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We Can't Afford to Sink Deeper into the Afghan Quagmire

Let's be clear: the war in Afghanistan is not "the good war."  It is not "the right war," as President-elect Obama has called it.  Nor is it really Bush's war, considering how many Congressional representatives (Democrats included) initially supported it and continue to favor the Obama administration's calls for escalation.  And yet it's not quite Obama's war either -- though it could be soon.  Right now it's just our country's war, and as such we need to be able to discuss it frankly and freely -- with open discourse that was absent in the run up to both this war and the one in Iraq.  

I initially felt conflicted when the US waged war in Afghanistan.  When 9/11 happened, I was a senior at Brandeis University, taking a Sociology class with anti-war activist and campus fixture Gordie Fellman, and had just finished reading his book, Rambo and the Dalai Lama.  "Shift Happens," Fellman said on the first day of class, a prescient warning for the weeks ahead as our aggrieved and grieving nation embraced its adversarial impulses with lightning speed, rallying "patriotically" behind President Bush and Congress in near unanimous support for the war.  

At the time I felt at odds with my professor and fellow Fellman followers in class.  As anti-war as I had been until that point, I understood, on a fundamental level, the decision to go to war.  I felt the rush of violence, as well as the collective thirst for revenge, retribution, and justice exacted through military force.  But the last seven years have proven to me just how misplaced that aggression was for us all. 

While I can't technically frame Afghanistan as "Bush's war,"  I can definitely call it a colossal failure of the Bush administration.  Their decision to abandon Afghanistan in favor of the unjust and unnecessary war in Iraq enabled the Taliban to regain strength and launch its current insurgency.  What's more, the Bush administration's ineptitude has led to a sharp rise in casualties, both for our troops and for Afghan civilians.  This week, the National Security Network dubbed the war in Afghanistan part of Bush's national security legacy of failure, citing grim figures that show NATO-ISAF deaths rising over 20 percent from 2007-08, while the civilian death toll has risen a staggering 40 percent within that period.  

Afghanistan is no longer a downward spiral, it has hit rock bottom.  It is, as Bob Herbert put it in The New York Times this week, a total quagmire, one that we're up to our waists in thanks to Bush.  However, if the Obama administration escalates this war, we will be up to our necks.  The fact is we simply can't afford to sink any deeper.  Right now we're facing an economic crisis whose sole comparison is the Great Depression.  And yet we're currently dropping $2 billion a month on military operations in Afghanistan -- a figure that stands to double if the Obama administration doubles our troop presence with an additional 30,000 soldiers, as members of his administration have stated.  How dare the US spend billions a month on a war that has no military solution, when our nation's public schools go unfunded, our children go uninsured, and our lower and middle class go from underpaid to unemployed.

To say nothing of how comparatively little we're spending to rebuild Afghanistan.  In the last seven years, the US has only spent $11 billion TOTAL in aid and reconstruction there, much of it lost to government corruption.  As Tom Hayden noted recently, Afghanistan received $57 per capita in the two years after the fall of the Taliban, approximately one-tenth what Bosnia and Kosovo each received and about half as much as the RAND corporation estimates to be the minimum required to achieve stability following warfare.  To really make those numbers resonate, The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel quoted former Afghan parliament member Malalai Joya in a blog post about the urgent need to get Afghanistan right.  Joya said,

"Over 85 percent of Afghans are living below the poverty line and don't have enough to eat. While the US military spends $65,000 a minute in Afghanistan for its operations, up to 18 million people (out of a population of only 26 million) live on less than $2 US a day, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization...."

With this gross misallocation of resources, combined with the dramatic rise in civilian deaths, it's no wonder the US has become so deeply unpopular in Afghanistan and throughout the world. 

When we waged war in Afghanistan, it was to seek justice from those members of al Qaeda involved in 9/11.  That was the military mission I could wrap my brain around seven years ago.  What I find baffling is that now, when our continued military presence has only rendered our economy and the nation of Afghanistan weaker, and our standing in the world lower, would we choose to double down on this war.  Until now all we've done has been, as Fellman once suggested, to give in to our adversarial compulsion.  The result has been nothing but human suffering, both here and abroad.  Couldn't we try mutuality, understanding, and diplomacy for a true change we can believe in?