The US War in Afghanistan: A Primer for US Peace Activists

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September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is an organization founded by family members of 9/11 victims who are transforming our grief into action for peace and justice. We have sent delegations of 9/11 family members to Afghanistan to meet with Afghan civilians harmed by US military action and to educate the US public and policy makers about the true costs of war. This primer was written by Alexandra Cooper, Jesse Laird, Kelly Campbell, and Madelyn Hoffman with input from the United for Peace and Justice Afghanistan Working group. The full version of this primer is available at www.peacefultomorrows.org.

Full Article:

Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, many in the US initially supported the war in Afghanistan because they believed that it would reduce the threat of another attack on US soil, and that it would enable the US to bring to justice Osama bin Laden and others responsible for the attacks. Once the Taliban fell, the war was touted as a success. However, while public attention shifted to the war in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan entered a new phase of violence and decay.

Concerns about the increased violence and lack of stability in Afghanistan have led many, including President-elect Obama, to call for an increased presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, the idea that more US troops are the answer to Afghanistan's woes is misguided. Rather than a military escalation, what is needed is a shift away from militarism and towards diplomacy, aid, and reconstruction.

Today, as calls grow louder for the US military to send more troops to Afghanistan, it is up to the US peace movement to address the realities and counter the misconceptions surrounding the war and occupation. We must educate our own communities about the true consequences of US foreign policy in Afghanistan, connect with Afghan peacemakers and grassroots movements that are calling for alternatives to military action, and devise strategies for joining together toward building a lasting peace.

The Occupation Kills Afghan Civilians

Due to heightened insurgent attacks and foreign air strikes in Afghanistan, civilian casualties increased 40 percent in the first nine months of 2008 compared with 2007. Of the 1445 recorded civilian deaths reported by the United Nations, 55 percent were caused by the Taliban and other insurgent groups and 40 percent were caused by US, NATO, and Afghan forces. In August 2008, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), reported that an estimated 260 civilians had been killed in July alone, a higher number than any other month in the last six years. Last year, between January and September 2007, there were more than twice as many fixed-wing air strikes in Afghanistan as in Iraq, according to Anthony Cordesman. This year, international military forces have increased the rate of air strikes 40 percent over last year's rate.

Military Forces Endanger Humanitarian Assistance

The US military spends close to $100 million a day in Afghanistan, while the average amount of all donors' aid per day is only $7 million. In the first two years after the invasion, aid amounted to only $57 per citizen. International aid represents 90 percent of all public expenditure in Afghanistan, making it a critical factor in the daily lives of Afghans and in the ongoing reconstruction of the country. As of March 2008, there was a $10 billion shortfall in aid that had been pledged, but not delivered. The US has disbursed only half of its pledged $10.4 billion in aid.

The aid that does make it into the country is provided in ways that are often ineffective and misleading. The largest donor organization in Afghanistan, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), allocates close to half of its funds to five US contractors: KBR, the Louis Berger Group, Chemonics International, Bearing Point, and DynCorp. International corporations like these have earned a reputation for extraordinary waste: for example, they employ expatriate consultants, each of which can cost $200,000-$500,000 per year. Oxfam reported in November 2007 that 40 percent of aid dollars flow immediately back out of Afghanistan in corporate fees and profits.

Further hindering aid to Afghans is the increase in violence directed at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the country. Twenty-nine aid workers had been killed in 2008 as of mid-October. From January through September 2008, more than 146 "security incidents" were reported in which 28 aid workers were killed and 72 abducted. According to a quarterly report by the Afghanistan NGOs' Safety Office (ANSO), attacks on aid workers have risen by 400% since January 2005. This insecurity has led many NGOs to scale down their presence in difficult areas, though attacks against aid workers have occurred in 29 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Doctors Without Borders, an organization that had been in Afghanistan since 1980, withdrew in 2004 after five of its workers were killed, stating, "Humanitarian assistance is only possible when armed actors respect the safety of humanitarian workers." They went on to denounce the US "military's attempt to usurp humanitarian aid." Several different groups are attacking NGO workers. More than 60 percent of attacks have been by the Taliban and by followers of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; another 33 percent of attacks were by other armed criminal groups.

Making the problem worse, in 2004 the US and NATO created "provincial reconstruction teams" (PRTs) to serve with combat troops in a fusion of military, intelligence, and aid functions. PRTs work in areas previously served by non-militarized aid teams -- but the PRTs do far less work at a higher cost. Aid workers are now the most vocal critics of PRTs: InterAction, a coalition of 159 humanitarian organizations, said it does not believe "PRTs should be engaged in reconstruction activities" at all. Most alarming is the PRT practice of bribing Afghans with humanitarian aid to gain information. Not only is it ethically reprehensible to attach such conditions to humanitarian aid, but this practice also gives hungry people an incentive to "create information," turning US forces against family enemies.

Afghan Women Face Continued Violence

The crimes against women committed by the Taliban are among the worst in recent times, and the Bush Administration justified the invasion of Afghanistan in part as a mission to relieve their suffering. In November 2001, Laura Bush delivered the President's weekly radio address, decrying the "poverty, poor health, and illiteracy that the terrorists and the Taliban have imposed on women in Afghanistan." Yet, seven years later, conditions for women and children have not significantly improved.

Since the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power, the new government has initiated significant -- even revolutionary -- reforms for women. Many of these reforms, however, have yet to be realized. In 2003, the Afghan government signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the US still has not), yet widespread inequality continues, especially regarding access to public health resources and protection from spousal abuse. The new Afghan Constitution recognizes men and women as equal citizens under the law -- yet women have no redress for domestic violence or rape.

In August 2008, President Karzai pardoned three men associated with a warlord who pled guilty to the public and brutal gang rape of a woman in the northern province of Samangan. There are also no protections for people who speak out on behalf of women in Afghan society. Recently, a 23-year-old Afghan journalism student, Sayed Perves Kambaksh, was sentenced to death by a local Islamic court for distributing a critique of those who misrepresent the Koran to justify the oppression of women. In October 2008, his sentence was commuted to 20 years.

NGOs that target women's issues have attempted to provide a forum for women to discuss their concerns and a vehicle for educating the public about preventing violence against women. One such group, the Afghan Women's Network, is comprised of 72 organizations dedicated to advocating for women's rights and against gender-based violence.

The US Has Promoted Warlords & the Opium Trade

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the US embarked on a covert military campaign (Operation Cyclone) to supply various warlords and resistance groups with weapons and training. Collectively, these resistance fighters became known as mujahideen, which translates as "freedom fighters" or "strugglers." Funds and weapons were supplied by the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, and Israel. They were channeled through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and distributed disproportionately to warlords. These warlords continued fighting among themselves after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 in a sequence of sieges over and around Kabul.

Where are these Cold War era warlords today? Human Rights Watch estimates that 60 percent of members of Parliament are either warlords themselves or have ties to warlords. TheAfghanistan Justice Project (AJP) issued a report in 2005 accusing a number of senior Karzai Administration officials of war crimes. In 2007, the Afghan Parliament granted general amnesty for war crimes committed in the previous 25 years, thus protecting all sitting members and their allies from prosecution.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 93 percent of global opiates came from poppies grown in Afghanistan.

The record crop of poppies grown in 2007 accounted for approximately 50 percent of Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product. Most of the poppy fields are owned and controlled by warlords. This is one reason why the warlords have been awarded so much power in the new government, and why poppy cultivation and the narcotics trade have continued to grow.

US/NATO Troop Casualties are Increasing

More US soldiers are dying in Afghanistan each year the occupation continues. The military reports that more than 600 US troops have been killed in Operation Enduring Freedom, and more than 1200 have been seriously wounded, impacting communities throughout the US. In September and October, more US soldiers suffered casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Other NATO deaths are on the rise as well, increasing the total foreign troop casualties to over 1,000 since 2001.

Many Afghans Call for Inclusive Negotiations

In recent weeks, news about efforts at talks with factions of the Taliban has emerged. Just before the US presidential election, Pakistani and Afghan leaders held a two-day jirga, or council of tribal leaders. At the end of the meeting, they issued a decision to hold talks with resistance groups, including the Taliban.

Many Afghan NGOs are calling for negotiations. "People are growing tired of the fighting," says Bakhtar Aminzai of the National Peace Jirga of Afghanistan, an association of students, professors, lawyers, clerics, and others. "We need to pressure the Afghan government and the international community to find a solution without using guns."

"We want reconciliation with the Taliban through a loya jirga," a grand assembly of Afghans, says Fatana Gilani, head of the prominent NGO Afghanistan Women's Council (AWC). "We don't want interference from foreign countries or negotiations behind closed doors." Gilani explains that Afghans are against Western policy. "They should bury their guns in a grave and focus on diplomacy and economic development."

Some Afghan women leaders, however, have cautioned about the danger of compromising with the Taliban on women's rights. According to the BBC, the Afghan Minister for Women's Affairs, Hasan Bano Ghazanfar, said that women were against "any political compromises" that did not take into consideration their constitutional values and human rights.

Military Occupations Often Fuel Terrorism

The US response to the September 11 attacks was to use the military to overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan as a means to defeat the Al Qaeda terrorist organization that operated from Afghanistan. This was the beginning of what was to be characterized as the "war on terror." As a recent study by the Rand Corporation points out, military force rarely works to defeat terrorist organizations. They explain that military force creates civilian casualties that can turn the local population against the government.

The fundamental failure of the military approach in Afghanistan should cause us to formulate new strategies to defeat terrorism that do not rely on ineffective military means.

As suspended Afghan parliament member Malalai Joya has pointed out, "No nation can donate liberation to another nation." It is time the US stop playing the game of "liberator" and start learning to cooperate respectfully with other nations and peoples of the world. Beginning this new strategy in Afghanistan is the best legacy we can leave for the lives lost in September, 2001 and the most effective way we can become friends to the people of Afghanistan.