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Afghanistan: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

The time has come for a U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan. But is “Out Now” a valid response? David Wildman, Sunita Viswanath, and Lorelei Kelly discuss how can we best support Afghan national stability.
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That said, I don't think there's a military solution to Afghanistan. We live in a world where war has changed to a situation where you have to out-govern your enemies. This a time for the United States to ask the critical question of what division of labor [in our government] would help us to promote solidarity with the Afghan people and to create innovative ways for them to have community involvement and ownership of their situation.

I always say to the Left, especially those protesting outside the Pentagon, "For heaven's sake, it's not the Pentagon that's doing this. It's our elected leadership." [Those really responsible are] members of Congress. Those members of Congress don't have people in their offices educating them about how the world has changed, giving them policy options. They need alternatives to always taking the path of least resistance, which is funding military options.

[Then you have] many military personnel who are idealistic public servants. They are sent into these situations and forced to solve these problems that they weren't trained for. There's going to be a Faustian war inside the Department of Defense about whether or not we continue doing this stuff. We need to get inside the room, into these debates, and start putting forward policy options that are about dramatic change.

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In today's world, the use of force is mostly counter-productive. The military itself is saying this. I can't [remember] a hearing in the Senate or the House that I've attended in the last 10 years where somebody in uniform has not alluded to the fact that not only is the use of force not effective, it's counter-productive. When they say, 'We kill one insurgent and create 17 more,' that's what they're saying. But the military is not supposed to be a political advocacy organization. And because the Left has been out of the national security discussion for 30 years, the defense industry is able to run free. I've seen it in Congress. The lobbyists had a banner year this year.

I think the greatest question that we have as Americans is, are we going to put everything on the table and talk about what works in today's world. This is a conservative argument. You don't want to use your military very much at all. I think given the situation in today's world a lot of people here would probably agree with me. But we have to come up with the alternatives. Because not being involved is not an option.

What I keep saying to progressives is, "You can't keep blaming the military unless you have positive alternatives." I really do think if progressives stand outside this debate, we are going to be on the margins of national security policy making for another thirty years. Because the future of U.S. national security is being decided right now: How Afghanistan turns out, even if it doesn't turn out in a way that any of us hoped for, is going to define security policy-making for the next generation.

Question and Answer

Question: It's evident that you three hold differing views. However, we haven't had a clear answer about what you each think the policy should be. Do you favor our outright withdrawal from Afghanistan or a continued presence? If the latter, what kind of commitment would that be?

Sunita Viswanath: People are disillusioned, but when you get to the point of "should foreign troops leave?" there is unanimous agreement. All of the progress that has been made since 9/11 would be destroyed overnight. In terms of what I hear from the community here in New York, before 9/11 the thought that Afghans could go back home was impossible. Children grew up with the door to back home closed. Now, all of a sudden, so many people have gone back to be a part of rebuilding their country. Many people have gone back and have been involved in fundraising and all kinds of activities. There's just a real sense that [with a withdrawal], all of that will be lost.

Lorelei Kelly: We need to make the case for our commitment to Afghanistan and make the discussion about how we're going to replace the uniformed presence with a non-uniformed presence. That is going to be our long-term commitment to these people. But we're going to have one with the other for a while, even if we're uncomfortable with that.

David Wildman: My sense is that the troops will actually make things worse. Security is based on relationships. Humanitarian groups have gone to Afghanistan for 40 or 50 years, and they have been far safer [when they go without weapons]. They have relationships with these communities; they don't go in uninvited. It is a fundamentally different approach that has a much better track record for working in Afghanistan.

More men with more guns is not an answer. Even if you don't agree with me on an exit strategy, at least don't support the increased militarization of our presence. There are things on the ground that are actually being jeopardized by the escalation of troops.

Question: Another main difference between your three perspectives seems to involve how concerned citizens can have an influence on policy. There's some argument that we need to focus more on the conversations taking place in the halls of Washington, while others favor a more outsider approach to grassroots mobilization. Are progressives actually able to influence national security and military debates? What strategies do you think are the most effective?

Kelly: What I'm saying is that if you have a message that always makes the military a malign actor, I think that you are not going to get inside the room on the policy debate. Not when most of the money, most of the personnel, and most of the creative initiatives have come out of the Pentagon. Those things not coming out of the State Department, which doesn't have the capacity. They're trying, but will they really be part of a huge transformation of our own government to create a different posture in the world? I don't know.

I don't disagree that having some sort of [outside] mobilization is important. But what I have seen in the last 20 years is that the sort of mobilize-and-punish relationship with your elected leaders doesn't work. We spend all our time and effort there, and we're not in the room making the deals. I can't tell you how good the conservative[s are] at being in the room. They shape the environment; they're there first. I fear that if progressives aren't gently and lovingly making the case that the military is not the vehicle to carry out the policies that are going to make us more prosperous and secure in the future, we are going to be a country where the only functioning, healthy institution is the military.

Wildman: It seems to me that there is a fundamental distinction [to be made with regard to] how change takes place: Is it the top-down change of being inside the room, or is it a bottom-up kind of change? My own sense [with this conflict] is that change is happening on the ground in Afghanistan, first and foremost, and not coming from the halls of power in Washington. In Afghanistan they have a long history of saying, "Empire, no thank you." I think how change takes place is an important debate, but I don't have a lot of faith in Congress. And I think one of the questions in organizing is how much we focus on incremental change. Sometimes the most profound change takes place when it seems least likely. We don't know now what might be happening in just a few years—which is why I say you should do the best you can with what you have at your disposal, and you listen to the folks on the ground.

Viswanath: We really need to get into [the question of] what's working, what are the alternatives, how can we make this work. In terms of being in the room, on the street, in the grassroots, in the community—we need to be doing all of it. Whatever these perceived divisions are between us, we need to smash them down and talk. Left organizations on the ground in the United States and Afghanistan have access to so much good will and philanthropy because they want to help the women in Afghanistan. We work with these organizations in spite of differences in ideology, in particular this question of a military presence.

Engler headshotMark Engler is a writer based in New York City, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. He can be reached via the website

Afghanistan and the National Budget :: The skyrocketing costs and casualties of the war in Afghanistan should make us re-evaluate our national priorities and broaden our definition of security.

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