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Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis

Posted: November 30, 2009 08:08 AM

Reprise? Obama And Afghanistan

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The president had a difficult decision to make. The war had been raging for a long time. The US and its far-away enemies had fought to a stalemate -- but people just kept dying. Most of them were local civilians, but plenty of US and coalition troops, as well as local allied and enemy forces were being killed too. For years government and media reports of possible enemy threats at home had driven people in the US to sky-high levels of fear -- high enough that many people had accepted the view that "we have to fight them there so we don't have to fight them here."

Some top policymakers wanted the American people to believe that the war would keep them safe. That it was necessary. Maybe even that it was a good war.

And yet, as the war continued, questions arose. People had already begun to put fear aside, hardly anyone believed anymore that the war was going to keep them safe.
And yet some among the top military brass insisted even more strongly that not only was the war still necessary to keep the US secure, but that it required a dramatic escalation in military strategy -- including sending a lot more troops. Government policymakers began questioning the generals. The top military commander moved to implement his personal war plan -- persuading members of Congress to support his own strategy, undermining the president's diplomatic efforts, mobilizing international support for a policy of escalation his commander-in-chief had not endorsed. The general was wildly popular at home, especially with Republicans; the president was a Democrat. More questions arose. Leaks and reports indicated that the president himself was not at all sure his top general was right.

A national poll asked "Do you think the United States made a mistake in going to war, or not?" Forty-nine percent answered yes, it was a mistake. Only 38% said no it was not.

The president reminded the general that according to the US Constitution the president is the commander in chief of the US military, not any uniformed military officer. He told the general he questioned the general's call for a dangerous escalation. The general insisted his strategy was necessary, and continued his public campaign for escalation.

So the president fired the general.

The year was 1951. The war was in Korea. President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur. The Republicans and much of the mainstream media went crazy. But the elected US civilian government retained control of the US military. The US did not escalate the war and invade China. And World War III did not occur.

Almost sixty years later, President Obama is reported to have demanded new Afghanistan options, deeming insufficient the limited choice his generals had offered between small, medium and large escalations. He apparently challenged General McChrystal, his handpicked commander, who demanded more than forty thousand additional troops. Obama's top diplomat in Afghanistan opposes escalation. Influential diplomatic and congressional officials are publicly against escalation, with many calling for military withdrawal. Among the US public, 59% oppose sending more troops. That includes 28% who want all US troops out and 21% supporting a partial US withdrawal. And 52% believe the war in Afghanistan has already turned into a Viet Nam-style quagmire.

And yet we are about to witness President Obama's highest visibility war speech yet -- announcing a major escalation in Afghanistan. He will have West Point's young army cadets mobilized as the studio audience with orders to cheer him on -- announcing his massive escalation there because no audience other than the military or a rent-a-crowd of Republican campaigners could be counted on to celebrate Obama's war.

Most of the reasons for the rising opposition to the US war in Afghanistan are familiar:

  • The war (against who exactly? al Qaeda? the Taliban? everyone who opposes the corrupt Afghan government that the US claims as "our" side?) cannot be won militarily, and sending in 32,000 to 34,000 new US troops will not change that.
  • Shifting to a counter-insurgency strategy will not work when there is no legitimate government to build support for; if cheerleading for the corrupt Kabul regime is all the US can offer, "successful" counter-insurgency will mean building local support for permanent US occupation instead.
  • The war is causing too many Afghan deaths and too much destruction to that already ravaged country -- and so beyond the human cost, generations of Afghans, Pakistanis and their neighbors will continue to hate us as foreign occupiers.
  • The cost of the war in the US -- in the lives of our young soldiers, in the credibility of our country, and in the cost to our own struggling and impoverished population, is too high.

We need President Obama to reflect the courage President Truman showed when he stood up to General MacArthur. But instead we are likely to see President Obama acquiescing to the views of General McChrystal rather than standing up for his own opinions, announcing a major troop escalation along with some nice centrist-in-chief words about benchmarks and a future exit strategy. The escalation will begin immediately; the exit will be "conditions-driven," or "dependent on circumstances," or "as soon as the Afghan security forces are ready."

Such an escalation will not bring a US military victory -- there is no military solution, and these new troops will not "finish the job" in Afghanistan. The number of US and NATO forces already surpasses the number of Soviet troops in Afghanistan at the height of their failed occupation in the mid-1980s. More troops will not win the war.

This new escalation will likely lead to a political victory at home -- but it will not be President Obama who wins that prize. Rather, the consequences of accepting the McChrystal escalation will result in the president relying for political support on the Pentagon, the Republicans and the right-wing of the Democratic Party, who together will claim their due as an empowered pro-war coalition. The political forces that swept President Obama into office on a powerful tide of progressive, anti-war and anti-racist mobilization, as well as their allies in congress, are already disappointed; this new escalation, this caving in to the demands of the generals, will transform disappointment into anger, the sense of frustration into a sense of betrayal.

One of the key reasons people who count themselves among the majority, now 57% opposed to the war, feel betrayed by the prospect of a troop escalation in Afghanistan, is the painful awareness of the disastrous impact this will have on the crucial domestic programs that form the core of Obama's still widespread but rapidly diminishing popular support. We are all too aware that sending 34,000 new troops in Afghanistan will cost a minimum of 34 billion additional dollars just for one year. That cost, on top of the hundreds of billions more already in the pipeline, allocated, and planned for war spending, will make the chance for a real jobs program, or passing the Employee Free Choice Act, impossible. It will send the cost of dealing with climate change out of reach. It will render real health care reform hopeless. It will make any new stimulus package, any new effort to rebuild the U.S. economy, unattainable.

The costs of war in Afghanistan will transform all those urgent domestic necessities -- jobs, health care, climate change -- into discretionary programs, achievable only if and when a mythical budget surplus materializes. Real efforts to begin repaying the massive obligations -- for compensation, reparations, real reconstruction -- we owe to the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq will never have a chance. Only the war budget will remain as an unchallengeable entitlement.

And thus President Obama stands to reprise not the courage of Harry Truman, but rather the failure of Lyndon Johnson, whose bold and ambitious 1964-65 Great Society anti-poverty and civil rights programs were buried in the quagmire of Viet Nam.

President Obama travels to Oslo in just a little more than a week, to try to explain to the world why he deserves the Nobel Prize for Peace. It won't be easy. Most observers thought the Nobel Committee made their choice partly as a gesture of thanks to the people of the United States, for ostensibly voting out the horrors of Bush-era war policies. But mostly, the Nobel Committee seemed to be using the Prize to remind the new president of his obligations to the world, to remind him of what real change, where peace is involved, requires. I don't envy President Obama's speechwriters on this one. Accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, having just announced that 30,000 or more young men and women are about to be sent to kill and die for an illegitimate war already lost, will not be easy.


Phyllis Bennis is co-author with David Wildman of the forthcoming Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer.