Ending war

Pub date January 20, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

› sarah@sfbg.com

As Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama takes the reins of power, the peace movement is watching to see if he will follow through on foreign policy campaign promises — and preparing to apply pressure if he doesn’t.

CodePink has compiled a list, "President Obama’s Promises to Keep," taken from his campaign statements on which activists intend to hold him accountable. These promises include a pledge to end the war on Iraq, close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, reject the Military Commissions Act (which critics say violates the civil rights of people deemed enemy combatants), adhere to the Geneva Convention, work to eliminate nuclear weapons, support direct diplomacy with Iran without preconditions, and abide by international treaties.

But as CodePink’s Media Benjamin noted in an article that was published in the Huffing ton Post last summer, the peace movement helped Obama beat Sen. Hillary Clinton, who supported the invasion of Iraq, in the primaries — only to see Obama begin talking tough on Afghanistan and pledging to essentially escalate the war there.

"This has come back to hit us in the face during Barack Obama’s Middle East trip, where he called for sending 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan," Benjamin observed, noting the high death tolls of both US soldiers and innocent Afghans almost eight years after the US invasion.

"The Taliban has gained new strength, opium production has soared, and Osama bin Laden has not been found," Benjamin wrote. "And amid it all, Afghan people continue to be among the poorest in the world, its women continue to be oppressed and the US has not succeeded in rebuilding Afghanistan."

But Benjamin acknowledged that it’s not enough to simply say "troops out now."

"We, the peace movement, need to come together and develop a strategy before our troops are sent from the ‘bad war’ in Iraq to the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan," Benjamin warned.

Given Obama’s naming of Clinton as his Secretary of State and his pledge to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Benjamin reiterated her belief that increasing troop levels is not going to help subdue a country that has resisted invasions from the likes of Genghis Khan and the Soviet Union.

"Yes, it’s a complex region, but what has history taught us about it?" Benjamin told the Guardian last week. "That foreigners get defeated. Yes, maybe by increasing troops they’ll get to stay for a few more years, but in the end, they leave with their tail between their legs, having suffered more deaths and without imposing their will."

"Theirs is a very tribal culture, so it’s not easy to get a centralized government," added Benjamin, who first visited Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, at the height of the US-led invasion. "And the oppression of women, unfortunately, preceded the Taliban."

Observing that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has admitted to engaging in low-level talks with the Taliban, which the Saudis helped broker, Benjamin claimed that "plenty of US military reps know that a negotiated settlement is the way forward."

"Our concern is that women will be at the table when that happens and that women’s issues and rights are at the front," Benjamin stressed. "So, we want a negotiated settlement with a more moderate faction of the Taliban. And troops going into Pakistan isn’t the solution, either."

Benjamin, who attended Clinton’s Jan. 13 Secretary of State confirmation hearings, says she got the sense that Obama’s administration wants a policy overhaul.

"So, yes, we are sending 30,000 more troops, but we are not pretending it is a surge, à la Iraq. It’s more of a holding pattern," Benjamin said. "We are hoping this is going to be an administration that disengages. Maybe the focus in the US on the economy will help."

A press release sent out on the eve of Obama’s inauguration by Courage to Resist and Direct Action to Stop the War, a San Francisco–based organization that coordinated nonviolent opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, stated that both groups are urging the new President not to escalate the war in Afghanistan, to stop attacks inside Pakistan, and to cut military aid to governments that violate human rights or international law, "such as Israel, in what Amnesty International calls an ‘unlawful attack’ on Gaza."

The release came just days after Clinton said, during her confirmation hearing, that she and Obama "understand and are deeply sympathetic to Israel’s desire to defend itself under the current conditions, and to be free of shelling by Hamas rockets. However, we have also been reminded of the tragic humanitarian costs of conflict in the Middle East, and pained by the suffering of Palestinian and Israeli civilians."

"This must only increase our determination to seek a just and lasting peace agreement that brings real security to Israel; normal and positive relations with its neighbors; and independence, economic progress, and security to the Palestinians in their own state," Clinton elaborated, adding that Obama is committed to "responsibly ending the war in Iraq and employing a broad strategy in Afghanistan that reduces threats to our safety and enhances the prospect of stability and peace."

In the November 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, Barnett Rubin, director of Studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy, outlined the steps that they believe are critical for those serious about ending the ongoing chaos in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.

Stating that sending more troops to Afghanistan "would be insufficient to reverse the collapse of security there," the authors opined that "A major diplomatic initiative involving all the regional stakeholders in problem-solving talks and setting out road maps for local stabilization efforts is more important."

Arguing that such an initiative would reaffirm that the West as a whole is committed to the long-term rehabilitation of Afghanistan and the region, they recommended that the West — with support from if not led by the US — back that commitment with measures to address economic development, job creation, the drug trade, and border disputes.

"The goal of the next US president must be to put aside the past, Washington’s keenness for "victory" as the solution to all problems, and the United States’ reluctance to involve competitors, opponents, or enemies in diplomacy," Rubin and Rashid wrote. "

But the A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition is reemphasizing the importance of building an independent people’s movement and ending imperialist occupations, wherever and whenever they occur. "We are for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan," San Francisco–based A.N.S.W.E.R. organizer Saul Kanowitz told us. "There are those in the Obama administration who say that Iraq is the wrong war, in the wrong place, but we are against all US imperial conquests abroad."

Noting that he doesn’t believe there is a fundamental difference between Bush’s and Obama’s policies on Afghanistan, Kanowitz says, "It’s just a tactical difference … withdrawing US troops from direct engagement with Iraq, because they don’t believe US can’t win there, and redeploying them to Afghanistan, where they believe they can — it’s the same strategy. It’s about maintaining dominance.