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Michael Shank Headshot

In Afghanistan, We Can Only Offer So Many Apologies

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Burning Korans and urinating on dead bodies is, without question, bad diplomacy in Afghanistan, but by themselves these latest episodes did nothing to make us reconsider our timetable for leaving. We had plenty of good reasons already to withdraw. It is the recent killing of 16 unarmed civilians that is emerging as the tipping point. A foreign army, no matter the reason it came or why it stays, can offer a long-suffering population only so many apologies. We are no longer welcome in Afghanistan, and we are going to have to leave. The only questions now are how soon and on what terms.

Nearly two dozen U.S. senators and nearly 90 members of the House of Representatives are calling for an expedited withdrawal ahead of NATO's May meeting in Chicago. A majority of Americans, according to the latest Post/ABC poll, want troops out as soon as possible. The days of a supposed national consensus on staying the course are long over. As we enter our 11th year of engagement in Afghanistan, the latest diplomatic unrest has inspired thousands of Afghan employees on the U.S. payroll at Bagram Airfield to protest. This is significant and unprecedented -- and unfortunate -- but it is not a surprise. The Koran burning and the recent tragic shootings merely allowed a white-hot pot of frustration finally to boil over.

What's the real issue, then? Simple: U.S. strategy failed in the past, is failing now, and will likely fail in the future. On strategy, cost, accountability, and perception, we continue to miss the mark.

On strategy, the Pentagon has pursued new policies in two- to three-year spurts, each time under different, equally optimistic leadership. First, immediately after the invasion, they aided and abetted warlords and corrupt officials in Afghanistan -- essentially anyone who would help the U.S. agenda, no matter how much blood was on their hands. Then they tried bolstering Kabul and the central state, figuring that legal and licit state-building was wiser. Now they've given that up and are experimenting with pilot projects like propping up locals with munitions and monies and calling them the Afghan Local Police, a nonofficial title. This latest strategy comes with incredible risk. Flooding villages with financial bribes and bombs is likely to backfire and create more civil war.

Those arms will eventually be used against us (see our similar strategy in Iraq). That attacks on U.S. troops rose substantially in recent years is a reflection of how NATO and the United States have focused their efforts. By primarily pursuing military options for the last 10 years, we failed to improve Afghanistan's socioeconomic security, be it through better trade, more jobs, functional markets, schools with teachers, or hospitals with doctors and medicine. For a lot less money, we could have helped Afghanistan solve important quality-of-life problems. Only 27 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water, 5 percent to adequate sanitation and 30 percent to electricity. These are devastating realities in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars America has already spent on the country.

The more than $325 million we still spend every single day we remain in Afghanistan, or $120 billion yearly, makes this oversight even more appalling. Keep in mind that America borrows this money. In fact, this war is entirely debt-funded. Politicos in Washington concerned about our burgeoning deficit or our rising debt ceiling would be wise to trim here first.

On accountability, Afghanistan has become a sea of untraceable taxpayer dollars. As an example of the corruption involved and the U.S. officials getting rich off this war, scan the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction latest quarterly report from January: one U.S. Army sergeant pled guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and theft of approximately $210,000 in government property, while a captain in the Army National Guard was sentenced to 15 months in prison for receiving bribes from military contractors in return for the award of Defense Department contracts during his deployment to Bagram Airfield. These are just two samples from a long report detailing U.S. fraud, waste, and abuse. No wonder the Afghan employees at Bagram are protesting. They see the U.S. corruption all around them.

On perception, the United States is about as far from winning Afghan hearts and minds as we have ever been. The U.S. military continues night house raids and drone and air strikes, which Afghans at all levels of society vehemently protest. The only strategic thing about these raids and strikes is their ability to spark anger and backlash. A majority of Afghans, according to Asia Foundation's latest poll, fear for their personal safety, hardly something for the Pentagon to write home about after a decade of war.

Going forward, what should America do besides promptly reduce its military footprint? In Asia Foundation's poll, an overwhelming 82 percent of Afghans supported the government's attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed opposition. America's recent support for this must continue. It's the only hope for political stability.

If some U.S. policymakers do not want to leave Afghanistan in shambles while drawing down our military, then we suggest allocating at least one month's worth of existing funding, or $10 billion, for one of the few national development programs that has been effective in rebuilding Afghanistan these last ten years. This $10 billion would not only fund the National Solidarity Program and its Community Development Councils for the next decade, but also allow them to significantly scale up their laudable reconstruction and stabilization efforts.

Washington must understand the fact that one or two or 10 more years at war won't bring "success" as we were originally sold it. We've been it at it nearly 11 years to no avail. It is time to stop this madness and bring the troops home.

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