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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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Afghanistan soldiers, photo by The U.S. Army

"The military is doing a lot of development work that it shouldn't be doing, and frankly that the military does not want to do," Lorelei Kelly says.

Photo by The U.S. Army.

Almost nine years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, public support for a continued military presence has wavered and many politicians have called for an exit strategy. However, some observers believe a withdrawal of U.S./NATO troops would create a dangerous vacuum in the region. For those who opposed the invasion from the start, there is further debate: Can the "Out Now" position the antiwar movement has advocated for Iraq also be valid for Afghanistan? Or should activists voice a more nuanced stance that addresses, in particular, the prospective plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule?

Foreign Policy In Focus was pleased to organize a critical conversation about these issues at the recent Left Forum in New York City. The event was moderated by FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler and featured panelists David Wildman, Sunita Viswanath, and Lorelei Kelly.

The following is an edited and abridged version of the panelists' opening remarks, followed by a composite sampling of some of the issues addressed by the panelists during the event's question-and-answer session.

David Wildman

Wildman headshot, resizedThe policy issues around Afghanistan are being debated in Washington right now. There was a vote on a resolution from Dennis Kucinich on withdrawing troops, and there are upcoming votes that have not yet been scheduled on a supplement of around $33 billion dollars to fund U.S. activity in Afghanistan, so these are very immediate issues for us.

They are even more immediate for Afghans. Each day, according to the estimates, 850 children die, largely from preventable diseases—from pneumonia, from diarrhea, from malnutrition. Every 30 minutes a woman in Afghanistan dies from complications related to pregnancy. If there were adequate health care, such women might still be alive. And yet each and every day the U.S. government devotes $2 billion to military spending. [Beyond regular Pentagon spending,] we've devoted at least $250 billion dollars toward waging war in Afghanistan. And so the question that I want to pose for us is, "Is this working?" Is that level of military expenditure the best way to address the needs of Afghan women and children?

I argue that the answer is no. Personally, I've been to Afghanistan a number of times since 2004 [as an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries]. The United Methodist Church has supported and worked in partnership with Afghans since the 1960s on health issues. The communities we are working in and serving have the highest levels of infant mortality in the world. [That statistic tells us that] something is not working there.

The use of military spending and the current involvement of the United States is like adding gasoline to a fire. Not only is it not working, it is making things much, much worse. And therefore a necessary first step is to push for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—for the well-being of Afghans and for the safety of U.S. soldiers as well.

I want to give two historic dates, and then focus on the current counter-insurgency approach.

In July 1979, then-National Security Council advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski sent a memo to [President] Carter, who authorized the initial covert shipment of arms to Afghanistan to destabilize the communist government at that time. Later, he acknowledged that the hope was that this might draw the Soviet Union in, and if the Soviets were to move troops into Afghanistan, it would demoralize their military, bankrupt their economy, and splinter their society.

I think most of all the United States needs to announce an exit strategy. It will become more possible for the rest of the international community to engage in non-militarized strategies to address people's needs.

In 1989, the Soviets left. I had the privilege of meeting two Soviet veterans in the fall of 1989 who were coming to the United States. They said that Soviet involvement in Afghanistan had produced exactly the result that Brzezinski had predicted. They said that their troops were suffering from substance abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They came back home and were blamed for the failure. And within two years, the Soviet Union collapsed.

Afghans have never known relief from 30 years of war. For 30 years the international community has pumped perhaps more aid into Afghanistan than any other country. But most of it has been weapons. So my question is: Have weapons, more and more weapons, 30 years of weapons—sent by the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf states, you name it—has that helped Afghan women and children? The answer is no. So when we look at Obama's strategy of a surge, I want to ask, is this more of what has failed for 30 years to address the well-being of Afghans?

Today, each one of the U.S. strategies of "clear, hold, and build" endangers Afghan civilians.

  • Clear: Most Afghan civilian casualties are from two sources: airstrikes by the government side and improvised explosive devices. Those improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are almost invariably in places where there are foreign troops present. So: no troops [means] no IEDs. It doesn't mean there aren't other problems, I don't want to belittle that. But there are no more IEDs, which is the most significant form of civilian casualties.
  • Hold: Part of the strategy is to double the size of the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. Right now about 90 percent of the Afghan government's budget comes from international donors. It's not sustainable. If you want to double the size of the military, you are militarizing the government. That won't work. It's not sustainable financially, and it's not sustainable in terms of lasting security for anyone.
  • Build: The civilian surge that Obama talked about last March and again in December is not a humanitarian surge. It involves 900 people that are non-uniformed U.S. officials who are from USAID, from the Justice Department, State Department, Intelligence Agency. That's the civilian surge; they are to be positioned with military units, and that has to be challenged. When you militarize aid, you then align it with one side of the conflict. My experience has been that of all the non-governmental organizations, both international and Afghan-based, the ones that are seen as taking sides are much more vulnerable to attack from the Taliban and other groups. There are studies that have looked at what schools have been targeted; schools that are seen as linked to the military, or linked to NGOs that have been working closely with the military, are more at risk. Communities are nervous about that.

So what do we do about this? We need to end drone strikes. The drone strikes in Pakistan have actually escalated civilian casualties. They are targeted assassinations. They are war crimes. The special rapporteur of the United Nations, Philip Alston, has suggested that they need to be investigated. The ACLU just pushed for a suit against the Justice and State Departments to get full release of the documentation of the [supposed] legal basis for the strikes. They are being done by the CIA and even in some cases by private contractors, who are waging assassinations. So we [need to] end drone strikes, and we need to end night raids and really reign in the Special Forces.

But I think most of all the United States needs to announce an exit strategy. When that happens the warlords who are with Parliament, who are getting kickbacks and a lot of the reconstruction funding, will start changing their tune. The Karzai government, with all the corruption that is associated with that, will start changing its tune. The Taliban and other armed groups are likely to change their tunes. It will become more possible for the rest of the international community to engage in non-militarized strategies to address people's needs.

The last quote I want to give [is from] Representative Barbara Lee. September 15, 2001 was the only time the Congress debated the use of force in Afghanistan until last week, with Kucinich's resolution. [During the first debate,] Lee was the only person to raise a question in Congress. She said:

If we rush to launch a counter attack, we run too great a risk that women, children, and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire. We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.

Sadly, we've repeated those mistakes.

Sunita Viswanath

Viswanath headshot, resizedI am co-founder and board member of a nine-year-old grassroots organization called Women for Afghan Women. It was founded right here in New York; it brings core meaning to my life and the lives of everyone I sister with. The two core prongs of our strategy that we [developed] in April 2001, in the months leading up to September 11th, remain our anchors in this work. On the one hand we are devotedly community-based, and on the other hand we reach as high as we need to, wherever we need to go outside of our comfort zone to advocate for the rights of the women whom we exist to serve.

Continued on Page 2

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