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Rethinking the war in Afghanistan

Ben Linskey | Sunday, September 20, 2009

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the United States’ war in Afghanistan will require “more forces and, without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance.” President Barack Obama, who increased troop levels in Afghanistan by 21,000 earlier this year, seems poised to accept Mullen’s recommendation and commit yet more U.S. forces to the region in the near future. Thus, the U.S. finds itself on the verge of a major escalation in Afghanistan, and a conflict that largely took a backseat to the Iraq War over the past few years may soon become the focal point of America’s foreign policy. Such a major shift in strategy calls for a serious examination of the state of the war in Afghanistan.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 with a clear and specific mission. Our nation’s armed forces sought to dismantle the Al Qaeda terrorist organization that attacked our country and the Taliban government that supported it. That mission is complete, insofar as it concerns the state of Afghanistan. The Taliban is no longer in power and the locus of Al Qaeda activity has shifted away from the region.

Today, U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan are faced with an uncertain task. There is no clear enemy to destroy or threat to defend against. Rather, our military is expected to somehow aid in the reconstruction of Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy, a goal whose realization is nowhere in sight. Almost imperceptibly, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has shifted from counter-terrorism to nation-building.

America’s disastrous attempt to remake Iraq in its own image has proven the folly of attempting to impose Western values on unwilling subjects through military force. Yet we are poised to plunge headlong into a nearly identical quagmire. Over 800 Americans have already perished in Afghanistan and a troop increase will surely bring many more casualties. It is unclear what we hope to gain from this horrific cost – skirmishing with insurgents in Afghan hamlets does nothing to protect the lives of Americans. Worse yet, there is no end in sight. President Obama and his fellow hawks in Congress and the military are anxious to increase America’s commitment of troops and resources in Afghanistan, but they have made no serious attempt to delineate the ultimate objectives of the war or to adumbrate an eventual exit strategy.

The closest thing to a coherent goal outlined by advocates of the war in Afghanistan seems to be the establishment of a stable government that can exercise control over the entire nation. By any reasonable measure, we have made little progress toward this aim despite years of U.S. military presence. The United States’ efforts to graft Western liberal institutions onto Afghan society have predictably backfired and corruption and dissension have flourished.

The results of the nation’s recent presidential elections provide a discouraging picture of the state of Afghan politics. Supporters of incumbent Hamid Karzai stand accused of widespread voting fraud; the European Union announced last week that as many as one third of the votes he received may have been fraudulent. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is far from a beacon of freedom in the Middle East. Earlier this year, the state instituted the Shiite Personal Status Law, which, among other things, allows a man to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex with him. Faced with such sobering facts, it is impossible not to wonder for what exactly we are fighting.

The presence of United States troops in Afghanistan does nothing to defend our nation and its people. Sending more forces will only serve to antagonize the Afghan populace and prolong the aimless conflict in which we have been engaged for far too long. No amount of troops can create a stable and legitimate democratic government and mold Afghanistan into a modern liberal state. The U.S. army exists to defend our freedom, not to transform societies. As the situation now stands, the war in Afghanistan has no clear resolution in sight and an increase in troop levels will only serve to delay our exit from the region.

The costs of the war in Afghanistan cannot be ignored. Men and women are dying and we have a moral responsibility to end this horrific conflict rather than to senselessly prolong it. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan is complete. It’s time for President Obama and Congress to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan and to refocus our nation’s foreign policy on protecting America.

Ben Linskey is a junior majoring in political science and philosophy. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.