The Case for U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.

In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, "Wanted: Dead or Alive".
George W. Bush

In recent history, two concepts of justice have stood out. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in a kind of justice that could only be achieved when systematic oppression had been eliminated from the world. Along the way, people would have to be held accountable for their crimes. Those who had done wrong would have to admit that they had done wrong and pay some appropriate restitution for their crimes, as happened decades later in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commissions. But justice was forever intertwined with a changing of the human spirit for Dr. King. It was the societal uplifting of love over hate, of human dignity over human debasement. It was a coming to terms with our violent history and affirming values of love and compassion over those of hate and retribution.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, believed in the justice of old Western movies and gunfights.

When he inherits the Bush legacy on January 21st, 2009, Barack Obama will have to choose between these two approaches. The decision he makes will reverberate around the world and be one of the first indicators of whether "Change We Can Believe In" was merely good sloganeering.

Ending Bush’s imperial misadventures in Iraq will certainly be a top priority for the incoming administration, but Obama will also be tested in Afghanistan. His words so far – calling Afghanistan the "central front" in the "War on Terror" and demanding more military action against insurgents allied with the Taliban – don’t inspire confidence that he would chose the King doctrine over the Bush doctrine.

Reckless Interventions

In 1996, the Taliban, a faction of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen with fundamentalist Wahabi Muslim beliefs, took control of Kabul and most of Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, supported the Mujahideen (who from the very beginning had fundamentalist tendencies) as part of the "Afghan trap" which succeeded in fatally wounding the Soviet empire. While many Afghans greeted the Taliban’s rise to power with delight, their theocratic government soon began to grate on the people of Afghanistan, for whom fundamentalist Islam was almost as foreign as Mormonism.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration portrayed the Taliban as deeply connected with al-Qaeda, the terrorist network that claimed responsibility for the attacks, and therefore argued for going to war against Afghanistan. When the Taliban countered that they were happy to give up Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, if the U.S. could produce any evidence for the allegation, the U.S. scoffed. Then the U.S. invaded.

The invasion succeeded in two things: First, it brought down a terrible fundamentalist regime while taking an inordinately heavy toll in civilian causalities. The Taliban had instituted a brutal form of shariah law and forced minorities to wear identification tags. They had even destroyed ancient Buddhist carvings claiming that the depiction of the human form is "unislamic." Many Afghans – particularly the half of the population who happen to be women – were excited to see the Taliban ousted. While this is an accomplishment, it’s worth remembering that expectations for improvement in women’s lives were largely unmet.

The second and even more dangerous accomplishment of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was to elevate the Taliban, al-Qaeda and anyone willing to resist U.S. aggression to the status of heroes or freedom fighters.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what most Afghans and many South Asians, Muslims, and others around the world felt after the invasion is to remember how Americans felt after the September 11 attacks. George W. Bush was a deeply unpopular president. The election that brought him to power had split the population, with shady dealings in Florida and an activist Supreme Court ultimately deciding the race in favor of Bush. Many of my liberal compatriots despised the president, who was already acquiring a reputation for spending his presidency on vacation.

But after the 9/11 attacks, those same liberals were rallying around Bush. The logic was simple: in a time of crisis, with your country under attack, you support those who are going to defend you. You may not like George W. Bush, but his policies his armed forces stand between you and whoever caused significant damage to New York and Washington, DC.

By the same logic, who stood between Afghan civilians and the NATO aerial bombardments that killed about 3,000 people? The Taliban. Every bomb that detonated on a wedding party led to tens, perhaps hundreds of young people – mostly young boys and many of them orphans – joining the resistance movement under the flag of the Taliban.

And it’s not just that the Afghan population believes that the Taliban resistance is legitimate; that resistance is legitimate under international law. No less important a document than the United Nations charter gives the Taliban and other Afghans the right to legitimate self-defense against U.S. aggression.

The Real War against Fundamentalism

So if aerial bombardments and occupations give legitimacy to those very fundamentalists who Afghans would remove from power, what does the real war on fundamentalism look like?

In 1999 I was the first staff person of the International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan, a group that was combating "honor crimes" along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These were incidences of domestic violence, often against a wife, a sister, a daughter or even a mother who was accused of having some kind of illicit sexual relationship. We understood that these crimes were on the rise because of the spread of Taliban-style Wahabi Islam into tribal areas that already had an extremely patriarchal view of women’s bodies.

What was our weapon of choice in fighting against the Talibanization of what has traditionally been a tolerant, ecumenical form of Islam? Education. We taught women their rights under Pakistani and Afghani law, we taught about the passages in the Quran that mentioned women’s rights, and we also tried to educate people about other traditions – whether they be secular humanist traditions or the Hindu and Christian traditions of neighboring countries and tribes. In other words we tried to undermine the hatred, the xenophobia, the fear upon which fundamentalism is built.

Such efforts may take generations, and they almost always require the state to play a role in education, development and ensuring employment for all. But ultimately education is the only way to combat religious fundamentalism, just as negotiation is ultimately the only way to end war.

Buying into a Failed Solution

While Obama’s election may indicate a shift in U.S. foreign policy (and hopefully a rejection of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war), Obama has prescribed more military operations in Afghanistan.

For more than a year, Obama has argued for redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. He has called Afghanistan the "central front in the War on Terror" and has even threatened to bomb Pakistan should there be evidence that Afghan warlords are hiding there and the Pakistani government isn’t "doing enough" about it. (On this last point, Bush has already bombed Pakistan several times over the last few months, prompting the Pakistani government to publicly rebuke the U.S. for violating its sovereignty.)

While Obama’s rhetoric in arguing for increased involvement in Afghanistan makes some sense – he claims that Bush has been so involved with Iraq that the al-Qaeda leaders who allegedly orchestrated the September 11 attacks are still at large – his proposed methodology doesn’t.

Instead of scaling up an already disastrous war, the United States could change course in a way that would ultimately do a lot more to ensure the world’s safety. Such measures should include:

  1. Withdrawing troops. International law is clear on this subject. No country may occupy another indefinitely and certainly not without the will of the people being occupied. If an Obama administration truly thinks that withdrawing U.S. and NATO troops would be a bad thing for Afghans, hold a referendum to see who would like the troops to remain.
  2. Working with the various Afghan factions to begin negotiations. Wars are rarely stopped on the battlefield, and those that are have a tendency to break out again after a few years. The recent history of Afghanistan illustrates this point. It’s better by far for enemies and friends, Pashtun, Tajik, and others to settle differences through negotiation based on mutual respect and the rule of law.
  3. Once stability and security are guaranteed in Afghanistan, beginning the attack on fundamentalism in earnest. Working to incorporate Afghanistan into the international human rights framework through enforcing UN measures which Afghanistan has already ratified, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is one step that can be taken in this regard. Another is major investment in social infrastructure and particularly health and education measures which will ultimately help Afghanistan recover from being bombed "into the stone age."

If the idea of immediately stopping all military operations in Afghanistan sounds radical, it shouldn’t. No less than President Hamid Karzai pleaded for an end to the bombings immediately after the U.S. election, as yet another wedding party fell victim to bombs from the sky.

For the sake of all us, Afghan and American, let’s hope President Barack Obama heeds his call.


Sameer Dossani, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the director of 50 Years is Enough and blogs at

[Photo from]