The Obama administration is withdrawing the first 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan, with another 23,000 scheduled to withdraw by September 2012 during the height of the national political campaigns. It is understood by many that the Obama administration would like to accelerate the pullout, and transfer the lead combat role to Afghan troops, before the coming election.
In response, many US military and diplomatic leaders, as well as all Republican candidates except Ron Paul, and even Afghan president Hamid Kharzai, are calling loudly for Obama to delay the troop withdraw until some sort of “victory” is secured over the Taliban. The politics of blame is very much in the air.
Obama is setting 2014 as the deadline for a massive US troop withdrawal, and a shift to an Afghan lead in combat, while the actual figures remain subject to fierce ongoing contention. The cost of Afghanistan to taxpayers thus far is $450 billion in direct funding, with total direct and indirect projected to be one trillion. In FY 2011 it has cost no less than $118.6 billion, more than double the FY 2008 bill. One thousand eight hundred sixty-two Americans have been killed in Afghanistan and another 15,000 wounded. According to the Department of Labor’s latest numbers, US civilian contractor battlefield casualties include 1,115 killed and 14,297 wounded.
There is a fundamental difference between the recent Iraq withdrawal, which also was opposed by most of the establishment, and the projected Afghanistan withdrawal schedule. In Iraq, the US built up and funded a massive army to protect the fragile state – a set of institutions riddled with corruption, sectarianism, lethal contradictions and the rest, but still institutions, however shaky. The same cannot be said of Afghanistan, which might be a failed state absent the massive outside intervention. Ninety percent of Afghanistan’s national budget comes from foreign countries, mainly from American dollars. Any expansion of its security forces (352,000 is the goal) will come at the expense of education, health care, and infrastructure, according to a World Bank report last November. Income per person is $528 per year, making the country one of the world’s poorest. By all standards, it also has one of the most corrupt governments.
The problem for Obama is that the perception and the reality of troop withdrawals is more likely to precipitate panic and collapse of the Afghan government and a spiral into sectarian civil war. There may not be a there there, not even an appearance of a state to leave behind.
The year 2014 is critical for another reason. It will mark the end of Kharzai’s tenure in office, and present an opportunity for the US either to replace him with a more pliable and reliable successor, if there is one, or to impose a caretaker regime as part of a peace settlement with the Taliban and insurgent forces. Regional powers such as Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey could weigh in to fashion a so-called “rentier state”, including power-sharing relationships and peacekeepers from non-aligned countries. The Taliban does not possess enough power or popularity to take charge of Afghanistan, but will settle for nothing less than a share of power that reflects its position on the ground.
The American strategy, cloaked in secrecy and public relations smokescreens, is to batter the Taliban horrendously while beckoning them into unpredictable talks. The Taliban, contrary to the current perception, have not entered peace talks with either the US or the Kharzai government, but instead are opening an office for dialogue and relationship building with the outside world. This presents an opening for a wider form of popular diplomacy, with journalists, members of Congress and their staffs, and representatives of peace groups to make contact with the Taliban at their Qatar quarters.
Critical to ending the war in Afghanistan is a diplomatic and political process in which the Taliban factions will no longer need their sanctuaries in Pakistan. Will this work? With every drone missile attack on Pakistan, the Taliban resistance may harden and Pakistan itself become further destabilized. Perhaps the most hopeful sign in Pakistan’s chaos is the vibrant presidential campaign of world cricket star – and the most popular political figure in Pakistan, Imran Khan, who declares at huge rallies, “I am telling this government that this is the time to withdraw from this American war.” (Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2011; see also Peace Exchange Bulletin, October 31, 2011)
On the home front, Obama will need strong support if he is to speed the peace process in the face of military and Republican opposition. One focal point in the peace effort will be a grass-roots movement around Rep. Barbara Lee’s legislation to curb funding for the war and instead bring the troops and dollars home. Another will be the persistent campaign to expose and stop the proliferation of drone warfare against places like North Waziristan, where 89 percent of the strikes were inflicted in 2010. The drones assassinate small numbers of “high-value targets” while inflaming public opinion across Pakistan. And the drones have not turned the tide of war, at least not according to the current National Intelligence Estimate, which paints a bleak picture of events on the ground in Afghanistan.
It is possible that peace and justice forces will make formidable demands for more rapid Afghanistan withdrawals when NATO and the G8 convene in Chicago in late May. A summit of the Global One Percent is likely to spur the creation of a people’s summit in response, not only in Chicago but in NATO countries where anti-war sentiment runs deep. There are some 40,000 NATO forces still in Afghanistan, mainly from the UK, Germany, France and Italy, with a second tier from Turkey, Australia, Spain, Poland and Romania. In all those countries, the public pull to exit Afghanistan and focus on the economic crisis at home is extremely strong. The peace pressures from within NATO and America may be enough to drown the neo-con chorus calling for permanent war.