“Nobody wants to give up the gains that have been won at such hard cost. And nobody wants to give our allies an excuse to run for the exits.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates
The image of our NATO allies breaking for the exit at the first sign the US begins withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan pretty much says it all. A bottomless quagmire, an unpopular, unwinnable war our allies can’t wait to be free of.
In the coming weeks, President Obama will announce his plan for fulfilling his promise that the 30,000 ‘surge’ troops he sent to Afghanistan would begin coming home this July. Americans no longer view the war as worth the cost. Opposition in Congress is growing, and members of his own administration, including Vice President Biden have expressed doubts about the efficacy of an all-in military campaign.
On the other side of the debate, Gates and the Pentagon Brass aren’t leading with the ‘allies running for the exit’ argument, but rather are pressing for a continuation of a strategy they say is protecting “gains that have been won at such a hard cost.” This is an argument that resonates with those predisposed to the military option.
Having toppled the Taliban, driven al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and killed bin Laden, the US has achieved what it set out to do, albeit “at such a hard cost.” What’s left – preventing the return of the Taliban to power and al-Qaeda to its Afghanistan havens and the corresponding requirement of building a functional government to prevent that outcome, is purely a case of Gates and the Brass gambling with house money.
Let’s start with the foundation needed to achieve these objectives – building a functional government in Afghanistan that can prevent the return of the Taliban to power and al-Qaeda to its Afghanistan havens. Success hinges on the Karzai government, rigger of elections and overseer of the kleptocracy which controls only a small portion of the country. President Karzai is a harsh critic of US military strategy who even threatened to join the Taliban. A succession of US ambassadors and envoys have – at best – expressed serious misgivings as to his potential as a partner in US efforts to build a stable government.
Afghanistan’s economy is a shambles. Its two billion dollar budget will not be able to sustain the projected eight billion dollar annual cost for the security forces the US will spend some $30 billion to recruit and train.
The bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, created by Congress in 2008 to find waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement of contracts, has warned that tens of billions of dollars will be wasted on projects Afghanistan cannot sustain while tens of billions of dollars more will be eaten by old-fashion waste and fraud. The Commission concluded in its June 3 report:
“In Afghanistan, the United States has contracted for: schools and clinics that lack adequate personnel, supplies, and security; a large power plant that the host country cannot maintain or operate unassisted; roads that will need substantial and continuing maintenance; and security-force training and support whose costs exceed Afghan funding capabilities.”
While the Obama administration executes its warplan in Afghanistan at a cost of $2 billion a week, al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is growing. In Pakistan, where Taliban elements find safe haven along a porous border, the US war, drone strikes and the killing of bin Laden fuels public anger and resentment at our government and Pakistan’s as well. This not only threatens the vital supply line to landlocked Afghanistan, but the stability of our nuclear armed and increasingly disenchanted ally.
So, with our own economy at risk as well, what are the alternatives to continuing the administration’s Afghanistan gamble?
• Draw down our force levels. The President promised to begin withdrawing surge forces in July and he must stick to his commitment. The argument that the Taliban will simply ‘wait us out” fails to recognize the war has gone on for 10 years now, and the Taliban will “wait us out” another 10 years if it has to, adapting its tactics, recruiting new fighters and inflicting maximum damage as long as foreign troops occupy Afghanistan.
• End offensive military actions. Stop the night raids and drone strikes that are causing civilian casualties. Challenge the insurgency to work for a political settlement.
• Accelerate negotiations. Seek a cease fire and set the stage for fair elections in 2014 that will allow the people of Afghanistan to determine their own future.
• Reach a political settlement. Our own military leaders acknowledge this is the only way the war will end. But trying to beat the Taliban into submission so they will be more compliant to our conditions for a settlement gambles our blood and treasure with no guarantee of a successful outcome.
Peace Action and twenty of our colleague organizations launched a week of action in May to build support in the House of Representatives for an amendment to the Pentagon spending bill calling on the President to provide an exit plan that would bring our troops home well ahead of the 2014 date favored by the administration. While the amendment failed 204-214, the vote was much closer than expected and represents growing congressional opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Last year, the same bill was defeated 162-260. Our work is paying off.
We have it on good authority that the President has heard the message from the House loud and clear. Our next step is to organize a bipartisan letter from the Senate to President Obama urging a substantial and responsible redeployment of our forces this summer.
Call the Senate switchboard – (202) 224-3121 and strongly urge your Senators to sign the Merkley-Lee-Udall letter to President Obama urging a “sizeable and sustained” reduction in forces from Afghanistan beginning in July.
We will soon see if it’s enough to make July a turning point in this terrible war. Come what may, we will not let up until the last of our troops come home.