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Phyllis Bennis Headshot

A Really Big Show: Bigwigs Gather in Kabul... for What, Exactly?

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This week the State Department bragged about the really important conference on the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan held in Kabul, hosted by the Afghan president and including dozens of international political leaders. So why was it relegated to page 10 of the New York Times and the equivalent in most of the mainstream media?

The answer is actually pretty simple: It just wasn't that important. Most of the decisions Hillary Clinton was so proud of were old news: The Afghan government will fight corruption and build up the Afghan National Army (ANA) better! The U.S. and other NATO countries will train the ANA! The U.S. will help the Afghan government fight corruption! Why should anyone think these plans will work any better this time around?

Then there was the other problem: The new stuff they did decide on at the conference wasn't anything anyone wanted to brag about. Karzai's government is still impossibly corrupt, but the U.S. and other donors are now promising to give 50 percent of the billions in aid money directly to that government. Who wants to trumpet that at a press conference?

Clinton acknowledged that "citizens of many nations represented here, including my own, wonder whether success is even possible," but pretty much claimed that didn't matter because "the Afghans had presented the most detailed plans yet for how to hand off control to Afghan security forces."

But that won't happen till 2014 at the earliest. The British prime minister announced that "we're not going to be there in five years' time." The Obama administration kinda-sorta-maybe looks at that deadline too. But there's plenty of wiggle room left to allow U.S. troops to remain far longer than that, maybe following the Iraq model of what the Pentagon calls "re-missioning" -- giving combat troops a new name, like "trainers" or "advisers," and leaving them in place.

More importantly, continuing the occupation for another four or more years is certainly not what Afghans or the rising antiwar majorities in the U.S. and the UK want to hear. Some of the other NATO and coalition countries appear more democratic -- their governments are actually listening to what their public wants. Dutch troops will be out of Afghanistan in the next few months. Canada (despite its right-wing government) will be out by the end of next year.

The bottom line is that the White House is having a hard time convincing us that we've somehow "turned a corner" in Afghanistan, that counterinsurgency is winning, that 2010 would be "the year of Kandahar." Rather, as Wednesday's New York Times reported on the front page, those same White House officials, once granted anonymity, "acknowledge that the chances of progress there are growing more remote."

Those officials are wrong. "Progress" in Afghanistan is not "growing more remote." It started out back in 2001 as completely remote and now, nine years later, it's pretty much impossible. Making U.S. troop withdrawal dependent on the Afghan army's ability to "defend its own country" is specious. The problem with the Afghan soldiers isn't illiteracy or lack of capacity. The problem is lack of commitment -- to the "government" in Kabul widely understood as the government of Kabul. There's simply no basis for a "national" army to defend a government with no legitimacy, whose survival remains dependent on occupying forces.

The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, a longtime supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now acknowledged that "after nearly nine years of war, continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn't likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do." He's absolutely right.

It's almost as if Haass is agreeing with Col. Douglas MacGregor (Ret.), who told Rolling Stone that "the entire COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy is a fraud perpetrated on the American people." Except Haass then proposes his own horrifying alternative -- reducing combat troops but dramatically increasing the special forces operations and airstrikes that have killed so many Afghans. As legitimate concerns continue to rise regarding rapidly escalating U.S. and NATO military casualties, we have to be vigilant in making sure that "solutions" don't mean Afghanizing the dead even more.

The solution is to get the troops out. We cannot afford the costs -- in money and blood -- of this war. Suicide rates among U.S. troops are higher than ever. This year's Pentagon budget plus the Iraq and Afghanistan war costs one trillion dollars of our taxes -- money we need for jobs at home and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The $33 billion Obama wants to escalate the war could pay for 660,000 new green union jobs. Over half of Americans want to cut the war budget, and thousands of people across the U.S. are now demanding that their members of Congress vote NO on the supplemental war funding bill. Let's join them.