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We Can Do Better, Yes We Can

                                                                                                By John Maher,


Talking Points


President Obama has announced that 21,000 more troops will be sent to Afghanistan this year.  As responsible citizens we must ask:  will additional troops promote stability in the region; will this policy of enhanced force lead to a more peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan; and, does the presence of US military forces in Afghanistan make terrorist attacks against the United States less or more likely? The policy of escalating military force fails on all three counts.


The major powers in the region whose support is essential to a stable Afghanistan -- China, Russia, and Iran -- are opposed to the escalation and a permanent US military presence.  We cannot expect them to help us stabilize Afghanistan while we continue to build up our military forces there.


Currently Pakistan, our major ally in the region, is being destabilized by our attacks on the Taliban inside its borders, attacks our military leaders consider necessary to protect our soldiers in Afghanistan.  Seemingly unable to stop these attacks, the Pakistani government, already fragile, is losing what legitimacy it had in the eyes of its own people.  Our policy of escalation in Afghanistan threatens to plunge Pakistan in chaos.


Inside Afghanistan the current conflict is fueled by the desire of many Afghans to be free of the foreign occupier and rid of the corrupt and ineffective government of Hamid Karzai, whom the US put into power and continues to support.  According to a January 2009 report by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace:


First, the mere presence of foreign soldiers is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban…The majority of Afghans are now deeply opposed to foreign troops on their soil.  (p.13)


More US soldiers in Afghanistan will make the problem worse.  In contrast, a government resulting from a more inclusive political process supported by the neighbors has a better chance of bringing peace to the country and preventing Afghan territory from being used as a base to launch terrorist attacks against other countries, including our own.  The Taliban have already indicated that if foreign armies were withdrawn they would no longer support al Qaeda.  Only by giving peace a chance will we see whether that commitment will be made and honored.


Regardless of what the Taliban say and do, we must focus policies that can protect our country.  We were attacked not by the Afghan Taliban but by people from countries allied with the US and educated and trained in the United States, Canada, and Europe.  These terrorist attacks were motivated by outrage at US policies towards the Muslim world.  Escalating this conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to feed that outrage.


Our safety as well as a more peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan depend on a more inclusive political process there, the support of the major powers in the region for a stable Afghanistan, the orderly withdrawal of foreign troops, and a serious program of reconstruction and development that makes it possible for ordinary Afghans to access health care, education, and enough to eat.





Regional Stability

NATO has a stake in a stable, peaceful Afghanistan, but certainly no more than the neighbors, including China, Iran, and Russia.  Afghanistan’s neighbors for the most part recognize their considerable stake in a stable Afghanistan, but do not want to see a permanent US military presence there.  Religious extremism, refugees, and heroin -- all from Afghanistan and resulting from the instability and warfare there -- threaten the stability of neighboring countries.  Each neighbor has the capacity to influence events in Afghanistan – together they can be a powerful force for good.


The Bush Administration, having decided almost immediately after 9/11 to launch a military campaign, privileged NATO over the neighbors as the major ally in Afghanistan.  Now many NATO countries want a way out of the war, and no lectures from Washington will change that judgment.  Favoring NATO over the neighbors was a major error in judgment, one among many made by the Bush Administration.  The Obama Administration has taken steps to consult the neighbors, but the fundamental question remains – do we rely on an escalating US military campaign, or the good will and self interest of the neighbors, to bring peace to Afghanistan.  The Obama Administration must choose which path to follow.


Pakistan is a special case.  Pakistan is historically the major US ally in the region, the recipient of billions in military aid.  But Pakistan created the Taliban and sustains it and other Islamist militants as a counter to India’s influence in Afghanistan and as a source of recruits to attack India in Kashmir.  India has atomic weapons, a modern army, and has defeated Pakistan in war several times in the last sixty years.  Furthermore India continues a brutal occupation of largely Muslim Kashmir, while both countries ignore the wishes of the people of Kashmir for more autonomy.


The Pakistani military sees India as the main threat to their survival, not the religious extremists in their own country -- lectures by special envoys and DC based national security experts are not going to change that perception.  Commenting on this issue Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid in the November/December 2008 article in Foreign Affairs put it well, “No state can be successfully pressured into acts it considers suicidal.”  (p. 36)  As long as the Pakistani military views India as a threat to their existence they are not going to give up the Taliban whom they view as a key asset in that struggle.  Likewise, as long as the confrontation continues India will be tempted to intervene in Afghanistan to thwart Pakistan.


To make matters worse the deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan has led to US air attacks aimed at Taliban on Pakistani soil. These attacks by us, without Pakistani government permission or the support of the Pakistani people, kill civilians as well as their intended targets.  As a result the Pashtun people who live on both sides of the border are now attacking the Pakistani government for failing to protect them against the United States, while the United States pushes the government to confront the religious extremist who support the Taliban.  A weak, divided,  government unable to deliver even a minimal level of basic services now faces insurrection in its border regions and terror attacks everywhere.  Pakistan could collapse.


When you smell gas in the kitchen, don’t light a match.  If a nuclear Pakistan blows apart where will we be then?  Our unwillingness to change a mistaken approach to security in Afghanistan can bring on catastrophe in Pakistan with worldwide consequences.

Civilian Casualties

Warfare in Afghanistan bears down most heavily on the civilian population, women and children.  According to a briefing paper by eleven NGOs operating in Afghanistan for the NATO Heads of State and Government Summit April 3-4 2009:


The intensification and spread of the conflict in Afghanistan is increasingly affecting civilians. In 2008 there were over 2,100 civilian casualties, 55% of which were caused by militants. Despite steps to reduce civilian casualties, international military forces (IMF) caused 552 civilian deaths through airstrikes in 2008, which is up by 72% on 2007. IMF have also carried out or supported raids and search operations, a large number of which have involved an excessive use of force, including loss of life, physical assault, damage to property and theft, as well as aggressive and improper treatment of women. Such conduct not only generates anger and mistrust towards foreign troops, but is steadily eroding popular support for the international presence in the country. Furthermore, many individuals detained by Afghan and US forces are held for long periods without charge or trial, and there are allegations of mistreatment and torture.


Some argue that by withdrawing our military forces from Afghanistan we would be abandoning Afghan women to relentless oppression.  Afghan women face many obstacles in their society, but Afghan women and their male supporters have been fighting for women’s rights for many years, sometimes with significant success.  Under the Communist government education and the professions were open to women.  But when the warlords of the Northern Alliance, whom we supported then and now, took Kabul in 1992 they sent 20,000 female college students back to their villages.  Many Americans believe that we are in Afghanistan in part to protect women there.   But one of the lessons of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and now our own is that years of patient organizing by the bravest of the brave can be destroyed when equal rights for women becomes identified in the minds of people as the alien ideology of a foreign occupier.  Our commitment to a military strategy in Afghanistan not only puts women’s lives at risk and but makes their struggle for equality all the more difficult.


Can the War be Won?

Can an escalation of US military forces bring peace to Afghanistan?  According to the White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan our goal is “ disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens in both nations..”  This is a big objective, grandiose even, that would take years to achieve under the best of circumstances.  Will our military ever have the resources carry out this task?  According to The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density for effective operations.  This means that to effectively control just the Pashtun areas in Afghanistan will require 170,000 more troops after the reinforcements currently envisioned arrive, 600,000 more if we have to subdue the whole country.  (See “The Myth of an Afghan Counterinsurgency Strategy” by dcrowe, Daily Kos, January 12, 2009)  Is the current escalation of 21,000 troops merely a sip of salt water to be followed soon by desperate, thirsty cries for more?


Obama’s plan also calls for many more Afghan National Army troops and police, many more than a poor country like Afghanistan can afford, but not enough to enforce a political order that the people reject.  To whom would these forces be loyal?  The Karzai regime is discredited because of its corruption and incompetence.  Trial balloons launched here in the US and then denied suggest that the US may remove Karzai rather than be burdened by such a hopeless obstacle to success, without, of course, opening up the political process to those who oppose our military presence there.


Remember Vietnam.  We replaced Diem as ruler of “South Vietnam”, a state of our creation, when he proved ineffective.  With the US as ringmaster one act followed another as our policies went from “escalation”, to “negotiations”, and, finally, “vietnamization”, accompanied by a succession of brutal and ineffective “South Vietnamese” governments, until the last clown was pulled of the stage and the circus tent came down.  We pray that President Obama will have the wisdom to avoid the fate of Lyndon Johnson, and we will not have to build another massive memorial to our dead in a foreign war.


A Safer United States

Working to ensure that al Qaeda does not have a safe haven in Afghanistan or anywhere else is a legitimate aim of US policy.  But escalating US military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan has little chance of success and carries with it a tremendous downside.  Tens of thousands will die -- Taliban fighters, innocent civilians, and our own soldiers.  For what?  Most of the armed insurgents are shooting at our soldiers because they are there, in their country, not because these insurgents have the capacity or the desire to attack the United States.  And every insurgent we kill is someone’s brother, someone’s cousin, someone’s son, whose death must be avenged.  If we continue this war in Afghanistan it could go on for decades while Pakistan may well explode soon.  The US carrying out such a destructive military campaign in Afghanistan will turn a very important segment of world opinion against us, to the detriment of our national security.  Provoking the disintegration of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons, will make the situation even worse.  There is a better way.


Ending the War, Building the Peace

The hope that we can negotiate a cease fire with the “moderate” Taliban that will allow our military forces to stay in Afghanistan is fantasy. The Taliban are committed to the withdrawal of foreign forces and the majority of Afghans support them in that.  We need an exit strategy for our military.  A better way begins by the US encouraging broad consultation among all the major Afghan political forces, a new national council or Loya Jirga in the Afghan tradition, including the insurgents.  Simultaneously the US should announce it will begin an orderly withdrawal of its military forces from Afghanistan once agreements are made that safeguard the security of the Afghan people and commit the new Afghan government to not allowing its territory to be used as a base by al Qaeda.  The US can ask the world community in general and the neighbors in particular to support this process.  The US can work with our allies India and Pakistan to resolve the issues that divide them.  In the context of dealing proactively with some of Pakistan’s legitimate fears the US can and must insist that it cease destabilizing Afghanistan by arming the Taliban, and that India become part of the solution as well.


But we must not abandon the region.  Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are in dire need of serious economic assistance directed to the needs of the people.  But thus far our aid to Pakistan has been devoured by their army, while in Afghanistan much of the aid money has been wasted by the corrupt and wasteful practices of foreign contractors and the Karzai government.  In addition, according to Field report from Afghanistan by Oxfam America, independent aid agencies are concerned “..about the US using aid for security objectives; overemphasizing short-term goals instead of long-term development; and overlooking sectors, like agriculture and rural trade, that support the livelihoods of most Afghan households.”  Our efforts to help the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan should not be subordinate to a military policy that has failed.  Lets put our resources where they can do the most good.  We can do better, yes we can.