U-turn in Afghanistan

As the ninth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan approaches, the war is failing, casualties are escalating among both U.S.-NATO forces and Afghan civilians, and Americans’ support for the conflict is at its lowest ebb. These trends increasingly find reflection in Congress. It’s time for a U-turn, in Afghanistan and in U.S. foreign policy generally.

Two polls released in mid-August show Americans’ support for the war at its lowest point ever. The Associated Press found support reaching just 38 percent – down from 46 percent in March – while 58 percent said they opposed U.S. engagement in the conflict. Less than one in five think the situation in Afghanistan will improve in the next year, while 29 percent think it will get worse.

A CNN poll put opposition to the conflict even higher, at 62 percent – up from 56 percent in May.

But at the same time, a complicated dance is playing out at top decision-making levels, with new U.S. commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus saying President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan is “not the date when the American forces will begin an exodus,” and the White House reiterating that the date is “non-negotiable.” At the same time, the administration has set no timetable to complete the withdrawal.

The BBC recently quoted Petraeus as saying next July is when “some tasks” will be shifted to “some Afghan forces in those areas where the conditions allow it.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also said the troop withdrawals “will be of fairly limited numbers.” Other officers are said to be pressing for more time, arguing that despite the war’s long duration, counterinsurgency efforts have only begun to become effective in the last year or so.

In a “Danger Room” interview with Spencer Ackerman, on wired.com, Petraeus elaborated further on a process of “thinning out” troops from more stable areas and “reinvesting” in less secure locations. A few combat brigades may actually return to the U.S., he said, but withdrawals beyond the 30,000 troops involved in this year’s “surge” will depend on the security picture.

Adding to doubts about the military’s withdrawal plans are reports of three separate air base expansions, costing $100 million each, none of which are expected to be completed until the second half of 2011. According to the Washington Post, all are intended for use by U.S., not Afghan, forces. Overall, the report says, requests are now before Congress for $1.3 billion in additional fiscal 2011 funds for multiyear construction of military facilities in Afghanistan.

A heavy cloud of doubt hangs over the military’s claims, and future projections, of success. Firedoglake blogger Derrick Crowe recently cited an Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) report saying nine Afghan provinces are experiencing more daily attacks since the latest surge began, while only one is experiencing fewer attacks. ANSO says the southern province of Helmand, site of the unsuccessful Marjah offensive earlier this year, saw insurgent attacks spike to 820 in the second quarter of this year, compared to 257 in the same period last year.

Crowe also cites UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan figures showing Taliban assassinations doubling in the first four months of 2010, compared to a comparable period in 2009.  

The offensive around the southern Afghan city of Marjah earlier this year failed, and a larger offensive planned for Kandahar province has been postponed.

These trends, and the repeated tragic killings of innocent civilians during raids, are corroborated in reports emerging from Wikileaks’ vast release of classified documents last month.

All these factors – the enormous costs in lives and treasure, the deteriorating military situation, and the corresponding rise in popular opposition, are leading to a profound shift in viewpoints and votes in Congress. In July 114 members of the House of Representatives – 102 Democrats and 12 Republicans – voted against a $59 billion supplemental war funding bill, over half of which was for the Afghanistan war. Last year just 32 Democrats opposed a similar bill.  In May, 18 senators voted for an amendment by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., calling for a withdrawal timetable.

President Obama plans another review of the situation in December. This could open the way for a major change in direction, with a timetable for prompt troop withdrawal and emphasis on providing civilian development aid to Afghanistan through international agencies including the United Nations while negotiations on peace and regional stability take place within Afghanistan and with its neighbors.

Such a much-needed first step could be the start of a more thorough reorientation of U.S. international policy, away from efforts at overt and covert military domination and toward international cooperation and mutual assistance.

In that way, we can put our national treasure, both human and monetary, at the service of human needs – at home and around the world.

Photo: Soldiers return after an air assault mission in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, Oct. 15, 2009. (Spc. Tia P. Sokimson/CC)



Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.