You'd think a ten-and-a-half year war would be a major issue in a presidential campaign -- especially a war going as badly as the one in Afghanistan. And especially in the wake of Sen. Jay Rockefeller publicly urging President Obama to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Maybe if the administration proposed funding a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kandahar, the war might get the place it deserves in the national conversation.
Our political and media establishments seem to regard being in a constant state of war as simply part of the "new normal" (to go along with over 8 percent unemployment). Things continue to go from bad to worse, yet we continue to be wedded to plans for a gradual withdrawal that will leave troops in Afghanistan until some point in 2014.
But even though our leaders don't seem to feel any sense of urgency, plenty of others here at home do -- indeed, the vast majority does. There are, of course, many issues on which our leaders are out of sync with the country at large (too big to fail, punishing those who caused the economic crisis, continued tax breaks for the rich, etc.), but this one is especially egregious, given the toll it continues to take in terms of lives lost, money squandered, and Afghan hatred of us increased.
According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, support for the war has hit a historic low, at 23 percent, with 69 percent saying we should no longer be in Afghanistan. And the sentiment that the war is going badly is one of the few bipartisan things in this campaign: 68 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans say the war is going somewhat or very badly. What is more, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the war has not even been worth fighting.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's response to this turning of public sentiment against the war? "We cannot fight wars by polls," he said. "If we do that we're in deep trouble." Of course that's true, and nobody's asking him to "fight wars by polls," but what he can do is use the same common sense that underlies those polls. We're over ten years in -- these aren't snap judgments. And the fact that we're in "deep trouble" in Afghanistan has nothing to do with our leaders being overly responsive to the public's wishes.
Of course, the war was back in the news most recently because of the horrific killing of seventeen Afghan civilians, allegedly by Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. This grotesque act of violence was both an aberration and not an aberration. It was an aberration in the sense that it in no way represents the behavior of the over two million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. But it was not an aberration in the sense that war is indeed hell, and atrocities -- even by the best-trained armed forces, and ours is certainly that -- are inevitable in prolonged conflict. That's why prolonging wars a second more than necessary is so deeply immoral. But does anybody sense that kind of urgency?
As Mark C. Russell, a retired U.S. Navy Commander and military psychologist, wrote on HuffPost, the military calls atrocities "misconduct stress behaviors," which always occur in war, "even at the hands of otherwise decent people." While noting that, of course, blame should fall foremost on the perpetrator, Russell believes that the circle of responsibility should be drawn considerably wider:
Bales and his family are just the latest of a long string of members of the warrior class that have unjustly born the burden of fighting an 11-year war. For instance, more than 107,000 military personnel have been deployed at least three times.
Bales, by the way, was on his fourth combat tour. Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College, put it this way: "I think if someone wants to place blame, it should be on a succession of national leaders who fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, just wear out."
The sort of warfare the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan, which exposes soldiers to "the horrors of intimate killing, along with other factors such as fatigue, thirst, hunger, isolation, fear of the unknown and the sight of dead and maimed comrades," writes Scales, "all start a process of moral atrophy that cannot be reversed."
So beyond Bales, says Scales, "the real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines."
And though the Bales case is one of the most sensational, that cynical exploitation has resulted in plenty of others. Just last month, Der Spiegel published photos of two U.S. soldiers posing with the corpses of Afghan civilians in 2010. The two were convicted of murdering those civilians, including a 15-year-old boy, last year, and were also the centerpiece of a Rolling Stone piece on U.S. war crimes called "The Kill Team."
But the danger is not just the odd overextended U.S. soldier breaking down. Last week an Afghan police officer shot nine of his fellow officers, then fled in a government car loaded with AK-47s and ammunition. Earlier the same week, a U.S. soldier was killed by another Afghan police officer, and two British soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier.
According to the Washington Post, the "apparent surge in such incidents" has "raised concerns about the state of the war effort." Indeed, these incidents are becoming so common they're called "green on blue" killings. And Pentagon numbers show that 75 percent of the deaths since 2007 have occurred in the last two years. As the Independent wrote, "the deaths raise fresh questions" and "deepen concerns... "
Over ten years in, isn't it time we stop raising questions and deepening our concerns? How deep do the concerns have to be before we act on them? How many fresh questions have to be raised until we start responding with the obvious answers?
And it's not just the war that's going wrong. As the New York Times reported last week, more and more Afghans are fleeing the country, with over 30,000 applying for asylum in other countries last year, the largest number in a decade. At the same time, only 68,000 Afghans returned, down sharply from the 110,000 who came back the previous year, or the 1.8 million who returned in 2002. And a sum of cash representing a quarter of Afghanistan's entire annual GDP was "physically carried" out of the country last year, raising more "fresh questions."
Even though over two-thirds of Americans want to end the war, the GOP candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul, of course) haven't exactly seized the issue. Certainly not the way they've latched on to the burning issue of contraception. Instead, they've mostly attacked the president for daring to have announced a timeline for withdrawal. "It's unthinkable that you say, 'Here's the date we're gonna leave, regardless of the circumstances,'" Mitt Romney said, adding: "Before I take a stand on a particular course of action, I want to get the input from the people who are there."
This obligatory "listening to the generals" approach ignores that the generals' job is to accomplish the mission they're sent on. It's not their job to decide what that mission is, what its scope should be, and whether it's worth committing U.S. blood and treasure to. That's the job of the civilian leadership, aka the president.
As for Rick Santorum, his answer, in response to the Bales incident, was actually closer to the truth: "Given all of these additional problems, we have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner given the president's decision to get out in 2014."
Given that doubling down for a full commitment (Another decade? Two decades? Or should we aim for a full century?) without a clear mission would be doubling down on insanity, the answer has to be: "get out sooner."
The only GOP candidate who has had a consistently clear position on the war is Ron Paul. "The truth is, I'm trying to save the Republican Party from themselves because they want perpetual wars," he said on Face the Nation. "It was a waste, there's not gonna be a happy ending, and I think the Republicans have dug a hole for themselves because they're trying to out-militarize the president, say 'we should do more.' Yet 75 percent of the American people say 'we've had enough.'"
And yet even though, as Paul notes, he's the one in agreement with the vast majority of the country, the media mostly treat his foreign policy views as something your crazy uncle might say after one too many drinks.
Surely we can all agree that the first rule of military action should be: do no harm to your own national security. But right now we are doing a lot of harm, losing hearts and minds every day and making our country ultimately less safe as a result.
So, this war is not just a tragic waste of lives and money, it's also weakening our national security by strengthening the resolve of those who will stop at nothing to harm us. And it's deepening our involvement in a civil war that is never going to be resolved while we're in the mix.
"War is destructive of the human spirit," said Vietnam vet and military scholar Andrew Bacevich in an interview with Bill Moyers. "War compromises our humanity."
This one is now compromising our humanity, our national security, our standing in the world, and our claim to the moral high ground.
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