Afghanistan: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

From top right: David Wildman, Lorelei Kelly, Sunita Viswanath and Mark Engler.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

The policy issues around Afghanistan are being debated in Washington right now. There was a vote on a resolution from Dennis Kucinich last week 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 wellbeing 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.

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 thirty 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, 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 U.S. AID, 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] 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

I 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 for whom we exist to serve.

We have a community in Flushing, Queens, where the Afghan community is concentrated, where we celebrated the Afghan New Year yesterday. It’s a thriving community. The fact that male and female leaders there have come together to partner with Women for Afghan Women, which is unwaveringly dedicated to women’s rights, wouldn’t have happened when we started nine years ago. It has taken a lot of painstaking work to earn the trust of the community and create those inroads.

Over the last five to six years, we have also been working in Afghanistan. So far, we have family guidance centers in three cities. This year we’re expanding to two more. In each of those cities we have walk-in centers for men and women, though predominantly women, who have experienced human rights violations. We have lawyers, social workers, peace workers, volunteers. Overall we have a staff of 120 in the country, and it is 100 percent local, as is our staff in Queens.

The strategies that we pursue for each human rights case are community-based. [Afghanistan] isn’t a place where you can advocate that a woman stand up for her rights and go get a job and her own apartment. So we work within the family. If it’s a domestic dispute case, we bring the couple together with elders to mediate. If the woman is in danger of her life, we have secret shelters in each city and we take the women there. But in as many cases as possible we find alternative solutions: a brother, an uncle, an aunt, somebody who can harbor this woman for as long as possible, who can help her look for work.

When our organization made its first inroads in Afghanistan in 2003, we didn’t yet have a presence on the ground, but we went there because the country’s constitution was being drafted. We already had held two large conferences here in New York, and we’d made contacts both in the grassroots and in government. We were able to make a critical contribution by bringing women together to talk about the constitution and how it would affect women. We brought together rural activists from every corner of the country to Kandahar, and we had the first women’s rights conference in Kandahar in 2003. These women, most of whom were illiterate and who had never been to school, came up with a Women’s Bill of Rights, a list of demands that they hoped would be included in the nation’s constitution. We then went back to Kabul and brought these very women to the constitutional commission with their Bill of Rights.

[More recently, when] the Elimination of Violence Against Women bill was blocked by the same government that passed this heinous shi’ia law — which has made rape within marriage legal and allows a man to demand sex from his wife every four days — a woman parliamentarian came to our shelter with the wife of an ambassador. Our executive director brought women who are staying in our shelter and to talk to the parliamentarian and they said, “we want to talk to those men in parliament who are blocking this bill. Bring them to us, we would like to tell them our stories and tell them why this is important.”

I think we have an intuitive sense as an organization with one foot in the West of when to step back and allow the community-based leadership to flourish, and when to use our clout. Our work is absolutely rooted to the community, and yet we would not waiver if some leader, some imam, puts forth the idea that women’s rights are not to be promoted. We will not compromise on our core ethics as we do our work.

We are calling right now for the security of the work we are doing. We know that the Taliban’s strength is increasing and becoming more and more of an obstacle to our efforts. We also know that, as modest it is, over these nine years we have seen progress. We have. The fact that in every place we are active we have been able to build relationships with courts, police, ministries of justice — institutions that without the right relationships would be our enemies — the fact that they are referring women to us and that women come is progress. And men come too.

I can never forget a man who came with nothing — a man from a struggling poor family brought his 5-year-old daughter on a 14-hour bus journey. She had been raped. The two of them were shells of themselves when they got to us. He came to us and said, ‘I will not rest until justice is done. Help me.’ And we did. Our lawyers fought that case and the rapist was put in jail. The father now keeps a little room in our shelter; the girl is eight; they are still with us because the family has received death threats.

To us there’s no question that our work, and the work of so many organizations like us, would become impossible overnight [if troops withdraw]. Especially in a place where [the United States is] hugely responsible for the devastating situation, there’s no question that we need to help bring security to that country before we leave.

Yes, I agree that there must be an exit strategy. But part of that exit strategy has to be that the country is on its feet, that the country can govern itself, that the country can secure its borders, that the people are engaged, that there isn’t paralyzing poverty. It is not okay to leave today and allow the bloodbath that will ensue the next day to happen. You just can’t do that.

I want to read a couple of paragraphs from our executive director that opened our last e-newsletter:

As I write this update, U.S. troops are fighting to wrest control of Helmand from the Taliban. Just recently, on February 25, insurgents attacked an Indian guesthouse in the center of Kabul. A three-hour gun battle took place and 16 people were killed. These dreadful events are a prelude to the chaos that will ensue if the Taliban are not driven from this country; a chaos that will spread throughout the region and into the world. The work we and other human rights defenders are doing in Afghanistan would not be possible in any Taliban-controlled area. In fact, if the Taliban assume control of Afghanistan, we and NGOs like ours will have to flee the country, and the progress that has been made on behalf of women and children will have been for naught. That is why Women for Afghan Women supports the troop surge.

We do so reluctantly, for we are not pro-war. We have learned many things during our 8 years here. We know that without a commitment to development — aimed at education, employment, and women’s rights — that is equivalent to or even greater than the military investment, the surge will ultimately fail. The majority of Afghan people want these things, and they want peace. We know that the commitment of the developed world to Afghanistan must be for the long term — at least as long as it took women in the developed world to get the vote (Swiss women finally achieved it in [1971]!). We believe that after 30 years of war, they have earned our help to recover and prosper.

Lorelei Kelly

I think I can tie these two presentations together quite well. The reason I was invited to this panel is because, [as director of the New Strategic Security Initiative, which runs the Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub,] I wrote a piece called “A Commitment Strategy for Afghanistan.” I’ve worked in Congress for 12 years, with both Democrats and Republicans — when there were progressive Republicans. I want to see progressives in the room instead of in the street on Afghanistan policy. I feel that if we are not in the room, shaping the environment and the discussion about U.S. national security policies, we are going to be left in the wilderness, like [we were for] 30 years after the Vietnam War. I think that is one of the reasons we have a 30-to-1 imbalance between military and civilian spending.

It is my belief that in today’s world Afghanistan is emblematic of many of the problems that face us. We live in a globalizing world, and we really haven’t defined security yet. It is a world where relationships are about more than borders, where security is about people much more than machines, where our policy needs to be about inclusion and persuasion more than isolation and coercion. We are better prepared today to fight Napoleon than Bin Laden. We have not left the Cold War behind.

Our military, in fact, is the most progressive foreign policy agency we have in our government. I’ve worked with the army for the last 12 years. The Army — and the Marines especially — know that they are picking up the slack for other agencies that are not being funded. 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. Progressives are never going to have better cover than they do today to make the case for fully transforming U.S. national security priorities and policies. Our cover is General Petraeus himself. Our cover is General McChrystal himself.

The reason I wrote “A Commitment Strategy for Afghanistan” is because I feel that language like “exit strategy” simply doesn’t match the situation over there. When I talk to progressive organizations they say, “of course we don’t mean to end the humanitarian commitment.” But today you can’t have a humanitarian commitment without having some kind of military presence. That’s just true. Our military presence there is a condition; it’s not a choice. The percentage of women in Afghanistan who have health care has gone up by tens of percentage points in the last 10 years. At least part of the reason for that is that the military presence there.

That said, I don’t think there’s a military solution to Afghanistan. We live in a world where war has changed to a situation where you have to out-govern your enemies. This a time for the United States to ask the critical question of what division of labor [in our government] would help us to promote solidarity with the Afghan people and to create innovative ways for them to have community involvement and ownership of their situation.

I always say to the left, especially those protesting outside the Pentagon, “For heaven sakes, it’s not the Pentagon that’s doing this. It’s our elected leadership.” [Those really responsible are] members of Congress. Those members of Congress don’t have people in their offices educating them about how the world has changed, giving them policy options. The need alternatives to always taking the path of least resistance, which is funding military options.

[Then you have] many military personnel who are idealistic public servants. They are sent into these situations and forced to solve these problems that they weren’t trained for. There’s going to be a Faustian war inside the Department of Defense about whether or not we continue doing this stuff. We need to get inside the room, into these debates, and start putting forward policy options that are about dramatic change.

In today’s world, the use of force is mostly counter-productive. The military itself is saying this. I can’t [remember] a hearing in the Senate or the House that I’ve attended in the last 10 years where somebody in uniform has not alluded to the fact that not only is the use of force not effective, it’s counter-productive. When they say, ‘we kill one insurgent and create 17 more,’ that’s what they’re saying. But the military is not supposed to be a political advocacy organization. And because the left has been out of the national security discussion for 30 years, the defense industry is able to run free. I’ve seen it in Congress. The lobbyists had a banner year this year.

I think the greatest question that we have as Americans is, are we going to put everything on the table and talk about what works in today’s world. This is a conservative argument. You don’t want to use your military very much at all. I think given the situation in today’s world a lot of people here would probably agree with me. But we have to come up with the alternatives. Because not being involved is not an option.

What I keep saying to progressives is, “you can’t keep blaming the military unless you have positive alternatives.” I really do think if progressives stand outside this debate, we are going to be on the margins of national security policy making for another thirty years. Because the future of U.S. national security is being decided right now: How Afghanistan turns out, even if it doesn’t turn out in a way that any of us hoped for, is going to define security policy-making for the next generation.

Question and Answer

Question: It’s evident that you three hold differing views. However, we haven’t had a clear answer about what you each think the policy should be. Do you favor our outright withdrawal from Afghanistan or a continued presence? If the latter, what kind of commitment would that be?

SUNITA VISWANATH: People are disillusioned, but when you get to the point of “should foreign troops leave?” there is unanimous agreement. All of the progress that has been made since 9/11 would be destroyed overnight. In terms of what I hear from the community here in New York, before 9/11 the thought that Afghans could go back home was impossible. Children grew up with the door to back home closed. Now, all of a sudden, so many people have gone back to be a part of rebuilding their country. Many people have gone back and have been involved in fundraising and all kinds of activities. There’s just a real sense that [with a withdrawal], all of that will be lost.

LORELEI KELLY: We need to make the case for our commitment to Afghanistan and make the discussion about how we’re going to replace the uniformed presence with a non-uniformed presence. That is going to be our long-term commitment to these people. But we’re going to have one with the other for a while, even if we’re uncomfortable with that.

DAVID WILDMAN: My sense is that the troops will actually make things worse. Security is based on relationships. Humanitarian groups have gone to Afghanistan for 40 or 50 years, and they have been far safer [when they go without weapons]. They have relationships with these communities; they don’t go in uninvited. It is a fundamentally different approach that has a much better track record for working in Afghanistan.

My sense is that more men with more guns is not an answer. Even if you don’t agree with me on an exit strategy, at least don’t support the increased militarization of our presence. There are things on the ground that are actually being jeopardized by the escalation of troops.

Question: Another main difference between your three perspectives seems to involve how concerned citizens can have an influence on policy. There’s some argument that we need to focus more on the conversations taking place in the halls of Washington, while others favor a more outsider approach to grassroots mobilization. Are progressives actually able to influence national security and military debates? What strategies do you think are the most effective?

KELLY: What I’m saying is that if you have a message that always makes the military a malign actor, I think that you are not going to get inside the room on the policy debate. Not when most of the money, most of the personnel, and most of the creative initiatives have come out of the Pentagon. Those things not coming out of the State Department, which doesn’t have the capacity. They’re trying, but will they really be part of a huge transformation of our own government to create a different posture in the world? I don’t know.

I don’t disagree that having some sort of [outside] mobilization is important. But what I have seen in the last 20 years is that the sort of mobilize-and-punish relationship with your elected leaders doesn’t work. We spend all our time and effort there, and we’re not in the room making the deals. I can’t tell you how good the conservative[s are] at being in the room. They shape the environment; they’re there first. I fear that if progressives aren’t gently and lovingly making the case that the military is not the vehicle to carry out the policies that are going to make us more prosperous and secure in the future, we are going to be a country where the only functioning, healthy institution is the military.

WILDMAN: It seems to me that there is a fundamental distinction [to be made with regard to] how change takes place: Is it the top-down change of being inside the room, or is it a bottom-up kind of change? My own sense [with this conflict] is that change is happening on the ground in Afghanistan, first and foremost, and not coming from the halls of power in Washington. In Afghanistan they have a long history of saying, “Empire, no thank you.” I think how change takes place is an important debate, but I don’t have a lot of faith in Congress. And I think one of the questions in organizing is how much we focus on incremental change. Sometimes the most profound change takes place when it seems least likely. We don’t know now what might be happening in just a few years — which is why I say you should do the best you can with what you have at your disposal, and you listen to the folks on the ground.

VISWANATH: We really need to get into [the question of] what’s working, what are the alternatives, how can we make this work. In terms of being in the room, on the street, in the grassroots, in the community — we need to be doing all of it. Whatever these perceived divisions are between us, we need to smash them down and talk. Left organizations on the ground in the United States and Afghanistan have access to so much good will and philanthropy because they want to help the women in Afghanistan. We work with these organizations in spite of differences in ideology, in particular this question of a military presence.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via http://www.DemocracyUprising.com.
David Wildman is an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the co-author (with Phyllis Bennis) of Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and board member of Women for Afghan Women. She is also editor of Women for Afghan Women: Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future.
Lorelei Kelly is a Washington D.C.-based national security expert and director of the New Strategic Security Initiative, which seeks to educate members of Congress about crucial issues underlying U.S. policy in Afghanistan through its Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub.
Editing and transcription assistance provided by Arthur Phillips.