Friday, February 27, 2009

Stop digging

This a guest post from Max Elbaum of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras. Max writes a regular "Month in Review"; you can sign up to receive these by email at the WT/TdG website. This contribution is only a fraction of the current month's wide-ranging survey of wars and rumors of wars.

Tom Andrews, Director of Win Without War, responded this way to Barack Obama's Feb. 17 announcement that he was ordering 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan:

"The first principle for someone who finds himself in a hole is to stop digging."


The cautious statement that accompanied Obama's announcement was tacit admission that the administration knows it is starting from below ground. The President acknowledged that "new strategic goals" were needed. He stressed that this deployment (of fewer troops than U.S. generals requested) "did not pre-determine" the outcome of the comprehensive review of Afghanistan policy now underway. This leaves an opening for antiwar and progressive activists to galvanize the pressure needed not just to head off further military escalation, but to reverse course altogether and start the process of the U.S. getting out.

The hole dug by decades (not just eight years) of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is so deep that even pro-war generals admit there is "no military solution" to the conflict. From the antiwar side, Katrina van den Heuvel, an initiator of the important new Get Afghanistan Right initiative, bluntly states the issue:

"Escalating the occupation of Afghanistan will bleed us of the resources needed for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift with our European allies, and negate the positive consequences of withdrawing from Iraq on our image in the Muslim world. Escalation will not secure a better future for the Afghan people or increase U.S. security."

Along with Get Afghanistan Right a wide spectrum of peace advocates are moving to raise the level of public education about, and protest against, Washington's so-called "good war." U.S. policy in Afghanistan will now join the contention over policy toward Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and the bloated military budget on the front-burner of antiwar activism.

Occupation fuels insurgency

There is a blunter way to state the fact that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict: Every bullet, soldier and bomb the U.S. sends to Afghanistan only makes things worse.

Ask the Afghan people themselves. A comprehensive poll by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD German TV released Feb. 9 showed the dramatic shift in Afghan opinion that has accompanied the up tick in U.S. military activity (especially air attacks) since 2005:

The number of Afghans who say their country is headed in the right direction has dropped from 77 percent to 40
percent. In 2005, 68 percent of Afghans credited the U.S. with a good performance; today's figure is 32 percent. More than 75 percent of Afghans say U.S./NATO air strikes are "unacceptable" due to civilian casualties. These figures almost certainly overstate backing for the U.S., due to the sections of the country surveyed by pollsters and the very fact that it was a Western consortium conducting the poll. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, operating in Afghanistan, drew out the essential point:

"The international coalition is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time.''

But even this doesn't go far enough: It is foreign military action and occupation that spurs heightened Afghan support for the Taliban-led insurgency. This is why opposition to the U.S. military presence has nothing to do with prettifying, excusing or supporting the reactionary views and practices of the Taliban, just as veteran anti-imperialist Tariq Ali explained in his book "The Clash of Fundamentalisms." Ali added just this month:

"My views have not changed... I have just recently written of the previous Taliban regime as a 'malignant social order'... the massive increase in support for the new version of the Taliban is the result of the war and occupation..."

Ali calls for a focus on diplomacy aimed at national reconciliation and a coalition government in Afghanistan, backed by "a regional solution that involves Iran, Russia, China and India as well as, of course, Pakistan." He points out the danger not just to Afghanistan but to nuclear-armed Pakistan if this is not done:

"The war will become uncontrollable and cause further havoc in that country and Pakistan. Already the chaos in the region has emboldened religious extremists in the Frontier province and religious warlords have reduced Swat to a fiefdom. Here it must be said that the decision of the Pakistan state to abandon its legitimate monopoly of violence and permit armed gangs to burn down schools and assault women is astonishing. A state that is incapable of protecting its citizens against violence either local or external is doomed to collapse. In fact the events in Swat could not have occurred had the governments of the country not colluded with some of these groups, using them to pressure Washington in different ways."

A faction in the Obama administration actually agrees with Ali on the eventual goal. This faction realizes that establishing a stable pro-U.S. client government in Kabul is a pipedream, and even that fighting the Al Qaeda terrorist network is more a political than a military task. Thus the new (and welcome) stress from Washington on "scaled-back" goals, the end of flag-waving bluster, and even the quiet retirement of the loaded phrase "war on terror." Still, most of this faction clings to the notion that the U.S. must and can "negotiate from strength" - and therefore must escalate its military presence in Afghanistan as well as drone missile strikes and special forces operations in Pakistan.

The key: commitment to withdraw

The very opposite is the case. The key to obtaining the kind of settlement projected by every reality-based observer of Afghanistan is to put an unconditional commitment to total U.S. and foreign withdrawal front and center. At that point the Taliban's appeal narrows to its fundamentalist platform; the group no longer would be able to win support on the grounds that it is the only effective force defending Afghan self-determination.

No one should wear rose-colored glasses. Even if all this was accomplished tomorrow, life in Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to be very difficult for years to come. Plenty of damage will be done by reactionary, theocratic and terrorist elements. A hole dug largely by decades of Western support for dictators, funding for reactionary terrorists under the banner of fighting communism, and imperial exploitation and intervention cannot be removed quickly or easily.

The pro-war/pro-occupation right uses the prospect of "bad things ahead" to justify continued intervention, meanwhile bombarding the U.S. public with misinformation about the real history of the region, the actual roots of terrorism, and racist steroetypes and myths about Arabs and Muslims.

From 2001 up until 2008 the right's perspective held enough sway to keep most of the public either supportive of Washington's Middle East wars or at least unwilling to register determined protest. But last year it proved inadequate to win the Presidential election for the Neocons. The issue now is whether those tired arguments can be further isolated and public anger roused to the point of saying a big loud "Enough!" ...

There's much more in Max's monthly letter. Sign up to get these informative communications at War Times/Tiempo de Guerras.

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