Calls mount to bring troops home from Afghanistan

This month, as the war in Afghanistan entered its eighth year, U.S. military and intelligence agencies warned of growing problems, the country’s economic situation continued to deteriorate, and calls grew for a peaceful resolution.

Demonstrators gathered for a weekend of action Oct. 18 and 19 in 16 cities across Canada, urging the Conservative Harper government to bring Canadian troops home from Afghanistan.

Organizers said some 60 percent of Canadians want to end their country’s involvement in the war. In March the government said it would keep 2,500 Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2011.

Citing costs of $14 to $18 billion for Canada’s Afghan mission by that year, New Democrat Member of Parliament Olivia Chow told the Toronto protesters, “That is shameful. Can you think of other ways to spend that money? How about dropping student fees, not bombs?”

Ninety-seven Canadian soldiers and at least 542 U.S. soldiers have died as a result of the Afghan war.

The toll on Afghan civilians is far higher. University of New Hampshire economics professor Marc Herold estimates that between 6,800 and 8,000 civilians have been killed since October 2001. Herold says the air strikes U.S. and NATO forces use to prevent their own casualties are 4 to 10 times as deadly for civilians as fighting on the ground. The toll, and the resulting civilian protests, are also growing in border areas of neighboring Pakistan, where U.S. air attacks including use of drones have escalated in recent months.

Last week another NATO air strike killed up to 30 civilians in a village in southern Afghanistan. The local district chief told the New York Times by telephone that 18 bodies had been recovered and as many as 12 other victims still remained in the rubble. The BBC said one of its journalists had seen 18 bodies, all women and children, including a 6-month-old baby. Villagers took bodies to the home of the provincial governor in protest.

While NATO confirmed an air strike in the area, a spokesman declined to confirm any casualties, saying the incident was being investigated. Meanwhile, Pentagon officials and U.S. intelligence agencies take a grim view of the present military, economic and political situation in Afghanistan and predict worse to come.

Earlier this month Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, “The trends across the board are not going in the right direction. I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year.” He cited the need to curb Afghanistan’s growing opium trade — now estimated to account for about half the country’s GDP — and to strengthen local and district leaders, improve the economy and curb the Taliban’s ability to carry out increasingly well-organized attacks.

About 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops are now in Afghanistan, the majority Americans. The Bush administration plans to send 8,000 more next year, and the top U.S. commander on the scene says he will need 15,000 troops beyond that. A draft National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) slated for release after the election says Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral,” citing a deteriorating central government beset by corruption and besieged by insurgent attacks.

Meanwhile, living conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate. In a graphic account posted recently on Tom Dispatch, Afghanistan-based journalist Anand Gopal said unemployment — at 40 percent when last calculated in 2005 —may now reach as high as 80 percent in some places.

Noting Brookings Institution estimates that about 45 percent of Afghans can’t afford to buy enough food for minimum health levels, Gopal said Afghan officials warn hunger could kill up to 80 percent of people in some northern drought-stricken regions this winter.

Gopal and other commentators say the U.S. and NATO attacks — far from stabilizing the situation — are building support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

On the seventh anniversary of the U.S. bombing, Kelly Campbell, a founding member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, said polls show a majority of Afghans want U.S. troops to leave their country. “It is time that we start listening to the will of the Afghan people, and formulate our policy accordingly, she wrote in the Huffington Post.