It's time to strip the Obama sticker off my car.
Obama's escalation in Afghanistan is the last in a string of disappointments. His flip-flopping acceptance of the military coup in Honduras has squandered the trust of Latin America. His Wall Street bailout leaves the poor, the unemployed, minorities and college students on their own. And now comes the Afghanistan-Pakistan decision to escalate the stalemate, which risks his domestic agenda, his Democratic base, and possibly even his presidency.
The expediency of his decision was transparent. Satisfy the generals by sending 30,000 more troops. Satisfy the public and peace movement with a timeline for beginning withdrawals of those same troops, with no timeline for completing a withdrawal.
Obama's timeline for the proposed Afghan military surge mirrors exactly the eighteen-month Petraeus timeline for the surge in Iraq.
We'll see. To be clear: I'll support Obama down the road against Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs or any of the pitchfork carriers for the pre-Obama era. But no bumper sticker until the withdrawal strategy is fully carried out.
But for now, the fight is on.
This is not like the previous conflict with Bush and Cheney, who were easy to ridicule. Now this orphan of a war has a persuasive advocate, a formidable debater who will be arguing for support from the liberal center--one who wants to win back his Democratic base.
The antiwar movement will have to solidify support from the two-thirds of Democratic voters who so far question this war. Continuing analysis from The Nation and Robert Greenwald's videos have a major role to play. Public opinion will have to become a growing factor in the mind of Congress, where Representative Jim McGovern's resolution favoring an exit strategy has 100 co-sponsors and Rep. Barbara Lee's tougher bill to prevent funding for escalation is now at 23.
Key political questions in the immediate future are whether Representative David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, will oppose Afghanistan funding without a surtax is only bluffing, and whether Senator Russ Feingold will step up with legislation for a withdrawal timetable.
Beyond public persuasion and pressuring Congress, activists are sure to be hitting the streets and precincts in the year ahead. The antiwar movement has a certain leverage based on the current doubt in the minds of voters and policy experts, and the potential dissent from within the Obama base. Democratic turnout increased 2.6 percent in 2008 over 2004, while Republican votes dropped by 1.3 percent. Twenty-two million more young people voted in 2008 than in 2004. The unprecedented energies of those young people who volunteered their time, money and hope could drain away by 2012, if not sooner.
In addition, the peace movement will be globalizing its reach as Obama seeks to extract more troop concessions from wary NATO countries. Opposition is particularly strong in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France. When Obama accepts the Nobel Prize in Oslo on December 10, he may address as many as ten thousand protestors.
Adding 30,000 to 35,000 US troops will raise the US death toll by over 1,000 by 2011 on Obama's watch, in addition to the 750 who died under Bush. The numbers of US wounded are rising faster than ever, with 300 counted in the past three months. Civilian casualties are under-reported according to the UN mission in Afghanistan. The budgetary costs are growing to $75 billion annually, and could become another trillion-dollar war.
The albatross of the Karzai government will threaten any plans to rapidly expand the Afghan army and police, themselves divided along sectarian lines. In 2005, the Kabul regime ranked 117th on the list compiled by Transparency International; by this year it was 176th.
There are alternatives. There is evidence that the Taliban in Afghanistan are seeking a peace settlement without havens for Al Qaeda. There also is an October 11 statement by Gulbaddin Hekmatyer of Hezb-I-Islam Afghanistan, a mujahadeen leader and former prime minister in the 1990s, once funded by the CIA. Never reported in the US media, the letter proposes an honorable exit strategy, including
• relocation of Western troops from Afghan cities, plus a logical and practical time schedule for their withdrawal;
• transfer of power to an interim government independent of the parties currently fighting;
• new elections under an independent election commission;
• release of political prisoners;
• a possible peacekeeping force from neutral Islamic countries;
• and, more importantly for the Obama agenda, the document states: Hezb-I-Islami is prepared to discuss the exit of all foreign fighters (non-Afghan, be it forces of the West, or embedded with the Mujahideen). We assure all sides that we agree that neither the embedded fighters with the Mujahideen nor foreign military forces be allowed to remain or to establish military bases or training camps in Afghanistan.
But instead of pursuing an Afghan-based political settlement without havens for Al Qaeda, the US strategy is to pursue the same goal through more boodshed, leaving Afghanistan somewhere between the Stone Age and ashes. What is obsessive about this approach is the fact that there is no longer an Al Qaeda haven in Afghanistan, which means the US troops are fighting Afghan insurgents in their own country. But if your primary tool is a hammer, as the saying goes, all problems appear to be nails.
The war clearly is shifting to Pakistan, a far more clandestine and dangerous conflict fought by American secret operatives on the ground and drones from the sky. The targets are twofold: (1) to eliminate the Afghan Taliban from their enclave in Quetta instead of negotiating with them, and (2), using US advisers and drones, to push Pakistan's army into a war against Pakistan's homegrown Taliban and other insurgents now in the tribal areas, impoverished and unrepresented in Pakistan's institutions. This approach so far has caused a sharp expansion of violent attacks and suicide bombings across the region. The fear of a destabilized Pakistan with scores of nuclear weapons may lead Obama's advisers to soon present the president with a more apocalyptic scenario than anything so far, if they have not already.
This article originally appeared in The Nation on December 1, 2009.