To the editor:
Amid the finger pointing that has characterized the debate over President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, former Congressman Joe Sestak’s recent column was a moving reflection on what should be the main concern for Americans now: the welfare of the Afghan people – particularly the fate of those seeking refuge in the United States. Our doors, more than any other country, must be open to as many of them as possible.
However, to speak only of America’s role in educating girls and advancing human rights in Afghanistan is to promote an incomplete view of our conduct that could serve to justify military aggression and human rights abuses in the future. A more complete picture of the war in Afghanistan would include the fact that, for example, in the first 15 months of the U.S. invasion alone, around 2,775 civilians were killed, almost as many as died in the 9/11 attacks.
Indeed, throughout America’s longest war, according to Amnesty International, US/ NATO raids and airstrikes have “[bred] enormous resentment from both the Afghan government and the general public.” In 2015, for example, the United States killed 42 civilians in an airstrike on a Kunduz hospital in what Doctors Without Borders condemned as a war crime.
A study by Brown University’s Cost of War Project showed that, after President Donald Trump relaxed U.S. rules of engagement, the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led air strikes increased by 95% compared to the previous 10 years to an average of 1,134 every year. In per capita equivalents, such losses would translate to almost 10,000 American civilian deaths per year from 2017 to 2019. This is an unimaginable toll for any country – let alone one of the poorest on earth.
The human rights record of some of our allies in the war has been similarly disturbing: One elite CIA-advised Afghan paramilitary unit reportedly carried out a series of raids in 2018 and 2019 in which at least 51 civilians, including children as young as 8, were killed. The leader of leader of the province where the attacks occurred said that Americans “step on all the rules of war, human rights, all the things they said they’d bring to Afghanistan.” In 2015, the New York Times revealed that American soldiers were told by superiors not to speak up about rampant sexual abuse of children by US/NATO-allied militia commanders.
Only recognizing that such cases are representative of U.S. policy in Afghanistan during the war on terror allows us to understand why just 17% of Afghans believed – despite the massive security challenges the country faced – that keeping foreign troops in the country was an important component of any peace agreement or why surveys of international public opinion routinely rank the U.S. as the greatest threat to, not promoter of, peace and democracy around the world.
-Townson Cocke, Alexandria