How many soldiers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: Zero. The military shouldn't even be involved in Afghanistan. If we want to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan, we need sustainable, civilian-only solutions.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

As the US gears up for its inevitably bloody assault on Kandahar, the plans have hit a bit of a snag. There’s a dispute raging between the military and civilian sides of our war effort over, believe it or not, development aid. The Washington Post reports:

Convinced that expanding the electricity supply will build popular support for the Afghan government and sap the Taliban’s influence, some officers want to spend $200 million over the next few months to buy more generators and millions of gallons of diesel fuel. Although they acknowledge that the project will be costly and inefficient, they say President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 has increased pressure to demonstrate rapid results in their counterinsurgency efforts, even if it means embracing less-than-ideal solutions to provide basic public services. […]

U.S. diplomats and reconstruction specialists, who do not face the same looming drawdown, have opposed the military’s plan because of concerns that the Afghan government will not be able to afford the fuel to sustain the generators. Mindful of several troubled development programs over the past eight years, they want the United States to focus on initiatives that Afghans can maintain over the long term.

The dispute is easy to understand. The military wants an immediate impact, while the State Department wants a long-term solution. The issue with this article is not the dispute, but that they frame the debate around the military withdrawal. Because the army has to leave, they need quick solutions or, left unsaid, we will fail in Afghanistan. Right away we know that’s not true, even after July 2011 there will still be combat troops in Afghanistan, just the “special” ones that do the most murdering. But by framing the aid dispute around the military’s needs completely misses the point that the military shouldn’t even be involved in Afghanistan. The State Dept. is right that if we care at all about our objectives in Afghanistan, governance, development, human rights, then we need sustainable solutions. And who knows more about that, the civilians or the military?

In that WaPo piece, an anonymous military source crystallizes the debate:

“This is not about development — it’s about counterinsurgency,” said a U.S military official at the NATO headquarters in Kandahar, advocating rapid action to help Afghan officials boost the power supply. “If we don’t give them more fuel, we’ll lose a very narrow window of opportunity.”

It’s not about development, it’s about counterinsurgency, COIN if you’re a cool kid. It’s supposedly a fancy new military doctrine for winning the hearts and minds of civilians, including things like $200 million worth of generators. But COIN isn’t new, it’s a buzzword for occupation. It even accounts for installing and coercing a puppet government (host nation) and undermining domestic and foreign discourse with propaganda (strategic communication). In other words, the exact same cycle of overthrowing foreign governments we’ve been doing for decades. That’s the best thing our military has to offer when it comes to succeeding in Afghanistan: an insidious and illegal foreign occupation.

Why? Because they’re the military. They’ve got aptly-named Predator drones and Hellfire missiles and other tools explicitly designed for hunting down and obliterating human beings. Despite the commercials you see of them rescuing disaster victims and handing out food, they’re really what Ted Koppel said during the Iraq invasion, “an awesome, synchronized killing machine.” Now, you want something “awesome” like that when Putin comes knocking on Sarah Palin’s door, or whatever we think is going to happen to us. But in Afghanistan, that’s not what we need. At least, those aren’t the objectives laid out by the President:

Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

OK, so the big one is al-Qa’eda. That’s been done for like a year now. We don’t want the Taliban to overthrow the government? Done, the Taliban are negotiating with the government. And finally, “strengthening the capacity” of the government to “lead responsibility,” that one we haven’t done. The government is corrupt and broken. That’s where all that talk about development, governance, and human rights comes in, which brings us back to the aid dispute above. The civilian side of our efforts wants to continue repairing a dam that could provide a stable power source indefinitely, instead of handing out expensive generators that require fuel local Afghans couldn’t possibly afford without welfare from President Tony Montana in Kabul, who can’t afford it either by the way. And our diplomats and development agencies actually know what they’re talking about.

Let’s look at Bangladesh. Like Afghanistan, they have similar energy problems, as my friend Bob Morris writes:

Imagine a city of 13 million with continual blackouts

That’s Dhaka, Bangladesh now. Uncontrolled growth is a primary reason that blackouts now occur every few hours, something which usually shuts down the water supply too. And here I get cranky when the Internet goes down for ten minutes. If you’re reading this on a laptop in a developed country, you are in the global elite.

So, what do we do about it? Send in 100,000 troops to shoot and bomb the hell out of them? Nope, just stuff like this:

USAID aims to:

  • Strengthen energy institutions, particularly the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission, the Rural Electrification Board and the rural electric cooperatives known as the Palli Biddut Samities or PBSs;
  • Help develop appropriate market structure and associated rules to ensure a competitive market for efficient market operations and increased consumer benefits
  • Promote balanced public discussion on reform of Bangladesh’s energy sector; and
  • Improve the legal, regulatory, and investment environment to promote private investment and development of the energy sector.[…]

Complementing these activities is USAID’s South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy (SARI/Energy) program. The program promotes energy security in South Asia by facilitating more efficient regional energy resource utilization, increasing transparent and profitable energy practices, mitigating the environmental impacts of energy production, and increasing regional access to clean energy. SARI/Energy focuses on:

  1. Cross border energy trade
  2. Energy market formation
  3. Regional clean energy development

That’s a lot of jargon, but essentially it’s the same sort of solution that we need in Afghanistan. In fact, it’s exactly what the State Department is asking for in the aid dispute with the military:

Instead of buying fuel, Eikenberry and other embassy personnel want the electric utility in Kandahar to do a better job of collecting fees and to use the money to buy fuel for the generators it already has, which would increase supply but not eliminate the shortage. USAID is offering help through its Afghanistan Clean Energy Program, a $100 million effort to promote “green” power in the war zone. The agency plans to install solar-powered streetlights in the city this year.

Rather than unsustainable bribes, help the local population solve their own energy crisis. Now I know what you’re thinking, Bangladesh is not Afghanistan. If we pulled out the military and just left the civilians and aid workers, they’d all get killed by the Taliban, right? Wrong. Bangladesh has many of the same problems, corrupt government officials, extremist infiltration in the military, even jihadi terrorist groups with lots of scary dashes and apostrophes:

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies in Bangladesh have sent a report to the Prime Minister on the existing militant groups in the country. According to the report, at least 12 militant outfits are active in Bangladesh, which have foreign funding links and relations with local political parties. The 12 militant outfits are, Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh [JMB], Harkatul Jihad al Islami [Huji], Hizb Ut Towhid, Ulama Anjuman al Bainat, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Islamic Democratic Party [IDP], Islami Samaj, Touhid Trust, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh [JMJB], Shahadat-E-Al Hikma Party Bangladesh, Tamira Ad-Din Bangladesh [Hizb-E-Abu Omar] and Allah’r Dal [Hezbollah]. The report however did not mention names of other militant outfits such as Zadid Al-Qaeda, Khatmey Nabuat Movement and Khatmey Nabuat Andolan.

It may be mentioned here that, members of Khatmey Nabuat Movement and Khatmey Nabuat Andolan have been staging massive repression on Ahmedia religious minority group in Bangladesh. Moreover, Mufti Noor Hussain Noonari, leader of Khatmey Nabuat Andolan led dozens of Islamists in destroying a sculpture, which was erected by the City Corporation in front of the Zia International Airport. Members of law enforcing agencies were helplessly witnessing the destructions of State properties by the unruly Islamists in broad day light. Later another group of Islamists attempted to destroy the sculpture in front of the National Flag Carrier’s head office. They also threatened to destroy the National Monument, which was erected in memory of the martyrs of the independence war of Bangladesh as well as another monument erected in the memory of Bangla Language Movement. It is learnt that, Mufti Noorani is continuing to give instigations behind such illegal activities.

Yep, that place sounds crazy dangerous, yet our civilians have been able to provide electricity to some 40 million people at a rate of 2,000 new connections per day. That’s just one piece of the program, there’s still all the other stuff about “market formation” and improving the regulatory environment. And tada! No Special Forces or Hellfire missiles. Our civilian aid workers and diplomats are highly skilled at operating safely and effectively in failed states, war zones, all kinds of unsafe places, and they don’t need military firepower to do it.

It’s the military presence that makes it unsafe for aid agencies. The civilians become co-conspirators in foreign domination, and with the military pretending to be interested in construction and development, they become completely indistinguishable from the occupying army. That’s why they become targets. We have to completely remove the military from the equation in order for our civilian efforts to work, and thus achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

And we have to remove the military quickly, because unlike our civilian workers, the military is not only making the situation unsafe in Afghanistan, but they’re even unsafe at home. Are you sitting down? Check this out:

Troubling new data show there are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans who are receiving some type of treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department.

Seven percent of the attempts are successful, and 11 percent of those who don’t succeed on the first attempt try again within nine months.

Holy shit! Excuse my language but that is a staggering statistic. 950 soldiers try to kill themselves every single month, and that’s just the price of doing business. If they manage not to get blown up by an IED, shot by friendly fire, or electrocuted in the shower, then they still have deadly severe PTSD to deal with. Even if they’re over there COINing it up, the environment our occupation creates is so hellish, the atrocities so outrageous, that afterward it completely shatters our soldiers’ will to live. Why? I can’t seem to find the same statistics for IREX or USAID. I guess there’s not a lot of diplomats commiting suicide because of all the schools and clinics they built. How many soldiers do we need working in Afghanistan? Zero! We’ve got to get every last one out of there, or not only will the sickening death toll continue to rise, but we’ll never get anywhere near completing our objectives in Afghanistan.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the President’s ideas about creating a stable Afghanistan. Intervention in any shape or form is controversial, and we’re welcome to have a philosophical debate about Neoliberal Globalization and “Soft Imperialism” and all that fun stuff, but we’re nowhere near that point yet. Right now the debate is on this:

Afghan protesters torched NATO supply vehicles in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, hours after allegations emerged that U.S. and Afghan troops had killed three civilians, including two brothers, in their home.

The demonstration occurred in Logar province after a nighttime joint patrol of U.S. Special Operations forces and Afghan soldiers fatally shot three people and arrested two others. NATO officials said the men were insurgents who had displayed “hostile intent.” One of those captured was a low-level Taliban commander who planned suicide bombings, they said.

But after daybreak, more than 100 people gathered on a main road in Logar to protest the killings and the death in a separate incident of an Islamic scholar, according to Afghan officials. Military operations at night are deeply unpopular, and Afghan officials have called for them to stop. The furious crowd blocked traffic and set fire to at least 10 fuel tankers using hand grenades, said the provincial police chief, Ghulam Mustafa Moisini.

“If they were insurgents, why are the people so angry?” asked provincial government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwish.

They’re angry for the same reason we are. We’ve got to get the military out of Afghanistan, for our sake, for the Afghans’ sake, and for the sake our national objectives in Afghanistan (at least according to President Obama). And you can help. Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.

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