OPINION: End of March, Good News for Troops

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March marked the 150th month of the war in Afghanistan. Since October 7, 2001, U.S. troops have been deployed there. Their primary task had been to eliminate Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism, specifically the bases used to train and harbor those implicit in the September 11th attacks almost a month earlier. To achieve this involved overthrowing the Taliban government, a repressive and extremist regime known for funding and prompting the plans of Osama bin Laden. By the middle of 2002, Taliban forces had been largely reduced in size with their key strongholds overrun. Remaining fighters withdrew into the various mountain and cave systems in the country where they continued launching guerilla raids on coalition forces and civilian targets to this day.

 

American forces have stayed in Afghanistan helping to establish a democratically elected government and train police and national security forces. Currently 33,000 U.S. troops serve in Afghanistan. The end of March marked only the third month in the almost 13-year war where no U.S. fatalities occurred. The other two months were July 2002 and January 2007. So far, over 2,300 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, along with three Department of Defense civilians.

 

Currently plans are to greatly reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to a few thousand by the end of the year. These troops would advise and assist in further training Afghanistan security forces. However, there is also a “zero option” contingency on the table to withdraw all troops. The decision is pending results of talks between the U.S. and current Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to establish a bilateral security agreement. President Obama has stated if an agreement cannot be reached then all U.S. forces may be removed.

 

Negotiations have been difficult with Karzai becoming increasingly hostile toward U.S. forces remaining past the end of the year. Karzai accuses the U.S. of treating Afghanistan like a colony, and pursuing American interests over his country’s own. Most of his outrage comes from civilian casualties, from a combination of Taliban retaliation attacks and American night raid and drone strikes. Last year, the U.S. conducted over 500 drone strikes. In a recent interview Karzai said, “To the American people, give them my best wishes and gratitude. To the U.S. government, give them my anger, my extreme anger.”

 

American involvement has dramatically improved the lives of millions in Afghanistan. Electricity, running water, medical treatment and basic education is now readily accessible to more Afghans than ever before. Prior to the invasion by U.S. forces in 2001, only an estimated 1.2 million were enrolled in public education, less than 50,000 of them female. As of 2013, that number had grown to 8.2 million with over 3 million females enrolled. Unfortunately not all the effects have been positive though.

 

Disillusion with the war, both at home and in Afghanistan, have both sides ready to call it over. The U.S. spends an estimated $6 billion dollars on Afghanistan every month. From the start of combat operations to 2011 over $468 billion tax dollars have been used. Opponents believe that money could be better spent inside America. Afghans point to incidents like the botched drone strike March 6 that killed five Afghanistan soldiers while wounding eight others. There was also the event on March 11, 2012 where U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left his post and killed 16 civilians, nine of them children and four of them women. He is now serving life without parole in Fort Leavenworth. The Afghanistan government wanted him turned over to them for trial and sentencing.

 

It is suspected that a bilateral security agreement will reached with Karzai’s successor. Under Afghanistan’s new constitution, Karzai is ineligible to run again. Elections for the new president were held this past Saturday. Officials on both sides of the table agree that the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead to a Taliban resurgence and would certainly lead to civil war. That is an outcome all sides wish to prevent.