President Obama’s speech tonight violated one of his most important campaign promises: to “end the mind-set that leads to war.”
To the contrary, his announcement of a token shift of 10,000 soldiers leaving by the end of 2011, and maybe another 23,000 in another year, makes clear that his claim tonight that “the tide of war is receding” remains untrue. The enormous current deployment of 250,000 U.S. and allied military forces (100,000 U.S. troops, 50,000 NATO troops and 100,000 Pentagon-paid contractors) in Afghanistan continues, and reflects not an end but an embrace of the mind-set of war, even with this small shift of soldiers. This was an opportunity for President Obama to recognize our democracy, to acknowledge and – dare I suggest? – even respect the views of the vast majority of the American people. Sixty-four percent of the people of our country believe the war is not worth fighting. When this war began in October 2001, only about 12% of people in the U.S. did not support it. So 64% opposition means a lot of folks have come to that realization now after years of escalating Afghan civilian and U.S. military casualties, years of a collapsing economy, and yes, years of hard-fought anti-war organizing.
The American people are way ahead of the government on this one – Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, all of them. A few members of Congress are starting to get it – those in the Progressive and Out of Afghanistan Caucuses. Rep. Barbara Lee of California has introduced an amendment to the pending $560 BILLION Pentagon authorization bill (that one doesn’t even include the costs of the actual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and beyond…) that would prohibit any money being spent on the war in Afghanistan except for the cost of a quick and safe withdrawal of all the troops. The U.S. Conference of Mayors just passed their first anti-war resolution since the height of the Viet Nam War in 1971, calling for a quick end to the war in Afghanistan and for the war dollars to be brought home to rebuild U.S. cities. The mayors get it, unemployed people across this country get it, many of the troops being forced into their third, fourth, fifth or even more deployments get it. And that’s why the president’s speech tonight focused – however inadequately – on how many troops are being pulled out, not how many more are being sent in.
But it’s not good enough. What President Obama announced tonight is not a strategy, there still is no clear definition of a “military victory” in this endless war. In the first weeks after his inauguration, the new commander-in-chief announced he was sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and “then” he would decide on a strategy. Talk about backwards reasoning!
That 21,000 was followed, after months of discussion, by another 33,000 (it was first going to be 30,000, but you know how it goes…) that made up the official “surge.” The first 21,000 apparently weren’t to be counted at all. So in his first year in office, President Obama escalated the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from a little more than 30,000 to almost 100,000 troops (along with the 100,000 mercenaries) – tripling the troop numbers. With a token pull-back of 10,000 troops over the next six months, and maybe another 23,000 by the end of 2012 (presumably timed for maximum pre-election publicity) that still will leave almost 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years ahead – almost twice the number there when he took office. Not to mention the 100,000 Pentagon-paid contractors and 50,000 NATO soldiers, who apparently aren’t going anywhere. And this for the first president to call an existing war “stupid” and to call for “an end to the mindset that leads to war.”
But that claimed goal of really figuring out a strategy, after sending the first 21,000 troops? That never really happened. Over the next year or so there were lots of discussions and debates, some classified, some leaked, some public, about counter-insurgency vs counter-terrorism, of “boots on the ground vs small teams of special forces, and more. But a clear strategy has yet to be identified. A clear goal remains unknown. If the goal was to weaken al-Qaeda, as we were so often told, isn’t the assassination of the top guy and the reduction of its forces to about 50 al-Qaeda members in the entire country of Afghanistan good enough to claim victory? When he announced the official 30,000-troop surge in December 2009, Obama did claim that he would begin to withdraw those troops (and only those, apparently) in 18 months. But that wasn’t a strategy either. So now that the 18 months have passed, we’re left with still no strategy, still no definition of victory, only a huge hemorrhaging of U.S. dollars and Afghan civilian blood.
The cost of the war in Afghanistan so far – just Afghanistan, not counting Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. – is already almost half a TRILLION dollars. If you want exact figures, according to the National Priorities Project it’s $426 billion. And that’s not counting the hundreds of billions more it will take over the next generation to care for the U.S. soldiers who have come home so grievously wounded in mind and body. It costs about $1 million per soldier per year to fight the war in Afghanistan today; for that same million dollars, the U.S. government could bring that soldier home and hire her and 19 more for a year at a good, green middle-class job.
This year alone, U.S. taxpayers will pay about $122 billion for those U.S. soldiers to kill and die in Afghanistan. That money could instead provide health care to more than 62 million children here at home. Or provide 2.4 million new green jobs for a year. If we just look at Wisconsin, where the state budget deficit sparked this year’s first massive mobilization for jobs and against wars and cutbacks, the state deficit totaled about $1.8 billion. That’s a lot of money. But this year alone, the taxpayers of Wisconsin paid almost exactly that same amount – $1.7 billion to be exact – as their share of the war in Afghanistan. That’s why ending the wars is the most important single thing we can do to rebuild our economy and provide jobs for people across this country.
The costs of war wouldn’t be such a major consideration if this was a war for justice, instead of for vengeance, if this was a war really liberating an oppressed people. But the reality is sadly different. While of course stability in identified, discrete areas can be imposed by “surging” huge numbers of U.S. troops, that stability will last only as long as those troops remain. Whether they leave tomorrow or in five years, when they leave those people who live in Afghanistan will remain. And we need to remember the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was asked last year by an irritated senator just how, without tanks or planes, the Taliban was winning. “It’s their country, senator,” Mullen answered. He was right. We’re not rebuilding the country, we’re just scaffolding a corrupt government and creating a huge military we call the Afghan “National” Army despite the lack of any real national center for that army to be loyal to.
There is no strategy for Afghanistan. The “fighting season” is simply a dying season, and there is always another one next year. The debate between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism is simply a debate over how many troops will be sent and how many people will die. When the White House and the Pentagon speak of the COIN strategy, they might have a better definition than counter-insurgency – they may mean it as Congressional Indoctrination for war spending. The goal is to win the hearts and minds of the Congressional Appropriation Committees – not the Afghan people.
Afghan civilians are paying the highest price. Many in the U.S. like to think we are continuing the war in Afghanistan in the interest of Afghan women – keeping the Taliban out of power. But the reality is the vast majority of women who die prematurely in Afghanistan don’t die because they’re killed by the Taliban – they die in childbirth. Afghanistan remains the second worst place in the world for a woman to give birth and hope to live; it’s the very worst place for a child to be born and expect to live towards his or her first or fifth birthday. After ten years of U.S. military occupation, ten years of a war waged in the name of Afghan women, the maternal and child mortality rates remain exactly where they were in 2000, when the Taliban governed the country.
According to the United Nations, 2010 saw the highest level of civilian casualties since they began keeping records. And the casualties are rising, not falling; May 2011 has seen the highest levels yet. Some argue that we shouldn’t take that as a reason to end the war, since “only” 25 percent of the casualties are directly caused by U.S./NATO troops. But aside from the morality of that question (do we really want to claim that causing 25 percent of massive civilian casualties is somehow okay??), we have to look at the realities on the ground. Of the casualties linked to anti-U.S. or anti-Afghan government forces, 75 percent are caused by IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that have also devastated so many coalition soldiers’ lives. Those IEDs are found almost entirely on roads frequented by U.S. and NATO troops – they are the real target, and the civilians pay the price. There is an old Afghan proverb that says “when two bulls fight, it is the shrubs and plants that suffer.” That remains true today.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power" (Interlink Publishing, October 2005).