Our political leaders say that the military mission in Afghanistan is intended to protect women’s rights, but war itself is a threat to those rights. Last week an air strike in Eastern Afghanistan killed eight women and girls whose only ‘crime’ was to be out in the pre-dawn darkness collecting firewood for their families.
Thousands of innocent people have died since the fighting began in 2001, many of them women and children. More than 3,000 civilians died in 2011, according to UN figures, the highest number yet recorded. Although most of these casualties are the result of insurgent attacks, U.S. actions are also contributing to widespread civilian suffering.
In our interviews with Afghan women over the last two years we found universal agreement that the war must end. The women we met revile the Taliban and oppose their return to power, but they also want the fighting to stop. They realize that they cannot secure their rights in the militarized environment that now exists in the country.
U.S. officials claim they are achieving military progress, but the facts suggest otherwise. NATO troops are facing what General David Petraeus has described as an “industrial strength insurgency.” Taliban forces control much of the countryside. Last week insurgents attacked a fortified base in southern Afghanistan, killing two U.S. marines and destroying or severely damaging eight NATO jets, the largest destruction of military equipment since the war began.
A day later four more U.S. troops were gunned down by their supposed Afghan allies. That makes 51 American soldiers killed by Afghan troops so far this year. These insider attacks are a mortal blow to the U.S. mission. NATO commanders no longer trust their Afghan partners and are restricting joint operations. Efforts to train and arm Afghan forces are increasingly untenable. Why would we want to give weapons to Afghan troops who might turn their guns against us?
It should be blindingly obvious after all these years that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies desperately need a strategy for ending the war.
The first step in such a strategy should be establishing a ceasefire. The United States should halt all military operations and bombing raids, and invite the insurgents to do the same. We should work through the United Nations to support a comprehensive international peace mission to negotiate a political settlement within Afghanistan and a diplomatic compact among neighboring states. We should withdraw our remaining troops as insurgents agree to a negotiated settlement and pledge support for the Kabul regime as it accepts a power sharing arrangement.
Reaching a peace settlement will not be easy and poses many risks, but it is preferable to pursuing an endless unwinnable war. If we really want to help the women and men of Afghanistan, we should assist them in ending the war by building a sustainable peace.