What Would a Responsible Plan to End the U.S. War in Afghanistan Look Like?


Author and analyst Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. was the keynote speaker at the 2009 Annual Peace Conference in Grand Island October 24. Focusing on the dangers of escalating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Bennis warned that the widening quagmire in that war-torn nation threatens to become, in her words, “Obama’s Vietnam.”

The following excerpt from her new book co-authored with David Wildman, Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer(Interlink Publishing, November 2009, www.interlinkbooks.com) provides an ‘exit strategy’ for the U.S. to begin honorably extricating itself from this eight-year-long conflict. Given the steadily deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, her message could not be more urgent.

When President Obama picked up the flag of the Afghanistan war and began to wave it as his own, he did not have an obvious plan for an end game. The goals and definition of ‘victory’ of the U.S. war in Afghanistan changed during the first months of his presidency. According to The Economist (“Losing Afghanistan?” August 22, 2009), “as the West struggles to maintain its weak hold on Afghanistan, so its ambitions there are narrowing. Early aspirations to bring peace, prosperity and decent government to the country have been replaced by the hope of establishing a functioning state and of improved security. By that measure, success in the short term will look much like stalemate.”

And by any measure, by the end of summer 2009, with a clear majority of Americans opposed to the war in Afghanistan, members of Congress and the public were still demanding an exit strategy from an administration that didn’t have one.  As was true in Iraq, there was much talk of the dangers of ending the war in Afghanistan. The Economist article went on to note, though, that “Western governments use a lazy shorthand to justify this war. Its purpose, they say, is to deny terrorists the base and haven that Afghanistan under the Taliban provided to al-Qaida. But al-Qaida’s surviving leaders are reckoned to have decamped across the border to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Western forces do not tread.” 

But with all the discussion of the dangers of withdrawal, there is little acknowledgement of the dangers if the war continues.  One wouldn’t expect the editors of The Economist to worry very much about Afghan civilians, or even about U.S. or NATO troops dying in escalating numbers. But one might wonder how they managed to forget to mention the danger so many experts have recognized, that the presence of U.S. and NATO troops is precisely what fuels the insurgency in the first place. 

As was the case with Iraq, many people, including those committed to ending the war, are concerned that the U.S. not simply ‘cut and run’ from Afghanistan. That phrase was memorably claimed by the Iraq War’s supporters to discredit and undermine the war’s opponents; those who used the term in fact cared little about Iraqi civilians, of whom more than a million had already been killed by the war.  But it was true in Iraq and is equally true in Afghanistan that the U.S. debt to the people of those beleaguered countries is far greater than just getting the troops out. After years of war, abandonment to brutal U.S.-armed warlords, invasion, occupation, more war — the U.S. owes a huge debt to the Afghan people. Pulling out the troops is only step one. 

Certainly the exact means of executing a rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, as is the case for Iraq, is a tactical move that Pentagon logisticians will have to plan — using the same combinations of trucks, planes, helicopters and perhaps donkeys that they used to invade and occupy Afghanistan in the first place. But withdrawing the troops — the necessary first step towards ending the U.S. war — is not enough.  U.S. responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, whom the U.S. has betrayed so many times before, requires more.  So what would a responsible plan to end the war in Afghanistan require?  

• Recognize what U.S. war in Afghanistan is doing (killing civilians, building antagonism towards U.S., building support for insurgents) and what it is incapable of doing (occupying forces can’t end local support for insurgency when insurgency is defined as ‘anti-occupation;’ the military can’t successfully do development work).

• Immediately end troop escalation and all combat and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan; immediately halt drone attacks and threatened escalation in Pakistan; close all U.S. military bases in Afghanistan; begin full withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

• Stop identifying humanitarian aid workers as ‘force multipliers’ and remove all humanitarian, development, infrastructure or other assistance programs and personnel from control of the military.

• Immediately close Bagram Airbase prison; help current Afghan government (as long as it remains in power) as well as local and provincial authorities to expand social programs available for former detainees (including huge cash infusion for job training and jobs).

• Immediately increase refugee assistance — financial assistance for returning refugees to Afghanistan and providing assistance to main refugee centers (Iran, Pakistan); acceptance of more refugees into U.S.

• Stop all anti-poppy fumigation programs; invest significant funds in infrastructure and financial assistance for alternative crop cultivation.

• Promote and support (but do not control/dominate) ceasefire, reconciliation and negotiation processes involving all parties including Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; encourage major role for local & regional leaders, ethnic-based and nationalist, religious and secular, rural and urban, including community-based and civil society representation.  Support real, not simply titular, control by the UN, Afghan civil society groups, and others; do not impose U.S. choices for leaders.

• Recognize scale of corruption and illegitimacy in U.S.-backed government; end uncritical political and financial backing.

• Provide large amounts of financial assistance distributed in small-scale amounts to local and regional, tribal and other leaders for job creation, aiming particularly at reaching and recruiting young unemployed men who are vulnerable to militias offering pay (whether insurgent or pro-government).

• Support but do not control separate negotiations including all neighboring countries with the leadership of the UN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other regional organizations; negotiations should not include all political actors but exclude NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and other military alliances.   

• Immediately begin shifting majority of Afghanistan military budgets into UN or regional funds for Afghan-chosen, Afghan-planned, and Afghan-implemented construction and reconstruction. Use remaining budget to fund U.S. troop withdrawal. Initiate funding relations with UN agencies, other international development organizations, and governments to create Afghan-controlled capacity-building and training institutions, with at least 90 percent of allocated funds going into Afghan (not U.S. or other international corporate, ‘security’ or contractor) hands. Create new development models.

Add Comment


No Comments