Archive for July, 2010

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.

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.

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.

Spencer Ackerman wants you to meet him halfway between his house and the straw man:

Here’s where those who base their opposition to the war its promotion of human suffering have to meet halfway as well. If the U.S. stops prosecuting its end of the war, civilian casualties will not end. What will end is the civilian casualties we directly cause. The Taliban-led coalition will continue its insurgency until victory or negotiation, with all the acceleration of civilian casualties that will entail. …you can’t simply argue that a U.S. withdrawal comes with a pony for every Afghan citizen, since that overlooks the United Nations’ documented increase in the proportion of civilian casualties for which the Taliban are responsible.

Spencer knows damn well that we are not in Afghanistan to reduce civilian casualties there, but rather that reduction of civilian casualties is valuable within the military strategy only insofar as it helps the generals achieve their strategic objectives in pursuit of an asserted national interest. As such, everyone reading this kind of pro-COIN hand-wringing should treat it with the deepest skepticism possible. Ackerman may be deeply concerned about civilian casualties, but if you think the military won’t drop the civilian love the moment it gets between them and a sufficiently attractive objective, you need to go read more or better history. Or, you could just look at the recent agitations by war cheerleaders for relaxed rules for civilian protection in the war zone and General Petraeus’ capitulations to them.

And what, pray tell, would it mean for those who base opposition to the war on its promotion of human suffering to “meet halfway?” Ackerman apparently wants his readers to believe that those of us who oppose the war due to its deliterious effect on civilians actually believe that all civilian casualties will cease if U.S. troops withdraw. Dear Spencer: please cite this assertion made by your debate partners. Otherwise, enough with the straw men. And, if you want to assert that removing the U.S. force from Afghanistan will not lead to a reduction in the total number of civilian casualties, be my guest but show your work.

More broadly, though, I’m perplexed by what I infer as the moral reasoning standing behind Ackerman’s post. He seems to be saying the following: If you’re opposed to the killing of civilians, and you think you can reduce the total number of civilians killed by killing some yourself, you have an obligation to violate your principles and kill civilians. This is real, “destroy the village in order to save it” reasoning, and while I’m not surprised to find the brimstone from America’s most famous counterinsurgency in the mouths of COINdinistas in general, I am always shocked to hear it in the mouth of people with brains and a bare minimum of moral fortitude.

I hope this goes without saying, but if one holds a given policy effect to be profoundly immoral, the only way to maintain any integrity is to say, “First, I will never personally take an action or agitate for a policy that I know will or is likely to cause Profoundly Immoral Side Effect X. Second, I will work to find all possible ways to reduce Profoundly Immoral Side Effect X consistent with my prior statement.”

Essentially, Ackerman seems to be telling us that if we care about civilian lives, we have to be personally willing to kill a few civilians here and there. Suppress those personal scruples for the greater good, son. It’ll all be okay in the end.

Readers may or may not be aware that today is the birthday of Henry David Thoreau. He might have a few things to say about Ackerman’s moral reasoning:

…[Y]ou may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

I say again:  we all know damn well that our purpose in Afghanistan isn’t to reduce civilian casualties. It doesn’t even rank on the list of the president’s stated goals for the Afghanistan campaign. In fact, in his 35-minute West Point speech announcing the “new” Afghanistan strategy back in December 2009, President Obama didn’t directly address the issue of Afghan civilian casualties at all. We have our own purposes in Afghanistan that have nothing to do with the well-being of Afghans that will continue to take priority unless there’s a sea change in U.S. policy in that country. When you hear this sort of humanitarian hand-wringing from people in the war business or from their allies, beware.

Update: Spencer expressed to me his feeling that the original opening line of the post was an unfair representation of the issue, and I agreed. It’s been updated above.

This evening, 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.

Tonight, 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 Saturday and Sunday. I hope you’ll join us.