Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan war’

Fresh from the reported killing of more than 60 civilians, U.S. forces in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, killed nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan. General Petraeus says he’s sorry.

“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” Gen. Petraeus said in a statement. “These deaths should have never happened.”

Too little, too late, general. Nine boys now lie among thousands of others who had a right to life independent of U.S. goals in Afghanistan, and “sorry” doesn’t cut it, especially from the general who’s tripling the air war over Afghanistan. Air strikes are the leading tactic involved when U.S. and coalition forces kill civilians. We know this. We use them anyway. These boys’ deaths, or at least the idea of these boys’ deaths, were factored in to a calculation and deemed insufficient to deter the use of air power long before they died, and their deaths don’t seem to have changed Petraeus’ or ISAF’s calculus. Sorry doesn’t cut it.

But at least Petraeus didn’t try to blame the boys’ families for blowing them up to frame him this time.

Sorry certainly doesn’t cut it for the brother of one of the dead:

“I don’t care about the apology,” Mohammed Bismil, the 20-year-old brother of two boys killed in the strike, said in a telephone interview. “The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] or a suicide vest to fight.”

President Obama says he’s sorry, too:

President Obama expressed his deep regret for the tragic accident in Kunar Province in which nine Afghans were killed.  The President conveyed his condolences to the Afghan people and stressed that he and General Petraeus take such incidents very seriously. President Obama and President Karzai agreed that such incidents undermine our shared efforts in fighting terrorism.

Oh, good, he takes such incidents “very seriously.” Here’s a fun thought experiment: can you imagine President Obama (or any high-ranking visiting U.S. dignitary, for that matter) scheduling a visit to the graveside of any civilian victim of U.S.-fired munitions on his next trip to Afghanistan? Give me a call when the images from that photo-op make the front pages, would you?

I don’t doubt for a second that President Obama and much of Washington officialdom think that they take these deaths very seriously. Yet, they continue to rubber-stamp funds and to approve a strategy and various supporting tactics that are guaranteed to cause future incidents like these.  Because that’s the case, they’re conscripting tax money that we send to D.C. every year for the purpose of building our nation together into policies that we don’t support and which kill people for whom we feel no malice. In fact, the strategies and tactics are so ill-conceived that they’re putting our money into the hands of insurgents who kill U.S. troops.

From Talking Points Memo:

After nearly a decade of mismanagement, theft and fraud, the U.S. military still hasn’t found a way to staunch the flow of what is likely hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars in lost fuel in Afghanistan, some of which is sold on the black market and winds up in Taliban hands, a TPM investigation has found.

…When TPM asked Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), a longtime member of the defense spending panel, about the fuel losses on Wednesday, Moran was well-versed on the topic, noting that he and other members of the committee had received private briefings by defense officials about the thorny security, logistics and corruption issues posed by the fuel theft.

Over the years, the transport of the fuel into the country at times has involved agreements to siphon a portion to outside parties in order to guarantee safe passage of the trucks, Moran said, and some of that fuel has ended up in enemy hands.

This same news story also included mention of a report from last year that showed that U.S. taxpayer funds funneled through protection rackets was one of the insurgents’ most significant sources of funding:

…A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee investigation last year revealed that the companies under the host-nation contract often paid private security contractors to ensure safe passage through Afghanistan. The security contractors, in turn, made protection payment to local warlords in exchange for their agreement to prevent attacks.

“In many cases, the investigation discovered, these protection payments made their way into the hands of warlords and, directly or indirectly, the very insurgents that U.S. forces were fighting,” Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), the ranking member of the national security oversight subcommittee, wrote in a January letter to Issa highlighting the problems with the trucking contract.

Even completed big-ticket completed projects intended to win hearts and minds for the coalition have resulted in new funding streams for insurgents. From Yahoo! News:

WASHINGTON – By pumping more than $100 million into a hydropower plant, the United States sought to improve the lives of Afghans and win the hearts and minds of tribesmen and farmers who might otherwise turn to the Taliban insurgency. Instead, a prominent outside Pentagon adviser argues, the bungled boondoggle ended up funding the insurgents while doing little to help the United States end the war and bring troops home.

…Half the electricity from the project in the volatile Helmand province goes to Taliban territory, enabling America’s enemies to issue power bills and grow the poppies that finance their insurgency, he says.

With our money fueling the insurgency and our killing of civilians driving more people to join the Taliban’s side every week, it’s little wonder that the insurgency continues to grow in size and sophistication. But that brings us back to that calculation, the one that put those nine dead boys in the column titled “Acceptable Losses.” With official promises that more troops would lead to more security for ordinary Afghans having collapsed so badly that they read like a bad joke, what could possibly justify this continued bonfire of lives and resources in Afghanistan? The war’s not making us safer and it’s not worth the cost. Dragging this out until 2014 won’t change that one bit.

This week U.S. forces burned children along with the firewood they were gathering. If we allow this brutal, futile war to continue, you can bet that more children and more of our resources will be kindling to a fire that’s not keeping anybody warm. The American people want our troops brought home, and it’s time President Obama and Congress took that “very seriously.”

If you’re fed up with this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join a Rethink Afghanistan Meetup near you and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Last year was the worst year for civilian deaths in the war so far, and irregular armed groups backed by the U.S. and by the Afghan government are preying on the population while recruiting and abusing children. Go team.

I’m almost numb from continually relaying reports like this, but every time I get an email update or a news alert from ISAF or the U.S. government, it contains claims of “progress,” so I’m compelled to keep highlighting alternative reporting when it comes in. Frankly, I’m so disgusted by the “progress” talk that I’m having trouble holding anyone who spouts it in any regard other than the most utter contempt.

Here’s the latest assessment from the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (.PDF):

Almost everything related to the war surged in 2010: the combined numbers of Afghan and foreign forces surpassed 350,000; security incidents mounted to over 100 per week; more fighters from all warring side were killed; and the number of civilian people killed, wounded and displaced hit record levels.

…From 1 January to 31 December 2010, at least 2,421 civilian Afghans were killed and over 3,270 were injured in conflict-related security incidents across Afghanistan. This means everyday 6-7 noncombatants were killed and 8-9 were wounded in the war.

…In addition to civilian casualties, hundreds of thousands of people were affected in various ways by the intensified armed violence in Afghanistan in 2010. Tens of thousands of people were forced out of their homes or deprived of healthcare and education services and livelihood opportunities due to the continuation of war in their home areas.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are widely considered as the most lethal tools which killed over 690 civilians in 2010. However, as you will read in this report, there is virtually no information about the use of cluster munitions by US/NATO forces. Despite Afghanistan’s accession to the international Anti-Cluster Bomb Treaty in 2008, the US military has allegedly maintained stockpiles of cluster munitions in Afghanistan.

A second key issue highlighted in this report is the emergence of the irregular armed groups in parts of Afghanistan which are backed by the Afghan Government and its foreign allies. These groups have been deplored as criminal and predatory by many Afghans and have already been accused of severe human rights violations such as child recruitment and sexual abuse.

Compare this with the weasel words in President Obama’s State of the Union address:

In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear:  By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency.  There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance.  But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.  This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead.  And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.  (Applause.)

This is just another version of General Petraeus’ empty “taking the fight to the enemy” rhetoric that tells you nothing about the outcomes of the strategy and tactics used by U.S. forces. The ARM data above makes it clear that the president would be more accurate if he said, “fewer Afghans were living outside the crossfire.” The fact is, one year after the new escalated military campaign began in Marjah, things are much worse for the people of Afghanistan. Blame the escalation for the continued increase, or be more generous and say that the escalation simply failed to prevent further deterioration. But please, spare us the lie that “progress” is being made.

On Thursday, December 16, 2010, the White House will use its December review to try to spin the disastrous Afghanistan War plan by citing “progress” in the military campaign, but the available facts paint a picture of a war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost.

Let’s take a look at just the very broad strokes of the information. After more than nine years and a full year of a massive escalation policy:

And yet, we are told we can expect a report touting security gains and “progress,” and that there’s virtually zero chance of any significant policy change from this review. It sort of begs the question: just what level of catastrophe in Afghanistan would signal that we need a change in direction?

Insurgency Growing and Getting Stronger

This cat is already out of the bag, no matter how hard the Pentagon tries to reel it back in. In the ironically named “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” published several weeks ago, the Pentagon told Congress that the insurgency’s organizational and geographic reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding. This growth is reflected in other statistics. According to USA TODAY, U.S. troops were hit with 7,000 more attacks this year compared to last year. About 3,800 troops were killed and injured by IEDs, about 1,000 more than last year. These statistics depict an insurgency with unbroken momentum, despite administration and military claims to the contrary.

As the signers of the Afghanistan Call to Reason put it last week,

“Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population.”

The insurgents’ momentum is clearly shown by the number of attacks they’ve initiated across the country so far this year. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO),

“The [Taliban] counter-offensive is increasingly mature, complex & effective. Country wide attacks have grown by 59% (p.10) while sophisticated recruitment techniques have helped activate networks of fighters in the North where European NATO contributors have failed to provide an adequate deterrent (p.11). Some provinces here are experiencing double the country average growth rate (p.12) and their districts are in danger of slipping beyond any control. Clumsy attempts to stem the developments, through the formation of local militia’s and intelligence-poor operations, have served to polarize communities with the IEA capitalizing on the local grievances that result. In the South, despite more robust efforts from the US NATO contingents, counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar and Marjah have similarly failed to degrade the IEA’s ability to fight, reduce the number of civilian combat fatalities (p.13) or deliver boxed Government.”

Here’s a helpful chart from ANSO’s report that shows the level of ever-escalating insurgent attacks across Afghanistan.

ANSO Chart, Afghanistan violence

The White House wants to weasel out of the implications of the data above by saying that the reason the statistics are going south is because, as Petraeus so often says, “when you take away areas important to the enemy, the enemy fights back.” So, we’re “on offense,” as President told troops few weeks ago during his trip to Afghanistan. Well, so what? The 1976 Buccaneers went on offense, too, but that didn’t mean they won games.

When the administration claims that they’re seeing “progress” in pockets of southern Helmand and Kandahar (a claim open to serious dispute, by the way, and strangely contradicted by some of Petraeus’ own spin), they’re displaying a familiar kind of confusion between the tactical and the strategic, one that seems to always pop up when we’re confronting a failed war.

“One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, ‘You never defeated us in the field.’ To which the NVA officer replied: ‘That may be true. It is also irrelevant.'”

Pakistan’s Double Game

That brings us to Pakistan. According to the New York Times, two new National Intelligence Estimates “offer a more negative assessment [than the administration’s upcoming review] and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.” But that’s some serious wishful thinking, since Pakistan has long used the Taliban as a cat’s paw to combat growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants the militants who threaten it internally suppressed, but it finds the militants who threaten the Karzai regime useful. Fixing that problem would requite U.S. policy follow the roots of their support of the Taliban all the way up to the India/Pakistan animosity, and nothing–nothing–in the U.S.’s military-first strategy comes close to doing so.

Troops Pay the Price

While U.S. politicians nibble at the edges of this real crisis, U.S. troops pay the bloody price, a price that’s gotten much worse with the arrival of the new escalation policy over the course of this year. At least 874 American troops have been killed in the war so far this year, compared to 317 for all of 2009. In the NATO hospital near Kandahar, doctors performed a major amputation once very other day in September.

These statistics go hand-in-hand with the huge rise in civilian casualties, which number some 2,400 this year so far, according to the Campaign for Innocent Civilians in Conflict.

Time for the White House to Get Real

The Obama administration is kidding itself if it thinks the American people will buy this attempted whitewash of the failure of the escalation strategy in Afghanistan. We are in the grips of a desperate unemployment crisis, wrapped in a larger economic meltdown. We are not ignorant of the $2 billion dollars sent per week on the war, and we want that money, and those young people, back here at home so we put people back to work.

Following the death of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the president should take a step back and realize that we all have to travel down that road some day. He should think about what legacy he wants to leave behind him. Postponing a final end to U.S. military action in Afghanistan until 2014 puts U.S. taxpayers and American troops on the hook for an enormous investment of blood and treasure in a failing enterprise with no prospects for a turnaround.

A real, honest review would objectively conclude that the enterprise is failing and that the best alternative is to start removing U.S. troops immediately to stave off continued economic and social damage caused by this war that’s not making us safer nor worth the cost.

Please watch our latest video and share it with your friends. Then, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

It may not feel like it while President Obama is talking about four more years of futile, brutal combat operations in Afghanistan, but the anti-war movement is winning. We just don’t know it.

Part of the problem is that most people in our movement have very little understanding about the way social movements grow and evolve, so we buy into narratives of failure and irrelevance, like this one from the September 4, 2010 issue of Politico:

Paradoxically, the anti-war movement has grown weaker even as public opposition to the Afghanistan war has grown stronger.  A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed think the Afghanistan war was a mistake, compared with 30 percent in January 2009. But an anti-war rally in Washington in March 2009 drew fewer than 10,000 people — a fraction of the 500,000 activists who attended an anti-Iraq war rally in Manhattan in 2003.

This conflation of one aspect of a social movement–public anti-war rallies–with the entire movement is common, even among activists. That’s why people like CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan can be fully aware of the massive public opposition to the war but still say things like this:

“We don’t have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore,” lamented Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, one of the anti-war movement’s most visible organizations.

“I basically think that it’s over,” Sheehan said.

It’s a common idea among people who consider themselves activists that a lack of huge rallies, marches or mass demonstrations equals a dead movement. Thankfully, these activists are just wrong.

The author of the Politico article quoted above unwittingly described a social movement that is succeeding and that has outgrown a particular stage of its life and moved on to a much more powerful and widespread incarnation. According to Bill Moyer’s seminal 2001 book on social movements, Doing Democracy, huge rallies, marches and other demonstrations are expected to fade away as a movement progresses through the various stages of its life toward success. If we look at the movement through the lens of Moyer’s model of social movements, its clear that not only is the anti-Afghanistan War movement not “over,” but we’re winning.

There are eight stages of social movements in Moyer’s model (excerpted from p. 44-45):

  1. Normal times. A critical social problem exists that violates widely held values; the public is unaware of the problem and supports powerholders. Problem is not a public issue.
  2. Prove the failure of official institutions. Many new local opposition groups spring up. Social movement members use  official channels –courts, government offices, commissions, hearings, etc. — and prove in the process that they don’t work. Movement members do research and become experts.
  3. Ripening conditions. Recognition of the problem and its victims grows as the movement makes the victims’ faces visible. 20 to 30 percent of the public oppose powerholder policies.
  4. Take off. Trigger event(s) occurs. Dramatic nonviolent actions/campaigns occur that show the public that the problem violates widely held values. The new social movement rapidly takes off. 40 percent of the public opposes current policies.
  5. Perception of failure. Movement members see goals are unachieved and powerholders unchanged. Numbers at demonstrations decline and it seems like a return to normal times. Despair, hopelessness, burnout, dropout pervade the movement. The “negative rebel” emerges more strongly.
  6. Majority public opinion. The majority of the population opposes conditions and powerholder policies. The movement demonstrates how the problem and policies affect all sectors of society, involving mainstream citizens and institutions in addressing the problem. Problem is put on the official agenda and alternatives promoted. The movement must begin to counter each new powerholder strategy while powerholders demonize movement and its alternatives. The movement promotes a paradigm shift and seize on re-trigger events.
  7. Success. Large majority opposes current policies and does not fear the alternatives. Powerholders split off and change positions, changing policies, losing power or lose by attrition. New laws or policies are instituted. Powerholders attempt to make minimal reforms while movement demands broad social change.
  8. Continuing the struggle. The movement extends its successes, opposes attempts at backlash, promotes its paradigm shift and focuses on other sub-issues. It recognizes and celebrates its successes so far.

The trick to models like this is that they can tend to convey to users that there are clear demarcations between the stages, but the truth is that the transition between them is murky, and sometimes two stages can overlap. Despite that, Moyer provides a very useful framework for discerning where the movement is and what it’s job is at this point in the movement’s life.

I’d argue that the movement to end the Afghanistan War is in a combination of Stages 5 and 6, Majority Public Opinion and Perception of Failure, with the first hints of Success peeking through. Here’s my evidence:

  • A solid majority of Americans opposes the Afghanistan War. Most Americans think we shouldn’t even be involved there (Quinnipiac University Poll. Nov. 8-15, 2010), most think it is a lost cause (Bloomberg National Poll conducted by Selzer & Co. Oct. 7-10, 2010), and most want troop withdrawals to begin on or before July 2011 (Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Aug. 25-26, 2010).
  • Alternatives are being proposed. The Council on Foreign Relations, the thermometer of Very Serious Thinking on foreign policy in Washington, D.C., has proposed rapid troop withdrawals if progress isn’t being made (and it isn’t). The Afghanistan Study Group proposed a significant troop reduction beginning next year. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace proposed its own withdrawal plans. And, of course, anti-Afghanistan-War activists have been calling for withdrawals on a much faster time-line for months now.
  • All of this has contributed to a drastically altered national conversation about the war, which now focuses almost entirely on how and when we withdraw our troops. The administration attempts to diffuse solid public opposition by offering vague, unacceptable withdrawal time-lines, but this is exactly what the model predicts–an attempt by powerholders to co-opt the language and momentum of the movement to diffuse opposition without offering solid concessions. This is an indicator of success, and even though it’s frustrating as hell, it’s something that should be recognized and celebrated as a milestone of progress toward the end goal.

And yet, the movement is struggling with a perception of failure. Many of the activists I talk to express feelings of burnout, cynicism, and powerlessness in the face of the powerholder intransigence. I often feel these things myself. Moyer’s description of the Perception of Failure stage probably resonates with a lot of us, emphasis mine:

…[T]the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any “real” victories. They come to believe that powerholders are too strong and are determined not to change their policies. Moreover, the powerholders and the mass media report that the movement is dead, irrelevant, or nonexistent. Activists in Stage Five also believe that the movement is dead because it no longer looks like it did at the start of the take-off stage: the numbers at demonstrations and civil disobedience actions have dropped substantially. Many Stage Five activists develop cynical attitudes and some turn to destructive behavior. (p. 59)

But, Moyer cautions that these feelings and the powerholders’ intransigence are poor indicators of progress for the movement precisely because “powerholders will be the last segment of society to change their minds and policies.”

He also warns that the intellectual and emotional capital that we built up at the beginning of the struggle–the expertise about the depth of the problem and the knowledge of the damage it does to the victims, the burning drive to devote every waking minute to the fight, etc.–can begin to work against us personally. We fail to celebrate the milestones along the way to ending the problem, and we fail to take time for “adequate rest, leisure, fun and attendance to personal needs.” We overwork, we can’t see the forest for the trees, and we burn out. But that feeling of burnout is about us, and isn’t a good measure of the movement’s progress.

Think about the changed dynamic between this year and last year.

At this time last year, the public opposed the Afghanistan War, but President Obama decided to push ahead with a troop increase. However, this president, who campaigned on escalating the war, was compelled by public opposition into providing a concession: “In 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” he said. War supporters worked mightily to redefine that concession into meaninglessness, and after McChrystal resigned in disgrace, General Petraeus worked to try to convince the American people that we were “making progress” even when it was obvious we weren’t. He failed spectacularly, and public opinion remained solidly in opposition to the war. As it was prior to the last two decisions by President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, the war is clearly failing to achieve the stated goals of its supporters. And yet, somehow, the option of sending another major surge of troops is off the table, even though administration officials have repeatedly stated that the troop levels have not been “capped.” That didn’t just magically happen. The political environment shaped by the work of anti-war activists did that.

Today, there’s an end date to combat operations on the table. This date is too vague, too far out and comes with too many loose ends, but it’s not insignificant. We’re past the “ifs” of withdrawal and are into the “whens,” and whether we realize it or not, powerholders have entered into a bargaining process with public opinion.

Now, it’s incumbent on us to recognize powerholders’ true intent here. As Moyer warns, the purpose of this negotiation is “for show and to confuse, defuse, split, and co-opt the opposition. Any serious negotiation will not happen until Stage Seven.” They’re hoping slapping a vague end date to something like combat operations will act as a steam valve on public opposition. Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. But again, regardless of the powerholders’ intent, this move on their part is a sign that we’re making headway and are on the road to bringing this war to an end.

The success that we’re headed for, by all indications, is what Moyer calls the “quiet showdown” or “victorious retreat.”

A quiet showdown happens when powerholders realize that they can no longer continue their present policies and they launch a face-saving endgame process of “victorious retreat.” Rather than admit defeat and praise the movement for its correct views and its principled stand, the powerholders adopt and carry out many of the goals and policies that were demanded by the movement. The powerholders claim credit for victory, even though they have been forced to reverse their previously held hard-line policies. the mainstream media complies by reporting this as a success of the powerholders. (p. 76)

President Obama and his administration will likely never say anything like, “Man, you anti-war activists really shut me down. Good job. We’re ending combat operations because I can’t sustain political support if I keep pushing policies in opposition to you.” What he will say is something like, well, what he’s saying right now. It will be something along these lines:

“Thanks to the outstanding performance of our troops and General David Petraeus, our assessment shows we’re making sufficient progress to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, if not before, and we’ll end combat operations by [insert end date here].”

We’ll do every thing we can to push that end date forward in time, and the generals and the pro-war politicians will do what they can to roll it back, but in the end, we will end this war. The president will do his best to save face, the media will, as always, comply and convey the powerholders’ narrative, but we’ll tell our grandchildren how we ended the Afghanistan War.

Most people agree with us that the Afghanistan War isn’t making us safer and isn’t worth the cost. The national conversation has shifted onto a playing field that is advantageous to ending the war. Further major troop increases appear to be off the table. The powerholders are fencing with us, attempting to co-opt the energy of our support base through the use of the language of withdrawal, yet offering as little as possible in the way of real concessions. The latter can be frustrating, but is also a sign that they cannot ignore us and the sentiment we’ve helped generate in the public at large. This is no time to get complacent, but it’s not a time for despair either.

Take care of yourselves, keep your eye on the prize, and keep up the fight. It’s later than you think.

Rethink Afghanistan Year Ten video graphic

Watch Rethink Afghanistan’s latest video at RethinkAfghanistan.com.

I spent several days last week giving guest lectures about the Afghanistan War to freshmen and seniors at Anderson High School in Austin, Texas. It’s no secret that I loathe this brutal, futile war that’s not making us safer. So, when I talk to kids about it, I state my biases up-front, and I do my best to represent my opponents’ views fairly. In the process of playing devil’s advocate during these talks, I usually ask people if they remember how they felt on 9/11. I do this because I think it’s a good way to get into the mindset of decision-makers who led us down this road back in 2001. But this year, something startling happened: When I asked the students this question, they laughed at me.

“Dude, that was a long time ago,” they giggled. “We were, like, in 3rd grade or something.” In other words, no, Mr. Old Guy, we don’t remember. We weren’t even 10 years old when that happened.

Year 10. That’s where we are, starting October 7, 2010. We are now in the Afghanistan War’s 10th year. Of course most of those kids don’t remember what they felt like when the towers fell. It was almost a decade ago, more than half of their lives ago.

It’s startling to be reminded how long ago 9/11 was because our public figures keep talking about the Afghanistan War like it started last year. General Petraeus let us know back in February in a Meet the Press interview that we were just then getting “the inputs about right,” and were now “starting to see some of the outputs.” Nine years into this war, and Petraeus lets us know they’re just getting warmed up. Good God.

U.S. foreign policy luminaries have this habit of talking about Afghanistan like it’s some sort of laboratory experiment, some controlled environment where we can just start over if Counterinsurgency Hypothesis A doesn’t pan out. We talk about it like it’s therapy, where “making progress” is good enough. But Afghanistan isn’t a controlled environment where we can safely discard old models and just roll up our sleeves and start over; it’s the Graveyard of Empires ™, and it’s full of people who die when we wipe their slates clean. And as far as progress goes, please fire any public servant who utters those words to cover their inability to produce results.

Dana Perino said we’re making progress… remember her? She was the last president’s spokesperson. You remember, that president so terrible we don’t even like talking about him in polite company. And he said we were making progress, along with the last two commanding officers of the Afghanistan mission we kicked to the curb for various forms of stupidity.

We’ve been making progress for nine-plus years now, progress into the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the war began, progress into record levels of suicide terrorism directed at Americans, progress into war debt so high we’ll probably never be able to pay it off. No more progress in Afghanistan, please. I want these poor high school kids, who don’t remember how they felt back in the Paleolithic Era when the war began, to be left with something resembling the country in which I was lucky enough to grow up.

The war in Afghanistan isn’t making us safer. According to Robert Pape’s research, since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began, suicide attacks around the world increased by a factor of six, and 90 percent of all suicide attacks are now anti-American. According to Homeland Security back in May:

“The number and pace of attempted attacks against the United States over the past nine months have surpassed the number of attempts during any other previous one-year period.”

This has also been the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan already with several months left to go. We are not safer. We are less safe.

The war in Afghanistan isn’t worth the cost. War costs have already exceeded $1 trillion and will go much higher once the cost of caring for the veterans kicks in. It costs us $1 million per troop, per year to occupy that country. And civilian deaths in Afghanistan are up more than 30 percent so far this year; I strain to imagine a goal that would make that level of death “worth it.”

We are 10 years into this godforsaken catastrophe of a war with virtually no chance of a turnaround brought about by military force. We are not about to turn a corner. We are not about to turn the tide. Despite Petraeus’ “dark before the dawn” rhetoric, the spike in violence we’re seeing now is consistent with a well-established pattern of ever-increasing violence as the insurgency metastasizes across the country. Here’s a chart to illustrate from the Afghan NGO Safety Office, showing the level of insurgent-initiated violence:

ANSOgraph2010

Year 10 has to be the last year of this war. The president doesn’t need to wait until next July to start pulling out troops. He should start withdrawals today, this afternoon, before dinner. He should drag generals by the four-starred shirt to the radios to give the signal if that’s what it takes. He should admit that our national interest isn’t served by throwing a 100,000-plus-troop war machine at a dirt-poor country to catch fewer than 100 nutcases. We should be in the White House’s face, in the Pentagon’s face, every day, telling them that we won’t tolerate mealy-mouthed dithering on “conditions” while our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers get ground into record numbers of amputees and coffin-filler.

And we should make damn sure they know we won’t sit around and watch while they drag kids too young to really remember how they felt on September 11, 2001, into a war that we’re too proud to admit is a failure.

It’s not working. It’s not going to work. It’s over. Shut it down. Bring them home.

If you want to help us make sure this war’s 10th year is its last year, join us at Rethink Afghanistan.

As President Obama’s strategy review for Afghanistan commences, let’s hope he’s balancing the information coming to him from his happy-talking generals with some independent news reading of his own.

  • While General David Petraeus serenades the major news media in the United States with the siren song of “progress,” security in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating, and efforts in the south to win legitimacy for the Kabul government are failing.
  • Hamid Karzai seems dead set on proving just how corrupt he and his business connections are.
  • Efforts to transform the Afghan National Army from a carpetbagger army to a legitimate, representative force capable of keeping peace in the south are a flop.

All of these reports are clear indications that the massive influx of troops into Afghanistan under Obama failed to improve the situation in that country and very likely made it worse. The president should seize on any of the numerous signs of policy failure–from the massively corrupt Kabulbank fiasco to the collapse of security across the country–and use this strategy review to create a plan that begins immediate U.S. troop withdrawals.

Security Crumbles

Aid groups warn that security in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating, and they strongly dispute military assurances that things are “getting worse before they get better.” According to The New York Times:

Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

…Last month, ISAF recorded 4,919 “kinetic events,” …a 7 percent increase over the previous month, and a 49 percent increase over August 2009, according to Maj. Sunset R. Belinsky, an ISAF spokeswoman. August 2009 was itself an unusually active month for the insurgency as it sought to disrupt the presidential elections then.

With one attack after another, the Taliban and their insurgent allies have degraded security in almost every part of the country (the one exception is Panjshir Province in the north, which has never succumbed to Taliban control).

While Petraeus has been on a media blitz claiming that the rise in violence can be attributed to the Taliban fighting back as NATO forces “take away areas that are important to the enemy,” the Times’ story makes clear that his explanation fails to address rapidly deteriorating security in parts of the country where the NATO presence is light. In fact, compared to August 2009, insurgent attacks more than doubled last month.

Kabulbank Corruption

General Petraeus’ manual on how to conduct counterinsurgency refers to a legitimate host nation government as “a north star.” But over the past week, we’ve been treated to a sickening spectacle showing just how corrupt Hamid Karzai and his cronies really are. A real estate market collapse in Dubai rocked the privately owned Kabulbank, exposing the “investment” of hundreds of millions of depositor assets in palatial homes on Palm Jumeirah off Dubai’s cost, handed out to friends and family of the government. As media attention zeroed in on the bank, we learned that presidential campaign contributions were given to Karzai by Kabulbank in exchange for naming a major shareholder’s brother (a notorious war criminal) as his vice presidential running mate; that Karzai’s brother, Mahmoud Karzai, sat at the center of the scandal; and that key campaign advisers had become major shareholders in the bank. Now government forces and security guards are beating people away (literally) as outraged depositors seek to get their money out. Karzai’s inner circle was implicated so thoroughly that now the U.S. is backing off its repeated pronouncements of the importance of rooting out corruption.

In short, we lack one of the prerequisites asserted by Petraeus’ own doctrine for success under the current strategy in Afghanistan, and we’ve stopped even really trying to construct one.

Southern Pashtuns Stay Away from ANA

Another of the key components of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to create an army with a sizable enough southern Pashtun contingent to allow the security forces to operate in the Taliban’s traditional strongholds without being seen as an occupying force from the north. According to The Wall Street Journal, that effort is failing:

Recent initiatives to recruit more southern Pashtuns into the Afghan security forces…appear to have backfired.

In January, southern Pashtuns accounted for 3.4% of recruits that month, falling to 1.1% in July and 1.8% in August.

Last month, just 66 of the 3,708 Afghan recruits were Pashtuns, U.S. officials said.

Overall, Pashtuns account for 43% of the Afghan army, but very few of them are from the south.

Afghanistan’s recent history is fraught with internal strife between factions and ethnic groups, including a nasty conflict between those forces comprising the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Pashtuns in the south likely aren’t going to take kindly to the presence of a U.S.-backed force made up of northerners. The fact that the security forces can’t recruit southern Pashtuns speaks volumes about the failure of efforts to persuade populations in the heart of Taliban territory to support the Kabul regime.

There’s No Time Like the Present

Giles Dorronsoro, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, just returned from Afghanistan with a stark warning:

“Washington wants to weaken the Taliban by beefing up the counterinsurgency campaign to the point where the Taliban will be forced to ask for amnesty and join the government. But the Taliban are growing stronger and there are no indications that U.S. efforts can defeat the insurgents…

“Since last year there has not been one serious element of progress and the situation will not improve without a strategic recalculation. …In a year, the Taliban will not disappear as a political force or even be weakened militarily—the longer it takes for negotiations to begin, the harder it will be for the coalition to carry out the best possible exit strategy.  …In the coming months, the American-led coalition needs to declare a ceasefire and begin talking to the Taliban. While negotiations could be an extremely long and fraught process, the sooner they begin the more likely they are to achieve results.”

Every individual factor listed above would be a body blow to the premises of a counterinsurgency strategy according to General Petraeus’ own handbook. Taken together, they’ve exposed the Afghanistan War as a brutal fiasco that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost.

The American people, recognizing the futility of spending more U.S. lives and dollars on this failing war, have turned solidly against it, with nearly six-in-10 saying they oppose the war in CNN’s most recent poll. The president should keep that in mind as we approach our own midterm elections here in the U.S.

We can’t wait until July 2011. Those troops need to start coming home, now.

If you’re tired of this costly, brutal war that’s not making us safer, join us at Rethink Afghanistan:

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.

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$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 a huge amount of wealth and done things with it that 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.

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.

President Obama told reporters on May 12, 2010, that “we’re beginning to reverse the momentum of the insurgency” in Afghanistan.

According to his administration’s own report given to Congress last week, that’s not true. The insurgency is growing in size and capabilities. Simply put, the president’s continued troop increases aren’t working.

It’s time to change course. Tell your Member of Congress that you want an exit timetable for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The president’s assertion was more fully fleshed out by Undersecretary for Defense Michelle Flournoy before the House Armed Services Committee last week:

“We’ve seen other positive indicators in the last year, as well. Of the 121 key terrain districts identified by ISAF in December 2009, 60 were assessed as sympathetic or neutral to the Afghan Government. By March, 2010, that number had climbed to 73 districts. Of the 121 key terrain districts identified by ISAF in December 2009, 60 were assessed as sympathetic or neutral to the Afghan Government. By March, 2010, that number had climbed to 73 districts.”

That’s a statistic in the sense of a “lies, damn lies, and statistics” statistic from the Defense Department’s “Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (PDF),” delivered last week to Congress. First, note that they surveyed an additional 28 districts in March compared to December. But here’s the real meat: between December 2009 and March 2010:

  • No district at all shifted to being “supportive” of the government. In fact, no district was classified as “population supports the government.” The number of districts where the population “supported the insurgency” did increase from 7 to 8, however.
  • The number of districts classified as “sympathetic” to the government increased by 10. What Flournoy didn’t point out, however, was that the number of districts classified as “sympathetic” to the insurgency increased by 14 over the same period.

By my count, that puts the administration in the hole by 1 additional district “supporting” the insurgency and 4 additional districts “sympathetic” to the insurgency.

Twenty-nine districts are sympathetic to or support the Afghan government. Forty-eight are sympathetic to or supportive of the insurgency. Forty-four are neutral. Violence is up 87 percent.

That’s called failure.

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