forgotten war: Afghanistan.
While the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan has largely disappeared from the U.S. public discourse, its human toll continues: in Afghan lives lost and traumatized, the service members who never come home or come home wounded, and the ever expanding web of political power and post 9/11 laws upholding endless wars and the erosion of civil liberties.
As varying conflicts--fueled by the U.S.--compete for public attention, now is not the time to forget Afghanistan, but rather, a critical exact moment to take toll of the harm done and envision a new path forward, rooted in healing and reparations.
Refocus on Afghanistan
While often ignored in political and media discourse, the U.S. continues to occupy the country of Afghanistan with more than 30,000 military service members, accompanied by roughly 17,000 troops from various allied countries , and an army of about 108,000 private contractors , which includes paid mercenaries who take part in firefights and combat.
President Obama announced in late May that troops will start to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan starting at the end of 2014, reducing to nearly 10,000 troops at the beginning of 2015, and reaching an embassy-sized military staff by 2016. He did not mention, however, what will become of the private contractors, or the dozens of people still held in Bagram prison, which is notorious for torture and abuse.
To secure a U.S. foothold in Afghanistan for the long-term, the U.S. is pushing to ratify the Bilateral Security Agreement, promising full immunity from prosecution under Afghan law to all US forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign on. However, the two presidential candidates in a still-undecided election--that has become mired in accusations of corruption and fraud--have both vowed to green-light the deal.
Meanwhile, violence continues to spiral, with no end in sight. According to a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the first six months of 2014 saw a nearly 25 percent increase in deadly violence in Afghanistan, leaving at least 1,564 civilians dead and 3,289 civilians injured. Furthermore, after nearly 13 years of war, this past June the Taliban in Pakistan launched an attack on the busy Karachi Airport , as a testimony of their strength, and an estimated tens of thousands of Taliban fighters remain in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. It is unclear what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan other than sewing more death and destruction.
People Pay the Price for US Military Dominance
Nothing justifies the misery and bloodbath people in Afghanistan are being forced to endure, let alone a hypothetical security threat to the United States, in which analysts and talking heads do not relay any clear details to the public on how such attacks could occur. Meanwhile, the people of Afghanistan are facing real attacks, estimated at 21,000 Afghans killed , and that’s probably a conservative estimate given the fact that militant deaths are rarely mentioned by organizations that tally the dead, forgetting that today’s militant combatant was yesterday’s civilian.
Afghan civil society lives in a permanent state of fear--their lives and safety under perpetual threat from combatants on all sides. In addition to ground troops, the U.S. levies attacks via killer drones and airstrikes.
2,335 U.S. military service members so far have perished in Afghanistan, with unknown numbers lost to suicide. Adding to this tally is 1,119 NATO and allied troop dead, with 14,000 Afghan security forces also killed as a direct result to the conflict.
Meanwhile, the trauma of war across Afghan society does not cease and continues to tear down the social fabric. People in Afghanistan continue to die not only from direct combat deaths due to being victims of crossfire between insurgents and U.S. forces, but also from indirect death due to war induced breakdown of critical civilian infrastructure , including sanitation and medical systems.
The warlords who once established fiefdoms in Afghanistan and ruled mercilessly from the time the communist government in Kabul fell in 1992, to when they lost their power to the emerging Taliban in 1996, have returned to government under the auspice of the U.S. and NATO. Former MP Malalai Joya was ousted from Afghan parliament in 2007 for openly criticizing the violence and corruption of these warlords in power, and for criticizing NATO , and the U.S. in particular, for their support of these men and complicity to Afghan corruption.
Since then, government corruption has become endemic, and jackal foreign corporations continue to make huge profits at the expense of Afghan misery.
Tokenizing the Troops
In U.S. political discourse, the service members placed in harm’s way are cast as icons to idealize and fetish. War planners and profiteers use them to embolden their actions and silence critical voices. But actually looking at these troops as people, one observes multiple generations devastated by combat and military life and then abandoned by the politicians who sent them into war when they needed help the most.
“Support the Troops” means nothing—that is why it makes such a good slogan for people to consent to war without having to critically think about it. Cloaked in this empty rhetoric, the war in Afghanistan is devastating successive generations of the young people—disproportionately working-class and people of color—who make up the bulk of the U.S. military.
As Iraq War veteran and war resister Camilo Mejia points out, the soldiers deployed to Afghanistan today are not the same soldiers that were deployed there 13 years ago. Many of the soldiers deployed to Afghanistan have already had multiple deployments, and many of those enlisting in the military today and sent overseas were as young as 6 years old when the tragic 9/11 attack happened.
On the same token, it is safe to assume that many of the people in Afghanistan today fighting the U.S. and government supported by occupation forces were as young as 6 years old too when the United States decided to invade and occupy their country shortly after the attacks happened.
Less than one percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, and the vast majority of people in the United States are not forced to directly confront the reality of war. However, while the media and politicians ignore the occupation, polls indicate that people in the U.S. are still forming opinions about the Afghanistan War and do not like what they see. According to a poll from December 2013, a mere 17 percent of respondents said they support the war, in what CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said shows the war is extraordinarily unpopular.
Meanwhile, despite the soldier-hero worshiping embedded in our collective psyche, and all of the overkill homage and tributes society pays towards the military, many U.S. soldiers continue to feel alienated and shortchanged when they get home.
Many battle with physical and mental health problems, including various degrees of PTSD, and bearing the moral guilt and disillusionment of what they did or saw while deployed in theater. Some decide to end the suffering by taking their life. Every day 22 veterans are lost to suicide . With misogyny deep in military culture, military sexual trauma has also become pervasive within the ranks of the military with 1 in 3 women estimated to being sexually assaulted by their peers.
Knowing all this, Congress continues to play partisan politics at the expense of those they have sent to fight their wars of choice. 41 Republican senators voted against a landmark veteran’s bill this past February . However, many of these same senators cynically expressed outrage and shock at the news of the shortcomings in the Phoenix, Arizona VA hospital scandal. Lawmakers also obstruct justice for raped and sexually assaulted victims by striking down legislations that would have eased the criminal justice process of prosecuting sexual predators within the military ranks.
Demanding the Right to Heal
Many combat veterans and ally peace activists with groups including Iraq Veterans Against the War , the Civilian Soldier Alliance , and Under the Hood Café & Outreach Center , are speaking out against war, the effects of war and the treatment of soldiers who fight in them, and are demanding the the right to heal for their brothers and sisters in the military and for the millions of victims affected by U.S. wars.
On Memorial Day, the Right to Heal initiative published a comprehensive 468 page report detailing the effects of war on soldiers, especially those with multiple deployment, and the shortcoming and violations of commanders to their soldiers’ health and welfare. Entitled Operation Recovery: The Fort Hood Testimony Report , the study exposed the overall poor quality of health services soldiers received in Fort Hood during the height of the war that often overmedicated them with the aim of sending them right back to the battlefield. The report provides a chilling picture of the largest Army post in the country, from the height of its deployment cycle to the recent drawdown.
An End to the Madness
As we witness the fruits of U.S. policy in the disintegration of Iraq, with Syria and Libya descending further into bloodshed, and with 13 years of horrendous war on the people of Afghanistan with nothing to show for, perhaps it is time to rethink American foreign policy and its contradiction to real safety for people across the globe.
U.S. policy makers keep selling to the public the false expectation that any time now the Taliban will come down from the hills waving white flags and surrender to U.S. forces unconditionally, and thus we must continue the course. And so, this war of attrition –killing people with no real strategy but to kill more and more “enemy” fighters –should continue until this happens.
This fabulous notion of victory hasn’t happened yet in 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan –and will not happen for the foreseeable future.
As a necessary first step to real peace, the U.S. must cease all hostilities and immediately withdraw all troops, along with all military contractors, from Afghanistan, and the region.
Furthermore, the U.S. should adhere to the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. It should not interfere, subvert, divert or manipulate outcomes or continue efforts to subordinate conditions in Afghanistan to U.S. geostrategic interest at the expense of the Afghans, and instead should let the Afghan people do their own peacemaking, as a people, to start a process of Afghan healing and reconciliation. Only then can we start pursuing a real solution based on humanitarianism and democracy.
And finally, we must start on the long, hard road of paying reparations and redress for all of the harm the U.S. has caused the people of Afghanistan. While there is no way to quantify the tragedy of the place 13 years, gestures of solidarity and healing point the way to a better path forward.
Emma Rosen contributed to this report.