War on Iraq

Afghanistan: Iraq All Over Again

We did not invade Afghanistan to help the Afghan people. So why are so many progressives buying into that myth?
Monday's New York Times ran an article that drew dark parallels to the news out of Iraq. "Ragtag Taliban Show Tenacity in Afghanistan," read the headline, the latest in a stream of similar dispatches, which come on the heels of a Pentagon report forecasting heightened violence in the country. It appears that regrouped and reinforced fighters known as the Taliban are proving a formidable opponent for the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan -- ground zero, supposedly, of the so-called "War on Terror." Here in the United States, this has prompted what the Times describes as a "fresh round of soul-searching" over the conflict. But the question being grappled with, according to the article -- "how a relatively ragtag insurgency has managed to keep the world's most powerful armies at bay" -- is all too familiar; it is identical, in fact, to the question asked about the resistance in Iraq, which turned the mission from a "cakewalk" into a bloodbath. Nearly seven years into the war on Afghanistan -- and five years into the war on Iraq -- has it occurred to anyone that maybe we're asking the wrong question?

Afghanistan was a frustrating topic of conversation on last week's episode of "Meet the Bloggers," not because of my fellow panelists -- Baratunde Thurston and Roberto Lovato -- or the guest of the week -- the sharp-witted Rachel Maddow -- but because so many people have apparently settled upon a disconcertingly simple answer to what is an impossibly complex question. As the show proceeded, we ran an online poll: Should we send more troops to Afghanistan? The result: Some 60 percent of respondents watching -- a mostly progressive crowd -- said "yes." This closely mirrors a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, which found that a majority of Americans favor taking troops out of Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan.

Online, those who voted "yes" provided some insights:

"We went to Afghanistan for the purpose of capturing Osama bin Laden and disbanding the Taliban that was providing him with a base," wrote one person, who complained that "this discussion seems to be premised on an assumption that our effort in Afghanistan has morphed into a war on Afghanistan." (Perhaps the commenter is unaware of the scale of civilian casualties we have inflicted.) Another reminded us that "we are discussing a country with people that are terrorized by groups of extremists. … It is our job as one of the strongest powers to help them and show them a way out of the living in fear and in poverty." On the question of sending troops, another asked, "How can you nation-build, destroy poppie (sic) growing, and defeat the Taliban without troops, when we know they terrorize the citizens, and have no qualms about killing people?"

There's something sadly familiar here, an echo of the old rationale for invading -- and then sending more troops to -- Iraq. The assumption is that the mission is an inherently noble one: that we are there to "help" the Afghan people. On the show, Maddow short-handedly characterized the mission as many Americans might: one that will help Afghanistan become a "normal" country. But -- shelving the discussion of what "normal" is -- Afghanistan was not a quote-unquote normal country long before 9/11, and Americans weren't exactly taking to the streets demanding an invasion to take out the Taliban then. For all the self-congratulatory rhetoric about the original defeat of the Taliban, the fleeting victory by U.S.-led forces did little to achieve real change for Afghan people.

Those who support sending troops into Afghanistan either understand that the original invasion was a revenge attack for 9/11 -- and consider the mission justified -- or else truly believe that U.S.-led occupying forces have a chance of stabilizing a country that has been ravaged by war and occupation for decades while also rooting out the U.S.-hating terrorists who reside there. Barack Obama, we are to believe, falls into the latter camp. He has promised to withdraw troops from Iraq to send tens of thousands more to Afghanistan. In his New York Times op-ed, "My Plan for Iraq," he wrote, "We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there," and he called the plan "a new strategy." But is this really a "new strategy"? Isn't it simply the Democrats' version of the Tough on Terror stance, dusted off in the service of the presidential election?

Political War Games

Early during Friday's program, Maddow -- who was critical of the plan to send more troops -- was asked whether Obama "has" to take the stance he's taking on Afghanistan, for the sake of political expediency (the old "he's just being pragmatic" argument). Sure, she said -- if this were "last year's political climate." But 2008 could have been "a year when Democratic politicians stopped aping Republicans on national security and started talking about reframing the debate," she said. Instead, to the disappointment of many, Obama is playing "John Kerry-level politics" with Afghanistan. And we saw how well that worked for the senator from Massachusetts.

But the question of whether Obama "has" to promise more troops for the sake of the election is not the right one either. (It's time to stop and ask ourselves why we insist on defending the worst kind of posturing out of fealty to an electoral process as morally bankrupt and intellectually impoverished as ours.) For many, electing Barack Obama over John McCain is nothing less than a moral imperative. But if the belief that Obama will bring a swift end to the war in Iraq has proven naive, shouldn't ending the war -- both wars -- be the real moral imperative? Afghanistan is a country where the majority of the population, as Maddow pointed out, "has never known a time when there wasn't war." Vowing to send tens of thousands of American men and women to another war zone with no end in sight in order to prolong a deadly, intractable conflict that is killing innocent civilians is not change we can believe in.

A Long, Hard Slog

"The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq," Marjorie Cohn recently reminded us. "The invasion of Afghanistan was not legitimate self-defense under (the U.N. Charter) because the attacks on Sept. 11 were criminal attacks, not 'armed attacks' by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the United States." The fact that we had a better "coalition of the willing" does not change that. What's more, the mission in Afghanistan promises to be, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, a long, hard slog.

"The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize," former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year. "This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history, surpassing even Vietnam." Even if a majority of Americans really supports sending more troops right now, it seems far-fetched to expect that they will still want them there 25 years later.

If Americans are so convinced of the mission, do we really understand what it is? Do we have any idea what it would mean to "win" in Afghanistan, as Obama says we must? "Osama bin Laden is still out there planning to attack the U.S.," warned one "Meet the Bloggers" viewer. But if Osama bin Laden were captured tomorrow, would Americans continue to support the mission in Afghanistan? Or would we suddenly start calling for the United States to declare Mission Accomplished?

Those who pretend to speak for what's best for the people of Afghanistan ought to consider the opinions of Afghans themselves, especially those who have been fighting for years for their country. Take the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), struggling for 30 years for human rights and self-determination for the people of Afghanistan:
Since the overthrow of the Soviet-installed puppet regime in 1992, the focus of RAWA's political struggle has been against the fundamentalists' and the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban's criminal policies and atrocities against the people of Afghanistan in general and their incredibly ultra-male-chauvinistic and anti-woman orientation in particular. … The U.S. "War on Terrorism" removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism, which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the U.S. administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The U.S. government and Mr. Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.
RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can't be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the U.S.-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempted to restore their religious fascism on our people.
Freedom and democracy can't be donated, nor can they be achieved at gunpoint. It is the hubris of empire that deludes the United States into thinking it can bring a definitive end to the quagmire in Afghanistan.

End the Occupation

If the United States really wants to improve the situation in Afghanistan, it should start by ending the occupation. It should then cough up money for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. (One estimate puts the tab at $10 billion.) This is not just for the sake of Afghanistan, but for the sake of Americans as well, who are no safer today than they were when the planes hit the towers. Ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is the first, crucial step in that elusive goal of "winning hearts and minds" that the United States claims to be so committed to in the region. As Iraq has demonstrated, occupying armies are not a deterrent to terrorism. Occupying armies breed terror.

Most important, it's time to stop thinking of Afghanistan as the "right front" of the so-called "War on Terror" -- an idea that has been perpetuated by everyone from Barack Obama to Jon Stewart (who idiotically told Colin Powell in 2005, "the Afghanistan war, man did I dig that. I'd like to go again") -- and start questioning the legitimacy of the "War on Terror" itself. It is an idea that has been utterly and catastrophically discredited, most recently by the most unlikely of institutions, the RAND Corporation, which recently released a report that undermined the notion that soldiers can fight a "war on terror."

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism," wrote Seth Jones, the lead author of the study. "Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame achieved victory."

If the RAND Corporation, a think tank that traditionally operates in the service of war-making, no longer believes in the "War on Terror," why on Earth should we?
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