The Afghan war is coming under renewed scrutiny as web surfers across the world browse through the bloody battle scenes and military follies described in the thousands of classified military reports released by WikiLeaks, and now top Democrats are finally expressing concerns over the longevity of a war that has dragged on for nearly a decade.
On Wednesday Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Jim Webb (D-Virginia) sent a letter to the White House asking President Obama to refrain from make any major commitments to Afghanistan without the consent of the Senate. As a senator, Obama supported a similar request sent to President Bush in 2007 regarding Iraq.
The letter was sent just one day after the House finally approved $33 billion in additional spending for the war in Afghanistan. Feingold, whose amendment demanding the White House set a clear timetable for withdrawal was stripped from the supplemental, voted against the spending bill in the Senate, but Webb gave his approval. Obama is expected to sign it.
“We do not believe that a long-term, open-ended presence of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan serves our national interest,” the senators wrote.
The letter is a softball compared to the efforts of anti-war Democrats in the House, but it suggests the senators are worried about war without end – and for good reason. The war has cost the US billions of dollars and thousands of lives, but if reports contained in the 90,000 WikiLeaks files are any indicator, the current US counterinsurgency effort to stabilize the region continues to face years of considerable challenges.
For instance, the WikiLeaks documents reveal that improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against coalition forces and civilians increased from 308 in 2004 in to 7,155 in 2009. It’s a deadly reminder that guerrilla insurgents refuse to be pacified.
Wahid Monawar, an Afghan diplomat and former chief of the Afghan foreign ministry, said that most Afghans do not support the Taliban, but “it appears the Taliban is as strong as it’s every been.”
“And to successfully reverse that trend, it is going to be very important for us to depend on our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where in both places, we have no legitimate and effective one,” Monawar said in an interview with Truthout.
The WikiLeaks files have added new fire to allegations that supposed US ally Pakistan has secretly supported the Taliban through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which has received billions of dollars in US funding, according to “If the relation between Kabul and Islamabad does not improve, this insurgency can last as long as it takes,” Monawar said. “When I was part of the Afghan government in Karzai’s first term, we often raised Pakistan’s involvement in Afghan insurgency but we seldom had any audience in the West, the faculty of listening was impaired. It is imperative that this must change.”
Monawar has criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government for being weak and corrupt, a major setback for the US counterinsurgency, which cannot risk withdrawing troops until a democratic government can provide stability for its citizens.
Monawar said Pakistan had benefited from conflict in Afghanistan for 30 years, first during the Soviet invasion and withdrawal and then from US outsourcing of Afghan resistance management to the ISI. Monawar said Obama must pursue a “quid pro quo” solution between Kabul and Islamabad.
A stable Afghan government requires stable support of Karzai and coalition forces from Afghan citizens, but Karzai’s corruption has cost him popularity, and civilians have suffered thousands of casualties as war has ravaged their homeland. The United Nations reports that in 2009 nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians lost their lives due to armed conflict, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Browsing the WikiLeaks war logs, however, provides a much more vivid account of the pain and trauma suffered by Afghan civilians. Some reports are dry and clinical, composed of jargon-filled accounts detailing dozens of civilians killed and wounded by an IED attack here, or a misguided 2,000 pound “smart bomb” killing 2 civilians and wounding 17 there.
Other reports are disturbingly vivid. On November 16, 2009, two Afghan toddlers were wounded during a firefight between US troops and insurgents that took place near farm fields in southern Afghanistan. The US troops reported that they did not see any civilians in the fields of corn and hemp, but later discovered that a boy named Esan Ullah, age 6, had been shot in the foot, and a 2-year-old girl name Shamsia had been shot in the stomach. It is unclear if the rural children survived.
Coalition forces often offer payments (usually around $2,000) to families and friends of civilians killed by friendly forces, but Monawar warns that the US can’t just buy civilian support.
“We can build 1000 of schools and clinics, but if at the end of the day we inadvertently kill someone’s cousin, brother or a family member, it will be impossible for us to win hearts and minds,” Monawar said. “Afghans are a vindictive bunch, and they love to fight. There is a Pashto expression that translates ‘Afghans buy/pay for a fight.'”
Even before the WikiLeaks release, mainstream military analysts were casting doubts that the war in Afghanistan will conclude with a decisive victory.
“Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict,” analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in a report for the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year. “The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”
Both Cordesman and Monawar agree that setting artificial deadlines for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan could tend the Taliban’s fire and hurt Afghan morale. Monawar suggested that the Obama administration insert a long-term commitment with the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, which would ease tensions surrounding a 2011 withdrawal deadline and clarify that the US is not stuck in an open-ended commitment.
But Obama is already losing some support among voters and his own party. Support for the war in the US dropped from 91 percent in 2002 to 50-60 percent in 2008 and, by now, a majority of voters may be against the war, according to a Strategic Studies Institute report. The number of House Democrats who voted against the war supplemental nearly quadrupled to 102 since the first House vote on the bill, which had since been stripped of billions of dollars of aid and domestic spending.
After nine years of bloodshed, it appears that Americans and now Washington are beginning to lose confidence in US operations in Afghanistan. For Monawar, it’s a vital time to remember how the US ended up in such a quagmire in the first place.
“My personal opinion is that for the past nine years, ever since 9/11, we have always chased to cure the symptoms and completely forgot about the cause,” Monawar said. “All 19 hijackers were from Saudi [Arabia], we spent one trillion dollars toppling a regime in Iraq that did not like Al Qaeda, or [did] Al Qaeda [have] any hope of infiltrating Iraq. As long as the Saudi Kings finance these jihadists, American soldiers and Afghan civilians will die.”
Deb Weinstein contributed to this report.