Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Richard Lee, was posted to The Rag Blog, November 11, 2009
To Barack Obama:
Let’s have a military buildup! You can show those crazy-ass generals at the Pentagon that you aren’t just a chicken-shit weenie from Harvard.
You gotta do it right, however. Stop waffling about a measly 40,000 or 44,000 troops and do it like you mean it! I know you have never fought for or against anything. (That squabble with the Court Clerk to get your papers filed doesn’t count.) But you can do it! Don’t forget to keep that HOPE and CHANGE thingy going, so we won’t see what is really happening behind the curtain.
Since you don’t have a clue how to go about it, you should go back and dust off the template that the power-drunk cowboy used way back when. Turn to the record of his build-up, covering March 8, 1965, through, say, the end of January, 1966. Yep, that’s right I’m talking about Vietnam (they told me you were smart); don’t let that slow you down, a buildup is a buildup and you can do it in Afghanistan just like Lyndon and Waste-more-land did it back then.
You’ve already got 68,000 troops and an untold number of mercenaries... uh, contractors there so maybe you can forgo the photo op of the Marines stomping ashore like at Da Nang, or maybe you can arrange something like that, it was a good photo. No one will call you on it; the ignorance of the American people knows no limits. Don’t forget to include the Afghani ARVN; they’ll do you a lot of good.
That done, throw caution to the wind, fire anyone who counsels caution, and begin a real buildup!
Expect casualties. Lyndon was told to expect civilian casualties of 25,000 dead, about 68 men, women and children a day, mostly from “friendly fire” and 50,000 wounded. That was an estimate for the one year the generals said it would take to bring the Vietnamese “to their knees” and initiate their surrender; one year, or maybe 18 months at the most. That number was good enough for Lyndon, so don’t let anybody’s numbers scare you. In 1968 there were 85,000 civilians wounded.
Next, establish free fire zones. Once you get all those troops there, they will need some place to fire off all their ordnance. Go to an inhabited area, drop leaflets or have USAID workers visit and tell the population to get on the road and become refugees. Those who are too old or too infirm to go, or who come up with the excuse that Afghanistan is their country and they ain’t going; well, those are Viet Cong... I mean, Tally Band.
What good is a free fire zone if it doesn’t have any targets to shoot at anyway? While you are busy changing “Viet Cong” to “Taliban," change the name “free fire zones” to Specified Strike Zones; those pesky Congressional liberals will feel better about it. It worked when Lyndon did it.
Get an air war going. Crank up the SAC B-52’s, they don’t have anything to do now that the Russians opted out of the Cold War. One B-52 at 30,000 feet can drop a payload that will take out everything in a box five eighths of a mile wide and two miles long. You can still call it “Operation Arc Light”; no one will remember that’s been used before.
Don’t forget to let the other planes in on the fun! Fighter bombers can deliver ordnance too. Lyndon, in that first 10 months, got it up to 400 sorties a day, add in the B-52’s and they were able to drop 825 tons of bombs a day. Some even hit their targets.
Drop more than bombs. I hate to suggest a return to Agent Orange. Military science must have come up with better stuff in the last 50 years. If not, then use the leftover Agent Orange, the residual effect is worth it. Not only will those enemy Afghanis (or friendly ones, for that matter) not be able to plant food crops in target areas for decades, but “Taliban fighters” will keep dying from it for years after we’re gone.
During the 10-month Vietnam build-up, specially equipped C-123’s covered 850,000 acres, in 1966 they topped that, “defoliating” 1.5 million acres. By war’s end they’d dropped 18 million gallons of Agent Orange, in addition to millions of gallons of less notorious but still deadly poisons code-named for other colors -- Purple, White, Pink, and more -- over 20% of the south of Vietnam.
To help keep the buildup affordable, take no costly precautions with our own troops; it’s hot in Afghanistan, so let them take off their shirts while spraying. The afflicted Vietnam vets sued the government over it, they won! My brother Tommy was one of them. What did they win? Well, when they die, they get $300.00 from the government. You can forget about the vets anyway when the war is over, that’s S.O.P.
Now, a buildup ain’t all in the air. Howitzers, Long Tom Cannons and mortars expended enough high explosive and shrapnel in Southeast Asia to equal the tonnage dropped from the air.
And it’s not just troop strength that you’ll need to build up. Your friends The Masters of War have probably already told you that. A build-up is troops and MATERIAL. See how Waste-more-land did it, and more or less copy that. Brown and Root are still in business; have a sit down with them; they can help you sort it out.
Build airfields. With hundreds of thousands more troops you will need lots of airfields. Jet airfields are best for business. Lyndon had three in Vietnam before he started, he quickly built five more. So, discount what you have and get cracking! A 10,000 foot runway to start, and then add parallel taxiways, high speed turnoffs, and tens of thousands of square yards of aprons for maneuvering and parking. Use aluminum matting at first; you can replace it with concrete later. You gotta build hangers, repair shops, offices and operations buildings, barracks, mess halls, and other buildings. Don’t stint on the air conditioning!
Build deep water ports. What? Don’t have an ocean? Kee-rist, what kind of a country are we liberating anyway? Well, you still gotta build ports! Guess you can build them in Kuwait and other countries and truck all the shit through Iraq, they will be pacified by then and welcoming us with open arms and goofy little dances. Pakistan might like one or two, it would be good for business and we can just pay them to be our friend like we do now... only more.
Ports were dredged to 28 feet back then, but the newer boats draw 40 feet. It may be only mud to you, but its gold to the contractors. Half a dozen new ports should get you started.
But wait, there’s more. Four or five central supply and maintenance depots and hundreds of satellite facilities, build them along the lines of the prison gulag you are building in the U.S.
Build thirty more permanent base camps for the new combat and support troops you are sending. Another fifty or so tactical airfields long enough to hold C-130’s. Build two dozen or more hospitals that have a total of nine to ten thousand beds. Be sure there are new plush headquarters buildings for the brass and about four or five thousand staff. Everything has to be connected by secure electronic data systems, secure telephones, two or three hundred communications facilities around the country. Tens of thousands of new circuits will be needed to accommodate the built-up war machine.
You are a smart guy, Mr. President, so I won’t belabor an explanation of each thing. But here is a quick list of bare necessities: Warehouses, ammunitions stowage areas, tank farms for all the petroleum, oil and lubricants, new hard top roads, well ventilated and air conditioned barracks with hot water and flushing toilets (think 6-10,000 septic tanks). Food, not just MRE’s, but for all those REMF’s who will need fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products. Thousands of cold lockers to store this, and you need to build a milk reconstitution plant, maybe two or three, and ice cream plants.
All this is going to take a lot of electricity, so you will need thousands of permanent and mobile gas-driven generators (better add another tank farm). PX’s, not just for cigarettes and shaving cream, but all the things that the consumer army you will be sending is used to having: video game consoles, blackberries, microwave ovens, computers, slacks and sport shirts (to wear on R&R -- could omit that by having no R&R), soft drinks (better build a bottling plant), beer, whiskey, ice cubes (more generators?). Hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, steaks.
Be sure to stock candy, lingerie, and cosmetics to improve the standard of living of the local women. They will also need to buy electric fans, toasters, percolators, TV’s, CD and DVD players, room air conditioners, and small refrigerators.
Movie theaters, service clubs, bowling alleys... will the list ever end? No!
Well, that will get your buildup started. I haven’t even addressed the more and more and more troops the generals will want, that is way too heavy for me!
In re-creating Johnson’s buildup, it will be better to skip over the second week in November, 1965, and all that stuff about the Drang River Valley, that’s just for historians. Close the book when you get to the end of January, 1966. Don’t read through April, with all those dreary reports from Khe Sanh. Don’t read about Tet 1968. Just remember it was the press and the Congress and the people who lost their will that lost that war, and not the stupid blundering generals or the presidents who didn’t give a shit how many they killed on either side.
One last thing: get your architects busy designing the Bush/Obama wall to put opposite ours on the Mall. Maybe you can even have your vets pay for it themselves like we had to.
I go there whenever I am in that stinking city. I sit on the edge of the grass just before sundown and sometimes I talk to the wall. The wall stands silent then; they are still waiting for an answer to the question of why we went to Vietnam. When it gets dark, sometimes the wall talks back. They say a lot of things, but they never say, “God bless my Commander-in-Chief.”
Richard Lee, Vet (Veterans Day, 2009)
This article, by Pauline Jelinek, was poublished by the Sacramento Bee, November 13, 2009
Morale has fallen among soldiers in Afghanistan, where troops are seeing record violence in the 8-year-old war, while those in Iraq show much improved mental health amid much lower violence, the Army said Friday.
Soldier suicides in Iraq did not increase for the first time since 2004, according to a new study.
Though findings of two new battlefield surveys are similar in several ways to the last ones taken in 2007, they come at a time of intense scrutiny on Afghanistan as President Barack Obama struggles to come up with a new war strategy and planned troop buildup. There is also perhaps equal new attention focused on the mental health of the force since a shooting rampage at Fort Hood last week in which an Army psychiatrist is charged.
Both surveys showed that soldiers on their third or fourth tours of duty had lower morale and more mental health problems than those with fewer deployments and an ever-increasing number of troops are having problems with their marriages.
The new survey on Afghanistan found instances of depression, anxiety and other psychological problems are about the same as they were in 2007. But it also said there is a shortage of mental health workers to help soldiers who need it, partly because of the buildup Obama already started this year with the dispatch of more than 20,000 extra troops.
Efforts already under way to get more health workers to the Afghan war could be hampered somewhat by last week's shooting. The psychiatrist charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder was slated to go to Afghanistan. Some of the dead and wounded also were to deploy there to bolster psychological services for soldiers.
The new Afghanistan survey found that individual soldier morale was about the same as previous studies, but that "unit morale rates ... were significantly lower than in 2005 or 2007," said an executive summary of the report that was to be explained in a news conference Friday. The units referred to were mostly platoons of roughly a couple dozen people each.
In Iraq, some 2,400 soldiers in randomly selected platoons filled out surveys from December 2008 through March 2009 and a mental health assessment team went to the warfront for a month starting in late February to analyze the results and hold interviews and focus groups.In Afghanistan, more than 1,500 troops in more than 50 platoons filled out the surveys from April to June, and the assessment team when through the same process from May through June.
Mental health providers also were interviewed in each country.
It's the sixth such survey, a program that was groundbreaking when started in 2003 in that it was the biggest effort ever made to measure the health of troops - and the services they receive - right at the warfront.
The survey was different from previous ones in that it sampled two types of platoons. Some were maneuver units that warfighting groups engaged in combat-related tasks and others were support units such as aviation, engineering and medical elements less likely to have as much direct exposure to violence.
Other findings of the Afghanistan survey included:
Junior enlisted soldiers reported significantly more marital problems than noncommissioned officers, stating they intended to get a divorce or that they suspected their spouses back home of infidelity.
Exposure to combat, long recognized as a strong factor in mental health problems, was significantly higher this year than rates in 2005 and similar to rates in 2007 for the combat units.
Combat units reported significantly lower unit morale in the last six months of their tours of duty, more evidence of the wearing affect of long deployments.
Troops in their third or fourth deployment reported significantly more acute stress and other psychological problems, and among those married, reported significantly more marital problems compared to soldiers on their first or second deployment.
Soldiers on their third or fourth deployment reported using medications for psychological or combat stress problems at a significantly higher rate than those on their first deployment.
It was significantly harder to get behavioral health care this year than in 2005, a finding that may be owing to the fact that troops are spread out at hundreds of posts around the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
Troops who spent two to four hours daily playing video games or surfing the Internet as a way to cope helped lower their psychological problems, but spending time beyond that - three to four hours - had the opposite effect. Those who exercised or did other physical training decreased their mental problems, regardless of the time spent.
Troops reported more and better training in suicide prevention and other mental health programs the Army has been increasing over recent years in an unprecedented effort to focus on the force's mental health.
The mental health care system in Afghanistan is understaffed based on the Army doctrine of one mental health worker for every 700 troops.
This article, by Krystalline Kraus, was posted to rabble.ca, November 6, 2009
On November 11, veterans will get only two minutes of recognition -- if people stop to reflect at all -- while the rest of the year their sacrifice is forgotten.
If Canada’s mission in Afghanistan does end in 2011, 35,000 men and women will have served in that theatre -- 133 have been killed thus far -- and the Canadian Forces’ (CF) low estimate is that as many as 2,000 could be returning home with an Operational Stress Injury (OSI) such as PTSD.
These soldiers will return home with, among other things, an OSI or plagued by survivor’s guilt and the pressure to do good by their dead friends; first they bury them and then they bury their own feelings. As the saying goes: Survivors die twice. Massacre at Fort Hood
The problems the U.S. military would prefer to hide violently surged to the public’s attention when Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a 39-year-old U.S. Army psychiatrist, allegedly opened fire yesterday afternoon at Fort Hood, Texas. He is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30.
A New York Times article features an interview with Hasan’s cousin, who states that he expressed deep concern about being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan; the cousin also notes that Hasan’s job was to counsel returning soldiers suffering with PTSD which gave him an intimate window into the horrors of war. This made him fearful of deploying to either theatre. His cousin also claims he was having second thoughts about his military career a few years ago after other soldiers harassed him for being a Muslim. Bringing the war home After the battle’s over, some scars are more visible than others. But they can’t stay hidden forever, and like tiny landmines they will eventually explode. Nor should they be a hidden shame. Refusing to acknowledge the challenges faced by active duty, reservists or veterans is as insulting as refusing to properly acknowledge the dead; and one presidential visit to inspect a standing army of coffins isn’t enough.
This is the horror of war that society and -- too often -- the anti-war community fail to acknowledge. We cry and lament for the civilian casualties and too often hate the individual soldiers who we insist are cold hearted bastards who enlisted to kill, ignoring the reality of military recruitment tactics that purposefully target young vulnerable teenagers and young adults often from poor and disadvantaged urban centers, rural communities and First Nation reserves with the promise of medallion glory and video-game thrills; or, more simply, the promise of a large sign-up bonus and free healthcare. The damage done by war
The damage from war and our society’s treatment of these heroes is damning. The statistics are explosive.
Exposure to war time violence can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) -- the Canadian government uses the term Operation Stress Injury (OSI) instead of the DSM-IV diagnosis of PTSD since apparently soldiers who “cannot cope” with the reality of war are just “stressed.”
The impact and fallout on troops can be devastating on the soldier and their family. Symptoms of PTSD (or shell shock as it was once called) include persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal, emotionally numbness, especially with people with whom they were once close. Sufferers may also experience sleep problems or be easily startled.
The Harper government’s military policy paper, 'The Canada First Defence Strategy,' proposes spending $490 billion on the military over the next 20 years. Instead of spending tax payers money on bombs and bullets, money should be invested in veteran specific health care needs, especially better access to mental health services.
Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Walter Natynchuk, has pledged to do more to assist soldiers suffering from OSI, but is quick to blame the military’s warrior culture without acknowledging the systemic refusal to acknowledge how deep the problem runs.
One bright light in the darkness is a new program offered by Veterans Affairs Canada called Operational Stress Injury Support Services (OSISS), which began offering peer-support counseling to returning soldiers of all rank, bars and stripes, including active-duty, reservists and veterans.
In a 2002 NOW Magazine article Terry Allan interviewed Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire (Ret.'d) about the long-term consequences of his war experiences. “Eight years after Rwanda, in daylight and in dreams, Dallaire still hears the cries of wounded children, the weeping of survivors, the voice of the man who died at the other end of a phone line as the general listened. He still can't escape the smell of death, the memories of hacked-off limbs scattered on the ground, and worst of all, he says, the ‘thousands upon thousands of sets of eyes in the night, in the dark, just floating and looking back’ at him in anger, accusation, or eternal pleading.”
Now a Senator, Dallaire has estimated, “about 20 per cent of troops and humanitarian workers on missions like his suffer much the same thing, as do 5 to 10 percent of diplomats. ‘They are casualties … High suicide rates, booze, drugs, pornography, finding themselves on skid row.’
Whisper the word Rwanda and everyone knows the horror you’re referencing, the horror that Dallaire and other Canadian peacekeepers lived through in 1994 while thousands and thousands of the people they were UN mandated to protect did not.
“Ultimately PTSD leads to suicide,” he said. “I tried to kill myself four times.” To suggest that Dallaire, who has been open about his battles with PTSD, is weak-minded or weak willed is an insult to every one of Canada’s heroes. Glass soldiers
Soldiers like to believe they are invinsible, that they are steel warriors. Sure, Kevlar helmets and Molle vests protect the body, but what about the mind and the pride that soldiers often carry that prevents them from seeking help even when their lives are falling apart? Along with mental health issues, returning soldiers often face social and personal problems such as rising incarceration rates.
According to a November 2008 report, 4,000 new cases of PTSD in the UK were reported last year and service personnel on operations are nine times more likely to suffer than those not posted. It also found that women were more vulnerable to the condition, with an eight out of 1,000 chance rather than the four out of 1,000 chance for men.
A UK National Association of Probation Officers report, issued September 25, 2009, stated, “Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are behind an alarming rise in the number of former British soldiers ending up in prison, a report says -- and more veterans have had tangles with the law than there are British troops in Afghanistan. It also noted that most veterans don't receive adequate counseling or support when they leave the armed forces.”
The statistics are hauntingly similar for Canadian soldiers. Our heroes are dying, with suicide rates more than double those of the general population. These statistics only include active duty service personnel and do not include reservists or veterans, as the Department of National Defense (DND) does not currently track overall suicide rates despite calls for greater transparency from the public, the media and Canadian politicians like Senator Dellaire.
A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigation found that the suicide rate among Canada's soldiers doubled from 2006 to 2007. Last year, the number of suicides among regular and reserve members of the Canadian Forces rose to its highest point in more than a decade. Veterans Affairs says that the number of vets experiencing some kind of operational stress injury, such as PTSD, has tripled in the past five years, and they expect it to continue rising with Canada's mission in Afghanistan likely to last until 2011. It has also recently pledged to review the way the Department of Defence tracks suicide rates. (For the U.S., the month of January 2009 brought the highest rate of suicide among all branches of the U.S. military and had the highest rates since 1980. Killing overseas and killing our own
If the Department of National Defense and Veterans Affairs Canada are speaking the truth regarding wanting to break the stigma of mental health issues within military, than nothing less than full disclosure and transparency, as opposed to secrecy and shame, regarding suicide statistics is necessary for healing to begin.
Senator Dallaire, in an exclusive interview with the CBC, said, “I mean there are regiments who won't recognize that one of their soldiers who's committed suicide, you know, a year or so after a mission, should go on the list of those who are a casualty of the mission. If you're killed in operation, your name is on the Honour List. But if you kill yourself due to the injury of that operation, then you're not recognized.”
In regards to the military structure, Dallaire blames the middle level functionaries for stalling the disclosure. It is they “who feel that they've got the responsibility of the purses of the government, who feel they've got the responsibilities of not setting up precedents and of applying the rules and so on. They're the ones both in DND and in Veterans Affairs, they are the ones who are making it more difficult,” he said.
If the military demands loyalty from its troops, then the troops should expect loyalty in return, loyalty in good times as in bad, during victory parades and when a soldier breaks down.
Canadians cannot have it both ways; a hero-honouring culture that does not honour its heroes. Neither can the anti-war movement rail against the treatment of civilians, foreign combatants and detainees -- the war overseas -- while ignoring the challenges facing soldiers and veterans who have brought the war home. All are casualties. This is where a new peace keeping effort must begin.
This article, by Krystalline Kraus, was posted to rabble.ca, October 29, 2009
With the war in Iraq still ongoing and the conflict in Afghanistan going from bad to worse, who is paying the price? Can success be measured by piling the dead up against a wall – ours and theirs? How high does the ladder to freedom and democracy have to be?
One hundred and thirty-two Canadians soldiers dead (also, one diplomat and two aid workers) since the 2002 invasion began. Twenty-six dead as of October 28, 2009.
As of July 7, the United Nations recorded over 1,000 deaths in the first six months of 2009 -- 24 per cent more than during the same period last year. Total number of estimated civilian deaths -- direct and indirect deaths from Coalition-led military operations since 2001 -- are 8,436 - 28,028.
As another heavy November 11 approaches, how should we as a society reflect on the horror of war and its horrible consequences?
As the America government hides its military’s dead and abandoning its wounded, is Canada’s treatment of its dead and wounded soldiers any more honourable? Sure, we sometimes allow news broadcasts of ramp ceremonies and we do have public displays like the Highway of Heroes, but how are we as a society really honouring our heroes? Shouting “Support Our Troops!” during recruitment drives and yet not supporting them when they return home -- dead or alive -- is dishonourable, unpatriotic and a disgrace to any society.
Is a two minute pause one a year enough, if people even pause at all on November 11? Lest we forget?
Just yesterday, yet another Canadian forces member -- Lt. Justin Garrett Boyes, 26, of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who was only 10 days into his second tour in Afghanistan -- lost his life in Afghanistan, and two more were injured. Did anyone pause when they heard this news?
For Canadian civilians the concepts of honour, duty and sacrifice act as a shield keeping people from recognizing that active duty, reserve and retired soldiers are also casualties of war. For the anti-war community, it’s a hatred of the whole military complex that clouds the eye. Either way, it’s the dead and walking wounded who suffer.
The formula the military uses to dehumanize the enemy blows back on its own recruits, and the first people really dehumanized are the soldiers themselves. If they don’t come home in a box, they often come home broken. How the anti-war movement treats these men and women is a direct reflection on our ability to show concern for the ‘other’ who – for whatever reason -- chose to go to war.
The sooner we acknowledge and understand the true cost of war, the sooner we can take responsibility for our soldiers’ actions and our soldiers themselves.
Our peaceful Canadian society frankly does not want to truly acknowledge the impact and blow back combat has on all involved. Civilians and warriors alike. But this is the only way we as a society can truly heal from these scars and give peace to the victims of combat. Innocent and enlisted alike. Hiding the dead
For all its love of military and patriotism, the United States is quick to hide its dead. There are no American Valkyries to gloriously carry dead soldiers to an anglo-Valhalla. Bodies are instead buried and forgotten under the dirt of censorship, with a state imposed silence like mist that hangs over the public and media.
Last month, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates had stern words for the Associated Press (AP) for publishing a photograph of a dying Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, who was killed in southern Afghanistan from wounds received from a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush on August 14, 2009.
In defending its decision to circulate the photograph -- an image of fellow Marines helping Bernard after he suffered severe leg injuries -- Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography for the Associated Press, said, "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."
Writing for Common Dreams, Dave Lindorff chastized the U.S. government for its censorship. “Enough with the censorship! If we are going to be a warlike nation, if we are going to have a public that cheers everytime the government ships off men and women to fight and kill overseas in countries that most Americans cannot even locate on a globe, then let's make sure that everyone at least gets to see the blood and gore in full, including our own, and of course, also the civilian casualties of our military.”
The Bush administration has an equally ugly legacy regarding how it treats its wounded. During the last presidential election, the Bush adminitration took a hit regarding the substandard care wounded soldiers were receiving at the Walter Reed Medical Centre. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and a call for a bipartisan commission to investigate.
Apparently, when an injured soldier salutes or an injured marine shouts “Semper Fi!,” the military doesn’t return the honour. The army marches on, leaving them behind. The wounded warrior project http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/ describes the feeling in simple painful terms: “The Greatest Casualty is Being Forgotten.” Honour and horror in Afghanistan
The situation isn’t looking much brighter for soldiers serving in Afghanistan. While foreign involvement in Afghanistan had been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, it is back now under the media’s glare.
Grievances concerning the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission keep rising to the surface. Most recently, Senator Colin Kenny stated he believes the war is doomed to fail unless NATO changes its tactics towards a more diplomatic and political angle. He also noted a Strategic Counsel poll taken July 13-16, 2009 showing that 56 per cent of Canadians opposed sending troops to Afghanistan.
Senator Kenny’s doubt concerning the Afghanistan mission mirrors concerns raised recently in the United States by the top U.S. and NATO commander, General McChrystal, who according to a 66-page document obtained by the Washington Post, which stated that situation is Afghanistan is grim and that without more boots on the ground, the mission, “will likely end in failure.”
Unfortunately, redacting an occupying army into a diplomatic mission is as impossible as magically turning a knife into a spoon. Casualties of shame and censorship
Canadians, while always quick to criticize the U.S. government, have nothing to be proud of in regards to how we treat our casualties of war.
In his recently published autobiography, Former Chief of Defense, General Rick Hillier, outs the current Harper government for its own shameful, unpatriotic handling of Captain Nicola Goddard’s repatriation ceremony. Goddard died from wounds received from a rocket propelled grenade on May 17, 2009 in the dusty Panjwaii district of Afghanistan.
Hillier had intended on a hero’s welcome for Goddard -- the first Canadian female combat death since WW2 and the first woman to die in front line combat in Afghanistan. (Lest we forget the Major Michelle Mendes, who committed suicide in April 2009 while stationed in Kandahar; she should also be considered a casualty of war.)
But in his autobiography, Hillier leveled harsh charges against former Defense Minister, Gordon O’Connor (himself a former military commander, thus adding insult to injury) and the Harper government of disgracing Goddard by attempting to hide her repatriation ceremony from the media and public -- at which the government had some success. This lead to a very public battle that pitted her grieving father against the governments’ recently enacted policy a month earlier of shielding the flag-draped coffins from public view by keeping journalists outside the fenced airfield at CFB Trenton.
He has gone on record, stating: “Officials in the Prime Minister's Office ordered the military to hide the return to Canada of the first female soldier killed in combat because they didn't want her flag-draped coffin seen on the news.”
This article, by Mark Welsbrot, was published by The Guardian, October 26, 2009
What kind of a public debate can we have on the most vital issues of the day in the United States? A lot depends on the media, which determines how these issues are framed for most people.
Take the war in Afghanistan, which has been subject to major debate here lately, as Barack Obama has to decide whether to take the advice of his commanding officer in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and send tens of thousands more troops there, or heed public opinion, which actually favours an end to the war.
This month, one of America's most important and most-watched TV news programmes, NBC's Meet the Press, took up the issue. The lineup:
Retired General Barry McCaffrey, former army general and drug tsar (under Bill Clinton) turned defence industry lobbyist. In a news article on McCaffrey titled "One man's military-industrial-media complex", the New York Times reported that McCaffrey had "earned at least $500,000 from his work for Veritas Capital, a private equity firm in New York that has grown into a defence industry powerhouse by buying contractors whose profits soared from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." McCaffrey has appeared on NBC more than 1000 times since 11 September 2001.
Retired General Richard Myers, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George Bush (2002-2005). He is currently on the board of directors of Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest military contractors in the world, and also of United Technologies Corporation, another large military contractor.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, a pro-war spokesperson that is one of the most regular guests on the Sunday talkshows.
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, was apparently intended to represent the "other side" of the debate. Here is what he said: "Clearly we should keep the number of forces that we have. No one's talking about removing forces."
"No one" in the above sentence refers to the American people, whom Levin understandably sees as nobody in the eyes of the US media and political leaders. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 32% of those polled wanted US troops out of Afghanistan within one year or right now. That was the largest group. Another 24% wants the troops "removed within one to two years". For comparison, the leadership of the Taliban is willing to grant foreign troops 18 months to get out of their country.
In other words, a majority of 56% of Americans wants US troops out of Afghanistan about as soon as is practically feasible or even sooner. Yet Meet the Press – a mainstream network news talkshow since 1947 – does not see fit to find one person to represent that point of view. The other major TV and radio talkshows that the right also labels "liberal" in the US make similar choices almost every day.
When asked whether the US should set a timeline for withdrawal, Levin answered "no".
I know, if you have enough time you can still find an anti-war, public-interest viewpoint and the facts to support it – on the internet and even among some of the news stories in major media publications. But most Americans have other full-time jobs.
If the media's influence stopped there, the damage would be limited. After all, Americans can often still overcome the tutelage of the media's opinion leaders, as the above poll demonstrates. But the media also defines the debate for politicians. And that is where the life-and-death consequences really kick in.
If you want to know why Obama has not fought for a public option for healthcare reform, why he has caved to Wall Street on financial reform, why he has been Awol on the most important labour law reform legislation in 75 years (despite his campaign promises), just look at the major media. Think for a moment of how they would treat him if he did what his voters wanted him to do. You can be sure that Obama has thought it through very carefully.
Obama's whole political persona is based on media strategy, and on not taking any risk that the major media would turn against him. That is how he got where he is today and how he hopes to be re-elected. Many analysts confuse this with a strategy based on public opinion polling. But as we can see, these are often two different things.
Seventy-five percent of Americans support a public option for healthcare reform. (A majority would support expanding Medicare to cover everyone, but over the years the media, insurance and pharmaceutical companies made sure that this option didn't make it to the current debate.)
Obama has the bully pulpit. He could say to the rightwing Democrats in the Senate: "Look, you can vote against my proposals, but if you do not allow your president to even have a vote on this reform, you are not a Democrat." In other words, you can't join the Republicans in blocking the vote procedurally.
He could probably force Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, to join him in enforcing this minimal party discipline that would come naturally to Republicans, which would allow the healthcare bill to pass the Senate even if conservative Democrats voted against it.
But to do that would risk losing some of Obama's post-partisan, non-ideological aura that guarantees his media support. Of course, the media is not the only influence that hobbles healthcare reform. The insurance, pharmaceutical and other business lobbies obviously have more representation in Congress than does the majority of the electorate. But Obama does not feel this direct corporate pressure nearly as much. After all, he was the first president in recent decades to get 48% of his campaign contributions from donations of less than $200 – a very significant change in American politics, made possible though internet organising.
There are other powerful elite groupings, such as the foreign policy establishment – which is more ideologically driven, like the medieval church, than a collection of lobbying interests – that thwart reform on issues of war and peace. But the major media remain one of the biggest challenges to progressive reform in the 21st century.
This article, by Greg Grant, was posted to Military.com, October 26, 2009
Sen. John Kerry told a Washington audience today that Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign reaches “too far, too fast.” Instead, Kerry called for a more “narrowly focused” counterinsurgency strategy that would dial down U.S. war aims, forge a closer alliance with Afghan ethnic groups that reject the mostly Pashtun based insurgency, reduce the U.S. military effort to just the restive southern and eastern parts of the country and use the power of the U.S. dollar to peel away Taliban fighters motivated more by money than an extremist ideology.
Speaking to a packed house at the Council on Foreign Relations Monday, Kerry lashed out at the Bush administration for its neglect and “gross mishandling” of the war in Afghanistan for nearly eight years and allowing the Taliban to regain a foothold in the country. Fresh from saving the Afghan political process through many hours spent cajoling and convincing Afghan president Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election, Kerry said a more narrowly defined war there is winnable, but requires a major shift in strategy.
Policymakers and the news media have become overly focused on whether the Obama administration will grant McChrystal his request for more troops, a debate that misses the larger point, Kerry said. Since progress in Afghanistan will only come once people at the village level see real improvements in their everyday lives, what is needed are many more civilian experts in rural development, not tens of thousands more infantry.
Kerry said the “cornerstone” of U.S. strategy should be building an Afghan military and “governance” capacity that is just good enough so that responsibility for the country’s security can be transferred to the Afghan government and American troops can be withdrawn. Success in Afghanistan means transferring that responsibility as soon as possible while also leaving behind a country that cannot again become a safe haven for Al Qaeda. Defeating the Taliban is not a requirement, he said, nor is establishing a “flawless democracy.” Many Taliban fighters can be bought off and he put the number of irreconcilables at no more than 3,000 to 4,000.
While he would back sending “some” additional troops to reverse the Taliban gains and regain the initiative, he said troop levels must be tied to real measures of progress, such as combating the Kabul government’s legendary corruption and demonstrating to the Afghan people that their government has their interests in mind. American commanders must also determine if there are enough Afghan troops to partner with U.S. units. While some assessments say there are 92,000 soldiers in the Afghan army, Kerry said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said the real number of effectives is closer to 50,000.
There are not enough U.S., NATO and Afghan troops to pursue a population centric counterinsurgency across the entire country, he said, an effort that would require some 600,000 troops, if one strictly adheres to counterinsurgency math. Rolling back the Taliban doesn’t require anywhere near that number of counterinsurgents, he said, as much of the country, particularly in the north and west, are already hostile to the insurgents. Kerry said the military should work more closely with the tribes and build up a tribal intelligence network, particularly among the Pashtuns; he did not say how the military, which has been trying to do just that since 2001, should pull it off.
Kerry said NATO countries must beef up their troop presence and better unify their command structure.
This article, by Greg Grant, was posted to Military.com, October 26, 2009
It was all things Afghanistan and Pakistan at the House Armed Services Committee with lawmakers weighing the viability of a counterterrorism approach versus population centric counterinsurgency and Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy. An interesting aspect of this debate is the level of knowledge shown by some members of Congress on everything from the proper troop to civilian ratio called for in classic counterinsurgency doctrine to the intricacies of the Tajik versus Pashtun balance in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has taken some serious heat in recent days for what former Vice President Dick Cheney called "dithering" over the decision to escalate in Afghanistan or not. The reliably hawkish Tom Donnelly of AEI, part of the escalate often and everywhere crowd, even provided an exhaustive timeline of the Obama administration’s "long road to indecision" that can be found here.
Two prominent retired generals Barry McCaffrey and David Barno, testifying before the HASC Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday, both said it was important the administration take some time on this one. McCaffrey pointed to what he called one of the most "shameful" episodes in recent history when former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld claimed he was never asked for his viewpoint on invading Iraq before the war. It is important that the senior Obama administration officials take their time and think through the various options because once they decide, "they will own the decision."
While urging full deliberation, both generals were pretty clear how they want that decision to ultimately turn out. For his part, McCaffrey favors escalation and called the over-the-horizon counterterrorism approach a "silly option." He suggests sending 100,000 more troops, not just the 40,000 reportedly wanted by McChrystal. Promises have been made, he said, and not just at the national level when the Bush administration said the U.S. would lead an effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Young American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, waging a war for the will of the Afghan people, make promises every day that the U.S. will be there for them and protect them if they take sides against the Taliban.
McCaffrey said a tribal and ethnic war is underway for control of both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the security implications of Islamic extremists seizing power in either location are too serious not to escalate the U.S. military commitment to the region. Because of the inability of non-governmental and aid organizations to function in Afghanistan due to the security concerns, he recommended sending at least two engineering brigades and a slew of Army Corps of Engineer folks to work on large development projects.
If the military effort stumbles in Afghanistan and the U.S. were to seriously draw down there, it would likely spell the end of NATO as a military alliance, said Barno. To declare success and pull out now, would simply mean the U.S. military would be forced to re-invade the country at some future date when Islamic radicals take power in Kabul and re-establish a terrorist sanctuary there. Barno also favors an escalation of the troop commitment in Afghanistan along the lines of McChrystal’s rumored 40,000 troop request.
Many Afghans have been forced to choose a side in this war, and they have sided with the U.S. and NATO against the Taliban, said Beth Ellen Cole, of the United States Institute of Peace. A Taliban takeover could condemn many of them to a very bleak future, she said, "we have a lot of exposed people on the ground right now." She pointed to efforts at reconstruction and peacekeeping in both Rwanda and Sierra Leone as examples that the international community can in fact improve the lot of war torn countries.
This article, by Gareth Porter, was posted to ipsnews.net, October 15, 2009
WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (IPS) - A veteran Army officer who has served in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars warns in an analysis now circulating in Washington that the counterinsurgency strategy urged by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is likely to strengthen the Afghan insurgency, and calls for withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. combat forces from the country over 18 months.
In a 63-page paper representing his personal views, but reflecting conversations with other officers who have served in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis argues that it is already too late for U.S. forces to defeat the insurgency.
"Many experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past eight years has already hardened a meaningful percentage of the population into viewing the United States as an army of occupation which should be opposed and resisted," writes Davis.
Providing the additional 40,000 troops that Gen. McChrystal has reportedly requested "is almost certain to further exacerbate" that problem, he warns.
Davis was a liaison officer between the Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan (CFC-A) and the Central Command in 2005, just as the Afghan insurgency was becoming a significant problem for the U.S. military. In that assignment he both consulted with the top U.S. officers and staff of the CFC-A and traveled widely throughout Afghanistan visiting U.S. and NATO combat units.
He also commanded a U.S. military transition team on the Iraqi border with Iran in 2008-09.
In the paper, Davis suggests what he calls a "Go Deep" strategy as an alternative to the recommendation from McChrystal for a larger counterinsurgency effort, which he calls "Go Big".
The "Go Deep" strategy proposed by Davis would establish an 18-month time frame during which the bulk of U.S. and NATO combat forces would be withdrawn from the country. It would leave U.S. Special Forces and their supporting units, and enough conventional forces in Kabul to train Afghan troops and police and provide protection for U.S. personnel.
The forces that continue to operate in insurgent-dominated areas would wage "an aggressive counterterrorism effort" aimed in part at identifying Taliban and al Qaeda operatives. The strategy would also provide support for improved Afghan governance and training for security forces.
Davis argues that a large and growing U.S. military presence would make it more difficult to achieve this counterterrorism objective. By withdrawing conventional forces from the countryside, he suggests, U.S. strategy would deprive the insurgents of "easily identifiable and lucrative targets against which to launch attacks".
Typically insurgents attack U.S. positions not for any tactical military objective, Davis writes, but to gain a propaganda victory.
The "Go Deep" strategy outlined in the paper appears to parallel the shift in strategy from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism being proposed by some officials in discussions in the White House in recent weeks.
After reading Davis's paper, Col. Patrick Lang, formerly the defence intelligence officer for the Middle East, told IPS he regards the "Go Deep" strategy as "a fair representation of the alternative to the one option in General McChrystal's assessment".
Lang said he doubts that those advising Obama to shift to a counterterrorism strategy are calling specifically for the withdrawal of most combat troops, but he believes such a withdrawal "is certainly implicit in the argument".
Davis told IPS he was surprised to hear from one official in a high position in Washington whose reaction to his paper was that what he is proposing in place of the "Go Big" option is still "too big".
Davis said his views on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan have been shaped both by his personal experiences traveling throughout Afghanistan during his 2005 tour of duty and by conversations with U.S. military officers who have recently returned from Afghanistan.
"Mostly it was guys who've been out there in the field," said Davis. "They have a different view from those who work in the headquarters."
"I think there's a whole lot of folks out there who agree with this," he said.
He was flown out of Iraq for medical treatment in early June after suffering a partial loss of vision, and has been temporarily reassigned to the Defence Intelligence Agency. However, Davis said he was not assigned to work on Afghanistan and did the work on his Afghanistan strategy paper entirely on his own.
Davis said he had received permission from his immediate supervisor at DIA to circulate his personal analysis and recommendations on Afghanistan on the condition that he used only unclassified, open source information.
In the paper, Davis argues that the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by McChrystal would actually require a far larger U.S. force than is now being proposed. Citing figures given by Marine Corps Col. Julian Dale Alford at a conference last month, Davis writes that training 400,000 Afghan army and police alone would take 18 brigades of U.S. troops – as many as 100,000 U.S. troops when the necessary support troops are added.
The objective of expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000, as declared in McChrystal's "initial assessment", poses other major problems as well, according to Davis.
He observes that the costs of such an expansion have been estimated at three to four times more than Afghanistan's entire Gross Domestic Product. Davis asks what would happen if the economies of the states which have pledged to support those Afghan personnel come under severe pressures and do not continue the support indefinitely.
"It would be irresponsible to increase the size of the military to that level," he writes, "convincing hundreds of thousands of additional Afghan men to join, giving them field training and weapons, and then at some point suddenly cease funding, throwing tens of thousands out of work."
The result, he suggests, would be similar to what followed the U.S. failure to reassemble the Iraqi Army after the invasion of March 2003.
Davis also cites "growing anecdotal evidence" that popular anger at the abuses of power by the Afghan National Police has increased support for the insurgency.
He calls for scaling back the increase in Afghan security forces to the original targets of 134,000 Army troops and 80,000 national police. The crucial factor in determining the future of the country, he argues, is not the numbers of security personnel but whether they continue to abuse the population.
If that pattern of behaviour were to change dramatically, Davis says, "the number of Taliban fighters will dwindle to manageable numbers as those presently filling their ranks will no longer be motivated to fight".
Davis challenges two arguments now being made in support of the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan based on the Iraq experience: that a troop surge would help establish security and that the U.S. military can reduce insurgency by replicating the "Sons of Iraq" programme of bringing insurgents into militias that oppose their former allies.
The "surge" in Iraq was successful for a variety of reasons peculiar to Iraq and not duplicated in Afghanistan, Davis argues. And the "Sons of Iraq" was primarily the result of the alienation of the Sunni population by al Qaeda, which trumped Sunni opposition to the U.S. presence.
"[T]here is little to suggest," he writes in reference to the areas where the Taliban has gained power, "that the population as a whole has reached a tipping point whereby they are ready to support the coalition against the Taliban."
Challenging the argument of supporters of a larger war effort that it is necessary to avoid an increased risk of new terrorist attacks, Davis argues that being "myopically focused" on Afghanistan "at the expense of the rest of the world" increases the likelihood of an attack.
The present level of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, he writes, will "make it more likely that terrorist organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to plan and train elsewhere for the next big attack."
This article, by Harvey Wassereman, was published by the Rag Blog, October 24, 2009
Some military coups are still done the old-fashioned way. Tanks surround the capital, generals grab the radio station, the slaughter begins.
Here, the Declaration of Independence scorned King George III for elevating his army over our colonial legislatures. The founders opposed a standing army. Our first Commander George Washington warned against military entanglements. So did Dwight Eisenhower nearly two centuries later. These "quaint" monuments to civilian rule form the core of our constitutional culture.
So when the Pentagon wants to trash inconvenient opposition and escalate yet another war, it seeks subtler means. For example: the "virtual coup" now being staged in league with the New York Times, aimed at plunging us catastrophically deeper into Afghanistan.
It's how they drove us into the abyss in Vietnam and Iraq. It demands we decide who will rule -- the Pentagon, or the public.
It was the military's manipulative misreporting in Vietnam that fueled Lyndon Johnson's 1965 disastrous escalation. With the much-medalled William Westmoreland front and center, the Pentagon concocted a non-existent attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, warned that a communist victory would bring on the Apocalypse, told LBJ he could win, and ran its occupation army up to 550,000 troops.
When its last advisors fled in shame off that Saigon rooftop, the Pentagon blamed those who had opposed the war from the start. It assaulted the heroic independent reporters who exposed the war's true horrors. It even attacked the corporate media that had been its willing partner in the war's creation.
To its credit, the Times broke from its early support, making welcome history by publishing the Pentagon Papers, among much else. As today, it published opposing views all the way through.
But its big guns enlisted again in Iraq. The Bush Administration needed no convincing, but the American public did. Led by warhawk cheerleaders Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller, the Journal of Record sold a war based on Weapons of Mass Destruction and Dick Cheney's "grateful" Iraqi citizenry, both of which were non-existent.
Today central casting has brought us Stanley McChrystal to rerun the role of Westmoreland/Cheney. Now the hero of an endless stream of hauntingly familiar puff pieces, the General's carefully leaked "secret" demand for "a bare minimum" of 40,000 more troops to avoid "mission failure" has become the ultimate blackmail note, the core of a virtual coup in the making.
It comes as the Times concocts a report on "frustrations and anxiety [that] are on the rise within the military." Among “active duty and retired senior officers” there is "concern that the president is moving too slowly, is revisiting a war strategy he announced in March and is unduly influenced by political advisers in the Situation Room."
"Unduly influenced by political advisers?" Does this mean that for the Commander in Chief, elected by the people of the United States, advice is duly acceptable only from hawks in uniform?
Joining Tom Friedman (again!) is the Times's Roger Cohen, who says Obama needs "endurance" because if we lose in "Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pashtunistan" there "would be a disaster for Western security."
Sub in "Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos" and you can be reminded that our military is again backing a cabal of world-class heroin dealers.
And would the "loss" of AfPak, whatever that means, be a greater "disaster for Western security" than another trillion dollars diverted from education, health care, the environment, and domestic employment in a nation in deep financial chaos?
McChrystal is certainly entitled to his First Amendment rights. But so far, the American public is not buying. Polls show the country deeply divided, with slight majorities opposed to McChrystal's demand for more troops. That means, there is nothing like the public consensus that should be required for any military excursion.
The key may be the money. In the booming sixties, we could "afford" to blow $100 billion or more on a futile, senseless war merely by bankrupting our health care system, blowing college tuitions through the roof, sacking our infrastructure, failing to upgrade our grid and power systems, debasing our currency, falling from an exporting powerhouse to an import addict, and much more.
The Pentagon's gratuitous squander of another trillion in Iraq has helped squeeze the last of that "fat" out of our economy. A U.S. far beyond the brink of bankruptcy is being told to "stay the course" in the Graveyard of Great Powers, a country the size of Texas, a deathtrap to every invader for the past 2,300 years, including the Soviet Union. Pakistan is about twice the size of California. AfPak together have more than 200,000,000 people, more than 2/3 the population of the U.S.
Official military reports say there are about 100 members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite the global nature of terrorism we are allegedly there to stamp out, no other nation seems compelled to join us there in any meaningful way.
Obama was elected in large part because the American public has sensed that -- unlike his predecessor or opponent -- he is intelligent enough to grasp all this. He ran promising a full commitment in Afghanistan. Now he has dared to take his time making a final decision. But will he have the courage to stand against the brass at crunch time?
Robert Gates, the Bush holdover at Defense, who won't set a timetable for withdrawal, has gone public with his demand for more troops. As Yale's David Bromwich puts it, the brass at The Times wants "a large escalation in Afghanistan. The paper has been made nervous by signs that the president may not make the big push for a bigger war; and they are showing what the rest of his time in office will be like if he does not cooperate."
In other words, the virtual tanks have again surrounded the White House.
We cannot let them win. Another bloody, trillion-dollar Lone Ranger fiasco will definitively end any hope for health care, employment, education, the environment, a decent life for our children.
As usual, the Pentagon will be enriched and empowered. We will be impoverished and disenfranchised. Isn't that what coups are all about?
So when the military and its minions demand we defer to their "experts," we might recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. At its most terrifying peak, President John Kennedy -- himself genuine war hero -- polled the Joint Chiefs on how to respond to Soviet warheads in the western hemisphere. The generals unanimously demanded a nuclear attack. Thankfully, the president and his brother, the Attorney General, stood their ground.
Obama must now do the same. There are nuances in all global conflicts. But in an electronic age, when perception means virtually everything, the question is not just what happens in Afghanistan.
It is who rules here at home -- the Pentagon, or the public.
This article, by Pascal Zachary, was posted to In These Times, October 9. 2009.
For all the talk of polarization and partisanship in U.S. politics, what’s remarkable is the extent to which President Obama has continued policies and practices of his predecessor, George Bush, in domestic economics and military affairs.
Economically, Obama has continued the bailout of Wall Street, maintained Bush-era tax cuts, pursued “stimulus” through large deficit spending and re-appointed Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman who was a Bush favorite.
In defense, Obama has broken with Bush on a few critical matters, notably by canceling expensive weapons systems and dropping (in September) an aggressive plan to impose a “missile shield” in Eastern Europe that Russia intensely opposed. Yet Obama has carried over Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates; essentially stuck with Bush timetables on Iraq; and maintained historically record levels of Pentagon spending. The president has continued the war in Afghanistan, raising the number of American combat troops. In a speech on August 17, Obama even tried to construct a moral basis for the war, described it as “not a war of choice,” but “a war of necessity.” And as a necessary war, “a war worth fighting,” Obama has declared that only through the democratization of Afghanistan can the terrorist threat to the United States—in the form of al Qaeda—be eliminated from the country.
Further escalation of the war in Afghanistan is no sure thing, however. Having voiced support for increasing combat troops earlier in his presidency, in September Obama seemed torn between three possibilities: escalation, muddling through with the current military footprint or shifting to a greatly “limited” combat mission that would concentrate on countering terrorists targeting the United States, rather than fighting the insurgent Taliban.
Obama’s decision is complicated by his earlier decision to ask his top Afghan military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to make the case for escalation. McChrystal is reportedly prepared to ask for an additional 40,000 U.S. troops—beyond the 68,000 American soldiers already approved to fight in Afghanistan.
While the question of whether or not the United States sends more troops to Afghanistan defines the current debate over the war, respected Democratic voices, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Vice President Joseph Biden, are quietly stumping for a third way: limited war in Afghan, which would concentrate on countering terrorists and depend on a relatively small number of conventional combat troops. The “limited” advocates, who Obama seemingly ignored until recently, are offering the president a stark choice between escalating—and creating a new Vietnam-style quagmire—and a sharp reduction of ground troops, which would likely reduce both American deaths and the cost of the war. Supporters of this approach include conservative columnist George Will, who in a September column nicely summarized the “limited” war approach. “Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy,” Will wrote. “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
A third way
That escalation in Afghanistan is no longer viewed as inevitable is welcome. Yet missing from the debate is any serious consideration of complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. No single voice in the foreign policy establishment supports the speedy exit of combat forces, though even McChrystal concedes that the United States might soon experience involuntary withdrawal—in total defeat. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” he wrote in his confidential assessment of the war, leaked to the Washington Post.
To be sure, the United States has already lost the war in meaningful ways. The month of October marks eight years of U.S. combat in Afghanistan. More than 800 American soldiers have died—and alarmingly more than one quarter of that total died in the past three months alone. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent since the war began. The Afghan government this summer presided over a fraudulent national election. Illegal opium production has exploded since 2001; for 2008, the United Nations valued Afghan drug exports at $3 billion. Polls show less than 40 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, the lowest level of support since the start of the war.
Calling for complete withdrawal, phased or immediate, remains a lonely position, endorsed by such independent foreign policy experts as Andrew J. Bacevich, of Boston University, and Robert Naiman, coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, an activist group. Democratic Party leaders, while fretting over parallels between an Afghan quagmire and the Vietnam War that doomed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the ’60s, are objecting to escalation. Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) opposition to sending more troops, while trying to put limits on U.S. costs in the war, still holds fast to the notion that Afghan institutions, including the army, can be sufficiently strengthened to hold off the Taliban. Even many progressive advocacy groups, such as MoveOn, haven’t made rapid withdrawal form Afghanistan a high priority, perhaps fearing that by breaking with the president on war, they will weaken his ability to push through progressive domestic legislation like healthcare reform. But Code Pink, an influential peace group, has been calling on the president to “focus on negotiations and bringing our troops home.”
Getting the mission right
Yet the case for withdrawing from Afghanistan makes tactical, strategic and moral sense, chiefly because legitimate U.S. security needs can be achieved more effectively through other means. As Bacevich has written, “In Afghanistan today, the United States and its allies are using the wrong means to vigorously pursue the wrong mission.”
If there is a “right” mission in Afghanistan, it can only be to deny al-Qaeda and its friends the opportunity to attack Americans at home and abroad. After eight years in Afghanistan, U.S. troops (aided by much smaller forces from Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy and other “allied” countries) haven’t accomplished this. Yet targeted attacks by U.S. and allied forces are killing terrorists, highlighting an alternative to ground troops and an Afghan quagmire.
In September, U.S. military forces in Somalia killed Saleh Nabhan, the man believed to be responsible for attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania. Predator drones, “robot” aircraft controlled from a distance by U.S. technicians, have killed al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
The use of assassination squads and remote-controlled killer planes present their own practical and moral problems. The wrong people can be killed, for instance. And such attacks require detailed knowledge of the movements of the targets. Some of the declared “enemies,” meanwhile, such as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban government shattered by U.S. air strikes beginning on Oct. 7, 2001, might be worth negotiating with instead of killing. Omar remains head of the insurgency, a popular hero and important to any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Withdrawal of U.S. troops would be linked to progress in peace negotiation—and an acceptance that the Taliban, in some form, will play some role, if not a decisive role, in a new Afghan government.
An end to war in Afghanistan—and increased stability as a consequence of peaceful co-existence with the Taliban—would benefit Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be living in a remote city. Secular political forces in Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, are battling to keep the country out of the hands of religious fundamentalists who already exert profound influence. Anti-American feeling is extraordinarily high in Pakistan; even secular elites blame Americans for inflaming and exaggerating their domestic problems. The U.S. government, which is currently debating how much to increase financial assistance to Pakistan, would provide more effective help without troops in Afghanistan.
A comprehensive strategy
Defenders of escalation say that Afghanistan needs to be reformed and that the aim of U.S. intervention is to create a democratic society, where Afghanis are safe and free. The premise of a democratic Afghanistan informs McChrystal’s view of war aims; the commander’s edifice of escalation depends, he writes (weirdly echoing Hegel), on identifying “the objective will of the [Afghan] people.” In March, Obama gave powerful expression to this position when he announced his “comprehensive” strategy for Afghanistan. While his highest goal was to stop the use of the country as a terrorist staging ground, his next two were classic nation-building goals: to promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan and a national army that can ultimately take over “counter-insurgency” efforts from Americans.
In the arena of democratization, the American effort was marred by last month’s flawed elections, which saw President Hamid Karzai steal enough votes to claim victory (there’s a recount now underway). The election fiasco pushed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an influential Democrat, to predict Afghanistan “will remain [a] tribal entity.” Such a place would require a strong U.S. military presence to hold together and (perhaps) the emergence of a homegrown dictator ruling the country with a “strong hand.”
Yet the very presence of American troops inflames ethnic differences.
Afghans view Americans as invaders and occupiers, and their very presence galvanizes opponents, creating more resistance. As Afghan army spokesman Zahir Azimi has said, “Where [American] forces are fighting, people think it is incumbent on them to resist the occupiers and infidels.” The self-perpetuating nature of the conflict explains the profound pessimism expressed by some with deep experience in the region. British Gen. David Richards, who served in Afghanistan, said in August that stabilizing the country could take 40 years. While such predictions are dismissed as hysterical, they are simply the logical extension of Levin’s insistence that the United States “increase and accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their efforts to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their nation.” These efforts at self-reliance inevitably involve a significant American presence on the ground, which in turn fuels the very cycle that Levin insists he wants to avoid: a costly quagmire.
The alternative to a McChrystal escalation or a Levin quagmire requires no leap into the unknown but rather recognition of limits of American power and the legacy of Afghan history. The script for withdrawal is essentially already written—in Iraq, of all places. For the sake of temporary peace, Iraq has essentially been partitioned into three “sub-countries,” two of which are essentially ethnic enclaves. The same could be done in Afghanistan—though the number of sub-divisions could be larger, and acceptance of Taliban rule over some of them would be required. In this scenario, a phased pullout of U.S. forces could accompany the negotiated “government of national unity,” which—like in Iraq—would preserve the “notional” nation of Afghanistan while effectively deconstructing the territory into more manageable pieces.
The United States once blithely dealt with the Taliban (Dick Cheney, after all, famously met with the Taliban prior to bin Laden’s attacks). While retaining the right to attack al Qaeda on Afghan soil, the Obama administration could tolerate Taliban rule if the result of a stable Afghanistan was to free more resources and attention to Pakistan’s urgent security issues. The embrace of realism could well co-evolve with the re-emergence of a moral center to American foreign policy.
Under this scenario, withdrawal of American troops would not mean the end of military actions on Afghan soil. As advocates of “limited” war argue, attacks could still be made from Predator drones based elsewhere. But air strikes and attacks by U.S. “special forces” on Afghan soil risk undermining any government of national unity and the pretense that the United States has halted its war on the Taliban.
For President Obama, the stakes are high. His young presidency is on the line. Perhaps because his secretary of defense, Gates, is a Republican, Obama has personalized the decision on Afghan strategy to a dangerous degree. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. By deciding to reduce, if not altogether remove, U.S. combat troops from the country, the president will take a step towards the moral high ground that he so often desperately seeks to inhabit.
Morality must return to the center of America’s relations with the world. Afghanistan could become, as Obama likes to say, “a teaching moment,” for this president and his wider constituency, the citizens of the planet. The Bush presidency damaged both the image of the United States as a role model for promoters of democratization around the world, and further entrenched a darker counter-view of America as a reactionary force in world affairs. The Obama presidency creates an opening to restore the brighter side. In continuing the war in Afghanistan, Obama risks destroying his chances to redeem the United States in the eyes of the world. By ending the Afghan war, quickly and decisively, the president will match his rhetoric of hope with reality. He will also save U.S. lives and create new openings for negotiation, diplomacy and regional solutions to problems in distant lands.