Congressman Walter Jones Jr., of North Carolina, has undergone a thorough conversion. A Democrat, he became a conservative Republican; a Baptist, he became a Catholic. He supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; now he sends hand-written letters of condolence to the American families who have lost a son or daughter. He told George C. Wilson in The Nation (6/13) that he deals with the guilt over having voted for both wars because he was “not strong enough to vote my conscience as a man of faith.” Mr. Jones and his 13-member Out-of-Afghanistan caucus plan to push the war to the forefront in the presidential primaries. Public support for the war has fallen. Only 43 percent of Americans feel it is worth fighting, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll (6/7). A Pew survey on June 21 found that 56 percent wanted troops out as soon as possible and only 39 percent supported staying until the situation stabilized.
In June, 40 religious leaders from all faiths wrote to President Obama that it is time to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. What began as a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they contended, has become an open-ended war against a Taliban insurgency.
Since then President Hamid Karzai has replaced his assassinated half-brother, the Kandahar tribal leader, with another brother. U.S. investigators have uncovered a trucking scandal in which at least $3.3 million paid to eight Afghan contractors has gone through middlemen to Taliban insurgents as bribes in the form of weapons, explosives and cash. Night raids, now 300 a month, have killed both Taliban men and their wives in the same bed.
President Obama’s address in June tried to placate both political critics weary of the 10-year war and military leaders who wanted more time to form a well-trained Afghan army, despite its overwhelming illiteracy and high turnover, and a stable government, in spite of its corruption.
The president promised 30,000 “surge” troops would leave Afghanistan by 2012, then 70,000 for a “complete” pullout in 2014. An unspecified force would remain, however, for “support.” Translated, this looks like an indefinite occupation. The administration should reconsider its priorities. The first engagement in Afghanistan was to arm the mujaheddin to drive out the Soviets in the 1980s. After 9/11, although we replaced a pro-Al Qaeda Taliban government with Mr. Karzai and have driven out Al Qaeda again, the United States has not “won” in Afghanistan because the goals of “nation-building” were too broad and U.S. troops are laboring in inhospitable terrain and a closed culture.
Meanwhile, the damage at home has been significant. According to a Brown University study, the war will cost $4 trillion. Much of that money could have been used to create jobs, rebuild this country’s roads, bridges, schools, health care system and parks. The greater cost has been in human life, both American and Afghan. There have been 1,574 U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. Add to that number the 6,670 severely wounded by improvised explosive devices, including amputees. These numbers do not account for the emotionally wounded, suicides, fractured families, victims of alcohol and drug abuse, accidents and sleepless nights. The question of civilian deaths—estimated at 11,700 to 13,900—is not resolved by saying that the insurgents have killed more people than NATO troops have killed. The Afghan people blame NATO more because it represents the intrusion of a foreign power.
Negotiations with the Taliban have not borne fruit. In the long run, only the Afghan people can determine their own fate. The 40 U.S. religious leaders urge that the military be replaced by civilian organizations with relief and development aid experience. Al Qaeda no longer lurks in a compound in Pakistan but is spread throughout the Middle East in cells. Whatever the future, the “global war on terror” is no longer the appropriate term for dealing with the complex challenges introduced by the Arab Spring. If the Central Intelligence Agency, now led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, imagines it can base a foreign policy in this volatile part of the world on the failed strategies of the last 10 years, it is misguided.
As the United States withdraws, it must accept responsibility for the moral dimensions of the decision, which extend beyond the hardships endured by Americans. They include the specter of civil war among Afghan tribes and the possibility that the Taliban will return to power. The respect for human rights we advocated and the additional roads and schools we wanted to build will not come about—a cautionary tale for future nation-building. After 10 years, the costs of this war are too high. The United States has done what it could. It is time for a rapid withdrawal that will have all troops home by Christmas 2012.