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It’s Time for a Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan

May 4, 2011

By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team

As emotions portrayed in the mainstream media veer from jubilation over the killing of Osama bin Laden to sadness over yet another example of vengeful violence and to fear about what reprisals might be in store, it is a time to reflect on deeper questions around our country’s responses to crises, acts of terrorism and international conflicts and around the truism that violence only begets violence.It’s also time for more serious talk about the U.S. military’s exit from Afghanistan. After all, bin Laden’s capture was one of the main goals in the “war against terror” that drew troops into Afghanistan. Isn’t it time to declare victory and go home?

Not so fast, I hear myself replying.

President Obama, in announcing an increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan in December 2009, also set July 2011 as the beginning of troop withdrawal. After bin Laden’s assassination, many voices are calling for a hastened departure. But I want to add an important word to the refrain: let’s bring the troops home responsibly.

The theme of responsible withdrawal appears in the urgings of many peace advocates and in legislation proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California that supports President Obama’s pronouncement to begin troop withdrawal this July.

I’m also hearing it in the pleas from women in Afghanistan, who are concerned that women’s rights might be a casualty in dialogue between the U.S. and the Taliban, and in the pleas from Americans committed to ongoing humanitarian and development assistance in a country devastated by decades of war.

Suraya Sadeed, executive director of a peace education organization in Afghanistan, shared her concerns at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., earlier this spring. She stressed repeatedly that she wants peace in Afghanistan, but she doesn’t want women’s rights to be seen as an expendable “pet project” in achieving that goal. She suggested that any definition of peace in Afghanistan needs to include a look at who benefits. Can we consider anything a “peace accord” that doesn’t include women’s rights? she asked.

At the same conference, Tom Andrews, a former member of Congress and currently national director of Win Without War, and David Wildman, executive secretary for Human Rights and Racial Justice for the United Methodist Church, spelled out clear reasons for the U.S. military to begin pulling out of Afghanistan in a responsible manner while continuing to provide humanitarian and development assistance. These include:

• Recognition that increased U.S. military presence in at least some areas of Afghanistan seem to be leading to greater instability, not less, as the Taliban recruits more fighters in response

• The mental health costs of Americans serving in active duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The armed services reported 434 suicides by personnel on active duty in 2010; there were 381 suicides reported in 2009.

• Concerns for Afghan children who are dying from preventable conditions. The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in 2008 that about 600 children under five die every day in Afghanistan from pneumonia, poor nutrition and diarrhea.

• Concerns for high infant mortality and maternal death rates in Afghanistan

• Funding for the war in Afghanistan could be put to better use in communities throughout the U.S.

I read an interesting piece in The Washington Post yesterday that quotes a counterterrorism expert who believes that bin Laden’s main objective was to bankrupt the United States, just as the resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan successfully damaged the economy of the former Soviet Union. This expert says that bin Laden measured his success against the U.S. not just in body counts but also in our national deficits and investments we couldn’t make in our economy. If this is even partially true, then retreating before the economic damage to the U.S. is beyond repair would be yet another death for bin Laden’s objectives.

At the taping last week of a public radio talk-show segment with audiences in both D.C. and Kabul, I again heard the phrase “responsible withdrawal” and a couple of new phrases: “inclusive security,” which takes into account economic and social security as well as military security, and “sustainable peace,” which includes factors such as equality of education for both girls and boys, improved mortality rates and women feeling safe leaving their homes.

The woman who heads Afghanistan’s human rights commission and a woman who formerly served in Parliament stressed that women need to be invited into the reconciliation process and peace talks, and that a judicial system needs to be created that is capable of prosecuting human rights violations.

One step in moving toward a responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops would be passing new pieces of legislation in both the Senate and House of Representatives. You can contact your Representative here and contact your Senators here.

Also, Just Foreign Policy has made it easy to send a letter to the editor to your local newspaper. Please personalize the letter with your own concern for nonviolence as a Sister of Mercy or someone affiliated with the Sisters of Mercy, and your reasons for calling for a withdrawal of troops.

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