Posts Tagged ‘anti-war’

The movement to end the Afghanistan War is gaining momentum, and on March 12, it will gain some more. In a little less than two weeks, supporters of Rethink Afghanistan (“Rethinkers”) will get together with their neighbors in hundreds of communities to talk about what can be done locally to stop the war. We’re going to swap stories, share a coffee or a beer, and make the personal connections with other Rethinkers in our neighborhood that will carry us through to our goal of bringing our troops home. Join us in your hometown for Rethink the Cost, a worldwide Meetup for people who want to end the Afghanistan War.
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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.

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:

Today, President Obama came to my town to give an invite-only speech at the University of Texas. Lacking an invite, I wondered what people with invites had to say about the Afghanistan War. Here’s what I found:

All the people who had tickets to the event who consented to be interviewed and who gave an opinion for or against are in this video, and their views are fairly represented. Of course, that’s not a surprise, given the levels of public disgust with this war, the higher levels of opposition among Democrats and the likely makeup of the invitee crowd.

Most Americans — 54 percent — think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Forty-one percent disagree.

There is a partisan divide on the issue: 73 percent of Democrats think the U.S. should set a timetable, while only 32 percent of Republicans say the U.S. should do so. Fifty-four percent of independents want a timetable.

What is surprising, though, is the “heads down, follow through” attitude on the part of our elected leaders.

Poll: Afghanistan War Hurting Obama’s Support at Home

Poll: Afghanistan War Deeply Unpopular, Dragging Down Presidential Approval

Afghan War Looms As Electoral Problem

Ever heard of a thing called an election?

Thursday marks the sixth anniversary of the U.S.’s military assault on Iraq. The occupation continues today, although President Obama recently stated his intent to withdraw our forces:

Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end….And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The endpoint outlined by the president will come five years after public opinion turned solidly against the war.

It will have taken the anti-war movement in the United States more than five years to make the official policies match the will of the people. That should be a glaring warning to our movement: online petitions and rallies on the Capitol lawn are insufficient to change policies in a timely way. The policymakers in our country manage orderly dissent very well.

That’s not a critique of the powerholders; it’s a critique of us. The function of the incumbent is to manage dissent. Our job as peacemakers is to make dissent unmanageable.

The saga of Cindy Sheehan, which was a microcosm of the relationship between the larger anti-war movement and the powerholding elite in this country, transformed her lone, principled and powerful voice for the human cost of war into a political force, which was then co-opted by Democratic elites, marginalized and ultimately discarded once it lost its utility. The same dynamic happened in the larger political world over the same time period: Democrats took power in Congress in 2006 on the rising tide of anti-war sentiment in America and used it in part to take the White House in 2008, only to marginalize the anti-war movement in the policymaking process.

To keep the occupation going as long as politically possible, powerholders framed the debate on withdrawal as “responsibility vs. irresponsibility.”

During the 2008 presidential race, Republican powerholders portrayed proposals to end the occupation as “irresponsible” and raised the spectre of genocide:

“[We] cannot consign Iraqis to genocide that would follow reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal,” McCain said in his speech to the World Affairs Council.

Democratic powerholders responded to this with some wily framing of their own. Portraying themselves as moderates situated between Republicans and get-out-and-get-out-now anti-war activists, Democrats adopted a frame of “responsible redeployment.” This frame draws an unspoken contrast with advocates for “irresponsible redeployment,” i.e. the principled anti-war movement on the Capitol lawn. This movement to slow-walk an end to the occupation succeeded in marginalizing advocates for immediate withdrawal by appealing to the same nightmare scenarios as the Republicans. Then-candidates Obama and Biden pushed for “a responsible, phased withdrawal,” but cited “potential genocidal violence within Iraq” to stave off calls for a faster end to our occupation.

The outcome of these combined framing efforts was to paint the anti-war movement as “irresponsible,” bordering on “pro-genocide.” Today’s message is “we can’t end the Iraq war any sooner because we’re concerned about civilian casualties.” That’s an interesting new development, considering that powerholders, suddenly so concerned about civilian deaths in 2008-2009, were deaf to that very same concern voiced by members of their own parties back in 2002, including U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey:

I believe that a decision to invade Iraq would be a terrible mistake: The President’s single-mindedness threatens the lives of thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, ignores international law, disregards our Constitution, and undermines our fight against terrorism.

These same policymakers, suddenly so concerned about civilian casualties, do not even count the civilian dead:

In the evenings, women in black gather at Umm Fatin’s house to remember the dead.

Each family in the four neighboring houses in Tahrir, a former Sunni insurgent stronghold in Baqubah, has lost loved ones to bombings or shootings. Yet these deaths and countless others have fallen under the radar of the Iraq war. Nobody keeps an accurate tally of Iraqis killed because nobody knows.

As the Iraq conflict approaches its sixth anniversary, the number of American troop deaths – more than 4,250 – has been meticulously logged by the US military. Yet analysts are no closer to knowing how many Iraqi civilians have been killed, and they acknowledge a credible death toll will probably never be recorded.

Our national politicians take on a deformed version of responsibility, meticulously avoiding responsibility for actual civilian deaths (which we “regret” but always with caveats) while claiming the policies that cause civilian deaths are necessary to prevent more civilian deaths. This tension led to a now-famous exclamation from Muqtada al-Sadr, after then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said we would not interfere with a potential civil war in Iraq :

…US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last week that the US military would not intervene in an Iraqi civil war, leaving that to Iraqi forces.

‘May God damn you,’ Sadr said of Rumsfeld. ‘You said in the past that civil war would break out if you were to withdraw, and now you say that in case of civil war you won’t interfere. ‘”

This dynamic continued to play out during the “surge.” The military claimed the surge brought a reduction in violence, despite clear evidence that a brutal civil war and ethnic cleansing concluded right as the new troops hit the ground, leading to a drop-off in violence (which tends to happen when one group slaughters their opposition). But despite the fact that our occupation did not take responsibility for stopping this real civil slaughter, powerholders want us to stay as long as possible so we can be responsible for stopping a hypothetical slaughter.

Obama’s election represented a partial victory for the anti-war movement in the United States, and we should celebrate that. But as our official policies set a course toward ending this murderous misadventure in Mesopotamia, we should keep the historical account of powerholders’ motives honest. And as our powerholders slow-walk the end of one war while intensifying another, the anti-war movement must take a hard look at our own tactics to prevent being hamstrung like this in the future.

We owe that much, at least, to the dead.