America’s flagship newspaper, the New York Times, called Sunday for the US to leave Afghanistan “on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops.” The editorial was the first in a national publication to call for rapid withdrawal during more than ten years of war.
Of course there were paranoid bloggers who felt it was another trick and not quick enough. And conservatives will call it “cut and run.” But the editorial was a courageous defense of unilateral withdrawal, lending enormous legitimacy to peace forces in Congress and the administration.
Without saying so, the Times has endorsed the long efforts of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and others in Congress, pushed with active support from thousands of persistent grassroots activists, for Congress to cut all funding except for that needed for “responsible withdrawal.”
The Times separated itself from the largely unrepentant “liberal humanitarians,” who pushed the Afghan military intervention in the name of women’s rights and democracy. “The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights…Warlords will go on stealing,” the paper acknowledged. Afghanistan will become like Vietnam, they added, as if this was a terrible but tolerable thing.
The Times editors, like most Americans, were essentially saying: We’ve had enough. They rejected every remaining argument for the military occupation as threadbare.
This week, the British government announced that it will “speed up” the pace of their military withdrawal towards the end of 2013. (Daily Mail, October 14, 2012) Previously France and New Zealand accelerated their troop withdrawals ahead of the NATO deadline of December 2014. The allies are rushing for the exits.
President Obama now has removed the 33,000 American troops he sent as a surge force in 2010. He can continue withdrawing the remaining 68,000 on whatever schedule he chooses after more meetings with his advisers. A key question is whether the US will insist on a “residual force” of 10-15,000 counterterrorism units and advisors, or whether those numbers will continue declining as they did during the Iraq endgame. A related question is whether Obama and Hillary Clinton can effectively bargain to protect the meager gains for Afghan women while the US military is leaving.
As the Peace and Justice Resource Center has noted many times, Afghanistan is not Iraq in one fundamental aspect. The Kabul government is like Humpty Dumpty, whereas the Baghdad regime is authoritarian and Shiite-dominated, protected by Iran. The Kabul government is more likely to implode during an American withdrawal, which may be the reason Obama has scheduled 2014 as the timeline. For example, the Times has reported that the US-trained, US-funded Afghan armed forces are plagued with endemic desertion rates and low re-enlistments. (New York Times, October 16, 2012)
Under attack from Republicans, the Obama administration has retreated from the chance at an Afghanistan diplomatic settlement, beginning with a prisoner exchange involving one US soldier and five Taliban figures held at Guantanamo. The US is delaying any further diplomatic efforts until after the November election, when an over-confident Taliban might see little point in negotiating for a power-sharing arrangement.
Meanwhile, the Afghan economy is nearing collapse. Only an international consortium, including Russia, China, Iran, India, Turkey, the United States and NATO can create a safety net around the basket case that Afghanistan has become. They could support an interim government in Kabul after the scheduled departure of Karzai in 2014, making the capital a protected area while negotiating a cease-fire and a de facto geographic partition.
Amazingly, the Times’ David Sanger writes, “Afghanistan could fall to the Taliban, and it would be a black mark on American diplomacy…Strategically, though, it would mean little.” That’s bitter news for the families of American soldiers, which is why the government and media until now have covered it up. But, Sanger continues, “if Pakistan fell, the United States could not afford to be a spectator and simply pray that those nuclear weapons were safe.” (p. 132)
Pakistan then, as the president and others have suggested, is the most dangerous place on earth for US foreign policy. Neither the Times editors nor Sanger say much about dealing with this deadly connection. But if the US secretly includes Pakistan in power-sharing talks and final arrangements concerning Afghanistan, the US will have a state reason to suspend and finally end the drone attacks over Pakistan. And if the drone attacks end, Pakistan will become less of a nuclear-equipped volcano in its relationship with the US.
However events may play out, the Times has legitimized much sharper criticism from the rest of the mainstream media. Its editorial page is formally independent of the thinking of those writers like Michael Gordon and Judith Miller, who paved the road of good intentions to the hell of Iraq (although the paper has published two excerpts from Gordon’s new book which blames Obama for leaving Iraq without leaving a democratic and representative government behind).
Campaigners against the US drone war should note that a New York Times’ “rethink” seems to be underway on that subject as well. The Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, just this week wrote that her paper has “a responsibility to lead the way in covering this topic as aggressively and as forcefully as possible, and to keep pushing for transparency so that Americans can understand just what their government is doing.” (October 12, 2012) That is about time for the Times, too.
Who will follow the Times in calling for an end to the folly they once advocated? Only a broadening will to “rethink Afghanistan” – that the “good war” quickly turned bad, if indeed it ever was a good war - will create the political climate necessary to finally end it.