In a brilliant essay in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (“The Irresistible Illusion, July 9), Rory Stewart, the Director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard, writes that “Afghanistan..is the graveyard of predictions.” I’d add that is is also the graveyard of empires. Stewart is critical of President Obama’s “new policy,” which he explains “has a very narrow focus–counter-terrorism–and a very broad definition of how to achieve it: no less than the fixing of the Afghan state.”
Alternatives, for the moment, have been excluded. Yet too few are asking the tough questions that need to be asked about how we might better provide security — in the region and for the US — through a non-military regional strategy to stabilize Afghanistan. Why are too few pointing out that it is crazy to pour billions into a war whose mission we’re still unable to clearly define when the U.S. economy is in crisis and millions (here and globally) face joblessness?
While the newly arrived top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McCrystal, champions a 21st century counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, few in Congress have bothered to question the Administration about the fact that while this COIN strategy calls for a ratio of 80 percent political and 20 percent military, 90 percent of the recent war supplemental goes towards military expenses. And just last week, according to the Washington Post, McCrystal concluded that Afghan security forces will have to expand far beyond currently planned levels. Such an expansion would require additional billions beyond the $7.5 billion the administration has budgeted annually to build up the Afghan army and police over the next several years; it will also mean the deployment of 1000s of more US troops as trainers and advisers.
Obama has so far committed to building an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000. McCrystal now appears to be pushing for what some US generals have earlier spoken about wanting: a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers. Such a force would cost $2 or $ 3 billion a year to maintain; as Rory Stewart points out, the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. “We criticize developing countries for spending 30 percent of their budget on defense,” Stewart notes, and “we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 percent of its budget.”
As the US plans to sharply increase its troop strength, it’s important to note that Britain’s involvement in the war has come under the fiercest criticism yet at home. Some of this comes as a result of a sharp increase in British casualties, including the deaths of 15 soldiers in the past 10 days. (By July 7th, 176 British soldiers had died in Afghanistan, roughly the same number as were killed in Iraq. America has lost 726 soldiers in Afghanistan and 4321 in Iraq–though those figures may have increased in these past few days.)
What has also led to criticism in Britain are the grim images that have led the nightly television news. According to the New York Times, the news has shown “slate-gray transport aircraft carrying coffins landing at a military airbase in Wiltshire and being driven slowly in hearses past crowds lining the high street in Wootton Bassett, a nearby town. When live coffins passed down the street on Friday, on their way to a mortuary in Oxford, women wailed.”
Where is the US nightly television (broadcast and cable) coverage of our servicepeople returning in coffins? Where are the brutal and honest images of Afghanistan — of Afghan women and children killed, of US soldiers in the hell of combat. Where is the coverage of the staggering increase of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain injuries and suicides among the many 1000s of service members who’ve already paid a price for Iraq and Afghanistan? Have the networks and cable channels spent so much of their budgets covering Michael Jackson’s untimely death and star-studded memorial, Sarah Palin’s ramblings and Mark Sanford’s personal and political derelictions that they can’t give us the real news we need if we’re to be a democracy informed about what our country is doing in our name?
I believe the escalation of Afghanistan will bleed us of the resources needed for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift — as we’re now seeing with Britain and others — with our European allies, and negate the positive consequences of withdrawing from Iraq and Obama’s powerful Cairo speech on our image in the Muslim world. Nor will escalation secure a better future for the Afghan people, for its women and children, or increase US security.
Withdrawal or de-escalation doesn’t mean abandoning the Afghan people. It means using our resources more wisely — for reconstruction, targeted economic development, peace-keeping operations under an international mandate (not NATO, which is perceived as a militarized, occupying force), funding for alternative agriculture (not eradication of poppies), for education for women and children and support for multilateral regional diplomacy and common sense counter-terrorism measures.
It will take time, but as casualties mount Americans will turn against this war and demand a way out. For now, we need to lay out constructive, smart, effective non-military alternatives to stabilize Afghanistan and strengthen Pakistan’s fragile democratic government. We need to work with those in Congress prepared to hold hearings, increase pressure for a defined exit strategy, call for oversight of contractors and transparent budgeting. Citizens can get involved in many ways– link up with Brave New Films’ Rethink Afghanistan, and with bloggers, MoveOn, Win Without War, and with our work and activism at The Nation and thenation.com. And let’s demand that those corporations which been given the rights to the American peoples’ airwaves show us the reality of Afghanistan.