We’re Not Leaving Afghanistan

John Glaser, October 15, 2012

Politicians technically use the same language as us, but many of their words have very different meanings. In last week’s vice presidential debates, for example, Joe Biden said, “We are leaving [Afghanistan]. We are leaving in 2014, period. Period.” Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us how the words “leaving” or “withdrawal” mean something very different in politics:

The full withdrawal of all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan is not the current position of the Obama administration. On October 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of Ambassador James Warlick, deputy special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to lead the negotiations for an agreement that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan for an undefined period of time. Reportedly, “Western officials have mentioned the residual American force as ranging from a few thousand to some 20,000.” In addition, some U.S. policymakers assume that Afghanistan will serve as hub for special operations raids and drone strikes into Pakistan.

Actually, a similar deceit is being peddled about Iraq. The Obama campaign constantly claims that they ended the Iraq war and brought all the troops home. In fact, they tried desperately to keep thousands of troops there, and simply got kicked out – only then deciding to pick up this narrative of ending the occupation.

But even that aside, the claim that “we left” is not true. As Zenko writes, “The United States currently has 225 troops, 530 security assistance team members, and over 4,000 contractors to equip and train Iraqi security forces.” And it’s worth remembering these Iraqi security forces we’re training have essentially been used as a secret police force for the increasingly authoritarian Maliki to attack, detain, and torture his political opponents and crack down harshly on public dissent.

In political campaigns, politicians can talk all they want about a full US withdrawal of Afghanistan. But technocrats have long admitted publicly that there will be no withdrawal. In a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations almost a year ago, under secretary of defense for policy at the Department of Defense Michèle Flournoy, explained that “2014 is not a withdrawal date—it’s an inflection point.” Afghans at that time “are still going to need support from the international community,” she said, and the U.S. has “been negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government that would lay out an enduring strategic partnership far into the future.”

Enduring partnership. Great. Of course a major problem is that so long as any foreign occupation exists in Afghanistan, and so long as any Kabul government is propped up from abroad, the insurgency will remain alive and well. The insurgency has persisted for 11 years despite the efforts of the world’s most advanced military. And all signs tell me they will continue to fight to oust the occupier even after a “withdrawal” (which we now know really only means a smaller occupation).

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