The recent Koran burning protests are just the beginning of the problems America has in Afghanistan.
That the U.S. military is burning Korans and urinating on dead bodies is, without question, bad diplomacy—really bad, in fact—but it does not constitute bad military strategy, nor does it necessarily warrant a call for a more immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. We had plenty of reasons already to withdrawal. This is why nearly two-dozen U.S. Senators and nearly 90 members of the House of Representatives are calling for an expedited withdrawal ahead of NATO’s May meeting in Chicago. This is also why a majority of Americans, according to the latest Pew poll, want troops out as soon as possible.
Entering our 11th year of engagement in Afghanistan, the latest diplomatic unrest has reached a new low and has inspired thousands of Afghan employees on the U.S. payroll, working at Bagram Airfield, to protest. This is significant and unprecedented. Yet the Koran burning was only a tipping point, allowing an increasingly hot pot of frustration to finally boil over.
What’s the real issue then? Simple: U.S. strategy failed in the past, is failing now, and will likely fail in the future. Considers the ways: On strategy, cost, accountability, and perception, we continue to miss the mark.
On strategy, the Pentagon has pursued new policies in two to three year spurts, each time under different, equally optimistic leadership. First, immediately after the invasion, they aided and abetted warlords and corrupt officials in Afghanistan—essentially anyone who would help the U.S. agenda, no matter how much blood was on their hands. Then they tried bolstering Kabul and the central state, figuring that legal and licit state building was wiser. Now, they’ve given that up and are experimenting with pilot projects like propping up locals with munitions and monies and calling them the Afghan Local Police, a nonofficial title. This latest strategy comes with incredible risk. Flooding villages with financial bribes and bombs is likely to backfire and create more civil war.
Those arms will eventually be used against us (see similar strategy in Iraq). That attacks on U.S. troops rose substantially in recent years is a reflection of how NATO and the United States have focused their efforts. By primarily pursuing military options for the last 10 years, furthermore, we failed to assist Afghanistan’s socioeconomic security, be it better trade, more jobs, functional markets, schools with teachers, or hospitals with doctors and medicine. For a lot less money, we could have helped Afghanistan fix problems, like the fact that only 27 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 5 percent to adequate sanitation, and that only 30 percent of Afghans have access to electricity. These are devastating realities in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars America has already spent on the country.
Speaking of cost, the over $325 million we still spend every single day we remain in Afghanistan, or $120 billion yearly, makes this aforementioned socioeconomic security oversight even more appalling. Keep in mind these are monies that America does not actually have, it has to borrow it. In fact, this war is entirely debt-funded. Politicos in Washington, who are concerned about our burgeoning deficit or our rising debt ceiling, would be wise to trim here first.
On accountability, Afghanistan has become a sea of untraceable taxpayer dollars. As an example of the corruption involved and the U.S. officials getting rich off this war, take a scan of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction latest quarterly report from January: one U.S. Army sergeant pled guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and theft of approximately $210,000 in government property, while a captain in the Army National Guard was sentenced to 15 months in prison for receiving bribes from military contractors in return for the award of Defense Department contracts during his deployment to Bagram Airfield. These are just two samples from a long report detailing U.S. fraud, waste, and abuse. No wonder the Afghan employees at Bagram are protesting. They see the U.S. corruption all around them.
On perception, the United States is about as far from winning Afghan hearts and minds as we have ever been. The U.S. military continues the night house raids and drone and air strikes, which Afghans at all levels of society vehemently protest. The only thing strategic about these raids and strikes is their ability to spark furor in the hearts and minds of Afghans. It has now led to a nationwide culture of fear: a majority of Afghans, according to Asia Foundation’s latest poll, fear for their personal safety, hardly something for the Pentagon to write home about after a decade of war.
Going forward, what should America do besides promptly reduce its military footprint? Herein lies the answer: In Asia Foundation’s poll, an overwhelming majority of Afghans, at 82 percent, support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed opposition. America’s recent support for this must continue, as it’s the only hope for political stability.
If some U.S. policymakers do not want to leave Afghanistan in shambles while drawing down our military, then we suggest allocating at least one month’s worth of existing funding, or $10 billion, for one of the few national development programs that has been effective in rebuilding Afghanistan these last ten years. This $10 billion would not only fund the National Solidarity Program and its Community Development Councils for the next decade, but also allow them to significantly scale up their laudable reconstruction and stabilization efforts.
Washington must countenance the fact that one or two or ten more years at war won’t bring success. We’ve been it at it nearly 11 years and to no avail. It is time to stop this madness and bring the troops home.
Michael Shank is U.S. vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Rep. Raul Grijalva represents Arizona’s Seventh District and is the cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.