The Afghan Quagmire
Misusing professional cadets at West Point as a political prop, President Barack Obama delivered his speech on the Afghanistan war forcefully but with fearful undertones. He chose to escalate this undeclared war with at least 30,000 more soldiers plus an even larger number of corporate contractors.
He chose the path the military-industrial complex wanted. The “military” planners, whatever their earlier doubts about the quagmire, once in, want to prevail. The “industrial” barons because their sales and profits rise with larger military budgets.
A majority of Americans are opposed or skeptical about getting deeper into a bloody, costly fight in the mountains of central Asia while facing recession, unemployment, foreclosures, debt and deficits at home. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), after hearing Mr. Obama’s speech said, “Why is it that war is a priority but the basic needs of people in this country are not?”
Let’s say needs like waking up to do something about 60,000 fatalities a year in our country related to workplace diseases and trauma. Or 250 fatalities a day due to hospital induced infections, or 100,000 fatalities a year due to hospital malpractice, or 45,000 fatalities a year due to the absence of health insurance to pay for treatment, or, or, or, even before we get into the economic poverty and deprivation. Any Obama national speeches on these casualties?
Back to the West Point teleprompter speech. If this is the product of a robust internal Administration debate, the result was the same cookie-cutter, Vietnam approach of throwing more soldiers at a poorly analyzed situation. In September, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen told an American Legion Convention, “I’ve seen the public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don’t support the effort at all. I say, good. Let’s have the debate, let’s have that discussion.”
Where? Not in Congress. There were only rubberstamps and grumbles; certainly nothing like the Fulbright Senate hearings on the Vietnam War.
Where else? Not in the influential commercial media. Forget jingoistic television and radio other than the satire of Jon Stewart plus an occasional non-commercial Bill Moyers show or rare public radio commentary. Not in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post.
A FAIR study published in the organization’s monthly newsletter EXTRA reports that of all opinion columns in The New York Times and the Washington Post over the first 10 months of 2009, thirty-six out of forty-three columns on the Afghanistan War in the Times supported the war while sixty-one of the sixty-seven Post columns supported a continued war.
So what would a rigorous public and internal administration debate have highlighted? First, the more occupation forces there are, the more they fuel the insurgency against the occupation, especially since so many more civilians than fighters lose their lives. Witness the wedding parties, villagers, and innocent bystanders blown up by the U.S. military’s superior weaponry.
Second, there was a remarkable absence in Obama’s speech about the tribal conflicts and the diversity of motivations of those he lumped under the name of “Taliban.” Some are protecting their valleys, others are in the drug trade, others want to drive out the occupiers, others are struggling for supremacy between the Pashtuns on one side and the Tajiks and Uzbeks on the other (roughly the south against the north). The latter has been the substance of a continuing civil war for many years.
Third, how can Obama’s plan begin to work, requiring a stable, functioning Afghan government—which now is largely a collection of illicit businesses milking the graft, which grows larger in proportion to what the American taxpayers have to spend there—and the disorganized, untrained Afghan army—mainly composed of Tajiks and Uzbeks loathed by the Pashtuns.
Fourth, destroying or capturing al Qaeda attackers in Afghanistan ignores Obama’s own intelligence estimates. Many observers believe al Qaeda has gone to Pakistan or elsewhere. The New York Times reports that “quietly, Mr. Obama has authorized an expansion of the war in Pakistan as well—if only he can get a weak, divided, suspicious Pakistani government to agree to the terms.”
Hello! Congress did not authorize a war in Pakistan, so does Obama, like Bush, just decree what the Constitution requires to be authorized by the legislative branch? Can we expect another speech at the Air Force Academy on the Pakistan war?
Fifth, as is known, al Qaeda is a transnational movement. Highly mobile, when it is squeezed. As Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the former CIA officer operating in Pakistan, said: “There is no direct impact on stopping terrorists around the world because we are or are not in Afghanistan.” He argues that safe havens can be moved to different countries, as has indeed happened since 9/11.
Sixth, the audacity of hope in Obama’s speech was illustrated by his unconvincing date of mid-2011 for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. The tendered exit strategy, tied to unspecified conditions, was a bone he tossed to his shaky liberal base.
The White House recently said it costs $1 million a year to keep each single soldier in Afghanistan. Take one fifth of that sum and connect with the tribal chiefs to build public facilities in transportation, agriculture, schools, clinics, public health, and safe drinking water.
Thus strengthened, these tribal leaders know how to establish order. This is partly what Ashraf Ghani, the former respected Afghan finance minister and former American anthropology professor, called concrete “justice” as the way to undermine insurgency.
Withdraw the occupation, which now is pouring gasoline on the fire. Bring back the saved four-fifths of that million dollars per soldier to America and provide these and other soldiers with tuition for their education and training.
The principal authority in Afghanistan is tribal. Provide the assistance, based on stage-by-stage performance, and the tribal leaders obtain a stake in stability. Blown apart by so many foreign invaders—British, Soviet, American—and internally riven, the people in the countryside look to tribal security as the best hope for a nation that has not known unity for decades.
Lifting the fog of war allows other wiser policies urged by experienced people to be considered for peace and security.
Rather than expanding a boomeranging war, this alternative has some probability of modest success unlike the sure, mounting loss of American and Afghani lives and resources.