After his unanimous approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee as the new Afghan war commander, General David Petraeus was pictured in The Washington Post with a broad smile and thumbs up proclaiming, “We are all firmly united in seeking to forge unity of effort.” No, we’re not, General. No, we’re not. In fact, I believe it’s time to begin to unite the religious community against the war in Afghanistan.
Following last week’s resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, confirmation hearings began right away for Petraeus to become his replacement. But the real issue is not replacing one general with another because of inappropriate comments and insubordination — it’s the fatally flawed war policy in Afghanistan.
In February 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks erupted throughout South Vietnam, showing that U.S. political and military leaders’ optimistic pronouncements that the end of the war was near were not true. By then, it was clear to many that the war was not winnable, yet more than half of U.S. casualties in Vietnam occurred from that spring until the end of the war (35,000 of the total 58,000).
I have walked the line at the Vietnam Memorial Wall many times, with tears running down my face as I read the names of my generation who were killed there. And the painful remorse over that awful war is even greater when I remember that the majority of those who died in Vietnam were killed after we knew we would ultimately have to come home without “winning” the unwinnable war. The last of the many reasons for staying in Vietnam that I recall President Nixon saying was to come home “with our heads held high.” We didn’t.
After 9/11, an international police action to bring the perpetrators of that horrible crime to justice would have been one thing. But to begin a war and then an occupation of Afghanistan was the wrong policy, quickly killing more Afghan innocents than the American innocents who died on September 11. It was then further compromised by the completely mistaken and morally unjustifiable war in Iraq.
When will we ever learn? The failed policies are all too familiar: a counter-insurgency strategy requiring more and more troops; creating the continued presence of a large U.S. military force; increasing the resentment and hostility of the Afghan people at a foreign occupation; trying to create a central government out of an ungovernable tribal society; and depending on an incompetent and utterly corrupt political ruler and regime.
An effective anti-terrorism policy was never really tried and was replaced by a “war on terrorism” which has failed. Here’s the metric: Has our primarily military policy in Afghanistan and Iraq killed more terrorists than it has recruited? I think we know the answer to that. The math of terrorism is against us. And our military obsession has made the most important question impossible to ask and even unpatriotic to consider: How might we reduce and defeat the causes of terrorism in the first place?
A new strategy in Afghanistan that focuses on humanitarian assistance and sustainable economic development, along with international policing, was also never tried. It could have been led by NGOs, both faith-based and secular, who have been in the region for years, have become quite indigenous, and are much more trusted by the people of these countries than are the U.S. military. But such assistance would have to be provided, as much as possible, by independent civilian and non-governmental organizations — both international and local — rather than using aid as a government adjunct to military operations.
Yes, after taking over the country, we do have a responsibility not to simply walk away. There are ethical and moral issues that need to be considered: legitimately protecting Americans from further terrorism; protecting the lives of U.S. servicemen and women; protecting the Afghan people from the collateral damage of war; defending women from the Taliban; genuinely supporting democracy; and of course, saving innocent lives from the collateral damage of war, to name a few.
And yes, effective development needs security. We could have focused on economic development, starting in areas that are secure and then growing to additional parts of the country, but providing only the security necessary to protect the rebuilding of the country. That kind of peacekeeping security would have been more likely to gain the international support we needed in Afghanistan, both from Europe and even from Arab and Muslim countries.
Non-military strategies should have led the way, rather than the other way around, as counter-insurgency doctrine requires. We should not have made aid and development weapons of war by tying them so closely to the military; rather, we should have only provided the security support needed for the development work to succeed — led by respected, well-established international organizations with strong local connections.
The current strategy, even with a new commander, will only lead to more casualties — U.S. and Afghan — while likely strengthening popular support for the Taliban as an anti-occupation force. It is a strategy of endless war that is ultimately doomed to failure.
Last Sunday, the photo on the front page of The New York Times broke my heart. It showed the family of a military serviceman just before he was redeployed to Afghanistan. He was in his fatigues, holding his 6-month-old son with a look of deep pain on his face, with his wife resting her head against his shoulder. The article told story after story about families being separated by repeated deployments in an endless war. Soldiers who are fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters are dying for a wrong-headed, ineffective, failed, doomed, arrogant, theologically unjust, and yes, immoral war policy. And of course, the ones dying are not the young people headed for our best universities and successful professional careers, but rather they are the ones who have fewer options, or who see the military as their only option. Those with the least opportunities, and their families, are again the ones to sacrifice and suffer. It’s not right and it’s not fair.
The number of U.S. service members killed in June was the highest for one month since this now nine-year war began. It’s time to end this war. Or should we just start building another wall?