Today’s New York Times ran a story on its front page entitled “Aides Say Obama’s Afghan Aims Elevate War.”
WASHINGTON — President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban.
They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.
Yes, the Kabul government is absolutely an impediment to any sort of civil society in Afghanistan. As Stirling Newberry pointed out in an email exchange, the perniciousness of the Afghan government makes using the word “insurgent” absurd; being hostile toward Kabul is no longer sufficient to make you a disloyal Afghan. As I’ve written elsewhere, the government that until now has been backed with U.S. violence ranks very, very poorly on corruption indexes (176 out of 178 in the world) and has been termed by one Afghan women’s organization as “The Rule of the Rapists.” Backing that government with U.S. military violence will only generate more hatred of the U.S. in the rural majority outside of Kabul.
Further, if we are abandoning support for the Kabul government, then even calling what we’re up to in Afghanistan a “counterinsurgency strategy” is even more absurd. The “north star” of a national counterinsurgency strategy is a legitimate host nation government, according to the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. For such a strategy to work, we’ll have to find new extant power centers (or a new host government) to back. If we choose the former, U.S. violence will contribute to the breakup of the Afghan state as we know it, and run the risk of being increasingly drawn into tribal politics and rivalries. In that case, we’ll be beholden to various competing local groups for intelligence, and could be baited into attacking groups’ rivals instead of targeting al-Qaida. If we choose the latter, we’ll either be stuck without an anchor host government until a new government forms, or risk undermining the new government’s legitimacy by making them look like U.S. stooges.
But the new administration lives in a fantasy world if it believes that emphasizing military force while leaving development to the ho-hum NATO coalition in Afghanistan will a) bring piece, or b) stop Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacks against Americans. To the contrary, this approach will drive people to groups hostile to U.S. forces and make it easier for them to attack U.S. citizens. The new administration is right to warn people about an “uptick” in violence; emphasizing violence while sending only half the troops “needed” according to the military’s own counterinsurgency doctrine sure sounds like a recipe for getting more Americans killed.
Mr. Gates added that the United States should focus on limited goals. “My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies, and whatever else we need to do flows from that objective,” he said.
Call me crazy, but putting relatively small numbers of Americans (American troops are also American citizens, remember?) in the middle of hostile territory and telling them to shoot at hostile people doesn’t seem to be the best way to prevent violence against Americans. The message sent by this policy is that American troops are the expendable American citizens, and we only care about violence against non-expendable Americans. Otherwise, the U.S. wouldn’t pursue a policy that provokes violence against Americans while making it easier for hostile forces in Afghanistan to get to and attack Americans.
Aside from strategic reasons for those of us in the Christian anti-war movement to keep pressure on a candidate we helped elect is the purely political reason: this policy will cost Obama substantial political capital and will rapidly dampen enthusiasm about his presidency, undermining his ability to pressure Congress to pass progressive reforms elsewhere.
First off, the conflict in Afghanistan will drain resources needed and give regressive voices in Congress leverage to oppose his domestic programs. They’ll argue that we cannot afford domestic spending at a time of elevated military spending overseas, and, in a sense, they’ll be right. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated the day before Obama’s inauguration, described the war in Vietnam as a “demonic destructive suction tube,” sucking people and resources out of anti-poverty programs to fund violence on the other side of the world. Deepening our militarism in Afghanistan will do the same. If you liked the waste of blood and treasure in Iraq, you’re going to love Afghanistan.
Second, and most importantly, public opinion is solidly against pouring more troops into Afghanistan. Here’s the results of a Harris/BBC America poll on the troop increase in Afghanistan:
Only one-third of Americans support a troop increase in Afghanistan. The political base of support for a troop increase would come from some Republicans and the elderly. Not exactly Obama’s base.
Among Democrats and independents, most people want no more troops sent or troop levels reduced in Afghanistan. Among Republicans, the number of people supporting more troops is tied with the percentage of folks who want less or the same number of troops.
Among echo boomers (18-32), Gen X (33-44), and Baby Boomers (45-63) most people want no more troops sent or troop levels reduced in Afghanistan. The only age demographic in which a majority of people want more troops sent are those 64 and older.
In other words, Obama’s central foreign policy revision is about to run head-on into a brick wall of public opinion that will damage his relationship with his base.
There is so much to celebrate about Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency. This policy, though, will wreck the potential of his presidency if he can’t be convinced by us to abandon it. That’s our job now, folks. All of us who work for peace and justice, on whose energy the Democrats took the majority in Congress in 2006 and who helped propel Barack Obama into the fore due to his prescience on Iraq, have a duty to put our foot down with the new president we helped elect.
When then-candidate Obama, when forced by rumors that he was a Muslim to prove his Christian bona fides for political reasons, went further than merely asserting his Christianity. At a campaign stop when he discussed gay marriage, he said:
“If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which, I think, is, in my mind, more central than an obscure passage in Romans,” Obama said.
Just for our reference, Jesus is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount about using violence: don’t.
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,
Obama understands the implications of these words. He said at Call to Renewal:
Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.
(As a side note, I think I’ve previously misinterpreted Obama’s statement here…Obama doesn’t seem to be arguing for nonviolence, but to not get carried away with using scripture–including the Sermon on the Mount–to guide public policy.)
What’s not clear is whether Obama and his team take seriously Jesus’ words later in Matthew 26:
Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’
Unless we convince Obama to change his policies in Afghanistan, his administration will learn what this means, and learn it the hard way.