The U.S. Afghanistan Strategy Is Failing and It's Time to Pull Out

The recent Koran burning protests are just the beginning of the problems America has in Afghanistan.

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Michael Shank is U.S. vice president at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Rep. Raul Grijalva represents Arizona's Seventh District and is the cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

That the U.S. military is burning Korans and urinating on dead bodies is, without question, bad diplomacy—really bad, in fact—but it does not constitute bad military strategy, nor does it necessarily warrant a call for a more immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. We had plenty of reasons already to withdrawal. This is why nearly two-dozen U.S. Senators and nearly 90 members of the House of Representatives are calling for an expedited withdrawal ahead of NATO's May meeting in Chicago. This is also why a majority of Americans, according to the latest Pew poll, want troops out as soon as possible.

Entering our 11th year of engagement in Afghanistan, the latest diplomatic unrest has reached a new low and has inspired thousands of Afghan employees on the U.S. payroll, working at Bagram Airfield, to protest. This is significant and unprecedented. Yet the Koran burning was only a tipping point, allowing an increasingly hot pot of frustration to finally boil over.

What's the real issue then? Simple: U.S. strategy failed in the past, is failing now, and will likely fail in the future. Considers the ways: On strategy, cost, accountability, and perception, we continue to miss the mark.

[See pictures of Afghans protesting against Koran burning.]

On strategy, the Pentagon has pursued new policies in two to three year spurts, each time under different, equally optimistic leadership. First, immediately after the invasion, they aided and abetted warlords and corrupt officials in Afghanistan—essentially anyone who would help the U.S. agenda, no matter how much blood was on their hands. Then they tried bolstering Kabul and the central state, figuring that legal and licit state building was wiser. Now, they've given that up and are experimenting with pilot projects like propping up locals with munitions and monies and calling them the Afghan Local Police, a nonofficial title. This latest strategy comes with incredible risk. Flooding villages with financial bribes and bombs is likely to backfire and create more civil war.

Those arms will eventually be used against us (see similar strategy in Iraq). That attacks on U.S. troops rose substantially in recent years is a reflection of how NATO and the United States have focused their efforts. By primarily pursuing military options for the last 10 years, furthermore, we failed to assist Afghanistan's socioeconomic security, be it better trade, more jobs, functional markets, schools with teachers, or hospitals with doctors and medicine. For a lot less money, we could have helped Afghanistan fix problems, like the fact that only 27 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 5 percent to adequate sanitation, and that only 30 percent of Afghans have access to electricity. These are devastating realities in light of the hundreds of billions of dollars America has already spent on the country.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Speaking of cost, the over $325 million we still spend every single day we remain in Afghanistan, or $120 billion yearly, makes this aforementioned socioeconomic security oversight even more appalling. Keep in mind these are monies that America does not actually have, it has to borrow it. In fact, this war is entirely debt-funded. Politicos in Washington, who are concerned about our burgeoning deficit or our rising debt ceiling, would be wise to trim here first.

On accountability, Afghanistan has become a sea of untraceable taxpayer dollars. As an example of the corruption involved and the U.S. officials getting rich off this war, take a scan of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction latest quarterly report from January: one U.S. Army sergeant pled guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and theft of approximately $210,000 in government property, while a captain in the Army National Guard was sentenced to 15 months in prison for receiving bribes from military contractors in return for the award of Defense Department contracts during his deployment to Bagram Airfield. These are just two samples from a long report detailing U.S. fraud, waste, and abuse. No wonder the Afghan employees at Bagram are protesting. They see the U.S. corruption all around them.