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Time To Bring Home The Troops

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I am Ohio Secretary of State and I am running for the U.S. Senate.

President Obama is scheduled to address the American people tomorrow about his plans for dealing with the war in Afghanistan, a war he -- and our nation -- inherited from former President George W. Bush. Neither President Obama nor the American public knew the extent to which conditions had deteriorated in Afghanistan, and those conditions have continued to deteriorate. And now, as nearly all international forces have withdrawn their troops from Iraq, and with the U.S. deployment there expected to wind down in 2011, the monumental task of squarely addressing the complicated problems of Afghanistan confronts our nation.

At the risk of being called a naysayer, a name I'm not often called that because of the "can do" attitude I normally adopt, I believe the costs are too great -- in human lives and economic resources -- to continue along the current path. It is clear to me that America must set a timetable for bringing our troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The impact of this conflict on the United States, and my home state of Ohio, is unacceptable. As the cost to American and Ohioans' lives increases, billions are spent each month on the conflict in Afghanistan, ballooning our national debt and diverting resources we desperately need here at home.

So far, of the 4367 military deaths in Iraq and 928 military deaths in Afghanistan, Ohio has sacrificed more than 200 lives in military deaths and $33 billion to fund wars on these fronts -- priceless loss to Ohio's future and $33 billion from a state with unemployment exceeding 10 percent. Looking just at the dollars, had we invested these funds, Ohio could have funded roughly 6 million Pell Grants, or hired a half million elementary school teachers or provided completely free health care for one year for every woman, man and child in the state.

Given the increasing death toll in Afghanistan, it is clear that progress in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban has slowed or worsened. We cannot remedy this by simply sending additional troops, given the conditions and corruption in Afghanistan.

We cannot continue to justify the expenditure of blood and treasure without defining success for both the conflict and the region. In essence, we need to hear what we never heard from President Bush: What does it mean to "win" in Afghanistan?

Our clear goal in Afghanistan should be to prevent Afghanistan and the border areas such as those of northwest Pakistan from serving as a staging area for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other nations. We must reduce instability that could lead to governmental collapse of Afghanistan and other nations of the region, and use nonmilitary means to accomplish this for long term success.

We can identify two significant weaknesses of the Bush administration's policy in Afghanistan: the designated leadership in the conflict and the use of private contractors to carry out military objectives.

I doubt that General Stanley McChrystal is the leader whose advice we should follow without significant validation of his recommendations. Gen. McChrystal recommended the deployment of additional troops in a "surge" modeled after the one in Iraq. Also, General McChrystal's previous association with the abuse of detainees and with the incident surrounding Pat Tillman give me pause as I evaluate his recommendations.

Even with a surge of troops into Afghanistan, the role of private contractors in the conflict will continue by unacceptable means and at unacceptable levels. It is clear that the Bush administration's policy of "outsourcing" the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased, rather than mitigated, a culture of corruption and instability in a country already steeped in challenges.

The solution is complex and will take some time and a multi-faceted effort, but a progressive approach will best accomplish the task. Progressives are up to the task as they work to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, often with bold plans, using -- and needing -- government to accomplish them.

Change is needed, and our nation can help lead the way, but direct responsibility for Afghanistan's future must be placed with its people and its government. Economic development, building a robust civil society, increasing the transparency and effectiveness of Afghan governmental institutions, and increased regional diplomacy, rather than more troops, must be part of the equation.

As a nation, we face a horrendous national debt that grew exponentially from the Bush administration's failure to find an honest way to pay for a war it couldn't afford. The American public has been fleeced by the Bush administration whose policies not only placed American lives in peril but also stood to profit from them both politically and financially.

Why does the U.S. need to spend billions more in Afghanistan to act as a police force, to build schools, and to develop economic alternatives to opium production when tens of thousands of Americans can't find jobs here at home?

I do not envy President Obama in the decision he must make. I simply offer some additional thoughts that I believe are telling in how his decision will fare in the long run, if he decides to add to the number of troops who are there. If he sends more troops, he must be starkly honest with the American people about the costs -- in lives, in increasing the national debt, and in slowing an economic recovery.

Already, since President Obama took office, he has approved additional troops of 17,000 in February 2009, and 4,000 more in March 2009, taking America's current troop deployment level in Afghanistan to approximately 68,000. And this does not account for the U.S. private security firm personnel from firms such as Blackwater, DynCorp, EODT/GSC, Four Horsemen/ARC, Reed Inc., RONCO, Strategic Security Solutions International (SSSI), and USPI, which are among the 39 national and international (Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, Dubai, United Kingdom and United States) private security firms operating in Afghanistan, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) Kabul Country Council.

It's clear that General Stanley McChrystal's recommendation that he needs 40,000 more troops to conduct a surge in Afghanistan is modeled after the surge that worked in Iraq. But will it work in Afghanistan?

Currently, 115,000 troops are stationed in Iraq as of last week's Thanksgiving holiday, with the number set to fall by more than half by the middle of next year. Current troop levels in Afghanistan stand at 68,000. It is anticipated that President Obama will work to convince the American public that at least 30,000 more are needed.

Many Americans now realize that the Bush administration's policies to address the failures of our government to protect us from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were badly off course. It's been eight long years since President Bush mistakenly led us into Iraq with false claims of "weapons of mass destruction."

Now seeing a light at the end of that detour, we are faced with what should have been the first battlefront of our strong military efforts -- Afghanistan. We find ourselves with weary but solid volunteer military armed service men and women who have demonstrated the valor and integrity of purpose that may be unrivaled in our nation's history. Yet, we face years of cost for these eight long years -- in ensuring for our veterans and their families continuing job and housing support and for health care for those physically and mentally injured. It's no wonder that the soldier suicide rate has increased yearly for the fourth straight year, and rates of divorce increased in 2008 among military personnel, especially for women armed services members.

Here are factors to consider. We can begin by taking a look at Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's November 19, 2009, inaugural speech in which he explicitly stated goals for his country such as: ". . . Within the next three years, Afghanistan, with continued international support and in line with the growth of its defense capacity, wants to lead and conduct military operations in the many insecure areas of the country. . . We are determined that by the next five years, the Afghan forces are capable of taking the lead in ensuring security and stability across the country."

Clearly, the issues facing our President extend beyond the correct number of troops to send to Afghanistan. Do we really believe that 32,000 will be enough for up to five years? I don't.

President Karzai also stated in his inaugural address, " . . . the goal of a powerful national government can be realized by the stronger presence of national security forces in all parts of the country. Within the next two years, we want operations by all private national and international security firms to be ended and their duties delegated to Afghan security entities."

Think of the jobs security forces, government (national and international) and private contractors perform in Afghanistan: direct fighting of insurgents (Taliban and Al-Qaeda), guarding of embassies and other government structures and functions, convoy security and local policing and maintaining of order, to say nothing of education for Afghani children and the building and rebuilding of the nation's infrastructure.

As it stands now, the Afghan National Police are deployed more in providing guardian services, while private security firms, who often employ armed support groups of illegal militias of former military personnel are providing convoy security, leaving the direct fighting to the Afghan National Army and international troops. This leaves voids in traditional local police protection for Afghani citizens, for which the Taliban are stepping in to gain local control.

General McChrystal has realistically pulled back from outlying and insecure areas, admitting that not enough military personnel will be possible to secure them. Added to this are the continuing problems of illegal heroin production and drug trafficking as staples of Afghanistan's economy, the perceived corruption of the system of private security firms (many private security firms are controlled by influential Afghan families, including Hashmat and Ahmed Wali Karzai, brothers of President Karzai, Hamid Wardak, the son of Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Nangarhar province, and Hajji Jan Mohammad Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan, according to a September 2009 report from New York University's Center on International Cooperation, "The Public Cost of Private Security in Afghanistan" briefing paper by Jake Sherman and Victoria DiDomenico.)

These private security firms are often operated by former military commanders who themselves have been responsible for human rights abuses or involved in the drug trade and black market activities. The continued use of these firms hurts the consolidation of government authority -- a goal necessary to meeting U.S. ends for Afghanistan and allowing our troops to return home. In short, the cultural problems of Afghanistan present greater challenges to replicating the "surge" approach that worked in Iraq to the extent that I do not believe an Afghanistan surge will be an effective tool to reducing American casualties and costs.

And how will the surge in Afghanistan protect northwest Pakistan and the purposely neglected insecure regions of Afghanistan from the inevitable destabilizing affects of driving the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from regions where stability may be achieved?

General Stanley McChrystal, son of a Major General and 1976 graduate of West Point, saw a fast rise from Brigadier General in 2001 to four-star General and Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) in 2008. He has seen his share of successes in Iraq, being largely responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein and for the death of the Jordanian native Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (also known as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad [JTJ] started by Zarqawi along with Kurdish Islamist sympathizers and other foreigners, after Zarqawi is believed to have moved westward to Iraq after the U.S. invaded Iraq, after running an Islamic militant training camp near Herat).

McChrystal had called in the air strike that killed Zarqawi and accompanied his soldiers to Zarqawi's bombed hut to personally identify the body. Unfortunately, it is reported that General McChrystal's Zarqawi unit, known as Task Force 6-26, has been identified for its interrogation methods for abusing detainees, including discipline of members of the task force, not including McChrystal. McChrystal's role in the awarding of a Silver Star in 2004 to pro football star Pat Tillman, who was killed by "fratricide" or friendly fire, includes approval of a report that covered up the real cause of death with language such as "in the line of devastating enemy fire" followed up by an urgent memorandum from him to White House speech writers not to quote the medal recommendation in any statements they wrote for then President Bush, because it "might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public." Gen. McChrystal was one of 8 officers recommended for discipline for this incident, but no action was taken against him by the Army. Instead, he was promoted.

Whatever President Obama decides to do, he must work to instill American faith in his plan. For those Americans who still grimace at the thought of Abu Graib and who value straightforwardness even if it means bad news, our confidence in our President's reliance on General McChrystal may be tenuous at best.

A better and more realistic plan for Afghanistan is found in the National Security Network's The Progressive Approach: Afghanistan, Principles for an Afghanistan Strategy .

The approach needed is a multi-faceted one that takes full advantage of the level of troops we have there now, encourages the reinforcement of their efforts with multi-national forces, and integrates significant nonmilitary strategies aimed at: 1) strengthening and balancing national and local government power in Afghanistan, and 2) preventing corruption and strengthening citizen trust in Afghani government. The role of police in law enforcement and citizen protection must be emphasized, enabled and strengthened. We must recognize that a common thread of human rights must be the basis for Afghanistan government structure, but an Afghan "democracy" as we envision it in the U.S. is not likely achievable or necessary for meeting our goals of engagement.

Our diplomatic and economic support should be collaborative among nations and based on the current strengths of identified Afghan resources. The aim should be to allow individual communities of Afghanistan, using Afghani resources, to realize greater economic stability -- that is implementing pragmatic, community-oriented strategies that provide incentives for economic alternatives to the oppression of the opium trade. Any counter-insurgency strategy--military and diplomatic -- must strengthen this approach rather than weaken it, and this includes a policy on private security firms. Their operations must be subject to ethical standards that promote government trust and that can be enforced by the Afghan government.

Careful planning in U.S. troop reductions can occur while implementing these significant nonmilitary strategies -- and the sooner we move our military resources out of Afghanistan, the sooner we can use them to rebuild our lives at home in these times of great economic and social distress.

Finally, any policy for Afghanistan must necessarily take into account the stability of neighboring states such as Pakistan and emphasize the strengthening of civilian governance and civil society in the region. These strategies will entail vigorous diplomacy with all neighboring countries and U.S. allies, including those allies whose private security firms are making millions and billions on the Afghanistan war effort and contracting with upstart militia groups that may actually destabilize this needed, multi-faceted approach.

And for the good of the Afghan people -- and the American people -- success should be defined through clear, measurable and realistic outcomes, both short-term and long-term, based on stated intentions.

Eight years and nearly a trillion dollars of our tax money-gone. More than 5,200 American lives-also gone. It's time to say, "Enough." It's time to employ more than military and mercantile strategies in Afghanistan and set a timetable to bring our troops home from Afghanistan.

Jennifer Brunner, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, was elected twice as a Franklin County judge and then elected Ohio Secretary of State in 2006. In that position, she earned the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation's Profile in Courage award for her work fighting for needed election reforms ensuring the reliability and security of Ohio's voting system. The Profile in Courage Award is considered the nation's most prestigious honor for elected public servants.

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