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Our Demand Must Be "US Troops Out of Afghanistan Now!"

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Credit: Jim HaberCredit: Jim Haber

Given the fears and uncertainties of what might befall Afghanistan upon the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, is it responsible for American peace activists to demand that our government bring our troops home now? I believe that it is urgent and that it is crucial that we do.

The future of Afghanistan cannot be settled by the US peace movement anymore than by the US State Department or the Department of Defense. Our positions on the war and occupation there need to be informed by listening to Afghans and not solely by our own convictions. I traveled to Afghanistan in December for three weeks, participating in a Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation that was hosted by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. From the many Afghans and foreigners who live and work there, we heard varied opinions on what the withdrawal of US troops would mean on the ground.

What support that we heard for a continued US military presence there was always tempered by deep concerns that the occupation is clearly settling in for a long haul. We heard no unqualified support for the US military presence- even for those closely tied to Afghanistan’s present government and who want the troops to stay, the occupation is at best a temporary expedient, a lesser evil only in comparison to the fulfillment of their worst nightmares. Those who fear the aftermath of a quick US/NATO withdrawal are also outraged by the night raids, the airstrikes and the civilian casualties that the occupation inflicts on their people.

The Afghans who call for a quick end to the US/NATO occupation are not so naïve as to believe that their country’s problems will end there and neither should we indulge in such naïveté. The end of foreign occupation will be a necessary if painful beginning of a process to rebuild civil society after 30 years of war. As former parliamentarian Malalai Joya insists, “The US and NATO occupy my country under the name of all the beautiful banners of democracy, women’s rights, human rights. And for this long time, they shed the blood of our people under the name of war on terror… It is better (for the US and NATO) to leave Afghanistan, then it is easier for us to fight one enemy instead of two.”

The most urgent demands for withdrawal seem to come from those who, like Malalai Joya who during the years of Taliban rule carried books hidden in her burqa while teaching in an underground school for girls, suffered greatly under the Taliban and who might also be most vulnerable to the upheaval that might follow that withdrawal. The young men of the Bamiyan based Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers who accompanied us are all survivors of the attempted ethnic cleansing of their home district by the Taliban. Most were internal refugees during those years and witnessed the killing of family members, yet it is from this group that comes the incessant demand, “we want you out!”

As a society we are more ready to take risks to fight a war than to risk for peace. Perversely, the inevitable risks incurred by war making are deemed acceptable, even if regretted, but the possibility of any risk attached to peacemaking renders peace impractical. Daniel Berrigan grieves, “We cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war.” These courageous Afghan young people are among the few willing to pay the cost required for peace and we should accept their challenge to join them.

We need the courage, too, to take an honest look at what the presence of US troops really means to Afghanistan, lest reservations over withdrawal have foundation in residual delusions of American beneficence. When President Obama released his “December Review” of the situation in Afghanistan, I read it from our guest house in Kabul and was struck by the apparent dissonance of Obama’s assurance that the US/NATO operations were “on track” and “achieving our goals.” International institutions, nongovernmental organizations, the Red Cross, UNICEF, World Food Program, even the US National Intelligence Estimate leaked the day before the president spoke, all confirmed what we had been hearing and seeing from the broken streets of Kabul, that the security and human and political situation in Afghanistan was spiraling out of control.

President Obama’s optimistic assessment of the occupation is actually reasonable unless one accepts the superstition of America’s good intentions in the region. If the intention is to maintain and promote in Afghanistan a permanent environment of violence, confusion, distrust and fear, then it can be said that the US presence there is on track. The occupation is meeting its goals if these include the creation of an atmosphere there so poisonous that a civil society intent on meeting the needs of the Afghan people, rather than allowing the nation’s wealth to be plundered by foreign corporations can never be nurtured.

Schools built, clinics staffed, roads paved by US and NATO armies are widely reported and might “win the hearts and minds” of Americans and so blunt criticism of the war, but they are not convincing to Afghans. Referring to the recent surfacing of photos depicting the murder and abuse of civilians by US troops, Malalai Joya writes, “I must report that Afghans do not believe this to be a story of a few rogue soldiers. We believe that the brutal actions of these ‘kill teams’ reveal the aggression and racism which is part and parcel of the entire military occupation. While these photos are new, the murder of innocents is not.”

It is difficult to argue with the many Afghans who believe that the recent surge of civilian deaths and the callousness of US responses prove a deliberate policy of targeting their children. Leading proponent of nonviolence in Afghanistan and independent member of their legislature, Dr. Ramazon Bashardost, said “These killings must be stopped or the people will rise against the foreigners and we will stand by them.”

Along with immediate withdrawal, we need to be demanding reparations for Afghanistan, as opposed to the “aid” that has evaporated at the rate of billions of dollars over the past nine years. Noam Chomsky, in a telephone interview with our delegation, explained that distinction, saying that along with Russia and Pakistan, the US owes “apology and reparations” to Afghanistan. “They have played a miserable role in destroying Afghanistan and should be responsible for doing whatever they can to help the Afghan people overcome the consequences of these interventions and atrocities. Again I stress that doesn’t mean aid, that means reparations. Aid sounds like something we give out of our good nature or good will. Reparations means what we are responsible for providing because of the extreme damage we have caused.”

Some reservations over making the demand for immediate withdrawal seem predicated upon an absurd premise that the peace movement in the US has the clout to actually make that happen. It is as if some believe that the US government could be persuaded by our marches, demonstrations, petitions and blockades and concede to our demands and pick up and leave tomorrow. While I sincerely wish that this were possible, I am confident that our demand will not lead to a precipitous withdrawal and the consequences that some fear would come in its wake.

Even though the demand “US Troops Out Now!” is not immediately achievable we should insist on no less than this. It might seem futile to demand the impossible, but the real futility lies in US citizens’ pleas for a responsible time-line for withdrawal. History shows that US troops will not leave Afghanistan one year or even two years after a president pledges that they will be brought home in one year. The admittedly patient process of bringing the troops home will not begin in earnest until the American people, in our words and actions, communicate that not one more day of this bloody and hopeless war can be tolerated. Accepting the continuation of the war for three more years or even one more year is to accede to an indefinite continuation of the occupation. So long as the American people can tolerate even one more day of war, the war will continue ad finitum.

Brian Terrell is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and is at home at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy,Iowa.