Is It Time for the U.S. to Leave Afghanistan?

June 16, 2011

One student reading considers opposing views on this question; a second examines the debate over how a U.S. withdrawal would affect women's rights in Afghanistan. Discussion questions follow.

To the Teacher:

In recent weeks public debate has intensified about an important question: Is it time for the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan?
For some, the killing of Osama bin Laden in a special forces raid on his secret compound in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 7, 2011 represented the successful culmination of a now decade-long war in Afghanistan that began less than a month after the 9/11 attacks. A variety of commentators and elected officials have since argued that the death of bin Laden should be an occasion for speedy withdrawal. The debate heated up again in late May and early June during Congressional deliberations over a House defense appropriations bill, with some lawmakers arguing that continued funding for military action in Afghanistan should be tied to an accelerated timeframe for withdrawal.
This lesson is designed to provide an entry point for a discussion about the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In light of recent events, including Osama bin Laden's death, it presents arguments from different sides of the political spectrum both for and against ending the war in Afghanistan. It invites students to think critically about the range of issues at play and to develop their own conclusions.
This exercise consists of two student readings, with questions for class discussion. The first reading focuses on whether the time has come to begin withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The second reading takes a look at the question of women's rights in Afghanistan and the impact that withdrawal might have on women. The questions that follow the readings suggest some starting points for class engagement and encourage students to relate their own experiences to these issues.

Student Reading 1:

Is the Case For Withdrawal Gaining Ground?

On May 2, 2011, President Obama authorized a special forces raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan believed to be the hideout of the world's most notorious terrorist-the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Osama bin Laden. The raid resulted in bin Laden being shot twice and killed.
For some, this successful mission was seen as the culmination of a now decade-long war in Afghanistan that began less than a month after the 9/11 attacks. The war in Afghanistan was the first overseas deployment in President George W. Bush's "War on Terror." Its stated purpose was to find and apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden and other members of his radical terrorist organization, al Qaeda. Another stated goal of the war was to remove the Taliban, an Islamist group that ruled much of Afghanistan and provided a safe haven for al Qaeda to operate within the country's borders.
With Osama bin Laden now dead, some lawmakers and commentators have called for the US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is arguably the longest war in US history. On May 25, 2011, the US House of Representatives nearly passed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have "required a plan and time frame for an accelerated exit strategy for withdrawing US forces" from Afghanistan. The final vote was 204-215, a narrow defeat for the amendment. (
Individual lawmakers from both major political parties have also proposed a timetable for withdrawal. Representatives Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, argue that in the face of the worldwide dispersal of al Qaeda members and the increasingly corrupt and hostile Afghan government, it no longer makes sense to maintain the hugely expensive deployment of US troops in the country, especially now that bin Laden has been killed. In an article in The Nation, they argue:
The operation that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden demonstrated that the men and women of our armed forces and intelligence community are incredible people. The world is now a better, safer place.
The question then becomes: now what? Now that bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is scattered around the globe, does it really make sense to keep using over 100,000 US troops to occupy Afghanistan and prop up a corrupt government? We don't think so.
Remember - we didn't find bin Laden on the front lines of Afghanistan. He was comfortably holed up in a mansion in Pakistan. We must continue to target Al Qaeda wherever in the world they are. But continuing to be bogged down in Afghanistan makes that mission harder, not easier.
In December, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made it clear that he would rather align himself with the Taliban than with the United States. So why on earth are we sacrificing so much in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and billions of dollars to support him?
However, those who oppose this viewpoint believe that bin Laden's death should only strengthen the United States' commitment to staying in Afghanistan. One proponent of this position is former Vice President Dick Cheney, a leading force behind the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (and later the war in Iraq). Cheney believes that withdrawal could potentially create a power vacuum that could lead to a resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, he said:
I'm a bit concerned that we're now going to see a situation where because we've got bin Laden, there will be a rush to get out of Afghanistan, to pack up troops and say the task is done and we can leave. I'm not sure that's wise at all.[...]
What I don't want to see happen is what happened again in the 1980s... After we solved the Soviet problem, everybody left Afghanistan. And ultimately, the Taliban took control, Osama bin Laden showed up and it became a safe harbor. They trained 27,000-some terrorists, and they launched an attack against the United States. If we turn and walk away from Pakistan and Afghanistan or that part of the world generally, I'm fearful that we're headed for trouble down the road.
While Cheney has remained supportive of a continued US troop presence, even some formerly strong advocates of the war in Afghanistan, including many of Cheney's fellow Republicans, have begun to argue that the United States should not commit itself indefinitely to a costly war. As recently as March 2010, Representative Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida, fiercely defended President Obama's troop surge in the country. But now Stearns has begun to revise his position. In May, Stearns was quoted in the Huffington Post:
"Our forces have been involved in Afghanistan for nearly 10 years and we need to focus on reducing our presence there and bring our troops home," he said. He also cited the cost of operations in Afghanistan, saying, "We just can't afford it with a deficit of $1.5 trillion." But he noted, "I do not advocate ending our involvement immediately and any drawdown should be based on conditions on the ground."
Stearns adds, "We should reevaluate our commitment there given the death of bin Laden, the toll on our troops, and our budget situation," Stearns added in a second statement. "In other words, we need to come home sometime, and the sooner the better."
For Discussion:
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. A number of lawmakers who initially supported the war in Afghanistan have now changed their position. What reasons do they give for this change?
3. How did you feel when you heard about Osama bin Laden's death? Do you think that bin Laden's death should change the timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan? What other variables do you think should factor into the decision on when to withdraw?
4. Do you know anyone in the armed forces who has served in Afghanistan? What have you learned from hearing of their experience? What have you learned about their experience from news coverage about troops serving in Afghanistan?
5. Some people argue that "war on terror" is not a good term to use to describe the effort to stop individuals like Osama bin Laden. They point out that "terrorism" is not a specific enemy, but rather an abstract tactic that will always exist. What do you think? Is "terror" or "terrorism" something that can be defeated in a war?

Student Reading 2:

Women's Rights in Afghanistan

An alternate argument for the US to remain in Afghanistan concerns the status of women in that country. Some supporters of the military presence of the United States and its allies argue that a withdrawal of foreign troops would lead to the takeover of the Afghan government by religious conservatives who would dramatically constrict the rights of women in the country. However, some people who want the US to withdraw from Afghanistan believe that a foreign military presence there is ultimately not helpful for Afghan women.
The Taliban is a radical Islamist militia group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 up to the invasion in 2001. It regained control of some parts of the country in 2004. The Taliban adheres to and strictly enforces an extremely conservative form of Islamic law called Sharia. This code of conduct is derived from their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. The Taliban in Afghanistan is considered to be the strictest enforcer of Sharia in the world.
Sharia law addresses topics including politics, economics, legal issues, and personal matters. It also places rigid restrictions on the conduct of women in society, and it can result in harsh punishments for women who are believed to have broken the code. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, human rights groups strongly criticized the treatment of women in the country. Under Taliban rule, women were forbidden to attend school beyond the age of eight, and were largely robbed of their rights to work, vote, or run for office. They were not permitted to be treated by male doctors (and so were often not treated at all), and were sometimes forced into arranged marriages at very young ages. In general, women under the Taliban had less power than before to control the outcomes of their own lives.
The oppression of women under the Taliban led some human rights and women's rights activists to support the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan on the grounds that it would make the country safer for women. This rationale became part of the Bush administration's justification for the war. An example of this was a statement by former First Lady Laura Bush, who said in November of 2001:
Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.
Many critics of the war thought the Bush administration's use of the women's rights issue to be opportunistic and politically motivated — not rooted in longstanding concern for Afghan women. They argue that despite the presence of foreign troops, the Taliban has made gains in recent years. They say this demonstrates that a foreign occupation is not the way to provide meaningful, long-term security to Afghan women or women's rights groups operating in the country.
One such critic, David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, argues that Americans should "support women's rights without war." He believes that an exit strategy needs to be established that both preserves gains for women and sets a timeframe for withdrawal. He wrote in May 2011, "the majority of women we interviewed support a peace process because they know that women and girls are suffering from war. They can see their rights eroding as violence increases."
Cortright's proposed strategy for withdrawal would involve the following elements:
The draw down in foreign troops must be accompanied by long-term, sustained investment in aid projects that support Afghan women and families. Because development funding has been linked to military objectives and aid money has been concentrated in areas with the most fighting, foreign governments will be tempted to reduce aid programs as they begin to withdraw troops. This would be a tragedy for Afghanistan's future, and a slap at women's rights.
CARE and other aid organizations have identified social programs that are effective at improving the lives of women and families, especially in the areas of education and healthcare - such as improving access to secondary education for girls, training female health workers and expanding economic opportunities for women in rural areas.
One of the best ways to prevent a roll back in women's gains is to ensure that women are meaningfully represented in all peace discussions and forums. So far, Afghan women have had to fight hard to have their voices heard in the various discussions... convened in recent years. Western policymakers have significant leverage with the Afghan government that should be used to ensure that women are included in high-level decision-making forums.
The debate over whether a foreign military presence is helping to improve the plight of Afghan women will almost certainly continue for as long as US troops remain in the country. 
For Discussion:
1. What questions do students have about the readings? How might they be answered?
2. What is the Taliban? What is Sharia law? How has the enforcement of Sharia law in Afghanistan affected women?
3. Some people argue that the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has had a positive impact on the lives of women in the country. What do you think?
4. What steps does David Cortright recommend for a withdrawal would also help women in Afghanistan? Do you think his plan would work? Can you think of other steps that might be taken to advance the rights of Afghan women?
5. In the United States, women still earn, on average, about 80 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts, according to the US Department of Labor. Although women in the US now make up nearly half the workforce, they are still greatly underrepresented in top government and corporate jobs. Discrimination persists in many other ways as well. In recent years, several states have passed restrictions on women's reproductive rights. How would you compare the challenges faced by women living under Taliban rule to the more subtle challenges faced by women in Western countries?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org by Mark Engler with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.
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