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What Does the United States Owe the People of Afghanistan?

AU’s David Vine shares his views on US withdrawal from Afghanistan

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An American Apache helicopter in Afghanistan. Photo credit: Andre Klimke

It was in graduate school when now Professor of Political Anthropology David Vine first became interested in war and how it impacts people across the world. It was right before the attacks of 9/11, and Vine was researching how indigenous people were displaced when the United States built a secret military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Since then, war, refugees, displacement, and international human rights issues have been part of Vine’s scholarship and writing. His newest book, The United States of War: A Global History of America's Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (University of California Press, 2020), was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in History.

David Vine: The United States of War

It’s Vine’s third book in a trilogy about war and peace. It follows Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World and Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia. As part of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, Vine also helped compile and write Militarization: A Reader and The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society. He is the co-author with six AU students of the Costs of War Project's report "Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States' Post-9/11 Wars." And his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Mother Jones, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. 

On August 16, Vine wrote a piece for Business Insider about the 20-year war in Afghanistan and the US withdrawal. We asked him to share his personal opinions about what he believes are the US obligations to the people of Afghanistan — and how he believes the US can transform its role in the world.

The United States has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. Our war killed more than half a million people. Millions more were injured and traumatized. And at least 5.9 million people were dislocated.

The numbers are devastating. What do you think the United States owes the people of Afghanistan?

To say we owe a huge debt to the people of Afghanistan is a vast understatement. Imagine how we would feel if another country invaded ours, causing such immense destruction over 20 years. What debt would we want paid? The US has an obligation to help repair the damage caused by 20 years of a war that never should have been fought. Remember that four consecutive presidents and hundreds of members of Congress chose to wage war in a country whose people bore no responsibility for al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks. Our taxes funded that war. Given the 600,000–750,000 dead, the millions injured, and the 5.9 million displaced, with thousands more attempting to flee right now, one key place to start is for the Biden administration to commit to resettling one million Afghans to our country over the next decade.

This may sound impossible, but we accepted around 800,000 refugees from Southeast Asia after the end of our wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In one year, 1980, the US accepted 350,000 refugees, including 125,000 from Cuba. Germany welcomed more than one million across parts of 2015 and 2016. We also must provide additional humanitarian assistance and aid to resettle Afghans in Afghanistan, when safety allows, as well as in other countries. If war forced us to flee, wouldn’t we expect the same welcome?

In addition to resettling Afghan refugees, what else would you like to see the US government do for the people of Afghanistan?

In short, our government must stay engaged with Afghanistan and the Afghan people in a diplomatic and humanitarian sense while completely leaving Afghanistan and the wider region in a military sense. On the first point, the Biden administration must remain committed to supporting Afghanistan’s peace process and ending violence with the transition to Taliban rule. Our government must also support renewed Afghan-led international development assistance that avoids the waste, corruption, and manipulation of prior US aid. Provided in one form or another, the US also owes Afghanistan war reparations for the damage and horror our 20 years of war inflicted.

The costs of resettlement and war reparations may seem overwhelming, but they are tiny compared to the $2.3 trillion spent on 20 years of war in Afghanistan and the bloated US military budget, which tops $700 billion annually and exceeds that of the next 11 countries combined. Congress should use money saved by withdrawing bases and troops from Afghanistan to resettle Afghans and provide additional aid.

Which brings me to the second point: We must build on the withdrawal from Afghanistan to withdraw completely from completely from dozens of bases across the Middle East. If we don’t, I fear we soon will find ourselves in even more disastrous wars across the region and beyond.

As you look forward, do you see this as a trend for future US international relations? Do you believe that the United States will close military bases and withdraw from other countries? Or do you predict the opposite will occur?

We must stop fighting. Our country has a choice now: keep fighting and watch the US unravel in bankruptcy and what will likely be even more catastrophic wars or stop fighting, end our endless wars, and focus our foreign policy around diplomacy, peacebuilding, and violence reduction. To transform the role of the US in the world, we crucially must close US military bases abroad that have been platforms for endless war and move tens of billions of dollars from our military budget to budgets that address human needs related to health, pandemic preparedness, a Green New Deal, hunger, homelessness, education, and much more. I’m optimistic that widespread recognition of the catastrophe that was the war in Afghanistan gives us an opportunity to turn away from war and transform how the US engages with the rest of the world. But it will require a movement of thousands of courageous people to demand such a change and save us from ever more disastrous wars.


*The views expressed here belong solely to the author, and not necessariy to the author's employer, organization, committee, or other group or individual.