The antiwar movement and the “good war”

August 22, 2008

Eric Ruder argues that the antiwar movement needs to respond clearly to the growing focus of U.S. military might on Afghanistan.

ON ONE day in mid-August, Taliban forces in Afghanistan carried out their most serious attack in six years, mounting an all-night strike on a U.S. military base in the eastern province of Khost and a fierce assault on French forces east of the capital.

The Khost offensive targeted one of the largest foreign military bases in the country and was eventually repulsed, but the attack on French forces by 100 Taliban insurgents killed 10 French soldiers and wounded 21 more. Together, the attacks are the latest expression of the growing confidence and competence of the Taliban and the growing ferocity of the fighting in America's "other war."

Since the beginning of July, 70 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan, compared to just 31 U.S. troops killed in Iraq during the same period. Already this year, 192 NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan, compared to 232 killed in all of last year, which itself was the deadliest for NATO troops since the war began in 2001.

At the same time, other developments in and around the region--the resignation of Pakistan's ex-president Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the Russian thrashing of Georgia's U.S.-backed military--have illustrated starkly that a new balance of power is taking shape, dealing a setback to U.S. ambitions.

U.S. paratrooper on patrol in Afghanistan's Paktika province
U.S. paratrooper on patrol in Afghanistan's Paktika province

This makes the stakes for the U.S. in Afghanistan higher than ever--and simultaneously places new demands on the U.S. antiwar movement.

SINCE 2003, the antiwar movement has anchored itself in opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq, which was generally understood as a "war of choice" undertaken by the Bush administration. But the movement has been at best muted in its criticism--and at worst actually supportive--of the U.S. war on Afghanistan as a "legitimate" targeting of al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But in fact, the U.S. didn't invade Afghanistan to "bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice" or to "liberate Afghan women from the Taliban."

In truth, the U.S. had long sought an accommodation with the Taliban. As one U.S. diplomat put it in 1997, "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco [the oil consortium], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that."

From the time that it took office, the Bush administration had been negotiating with the Taliban to enlist it as a regime friendly to U.S. interests and able to provide a bulwark against Russian and Chinese influence. At one point in negotiations, U.S. representatives tired of the slow pace and threatened Taliban officials, saying "either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs," according to a book by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie.

When the 9/11 attacks happened, it became the perfect rationale for imperial aggression that the U.S. had already contemplated.

The material and geopolitical interests that underpinned the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan are the subject of increasingly blunt discussions within the foreign policy establishment.

As Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1999 to 2001, wrote in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs:

As the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time--longer than the United States' longest war to date, the 14-year conflict (1961-75) in Vietnam. Success will require new policies with regard to four major problem areas: the tribal areas in Pakistan, the drug lords who dominate the Afghan system, the national police, and the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government.

An August 21 New York Times editorial makes the case even more plainly:

More American ground troops will have to be sent to Afghanistan. The Pentagon's over-reliance on air strikes-- which have led to high levels of civilian casualties--has dangerously antagonized the Afghan population. This may require an accelerated timetable for shifting American forces from Iraq, where the security situation has grown somewhat less desperate.

NATO also needs to step up its military effort. With Russia threatening to redraw the post-Soviet map of Europe, this is not time for NATO to forfeit its military credibility by losing a war. Europe does not have a lot of available ground troops either. But it needs to send its best ones to Afghanistan and let them fight.

Afghanistan's war is not a sideshow...Washington, NATO and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan must stop fighting it like a holding action and develop a strategy to win. Otherwise, we will all lose.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama is already promising to implement precisely this plan, calling himself a "strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan" and pledging to withdraw forces from Iraq in order to send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan.

THOSE FORCES in the antiwar movement that don't include opposition to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan are at risk of being made irrelevant by the dedication of increasing amounts of U.S. military firepower and personnel to the "good war."

The movement needs to create a political consciousness about the occupation of Afghanistan so that it will be possible to mobilize the social forces--communities, neighborhoods, students, workers and U.S. troops--necessary to force the U.S. to withdraw.

Failure to do so will mean that the further the occupation of Iraq fades in the media and from American political discussion, the more difficult it will get to mobilize sufficient numbers to compel the U.S. to exit both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The case is straightforward. U.S. disregard for civilian life, human rights, democracy and the lives of Afghan women has been shocking. Marina, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, can't use her last name for fear of assassination, but she recently told journalist John Pilger:

We, the women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the West following September 11, 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official enemy of America. Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not unique, and we have resented the silence in the West over the atrocious nature of the Western-backed warlords, who are no different. They rape and kidnap and terrorize, yet they hold seats in [U.S.-backed Hamid] Karzai's government.

What the U.S. really wants, says Tariq Ali, is "to construct an army able to suppress its own population but incapable of defending the nation from outside powers; a civil administration with no control over planning or social infrastructure, which is in the hands of Western NGOs; and a government whose foreign policy marches in step with Washington's."

It's an encouraging sign that the leadership of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) sent an August 14 e-mail to its member organizations to encourage discussion about the issue of Afghanistan, given its growing importance for U.S. war aims. In it, UFPJ quoted from its own national assembly resolution passed last summer stating that "our movement has been too silent on Afghanistan, and UFPJ must take leadership to expose the horrors and costs of this engagement."

But during the last year, UFPJ has done very little to rectify this "silence," and the August 14 e-mail doesn't show any sign of exercising "leadership to expose the horrors and costs" of the occupation of Afghanistan. Instead, the e-mail poses a series of questions without making any case whatsoever.

And some of the questions are framed in a way that leaves the door open to continued support for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, such as "Should the peace movement support U.S. military forces in a policing role, rather than counter-insurgency role?" and "Was a military invasion of Afghanistan an appropriate reaction to the September 11 attacks?"

In addition, UFPJ continues to orient its efforts on influencing Congress rather than exposing Congress' commitment to pursuing U.S. global hegemony. As disastrous as this strategy has been in ending the U.S. war on Iraq, it will be that much worse in the case of Afghanistan, considering that support for the war in Afghanistan is an article of faith within the Democratic Party.

GI organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) face a similar set of challenges.

To date, IVAW has not taken an official position on the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Indeed, it appears that one current within IVAW feels that adding opposition to the U.S. war on Afghanistan to its mission would hurt its ability to recruit among active-duty troops--because, the argument goes, there is more support within the military for the war on Afghanistan than the war on Iraq.

But with increasing numbers of troops being sent to face fierce fighting in Afghanistan, the opposite is true. If IVAW doesn't address the despair, anger and disillusionment of U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, vets and active-duty troops will go elsewhere for a way to express their antiwar views.

For soldiers gripped by the senselessness of their mission and a desperate drive for self-preservation, Afghanistan presents a situation at least as harrowing as Iraq. As an article earlier this year in the New York Times Magazine reported:

As hard as Iraq was, [Capt. Dan Kearney] said, nothing was as tough as the Korengal [a valley in Afghanistan]. Unlike in Iraq, where the captains and lieutenants could let down their guard in a relatively safe, fortified operating base, swapping stories and ideas, here they had no one to talk to and were almost as vulnerable to enemy fire inside the wire as out...

So what exactly was [Kearney's] job out here? To subdue the valley. It's a task the Marines had tried, and then the soldiers of the Army's 10th Mountain Division--a task so bloody it seemed to drive the 10th Mountain's soldiers to a kind of madness.

Kearney's soldiers told me they'd been spooked by the weird behavior of their predecessors last May: near the end of their tour, many would sit alone on the fire base talking to themselves. Privates disobeyed their sergeants, and squad leaders refused to step outside the wire to show the new boys the terrain. No one wanted to be shot in the last days of his tour.

Facing hostility from civilians weary of being killed by errant U.S. airpower and the constant anxiety of waiting for the next insurgent assault, the conditions breed the perfect atmosphere for both war crimes and paralyzing post-traumatic stress disorder--both of which are vividly described in the Times Magazine article.

In the months after the 2008 election, the ability of the antiwar movement to respond clearly to the growing focus of U.S. military might on this region will be of critical importance.

In 1991, the political establishment declared a "new world order" in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. But today, U.S. economic weakness and military blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that the U.S. faces a "newer world order," marked by increased instability, new crises and new strategic competitors, especially in Asia.

Our movement must develop the political understanding to analyze these developments and respond with a loud and clear opposition to the foreign policy of a government that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. aptly characterized as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

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