A soldier pays his respects to a fallen soldier at the Korengal Outpost in the Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan. (Photo: Getty Images)
Despite some subtle nuances regarding a timetable for the phased withdrawal of at least a portion of the combat troops from Iraq,(1) the positions of both John McCain and Barack Obama regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are quite similar. Under both their plans, American young men and women, despite their eventually being withdrawn from Iraq - "with honor" for McCain, "responsibly" for Obama - will not be returning home but, rather, redeployed to another battlefield upon which to continue to kill or be killed. Both candidates have promised a surge in Afghanistan, and a commitment to continue the "war on terrorism" until our enemies, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, perhaps Iran, are defeated and Osama Bin Laden is killed or captured. Consequently, while promising the American people real change from the politics of gunboat diplomacy and militarism of the last eight years, all we are truly being offered by either candidate is more of the same.
From One Quagmire to the Next
As of this writing, even many of the Iraq war's most ardent and outspoken critics, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Code Pink,(2) to name only a few, while generally condemning unnecessary war and demanding better treatment for veterans, have remained curiously silent on the continued occupation and escalation of the war in Afghanistan. I believe this is due in part to an acceptance of the Iraq war as a diversion from pursuing, in Afghanistan, those who were truly responsible for the attacks of September 11. As a result, the American public has been lulled, perhaps even seduced, into an acceptance, without analysis or debate, of Afghanistan as the "good" war, necessary for our national security, and the right front upon which to wage the war against terrorism.
This mindset has allowed both presidential candidates to promise not to end war in the Middle East, but merely to replace one quagmire and unwinnable war with another. The only discussion being whether to have a timetable for redeployment from Iraq or to redeploy based upon "conditions on the ground." Tragically, what remains unquestioned is whether we should be fighting in Afghanistan at all.
Upon analysis, enough historical precedent exists, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, from which to conclude that wars of occupation in Afghanistan are unwinnable. In August 1978, the Soviet Union deployed 160,000 troops in Afghanistan. Despite being strengthened by 200,000 soldiers of the Afghan Communist army, this impressive force was unable to crush the Pashtun resistance. While it may be true, in the current struggle, that the Taliban lacks the support and guidance of the CIA, there is no shortage of money and arms, thanks to their liaison with drug farmers and smugglers. Further, with the Middle East in turmoil and the appearance of a global war, not against terrorism but against Islam, eager Jihadist recruits are readily available to replenish the ranks of the Afghan resistance.
Afghanistan Is Not the Good War
War is presumptively wrong. It requires justification, and the burden of proof is theirs who would unleash its horror and destruction upon humankind. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, upon analysis, fails to satisfy the legal and moral criteria for a good - a just - war for several reasons.
First, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan people attacked the United States. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda allegedly did, both of whom, incidentally, were financed and trained by the CIA. Second, citizens of a nation do not forfeit their right of territorial integrity and political sovereignty, nor become liable to be targeted and killed, because of the actions of a relatively few who train and strategize from remote areas within their national boundaries. Hence, the necessary criterion of just cause is not satisfied. Third, civilians are being killed in increasing numbers by NATO forces. Nearly 1,445 Afghan civilians were killed from January to August 2008 (an increase of over 39 percent from the same time period last year). Consequently, warfare in Afghanistan violates the necessary criterion, the moral and legal requirement, of noncombatant immunity. Fourth, the United States is not empowered to bomb or conduct military incursions within the borders - to violate the territorial integrity - of a sovereign nation to pursue those they deem terrorists without the permission, or against the will, of its legitimate government.
Afghanistan Is Not in Our National Interest
An analysis of the state of our military, of our economy and of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan clearly establishes that continuing the occupation and escalation of the war is not in our national interest.
First, before resigning as chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace conducted a review of our nation's total combat readiness (including active units, Reserves and National Guard). He concluded that after years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an overall decline in our military readiness. That is, our military is stretched to its breaking point. Were our nation confronted with another crisis, our military would be incapable of responding effectively.(3) Second, without reinstituting the draft, continued occupation and escalation would require a continuation of the unacceptable Iraq war practices of multiple deployments of exhausted troops with inadequate down time, stop-loss measures and the continued federalization of the National Guard. Such violations of the fairness principle of shared sacrifice would further exacerbate war's impact upon members of our military. That is, besides the obvious increase in deaths and injuries, the frequency and severity of psychological casualties, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide in our returning veterans would increase dramatically. Third, with the cost of the war on terrorism expected to exceed $3 trillion (4) and our economy teetering on the verge of collapse, continuing the occupation and escalating the war in Afghanistan would be economic suicide and playing into the hands of the terrorists. Osama bin Laden writes:
All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the farthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations ... We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah." (5)
There is No Military Solution to the Afghan Crisis
Increasingly, there are indications that NATO leaders have themselves begun to question whether the current use of military force in Afghanistan will fare any better than previous invasions and occupations. Britain's senior military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, recently admitted that a military victory over the Taliban was "neither feasible nor supportable." The best that could be hoped for, Carleton-Smith adds, is "to contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected Government." (6) France's military chief, Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, told French television on October 8 that "there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis." (7) Gen. Dan McNeill, former commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, admits that, according to US doctrine regarding counterinsurgency warfare, over 400,000 troops would be necessary to have a chance for success in Afghanistan. (8) Recently, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that "I'm not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan ... Absent a broader international and interagency approach to the problems there," he continued, "it is my professional opinion that no amount of troops in no amount of time can ever achieve all the objectives we seek in Afghanistan." (10) Leaks from the still classified National Intelligence Estimate describe the situation in Afghanistan as in a "downward spiral" and cast doubt on whether the Karzai government will be able to stem the rise in Taliban influence.  Even Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the allegedly successful strategy in Iraq, recognizes that Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is a far more primitive society, whose people are stridently independent and resistant to the possibility of any central government. Petreaus warned that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of the long war. (11)
What is advertised as the pursuit of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is, in reality, an unnecessary and unwarranted war against the Taliban and the Pashtun tribes that inhabit the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Certainly, it is true that the Middle East, perhaps even the world, would be a safer place were Afghanistan stable and secure. However, winning the war against terrorism and gaining peace in Afghanistan is not about escalating violence, increasing the number of troops and dropping more and larger bombs. It is not about searching out and destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or even capturing and killing Bin Laden. Rather, it is about inclusiveness, diplomacy, understanding and dialogue. It is about doing the difficult work of reconciliation and of addressing the grievances that nourish radicalism. It is about resolving, reasonably and fairly, the conflicts in Iraq, Kashmir and Palestine. Most importantly, I believe, it is about recognizing that the days of US unilateralism and imperialism are over and realizing the necessity of involving and soliciting the assistance of area powers such as Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China and India.
By any measure, therefore, continuing and escalating the war in Afghanistan is misguided and, given the state of the US economy and of our military, a sacrifice this nation cannot endure. Sometimes winning at all costs is not wise, just or moral. I urge all Americans, therefore, to educate themselves about Afghanistan and remind those who stand for peace that to express opposition to the continued occupation and escalation does not in any way undercut the credibility of opposing the war in Iraq. What it does is recognize that every war must be subject to scrutiny and moral and legal evaluation. We must stand united, therefore, and demand that our future leaders abandon the failed policies of the last eight years, the myth that Afghanistan is the "good" war, and their plans to replace one quagmire with another condemning our sons, daughters and the Afghan people to the continued horror of another unwinnable, immoral and endless war.
(1) Even under the Obama plan, significant numbers of support troops will remain in Iraq. Richard Danzig, who is regarded as a likely choice for secretary of defense in an Obama administration, has estimated that 30,000 to 55,000 troops would be required.
(2) In an article for Huffington Post, Code Pink co-founder Medet Benjamin acknowledges that the peace movement needs a strategy for Afghanistan. Perhaps this acknowlegdment will eventually translate into a Code Pink commitment to ending the war in Afghanistan.