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Afghanistan: A War of Choice, Not Necessity

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In December Barack Obama received his awaited assessment of the war in Afghanistan, then reported to the American people that the mission is “on track” and troops would begin to withdraw next July. But the semi-upbeat assessment was less than persuasive because, as the Washington Post reported, “The overview of the long-awaited report contained no specifics or data to back up its conclusions. The actual assessment document is classified and will not be made public.”

In other words, if we are to believe the president, we have to take him on faith. But even Obama noted during a media briefing that “the gains we’ve made are fragile and reversible.” Around the time he was speaking, USA Today was reporting,

Taliban small-arms attacks against U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan are nearly twice what they were a year ago, a reflection of increased coalition penetration of Tal iban strongholds and the insurgency’s resilience, military officials and analysts said.

U.S. forces have encountered more than 18,000 attacks this year from Taliban fighters armed with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and in some cases missiles, according to data from the Pentagon. That compares with about 10,600 such attacks in 2009.

That did not look like progress from the American empire’s perspective.

As for the July 2011 withdrawal-commencement date for the 100,000 American troops, the pledge is tarnished by a NATO resolution to remain in Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond. Moreover, the Post stated, “But the summary document included no specifics as to the potential size or pace of withdrawal, making no assessment as to whether any milestones have been reached and leaving substantial wiggle room for future decisions.” That wiggle room can be seen in the report summary’s words, “responsible, conditions-based U.S. troop reduction.” You could drive a truck through that loophole. Who would be surprised to hear this in several months: “Given the conditions on the ground, beginning a troop withdrawal at this time would not be responsible”?

“Progress” in Afghanistan

The assessment summary alluded to gains over the Taliban, but that must be tempered by a few overlooked facts. First, “Taliban” is virtually a catchall phrase that includes even Pashtun opponents of the American occupation who are not looking to create the pre-2001 regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Second, U.S. reports of progress are undermined by independent accounts that say U.S. forces have failed to accomplish their objectives in insurgent strongholds in the south and that the “Taliban” has made inroads in the north, where it has not been strong.

Yet even where the American military has made gains, they appear to be the result of stepped-up violence that alienates the local population and undercuts the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, which seeks to win support from the people. “The military offensive in Kandahar, which had been opposed clearly and vocally by the local leadership in the province, was accompanied by an array of military tactics marked by increased brutality,” Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service reported. “The most prominent of those tactics was a large-scale demolition of homes that has left widespread bitterness among the civilians who had remained in their villages when the U.S.-NATO offensive was launched, as well as those who had fled before the offensive.”

Porter wrote that “the district governor in Arghandab, Shah Muhammed Ahmadi, acknowledged that entire villages had been destroyed.” Ahmadi says villages are destroyed only when they have been abandoned; however, Porter added, “Col. David Flynn, the battalion commander of a unit of the 101st Airborne Division responsible for a section of the district, contradicted the claim that demolition was only carried out if the people who owned the houses could not be found.”

In newspaper interviews Flynn said he ordered residents of one village to identify where improvised explosive devices were hidden or face demolition — a threat of collective punishment that violates the Geneva Convention. “The house demolitions in Kandahar have apparently affected many thousands of people,” Porter wrote. Other forms of collective punishment have also been reported. “The new level of brutality used in the Kandahar operation indicates that [Gen. David] Petraeus has consciously jettisoned the central assumption of his counterinsurgency theory, which is that harsh military measures undermine the main objective of winning over the population,” Porter concluded. “But there are tell-tale signs that higher-level commanders in Kandahar know that those tactics will not defeat the Taliban either.”

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that the Afghan people remain in a dire condition. According to its website,

The main conflict-related challenges faced by Afghans in 2010 will persist in 2011…. [Those] challenges are civilian casualties, internal displacement, and insufficient access to medical care, all of which are occurring against the background of a proliferation of armed groups…. As the conflict has intensified and expanded geographically, civilian casualties have once again increased in comparison with previous years.

Obama also said progress has been made in “disrupting” al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but again, he provided no evidence. What we do know is that he has stepped up drone missile attacks in the border region near Afghanistan, inflicting civilian casualties and risking destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Moreover, the New York Times reported in late December,

Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there. The proposal, described by American officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash.

Attempts to surrender

In August 2009 Obama declared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity” and “fundamental to the defense of our people.” Is that true? It is useful to take a look back to 2001–02.

In “The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar,” a paper published by the New America Foundation’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative and excerpted by Foreign Policy journal in its November 10, 2010, web posting, Anand Ghopal reports that after the Taliban government fell in Kabul in 2001, members of the ruling group expressed a willingness to surrender to U.S. forces, resigned to Afghanistan’s new situation. “[Some] of Mullah Omar’s chief lieutenants secretly gathered and decided to surrender to the forces of [the U.S.-backed leader] Hamid Karzai,” writes Ghopal, who has covered Afghanistan for both the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. “The group … delivered a letter to Karzai … accept[ing] Karzai’s recent selection at the Bonn Conference as the country’s interim leader and acknowledg[ing] that the Islamic Emirate (the official name of the Taliban government) had no chance of surviving. The Taliban officials also told Karzai that the senior leaders who signed the letter had permission from Mullah Omar to surrender.”

Ghopal notes that the surrendering Taliban leaders offered not to participate in politics if the new government would not arrest them. “But Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures — largely due to pressures from the United States and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s erstwhile enemy,” he notes (emphasis added). “[Some] Pashtun commanders” whom the Taliban had expelled years earlier, now sought to settle old scores and so were against reconciliation. As a result, the surrendering Taliban were subject to “[widespread] intimidation and harassment…. Many of the signatories of the letter were to become leading figures in the insurgency.”

Thus, the resistance was largely of the U.S. government’s own making. It was surely made more robust by the brutal treatment of people formerly associated with the Taliban. “The alienation of leading former Taliban commanders in Kandahar would become a key motivating factor in sparking the insurgency there. Kandahar’s governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, had initially taken a conciliatory attitude toward former Taliban figures. But his close ties with U.S. special forces, who often posted rewards for top Taliban leaders, as well as isolated attacks against the government and the possibility of exploiting his position for financial gain, eventually led to a retaliatory approach,” Ghopal writes. “A group of Sherzai’s commanders … became synonymous with abuse.

“These commanders targeted men formerly associated with the Taliban, often torturing them in secret prisons, according to numerous tribal elders, government officials, and Taliban members.”

Many of the former Taliban escaped to Pakistan, but even after insurgency activities they were still open to making peace with the American-backed Karzai regime. “In 2002, for instance, the entire senior leadership except for Mullah Omar gathered in Karachi, Pakistan, for a meeting organized by former Taliban officials Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani and Mawlawi Abdul Sattar Siddiqi. The group agreed in principle to find a way for them to return to Afghanistan and abandon the fight, but lack of political will by the central government in Kabul and opposition from some sections of the U.S. leadership meant that such approaches were ultimately ignored,” Ghopal writes (emphasis added). “In each of the following two years another delegation representing large sections of the Taliban leadership traveled to Kabul and met with senior government officials, but again nothing came of these overtures because of the lack of will from the government side.”

That is startling information. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Union was. Between October 2001 and mid December 2010, nearly 2,200 U.S.-led coalition troops have been killed in the invasion and occupation. Of those, 1,361 were American. Using various estimates, Wikipedia calculates that 14,643–34,240 civilians have died directly and indirectly because of the war. Most of those people would be alive today if the Taliban offer of surrender and peace had been accepted.

Occasionally we read that the Obama administration or Karzai government is willing to negotiate with some Taliban elements. Recently it was revealed that a Taliban representative involved in talks with the U.S. authority was an imposter. Now we know that key Taliban figures had made serious overtures early in the U.S. occupation, but they were rebuffed — and even abused — in response.

Obama was wrong. Afghanistan is a war of choice. Even given the invasion, which was not justified anyway, the ensuing war did not have to happen. For a variety of reasons having little to do with “homeland security,” the U.S. empire wanted a full-blown war. The American and Afghan people would surely have been better off without it.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.