In a recent op-ed, "Is US-Afghan Agreement a Prelude to Afghan Civil War?" AFSC’s Matt Southworth is right in projecting a trajectory toward further civil war in Afghanistan. But political and military realities may still pre-empt projections on paper. Especially during an election year when a war is not going well, we can expect nothing but official spin.
For example, this found its way deep into a New York Times story about recent optimistic assessments:
“[they are] in keeping with quiet comments made recently by NATO leaders that they wanted to get out a message that Afghan forces were performing well...an important plank of the Western coalition’s withdrawal plans.” (New York Times, April 23, 2012)
Expect more such confusing spin at the NATO summit in Chicago. The bottom line is that Obama wants to project that he is ending two wars in the election campaign, and deal with the expected mess in Afghanistan later.
The Pentagon, along with “crackpot realist” senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman, and their new “useful idiot” Mitt Romney, will be pushing for the maximum number of American troops in Afghanistan for the longest time period they can achieve, as well as demanding a permanent US military base and thousands of special ops, advisers and trainers. Even they these diehards feel the pressure, however, to accept the 2014 deadline for combat troop withdrawals Obama has set with NATO.
Obama is withdrawing 33,000 troops by the end of this year, and maybe more if the pressure of embarrassing headlines intensifies. He almost surely will speed up the deadline for ending the US combat mission, to be announced by the NATO meeting. That will leave 68,000 American troops to be withdrawn in 2013-14, a task that will be politically and militarily challenging for Obama, assuming he is re-elected.
The disgrace is that 414 American troops died in 2011, largely to save America’s reputation, and 94 more have been lost during the first four months of this year. Last year, another 5,193 American soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan. No president or would-be president is willing to say these Americans died during a Mission Impossible. What is beginning, however, is a veiled strategic retreat.
Southworth is correct that the original Afghan civil war fault lines may reappear as the West withdraws, after countless Afghan deaths. But there is a huge difference in the morale and fighting capabilities of the Afghan troops and those of the Taliban and other insurgents, in favor of the Taliban. According to Pentagon data, virtually none of the Afghan units are capable of fighting independently. In the “volatile east” of Afghanistan, “the insurgents are winning,” according to sources cited by the New York Times.
Unlike Iraq, where a Shiite majority coalition was placed in power as a result of US policy, there is no similar majority coalition underlying Karzai, who is more like a precarious Humpty Dumpty. The US likely will draw a redline in behind-the-scenes talks with the Taliban and its allies that Kabul cannot be overrun as Americans withdraw, without the risk of a massive bombing campaign, just as Nixon and Kissinger carried out against Hanoi in late 1972. Again, as in Vietnam, the US strategy is likely to be one of seeking a “decent interval” before Kabul implodes, so that the American military reputation will not be tarnished. That will require tacit understandings with countries like Pakistan, China, India, Turkey, Russia and, yes, Iran, to rescue Aghanistan from total chaos.
The fact that the Kabul “regime” cannot sustain itself independently, or even with declining Western support, is another reason for the 2014 deadline, to postpone until after November the option of removing Karzai and installing an interim power-sharing regime supported by the wider “international community.” This is only speculative, but at this point it is difficult to imagine holding a rigged and unrepresentative election to replace Karzai as the West withdraws combat troops in 2013.
What can anti-war activists do about all this?
First, stay on task: push as many Congress members as possible to support Barbara Lee’s HR 780, both as a local organizing tool and a means to push Obama while giving him political cover as well.
Second, use all websites and speaking opportunities to hammer at the theme that we cannot afford this unwinnable war any longer.
Third, ask your local allies in labor and the clergy to include the costs of war when they are pushing against domestic budget cuts. The direct cost of the war in Afghanistan to taxpayers is $524 billion and rising, $118 billion this past year alone. Visit The National Priorities Project to see how that money could have been spent on health, education and other domestic priorities.
Fourth, join and sustain Progressive Democrats of America’s brown-bag vigils at local congressional offices.
Fifth, take more time to study and educate yourself about this crisis before it comes boomeranging home in the not-to-distant future.
After the War in Iraq
Incidentally, for those who complain that Obama did not end the war in Iraq, or end it soon enough, here is some data showing what the peace forces achieved after a decade:
- In Iraq this year, the Department of Defense reports no American troop casualties. In 2011, 54 American soldiers were killed in Iraq, down from the high of 903 killed there in 2007. (Department of Defense, April 27, 2012)
- The Pentagon baseline fiscal request for Iraq this year is $11 billion, down from a total expenditure of $68 billion in 2011, and $145 billion in 2008. (Congressional Research Service, February 13, 2012)
- The US embassy in Baghdad is the largest US diplomatic post in the world because of the threat from insurgents, not as a symbol of US dominance. The staff of almost 14,000 -- primarily contractors -- includes 4,400 engaged in “security-assistance” for the new Office of Security Cooperation and 115 military advisers tasked with supporting Iraq's Police Development Program. (Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, April, 2012)