President Barack Obama announced Wednesday night from the White House his plan to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and all of the 33,000 surge forces by the end of next summer. By that time almost 70,000 troops will remain in the war torn country, twice the amount as when Obama assumed office. By 2014, he said, our transition to a support role in Afghanistan will be complete.
The decision comes after an extended debate within the administration over the scale and pace of the withdrawal. But the confines of the debate in Washington are too narrow to include a long-term solution to the ten-year quagmire.
Pressure from both political parties also put increased weight on the decision today. Republicans have been voicing concerns about the ongoing war effort, while growing numbers of Democrats have been pressing Obama for a full drawdown of troops. The American people are pessimistic about the war and 73 percent prefer a substantial withdrawal this summer.
Other factors have been causing a shift away from support for the war. The killing of Osama bin Laden last month has rendered the purpose of the war moot for many people. Additionally, U.S. officials have been involved in negotiations with the Taliban with the aim of a political settlement to the conflict, one that may include a power-sharing agreement with top Taliban leaders. This has led many to doubt the necessity of a fight against those with whom we are also cooperating.
But while these quibbles over the pace of partial withdrawals consume the headlines, concerns are rising over a more permanent military presence in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said publicly that his talks with U.S. officials have included the possibility of troops being kept there past 2014, the year set ostensibly for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces. Secret deliberations have reportedly included a long-term security agreement in which the U.S. military would remain for decades to come.
But the human and economic costs are far too great to justify another military satellite for the U.S. empire. The Afghanistan war costs American taxpayers more than $2 billion every week, which is off-putting to an electorate in a severe economic recession. Growing discontent with debt and the deficit has made such expenses a political liability.
The violence in the ravaged country has been increasing, with last month being the deadliest month for civilians since 2007 and other such records being broken all the time. The U.S. relationship with President Karzai has been tense as he has offered ‘last warnings’ to NATO about halting its reckless airstrikes which often kill high numbers of innocents.
A recently released congressional investigation concluded that U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan fuel corruption and distort local economies, undermining U.S. aims to stabilize the country. American-trained and funded Afghan militias have reportedly terrorized the local civilian populations, in some cases “beating, robbing and even killing with impunity.”
In addition to these troubling consequences of U.S. policies in Afghanistan, problems with the overall strategy arise as well.
The Obama administration has left the actual goal of the military mission in Afghanistan unclear. If the goal is to dismantle and destroy the al Qaeda threat, the mission has long been accomplished. Back in 2009, there were only an estimated 100 al Qaeda forces in the country and their presence is now far too limited to justify tens of thousands of troops or more.
Fears that the remaining Taliban presence threatens America or that they may give sanctuary to al Qaeda after a withdrawal are unsupported by the facts. The relationship between the two groups has soured, making collusion unlikely, and the Taliban have no broader foreign policy goals outside of ousting foreign occupiers. This effectively eliminates a direct threat to the national security of the U.S. and thus leaves continuation of the war untenable.
If the mission is instead to build a stable centralized government in Afghanistan, this is similarly unsustainable. It may be effective in expanding American military presence around the globe – an end in itself for national security planners – but it is ineffective in fighting terrorism and indeed may even be a central goal of al Qaeda, as a persistent military presence in the Muslim world broadens their constituency.
The war in Afghanistan also contributes to an increasingly unstable Pakistan. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told the Guardian that the war is “destabilizing Pakistan and seriously undermining efforts to restore its democratic institutions and economic prosperity after a decade of military dictatorship.”
Wednesday’s announced troop withdrawals were perhaps more drastic than many in Washington might have preferred, but it still marks an ongoing war and occupation that is not only wasteful and deadly, but obstructs any viable end to America’s war on terror.