Monday, April 06, 2009

Afghanistan: a luxury Obama can't afford

The coffin bearing Air Force Staff Sgt. Philip Myers, who was killed in Afghanistan on April 4, arrived at Dover Air Force Base on Sunday night. Sgt. Myers' family gave consent for this photo by Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times.

(This post is my contribution to the Get Afghanistan Right blogging project.)

The most interesting tidbit of news that came out of the NATO meeting in Strasbourg didn't come from Barack Obama. It is this unsourced admission quoted in the New York Times:

"No one will say this publicly, but the true fact is that we are all talking about our exit strategy from Afghanistan," a senior European diplomat said Saturday. "We are getting out. It may take a couple of years, but we are all looking to get out." He spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic rules.

Europe is done with Afghanistan, while Obama is committing over 20,000 new troops for a total of 68,000. It seems reasonable to ask: why is the U.S. escalating rather than joining the exodus? Those of us who insist that further U.S. war-making in Afghanistan is a waste of Afghan and U.S. lives need to understand why as we work to build a peace movement.

Barack Obama does have an answer to that question. In the same article from Strasbourg, he is quoted saying:

"We want to do everything we can to encourage and promote rule of law, human rights, the education of women and girls in Afghanistan, economic development, infrastructure development," he said. "But I also want people to understand that the first reason we are there is to root out Al Qaeda ..."

I've argued previously that we should listen to this President, because he very carefully uses his words to win and exercise power. But that doesn't mean we have to treat his utterances as incontestable. I assume by this statement he's reiterating an undeniable political fact: no U.S. president can afford to allow a major terrorist attack of foreign origin to occur on his watch. George W. used up the only free pass any U.S. ruler is going to get on a terrorist attack.

But going beyond the words -- where's the argument that making war in Afghanistan is going "root out Al Qaeda"? The president's own intelligence agencies say Bin Laden and Co. are almost certainly in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. They also say that the more U.S. troops, the more civilian casualties, spurring more angry Afghan adherents to a fundamentalist, tribal Islam who are ripe for recruitment for terrorism. Obama has not made the case that his actions will achieve his stated ends.

So if the explanation for why the U.S. must fight on in Afghanistan is paper thin, it's probably worth going back over all the purported "reasons" that form the background inertia for continuing this war. The list is depressing.
  • From the get-go, Afghanistan was about revenge. Somebody killed 3000 people in New York and Washington and robbed us of our absolute assurance of safety from foreign attack. Somebody had to pay. Afghans lost.
  • The Taliban were a brutally illegitimate bunch; nobody, including most Afghans, was going to mourn our making them the sacrifice to take the edge off our hurt.
  • The U.S. has an expensive, permanently far flung military that claims to be ready for any task. When what you have got is a hammer, you are liable to treat any problem as a nail and bang away. Never mind that the threat from non-state terrorists could and should have been dealt with by international law enforcement, not shock and awe bombing of Afghanistan's already deep rubble.
  • Wars that don't cause many U.S. casualties are popular with military contractors -- and don't think that Congresscritters who need campaign contributions and jobs in their districts don't remember that.
  • Some oil companies had (and maybe have) fantasies of controlling Central Asian oil and gas pipelines. Afghanistan makes a good base to advance their interests -- otherwise China or India might get the energy supplies.
  • Finally, Democrats have to prove they are tough guys (that includes our women politicians). The Republicans have successfully made "Democrat" equal "wimp" in the public psyche; winning Democrats prove they are butch. Wars are very butch. And generals cooperate with civilian authorities when they get to have (winning) wars.
So the U.S. war in Afghanistan is an ugly mess. Is there any hope the U.S. will ever find the "exit strategy" President Obama said he wanted only a week ago?

I think yes -- people who want peace should be hopeful indeed. This President is a pragmatist. He's got a massive number of genuine, pressing problems on his plate. As it become mores evident that the Afghanistan adventure is simply a human and economic waste, he's not going to clench his war in a death grip. Why U.S. forces might discover that they can have an "exit strategy" -- their commander can order them to leave.

The project for the peace movement is to drive into the popular consciousness the complete futility of the Afghan war and similar wars of empire. By doing so, we're helping a pragmatic president survive and govern. The country has real problems: terrorism, yes, but that just needs law enforcement. The true quagmires are a domestic economy that no longer produces employment or commodities for survival, a reeling international economy of which we are the dysfunctional leader, and a planet that is burning up. Nasty little far away wars are no longer an acceptable luxury for this country, not to mention their victims.


Anonymous said...

The US will never win in Afghanistan. They have nothing but time, we do not. At some point we will declare victory and leave and the Arab world will say we were run out and defeated. The Taliban will take over again. The end result will be as if we were never there!

Darlene said...

Excellent and well thought out post. I agree with all you said.

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