Obama Austin video image

Today, President Obama came to my town to give an invite-only speech at the University of Texas. Lacking an invite, I wondered what people with invites had to say about the Afghanistan War. What I found is reflected in the video above.

All the people who had tickets to the event who consented to be interviewed and who gave an opinion for or against are in this video, and their views are fairly represented. Of course, that's not a surprise, given the levels of public disgust with this war, the higher levels of opposition among Democrats and the likely makeup of the invitee crowd.

Most Americans -- 54 percent -- think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Forty-one percent disagree.

There is a partisan divide on the issue: 73 percent of Democrats think the U.S. should set a timetable, while only 32 percent of Republicans say the U.S. should do so. Fifty-four percent of independents want a timetable.

What is surprising, though, is the "heads down, follow through" attitude on the part of our elected leaders.

Poll: Afghanistan War Hurting Obama's Support at Home
Poll: Afghanistan War Deeply Unpopular, Dragging Down Presidential Approval
Afghan War Looms As Electoral Problem

Ever heard of a thing called an election?

Watch our exclusive video on the Sangin incident

Exclusive, on-the-ground interviews obtained by Brave New Foundation's Rethink Afghanistan project confirm what NATO forces repeatedly denied: U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan killed dozens of people in the Sangin District of Helmand Province on July 23.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office first acknowledged the incident when they condemned the killings on July 26. At that time, the Afghan National Directorate of Security claimed that the American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) killed "52 civilians...including women and children" in a "rocket attack." (The Kabul government later revised that tally to 39.) By Sunday, August 1, there were protests in the streets of Kabul.

ISAF immediately attacked the credibility of the Afghan government's report, complaining bitterly of Karzai's decision to condemn the incident without conferring with U.S. and allied forces.

Working with our team in Afghanistan led by Anita Sreedhar, Brave New Foundation's Rethink Afghanistan campaign sent an intrepid local blogger into Sangin--one of Afghanistan's most volatile areas--to get the truth. The video interviews he obtained are incredible and horrifying. We made the full interview transcripts available online at http://rethinkafghanistan.com, and we encourage you to read them. Here's the short version: Every survivor our interviewer talked to confirmed that a massive civilian casualty event occurred, and that NATO was responsible.

NATO vs. the Kabul Government

ISAF began their push-back against press accounts of the Sangin incident with a simple press release on July 24: "We have no operational reporting that correlates to this alleged incident." No further press release available on the ISAF website expands or updates this statement. However, ISAF personnel soon ratcheted up their attacks on the Afghan government's narrative and, in the process, circulated alternative (and often contradictory) official responses, tallies and accounts of the event.

Quoted in a July 27 New York Times article, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith (whom you might remember from that embarrassing and horrific event in Gardez earlier this year) escalated ISAF's push-back by claiming Karzai's office's account was premature and speculative.

"Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded...We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known."

On August 5, ISAF spokespeople still claimed to lack information on the outcome of this promised "joint investigation." However, that didn't stop other ISAF officials from offering "speculations" of their own. Brigadier General Josef Blotz, for example, claimed that Afghan and coalition forces examined images of the scene and interviewed witnesses but found "no substance in terms of proof or evidence" to support Karzai's claim. He did, however, concede that "one to three civilians may have been inadvertently killed."

Later, again on August 5, while ISAF provided quotes from named sources for attribution that denied knowledge of the outcome of the investigation, an unnamed "senior intelligence official" told The New York Times that six civilians died with eight Taliban fighters when a troop fired a Javelin rocket into a structure from which U.S. Marines took fire.

When asked to explain the discrepancy between his tally and that of the Afghan government, the unnamed official cited "political challenges," as if "political challenges" account for a 33-person difference in the death tallies. This explanation reminds one of the Gardez massacre earlier this year, when ISAF tried to pass off its blatant lie about an American special forces team finding women "bound, gagged and executed" as a "cultural misunderstanding," when in fact they'd killed the women themselves and tried to dig the bullets out while one of them was still alive, screaming in pain. In effect, this unnamed source accused Afghan locals and officials of lying about civilian deaths because of hard feelings between them and the coalition.

What is going on here? One explanation might be that ISAF engaged in the same type of damage control campaign utilized in other horrifying incidents like the Farah airstrike and the Gardez massacre. In both cases, ISAF initially denied wrongdoing, aggressively attacked the credibility of alternative accounts that disputed the official story, and claimed that the evidence was either neutral or exculpatory. Only when new information made it impossible to deny responsibility did ISAF admit its guilt in both cases. Perhaps we're seeing a repeat of that behavior here.

Regardless of the source and possible motivation for all this contradicting information and blatant disinformation, what is clear, based on interviews obtained by our team on the ground in Sangin, is that ISAF troops killed dozens of civilians on July 23.

What We Found

52 people were killed! We don't know how many children or women! ...The rest of my family is scattered and lost I don't know where they are. ...My mind doesn't work okay. ... My daughter's in laws were sitting in our house with their other children when the bombing started I saw them get killed with my own eyes!

--Mahmoud Jan Kaka

I saw a child on the floor was injured. I thought he was the only injured one so I took him to the clinic. When I came back my nephew told me that there were more injured people. I tried to pull my daughter from the rubble but I couldn't. I heard her calling for help but I couldn't reach her.

--Abdul Zahar

In all of my experiences not the Russians or the Taliban ever did what they (N.A.T.O.) did. ...I wanted to go to the government post and tell them to kill the rest of us too as we have nothing to live for anymore!

...In the morning we see bodies with heads, blood and guts everywhere, arms here and legs there. All of my loved ones who were still alive were soaked in blood. We tried to go and identify the bodies; everyone was looking for there missing relatives. There was so much sorrow and pain from those people who were lost in shock.

--Unnamed Sangin Resident 1

See the full transcripts.

The most important takeaway from these interviews, aside from the universal attribution of blame to NATO, is that there is absolutely no way that the civilian death toll is in the single digits. One person described losing eight family members; another said he lost nine loved ones; still another lost 11. One of the men, Abdul Barg, insisted that, "the number of martyred were no less than 35 up to 50." He also related that "every family in the village was placing at least a couple of their loved ones in a bag."

These video interviews prove what NATO wants to deny. As you watch the footage of these Afghan men and hear their voices crack, it becomes sickeningly clear. U.S. and allied forces killed dozens of Afghan civilians in Sangin.

This incident is more than a moral outrage: it shows why the Afghanistan War undermines our safety. Thanks to the work of the National Bureau of Economic Research, we know that, statistically speaking, every time an incident like this happens, we can expect an additional six attacks on coalition forces. But we don't have to generalize from this incident to see the threat when the specifics spell it out so clearly:

More than 200 people demonstrated over the July 23 incident in the Sangin district of Helmand province... The protesters shouted "Death to America" and carried banners calling for justice and pictures of children they say were killed in the strike...

This is what our elected officials need to understand: when we debate the war in Afghanistan, it's not an academic exercise. It's a string of specific incidents like Sangin, concrete moral outrages that pay us back with increased strategic risk.

Our reaction to Sangin and the other similar catastrophes defines us. That's why when I go into a voting booth this November, or I get a solicitation for a political donation or a request to volunteer for a federal candidate, I'm going ask, "How did this person respond when he or she heard that we slaughtered the heart of a village? Did this person explain it away? Did they continue to support a policy that ensured more Sangins all across Afghanistan? Or did they finally catch themselves, finally realize that this war ensures the slow death of more children under rubble while parents claw at the pile?" These are the questions I'll ask myself before I punch the touch-screen at the local library, and if the opinion polls are any indication, I'll be far, far from alone.

I encourage all of you to visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com to send a note to your elected officials and let them know you'll be watching what they do in response to this disaster, and that you'll remember it when you vote in November.

Help us push back against TIME Magazine's distortion of women's issues in Afghanistan.

Tomorrow, TIME Magazine will treat newsstand customers everywhere to one of the most rank propaganda plays of the Afghanistan War. The cover features a woman, Aisha, whose face was mutilated by the Taliban, next to the headline, "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan." Far more people will see this image and have their emotions manipulated by it than will read the article within (which itself seems to be a journalistic travesty, if the web version is any indication), so TIME should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for such a dishonest snow job on their customers. Readers deserve better.

Let's clarify something right off the top when it comes to this cover: Aisha, the poor woman depicted in the photograph, was attacked last year, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops tramping all over the country at the time. This isn't the picture of some as-yet-unrealized nighmarish future for Afghan women. It's the picture of the present.

Human Rights Watch's (HRW) recently published report on this issue, The "Ten-Dollar Talib" and Women's Rights, provides key context for the struggle for women's political equality in Afghanistan:

Afghan women assert their rights in what is already a deeply hostile political environment. Any assessment of women’s rights, and indeed the prospects for long-term peace and reconciliation needs to be made in the context of the very traditional and often misogynistic male leadership that dominates Afghan politics. The Afghan government, often with the tacit approval of key foreign governments and inter-governmental bodies, has empowered current and former warlords, providing official positions to some and effective immunity from prosecution for serious crimes to the rest. Backroom deals with abusive commanders have created powerful factions in the government and Parliament that are opposed to many of the rights and freedoms that women now enjoy. As one activist told us, “We women don’t have guns and poppies and we are not warlords, therefore we are not in the decision-making processes.”

This is something that folks who put together TIME's cover better understand right now: the fox is already in the hen-house. There is a very powerful set of anti-women's-equality caucuses already nested within the Afghan government that the U.S. supports. These individuals and groups are working to reassert the official misogyny of the Taliban days already, independent of the reconciliation and reintegration process. Given the opportunity, these individuals and groups in the U.S.-backed government will manipulate the reconciliation and reintegration process and leverage armed-opposition-group participation in the process to push through policies they'd prefer already as compromises with their "opponents." This is why the propaganda of TIME's cover is so pernicious: the women of Afghanistan are caught in a vice already, stuck between their opponents in the insurgency and in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. If one is concerned about the rights of women in Afghanistan, the question is, how do we give women the most leverage possible in this situation?

Further, TIME's incendiary headline, "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan," is a total misrepresentation of the issue discussed in the article. Here's Aisha in her own words:

"They [the Taliban] are the people that did this to me," she says, touching her damaged face. "How can we reconcile with them?"

Here's another quote from another woman that gets at the issue much better than TIME's headline:

"Women's rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved," says parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi.

And another quote:

"When we talk about women's rights," Jamalzadah says, "we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place."

If we are to believe the setup on the cover and in the article, the women of Afghanistan see two options: the U.S. can "stay" and ensure the rights of women, or we can "leave" by route of selling them out. But that's neither what the women's quotes say nor what Human Rights Watch found when they interviewed 90 "working women and women in public life living in areas that the insurgents effectively controlled or where they have a significant presence to illustrate the current nature of the insurgency." While they found an intense anxiety over the consequences of the Taliban regaining a share of national power, they also found that:

"All of the women interviewed for this report supported a negotiated end to the conflict."

The quotes of the women in TIME's article express anxiety about the Kabul government negotiated away women's rights to warlord war criminals, not us "staying" or "leaving." See what TIME did there? They've taken these quotes from Afghan women and manipulated them to portray a false dilemma.

TIME Magazine throws out this useless bromide: "For Afghanistan's women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous." Early compared to what? How can a pull-out almost a decade into a conflict be remotely described as "early?" Even if we build a shining utopia for women while U.S. troops were there in large numbers, women's rights would evaporate the day after we departed if U.S. troops were the force holding them in place. That's what Afghan Women's Network's Orzala Ashraf meant when she told Rethink Afghanistan that,

"I don't believe and I don't expect any outside power to come and liberate me. If I cannot liberate myself, no one from outside can liberate me."

The struggle is the liberation as Afghan women discover and use their power. Grassroots involvement in social struggle is what creates societies rooted in democratic values, not men with guns from other countries.

Although you wouldn't know it from TIME's editorializing within the article or from the horrendously misleading cover, the issue is not even remotely "if" we leave Afghanistan. We will. The questions are "When?" and "How?"

When

U.S. forces could stay for another twenty years in Afghanistan (would that still be "early?"), and even if they pound Kandahar into dust, no development in the war so far even remotely suggests the possibility of military force eliminating the Taliban as a significant political and armed force. Therefore, the war's end would still involve some sort of political settlement that involves Taliban (unless, of course, the U.S. wants to guarantee the most ferocious civil conflict possible upon their exit by totally excluding them). At the end of that twenty years, we'd be faced with the same problems regarding the rights of women in Afghanistan, plus the effects of those years of war on the U.S. force and the Afghan population.

TIME's depiction of the women's rights issue is based on a faulty premise: that "staying" rather than "leaving" is having the effect of weakening an insurgency hostile to women's rights. In fact, if we are to believe the official reports from the Pentagon to Congress, the opposite is true. As the first several months of President Obama's escalation strategy played out, the military reports claim the insurgency gained in strategic and political power in the key areas of Afghanistan. As those trends continue, the political difficulties for women in the eventual reconciliation and reintegration processes increase. Prolonging the massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan makes it more likely that the regressive elements in the Kabul government will achieve their agenda through "compromise" with powerful insurgent elements during the reconciliation/reintegration processes.

Some sort of reconciliation process is going to take place. When it comes to securing the rights of women in Afghanistan, all other things being equal, sooner is better.

How?

American policymakers, if they are truly interested in the rights of women beyond their use in sloganeering, are going to have to start playing a higher-level game than they are at present. When President Obama took 35 minutes to explain his rationales for his escalation strategy, he didn't mention women's political equality once. If they hope to assist the women of Afghanistan struggling for political equality, they need to understand the game and to start playing catch-up ball, pronto.

The most important work is to prepare the field before the negotiations begin. That means two things: getting women in, and keeping the worst of the worst out.

Two bodies will undertake the lion's share of work on the peace process in Afghanistan: the High Level Peace Council and the Joint Secretariat for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration Programs. According to HRW's report, key assurances have not been given that women would have a meaningful seat at the table in decision-making capacities. At the time of the report's publication, the High Level Peace Council had not been appointed, but the Joint Secretariat was effectively functioning and no women were included. The extent to which Afghan women can succeed at inserting themselves into the various levels of this process will be a major determinant in the amount of leverage they'll have to help them defend their rights as the new Afghanistan takes shape. Afghan women's advocates have shown some adeptness at this sort of agitation: during the Consultative Peace Jirga, women were promised only 10 percent representation. Through intense agitation, they obtained 20 percent. U.S. policymakers who want to help women in Afghanistan have to figure out how best to support the effort of women to get into these decision-making bodies and exert real influence. The U.S. is a prime funder of the Afghan government. It's time to figure out how to use that leverage for this purpose. That's why Human Rights Watch makes this key recommendation:

Make women’s meaningful participation in relevant decision-making bodies a precondition for funding reintegration programs, and ensure that reintegration funds benefit families and communities, including women, rather than individual ex-combatants.

That brings us to the touchy subject of keeping the worst of the worst out. This is a touchy subject because the obstacles to getting this done have come into being due to the active and tacit support of the United States.

Let's talk about just a couple of these obstacles: Hajji Mohammed Mohaqiq and his Amnesty Law.

Mohaqiq was one of the leaders of the notorious Hezb-e Wahdat, which in late 2001-early 2002 targeted Pashtun civilians for violence because of their ethnic ties to the Taliban. According to Human Rights Watch, Hezb-e Wahdat was:

implicated in systematic and widespread looting and violence in almost every province under their…control, almost all of it directed at Pashtun villagers. …[T]here were several reports of rapes of girls and women. In Chimtal district near Mazar-e Sharif, and in Balkh province generally, both Hizb-i Wahdat [alternative English rendering of Hezb-e Wahdat] and Jamiat forces were particularly violent: in one village, Bargah-e Afghani, Hizb-i Wahdat troops killed thirty-seven civilians.

Mohaqiq’s militia also became widely feared and loathed for their practice of kidnapping young girls, “forcibly marrying” them (what a useless euphemism for rape), and ransoming them back to their parents. They seemed to especially enjoy snatching girls who were on their way to school, leading many parents to keep their girls home rather than risk their abduction and rape.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq managed to get himself appointed as a vice chair of the interim government and as Minister of Planning. During the 2002 loya jirga that set the basic shape of the new government, Hezb-e Wahdat was named by Human Rights Watch as one of the groups that used threats and intimidation against other delegates. Through their use of these thuggish tactics, Mohaqiq’s militia helped corrupt a process which many hoped would lead to greater civilian control relative to the warlords, but which led instead to the warlords’ solidifying their power. Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, of course, retained his positions of power.

But here’s the real kicker: once legitimized, Mohaqiq was one of the masterminds of the widely condemned 2007 legislation that granted warlords amnesty for their war crimes during the civil war. The UN sharply condemned the amnesty law, declaring “No one has the right to forgive those responsible for human rights violations other than the victims themselves.” Thanks to outcry from the United Nations and human rights advocates (but pointedly, not from the U.S., UK, or the EU, who did not speak out against the law), the law was tabled.

But then came the absolutely corrupted 2009 election: Karzai promised to carve out a new province for Mohaqiq in exchange for his support in the election. Karzai "won," and President Obama declared the government "legitimate." Then, in January 2010, Karzai quietly slipped the Amnesty Law into effect, immunizing Mohaqiq for his crimes against women. Mohaqiq has since publicly decried Karzai's moves toward negotiations with the Taliban, but even though he doesn't support it, his handiwork is a malignant shaper of the process with regards to the rights of women.

Here's HRW's summary of the law:

The Amnesty Law states that all those who were engaged in armed conflict before the formation of Afghanistan’s Interim Administration in December 2001 shall “enjoy all their legal rights and shall not be prosecuted.” It also says that those engaged in current hostilities will be granted immunity if they agree to reconciliation with the government, effectively providing amnesty for future crimes. The law thus provides immunity from prosecution for members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, as well as pro-government warlords, who have committed war crimes.

All through this process, the U.S. was either silent or supportive of these developments, and now the Amnesty Law stands as one of the threats most identified by Afghan women's advocates to the progress of their political agenda during the reconciliation process. Those most dangerous to the women of Afghanistan--powerful fundamentalist warlords with a history of serious war crimes against women and girls--may find their way into influential negotiating positions where they can link up with their anti-women brethren already inside the Kabul government. The solution posited by Human Rights Watch and by women parliamentarians is to repeal the Amnesty Law and institute strong vetting processes that exclude the worst war criminals from the ballot or from political appointment while still allowing participation of their home tribes or groups. This solution goes hand in hand with that discovered last year by UK's DFID to be preferred by those in insurgency-prone areas: a new "black list" standard for what crimes disqualify one from election or appointment, applied to everyone, including Taliban, other insurgents, or pro-Kabul-government figures.

As the reader can tell, the issue is far more complex than the farcical "stay or leave" choice framed up on TIME's shameful propaganda cover art. The U.S.'s massive troop presence and the escalating instability is strengthening the hand of the political forces that want to roll back women's political equality, so the longer we stay, the worse off women will be as they attempt to navigate the eventual political settlement of the conflict. Yet, U.S. inattention to (or outright malignant influence on) the factors shaping the field for that political struggle are affirmatively hurting the struggle for women's political equality. We will leave the combat field, and we have to do it soon, and while we leave, we have to do our best to help shape a political field supportive of the Afghan women's struggle to liberate themselves.

Pulling this off will require a deft hand, and it's not clear whether the Kabul government or our own government, given the atrophied nature of the State Department, is up to the task. Given the vested interests who have a stake in the existence of the Amnesty Law, repealing it will be enormously difficult in Afghanistan's political arena (and no one should let the U.S. off the hook for helping to shape this political environment through support for known warlords and war criminals). But what is clear is that using the rights of women as a justification for extending our massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure on this issue and for the betrayal and heartbreak of those who care about the fate of Afghan women.

Shorter version: TIME Magazine' cover art is rank propaganda, and the current U.S. policy is failing women, badly.

Click here to watch the latest Rethink Afghanistan video

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President Obama managed to show just how nimble and how disingenuous an administration can be in his response to the WikiLeaks fiasco:

Obama, speaking from the Rose Garden after a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss funding for the war and other issues, deplored the leak, saying he was concerned the information from the battleground "could potentially jeopardise individuals or operations".

...

The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he was appalled by the leaks, telling reporters "there is a real potential threat there to put American lives at risk."

Now, it may or may not be true that this leak put people in Afghanistan at risk, but I find that to be a very interesting point for this president to be making, considering that the policy and execution of his policy absolutely jeopardizes individuals in Afghanistan and around the world. After all, if you put Julian Assange and President Obama together in a room, only one person in that room is ordering heavily armed people into a hostile war zone filled with civilians. And only one of them is executing a policy that increases the likelihood of a suicide bombing campaign directed at the United States and its citizens and that kills thousands of civilians each year.

This is a tried-and-true warmonger move: according to this canard, it's those that oppose the war policy or that take action to show the conflict between societal values and actual policies that endanger everyone, not the brutal, costly policy. I would say I was a bit shocked, but this is the same president that stood up during his Nobel Peace Prize lecture and opined about the necessity of war when he feels it's justified. The President of the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, thus putting them in harm's way for a policy that doesn't make us safer and that causes enormous hardship for those caught in the crossfire. Those who support this policy but are attacking WikiLeaks for releasing this data need to take a good, hard look in the mirror before they jump on Julian Assange for "endangering" anyone.

But he went on to say the material highlighted the challenges that led him to announce a change in strategy late last year that involved sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The policy is due to be reviewed in December.

...

"We failed for seven years to implement a strategy adequate to the challenge," Obama said today, of the period starting with the 9/11 attacks. That is why we have increased our commitment there and developed a new strategy," he said, adding he has also sent one of the finest generals in the US, General David Petraeus.

Insisting that the strategy "can work", he ended with a plea to the House of Representatives to join the Senate in passing a bill to provide funds for the Afghan war as a matter of urgency.

Help me out here. Somehow, we're supposed to believe that the WikiLeaks information is "proof" that the president was right to initiate a massive escalation. If I were the president, this would be the drop-dead last argument I'd be making, because it begs the question: Okay, well, what's the situation on the ground like now, 7 months into the escalation policy, compared to the time period captured in the War Logs leak?

Short answer: the president should be pining away for the good ol' days depicted in the WikiLeaks report.

Here's a chart from the latest Afghan NGO Safety Office report, showing a massive jump in the seasonal peaks in insurgent-initiated violence since President Obama took office and started his repeated escalations.

Afghan NGO Safety Office Chart on Anti-Afghan-Government-Group-Initiated Attacks

Here's a quote from a December 2009 military report, "The State of the Insurgency" (.pdf):

  • Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding
  • Strength and ability of shadow governance increasing
  • Much greater frequency of attacks and varied locations

Compare that with this quote from the latest "progress" report to Congress:

  • Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding.

...

  • The strength and ability of shadow governance to discredit the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan Government is increasing.

...

  • Insurgents' tactics, techniques, and procedures for conducting complex attacks are increasing in sophistication and strategic effect.

Lots of change there, apparently. Good work, Mr. President.

Here's a map from that same report that shows that the Kabul government is falling further behind the insurgents when it comes to winning sympathy or support in key regions of the country (a chart that the Pentagon laughably refers to when it wants to show "progress" to Congress, because they know Congress doesn't actually read the reports).

Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Falling Further Behind Insurgents in "Sympathy" or "Support" Among Key Areas of Afghanistan

Here's another quote from the same source that compares the level of violence in 2010 to the level of violence at the time depicted in the WikiLeaks material:

Violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year - an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.

Like everyone else, I'm still combing through the documents and reading various summaries and reactions. But I don't even have to get through any of the WikiLeaks material to see that the president's attempt to spin this leak as a justification of his policies is totally bankrupt. The publicly available reports from his own administration prove it--no leak required.

Fed up with this brutal, costly war that's not making us safer? Sign Rethink Afghanistan's petition to politicians to end this war.

Watch the full video, Rethink Afghanistan (Part 4): Civilian Casualties.

The Afghanistan Rights Monitor's (ARM) mid-year report on Civilian Casualties of Conflict (.pdf) blasts the happy-talk coming out of the Obama Administration about the deteriorating security situation and its effect on civilians:

Despite the high-profile spin in Washington and Kabul about progress made in Afghanistan, the Afghan people have only witnessed and suffered an intensifying armed conflict over the past six months. Contrary to President Barrack Obama's promise that the deployment of additional 30,000 US forces to the country would "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" Taliban insurgents and their al-Qaeda allies in the region, the insurgency has become more resilient, multi-structured and deadly. Information and figures received, verified and analyzed by Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) show about 1,074 civilian people were killed and over 1,500 were injured in armed violence and security incidents from 1 January to 30 June 2010. This shows a slight increase in the number of civilian deaths compared to the same period last year when 1,059 deaths were recorded.

...In terms of insecurity, 2010 has been the worst year since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Not only have the number of security incidents increased, the space and depth of insurgency and counter-insurgency-related violence have maximized dramatically. Up to 1,200 security incident were recorded in June, the highest number of incident compared to any month since 2002.

The administration and their allies have continuously that "we're making progress," "we're turning the tide," or "we've begun to reverse the insurgents' momentum," but the data doesn't support their assertions. As ARM's report shows, civilian casualties continue to climb even as more troops flood into the country--troops executing a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy supposedly premised on "protecting the population." The rise in troop levels and civilian casualties has been accompanied by an increasingly large and sophisticated insurgency and a widening lead in sympathy or support for the insurgents in key districts of Afghanistan.

Even the portion of the report that blasts the insurgent factions for their outrageously immoral tactics is bad news for the U.S. The report slams insurgents use of IEDs and suicide bombings as weapons of choice. A number of news outlets have noted this portion of the report along with the drop in U.S./NATO-caused civilian deaths, but it's a safe bet you won't find too many honest-to-God COIN-lovers cheering about the stats noted in this report. COIN doctrine asserts the importance not just of the protection of civilians from killings by counterinsurgents (in this case, U.S. and allied forces), but the protection of the people in general. Counterinsurgency doctrine says that people aren't going to switch to your side if they think they'll get killed for it, no matter how few cause civilian deaths your team causes.

ARM was similarly blunt when it came to the issue of the corruption and abuse rampant in the Afghan government and their police force:

Amidst widespread concerns about rampant corruption and abuse of power by the police, NATO has not only continued to recruit ill-qualified people to swamp police numbers but has reportedly reduced the training period to only four weeks.

An overwhelming majority of the police is illiterate and lack adequate knowledge about the basics of civil policing and human rights. Many police officers are addicted to drugs, have notorious criminal backgrounds or maintain allegiance to powerful militia or criminal commanders...Pervasive corruption and abuse of authority by the police have devastating impacts on individuals and communities that desperately need a sense of security, protection and the rule of law. Corrupt and abusive police also contributed to widespread criminality, criminal impunity and denial of peoples' access to justice and other essential services.

If you can't protect the population generally, from the perspective of COIN doctrine, you lose. If you lack a legitimate host nation government as a partner, you lose. And guess what? According to that doctrine--the doctrine used as the rationale for the troop-heavy American strategy in Afghanistan--the United States is losing. Badly.

If you're tired of seeing blood and treasure wasted on a brutal, costly war that's not making us safer, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and sign up for a local Rethink the Afghanistan War Meetup.

On Friday night, I spent a couple of hours at Central Market in downtown Austin, Texas, with 7 other people in one of the first Meetups to Rethink the Afghanistan War. I've been involved in a serious way in the struggle to end the war for a little more than two years. This was the most positive, hopeful experience of my time in this movement.

It's cliche these days to talk about the isolation that can occur when one participates in a movement largely based online. It's cliche for a reason: even in the age of social media, movement participation through online means can lead to slactivism and lonely vigils in front of computer screens, such that even while blogging, tweeting and Gchatting, one can feel thoroughly, coldly alone. Though I am a firm believer in "going online to go offline," tonight was the first time in years that I'd gathered in a real place with real people wearing their real bodies to talk about the issue I'm most passionate about (except, of course, in-person meetings at work, but that's a slightly different animal).

This isn't to say that the work we do online at places like the Rethink Afghanistan Facebook page isn't powerful and important. It's just that when you get together with your fellow travelers face-to-face, that's when the magic happens.

As the organizer of the local Meetup, I had very simple objectives for the first meeting: I wanted to get to know the attendees and find out what would bring them back to the next meeting, and I wanted to know what they wanted from the group. For the latter, there was a unanimous answer: action. We didn't want to sit around and blow off steam about what was wrong with U.S. policy in Afghanistan. We were all already converted. We wanted a group that would dive in and agitate for an end to the war through effective local events and actions. Austin is a music town, so some of our ideas tied local music and local speakers on the war. Austin is also something of a movie town, so we also raised the idea of a screening of the Rethink Afghanistan documentary at the Alamo Drafthouse. The group was forward-leaning, down-to-earth, and seemed to share a positive attitude about the work ahead.

Sitting there with a handful of people willing to give up their Friday night for this issue, I got the sense we were tapping into a much larger phenomenon taking place all across the country. Polls show that opposition to the war has sharply increased, and the "Inauguration Hangover" is wearing off. Whereas once Americans opposed the war, yet gave President Obama high marks for his handling of it, these days people are unreservedly unwilling to give "Our President" a free pass on a brutal, costly policy, post-9/11 rhetoric notwithstanding. It's a phenomenon now on display in Congress, as described in today's L.A. Times:

The moment has been long in coming, but it may finally have arrived.

For the last year and a half, on issues including healthcare, financial regulation and climate change, Democrats in Congress have bent for President Obama. Liberals swallowed hard to accept compromises that fell short of their long-sought goals, and moderates cast tough votes that now threaten their reelection prospects as voters revolt against government overreach.

Then, last week, the president asked them to bend yet again — this time to approve more money for his troop buildup in an Afghanistan war that many Democrats oppose.

And once again, lawmakers went to work. On the eve of the vote last week, Democratic leaders compiled a complicated $82-billion package of war funding, disaster aid and domestic spending that achieved the seemingly impossible — meeting the president's request while accommodating the needs of its politically diverse members.

Obama responded with a one-word message that sent shudders through his party on the Hill: veto.

In that exchange, the tension between the White House and the president's Democratic allies spilled over.

The President isn't up for election this year, but Members of Congress and many Senators are, and they are heading into a stiff wind carrying the stench of dead civilians and soldiers from the longest war in U.S. history. The honeymoon is over, and what was once a clever anti-Republican rhetorical strategy--Iraq bad! Afghanistan good!--has been revealed as morally and strategically bankrupt nonsense. People in Congress and people across the country get it, and they're finished with their post-2008 break, and they're not content to let made-for-swagger campaign rhetoric kill people any longer.

Last Friday, with Rattletree Marimba playing steel drums in the background (yes, in Austin, we have live--and good!--music at the grocery store cafe), I made some new friends with whom I plan to share important work. I also had my hope renewed that, struggling together in small groups all across the country, we can end this war and set our country onto the paths of peace.

I cannot recommend Rethink the Afghanistan War Meetups strongly enough. Many local groups' first meetings will take place this week. I hope you'll join us.

One of the gems buried in Michael Hastings' now ubiquitous Rolling Stone article is a senior adviser to General McChrystal thanking his lucky stars for public ignorance of the state of the war:

Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply fucked up things are in Afghanistan. "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal says.

Well, mission accomplished, gentlemen. Your little frat party managed to get everyone's attention and, combined with a never-ending stream of gruesome milestones, it caused the bottom to drop out of public support for the Afghanistan War. According to the newest polling from Newsweek:

  • Only 37 percent of those surveyed approve of the way President Obama is handling the war. 53 percent disapprove. That's a major reversal from prior results that showed support/opposition solidly in the president's favor by a 55/27 margin.
  • Only 26 percent of those surveyed believe we're winning in Afghanistan. 46 percent believe we're losing.
  • This crystallizing opposition isn't due to disagreement with the way President Obama handled the McChrystal/Rolling Stone flap, either. Most Americans agreed with his decision to dismiss the general by a 50/35 margin.

McChrystal's statements in the Rolling Stone piece probably weren't enough to cause his ouster on their own, but as the latest in a series of insults and missteps, they were the straw that broke the camel's back. Similarly, the McChrystal flap probably wasn't enough to turn Americans against the war, but as a tawdry new development at the end of a string of gruesome events transpiring on the periphery of the national consciousness, the episode was enough to cause the electorate to push their chair back from the kitchen table and stomp over to see just what the hell you kids are doing in here that's making all that racket?!

Mommy and Daddy obviously didn't like what they saw:

Pentagon officials are now running around trying on some of their most Orwellian rhetoric to date (No! Really! We're not bogged down!) trying to sooth Congress and the extraordinarily cranky electorate, but it's too late. The tanks are rolling into Baghdad, despite Bob's insistence to the contrary.

For their part, the hawks in Congress are dangerously misreading the tea leaves. Some are calling for scrapping the July 2011 withdrawal date and for staying in Afghanistan indefinitely. Others are insisting that protections for civilians in the war zone should be loosened. But these vicious chest-thumpers are missing the point: Americans don't want more and more brutal war. We want our troops home, yesterday.

Prior polling had shown a strange dichotomy: Americans didn't support the Afghanistan War, but they approved of President Obama's handling of the war. The White House could wave away dismal polling numbers for support/opposition to the war by pointing to the high approval numbers for Obama's handling of the war, and Congress could hide behind "supporting the president." No more. Americans are fed up with this brutal, costly war.

Memo to politicians: Love the Afghanistan War in public at your peril.

Had enough? Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook as we fight back against this war.

General Petraeus video graphic

Watch "Don't Let General Petraeus Move the Goalposts on Afghanistan" in HD on Facebook.

Concern troll.

In an argument (usually a political debate), a concern troll is someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with "concerns". The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you're an ally.

--Urban Dictionary.

When asked about the July 2011 deadline to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, General Petraeus says “I support the policy of the president.” This past week, though, in testimony before Congress in hastily arranged hearings, he made his position more clear. He supports the policy of the president,” but thinks “we have to be very careful with time-lines,” and he might even try to convince the president to renege on his promise to the American people as July 2011 comes closer.

He’s a concern troll. He’s kowtowing to the principle of civilian control of the military, but his function in the debate is to constantly hem and haw, sapping support for strong action in favor of a position with which he does not (and maybe never did) agree.

Now, Petraeus is a cool customer and an experienced hand at testifying before Congress. When faced with an adversarial questioner, he rarely shows his cards and tends to filibuster them out of time, sticking closely to the “I support the president” talking point. That’s what makes his performance this week slightly shocking. The masked slipped.

When asked by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) whether his support for the July 2011 reflected his best, personal, professional judgment, he responded with a very interesting stare at the senator, an “um,” and a five-second-or-so pause before saying, “We have to be very careful with time-lines.” Asked whether that was a qualified yes, or qualified no, or a non-answer, he said, “qualified yes.”

In other words, “yes, but...”

Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing shed even more light on what exactly those qualifications are, and the troll tusks were showing. Responding to a question from HASC Ranking Member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Petraeus said that yes, he supports the July 2011 date as the beginning of a process. But, he complained, that date was based on a projection from last Fall. He said we’ll do everything humanly possible (well, everything humanly possible within the constraints of a brutal, costly strategic frame that’s not working) to achieve those conditions. When asked by McKeon whether July 2011 was based on conditions and not just a date on the calendar, he said, “That’s correct.” And, when asked whether he’d recommend delaying the withdrawal if those conditions didn’t materialize, he confirmed it.

America, get ready for this excuse:

“Well, we tried, but it’s just not possible for us to keep President Obama’s promise to start a withdrawal this month.” --General David Petraeus, July 2011.

Compare that General Petraeus, who only gives the July 2011 date his qualified support and who wants us all to know he might change his mind when crunch time arrives, with this General Petraeus, described by Jonathan Alter:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.

The president was crisp but informal. “Bob, you have any problems?” he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.

The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. “I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,” he said. No one said anything.

“Tell me now,” Obama repeated.

“Fully support, sir,” Mullen said.

“Ditto,” Petraeus said.

Expect the Alter quotation above to become cliche in a hurry. Petraeus revealed this week that he has no intention of standing by his word to the president. This week, he said explicitly that if we can’t do the things he says in 18 months, he will, in fact, suggest we stay.

Petraeus says he supports the president’s policy. His comments this week, though, serve only to validate the critics of the withdrawal portion of the president’s policy. He’s not a supporter of this policy. He’s a concern troll.

Don’t let him get away with moving the goalposts. Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook as we work to end this brutal war that’s not worth the costs.

Click here to watch the video

$1,000,000,000,000.00

As of today, that's how much we've spent just in direct costs so far on the stupid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One trillion dollars, gone. And we're just getting warmed up...there are trillions more in future direct and indirect costs coming.

These two wars mutilated our economy. There's no other way to say it. We've taken huge sums of wealth out of the economy and done things with it that further damaged the economy. People are out of work and hurting today because we chose to launch two wars that aren't worth the cost.

The most glaring example of this dynamic is the use of hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to invade and occupy Iraq, which led to higher oil prices, which hit taxpayers again in their pocketbooks.

Many other examples exist: We pay to train American kids to kill in Afghanistan. We pay to ship them overseas where they die or get injured. We pay for medical care for the survivors. Their families lose both the wounded's income and often lose additional income when loved ones reduce work hours to stay home and care for the wounded.

The list of these vicious cycles goes on and on. In all cases, our government actually charges us for the privilege of having an even harder time making it in this tough economy.

Actually, it's worse than that. The government charges us for the privilege of having a tough economy in the first place.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research's (CEPR) Dean Baker:

"In standard economic models, defense spending is a direct drain on the economy, reducing efficiency, slowing growth and costing jobs. ...[S]tandard economic models...project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to two million jobs in the long run."

Baker's point in his article was that groups that scream about potential "job loss" from government "interference" never put that "loss" in any context. Government spending does stimulate economic activity during a downturn. The question is, how stimulative is one type of spending versus another? So let's make sure we're playing fair and put this in some perspective in terms of job creation.

It turns out that, excluding tax cuts for consumption, war spending is the least stimulative type of government spending.

An October 2007 study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) found that per $1 billion invested in the following fields, you create wildly different numbers of jobs:

  • Defense: 8,555 jobs
  • Construction for home weatherization/infrastructure: 12,804 jobs
  • Health care: 12,883 jobs
  • Education: 17,687 jobs
  • Mass transit: 19,795 jobs

So if you take $1 billion in taxpayer dollars and spend it on war versus on building energy efficient homes and other infrastructure, the opportunity cost for that spending is 4,249 potential jobs. Spending it on war versus mass transit costs you 11,240 potential jobs.

Now consider that $1 trillion is one thousand billion. Because we're spending so many billions--now trillions--of dollars on these two wars, we're losing hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of potential jobs.

PERI concludes that:

...[B]y addressing social needs in the areas of health care, education, education, mass transit, home weatherization and infrastructure repairs, we would also create more jobs and, depending on the specifics of how such a reallocation is pursued, both an overall higher level of compensation for working people in the U.S. and a better average quality of jobs.

These lost potential jobs aren't even the whole picture. We also lose the fruits of spending that money in more productive ways, which, according to the National Priorities Project, include:

  • 188,536,667 Students receiving Pell Grants of $5550 OR
  • 8,139,680 Affordable Housing Units OR
  • 461,193,337 Children with Health Care for One Year

But hey, at least these wars are working out well for BP, right?

Had enough? Help us get people talking about the cost of these wars by playing using our new Facebook app to show us your trillion dollar plan, and share it with your friends.

Lay this flower at the White House wall.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the Battle-God, great, and his Kingdom -
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

--Stephen Crane, Do not weep, maiden for war is kind.

According to The New York Times, 1,000 U.S. troops have now died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Here is this wide altar, Afghanistan, on which our empire leaves its tribute to the true god of all empires. One thousand of the young, blown apart by rough-made bombs buried on roads to nowhere, shot by snipers, or worse, by their own. One thousand sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, mentors, students, friends, husbands, wives, lovers. A thousand goats led into the wild to appease the spirit of the wilderness, the maker of weapons, sent to the desert for our impurities.

Often we elevate troops who die far up on a pedestal in our national mythology. I think this is a mistake. It obscures why people join the military, it obscures what we've lost, and it prevents us from thinking critically about the choices we make that lead to their deaths. When a thousand of our people go into the dark, we should ask what led them there, what they hoped to gain and what we hoped to gain from sending them.

In 2006, the Pentagon found that when asked their main motivation for enlisting, 61.9 percent cited a reason other than "service to country," a figure that the RAND Corporation's Beth Asch cautioned could actually be higher since new recruits often cast their decision in idealistic terms. While "service to country" was the main reason for the plurality of recruits, skills acquisition, adventure, money for education, benefits, travel and pay were the other top reasons, listed in descending order. We also know that when the economy is in the tank, military recruitment increases. (I note, though, that the reason for enlistment may not remain their motivation to continue in military service, and that membership in a community in danger and under pressure tends to radically alter one's orientation toward the group. So, someone who joins for economic reasons may not remain in the service for that reason alone, or at all.)

To say that troops join the military for economic reasons is not to degrade them. Supporting a family is not a selfish cause. But that little detail - that Private Smith died in a dangerous job that she took to support a family - is fraught with human connection and tragedy, and we lose that if we over-idealize what led them to the battlefield. The same is true if they just joined the service to escape a mind-numbing routine, or to overcome a criminal record, or to cut ties with a past.

All this is to say that portraying our troops as selfless warrior monks of virtue fails to honor the truth about the lives that ended in Afghanistan. These men and women were generally not burning with a desire to suppress their hopes and dreams so that the rest of us could have our hopes and dreams. They had their own plans, their own purposes, their own desired futures for themselves toward which military service was a step, and very few of them included dying on a battlefield. Their lives had their own meaning independent of the lives and "freedom" of the survivors. Obscuring their desires in an over-bright halo also obscures the futures that we lost with them.

We did not lose sacrificial lambs, born to die on our behalf. We lost the doctors, the lawyers, teachers, pilots, writers, mechanics, all of the potential for achievement which many of them hoped to unlock through the skills and opportunities they hoped to gain from their time in the military. We lost fathers, mothers, bedtime stories and a comforting, rock-solid presence in the bleachers at their kid's sporting events. We lost them spoiling their grandkids. We lost the entire life of the person they would have become and all the gifts they would have given the human race.

Putting these troops so high on the pedestal that they "died for you and me," high enough where their sacrifice is just shy of a crucifixion, also conveniently obscures our role in killing them. We all know the rhetoric we can expect to hear as we whistle past this marker: "It's up to us to make sure they didn't die in vain." Empty-headed exhortations to "support the troops." Support, as in, "do not gainsay the purpose for which power-holders are willing to see them die." Don't say anything that would upset these troops on the way to the killing floor.

I'm reminded of the dialogue in Monster's Ball, where Billy Bob Thornton harangues Heath Ledger for vomiting while escorting a prisoner to the gas chamber: "You f***ed up that man's last walk! How would you like it if someone f***ed up your last walk?!" The condemned deserve a placid walk; don't let on what's really happening here.

Similarly, the support we'll be urged to give today will be the kind that doesn't disturb the walk of the 1,001st troop. But let's be honest, here - those who will spout this kind of rhetoric are at least as concerned with our disturbing the consciences of those who set the policies for which the soldiers died (or those of their constituents). Any bets on whether these exhortations and these policies come from the same people? How convenient is the demand: silence for the sake of the victims protects those who sent them to die.

Now is not the time for silence. One thousand Americans are dead in Afghanistan in a war that's not making us safer. One thousand people are dead, and many others are wounded and deranged, because we continue to choose military action as the solution to a political problem. Al-Qaida is long gone from the country. The arterial wealth of our nation is gushing out in trillion dollar spurts. All this is obscured behind the glow of the sacralized dead, a glow that, we are told, will vanish if we question the purpose of the ritual and the plans of those who ordered the sacrifice.

One thousand American troops are dead in Afghanistan.

Look past the false sacred glow with which the power-holders will try to cover the dead, and by association, their policies.

See the field where a thousand corpses lie.

Remember the real people who lie there, and remember the real people on their way to join them.

Defend them from the Battle-God.

End this war.