Open Letter to Obama on Afghanistan

Open letter to President Obama,

You have been struggling with a dreadful task: deciding what the US should do with the war you inherited in Afghanistan. You are properly taking your time and analyzing anew what our country’s goals should be and how to accomplish them. You are being strongly pressured by military officials who have much invested in the tasks they have been doing for the last eight years. It must be hard to resist the entreaties of such a respected coterie when it is not balanced by strong pressure to drastically change course.

An analysis of what we should do in Afghanistan should include, what
legitimate reasons a country may have for militarily intervening in another country, what goals we have in Afghanistan, how likely we are of our achieving those goals, what negative effects may result from our actions, and the likelihood of those effects. The arguments pro and con for our initial attack on Afghanistan should be examined in terms of how subsequent events supported or refuted them and how applicable they are to the current situation.

Mission creep is a perennial problem in military missions and should only be accepted if based on a proper balancing of international law with advantages and disadvantages to our vital national security. A recognition that no people like foreign troops on their soil or bombing of their homeland, accompanied by an analysis of how this general principle plays out in Afghan society, must by incorporated into the analysis.

So why did the Bush Administration take us to war in Afghanistan?

On September 11, 2001, we were horribly attacked by a group of people funded and otherwise supported by an organization (al Qaeda) based in Afghanistan. With almost 3,000 dead and a fear that more attacks may be forthcoming, the American people not only rightly wanted our government to prevent further attacks and to bring those responsible to justice, they also (to a great extent) wanted revenge. Since those who carried out the attacks were dead, those who intentionally supported the attacks were the targets of our fury. And since those who supported the attacks supported the attackers, what about others who supported the attackers? … and those who supported those who supported the attackers, etc.?

The Bush Administration immediately requested and received authorization from Congress to use all “necessary” force against “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the attrocity of 9/11 or who “harbored” anyone the administration deemed responsible, “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against” the US. Such an open ended authorization was unprecedented and arguably not Constitutionally authorized, but in the emotions of the moment sailed through Congress with only a single vote in opposition.

The Bush Administration, which is now recognized to have been poor in
making international judgements, opposed to diplomacy, and not very
understanding of cultural differences, determined that al Qaeda was
responsible for the attacks and demanded that Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden, the leader of that organiztion for trial. They presented an ultimatum, not an extradition request. Not only did we not have an extradition treaty with Afghanistan, but we did not even recognize their government.

The Afghan government started to negotiate. They said that they would try Osama in Afghanistan, as he had been charged with engaging in conspiracy to murder while in country, and asked for evidence in support of the charge. An extradition request necessarily provides a certain amount of evidence supporting its charge, but the Bush Administration would not provide this, but merely repeated its demand.

What went on behind the scenes is not publicly known, but the Afghan
government is known to have explained their obligation under their
culture’s responsibility to protect a guest and later to have offered to
submit Osama bin Laden to trial in a court in a third country. The US
government, at least publicly, would not negotiate, but stuck to its
demand while rapidly building up a military force near Afghanistan.

During this period, some Americans outside the government presented a case that the US was unlikely to capture Osama bin Laden through war, but that through negotiation he might be brought to trial. Police action against al Qaeda could bring about the capture (and later trial) of others involved in the 9/11 attacks and that information gained could lead to further disruption and destruction of the organization. As this approach was not taken, we do not know if the claims were valid, but their prediction that war would not capture Osama has held true so far.

George Bush deemed that Afghanistan and its ruling party, the Taliban,
“harbored” al Qaeda, and thus could be attacked under the “Authorization for Use of Military Force.” However, the government we installed in Afghanistan is not covered by this authorization. In order to legally stay in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban under this resolution, you have to determine both that the Taliban as an organization, not just Afghanistan as a country, “harbored” al Qaeda AND that military action against the Taliban is necessary to prevent future acts of terrorism against the US. The first finding could go either way, but the second is hard to make. On what basis does warring against the Afghan Taliban prevent terrorism?

You must consider that US military action in Afghanistan, with its not
infrequent killing of dozens of civilians, increases violent opposition to
the United States and may thus itself increase the likelihood of terrorist
attacks. Unless you find that such a war prevents, instead of promotes, terrorism against the US, you have no Congressional authorization to war against the Taliban.

Al Qaeda is on the run. Military analysts have publicly opined that
less than 200 members (of an organization of at most a few thousand) are currently in Afghanistan. Most are deemed to be in Pakistan, while other members have scattered across at least the Muslim world. A military force of 28,000 or 60,000, or 94,000 is neither appropriate nor necessary to go after 200 people. Unless you find that such a large force is necessary to prevent these few people from engaging in terrorism against the US, you are not legally authorized to have them in Afghanistan.

You are authorized to use necessary force against individual al Qaeda
members who aided the 9/11 attacks. While this would include remotely
targeted killings, standard jurisprudence suggests that arrest and trial
would be more appropriate. Not only could information be gained from such detainees, but some persons you personally “found” to be responsible might actually be innocent. Also, an arrest (by police or special forces team) could prevent innocent people from being “collaterally” killed or injured.

On top of this analysis, the situation in Afghanistan must be analyzed to determine what is in our national interest. Afghan culture is very local. People are loyal to and protect guests, but resist uninvited visitors. They have never had a strong central government; those who have ruled with some success from Kabul have always accepted significant local control of local affairs. When someone from outside the local area tries to exert authority over a region — whether from abroad or another part of Afghanistan — the local populace resists. The British learned this in the 19th Century, the Soviets in the 20th Century, and we are slowly learning it in the 21st.

You are being urged to increase our forces in Afghanistan to support the Afghan government (which is not a Congressionally authorized use of force). This government is seen as corrupt and illegitimate by the people, being initially forced on a loya jirga by outside powers and having stolen the recent election through massive ballot stuffing and fraud.

Matthew Hoh, who resigned from a high State Department position in Zabul province last month wrote a very telling letter. He learned from
experience on the ground that we do not belong there. He concluded that “[s]uccess and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years … but in decades and generations.”

I urge you to judge what possible purpose we may have in remaining in
Afghanistan, talking with opponents as well as supporters of the war, and when you determine that continuing the war does not serve our national interest, nor is in keeping with international law, to start a careful draw-down of troops, and to redirect our campaign against al Qaeda in the direction of police action.

doug foxvog

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Doug Foxvog is a longtime peace advocate and activist who now resides in Ireland.