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Endless Occupation?

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So Gen. Stanley McChrystal is out and Gen. David Petraeus is back at the helm in Afghanistan. I don’t like hackneyed phrases, but if this isn’t rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, what is it?

America’s occupation of Afghanistan has no end in sight. The July 2011 date for the beginning of withdrawal is something that even President Obama doesn’t want to talk about. It is clearer than ever that the date was a crumb thrown to the American people so they wouldn’t grumble when Obama announced the troop buildup last year. As Petraeus told members of Congress this month, “It’s important that July 2011 be seen for what it is, the date when a process begins based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”

Obama presumably would like to get out — he can’t be thrilled about presiding over America’s longest war — but the cross-currents may leave him no choice but to tread water. The military wants to “win,” whatever that means, while the Right is ready to pounce on Obama as an appeaser of terrorists if he acknowledges the reality of this inglorious war. (Al-Qaeda has moved on.)

We call the operation in Afghanistan a “war,” but in fact U.S. forces are occupying the country in order to suppress any opposition to the corrupt and inept Karzai government that the United States helped put in power and has protected ever since. In the parlance of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, any enemy of President Hamid Karzai is an enemy of the United States, which is ridiculous. Afghans don’t like invaders, be they Britons or Russians or Americans. That they attack occupying forces and the governments those forces support means nothing more than that they want to rid their land of foreign troops. That doesn’t make them anti-American terrorists. It makes them Afghans. Let’s leave their country to them.

The counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that will be continued by Petraeus is controversial in part because it is said to be so cautious about avoiding civilian casualties that American troops are put in danger. The Rolling Stone article about McChrystal, which led to his firing last week, quoted soldiers who think the rules of engagement are outrageous. Troop morale is low.

American forces have killed an “amazing” (to use McChrystal’s word) number of Afghans who posed no threat to anyone. Massacres have occurred. So the rules of engagement haven’t been very effective at sparing civilians. Nevertheless, it is telling that the war boosters say that any caution that increases the risk to American troops is a sign of weakness. Bomb and shoot first, then ask questions, is the advice from the hawks.

They need to be reminded that it is the U.S. military that is the occupying force. Afghan civilians, who are daily threatened by those forces, did not invite them and would be pleased to see them leave. The Afghans have their hands filled with warlords and the Taliban. The last thing they need are armed young American men stalking their land.

To be sure, U.S. troops are in an untenable position. They cannot know who wants to harm them. But that is no reason to give them carte blanche to kill anything that moves.

It’s a reason to bring them home — now.

The idea that the U.S. government can turn Afghanistan into a unified, stable, liberal country is absurd. It has no such tradition, and it is situated in a region where its neighbors have their own agendas that coincide with some Afghan factions and conflict with others.

Of course, creating a unified, stable, liberal country is not the actual objective of the U.S. political and military planners, despite what they say for public consumption. Rather, the goal is to achieve dominant influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, whose resources and proximity to Russia and China make the area of paramount interest to those who insist that America has been anointed to lead the world.

In the service of that goal, the U.S. government has been willing to endanger innocents; back dictators, thieves, and drug runners; usurp our civil liberties; and bankrupt the American economy. When will the American people wise up?

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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.