The Human Tragedy in Afghanistan Continues

Election '16

As the 21st century has shown, a key area where U.S. presidents wield considerable power is in the realm of war-making. Even following George W. Bush, President Barack Obama has significantly expanded these powers through his precedent of waging wars and covert military operations across the globe without congressional approval, including the latest round of troop deployments and bombing campaigns within Iraq and Syria.

Given the breadth of this presidential power, it is troubling that a meaningful discussion of the nearly-15-years-and-counting U.S. war in Afghanistan is almost completely absent from the 2016 election cycle. Donald Trump does not even state his position on the war on his campaign website, yet he has issued vague and inflammatory statements which appear to sweep the Taliban into the same category as Iran and ISIS.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, meanwhile, includes a cryptic reference to “our commitment to Afghanistan’s democracy and security.” But we know from her track record as Secretary of State that she constituted the most pro-war wing of the Obama administration, repeatedly prescribing escalation in Afghanistan, including by pressing for the U.S. troop surge.

Bernie Sanders is by far the least hawkish and interventionist of all the candidates, voting against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq while his opponent Clinton actively supported it. Yet, Sanders is unapologetic about his support for the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. His campaign website states that he “voted to authorize military strikes against Afghanistan, after it became clear that the Taliban regime harbored and gave support to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked America on 9/11. However, while we entered that war with significant clarity of purpose and moral authority, President Bush soon lost sight about what our goals were in Afghanistan. Instead of fighting those who attacked our country, he embroiled our troops in a quagmire in a far-away land.”

Anyone running for the presidency should be forced to honestly reckon with the failure of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Such accountability is especially urgent in light of a new report by Amnesty International, which finds that the ongoing crisis of violence in the country grows more acute by the day.

The number of Afghans internally displaced as a direct result of conflict has more than doubled in the past three years alone, reaching 1.2 million people, as compared to 500,000 in 2013, Amnesty researchers conclude. Meanwhile, roughly 2.6 million Afghans are externally displaced and, according to a separate report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, Afghans now constitute the second largest group of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Far more seek refuge in Iran and Pakistan.

Within Afghanistan, most internally displaced people lack access to “basic health care facilities,” the Amnesty report determines. “If we are ill, then I have to beg and find some money to go to the private clinics,” an unnamed 50-year-old woman in Herat told Amnesty International researchers, who based their findings on visits between November 2015 and February 2016. “We have no other choice.”

These troubling trends are a direct result of rising violence. “The years since Amnesty International’s last report on displacement in 2012 have been the most violent on record since 2001,” the Amnesty report states. “The Taliban are arguably at their strongest since being ousted in 2001, and control more territory than at any point over the past 15 years.”

Amnesty's findings are buttressed by a separate report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released in January, which also concluded that the Taliban controls the most territory since the U.S. military invaded in 2001. That report was soon followed by findings released in April from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which concluded that “the first quarter civilian casualty data for 2016 showed continued record numbers of civilian casualties.”

In other words, the protracted U.S. war, in a country where American intervention stretches back decades, has only left the Taliban stronger than they were before. Ordinary Afghans are paying the price for a disaster that is still ongoing. Yet Champa Patel, South Asia director at Amnesty, lamented in a statement about the organization's findings that “the world’s attention seems to have moved on from Afghanistan.”

Where are the cheerleaders of the Afghanistan war now that ordinary people have been left to deal with the fallout? In the midst of the greatest crisis of human displacement since World War II, it has become far too easy for the advocates of invasion and escalation to vanish once a humanitarian disaster takes hold. From Libya to Iraq to Yemen, lack of accountability has real consequences; as the advocacy organization Global Justice Now argued earlier this month, “This is not a 'migrant crisis'—it's a crisis of inequality and war." The displacement highlighted in Amnesty's new report is just one part of this larger picture.

The U.S. public must not abandon people like Hakim, an Afghanistan-based physician and mentor to the grassroots organization Afghan Peace Volunteers who I interviewed in May. “The U.S. military—your military—is the strongest military in the world, and your country exports the greatest number of weapons,” he told me. “This is what it is doing to Afghans in a faraway country that is no threat to you at all.”

Seelai is a U.S.-based organizer with Afghans United for Justice, a group with members in Afghanistan and abroad, who requested her last name be omitted for security reasons. "There should be no reason for us not to question and put pressure on all of the candidates," she told AlterNet. "The future of Afghanistan is tied to the future of America. We have to work towards justice for the Afghan people, and we have to prevent the cycle of the dehumanization of Afghans that has been going on for years."

Such efforts are especially urgent because the the U.S. role in Afghanistan continues to expand. Thanks to a Bilateral Security Agreement signed between the U.S. and Afghanistan two years ago, American military intervention in the country, as well as funding and arming of Afghan forces, is slated to extend to 2024. Furthermore, at least 5,500 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan after Obama leaves office—a number that could climb far higher. These U.S. troops have been granted immunity under Afghan law, denying Afghans the right to seek restitution for American war crimes under their own legal system.

As Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, put it in an interview with AlterNet, “The fact that there are fewer American troops in Afghanistan than at the height of the war does not mean the war has ended. The war itself has continued to escalate. The question we need to look at is what we owe the people of Afghanistan, which we asked for years during the highest point in the war on Iraq. We owe reparations. We don't owe continued military occupation.”

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