The dangers of another, even greater, U.S. escalation in Afghanistan are rising; the continuing war in Iraq is exploding anew; the possibilities-but-still-dangers in U.S. engagement with Iran remain hopeful but tense; and U.S. diplomatic engagement in the Middle East is still designed to fail.
As always, we have a lot of work to do.
It has been way too long since I’ve been able to send out regular talking points or other recent work. Partly it’s because I’ve been on the road, with recent speaking tours in the Midwest: one to several cities in Iowa, and another to Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, Lincoln, and elsewhere in Nebraska.
Speaking about the war in Afghanistan, especially, in that part of the country, is very different than talking about Afghanistan in New York or Chicago or San Francisco, or at elite universities almost anywhere. One example: I was speaking to a group of 50 or 60 students at Milwaukee Area Technical College who weren’t activists. Most of them were there because a couple professors required them to go. They were mostly older students, returning to school hoping for a better shot at a job in a pretty devastated area; mostly working class, many people of color. I started by asking how many people in the room had close friends or family, someone they personally cared about, in Afghanistan or Iraq. Every hand in the room shot up.
That’s still who’s being drafted – people in areas of poverty, with no jobs or money for college. In this economy, people from small towns and small opportunities see the military as the best option. It’s humbling.
The other reason I haven’t sent out as much material has to do with work I’ve been doing on a new book on Afghanistan, which is now about to be published.
Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer, which I co-authored with my long-time friend and collaborator David Wildman, is due out from Interlink Publishing at the end of November. Like my earlier books in the Primer series (Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Ending the Iraq War, and Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis), this one is written as a series of "frequently asked questions." Things like "is Afghanistan a ‘good’ war?" and "what would happen if the U.S. ended airstrikes and pulled out all the troops?"
This update is going to be a bit different from my usual Talking Points, and I include below one of the FAQs from the new Afghanistan primer. If you’re intrigued, I hope you’ll order it (maybe order a few for your organizing work, for friends and colleagues, even for holiday gifts – it’s cheap, only $10, less if you buy a few. You can even order now, before it’s released).
In the Media
First – a couple of recent media hits you might find interesting. On Thursday I was on Al-Jazeera’s weekly "Inside Story" program with the head of public information of the United Nations, discussing the terrible attack on UN international staff in Kabul. A terrible tragedy – but an opportunity to discuss the consequences of the UN operating within a U.S./NATO military occupation, similar to the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.
Earlier in the week, I was in New York doing some work at the UN, and took the chance to do a little two-minute commentary for Laura Flanders’ terrific GritTV show (which you should all be watching!). I described the degree to which U.S. discourse on Israel-Palestine has qualitatively changed, and the danger resulting from the Obama administration seeming not to realize that. They seem to be making decisions as if real pressure on Israel – like imposing consequences if Israel rejects a settlement freeze, like a potential penalty of losing the $3 billion a year in military aid, instead of politely "requesting" a settlement freeze – was still political suicide. It isn’t. But I’m afraid they don’t get it.
The Discourse on Israel-Palestine
Speaking of the discourse on Israel-Palestine, tomorrow a majority in Congress is scheduled to do something they do all too frequently, in this case voting (with a likely overwhelming majority) to call for a U.S. veto against and condemnation of the Goldstone Report in the United Nations. The report, produced by an extraordinary team led by the internationally respected South African Justice Richard Goldstone, is by far the most comprehensive, even-handed and internationally credible report so far into the wide-ranging violations of international law committed in Gaza at the beginning of the year. And it’s really outrageous that congresspeople, most of whom almost certainly have not read the report (or even the executive summary, let alone Justice Goldstone’s point-by-point answer to the congressional claims), and many of whom should know better, are poised to pass a bill that calls for the report to be sidelined and buried without implementation at the United Nations.
In fact, Congress – and all of us – should welcome every investigation into human rights violations or possible war crimes against anyone, no matter who commits them. Especially on this issue, when the U.S. is providing $3 billion a year for weapons and military equipment to one of the two parties alleged to have used those weapons illegally in Gaza. We have more responsibility than most other countries to ensure that serious investigations are undertaken, and those guilty of war crimes finally held to account. If anyone is interested in calling their representative to express their views, it’s HR 867.
Palestine-Israel Developments at the UN
In the meantime, Palestine-Israel developments at the UN don’t look so good either. The proposals circulating would pretty much abandon any real effort at serious implementation and enforcement of the accountability that is at the heart of the Goldstone report. But there’s an effort underway to do so in a way that would try to make it appear that the General Assembly is responding seriously to the report, when it clearly would NOT be.
Be wary of a UN resolution, likely voted on Wednesday, that "takes note" of the Goldstone Report but does not explicitly endorse it, and that calls for follow-up by the secretary-general or the Department of Political Affairs, rather than the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Those will be signs of a resolution designed to look serious and maybe avoid global public outrage, but one that in fact will prevent any real effort to end the longstanding pattern of impunity for Israel, and to ensure that all human rights violators and war criminals, on all sides, are finally held accountable.
And finally, back to Afghanistan. The courage of Matthew Hoh, the former Marine and now-former State Department official who resigned his position to protest the war in Afghanistan – not only the way the war was being waged, but to protest the very basis of the war – is the latest example of rising public opposition to Obama’s war. Very public word is that the White House, the State Department, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke’s office and others went out of their way to try to convince Hoh to change his opinion or to remain in the government to "work for change from the inside." Hoh was having none of it.
Latest indications are that the White House decision on troops – escalation or not, how many if any, is a reduction or even (gasp!) withdrawal possible – will not happen very soon. That means we likely have another couple of weeks, at least, to try and turn the 54% (and rising) public opposition to the war into one of the real strategic considerations President Obama must take into account in making his decision. We’re hearing that Obama is asking a broader range of questions, and that more of his civilian advisers are questioning or even opposed to Gen. McChrystal’s call for 44,000 additional troops. That’s not enough, for sure – most of the elite opposition (Tom Friedman, George Will, etc.) have great headlines about "getting out of Afghanistan" and such, but their real positions tend to be similar to Vice President Biden’s call for fewer regular ground troops, but lots more drone and other air attacks paired with a lot more special forces.
McChrystal may have managed to convince a gaggle of NATO defense ministers to support his proposal (whatever that says about the job of the military being to follow the orders of the commander in chief and the civilian leadership?) but there is still no indication that NATO governments are willing to take the political risks required to escalate their Afghanistan commitments in the face of deep and massive public opposition. And come early December, Obama will travel to Oslo to speak to the world as the newest Nobel Peace Laureate. Everything we do should be reminding him just how difficult it will be, silver-tongued oratory or not, to make that speech with a straight face if he has just ordered tens of thousands of young U.S. soldiers to travel across the world to join a war that will kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands more Afghan civilians. This is not a "good war."
News in last night that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will now not have to face a runoff after the fraudulent election last month, as his would-be challenger has dropped out. I’ll write more on it soon, but the quick version is easy: The fact that Karzai has no electoral challenge doesn’t make the original election any less fraudulent, and doesn’t make him any less of an occupation-enabled fraud. Stay tuned.
Book Excerpt: "Has the Afghanistan War Made the U.S. Safer?"
This is an excerpt from my new book Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer (Interlink Publishing, 2009). You can pre-order it here.
The people and government of Afghanistan never represented a threat to the U.S. The Taliban emerged as one group of Islamist guerrillas among many, during the inter-mujahideen or inter-Islamist war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Its government was harshly repressive, brutally cruel for Afghanistan’s women in particular. But the Taliban’s goals were always focused on controlling Afghanistan – they never embarked on a global crusade or identified global enemies. They fought – and fight – the U.S. and NATO because those soldiers are occupying their country.
The 2009 memo drafted by Col. Timothy R. Reese, one of the top U.S. military advisers in Baghdad, and leaked to the New York Times, described a situation in Iraq that applies directly to Afghanistan: "Our combat operations are currently the victim of circular logic. We conduct operations to kill or capture violent extremists of all types to protect the Iraqi people and support the Government of Iraq. The violent extremists attack us because we are still here conducting military operations." Substitute "Afghanistan" and "Afghans" for Iraq and Iraqis, and Col. Reese’s analysis is spot on. Reese’s memo was titled, "It’s Time for the U.S. to Declare Victory and Go Home."
Paul Pillar was deputy chief of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 1997-1999. Writing in the Washington Post in September 2009 he challenged the common assumption that the Taliban must be destroyed because they might provide safe haven to al Qaeda. "How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven?" he asked. "More to the point, how much does a haven affect the danger of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially the U.S. homeland? The answer to the second question is: not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to suppose." Reminding the world of the limited value of terrorist training camps and permanent bases, Pillar wrote, "When a group has a haven, it will use it for such purposes as basic training of recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States."
Ultimately, even those who still insist the Taliban must be eliminated have to recognize that sending huge U.S. and NATO deployments to attempt to seek out and destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan is simply not going to work. To the contrary, as Gilles Dorronso, top analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has described, "the presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban."
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Ending the Iraq War: A Primer. If you want to receive her talking points and articles on a regular basis, click here and choose "New Internationalism."