President Obama will announce his policy decision on Afghanistan to a deeply divided nation Tuesday night in an address from West Point. It is largely anticipated that his recommendation will be to send tens of thousands of American soldiers while encouraging NATO allies to send an additional 10,000 troops. The annual cost per US soldier of $1 million is in stark contrast to the Taliban’s payment of $8 a day to desperate, impoverished young men looking to feed their families.
This war announcement will be to a US population that largely does not support the war and deeply divides us. Most of us go about our daily lives apparently unaffected by the decision and the war as our kids are not at risk of being killed or maimed for life. There is no equal or fair sharing of the burden of war. There are camps of supporters and non-supporters of the effort. Those whose kids are at risk are largely supportive of the troops and worry daily about their well-being. There are those who support the war effort but are not willing to raise the necessary taxes to pay for the effort or provide the necessary medical and psychological support to the troops upon their return. Then there are those of us who work daily to try and stop this war escalation before it even happens.
The current war in Afghanistan has become a civil war against a corrupt American-backed central government with the principal driver of the insurgency being poverty and unemployment. Afghanistan has a 40 percent-50 percent unemployment level, with a rate of malnourishment of 35 percent. Two thirds of the country lacks access to safe drinking water fueling a childhood death rate of one out of five by age 5.
In these harsh economic survival conditions, the Taliban is able to recruit individuals who would rather be doing anything else. Day labor goes for $4 dollars daily in Kabul. The horrible fact is that American soldiers are being killed by desperate Afghan men who would be willing to put down their arms for $5 a day.
But what are the alternatives? One is the so-called Afghan Marshall Plan, a proposed exit strategy (www.jobsforafghans.org). This “civilian assistance surge” amounts to a countrywide jobs program. It is anticipated to cost about $4 billion, or less than what our military operations cost for two months. Indeed there are many alternatives to war in Afghanistan. Appropriate foreign aid, supporting reconciliation and conflict resolution while working with the international community to identify, support and protect the process of peaceful conflict resolution stand foremost.
Ultimately most agree there is not a military solution to the situation in Afghanistan. There needs to be a reconciliation process bringing together the varied warring factions including the Taliban. The rudimentary steps in this process supported by the international community and the US military are just beginning. This reconciliation process can occur now or later. The principal difference of waiting until later will be in the cost of American and innocent Afghan lives.