Washington's Wars and Occupations:

Month in Review #46

February 27, 2009

By Max Elbaum, War Times/Tiempo de Guerras




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" - http://www.getafghanistanright.com - 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 GETAFGHANISTANRIGHT 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.  




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% to 40%. In 2005, 68% of Afghans credited the U.S. with a good performance; today's figure is 32%. More than 75% 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 Pakiston 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 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 are better conditions than before to do this. Fear-mongering ("the terrorists are coming") now alienates as many people as it mobilizes. The White House - and even many top generals - have shifted tone about the Middle East away from the demonization drumbeat of the Bush years: a new texture of discussion that deals with Arabs and Muslims as human beings with legitimate grievances and their own narratives explaining today's conflicts is beginning to be seen in the media and public square. The majority of U.S. people have become skeptical that war in the Middle East accomplishes anything. On top of all that, the economic crisis is opening ever-expanding constituencies to the idea that re-directing resources from senseless wars to rebuilding the U.S. should be an issue for militant advocacy, not just passive sympathy.




Israel/Palestine, and the direct connection between that conflict and Washington's stance toward Iran, is also moving to the top of the antiwar agenda. This is partly because of the aftershocks of Israel's invasion of Gaza; partly because Israel's election will bring Benjamin Netanyahu to power; and partly because here, like Afghanistan, the new administration is in the midst of deciding the exact contours of its policy.


The world is still absorbing both the full brutality of Israeli invasion and the political result. Israel lost the battle for the world's hearts and minds during the massacre - that trend is continuing in its aftermath. Details of what occurred and condemnations of Israeli policy are coming from new quarters. For the first time since 2006 U.S. government officials - Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Keith Ellison and Brian Baird - visited Gaza. Ellison and Baird issued a press release declaring:


"If this had happened in our own country, there would be national outrage and an appeal for urgent assistance. We are glad that the Obama administration acted quickly to send much needed funding for this effort but the arbitrary and unreasonable Israeli limitations on food and repair essentials is unacceptable and indefensible. People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in."


Amnesty International meanwhile has called on the U.N. to impose an immediate arms embargo on both Israel and Hamas after it found both sides violated international law. Donatella Rovera, who led the group's fact-finding mission, stated that Israeli forces had used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the U.S. to carry out war crimes.


The one place where public opinion shifted in favor of Israel's assault was among the Jewish population of Israel itself. Israeli peace activist Reuven Kaminer analyzed the underlying dynamic:


"The current nonsense is that the Israeli electorate split into two camps in the recent elections, a right-wing bloc headed by Bibi Netanyahu and a left-wing bloc headed by Kadima's Tsipi Livni. Alas, there is no sizable left-wing block. But there is a right-wing block in Israeli politics and it covers quite a bit of the map: The Likud is a right-wing nationalist party. Kadima is a center-right party created and inspired by the right-wing militarist, Ariel Sharon. Avigdor Lieberman's "Israel is Our Home" is a right-wing, crypto-fascist, racist concoction... plus the Religious and settler parties...


"The parliamentary picture is a direct result of long term processes... Israeli society from its inception expressed two main characteristics. In many senses, it qualified as a liberal democratic capitalist formation. However, in its deeper structures and dynamics it tended to revert to its colonial origins. It is the colonial nature of Israel which figures increasingly in its political make-up... The latest murderous expedition in Gaza had all the necessary components needed to push an already frightened and despairing Israeli electorate further to the right.


"Would it be possible for the leadership of a democratic society to go courting an openly racist crypto-fascist leader [Lieberman] for a pivotal role in a new coalition? This courtship is at the center of current bargaining! The racist scoundrel is openly calling for the expulsion of entire towns and their population from Israel's borders. In the face of this criminal drive for transfer of Israel's Arab citizens, can the international community, governments and citizens alike, remain silent as if this is an internal Israeli affair? Is fascism ever an internal affair?"


Speculation is ripe even in the mainstream press that the new Israeli government's hard-line stance will lead to clashes with an Obama administration that shows some (still tenuous) signs of moving away from a total blank-check for Israel policy. Whether or not this becomes the case - and whether even if the White House wants to take such a stance it can be pressured to put some real heat on Israel - remains to be seen. Iran may be the issue that decides this matter, as Jim Lobe writes in Asia Times:


"Former U.S. ambassador Samuel Lewis said after the Israeli elections that 'Iran is the most likely issue on which Israel and the U.S. will have a serious difference of opinion, if not a confrontation, in the next year.' Virtually the entire Israeli establishment has described Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions as an 'existential' threat and have suggested that Israel should be prepared to unilaterally attack Tehran's key nuclear facilities if it cannot persuade Washington to do so."


But the Obama administration is moving in a very different direction, seeking negotiations with Iran in hopes of getting agreements that will help advance the White House goals for stabilization (and face-saving?) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Obama's hawkish new Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said in Kabul this week that "It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan... Iran has a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors."




As the sixth anniversary of the Iraq invasion approaches, Obama has announced a 19 month timetable for all combat troops to leave and projected large savings from cuts in Iraq spending in his budget proposals. (Go to http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/1117 for Phyllis Bennis' analysis.) For all its shortcomings - and the lack of commitment to total withdrawal by any date is the biggest - this still marks a victory for the antiwar movement. The more so as those who still bait Obama as "waving the white flag to terrorists" have decided they cannot win the battle for public opinion by denouncing the move at this time. They will undoubtedly scream "Obama is selling out America" down the line somewhere as it becomes clear that (whatever words the administration uses) it is at bottom accepting and trying to manage defeat in Iraq. All the more reason why continuing to agitate for total and immediate withdrawal and amplify the public's widespread disgust for this war remains a priority for the peace movement.


Meanwhile the component of an antiwar program that might gain the most traction in terms of sparking action among large numbers is the demand to cut the military budget. The economic crisis sets the conditions - and for the first time in many long years voices to substantially cut Pentagon spending are aggressively raised on Capitol Hill. See especially Barney Frank's calls for a 25% slash, for example at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090302/frank   


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