President Obama is coming under attack from the Right for his reluctance to grant the request of General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, for more U.S. troops. On the other side of the equation sits the majority of the American people, who are against sending more troops and in fact oppose this seemingly endless war that has now entered year nine.
Obama should go with the people and set a timetable to get our troops out of Afghanistan as soon as is practically possible, which should be less than one year. Their presence cannot contribute to bringing peace and security to that country, nor does it contribute to the security of the United States. In fact, the occupation of Afghanistan is making things worse on both counts.
With regard to the people of Afghanistan, my colleague Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy presents the most compelling piece of recent evidence that the occupation is a complete failure. Five years ago, 70 percent of eligible voters participated in the Afghan presidential election. This year it was down to 38 percent. This is mainly because the security situation has deteriorated over the last five years. It also represents a political failure: the inability or unwillingness to negotiate a political settlement that would have allowed many more people to vote.
The United States has also helped put together a government that is dominated in key positions — especially military, police, and intelligence — by Tajiks, the ethnic group whose para-military leaders were the first to strike a deal with the invading forces. Not surprisingly, this contributed to the nationalist fuel for the insurgency among the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group. This contribution to ethnic conflict is a common mistake, or sometimes a tactic, of occupying powers that helps drive lasting and violent civil wars. The United States made similar moves in Iraq that contributed massively to horrific sectarian violence against civilians there, most of which was committed not by suicide bombers but by the occupation-supported government and its allies. More than a million Iraqis, according to the best estimates, are dead as a result of the Iraq War. Do we need to do the same in Afghanistan in order to “save” that country?
With regard to the United States’ national security, there is no legitimate reason for continuing this war. Most experts are in agreement that Al Qaeda has left Afghanistan for Pakistan. President Bush wanted to send ground forces into Pakistan, but the Pakistanis said no. Fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan when they have left for Pakistan is reminiscent of the old joke about the drunk who is seen looking for his wallet under a streetlight. When asked if he lost the wallet there, he says “no, but this is the only place where there’s enough light to look for it.”
In any case the greatly feared potential “haven” for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan turns out to much less important than previously imagined, as a potential threat to the United States. As Paul R. Pillar, a former top counter-terrorist official at the CIA recently noted, “The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.”
There is also a moral dimension here that is overlooked by the pundits. It is wrong to kill people, including civilians, and bring mayhem and destruction to other countries simply to “save face” or fend off political attacks from right-wing politicians. Thank God there are millions of Americans who understand this much better than their elected, appointed, and self-appointed leaders. If they keep up the heat, this war will end.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy. This article was first published by McClatchy Tribune Information Services, the Sacramento Bee, and the Bellingham Herald on 8 October 2009 and republished on the CEPR Web site under a Creative Commons license.