Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

The Pentagon wants you to ignore some inconvenient facts about the failure of the escalation strategy in Afghanistan.

The latest Petraeus/Gates media tour is under way in preparation for the general’s testimony to Congress next week, and they’re trotting out the same, tired spin they’ve been using since McChrystal was replaced in disgrace last year. Despite the most violent year of the war so far, despite the highest civilian and military toll of the war so far, and despite the continued growth of the insurgency, they want you to believe that we’re “making progress.” While they spend this week fudging and shading and spinning, we’ll waste another $2 billion on this brutal, futile war, and we won’t be any closer to “victory” than we are today.

Let me make a couple of predictions about Petraeus’ testimony based on experience. He will attempt to narrow the conversation to a few showcase districts in Afghanistan, use a lot of aspirational language (“What we’re attempting to do,” instead of, “What we’ve done“) and assure the hand-wringers among the congressional hawks that he’ll be happy to suggest to the president that they stay longer in Afghanistan if that’s what he thinks is best. Most importantly, he will try to keep the conversation as far away from a high-level strategic assessment based on his own counterinsurgency doctrine as possible, because if Congress bothers to check his assertions of “progress” against what he wrote in the counterinsurgency manual, he’s in for a world of hurt.

Here’s what Petraeus’ own U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says about the main goal of a COIN campaign:

“I-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”

Not by any stretch of the imagination is the counterinsurgency campaign under Petraeus’ direction serving what his own field manual says is the primary goal of his campaign. If we were looking for a legitimate government in Afghanistan, it’s crystal clear that we backed the wrong horse. Hamid Karzai and his family are neck-deep in any number of corruption scandals, the most glaring of which involves the largest private bank in Afghanistan and a sweeping control fraud scheme that has already resulted in unrest across the country. (That scandal, by the way, is likely to result in a U.S.-taxpayer-funded bank bailout for Kabulbank, according to white-collar crime expert Bill Black.) The Karzai administration is an embarrassment of illegitimacy and cronyism, and the local tentacles of the Kabul cartel are as likely to inspire people to join the insurgency as they are to win over popular support.

Even if the Karzai regime where a glimmering example of the rule of law, the military campaign under Petraeus would be utterly failing to achieve what counterinsurgency doctrine holds up as the primary way in which a legitimate government wins over support from the people: securing the population. From the COIN manual:

“5-68. Progress in building support for the HN [“host nation”] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do not believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts.”

The United Nations reports that 2010 was the deadliest year of the war for civilians of the decade-long war, and targeted killings of Kabul government officials are at an all-time high. Petraeus often seeks to deflect this point by citing insurgent responsibility for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but that is largely beside the point. As his own field manual makes clear, reducing the number of civilians killed by your forces is insufficient according to COIN doctrine. If you can’t protect the population (or the officials within the host nation government!) from insurgent violence and intimidation, you can’t win a counterinsurgency.

Petraeus and Gates like to talk around this blatant break in his own strategic doctrine by narrowing the conversation to what they call “security bubbles.” In his recent remarks following his trip to Afghanistan, Gates spoke of “linking zones of security in Helmand to Kandahar.” But those two provinces have seen huge spikes in violence over the course of the past year, with attacks initiated by insurgents up 124 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Today’s New York Times explains one of the main reasons for these jumps in violence as U.S. troops arrive in new areas:

“[G]enerals have designated scores of rural areas ‘key terrain districts.’ The soldiers are creating, at cost of money and blood, pockets of security.

“But when Americans arrive in a new area, attacks and improvised bombs typically follow — making roads and trails more dangerous for the civilians whom, under current Pentagon counterinsurgency doctrine, the soldiers have arrived to protect.”

The military escalations in Afghanistan have failed their key purpose under counterinsurgency doctrine, which is to secure Afghans from insurgent violence and intimidation.

While the U.S. government is failing to achieve its military objectives in Afghanistan, it’s also failing to make good on the other components of counterinsurgency strategy, especially the civilian/political component. Here’s what The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says on p. xxix, emphasis mine:

“Nonmilitary Capacity Is the Exit Strategy

“The [counterinsurgency] manual highlights military dependence not simply upon civilian political direction at all levels of operation, but also upon civilian capabilities in the field. ...[T]he primacy of the political requires significant and ongoing civilian involvement at virtually every level of operations.”

To meet this prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency strategy, the administration promised a “civilian surge” to accompany the military escalation. But the March 8, 2011 edition of The Washington Post shows that the civilian surge has so far been a flop that’s alienating the local population:

“Efforts to improve local government in critical Afghan districts have fallen far behind schedule…according to U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the program.

“It is now expected to take four more years to assess the needs of more than 80 ‘key terrain’ districts where the bulk of the population lives, based on figures from Afghan officials who said that escalating violence has made it difficult to recruit civil servants to work in the field.

“…Of the 1,100 U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan, two-thirds are stationed in Kabul, according to the State Department.

“‘At best, our Kabul-based experts simply reinforce the sense of big government coming from Kabul that ultimately alienates populations and leaders in the provinces,’ a former U.S. official said.”

As with the military side of the equation, the civilian side of the strategy is so badly broken that it’s actually pushing us further away from the administration’s stated goals in Afghanistan.

The costs of this pile of failure are huge. It costs us $1 million per troop, per year to maintain our occupation of Afghanistan. That’s $2 billion every week. Politicians at the federal level are contemplating ugly cuts to social safety nets, while politicians at the state level are already shredding programs that protect people suffering in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In this context, the admonitions from the White House and the Pentagon to be patient while this misbegotten strategy limps along the progress-road-to-nowhere seem perverse. The American people have been patient for roughly a decade now, but that patience has run out.

Petraeus and Gates want to you to ignore the ugly truths of the Afghanistan War: it’s not making us safer, and it’s not worth the costs. The escalation strategy isn’t working. It’s not going to work. Enough is enough. End it now.

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

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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.

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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Exactly one year ago, on February 13, 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan launched the first major military operations enabled by President Obama’s 30,000 troop increase. President Obama and the high priests of counterinsurgency warfare, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, made two major assertions about the escalation, that it would a) enable coalition forces to reverse the insurgents’ momentum and b) increase security for the Afghan people. After a year of fighting, neither of those things happened. The escalation is a failure, and it’s time to bring our troops home.

February 13, 2010: The Push into Marjah

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, U.S. and other international forces began Operation Moshtarak, the invasion of Marja District in Helmand Province. Looking back, the hubris and hype surrounding this military operation boggle the mind. General McChrystal promised, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” meaning that good governance and the extension of Kabul’s writ would be implemented very rapidly. The operation was supposed to be a prototype for future campaigns in Afghanistan and a “confidence builder” for both U.S. forces and a restive political class in Washington, D.C., not all of whom were happy about the escalation or McChrystal’s brashness in pushing it.

To put it mildly, Moshtarak failed to live up to the hype:

“[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan, the Marines’ commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders…offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.”Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2010.

Almost immediately, this hype about an operation purported to be proof-of-concept for the population-protecting counterinsurgency strategy fell apart in the face of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.  Just prior to the operation, coalition forces dropped leaflets on the largely illiterate district warning people to stay in their homes. An Italian NGO, Emergeny, warned that military blockades were preventing civilians from fleeing the area.  At the same time commanders bragged that the “evacuation” of the residents would allow the use of air strikes without the danger of civilian casualties. These contradictions soon bore deadly fruit: On the second day of the offensive, U.S. troops fired a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) weapon on a house full of civilians, killing roughly a dozen people. By February 23, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that ISAF forces were responsible for most civilian deaths so far in the incursion.

As insurgents melted away (as all guerrillas do in the face of superior firepower–to bide time and return once counter-insurgents are dug in) the “government in a box” hype fell apart as well. The coalition’s hand-picked governor, Abdul Zahir, turned out to be an ex-convict who served part of a prison sentence for stabbing his own son. By July, he would be replaced as part of a “reform procedure.”

Sending Afghan National Police forces to establish rule of law proved to be a cruel joke on the local residents:

“In the weeks since they were sent to Helmand province as part of the U.S.-led offensive in Marjah, ANCOP members have set up checkpoints to shake down residents, been kicked out for using drugs and shunned in some areas as outsiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on a recent analysis by the RAND Corp. …More than a quarter of the officers in one ANCOP battalion in Helmand were dismissed for drug use, and the rest were sent off for urgent retraining. One Western official who attended the briefing termed ANCOP’s role in Marjah a disaster.”

As late as October 2010, residents of the town said the area was “more insecure than ever,” and Reuters classified the Taliban re-infiltration as a “full-blown insurgency.” And, although U.S. commanders want us to believe that the fighting in Marjah is “essentially over” as of December, the numbers tell a different story. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, in Helmand Province, in which Marjah is located, the number of attacks by insurgents in spiked from 620 in 2009 to 1387 in 2010, a 124-percent increase (.pdf).
A Wider Pattern of Failure

This pattern of hype (“Protecting civilians! Reversing insurgents momentum!”) followed by a failure to deliver extended from Marjah to the whole of the escalation strategy across Afghanistan. Even after a month of fighting in Marjah in which U.S. and coalition forces were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, Defense Secretary Robert Gates characterized the offensive in this way on March 8, 2010:

“Of course the operation in Marjah is only one of many battles to come in a much longer campaign focused on protecting the people of Afghanistan.”

As was the case in Marjah, that broader campaign has utterly failed to protect the people of Afghanistan in terms of the reach of the insurgency, the levels of war-related violence and the number of civilians killed or injured in the conflict.

Although President Obama, General Petraeus and others have repeatedly asserted in public remarks that the U.S. has reversed the insurgents’ momentum, reports from the Pentagon and from NGOs agree that the insurgency continued to grow in size and sophistication throughout 2010. By one measure, insurgent-initiated attacks this January are up almost 80 percent versus last January. Worse, a new report from Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn at the Center on International Cooperation warns that the U.S. targeted killings of senior Taliban leadership is not only failing to retard the growth of the insurgency, but it’s providing opportunities for much more radical junior leaders to take control of the operation, making the Taliban more susceptible to al-Qaeda influence and making the insurgents less willing to negotiate. In short, over the year in which the U.S. was pursuing its escalated military strategy, the insurgency got larger, smarter and more radical.

When testifying to Congress immediately following President Obama’s 2009 West Point speech, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen asserted the escalation would “improve security for the Afghan people.” The past year proved him wrong. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office’s (ANSO) Q4 2010 report (.pdf),

“Consistent with the five year trend…attacks by armed opposition groups continue to rise. This year they were 64% higher than 2009, the highest inter‐annual growth rate we have recorded… If averaged, the total of 12,244 armed operations (mostly small arms ambushes, below right) represents roughly 33 attacks per day, every single day of the year. …[T]aking the national data as a whole we consider this indisputable evidence that conditions are deteriorating.”

General Petraeus has taken to speaking of “security bubbles” in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, but violence is up in those provinces by 20 percent and 124 percent, respectively, according to ANSO. Security in Afghanistan for Afghan civilians sharply declined in the period following the launch of the escalated military campaign.

This heightened level of insurgent-initiated violence, combined with attacks initiated by U.S. and coalition forces, led to a predictable result: 2010 was the worst year of the war so far for war-related civilian deaths.

President Obama and numerous Pentagon officials asserted that the escalation strategy, which began one year ago with the invasion of Majah, would enable U.S. forces to reverse insurgent momentum and protect the population. They were wrong. Measured by the standards of its backers, the escalation strategy in Afghanistan is a miserable failure.

Because It’s Time

Let’s have some accountability here. In the leaked strategic assesment that’s largely responsible for getting us into this mess, General Stanley McChrystal used dire language to describe the “need” for escalation (.pdf):

“The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

McChrystal wrote those words in late August 2009, under Petraeus’ supervision. The insurgency’s momentum has not been reversed and security continues to deteriorate across Afghanistan. So let’s take the generals at their word when they say we had to reverse insurgent momentum by late August 2010 to have a chance at defeating the insurgency. Let’s also take the Pentagon at its word that insurgent “operation capability and geographic reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding.” That means that today, on the one-year anniversary of the launch of the escalated military campaign, we’re several months past the point of no return. And that’s if you bought the analysis of those who thought the escalation was a good idea in the first place.

The American people have been more than patient with Washington, D.C. when it comes to the Afghanistan War. In fact, we’ve been downright indulgent, having forked over more than $375 billion in tax dollars and debt and having given the Pentagon almost a decade now to play Risk with other people’s lives in other people’s country. Every deadline that’s been laid down has been fudged. Every justification that’s been given for just one more big push has fallen apart. Every guarantee of a positive outcome has been junked. We’ve had enough.

Rethink Afghanistan and our supporters are tired of politicans’ making excuses for their failure to rein in this debacle, so we’re doing a little escalating of our own. Starting on Sunday, February 13, Rethink Afghanistan will have a new ad on CNN in Washington, D.C., featuring the winners of our Because It’s Time contest, calling for an end to the Afghanistan War. They represent the voices of the 72 percent of Americans who support congressional action to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The ad buy also coincides with the upcoming reintroduction of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s Responsible End to the War in Afghanistan Act in the House of Representatives. These actions send a strong message that we want decisive action from our elected officials to bring our troops home–because it’s time.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of the escalated military strategy in Afghanistan. It’s clear from the last 12 months that the escalation strategy is a failure. It’s time to come home.

If you’re tired of this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan 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.

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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.