Seven years ago today we held a memorial service for my brother-in-law in his hometown of Anamosa, Iowa, four weeks after he was killed at the Pentagon on 9/11. As I walked out the door from the service, I glanced at the television and saw ominous green flashes on the dark screen. My heart sank. That day, I realized, the day we started bombing Afghanistan, was another family's 9/11, a day when something fell out of the sky and crushed their innocent loved ones whose only crime was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Only this time, it was my own government, not al-Qaeda, that had decided that the loss of these lives in Afghanistan was justified, in the name of a greater good.
Tonight, as our presidential candidates debate, it is time we start demanding bold new leadership on the disaster that is the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. It seems too simple a sound bite for the candidates to offer more troops as a solution. Tragically, increasing troops will not solve the problems of Afghanistan or the U.S., but will only compound them.
In January 2002, I traveled to Afghanistan to witness the direct effects of the U.S. bombing campaign. In and around Kabul I met with families whose homes were destroyed, and whose children were killed due to the US bombing. These were not Taliban or al-Qaeda supporters, they were ordinary people, just like 9/11 victims, that are the ones who always suffer when political leaders choose war and violence as the answer. In January 2002, there was much hope among people in Afghanistan. The people I met expressed a deep desire for an end to the violence. Most saw the U.S. bombing as a mixed blessing. They were angry about civilian casualties, but relieved that the Taliban were out of power and hopeful that twenty-three years of war were coming to a close. This sense that maybe, just maybe things were going to get better, has unfortunately evaporated over the years.
Seven years later, the violence has only increased. Every year the U.S. has occupied Afghanistan, more civilians and military are killed. 2008 has been the most violent year since 2001. Civilian casualties by US and NATO forces have sparked little-reported protests led by students, tribal leaders and ordinary people across the country. Polling data now indicates a majority of Afghans want U.S. troops to leave their country. It is time that we start listening to the will of the Afghan people, and formulate our policy accordingly.
Instead of a surge in the war, something Afghans have experienced repeatedly over the past three decades, how about a surge in diplomacy, humanitarian aid and support for grassroots democratic forces in Afghanistan. As the RAND corporation points out in a recent study, there is no military solution in Afghanistan. If we want to help build a stable and democratic Afghanistan, we should drastically revamp our humanitarian aid to assure that it goes to projects identified by Afghans as crucial and supports the local economy by employing local workers, not high-priced foreign contractors.
It is time to reconsider exactly what the mission is in Afghanistan and develop strategies that help us meet that goal. Are we there to capture bin Laden? Seven years of military action doesn't seem to have made much progress. Are we there to liberate the people? Then let's listen to the words of Malalai Joya, a young woman who was kicked out of the Afghan Parliament for standing up to the warlords and drug lords in the chamber. Speaking in Canada, she said "no nation can donate liberation to another nation." A quick examination of our own history -the revolutionary war, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, tells us she is right.
What we as the U.S. can do in Afghanistan is learn to be friends with the Afghan people as they liberate themselves. We need new leadership in Washington that understands military escalation will lead only to more memorial services for both Afghans and U.S. troops. It's time to break with the Bush war tradition and bring our troops home from Afghanistan.