We recently passed the 11th anniversary of the United States- and NATO-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, making this the longest and one of the costliest misadventures in U.S. history.
The invasion was prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed 3,000 Americans. The invasion was rationalized by Washington’s lofty claims: waging a global war on terrorism; bringing peace, democracy and prosperity to Afghanistan; liberating Afghan women, and eliminating the opium industry. America’s military-industrial-political-media complex deluded itself into believing its own narrative, and misled a gullible public into supporting an ill-conceived, costly and counterproductive mission.
The war in Afghanistan — like previous invasions by Britain and the former Soviet Union — has been a spectacular failure, a disaster for both the U.S. and Afghanistan. By all accounts, the war is at a political and military stalemate. Insurgents have managed to inflict serious financial, human and political costs on the invaders.
President Obama has declared that “the war, as we understand it, is over.” Some argue that the West has actually lost this war, and that the war has lost its way: hence the stampede by U.S. forces to exit the country by the end of 2014.
Any practical assessment of this catastrophe supports the argument that the war be brought to an end much sooner. However, the United States and NATO have built four permanent bases in Afghanistan and are lobbying for a continued presence in the country beyond 2014.
The U.S. has spent more than half a trillion dollars on the war, and is currently spending $10 billion per month. About 2,100 American soldiers are dead (57 of them murdered this year by Afghan trainees, dubbed “green on blue” attacks), 18,000 have been injured, and tens of thousands are psychologically damaged.
As for the already devastated country of Afghanistan, the last 11 years have indeed been a calamity. None of the invaders’ professed goals have been achieved. There is no peace, security, stability, development, democracy, prosperity, women’s liberation, drug eradication, or regional tranquility. Far from it.
As I type this column in Kabul, the International Development Committee, a British parliamentary committee, issued a report stating, essentially, that the Afghan government is beyond redemption, that it cannot be built, cleaned or developed and that any assistance should be given directly to the people.
Afghanistan is now both a theater for proxy wars and is possibly on the verge of civil war. The world speaks of Afghanistan only in such negative terms as “failed state,” “narcostate,” “kleptocracy,” “mafiocracy,” “corrupt,” and “heartbreakingly poor.”
Tragically, these characterizations are essentially true. Almost the entire economy is dependent on war and the presence of foreigners. About half of the people live on a dollar a day. Seventy percent are illiterate. About half of school-age children are out of school, and half the schools have no buildings. Less than 2 percent attend college. The average life span is about 48 years.
Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest percentages of orphans, widows and amputees. It has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. Three percent of the population is drug addicted. Many suffer from some kind of mental illness. It is considered the worst place in the world for women and children. It has among the world’s largest numbers of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum seekers.
Over the last 11 years, about 130,000 Afghans have been killed and too many to count have been wounded. Whatever physical infrastructure there was is in ruins. The social, cultural, environmental and institutional damage is incalculable.
Kabul, the capital, is almost unlivable. Most people are gripped by fear, anxiety, uncertainty and hopelessness. Anyone who can get out is leaving, whatever the cost. A predatory profiteer class has managed to strip essential financial resources from what was already a weak economy.
In short, the Afghan people, who had nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been subjected to a brutal form of collective punishment.
Currently there are 110,000 foreign troops from 50 countries, 100,000 contractors (a shadow army), and 350,000 so-called Afghan National Security Forces presiding over this state of affairs; supposedly they are fighting the Taliban and terrorists.
While the U.S. and NATO spend about $11 billion to $12 billion per month on death and destruction, the U.S. has allocated a mere $1.9 billion for development for all of 2012 — and most development projects have military, political or intelligence orientations. But nothing is working, and most Afghans are sick and tired of war and occupation.
What to do? To end this deplorable state of affairs, we need true statesmanship and a quick paradigm shift. I recommend:
Americans — the power elite and the public alike — must alter their mindset about Afghanistan, which can be done only by really respecting and listening to the full spectrum of Afghan society, especially the insurgents. Americans must differentiate between legitimate Afghan nationalism and extremist fundamentalism and anti-Westernism. They must stop conflating the Afghan Taliban with al-Qaeda and other anti-Western Taliban groups. They must stop viewing Afghanistan as a mere reservoir to be exploited for its natural resources.
The U.S. and Afghan governments must switch from war to a serious and respectful political dialogue with the insurgents and other opposition groups. They should endeavor to foster national reconciliation, build unity among Afghans, and help form a national unity government.
The Western invaders should declare a cease-fire, stop the night raids, end kill-or-capture activities and stop drone attacks. The U.S. and NATO must withdraw all their forces as soon as possible and leave no troops, CIA operatives, special operations forces or so-called trainers behind.
The U.S. and NATO must build genuinely national and professional Afghan army, police and intelligence forces, and commit to their full long-term support. They must dismantle and disarm all other paramilitary forces (private militias and Afghan local police) in the country.
The Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan must be closed, and all political prisoners freed.
The West must commit to a long-term comprehensive development plan focusing on education, health care, agriculture, communication, power, mining and transportation.
The West must ensure that the 2014 Afghan elections are indeed free, fair and transparent.
The U.S. and its allies must actively support justice, law and order, and trials of all war criminals. They must guarantee full human rights for all, support affirmative action for women, and protect civilians from harm. They must compensate people justly and fairly for loss of life and property.
The West must work to settle all the regional disputes, such as those between Afghanistan and Pakistan, India and Pakistan, Iran and the United States, the Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Arabs and Iranians. The West must put pressure on Pakistan and Iran not to meddle in Afghan affairs.
The United States must abide by treaty obligations to ensure Afghanistan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutrality. The West must decouple normal international relations from war and military engagement.
Finally, America must realize that war is no longer a solution to human conflict — especially in “the graveyard of empires” called Afghanistan.