Get the troops out?

January 13, 2013

While Obama announces troop reductions from Afghanistan and opponents in the west call for either a faster withdrawal or for staying the course, most Afghans are divided on the issue but fear the removal of international soldiers and bases. In the house where I stay I recently asked a group of Afghans (engineers, college students, and construction workers) what should happen to the US bases here; I was told that they should be “maintained like they were in Saudi Arabia.” A surprising response – especially considering that it is argued that the root of Al Qaeda stems from resistance to US bases in Saudi Arabia. Most in that group agreed that the dominantly northern ethnic groups – Hazard, Uzbek, Tajik, etc. – want American troops here for the foreseeable future and that the Pashto, mostly from the south, are split. I’m not sure how one can really know what people here think. Opinions can be bought and opinions can get you hurt.

Regardless, since Obama announced his plan for troop reductions, the increased nervousness among Afghans around me is obvious. When I ask what they expect will happen, the universal answer is renewed civil war. When I ask what that means for them personally, they explain their contingency plans – such as escape to Pakistan, Iran or Turkey.

It is tough to know how to respond as an outsider and as someone who came to Afghanistan concerned about the amount of money the US spends on its military operations here, attempting to ‘burn’ a lot of money fast to ‘flip and fix’ Afghanistan. Here are the numbers:

From 2001-11 the US has spent $445 billion on military, diplomatic and aid activities in Afghanistan. That is equivalent to paying each Afghan $1,590 per year for the last 10 years. This investment has not contributed to making Afghans more secure. Armed opposition attacks have increased by about 50% annually since 2006 (Read ANSO report, starting on page 8 and Brookings Afghanistan Index). Ten years after the ouster of the Taliban’s regime, Afghanistan is on the verge of financial and political collapse and suffers extreme poverty and hunger. The economy is 95% dependent on foreign aid. Much of what one can buy at the market comes from Pakistan.

No outsider can fix Afghanistan. However, outsiders can, and I think must, help Afghanistan extricate itself from being a pawn in the regional geopolitical conflict between countries such as Pakistan, India, [read analysis] Iran, Russia and China [read report]. Until this is accomplished, outsiders must – on humanitarian grounds – protect Afghans from a regional war that is being fought in their country and that fuels and plays off of internal tensions. To this end the international community, and the war protesters, should have a plan beyond getting troops out and bringing the money home. Leaving the mess behind is not a humane solution.

We are weeks away from ‘10-years-after’ commemorations, debates and protests regarding 9/11 and the United State’s response in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I hope we do not respond to our frustration about the last 10 years by promoting the creation of a vacuum in Afghanistan that will likely lead to a blood bath. I hope that whatever our ideological bend is, we make it our priority to work for an Afghanistan that is not abandoned and left to survive another humanitarian crisis. Let’s not create another situation that in 10 years we wish we had handled differently.

Support peace for Afghans, and thereby regional stability and security at home.   This requires slowly removing US-led offensive military forces, replacing them with a large international peacekeeping force (with a ‘right to kill’ mandate), increasing diplomatic pressure to resolve regional conflicts and funding long-term (30-50 year) Afghan led and implemented economic, social, political and security development programs [For further insight read the United States Institute of Peace’s: The Future of Afghanistan].

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