Friday, November 13, 2009

Decrease American forces in Afghanistan

When I heard that President Obama was reviewing the recommendations of General McChrystal concerning increased troop deploymnent to Afghanistan, I figured that it was a foregone conclusion that he would at least partially acquiesce. After all, what president in recent memory has refused to "send in the Marines" -- or at least send in more of them? (Answer: possibly JFK in Vietnam.)

Then there were some cautionary memos from Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and himself an ex-general). Sources seemed to indicate that the president was actually unhappy with all of the troop increase suggestions that he had received. I briefly got my hopes up that Obama might actually decrease the troop levels and replace most of the military spending with social and economic aid. Now it seems that Obama will still send in more troops, but only after a "thorough review" of the aims of the mission, and determination of an exit strategy. This is better than nothing, but I still think that we should start reducing troop level in preparation for disengagement; here's why.

1. The initial reason for the invasion of Afghanistan was to remove the Al-Qaeda training camps and safe-havens that harbored the 9/11 attackers. At the time, the ruling Taliban worked hand-in-hand with Al-Qaeda, and so our invasion drove the Taliban from power at the same time. That was years ago. By all accounts there are very few Al-Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan -- most operate now out of Pakistan or other places even further away -- and although there has been a resurgence of the Taliban, the new Taliban consists more of warlord types than agents of international terrorism. In fact, the U.S. has achieved some success in dealing with them -- chiefly through various forms of bribery. Military counter-insurgency against these people has met with little success since most of them have constituencies of various sizes and forms within the populace itself.

2. The use of military power in Afghanistan has become counterproductive. President Karzai himself realizes this and has been talking more and more in nationalistic terms -- even stating that the U.S. interest is not in helping Afghanis but in increasing U.S. security. Not only is this message received sympathetically by more and more Afghanis, there is a great deal of truth in it. While all of us were happy to see girls and young women allowed to be educated again, the U.S. government has built very few schools that we can point to, and done very little with Afghani infrastructure outside what we need for security purposes. Even Gen. McChrystal acknowledges this.

3. There is still the issue of disproportionality. About 3000 people were killed in the U.S. by terrorist attacks on 9/11. That is terrible of course, but decent Americans are not worth more as human beings than decent Afghanis or Pakistanis or Iraqis or ... anybody. The number of innocent civilians who have been killed in U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan is probably around 100 times the number killed on 9/11 -- maybe more (there is a lot of documentation for this estimate). It is also doubtful that we are justified in hunting down and killing Taliban who had nothing to do with 9/11 but are simply fighting against the Karzai government. (Of course, Al-Qaeda is another story.) Also, Secretary of State Clinton still has not come up with a satisfactory answer to the question posed by Pakistani civilians during her recent visit: How do you distinguish the killing of dozens of bystanders in a drone rocket attack, from terrorism in a market place?

4. It is civilians, not armies, who bear most of the brunt of war -- this is an eternal fact. In a non-democracy such as Saddam's Iraq and the Taliban's Afghanistan, the civilians are not directly responsible for the sins of their leaders, but they pay the price. In a democracy, on the other hand, we bear the onus if the leaders we elect and re-elect commit acts of questionable morality. We and our president must be cognizant of this fact at all times when our actions against a populace are careless or punitive.

5. The U.S. motives in all wars for at least the last half-century have been far from pure. In the case of Afghanistan the goal was to punish and remove Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; improving the economic or social lot of the Afghanis was, if anything, a collateral talking point. (I won't even go into the reasons for the Iraq invasion since they have been so totally discredited.) U.S. military operations are also qualitatively different from what they once were. Privatization has resulted in huge transfers of wealth and responsibility from the public military and public treasury to private security and logistics corporations -- e.g. Blackwater, Haliburton, and Halliburton’s former subsidiary KBR. Just as we are upset about reported corruption by President Karzai, the Afghanis (and lots of others) have come to identify the U.S. presence with the bad behavior of our favored contractors.

Whatever threats are posed to us by terrorist activity must be dealt with here, not in other countries. While we have been engaged militarily abroad, we haven’t even seen fit to institute reasonable inspection of container ships arriving at our ports. Al-Qaeda has moved away from Afghanistan and outward to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, other parts of North Africa and even Europe (so says Gen. David Petraeus). We simply can't send U.S. troops to all of these countries -- we can't do Afghanistan over and over whenever we think our security is threatened. We can't afford it in dollars, we can't afford it in world support, and we simply can't afford the moral weight of killing disproportionately so many people.


Obama should decrease the military forces in Afghanistan while increasing non-military aid there. He should also start closing or shrinking military bases throughout the world, starting with Okinawa in Japan. Moving troops and personnel out of Saudi-Arabia is another step that will go a long way to cooling tensions with the Moslem world. No one can believe that we are fighting for democracy in Afghanistan or other places when we are propping up tyrannical regimes solely for cheap oil. Finally, recent tapes and messages indicate that the Sunni-Shiite split is dividing the Sunni Al-Qaeda from the Shiite Iranians. This should further isolate the former, to our advantage.

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