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Ending the Wars by 2012?

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A moderate Democratic-leaning study group has released a proposal to "fast track a peace process" in Afghanistan and withdraw 32,000 American troops by October 2011 and another 38,000 by late 2012, the period of the next presidential election.

The proposal, which was reported in the Aug. 18 Bulletin, was released at a Washington DC press conference Sept. 8. The so-called Afghanistan Study Group, a project of the New America Foundation, drew on input from 46 academic experts and former policy-makers.

For the full report, read, "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." For an additional exit strategy by former State Department official William R. Polk read "Steps Toward Withdrawal."

The director of the current study group is Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and civilian adviser in Afghanistan, became the first US official to resign in protest of the Afghanistan war, in September 2009. Hoh, who was interviewed by the Bulletin last year, has become a passionate, outspoken and well-informed critic within the cloistered culture of national security policy.

The report -- "A New Way Forward" -- represents the most organized stirring of dissent against the Obama-Petraeus Afghanistan policy by mainstream national security experts. Their alternative is sure to stir discussion during Obama's December review of war policy and is the first to paint a scenario for an exit strategy.

Nevertheless the proposal is only a gradual plan which assumes that conditions in Afghanistan will not radically change before the US carries out the prescribed drawdown.

Indeed, at close reading it is not a plan for full military withdrawal at all. It would reverse the current escalation while still hoping to leave a smaller US "footprint."

It could marginalize the core voices of the American peace movement -- those who favor a rapid withdrawal and end to occupation -- in the Washington game.

But it's complicated.

Start, for example, with the differences between the White House and the study group, which are stark. Obama and Richard Holbrooke frame Afghanistan as a national security threat. The study group report says the war "is not essential to US security" and the goal of building a new unified Afghanistan "is not a goal for which the US military is well-suited." Instead of the counterinsurgency strategy mapped by Petraeus, the study group says the US "should move away from a counterinsurgency effort that is neither necessary nor likely to succeed."

The study group also plants a pole in the middle of the current debate between Obama's current pledge to "begin" withdrawals by July 2011 and the lobbying effort by Petraeus and many others for a more open-ended commitment of several years. The study group pressures Obama to "stick to his pledge" and puts a numeric definition of what "beginning" should mean -- 32,000 American troops leaving by October of next year. Were this timetable adhered to, the Afghans and, more importantly, the American public could believe the American occupation is ending. The peace dominoes would begin to fall.

In the best case, a climate could be created compelling Obama to run for re-election in 2012 on a campaign of ending two wars. Such a campaign would be too consequential for today's disillusioned peace voters to ignore.

What is wrong with this scenario? Perhaps nothing at all if a momentum towards peace becomes unstoppable. But...

First, the study group's numbers freeze out the option of a more rapid withdrawal without offering a reason. One searches in vain for where the numbers came from. The study group helpfully notes the factors that it took into account: the minimum troop level needed to train Afghan troops, prevent "massive human rights atrocities" resist Taliban expansion, and "engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed." But why a reduction of 32,000 troops by October 2011 instead of, say, 50,000? Why a reduction of another 38,000 by July 2012? When exactly should the US "eventually" discontinue combat operations? Does "reducing the US military footprint" mean trying to keep a residual force and permanent bases?

The Bulletin sought answers to these questions from Hoh and the other sponsors of the report, Steve Clemons of the New American Foundation and Bill Goodfellow of the Center for International Policy, but received no reply by September 9.

It seems clear, however, that this is more a de-escalation strategy than a withdrawal proposal. The total troop reductions envisioned approximate the number of new American troops who have been sent since Obama became president. If adopted, the president would be able to say he approved a "surge" as requested by his commanders in the field but kept faith with his pledge not to approve the open-ended commitment his opponents wished for.

It also is worth noting that the troop numbers projected by a leading hawk like Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution blend with the numbers advocated by the doves at the new study group.

In his essay, "How the Afghan War Can Still Be Won," O'Hanlon says that Obama will "run for re-election with more than 50,000 US troops still in Afghanistan, and with no realistic prospect of bringing them home early in what would be his second term." This from a hawk who also writes that "thankfully, it appears unlikely that the United States will rapidly depart from Afghanistan starting in July 2011." O'Hanlon supports the official plan drafted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal projecting three more years of fighting the Taliban while training the Afghan security forces. [See O'Hanlon, Foreign Affairs, Sept./Oct.2010, pp. 78-79]

But compare this hawkish projection -- from 100,000 American troops today to 50,000 by the presidential campaign year 2012 -- with the dovish projection of the study group -- from 100,000 today to between 68,000 in October 2011 and 30,000 by July 2012. Splitting the difference between 68,000 and 30,000 results in a sum of 50,000. In the dovish scenario, US troop levels could well be 50,000 during the 2012 election campaign. Starting from apparently different assumptions, both hawks and doves in the national security world are envisioning comparable troop levels two years from now.

The question for serious peace organizers, and the huge bloc of peace voters who helped elect Obama in 2008, is whether this will look like a gradual withdrawal or yet another quagmire. Will Obama be able to campaign on a platform of ending two wars or stumbling into two quagmires?

A think tank might provoke serious questioning in the Beltway, but only a mobilized peace movement can force the issues at basic precinct levels. The study group has a blueprint for de-escalation, but no map from here to there. It is not a substitute for an active peace movement.

There is a further problem with the insider strategy. It rests on powerful pragmatic reasoning - that the war is unwinnable and unaffordable [$100 billion per year to eradicate 20 or 30 Al Qaeda leaders in a country whose GDP is only $14 billion per annum]. But the report does not excoriate the US for fostering a regime of blatant corruption. It says little of civilian casualties. It is as if the war and occupation might be worthwhile if only they were cheap and winnable.

The danger in this focus on making the effective argument is that it diminishes any moral awareness of the slaughter that we have participated in causing and by which the rest of the world judges us. For example, the media and most Americans believe the 2007 Iraq surge "worked" without any knowledge of the mass assassinations described, at least briefly, in Bob Woodward's final book on the Bush years.

Similarly, the study group recommends "robust counter-terrorism" without spelling out the scale and impact of drone attacks and nighttime raids by US Special Forces. Now we even are seeing the return of the body count as a metric of "success" after years of its rejection as a measure of anything meaningful. Last week, the body count concept crept into Gen. Petraus' defense of the war for the first time in memory, when he told reporters, "In June, July and August, United States and NATO forces killed or captured 235 insurgent leaders, killed 1,066 rank-and-file insurgents and captured an additional 1,673 rank-and-file insurgents."

Who exactly were these "insurgents" and what were they "insurgents" against, besides the invasion of their villages? Were they secretly preparing a sanctuary for the Taliban's imagined return? How many new insurgents replaced the dead ones? How many more families and children deepened their hatred of the United States?

These are moral questions but they are related to real-world effects. For another example, why have more American soldiers committed suicide in the past year than have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq? Could we be approaching a suicidal depression on a mass scale from these unwinnable, unaffordable and unnecessary wars? It may not be a useful role of study groups and think tanks to dwell on these questions. That is another reason there needs to be a peace movement.

Article originally appeared on tomhayden.com.


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