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      Afghanistan and the Future of the Peace Movement

      U.S. soldiers stand guard as they watch the transfer ceremony of security responsibilities from NATO troops to Afghan security forces in Qalat, Zabul province south of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo: Allauddin Khan)This article was published at The Nation on December 14, 2012.

      President Barack Obama reportedly plans to remove all but 6,000 to 9,000 US troops from Afghanistan by 2014, ending the American combat role, saving tens of billions of dollars, and leaving an unpopular, incompetent and corrupt Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime needing a diplomatic fix to avert collapse into civil war. 

      According to McClatchy, Pakistan and Afghanistan are conducting negotiations aimed at a settlement with the Taliban by 2015. Though the McClatchy headline suggests the US is cut out of the process, it is more likely that the negotiations are being “outsourced” in keeping with US rhetoric about any settlement being “Afghan-led.”

      Although there has been no official announcement, the numbers have been published by both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times in recent days. The Los Angeles paper predicts 6,000 to 9,000, while the New York Times reports “no more than 10,000… despite the desire of some military officers for a larger force.” Troop cuts in that range would mean a 90 to 95 percent reduction from the more than the peak 100,000 boots on the ground in 2010. It would require a reduction of 60,000 between now and late 2014. The pace of the withdrawal has yet to be announced, but is expected after Obama meets with Karzai in Washington next month to discuss a US postwar role.

      Obama’s decision on a residual force is expected to be well below Pentagon requests, which range from 15,000 troops on up. Opposition to Obama’s reductions is expected from neo-conservative and military advocates, as well as Congressional hawks. Obama has gained political cover, however, from the recent 62 Senate votes cast for an “accelerated” withdrawal and a similar message in a letter from 94 House members. The recent New York Times editorial finally endorsing a one-year withdrawal also provides critical support from within the mainstream political and national security establishments. 

      Obama’s decision, and the stand taken by Congressional peace advocates, is consistent with his campaign pledge to begin steady American withdrawals after a two-year surge of 33,000 troops. The surge was a concession to generals like Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and to cabinet hawks, including Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, who fought for withdrawals to be based on “conditions” rather than timelines. In Bob Woodward’s account, Obama’s Wars, the president is quoted as having said, “I’m not an advocate of the timetable, but it will come from the Hill,” from Democrats in Congress.

      In fact, the White House quietly supported language advocating an accelerated timetable for “swift withdrawal” and a “significant and sizable reduction no later than July 2011” in the Democratic National Committee resolution of February 24, 2011. The resolution was sponsored by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Mike Honda (D-CA), and longtime Democratic leaders Donna Brazile and Alice Germond. 

      The critical resolution reflected the demands of local peace networks and rank-and-file Democrats across the country. Behind closed doors, Obama told Sen. Lindsay Graham, “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party. And people at home don’t want to hear we’re going to be there another for another ten years.”

      As the recent reports show, the new Obama plan already “has sparked internal criticism at the Pentagon,” which argues for a “sizable military presence” to be deployed in southern and eastern Afghanistan. (Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2012) Obama’s troop reductions are likely to spur even sharper cuts in NATO forces. The Afghan army, according to Pentagon sources, will face “enormous difficulties” as the American troops leave. According to a recent Pentagon report to Congress, there were 2,500 insurgent attacks monthly this year from April to September, rates higher than in 2009.

      Whatever decision Obama makes will be the subject of ongoing talks between Washington, Kabul and NATO powers. Bagram Airfield, along with smaller bases around Kabul, will be the defensive hub for any residual US force. The most controversial US mission, though smaller in scope, will be counterterrorism. Embassy protection and training/advising Afghan troops will also be included. Virtually none of the Afghan army’s 23 brigades can operate on their own, suggesting that Western air support will be authorized as well. 

      In the end, the discussion of a smaller residual force might be undone altogether by Afghan insistence on stripping immunity from American personnel violating Afghan laws and procedures. A similar scenario occurred during the endgame in Iraq. One American official told the Los Angeles Times, “One of the things that Obama and Karzai have always agreed on is the need for a reduced force presence. I could see them both wanting zero, but at the end of the day I don’t think that will happen.”

      Nothing will change the shifting balance of forces as Karzai’s army and regime are left on their own amidst corruption and insurgency. The danger of renewed civil war will increase unless diplomacy creates a power-sharing arrangement on the ground. Republicans so far have blocked Obama’s efforts to release several Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in exchange for an American POW, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, captured by Afghan insurgents in 2009. A larger diplomatic settlement will require controversial contacts with Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan, all states with proxy interests in divided Afghanistan. If all efforts fail and Afghanistan implodes into civil war, Obama will have to count on American domestic exhaustion with the decade-long war to protect him against military claims that he “lost” Afghanistan.

      Feminist groups that originally supported the war will have to lobby successfully to ensure the meager gains of Afghan women are preserved in an enforceable aid and assistance package. A recent Afghan study listed 4,000 reports of abuse during the March-October 2012 period with just 163 accepted by the courts, and 100 convictions. The low percentage "outraged" human rights advocates who blamed a culture of impunity. (New York Times, December 12, 2012) Twelve percent of Afghan women are literate, according to the Pentagon report, and 2.9 million are enrolled in school, about one-quarter the rate of boys and young men.

      In summary, it is official: America’s longest war is ending soon. The peace movement, which built a necessary groundwork of opposition, is ten years older. 

      Next Steps for the Peace Movement

      Unlike the Cold War era, peace forces have won most of the all-important battles for public opinion. It is possible that a window will open, however briefly, for peace forces to link with labor, civil rights and environmental coalitions in an effort to put some definition and muscle into Obama’s repeated promise to “do some nation-building here at home.”

      This shift to domestic priorities will be difficult. The US is an empire with 800 military bases, a growing interest in deterring China, a role in hot battlefields such as Yemen and Mali, risky brinksmanship with Iran, dangerous ties to Israel’s hawks, and an unknown number of CIA operations around the planet. If expensive US ground wars are no longer affordable or winnable, there will be momentum toward drone wars, cyber wars, black operations and an edifice of greater secrecy over our institutions. The military budget, despite its gargantuan size, will be difficult to assail politically. Peace doves will have to become fiscal hawks in attacking wasteful military spending. 

      A top priority will be reversing, and trying to end, the escalating use of drones. Public opinion, unfortunately, is favorable toward killing hundreds of alleged foreign terrorists in far-away lands, if they think the alternative is putting American troops in harm’s way at an extraordinary cost in taxation. The growing protests against drones, coupled with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation’s educational documentary, if combined with civil liberties and human rights groups’ complaints over detentions and “kill lists,” will gradually build a climate of dissent from current policy. 

      A top priority will be reversing, and trying to end, the escalating use of drones. Public opinion, unfortunately, is favorable toward killing hundreds of alleged foreign terrorists in far-away lands, if they think the alternative is putting American troops in harm’s way at an extraordinary cost in taxation. The growing protests against drones, coupled with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation’s educational documentary, if combined with civil liberties and human rights groups’ complaints over detentions and “kill lists,” will gradually build a climate of dissent from current policy. 

      The most important challenge will be to revise the 1973 War Powers Act to require public disclosure and Congressional approval of drone attacks, cyber wars, and secret operations by the CIA in places like Libya. President Obama, as a constitutional lawyer, can hardly wish to be remembered as rebuilding the Imperial Presidency, but that is the path he is on. Perhaps aware of the peril, Obama has taken the unusual step of appealing to the public and Congress to “rein in” his exceptional powers with “new legal architecture” in the coming year. That invitation should be taken up at once by civil liberties and peace communities with interests to protect.

      One possible scenario might be to de-escalate and phase out the drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas as part of a diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan. It is highly doubtful after a decade of war that the Taliban will be driven to the table by drones, nor should any serious diplomat expect them to acquiesce. But a permanent suspension of drone attacks is a necessary ingredient of any peace settlement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Obama well knows.

      If that occurs, a parallel process of drafting and debating new Congressional policies to “rein in” the imperial presidency could gain traction. 

      Peace advocates will have to keep challenging the paradigm of the “War on Terrorism” with its underlying rationale and legislative authorization that sustains the secretive Long War. There is no single path to an alternative narrative any more than there was a single effective approach to slowing the domestic “wars” on gangs and inner-city youth that have resulted in mass incarceration. The neo-conservatives and the domestic Right play on racial fears to mount their militarized approaches to both domestic and foreign policy. Peace and civil rights critics might gain traction, however, when their constitutional and moral arguments are reinforced by the expensive failures of the Long War abroad and mass incarceration at home.

      There is a connection between the Long Wars and domestic inequality that peace advocates also might offer to civil rights and labor reformers. It is that corporate and financial globalization result in an exploding gap between the rich and the underclass. The model offered by neo-conservative theorists is a failed one. Even as we militarize our relationship to Pakistan, we privatize the sweatshop conditions that draw investment away from US labor markets. By a similar process, the “de-industrialization” of American cities in the 1980s led to increased joblessness and despair among inner city youth, with expensive and unconstitutional policing and imprisonment as false solutions. A global living wage is needed for the world, one built on the experience of winning living wage ordinances in American cities.

      Finally, the experience of the peace movement offers a message to environmentalists: that the continuous Long War over oil, gas, minerals and other resources is a direct obstacle to a new priority on developing conservation and renewable resources. Ending the Long War is a precondition to transitioning to an energy-efficient future.

      New coalitions are likely to form as “nation-building at home” challenges the Long War as the agenda of the coming four years.

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      Reader Comments (3)

      It's hard to figure which part of the cancer eating our society needs to be excised first. The military-industrial complex exists because of the huge profits to be gained from it's leaching off of the taxpayer in the name of national security. The fear-mongers not only use this deceitful manipulation of the people's emotional needs for their immediate financial gain but also to subjugate and control us in order to remove us from the political process. Democracy is anathema to the growth of the power brokers' wealth. The more money they have the more politicians they can buy and the will of the people goes unheard.

      Though I have been quite active in anti-militarism efforts I'm thinking that restoring democracy might be the war cry we should all rally behind. Only when we can have a rational discussion of the issues without resorting to emotional manipulation will we have a chance of reaching a clear consensus of the people's will. This cannot happen as long as we have suchan ungodly mass "news" industry posing as informing but actually functioning to propagandize and manipulate the public.

      I'm afraid that the cancer within has nearly consumed us and the result will be the death of our democracy. I sometimes think that the likely collapse of our economic system will be the end of the MIC and the assault on our civil rights but that is none too clear. The ensuing chaos after collapse could lead to even more repression with privately funded militias (possibly posing as legitimate law enforcement) enforcing the class separation that has now become the status quo.

      December 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen Ashe

      In my view, ALL OF OUR TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN MUST BE REMOVED AND BROUGHT BACK HOME-NOW! All of our fine troops have done much more than originally tasked, in both Afghanistan and in Iraq. 11 years of combat for our troops in that corrupt place alone, is a testament to the troops endurance and service to this nation, despite repeated redeployments!. The neo-conmen will continue to push for more and more residual troops to be 'left there', but as in my war in Vietnam, no peace whatsoever is to be gained by leaving even one of our military there after any declaration of peace. We installed the crook Kharzi and we can remove him if we so choose.The USA also installed a series of incompetant/crooks such as Key and Thieu in Vietnam, and it did not matter then which crook was installed at the top. When will this nation ever learn? Peace, love and Semper Fi!

      December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDwight Thomas Powers

      We never learn...we go round and round repeating mistakes, never learning from new ones and running this country, this planet, and it's people, into our own, self-made darkness. It's getting to the point where I don't know what to say anymore! A wasted war, young lives lost, families, children, homes and more, all lost by the Afghan people just trying to live their lives. The war on drugs? Ha! Ha! Ha! Gangs...let's talk about poverty, poor education, a collapsing society without mores, without a sense of how this earth cares for us, without innate spiritualism...all lost...the big money men don't care so they take it away from us all. Let's talk about billions spent on war and defense while poverty goes unchecked right here...let's talk about guns and why ANYBODY needs one.....and back to war and sadness.....and on and on...what's next?

      December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Schnitzler
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