What is the US obligation to the people of Afghanistan?

In the wake of any international occupation, the occupying force should be held accountable to the people of the occupied nation – Afghanistan is no different. 

Post-War Afghanistan & the United States

Afghan Local Police (ALP)

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In the wake of any international occupation, the occupying force should be held accountable to the people of the occupied nation – Afghanistan is no different. First, the United States must immediately withdraw all military personnel and assets from the occupied territory and allow the people of Afghanistan to freely exercise their right to self-determination. Second, sufficient compensation must be provided to account for the damage and destruction visited upon the civilian population as a result of the bombing campaign and subsequent occupation by NATO and US forces. Continued US military presence fuels the resurgence of the warlords from Afghanistan’s deadly past, contributes to increases in violence and unrest in the region, and sets a dangerous international precedent, risking further confrontations as the power dynamic and the political climate of the international community continues to evolve.

The humanitarian claims espoused by the United States to justify continued military presence in Afghanistan should be analyzed but, nevertheless, understood to be largely empty. Upon examining the early stages of the conflict, it is clear that the United States harbored little, if any, concern for the civilian populations in Afghanistan. Despite months of pleas[1] from independent[2] and international[3] human rights organizations[4] for a ceasefire throughout the initial stages of the occupation, the aerial bombing campaign continued. The constant barrage of attacks had crippling effects on the already limited supply of food and other humanitarian aid needed to sustain countless numbers of displaced Afghan families and civilian refugees.[5] The bombing was initiated and maintained, despite ample prior knowledge that the anticipated interruptions in aid, damage to infrastructure, and ensuing chaos in the aftermath of the bombing would very likely push millions of Afghans over the edge of starvation[6] and severely endanger millions more.[7] It was also widely understood that the civilian population – not the targeted “insurgent groups” – would suffer both the majority and the worst of these effects.[8] Moreover, as of July 2001 the “Six Plus Two” was already “providing military and material support to Afghan parties that have committed gross violations of the laws of war,”[9] particularly the warlords of the United Front (Northern Alliance).[10] Incidentally, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce of the British Defense Staff candidly explained the proper way for a state to conduct international terrorism, adding, “This is going to go on until they get the leadership changed.”[11]

Washington’s apathy toward the Afghan people throughout Operation Enduring Freedom suggests the US presence in Afghanistan may serve interests other than the protection of the civilian population – in addition to any self-proclaimed punitive or retaliatory interests. The gross discrepancy in the number of troops in each theater of operations suggests the United States knew it would be impossible to secure Afghanistan in the same way it secured Iraq.[12] There were over 160,000 troops stationed in Iraq in 2009.[13] While there were only 40,000 stationed in Afghanistan that same year[14] despite the overwhelmingly complex nature of both the geographical[15] and the human terrain[16] of Afghanistan when compared to Iraq. Indeed, the US is interested in providing “a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation”[17] in Afghanistan without requiring a large ground force.[18] Indeed, the entire occupation of Afghanistan seems to have been conducted as a secondary operation to that of Iraq. At least in part, this is because the real value of Afghanistan lies, not in its democratization or so-called “liberation,” but rather in its strategic location deep within the growing geopolitical domains and supply routes of Russia and China.[19] In addition, combined with the large reserves of oil and gas throughout the Caspian Basin,[20] the US will also likely exploit Afghanistan’s location as a convenient military staging area.[21] This will allow the US to pursue its interests in securing the Basin[22] without committing large numbers of US troops to the region and, consequently, without requiring a substantial civil reconstruction effort.[23]

Regarding US obligations to civilians in the region, Gilbert Achcar explains, “There is a horrendous rule in certain societies that if a man rapes an unmarried woman, he’s got to marry her. By analogy, that’s what we’re hearing from some circles in the United States: We’ve raped [Afghanistan], we’ve got to marry her, ‘we’ve got to stay there, we have a responsibility.’”[24] At this point, the only appropriate roles for the US should be saltwater advocacy for human rights and increased economic compensation for the victims of the conflict. Human Rights Watch has suggested that NATO form a trust fund to assist Afghan security forces, similar to the one for Iraq.[25] The US should increase funding for its compensation program in Afghanistan, and encourage other nations to follow suit. Whenever feasible, aid should be distributed to “domestic Afghan groups, including women’s groups and other local organizations.”[26] If the people of Afghanistan request assistance in building state institutions, the international community should be the one to provide the materials and support necessary to oblige their requests.[27] NATO and the US have already demonstrated an inability to provide any real security to the Afghan people,[28] and they should be excluded from further efforts.[29]

As predicted by scholars in 1998,[30] attempts by the US to construct a functioning Afghan government have failed miserably.[31] The result has often been instances of torture,[32] civilian deaths[33], rape,[34] and countless other atrocities.[35] The US-backed Afghan Local Police (ALP), which is, according to Gen. (Ret.) David Patreaus, “arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself,”[36] is a particularly unsettling example of US failures in the region. At both the individual and the institutional levels, US and NATO forces have also engaged in violations of international and humanitarian law,[37] among other inappropriate behaviors,[38] that have often resulted in unrest and chaos.[39] The same violent warlords of the United Front, who “amassed a deplorable record of attacks on civilians between the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 1996,”[40] have continued to receive US backing and support. Vice President Mohamed Fahim is one example of this phenomenon.[41]

If Afghanistan requests foreign military or security assistance, the response should not include troops from the US or the other Great Powers. One tentative solution would be to use international peacekeeping forces to maintain stability in the region. They should operate, however, “under UN General Assembly supervision.”[42] As Dr. Chomsky explains, this would allow the international community to avoid working through the Security Council, which should be discredited due to the overwhelming veto power given to permanent member states.[43] Efforts to provide assistance should not be offered out of self-interest, which means that the US, along with the other major powers, should be excluded from this process.[44] When asked about additional US-backed security forces, a senior Afghan official has already made it clear how the Afghan people feel: “The people of Afghanistan don’t want these militias,” he said. “This is what the warlords and the Americans want.”[45]

By maintaining its occupation of Afghanistan, the United States is sacrificing leverage and moral high ground with regard to the international community. Expansive policies and continued association with regimes in the Caspian Basin are “particularly problematic; one state’s defensive weaponry is, notoriously, its neighbor’s offensive threat.”[46] In the long run, the best option for both the US and the Afghan people is for the US to accept the reality on the ground and come home before it’s too late.

[1] Haughey, (2001), pg 10.

[2] Smith, (2001), pg. 4.

[3] Harding, (2001), pg. 4.

[4] Rashid, (2001).

[5] Badkhen, (2001).

[6] Shalom, (2001), pg. 71-72.

[7] U.N. Special Rapporteur, (1999).

[8] Badkhen, (2001).

[9] Human Rights Watch, (July 2001), pg. 3.

[10] Human Rights Watch, (July 2001), pg. 6-7.

[11] Gordon, (2001).

[12] Shalom, (2009), pg. 72.

[13] McLean, (2011), at Iraq.

[14] McLean, (2011), at Afghanistan.

[15] TRADOC, (2004), pg. 6-9.

[16] Golinghorst, (2010).

[17] Kellerhals Jr., (2012).

[18] Bowman, (2012).

[19] Barnes (1998), pg. 6-11.

[20] Stuart, (2002).

[21] Shalom, (2009), pg. 74-75.

[22] Barnes, (1998).

[23] Rogin, (2012).

[24] Shalom, (2009), pg. 115-116.

[25] Human Rights Watch, (Oct. 31, 2006).

[26] Shalom, (2009), pg. 81.

[27] Id., at pg. 81-82.

[28] Human Rights Watch, (Dec. 2, 2009).

[29] Human Rights Watch, (Nov. 19, 2010).

[30] Barnes, (2012), pg. 16.

[31] Human Rights Watch, (May 19, 2012).

[32] Roth, (2012).

[33] Amnesty International, (Oct. 6, 2011).

[34] Barr, (2012).

[35] “Just Don’t Call It A Militia, (2011).

[36] Human Rights Watch, (Sept. 12, 2011).

[37] Becker, (2008).

[38] Stewart, (2012).

[39] Human Rights Watch, (Apr. 17, 2007).

[40] Human Rights Watch, (Oct. 7, 2001).

[41] Roth, (2012).

[42] Shalom, (2009), pg. 82.

[43] UN Charter, Art. 27(3).

[44] Shalom, (2009), 81-82.

[45] Human Rights Watch, (Nov. 19, 2010).

[46] Barnes, (1998), pg. 16.


  1. Abdur Rashid, “Afghanistan: A worsening food crisis,” Food and Culture Organization, United Nations, Oct. 31, 2001.
  2. Afghanistan 10 years on: Slow progress and failed promises, Amnesty International, Oct. 6, 2011.
  3. Afghanistan: Civilians Bear Cost of Escalating Insurgent Attacks, Human Rights Watch, Apr. 17, 2007.
  4. Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, Vol. 13, No. 3, (July 2001).
  5. Afghanistan: No Shortcuts to Security, Human Rights Watch, Dec. 2, 2009.
  6. Afghanistan: Poor Rights Record of Opposition Commanders, Human Rights Watch, Oct. 7, 2001.
  7. Afghanistan: The Study of a Nation, PowerPoint Presentation [UNCLASSIFIED], Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), (2004), available at http://www.atsc.army.mil/crc/iso6a10l/AfghanistanCountryStudyC.pdf.
  8. Alan McLean & Archie Tse, “American Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq,” New York Times, June 22, 2011.
  9. Alex Duval Smith, “Cease Air Strikes So Aid Work Can Go On,” Independent, Oct. 16, 2001.
  10. Anna Badkhen, “Afghan refugees left out in the cold / 5 million could starve to death as chill of winter covers desert,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 2, 2001.
  11. Charter of the United Nations, 1 UNTS XVI, (October 24, 1945).
  12. Jo Becker, “American credibility on trial,” Salon.com, Aug. 21, 2009.
  13. Joe Barnes, “US National Interests in the Caspian Basin: Getting Beyond the Hype,” Unlocking the Assets: Energy and the Future of Central Asia and the Caucasus, The James A. Baker III Inst. for Pub. Pol’y of Rice Univ., (April 1998).
  14. Josh Rogin, “State Department official: Negotiations to extend U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan starting soon,” Foreign Policy, Oct. 16, 2012.
  15. Kenneth Roth, “Dereliction of Duty,” Foreign Policy, May 22, 2012.
  16. Luke Harding, “Aid Agencies Plead for Pause in Raids,” The Guardian (London), Oct. 18, 2001.
  17. MAJ Kevin R. Golinghorst, Mapping the Human Terrain in Afghanistan: A Monograph, School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, (2010).
  18. Merle David Kellerhals Jr., “Obama and Karzai Sign Strategic Partnership Agreement,” U.S. Dept. of State, International Information Programs (IIP) Digital, May 2, 2012.
  19. Michael R. Gordon, “Allies Preparing for a Long Fight as Taliban Dig In,” New York Times, Oct. 28, 2001.
  20. NATO: Rights Key to Afghanistan’s Security, Human Rights Watch, May 19, 2012.
  21. NATO/Afghanistan: Abusive Partners Undermine Transition Plan, Human Rights Watch, Nov. 19, 2010.
  22. Nuala Haughey, “Aid Agency Calls for US to Cease Bombing to Allow in Food,” Nov. 1, 2001.
  23. Paul Stuart, “Caspian Basin oil pipeline company founded,” Int’l Committee of the Fourth Int’l (ICFI), Aug. 30, 2002.
  24. Phil Stewart, “Can United States defuse Quran burning uproar?” Al Arabiya News, Feb. 24, 2012.
  25. Stephen R. Shalom, Noam Chomsky, and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, Paradigm Publishers (2009).
  26. Tom Bowman, “About 25,000 Troops May Be Needed In Afghanistan After 2014, Planners Say,” NPR, May 2, 2012.
  27. U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, “Situation of human rights in Afghanistan: Interim report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, prepared by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights,” U.N. Doc. A/54/422, September 30, 1999.

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