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, originally posted to VVAW.NET, was forwarded to the blog by David Zeiger, November 11, 2009
Please Don't Thank Me For My Service - Veterans Day Any Year
I can see That Wall in DC. I'm thinking of those two hundred names and faces I can't remember, eighteen and nineteen year old boys from my Basic Training company, "Killed In Action" before their 19th birthdays. I've seen their names on that wall while looking for my own.
Every time I hear, "Thank-you for serving!" I want to reply, "Fuck You!"
For which of the following are you thanking me:
a) learning how to do field abortions on "pregnant gook girls";
b) Being part of a military that is responsible for millions of deaths in Vietnam;
c) Refusing orders to Vietnam;
d) Participating in the GI Movement;
e) Thinking for myself;
f) Not thinking for myself;
g) Following or not following orders?
As a member of the United States Army from 1965 - 1970, I was NOT defending America, our allies, your families or friends. America was NOT being attacked by the Vietnamese, much in the same way that America is NOT being attacked by Iraqis
I for one, do NOT thank current soldiers for their service in Iraq or Afghanistan! I thank and honor those who repudiate this nation's militarism. I thank Iraq Veterans Against the War for their thought, action and lives. I thank those veterans who organized and testified at the IVAW Winter Soldier Hearings last year and who continue to give witness to atrocity and mayhem. ivaw.org/wintersoldier/testimony
On Veteran's Day, I salute, in addition to IVAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace, The National Liberation Front of Vietnam, WWII Allied Forces led by General Dwight Eisenhower; I salute Resistance Fighters against the nazi's throughout Europe; Resistance movements from South Africa to South Harlem, from Philadelphia to Nicaragua where my government spent millions attempting to overthrow a democratic government who's president had the nerve to be critical of the United States.
I do salute those who choose to defend America. Go get the bad guy, McCain will tell you right where he is, but why thank anyone for killing tens of thousands of civilians cause you can't find the right cave and invaded the wrong nation? Was their a right nation to invade? Should I thank today's soldiers for being lied to and believing in that lie? Perhaps their "good intentions" deserve a salute?
On this Veteran's Day, I again salute those veterans, from the armed forces of all nations who use their training, intelligence and compassion to seek ways in which our governments can find peace without increased militarization of the globe and our ways of life.
You may thank me, and I'd be honored, for my resistance to imperial war, for my support of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, for my continued activism that nourishes my soul and gives me reason to live and create. You may thank me for encouraging young men and women to think for themselves and to resist deployment orders.
Just don't blindly thank me for anything you don't know about.
Perhaps that's why I can't seem to find my name on that Wall in a waking state.
This article, by Elizabeth M. Collins, was distributed by the Army News Service, October 13, 2009
The increasing mental-health needs of military children are taxing both the military and civilian health care systems.
The Army psychiatrist in charge of the Military Child and Adolescent Center of Excellence at Madigan Army Medical Center, Fort Lewis, Wash., told Army spouses and support group leaders about the issue at the third Family Forum of the Association of the United States Army annual meeting Wednesday.
Col. Kris Peterson explained that eight years of repeated, lengthy deployments have resulted in higher rates of anxiety and depression among Army children, as well as misbehavior in school.
For example, yearly mental health visits for children under the age of 15 have increased from 800,000 in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008. One out of three school-age children are at risk for psychological problems and about 30 percent of children have significantly increased anxiety.
"So what we're dealing with now is the cumulative impacts of parents, moms and dads, gone for not months but years," Peterson said.
"Those impacts are now clinically significant to the point where it's not psycho-educational, it's fact and prevention all the way to clinical support and clinical interaction in an office, for instance, to be able to address increasing levels of depression and anxiety. And that's across the spectrum of preschool, school age and adolescence.
"And it's also our spouses who are left behind during the deployments. There's depression and anxiety in each of these categories."
The increased need has led to a severe shortage of mental-health-care facilities for families, both on post and off, especially as post behavioral health centers are already filled to capacity with Soldiers.
"The long-term impacts are unclear of all this. We know from the literature and data on depression in adolescents that outcomes are poor in this group who are untreated or unhelped -- are left dealing with depression, anxiety on their own. There's issues of drop-out rates, there's issues of school failure and difficulties with socialization," Peterson explained.
In an effort to deal with that trend and provide a central place for Army children to get mental and physical help, Peterson and other experts at Madigan developed the Military Child and Adolescent Center of Excellence.
The multidisciplinary team - pediatricians, psychologists, social workers and child and adolescent psychiatrists at the center -- looks at the latest research, strategically plans the way forward for caring for Army children and tries to sift through the many grassroots programs to find what actually works.
"A lot of people put their heads together and said, 'Look, we really need to develop some strategic thinking to identify what the impacts are, what the gaps are, what the programs that we can vet and we can propagate through the system and look at it in a strategic way.
"The issue frequently is that our providers and our thinkers are engaged; they're in the front lines; they're in combat, if you will, in regards to delivering critical care; and to develop a plan to program and think strategically is like saying, 'Let's put an extra rock in your rucksack as you climb that mountain.'
"It's the same thing with research. We really are saturated and it makes it difficult to think along those lines. The leadership got this very readily, and said 'Let's dedicate people to strategically think and plan and move a way forward,'" he said.
Peterson hopes the center will continue to build and become a one-stop resource for behavioral and mental programs for military children. He also said that he wants to take their best practices and export them to the rest of the Army.
This article, by Stacy Bannerman, was published by TruthOut, October 24, 2009
As the effects of eight years of war accumulate in Army families, a growing number of military spouses suffering stress, depression and thoughts of suicide can't get the care they need. There is "a severe shortage of mental-health-care facilities for families, both on post and off, especially as post-behavioral health centers are already filled to capacity with soldiers," according to Army psychiatrist Col. Kris Peterson. (Army News Service, October 13, 2009)
The Army has been closely tracking the uptick in mental health problems of soldiers, and is collaborating with the National Institute of Mental Health on "the largest study ever of suicide and mental health in the military." ("Study to Seek Clues to Soldier Suicides." The Washington Post, August 10, 2009) Military family members aren't included in the study, which was announced in July, the same month that two spouses of multiply-deployed husbands were reported dead of suspected self-inflicted injuries.
One of the women was a pregnant 40-year-old Army wife in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who called 911 threatening to harm herself. When the police arrived, she was dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. A few weeks earlier, Army officials began investigating "the recent suspected suicide of a 172nd spouse in Schweinfurt, according to Lt. Col. Eric Stetson, 172nd Infantry Brigade rear detachment commander." ("Some seek mental health checks for spouses of multiple-deployed soldiers." Stars and Stripes, July 5, 2009) Almost three years ago, another Fort Bragg wife committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, locking herself and her young children in the family car parked in the garage with the engine running. "Her husband, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, had been deployed to Iraq just two months before, just after the birth of the couple's daughter." ("War's Silent Stress: The Family at Home," The Virginian Pilot, August 9, 2009)
In 2008, Cassy Walton, wife of Houston Army recruiter Nils Aron Andersson, an Iraq War veteran, killed herself a few days after her husband committed suicide.
During her husband's most recent deployment, Carissa Picard, founder of Military Spouses for Change, wrote:
Here at Fort Hood, Texas ... they cannot give me figures on spouse suicides but they ... see so many attempted suicides in the Emergency Room that the medical staff have become quite adept at handling them. My theory is that these spouses may have reached the point of needing emergency mental health care and this is the only way to receive it.
Another Army wife said that she was hospitalized upon learning of her husband's second deployment, due to concern that she might harm herself. Military spouse suicides typically aren't made public, so the extent of the problem isn't known.
The Army doesn't track suicides by military family members because most occur "off post or involve [family members of] reservists or guardsmen," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. (Stars and Stripes, July 5, 2009)
There is some evidence indicating that spouses of citizen soldiers struggle more during deployments. Guard troops have served the longest tours in Iraq, and a study assessing the effect of deployment on military spouses revealed "Increased spousal distress and poorer coping ... during deployment." The research also found that "Longer deployment was associated with greater adverse outcomes." (Centre for Military & Veterans' Health, 2007) Geographic and social isolation is a major challenge for the Guard spouses who live hundreds of miles from the nearest post, armory or another military family member with a loved one at war.
Unable to attend the monthly volunteer-driven Family Readiness Groups, the only formal or informal support they receive over the course of a year-long deployment may be a single phone call from the Family Readiness Coordinator. So it's not surprising that "68% of deployed reservists' spouses reported increased stress [as] spouses of Guard or Reserve members may be less prepared than other active duty spouses to cope with [it]." (2008 Health Care Survey of DOD Beneficiaries)
Among active-duty spouses, a 2008 survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that 40 percent believed their mental health was hurt by their husband's or wife's service overseas. Approximately 25 percent reported regular problems with sleeplessness, anxiety and depression.
Earlier studies conducted on wives of deployed troops discovered a spectrum of symptoms and diagnoses, such as: depression, anxiety, insomnia, adjustment disorder, nervousness, headaches, dysphoria and changes in eating habits. (Frankel, Snowden, & Nelson, 1992; Milgram & Bar, 1993; Wood & Scarville, 1995; et. al.) "There's a lot of research to show that partners and spouses and kids suffer from secondary PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]," said Tom Berger, a senior analyst for veterans' benefits and mental health issues for the Vietnam Vets of America.
Investigations into the mental health of wives of retired veterans found that spouses of combat veterans had high levels of distress, poorer physical and psychological health over a lifetime, and greater social isolation than partners of non-combat veterans. A study on caregiver burden among partners of vets with PTSD stated that nearly half of the wives "felt as if they were on the verge of a nervous breakdown." (Beckham, Lytle, and Feldman, 1996) Research published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease stated that:
Partners [of combat veterans] endorsed high levels of psychological distress with elevations on clinical scales at or exceeding the 90th percentile. Severe levels of overall psychological distress, depression and suicidal ideation were prevalent among partners.... These findings are compelling since they demonstrate that partners of veterans with combat-related PTSD experience significant levels of emotional distress that warrant clinical attention. (Manguno-Mire, Ph.D., Sautter, Ph.D. et. al., February, 2007)
A growing number of today's military spouses are married to active-duty veterans, and it's likely that the psychological distress experienced by wives of combat veterans is compounded by bearing the burden of war at home during multiple deployments, but there are painfully few resources focused on serving this population. Soldiers receive training and courses to prepare them for multiple deployments, but spouses do not. Even when clinical care is available, 66 percent of the military spouses surveyed "worried that looking for assistance for their own issues would harm their loved ones' chances of promotion." (American Psychiatric Association, 2008)
The stigma that prevents troops from seeking mental health help also affects military spouses, some of whom believe that a wife who asks for help is weak, and "not cut out to be an Army wife." Hypervigilant of the fact that it's their soldier, not themselves, repeatedly putting their boots on the ground and their lives on the line, spouses learn to "suck it up," and suffer in silence.
In the past year, however, more military wives have begun speaking out, including Sheila Casey, wife of the Army's top soldier, Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, Mrs. Casey remarked, "Army families are the most brittle part of the force ... [They] are sacrificing too much, and we can no longer ask them to just make the best of it."
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.
This article, by Heidi Vogt, was distributed by the Asspciated Press, October 17, 2009.
KABUL – Afghanistan's election crisis deepened Saturday as President Hamid Karzai resisted international pressure to accept fraud rulings that could force him into a runoff with his main challenger.
Three more American service members were reported killed in separate bombings as the U.S. and its international partners sought a way out of Afghanistan's political impasse, a crisis that threatens the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the future of the U.S.-led military mission.
A U.N.-backed panel had been expected to release findings Saturday from its investigation into allegations of widespread fraud — most of it favoring Karzai — in the Aug. 20 election. Preliminary figures showed Karzai won with more than 54 percent of the vote.
Still, Karzai could face a runoff with his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, if the complaints panel invalidates enough ballots to push the incumbent's total below 50 percent.
Announcement of the commission's findings was delayed as commission members spent Saturday in meetings with Afghan election officials and double-checking calculations, according to people familiar with the talks.
Karzai has refused to commit to accepting the panel's findings before they're released, even though his campaign staff has expressed confidence that the president will remain above 50 percent, eliminating the need for a runoff.
Karzai's stand has raised concern that he may challenge the findings, further delaying proclamation of a winner or the scheduling a runoff.
Afghan law declares the U.N.-dominated Electoral Complaints Commission the final arbiter on fraud allegations. However, Karzai supporters on the separate Independent Election Commission, which must order a runoff, have argued that the partial recount is beyond the normal complaint process and that the U.N.-backed panel does not have the final say.
A second round balloting must be held before the coming of winter, which traditionally begins in mid-November. Once heavy snows fall in the mountain passes, a runoff would have to wait until spring, leaving the country in political limbo for months as the Taliban gains strength.
Fearing the political crisis will worsen, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have telephoned both Karzai and Abdullah in recent days to express concern over the impasse.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, U.S. Democratic Sen. John Kerry and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, were all in Kabul on Saturday for talks with Afghan leaders.
Kerry's trip was planned before the electoral crisis, but he told the candidates "about the need for a legitimate outcome," according to a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A statement by the French Foreign Ministry said Kouchner traveled to Kabul "in the context of tension" brought on by the disputed election and urged all parties "to respect" the review process in the interest of the country.
At the same time, envoys were urging both candidates to strike a power-sharing deal to avoid a potentially divisive and costly second vote.
Officials familiar with the talks say the two sides are far apart on details, and it was unclear whether a power-sharing deal would be constitutional. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.
"They want us to establish a strong government, a coalition government," said Mohamed Mohin Murstal, a member of parliament and a Karzai supporter. "Karzai has agreed that after the announcement of the results, he will give the opportunity for all political personalities to be involved in government — but not before."
Karzai's campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the president is "not going to compromise the results of the elections into any sort of political deal."
Abdullah's campaign manager, Satar Murad, said his team was focused on finalizing the election and "we're not going to respond until we have that."
The political crisis coincides with a sharp rise in fighting.
A NATO statement said two U.S. troops died Friday in a bombing in eastern Afghanistan. A third U.S. service member died the same day in a bombing in the south.
Their deaths bring to 28 the number of American service members killed in Afghanistan this month, according to an Associated Press count.
This article, by Martin Fletcher, was published iun the London Times, October 9, 2009
American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taliban.
Many feel that they are risking their lives -- and that colleagues have died -- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.
"The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families," said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division's 2-87 Infantry Battalion.
"They feel they are risking their lives for progress that's hard to discern," said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division's 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. "They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through." The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.
The base is not, it has to be said, obviously downcast, and many troops do not share the chaplains' assessment. The soldiers are, by nature and training, upbeat, driven by a strong sense of duty, and they do their jobs as best they can. Re-enlistment rates are surprisingly good for the 2-87, though poor for the 4-25. Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.
"We're lost -- that's how I feel. I'm not exactly sure why we're here," said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday. "I need a clear-cut purpose if I'm going to get hurt out here or if I'm going to die."
Sergeant Christopher Hughes, 37, from Detroit, has lost six colleagues and survived two roadside bombs. Asked if the mission was worthwhile, he replied: "If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don't."
The only soldiers who thought it was going well "work in an office, not on the ground." In his opinion "the whole country is going to s***."
The battalion's 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people's allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taliban.
They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability, and many of those have not been replaced. More than two dozen mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been knocked out of action.
Living conditions are good -- abundant food, air-conditioned tents, hot water, free internet -- but most of the men are on their second, third or fourth tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, with barely a year between each. Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne's mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state -- especially those in scattered outposts -- and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "They're tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go," she said.
Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87's Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common.
A dozen men have been confined to desk jobs because they can no longer handle missions outside the base. One long-serving officer who has lost three friends this tour said he sometimes returned to his room at night and cried, or played war games on his laptop. "It's a release. It's a method of coping." He has nightmares and sleeps little, and it does not help that the base is frequently shaken by outgoing artillery fire. He was briefly overcome as he recalled how, when a lorry backfired during his most recent home leave, he grabbed his young son and dived between two parked cars.
The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers. "Everyone you meet is just down, and you meet them everywhere -- in the weight room, dining facility, getting mail," said Captain Rico. Even "hard men" were coming to their tent chapel and breaking down.
The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. "The soldiers' biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taliban, because that almost seems impossible. It's hard to catch someone you can't see," said Specialist Mercer.
"It's a very frustrating mission," said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. "The average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate or believe it's for something [worthwhile], but it's not like other wars where your buddy died but they took the hill. There's no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It's hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here."
Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, said: "We want to believe in a cause but we don't know what that cause is."
The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. "You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they're still going to lie to you. They'll tell you there's no Taliban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again," said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.
Captain Rico told of the disgust of a medic who was asked to treat an insurgent shortly after pulling a colleague's charred corpse from a bombed vehicle.
The soldiers complain that rules of engagement designed to minimise civilian casualties mean that they fight with one arm tied behind their backs. "They're a joke," said one. "You get shot at but can do nothing about it. You have to see the person with the weapon. It's not enough to know which house the shooting's coming from."
The soldiers joke that their Isaf arm badges stand not for International Security Assistance Force but "I Suck At Fighting" or "I Support Afghan Farmers."
To compound matters, soldiers are mainly being killed not in combat but on routine journeys, by roadside bombs planted by an invisible enemy. "That's very demoralising," said Captain Masengale.
The constant deployments are, meanwhile, playing havoc with the soldiers' private lives. "They're killing families," he said. "Divorces are skyrocketing. PTSD is off the scale. There have been hundreds of injuries that send soldiers home and affect families for the rest of their lives."
The chaplains said that many soldiers had lost their desire to help Afghanistan. "All they want to do is make it home alive and go back to their wives and children and visit the families who have lost husbands and fathers over here. It comes down to just surviving," said Captain Masengale.
"If we make it back with ten toes and ten fingers the mission is successful," Sergeant Hughes said.
"You carry on for the guys to your left or right," added Specialist Mercer.
The chaplains have themselves struggled to cope with so much distress. "We have to encourage them, strengthen them and send them out again. No one comes in and says, 'I've had a great day on a mission'. It's all pain," said Captain Masengale. "The only way we've been able to make it is having each other."
Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87's commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised, and insisted they had achieved a great deal over the past nine months. A triathlete and former rugby player, he admitted pushing his men hard, but argued that taking the fight to the enemy was the best form of defence.
He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it. He said, however, that the situation would have been catastrophic without his men. They had managed to keep open the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway which dissects Wardak, and prevent the province becoming a launch pad for attacks on the capital, which is barely 20 miles from its border. Above all, Colonel Gallahue argued that counter-insurgency -- winning the allegiance of the indigenous population through security, development and good governance -- was a long and laborious process that could not be completed in a year. "These 12 months have been, for me, laying the groundwork for future success," he said.
At morning service on Sunday, the two chaplains sought to boost the spirits of their flock with uplifting hymns, accompanied by video footage of beautiful lakes, oceans and rivers.
Captain Rico offered a particularly apposite reading from Corinthians: "We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."