a message to progressives on Afghanistan

Break the silence: a message to progressives who are ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan (Part 1)

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This post is part of Get Afghanistan Right’s Break the Silence campaign.

When I first started working at Peace Action West, the war in Iraq had been underway for only 6 months. While we had a lot of work to do before the strength of the opposition to the war would reach Congress or the White House, it was clear that a large portion of the American public and the international community opposed the war from the beginning, and the President behind the war was highly unpopular.

Now as our attention shifts to Afghanistan, we find ourselves in a very different political situation. In the heat of the reaction to the 9/11 attacks, a military retaliation against Afghanistan seemed to many people like a reasonable response, and only one member of Congress voted against the resolution authorizing the war. President Obama, who is sending at least an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, was swept into office on a wave of hope and excitement and continues to garner high approval ratings. While 42% of Americans now say the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake, the highest percentage ever, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding what direction our policy should take now that we are there, and not a strong consensus opposing escalation of troops.

When it became clear during the presidential campaign last year that all of the leading candidates intended to intensify the military strategy in Afghanistan, I began to immerse myself in the issue and prepare for turning our attention to what seemed like another ill-advised military quagmire. Now that the public and media are also focusing on Afghanistan, I regularly hear from a lot of progressives who are unsure of how to respond to President Obama’s new plan for Afghanistan. While most of them are wary of the blunt instrument of military force, they are also concerned about the fate of the Afghan people and wonder if President Obama’s plan, including troop escalation, isn’t the best way to fulfill our obligations to them.  These are not wingnut conservatives who sleep with guns under their beds in case Bin Laden shows up; they are thoughtful people who want to make sure they are advocating a policy that makes people safer and improves human rights, as well as the quality of life for Americans and Afghans. Their reactions are not knee-jerk support for Obama’s plan; at the same time, my beliefs on this issue are not a knee-jerk antiwar response, but the product of much thinking and reading and studying on the issue. I have heard the arguments in favor of this plan from people on all sides of the political spectrum, and I am still unmoved from my position that a military solution is the wrong one. So I am doing a 5 part series to address some of the most common arguments I hear from these thoughtful Democrats and progressives on Afghanistan. The first in the series is below:

Reason #1: “I agree that diplomacy and humanitarian aid are important, but we need more troops in Afghanistan to protect the local population, provide security and decrease civilian casualties.”

There is ample evidence that the increase in troops will actually do more harm than good. On Friday, 11 aid agencies released a report expressing their concern that the troop escalation in Afghanistan is likely to cause more civilian casualties. The Oxfam head of policy in Kabul said, “There is a likelihood that the deployment of more troops will lead to more fighting and that civilians will be caught up in those hostilities.” In addition to drawing the Taliban fighters into more armed conflict in the cities, more troops are likely to increase civilian casualties caused by NATO and US forces. Human Rights Watch released a report showing that most civilians killed by US forces die when foreign forces are engaged in battle with insurgents and call in air support. More boots on the ground make these troubling scenarios more likely, not less.

While many view more troops as a necessary prerequisite for stability and security, there is ample evidence that the increase in troops is going to create greater instability. The New York Times recently reported that the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are setting aside their differences and joining forces to mount opposition to the influx of troops in Afghanistan. Gilles Dorronsoro, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment, argues, “the mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban. The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.”

When asked about the argument that troops are necessary for security, Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women, who worked in Afghanistan for 15 years, responded, “I actually think that is just a bogus argument. This is not to say that these places aren’t dangerous or difficult–but to Third World ears it sounds like the argument of Westerners who don’t want to put their own lives at risk. When I went to Kabul in 2003, India had sent doctors, nurses, buses–and it was really interesting to see the difference amongst common Afghans, how they saw where US money had gone and where they saw Indian money had gone.”

Traditional counterinsurgency experts will tell you that the US would need 400,000 – 600,000 to run a proper counterinsurgency campaign, which is obviously unrealistic. Given the fact that additional troops will incite the insurgency, I haven’t heard a compelling argument from proponents of the escalation for how a relatively small increase will be able to overcome those obstacles and create stability.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the voices of the Afghan people tend to be marginalized in the debate. If we are truly driven by a desire to see a self-directed future for Afghanistan, we should take note that in a recent poll, a mere 18% of Afghans expressed support for a troop increase.

Grassroots groups around the country are urging action this week to
pressure Congress during their two-week recess to demonstrate the
desire for a better plan for Afghanistan.  Click here to call your
representative and carry that message today.

Tomorrow I’ll post on Reason #2: “The US needs to defeat the Taliban to protect human rights, and especially women’s rights.

Flickr photo from Army.mil.

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