Rethinking Afghanistan

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Tuesday 14 April 2009

by: Anne Miller, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Last week, the US Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was revealed that the Obama administration is planning on sending an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan with no clear benchmarks for progress or “success” yet in place.

The lack of serious scrutiny of the president’s Afghanistan policy is nothing short of stupefying, especially given our recent misadventures in Iraq. Where is the critical debate?

The mantra of many Democrats is that military force alone won’t solve the problem in Afghanistan. The “problem” seems to be how to keep the corrupt US-backed central government in Kabul from falling, and what to do about the thousands of al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, many conservative members of Congress lament that the president isn’t sending additional brigades.

Congress and the public should be asking what President Obama realistically thinks the US military can accomplish with an additional 21,000 US forces in Afghanistan. What can they do that soldiers from forty-one countries in seven and a half years have been unable to accomplish? And what the British and the Soviets were unable to accomplish before that?

With respect to al-Qaeda, why do President Obama and Congress believe that tens of thousands of soldiers can dismember it? Part of the collateral damage of war is the new anti-American recruits who are created every time civilians are killed. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan caused by the US have steadily increased since 2007, practically ensuring the survival of al-Qaeda and a permanent insurgency in the process. One million Pakistanis have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the recent US drone strikes – what do they now think of us?

We deserve to know what we’re risking, both in dollars and in lives, in sending US forces into countries whose people don’t want us there. We have the responsibility to explore alternatives to military force, especially when the limits of this strategy are glaringly clear.

Last summer, while then-candidate Obama was talking about “finishing the job” in Afghanistan, the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, issued a detailed report that concluded that since 1968, only seven percent of all terrorist groups have been ended as a result of military force. The report makes the strong recommendation that the US should have “a light military footprint or none at all” in Muslim countries to help mitigate the threat of terrorism. According to a February 2009 ABC poll, only 18 percent of Afghanis support more US troops in their country.

Instead of military force to combat al-Qaeda, we need to improve our intelligence and police work, and improve relationships with Middle Eastern countries to bring al-Qaeda members to justice. Members of al-Qaeda are criminals, not holy warriors, and should be dealt with through international law enforcement mechanisms.

For those of us who care about the success of President Obama’s ambitious plans for health care, education, jobs, housing and other critical social infrastructures: It was President Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War that torpedoed his domestic agenda. President Obama is about to ask Congress to fund an additional $84 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; our military presence in Afghanistan could top $1 trillion by the end of his first term. We cannot ignore the relationship between the US economic crisis, our national debt and perpetual war, which is being funded almost entirely by borrowing from other countries.

I urge readers to contact their congressional delegation and tell them to rethink Afghanistan. Now is the time to call for hearings and open debate, and to resist the reflexive urge to believe the military is the answer without vigorous and principled conversation with all stakeholders – including the American public, NATO, non-NATO countries in the region, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Let’s be clear: there is no military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan. What Afghanistan needs is a surge in diplomacy, humanitarian aid and development assistance.

In February 2009, General Petraeus said that “Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires.” It is hubris to believe that the US with its dwindling NATO partnerships will suffer a different fate.

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