America between Morality and Imperialism in Afghanistan

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America between Morality and Imperialism in Afghanistan

On November 5th, I had the privilege of testifying to the House Armed Services Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations. These hearings are part of the lengthy ongoing deliberations in Washington D.C. searching for a new direction in Afghanistan. The Hearing was chaired by Chairman Dr. Vic Snyder (D-Ark) and Ranking Member Rob Whitman (R-VA).

The panel was divided. Half the participants were pro-surge and advised the government to honor General Stanley McChrystal’s request and send in additional US troops to Afghanistan, and the other half did not believe that another surge would help. The pro-surge view was based on several assumptions that were in my opinion debatable. This view saw the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons ending up in the hands of radical groups as the most pressing of US national interests in the Afpak theatre and they felt that this threat justified more intensive and extended US presence in the region.

The pro-surge view did not see an exit from Afghanistan on the near horizon. They felt that the threat of the collapse of Pakistani state to the resurgent Taliban justified indefinite US military commitment to Afghanistan. The advocates for sending more troops did not make operational distinctions between Pakistan and Afghanistan and between the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban in Pakistan. It was a similar absence of nuance that got us into unnecessary wars in the first place.

They want the US to stay in Afghanistan and build a state with an army and a police force that can achieve for the US what NATO and the US military have so far failed to do – secure Pakistan and Afghanistan, defeat Taliban in both countries, defeat or contain Al Qaeda and establish democracy. In principle these are laudable goals but unfortunately the American public does not have an appetite for a prolonged commitment to Afghanistan. President Obama is already talking of an exit strategy. What needs to be done there, we are no more inclined to do; and what we are doing is only making things worse.

My recommendation was to exit Afghanistan as soon as possible. The Taliban have never threatened the US and they have neither the reach, nor the intention to attack us. The same is true of Taliban in Pakistan. Our enemy is Al Qaeda and we must focus our attention on Al Qaeda. As far as extremism and intolerance in the area is concerned, let those who suffer from it most fight it first. We should be willing to help those who strive for democracy and aspire for prosperity. But let them demonstrate their desire for freedom first before we rush to assist them. The current attitude of armies and populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan leave much to be desired. It is obvious that we want democracy for them more than they do.

US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan constitutes a provocation that intensely agitates not only many Afghans and Pakistanis but also many Muslims elsewhere. Muslims in the area continue to view US intentions with suspicion and are very angry with the number of civilian casualties that are caused by US and NATO operations. Scaling down US presence will help in refocusing the attention of the people of the region on their indigenous problems, away from US occupation, and perhaps motivate them to work towards stability.

There was a moment during the Hearing, when I was caught off guard by a very poignant question by Chairman of the committee Dr. Vic Snyder. “What is America’s moral obligation in Afghanistan?” he asked. Honestly, I did not expect that question. After witnessing the Congress do very little for eight years as horrifying event after horrifying event unfolded; Abu Ghraib, torture, Guantanamo, renditions to just name a few; I didn’t think morality had a cache on the hill. I salute Vic Snyder for not only raising the issue but for making it the central theme of his investigations.

America’s moral obligations to Afghanistan date back to 1989, when we walked away leaving behind the world poorest and most underdeveloped nation to deal with the culture of war that we had fostered to win the cold war. America’s moral obligation is to the families of each and every innocent civilian we accidentally kill. America’s moral duty is to leave Afghanistan better than it was before it encountered us.

But unfortunately, morality like imperialism is a commodity that America can no longer afford in Afghanistan.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).


This article was also published at Delaware Online on November 18, 2009:


ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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