Finding the Way Out: Why It's Time to End the War in Afghanistan

By David Cortright 3-14-2011

The clock is ticking toward a July decision by President Obama to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, as he has promised. The White House will face pressure from military commanders and Republicans in Congress to postpone the decision or to remove only a token force. The president should proceed with the July timetable, sooner if possible, but the United States also has an obligation to support the Afghan people, especially women, and to help them build a more secure and stable future without war. The challenge is to achieve a military exit in a manner that enhances security, development, and human rights. It's a tall order, but I believe it is possible.

The withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops is necessary because the current militarized strategy is not working. Violent incidents in Afghanistan have increased 70 percent in the last year, according to the Pentagon's November 2010 progress report, and are up more than 300 percent since 2007. The number of districts with "good" security has remained unchanged despite the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. The percentage of Afghans rating their security as "bad" is increasing.

Nearly every independent study of the war concurs that the presence of American and other foreign troops is a major cause of the insurgency. The number of Taliban fighters has increased in proportion to the expansion of foreign military forces. Insurgents are motivated by a desire to end military occupation and rid their country of foreign forces. As the scale of the military intervention has increased, the insurgency has become stronger and the influence of the Taliban has spread. Reversing this perverse dynamic will require a new strategy of demilitarization.

Security in Afghanistan requires fewer foreign troops, not more. Success depends not on additional soldiers, but on better political leaders, more aid workers, and many more educated Afghans -- women as well as men. The United States and other countries can and must assist the Afghan people, but we can be most helpful by scaling back and ending our military involvement, while ramping up our support for development and human rights.

The pace of military withdrawals can be used as a form of bargaining leverage. The reductions should proceed according to a flexible timeline that is linked to related political, security, economic, and social conditions. The commitment to leave completely and the timetable for doing so would be used to gain Taliban compliance with security cooperation agreements and the continuation of democratic political procedures. The pace of withdrawal could be slowed or accelerated depending on whether the parties defy or cooperate with political, security, and social commitments. If the Taliban continue their attacks and renege on security and political cooperation, the pace of withdrawal could be slowed. Political and financial support for the Kabul government could be ramped up or down in response to its readiness to share power and preserve the precarious progress that has been achieved in human rights and social development.

The United States cannot simply abandon the people of Afghanistan. This is not an excuse for maintaining an unwinnable war, but for ensuring that we withdraw in a responsible manner, with an enduring commitment to development and human rights. The uncertainties are many, but the proposed strategy of gradual demilitarization offers the best option among limited and unattractive choices.

[Continue reading David Cortright's "Finding the Way: Why it's time to end the war in Afghanistan, and how to do it." in Sojourners' March issue.]

David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. This article is drawn from his forthcoming book Ending Obama's War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Paradigm Publishers, 2011).

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