IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis says there is no need to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2016 because there is no military solution
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced that he will withdraw the 32,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Let’s listen to a clip of what he had to say.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800–9,800–U.S. servicemembers in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half, and we’ll have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.
WORONCZUK: The president also noted that any U.S. military presence beyond 2014 is dependent on Afghanistan’s next president signing a bilateral security agreement with the United States, which both leading candidates have pledged to do.
Now joining us to discuss this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of many books, including Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis and Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good be with you.
WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, what’s your response to these remarks? Will they mark an end of serious violence in Afghanistan?
BENNIS: No, not by any stretch of the imagination. When President Obama talked about these troop shifts turning a page in Afghanistan, that means turning a page for U.S. troop deployments, not turning a page for Afghans. The violence, unfortunately, will continue. Afghan civilians, unfortunately, will continue to be caught in the crossfire. We’re talking about a very clear decision now by the president that there is not even the illusion that the purpose of keeping troops in Afghanistan is to help the people of Afghanistan. It’s to protect U.S. interests. He’s been very clear about that.
The counterterrorism work of these troops that will remain, the 10,000 or so troops, will be killing bad guys. That’s what counterterrorism means. When they talk about counterinsurgency, that’s when they’re talking about the illusion of winning hearts and minds, of protecting Afghan civilians, etc. This is all about killing the bad guys as determined by the U.S. That means that drone attacks will continue, assassinations will continue, and the training of the Afghan military will be in how to kill bad guys. So, unfortunately, I don’t think think we can see this is an end to violence in Afghanistan.
WORONCZUK: Will the withdrawal of these troops also include contractors as well?
BENNIS: Well, this is one of the big questions. The official announcement that we heard did not include a reference to contractors, nor did it include the question of NATO troops, who have indicated–the NATO countries have said they will keep commensurate numbers of troops, meaning that it’s likely that there will be three, four, or five thousand additional NATO troops along with the 10,000 U.S. troops. So this remains a very significant question.
We saw in Iraq when the agreement signed between the U.S. and Iraq ultimately did not allow any U.S. troops to stay, because the Iraqi government was not willing to provide a grant of full immunity to those U.S. troops, it also said that Pentagon-paid contractors had to leave. That was very important. But because it said Pentagon-paid contractors, it immediately became the basis for sifting the jurisdiction of thousands of contractors who remained in Iraq doing the same work, but paid officially by the State Department rather than by the Department of Defense, the Pentagon.
So we don’t know yet what the exact terms will be of the bilateral security agreement that the U.S. is hoping to sign with the next president of Afghanistan. Will that agreement allow contractors to remain? Will it allow U.S. troops to remain and be covered by complete immunity, as the Iraqis refused to do?
WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, some critics will say that the withdrawal of these troops will–that they’ll lead to a loss of any of the security gains made by the U.S. and NATO thus far in Afghanistan. What would your response be to that?
BENNIS: I think we have to be very careful when we talk about security gains. There are still enormous levels of violence in Afghanistan. The U.S. found–and, you know, the words of Barbara Lee, our great, heroic member of Congress, yesterday in response to this announcement I think are absolutely true–there is no military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan. Whether you end it now, as many of us have been advocating for years, or whether you wait another two years until the end of 2016 to withdraw the troops, that’s not going to solve the problem. The additional time is not going to solve the problem in Afghanistan. There is no military solution. And keeping 10,000 troops or 5,000 troops or 100,000 troops isn’t going to be able to do it.
These so-called security gains that have been won involve primarily reducing the leadership of the al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. They’re down to somewhere between 50 and 100 people. But it’s been somewhere between 50 and 100 people for several years now. Keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops there is not going to change that.
The security that we do need to talk about–and we will hear from a few Afghan women, for instance, in Kabul, we’ll hear from some others in Kabul who say they are very worried about what will happen when the U.S. leaves. And those fears are legitimate. There are small numbers of women, small numbers of other Afghans, in Kabul in particular, who do feel more secure having U.S. troops occupying their city.
The reality, though, is, for the vast majority of people of Afghanistan, they don’t went live in Kabul, they don’t live in the big cities. They live in tiny villages and scattered hamlets throughout this enormous country. And in these areas, the U.S. troops, like the Afghan troops, like the Taliban, have all brought misery to people. They have all been responsible for killing civilians, for killing families. It’s there were you see U.S. drone strikes killing wedding parties. You know, you don’t see that in Kabul. You see that in the countryside where the vast majority of Afghans live. So I think we can anticipate we will hear from some Afghans that they would prefer the U.S. troops remain.
But I think we have to go back and say, did the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops and thirty or forty thousand NATO troops solve the problem of Afghanistan? And the answer is no. Keeping them another two years is not going to solve the problem either.
WORONCZUK: So some U.S. officials and members of the Obama administration have been saying that the troops need to be withdrawn because Afghanistan and Iraq are no longer the strategic priorities of the United States and that the real strategic priority is to engage in antiterrorist operations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Do you think that this is indeed what the U.S. needs to be doing now?
BENNIS: Well, I think it is true that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not solved the problem of terrorism in the region, as broadly as you want to define the region. But it also has proved that you can’t use wars to stop terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic. You can’t use a war and expect to succeed against a tactic, a tactic that is chosen by people who don’t have B-52s, who don’t have other options. That doesn’t make terrorism okay; it means you have to find a better way of fighting it. And going to war against whole countries is not the way to fight it.
We went to war against Afghanistan because of acts of terrible terrorism, huge crimes against humanity committed against United States. Those acts were not committed by Afghans. The terrorists who carried out those attacks didn’t live in Afghanistan. They weren’t Afghans. They were Saudis and Egyptians. They didn’t live in Afghanistan. They lived in Hamburg. Didn’t go to school in Afghanistan. They went to flight school in Florida. They trained in Minnesota. And yet we went to war against an entire country and people. We kill people. We didn’t kill terrorism. You don’t go to war against terrorism; you go to war against people. And it doesn’t work. It’s not going to work to transfer the U.S. theater of war to Africa or to other regions where the US sees terrorism as a problem. That’s not how you can fight terrorism. Going to war has never worked, and it’s not going to in the future.
WORONCZUK: Okay. Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies, thank you for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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