Pro: The US should declare the Afghan war unwinnable and withdraw troops

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The July vote in the House of Representatives on funding the war in Afghanistan should have come as a wakeup call to the Obama administration. One hundred fourteen members of the House, mainly Democrats, voted to stop the physical and financial bleeding that the Afghanistan war is inflicting on the American taxpayer.

And last month a majority in the House of Representatives voted to cut $4 billion from an aid package for Afghanistan, out of concern over the corruption that Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems unable to stop.

Petty corruption - bribes to officials to get permits or to get out of jail on trumped-up charges - is worsening. A recent survey by Integrity Watch, a nonprofit organization that tracks corruption in Afghanistan, showed that the amounts Afghans must pay to officials have doubled over the last three years.

Our efforts to stop corruption in aid projects are backfiring. When we sidestep local officials thought to be skimming, we turn them and other local power brokers against us. There does not seem to be a way of ensuring that project funds are used properly without damaging our own interests in the process.

Just as we are trying to drive the Taliban out of areas they control, the Taliban seems to be on an offensive of its own, especially in the formerly secure north of the country. President Asif Ali Zardari of neighboring Pakistan says that we are losing "hearts and minds" to the Taliban.

Pakistan figures significantly in the Afghanistan picture. Al-Qaeda now seems to be stronger in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, raising the question of whether we are focusing on the right country.

The troop drawdown promised for summer 2011 will now, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, only be modest. We will apparently maintain a high level of troops after 2011.

At the same time, we seem to be giving up on making Afghanistan a peaceful place under non-Taliban rule. Instead the focus is on targeting high-level Taliban personnel for assassination.

Karzai wants to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban - a solution we have adamantly opposed. But recent indications are that we are moving closer to Karzai's approach. Why we need so many troops there with a new, more limited objective, has not been explained.

Missile strikes to assassinate inevitably cause "collateral damage." Reports continue of death to Afghan civilians. U.S. officers and local officials typically give conflicting accounts of the circumstances and the number of casualties.

And a recent directive may make the situation worse. Gen. David Petraeus has instructed his officers in the field that they are not permitted to restrict their troops in use of force beyond the rules he sets for the entire army. Formerly, low-level officers could do so, based on circumstances they find.

Even though we seem not to be headed toward a favorable outcome in Afghanistan, we continue to incur unacceptable cost. The financial cost is huge, but the more serious cost is human.

Casualty figures have been climbing as we insert more troops and put them into more exposed situations in rural areas. The death toll is rising for American troops, but perhaps even more troubling is the high level of serious injuries that leave soldiers physically or mentally unsound.

Ironically, our improved medical care for combatants makes the human cost of warfare more evident. Many who might have died in previous wars are evacuated, but with injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

What we are doing in Afghanistan stokes more terrorist violence against us elsewhere. Our standing in the Muslim world improved when Barack Obama took over from George Bush. A poll last month shows that it is plummeting. The terrorism we are in Afghanistan to stop is increasing. The rational approach is an early withdrawal.

•John B. Quigley is a professor of international law at Ohio State University. Readers may e-mail him at

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