Hope Smashes Through the Looking Glass in Afghanistan

Take a good look at the chart above. This represents the increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan since 2001. The number of soldiers that are presently in country might be a little high on this chart, given that The New York Times estimates 68,000 soldiers currently in Afghanistan. However, this lower estimate is still more than double the number of soldiers that were in Afghanistan at the end of President Bush's term. With the additional 30,000 troops requested this would be three times what it was when Obama first stepped foot in the White House.

What hasn't been discussed is the fact that these numbers don't include the civilian contractors who already outnumber the soldiers that are currently deployed. Despite the multiple violations committed by mercenary companies such as Blackwater (which changed their name to Xe after their personnel were indicted for killing Iraqi civilians) they continue to operate with impunity in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But certainly the hypothetical abuses of ACORN demanded immediate action whereas the lives of Iraqi civilians only necessitate a review of their contract. Nevertheless, the Congressional Research Service estimates (pdf here) that the number of civilian contractors was 68,197 in September, making the actual size of US personnel in the region close to 140,000. It is reasonable to assume that the civilian contractors will increase alongside their military counterparts (in fact, Obama even referenced a "civilian surge" in his speech Tuesday night). We are therefore looking at around 170,000 boots on the ground in the next few years (and this is probably a conservative estimate). No wonder Henry Kissinger was praising Obama on FOXNews last night.

As I feared, we are once again being rushed off to war and the vast majority of the American public are not supporting the decision. Two-thirds of those polled have voiced their opposition to this troop increase, but that will soon change. Because alongside our deployment of soldiers and civilian contractors we are also deploying our media. In an analysis of the media coverage on Afghanistan, the organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) determined that in the primary newspapers of record, The New York Times and The Washington Post, the vast majority of op-eds have supported an escalation of the war in contrast to the widespread popular opinion:

Both newspapers marginalized antiwar opinion to different degrees. Of the New York Times' 43 columns on the Afghanistan War, 36 supported the war and only seven opposed it--five times as many columns to war supporters as to opponents. Of the paper's pro-war columns, 14 favored some form of escalation, while 22 argued for pursuing the war differently.

In the Washington Post, pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns by more than 10 to 1: Of 67 Post columns on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, while just six expressed antiwar views. Of the pro-war columns, 31 were for escalation and 30 for an alternative strategy.

We are now going to see those marginalized voices disappear as the mainstream media steps in line behind the flag.

But what other option is there? Isn't opposing the escalation just delaying a problem that a military solution could mop up relatively quickly? Unfortunately no. All this escalation will do is create greater resistance against the occupation. The Taliban will have the support of the local population rather than the American occupiers. The reality is that most of those who identify with the Taliban aren't actually supporting a political ideology, they're primarily supporting other ethnic Pushtuns. Half of Afghanistan identifies as Pushtun as well as nearly all members of the Taliban. As any anthropologist will tell you, during a crisis people will reflexively side with those who share a similar culture even if they disagree with their policies.

According to Selig S. Harrison, South Asia expert at the Center for International Policy, any strategy that doesn't take these ethnic considerations into account is doomed from the start:

Understanding the ethnic dimension of the conflict is the key to a successful strategy for separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda and stabilizing multiethnic Pakistan politically. . . Militarily, the United States should lower its profile by ending airstrikes. By arousing a Pashtun sense of victimization at the hands of outside forces, the conduct of the "war on terror" in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], where al-Qaeda is based, has strengthened the jihadist groups the U.S. seeks to defeat.

Politically, U.S. policy should be revised to demonstrate that America supports the Pashtun desire for a stronger position in relation to the Punjabi-dominated government in Islamabad.

The Pushtun are fighting for autonomy. If they are supported in that effort, and Pakistan is prevented from attacking them as the Bush administration had been encouraging for nearly eight years, the major issue of the Taliban supporters would be eliminated. This is not a strategy that calls for "search and destroy" missions. This calls for tough diplomacy and cultural understanding. The minute the problem is militarized all hope at understanding is lost. The Pushtun will rally together to eject the foreign invaders, just as they did with the Soviets and are continuing to do with the Punjabis in the Pakistani military.

It's also important to keep in mind that opposing military occupation does not mean rejecting engagement. The troubles facing Afghanistan are mostly based on economics and security. The production of heroin is the primary export in the country and is the only thing that is providing many people with jobs. There needs to be an army of NGOs with a mandate to generate Afghan-led initiatives in housing, irrigation, sanitation, health, education and electric power. An Afghan New Deal would end up being far cheaper (and much more likely to generate a stable, democratic system in the long run) than supporting the current corrupt administration by bombing its enemies. As for security, a UN peacekeeping operation with a large contingent of regional involvement would be far more likely to generate a favorable result. Would such an approach be guaranteed? Of course not. Regional players have their own designs on Afghanistan and would compete for access. But as it is now, the US is calling the shots and generating opposition throughout the Middle East at the same time as we are entrenching the Taliban against us.

Many would also argue that, if we deal with the Taliban, it will only promote greater antagonism against women. This is wrong because the current power structure, made up of a motley assemblage of warlords, are already imposing brutal conditions for women throughout the region. As former Afghan Parliamentary member Malalai Joya has stated repeatedly, the current American policy is supporting a condition that is just as bad as it was during the 1990s. The worst case scenario of any change in policy would be that conditions remain as they are. However, the opportunity for improvement in the conditions that women experience would be significantly more likely if the economic and security situation in the country were improved.

There is no one correct solution to adequately address all the problems in Afghanistan, but there are many wrong ones. The United States has now committed itself to escalating and exacerbating a conflict that has the very real potential of bogging us down in the swamp of occupation and counterinsurgency. Militarizing this situation is attempting to repair with a machine gun what a mortar and pestle would accomplish more effectively. No one will win from such a conflict, except perhaps the Republicans in 2012.

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Anida Adler - your link doesn't do much to support the "issues are almost always so much deeper" perspective you endorse.

In fact, except for pointing out that Obama is smarter than George Dubious Bush, it doesn't address any consideration of substance, never mind anything our host has just pointed out above.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Hiya, Pierce.

I apologise for giving the wrong impression. I read the Stonekettle entry first, and then Eric's entry. After that, I said to myself: "It goes to show, you always need to look deeper, answers are not always as straightforward as we might like to think," and posted that thought straight away.

In the end, I acknowledge without reservation that I'm not American, and have little or no insight into the issues you face. I simply follow two interesting and very different people's blogs and thought both might find the other's opinion of interest.

Eric, hope I didn't come across wrong to you, and that this added comment clarifies my intent.

Anida - thanks for adding that!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 03 Dec 2009 #permalink