Peace movements in every country are raising their voices against the war in Afghanistan in advance of the May 18-20 NATO summit in Chicago. Some will converge on Chicago, while others will march in NATO capitols. Around two-thirds of the public in NATO countries now opposes the war, and most of their governments are anxious to withdraw if a face-saving path can be found.
The Obama administration and its allies are scrambling to showcase an announcement of progress before the Chicago summit gathering, which thousands of journalists are planning to cover. The administration already has relocated the G-8 summit on the world fiscal crisis, originally planned at the same time, to the secure seclusion of Camp David.
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The administration faces a growing reality of quagmire, possibly even deeper chaos, in Afghanistan. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say the U.S. "should not be involved", a jump of 16 percent from last year. The percentages tend to be even higher in NATO countries. A March 7 New York Times headline, "Intractable Afghan Graft Hampering U.S. Strategy", summarizes the terminal ineptitude of the Karzai regime. According to NATO data, only one of the Afghan army's 158 battalions is able to fight on their own, up from zero last year. (New York Times, March 16, 2012) Meanwhile those same Afghan soldiers and police are "killing their colleagues among the international military force here at an alarming rate", according to another New York Times report. (March 28, 2012) One result of the deepening quagmire has been a collapse of U.S. military morale and discipline, as seen in widely-publicized cases of American soldiers burning Qurans, urinating on dead bodies, and a shooting spree against innocent Afghan villagers. The suicide rate in the American armed forces is at a historic high.
The suspicion is deepening that the war is no longer about benefits for Afghanistan, if it ever was, but about protecting the reputation of NATO. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in Foreign Affairs (2010), a division between the U.S. and Europe over Afghanistan "would probably spell the end of the Alliance." Former White House National Security Adviser James Jones said in 2007 that "NATO has bet its future," on sustained combat in Afghanistan. The well-connected Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid has written that, in Afghanistan, NATO "would find meaning for its continued existence." (Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos, pp. 372-373)
Now that NATO has "proven" itself in Libya, the pressure to justify itself in Afghanistan might lessen. But the arrogance only seems to grow. For example, the NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, proclaims that there was not a single confirmed civilian casualty in NATO's onslaught against Libya. (New York Times, March 25, 2012), a lie topped only by the CIA's repeated insistence that there have been no civilian casualties from its drone strikes on Pakistan.
Nevertheless, Western proposals being prepared for Chicago continue to assume the supremacy of "NATO's Secrecy Stance" -- the quote is from the New York Times' C.J. Chivers -- during the coming "transition" process through 2014 and beyond. The powers with real interests in stabilizing the region -- Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, China, India and Russia -- are marginalized to secondary roles in NATO's vision of the future.
Ironically, Iran, currently the number-one economic and military target of the West, has historic ties with the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Shiite Hazara who oppose the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not so long ago, Iran even was envisioned as part of a "contact group" to mediate and resolve the Afghanistan conflict. A top U.S. official in the Bush years noted that "Iran hoped and anticipated that tactical cooperation with the United States would lead to a genuine strategic opening between our two countries." (Council on Foreign Relations) Those days are long gone and, unless there is a "grand bargain" in place of the present brinksmanship, Iran can thwart Washington's hopes for a deal on Afghanistan as the Iranians helped to do over Iraq.
U.S. and NATO policies in the region are, to say the least, "incoherent," in the description of historian Gerald Horne.
During the Chicago summit, Obama is expected to announce a more rapid shift from a combat to an advisory role for U.S. troops, an accelerated withdrawal of more than the 33,000 troops scheduled to depart this year, and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) containing immunity for any American troops left behind. Karzai so far is demanding that U.S. troops end their night raids and other offensive operations, and face Afghan courts where war crimes are committed. Since there were 2,200 night raids last year, according to NATO's count, curtailing them would threaten the present U.S. strategy. (New York Times, March 23, 2012) On the American side, Obama is facing open opposition by his top general on the battlefield, Marine Gen. John R. Adams ("General Says Afghans Need Big US Force Beyond 2012," New York Times, March 23, 2012). And although growing numbers of Republican voters have given up on "staying the course", Mitt Romney is synchronizing his position to that of the military commanders. The Congress has been dormant, but at least one hundred House votes favoring Barbara Lee's bill cutting funds for any purpose besides redeployment.
There is no light at the end of the Afghan tunnel. A gradual reduction in the U.S.-NATO combat role will not stop the spilling of Afghan blood, will not stem the waste of our tax dollars, will not stabilize Afghanistan, will not end the drone strikes, and will not end the worry of American soldiers that they will be the last to die in a forsaken and forgotten place. Nor will the United States and the West be safer from terrorist attacks on our own soil, as shown once again by the killings in Toulouse this month.
The weight of public opinion in an election year is the critical factor Obama needs to consider, and peace advocates need to amplify. There is no reason to believe that the Afghan war will disappear from the headlines between now and November. In fact, more "isolated" disasters like the shooting of civilians are predictable. That means the United Nations and NATO might have to think the unthinkable and summon the uncommon courage to acknowledge a military quagmire. Expediency may no longer justify a lingering occupation, but instead may mean cutting one's losses and hoping the public will be accepting. If the U.S. does pivot to an exit strategy, unlikely as that seems at the moment, the argument Obama can use is that the hopeless Afghan regime and its hapless army "lost" the war in spite of the ten years of brave successes by the American forces.
The new diplomatic strategy might include a clearer timetable for ending the Western combat role, and for withdrawing all Western troops and foreswearing any desire for permanent military bases. Simultaneously, the West would accelerate efforts at a cease-fire and negotiations for a new power-sharing arrangement instead of propping up a corrupt, unpopular, and unreformable Karzai government in Kabul. The arrangements would include acceptance of a political role for the Taliban and other insurgents in the future of their country. The status quo plan for a 2014 Afghan presidential election would be revised to permit a more inclusive political process. To move forward, the diplomatic process would require cessation of the U.S. drone strikes over Pakistan, perhaps in exchange for a Taliban assurance that it will not allow al Qaeda havens in areas under its control. Figures like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden will insist on protections for Afghan women, but a current Human Rights Watch report indicts the warlord-dominated regime in Kabul as brutally repressive towards women already. Clinton might succeed in conditioning future aid to maintaining the current rights of Afghan women to education and representation in parliament if she can hold unanimous Afghan support.
To those who worry that withdrawal represents a lack of American resolve, many others will respond that the stubborn refusal to acknowledge a mistake, and the loss of lives in order to save face, reflect a cowardice most Americans will never forget.