The forever war

May 7, 2012

When Barack Obama talked last week about the end of the war in Afghanistan, he didn't mention that by his timeline, it isn't even half over, reports Eric Ruder.

THE BEST way to make sense of the Obama administration's statements about its plans to "wind down" the decade-old occupation of Afghanistan is to recall the words of author George Orwell: "Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

As Barack Obama launches his re-election campaign, the administration is eager to demonstrate that it plans to end a war that has lost the support of the U.S. population. Hence Obama's high-profile midnight landing at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, his live televised address hours later in U.S. prime time, and the signing of agreements with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to "end" the U.S./NATO war and transfer responsibility to "the people of Afghanistan."

But despite the spin, the plain fact is that the war will definitely continue for at least two and a half more years--until the end of 2014, or halfway through Obama's second term, if he wins one. And after that? Administration officials expect that "as many as 20,000 U.S. troops may remain after the combat mission ends," according to the Associated Press.

President Obama speaks at Bagram Airfield during a surprise visit to Afghanistan
President Obama speaks at Bagram Airfield during a surprise visit to Afghanistan (Pete Souza | White House)

Under this timeline, the last U.S. troops would actually leave the Afghan battlefield in 2024, making Afghanistan a 23-year-long war.

What's more, buried in the agreements signed by Obama and Karzai is language that allows U.S. Special Ops forces to continue to operate throughout Afghanistan, including authorization for hated night raids on the homes of citizens in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, despite claims by Obama and Karzai to the contrary.

As investigative journalist Gareth Porter wrote:

The Obama administration's success in obscuring those facts is the real story behind the ostensible story of the agreement.

Obama's decisions on how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond and what their mission will be will only be made in a "Bilateral Security Agreement" still to be negotiated. Although the senior officials did not provide any specific information about those negotiations in their briefings for news media, the Strategic Partnership text specifies that they are to begin the signing of the present agreement "with the goal of concluding within one year."

That means Obama does not have to announce any decisions about stationing of U.S. forces in Afghanistan before the 2012 presidential election, allowing him to emphasize that he is getting out of Afghanistan and sidestep the question of a long-term commitment of troops in Afghanistan.

Obama and his foreign policy team are experienced at creating the impression they want to project for domestic consumption--while continuing to pursue a program abroad that is generally hidden from view in the U.S. According to Porter:

The disparity between the reality of the agreement and the optics created by administration press briefings recalls Obama's declarations in 2009 and 2010 on the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq and an end to the U.S. war there, and the reality that combat units remained in Iraq and continued to fight long after the September 1, 2010, deadline Obama had set for withdrawal had passed. Fifty-eight U.S. servicemen were killed in Iraq after that deadline in 2010 and 2011.

THE U.S. war in Afghanistan is increasingly unpopular in the U.S. In March, opinion polls showed that two-thirds of Americans thought U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn immediately. This has been the majority sentiment for at least three years now, according to polls.

Most Afghans also want the withdrawal of U.S. troops--not because the bulk of the population supports the Taliban, but because the U.S. has depended on some of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords--including Hamid Karzai's half-brother Walid--in order to maintain its grip on Afghanistan's fragile political system.

But there's little risk that such antiwar sentiment will find much support among politicians in either country. In the U.S., the Obama administration is making a "foreign-policy pivot" toward Asia to confront the rising global power of China--and maintaining bases in Afghanistan is a top priority in that project.

And Hamid Karzai can't be expected to do anything but welcome a continuing U.S. troop presence, considering that he is almost entirely dependent on the U.S. military for his political and personal survival.

This explains why Karzai ultimately buckled on his earlier insistence that the U.S. put in writing a commitment to give Afghanistan $2 billion a year through 2024. As a puppet president without reliable armed forces, he has little leverage to make any demands.

Meanwhile, the death and destruction faced by Afghanistan's people and the crisis of its economy grinds on. Thousands upon thousands of dead and wounded continue to pile up, and though the U.S. military is celebrating a decline in violence this year compared to last year, last year was the bloodiest year in the Afghanistan war to date.

The conservative estimate of what the U.S. has spent waging war in Afghanistan so war is $525 billion. In 2012, the U.S. is spending about $2 billion a week--in a country with an annual gross domestic product of $17.2 billion.

So the U.S. has spent more than 30 times the annual output of the Afghan economy in its crusade to impose its will on the country--and the U.S. is still losing.

It would have been far more effective to distribute that money among Afghanistan's 29.8 million people--giving each Afghan man, woman and child about $16,000. That means a family of four would receive $64,000 in a country where annual per capita income is about $1,000. It seems fair to say that would buy a lot of good will--as compared to night raids, drone strikes and Koran burnings.

With the summit of the NATO military alliance in Chicago fast approaching, Obama is particularly keen to give the "appearance of solidity to pure wind." In fact, this is an essential component of Obama's reelection campaign. The Obama campaign thinks its foreign policy credentials shine compared to Mitt Romney's, and the Democrats are also banking on the assumption that U.S. voters fed up with more than a decade of war have no choice other than Obama.

For this reason, the May 20 mass march in Chicago during the NATO summit will send an important message for peace and justice--across the U.S. and around the world. See you in Chicago.

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