US out of Afghanistan

Pub date December 2, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

We knew President Obama wasn’t going to be perfect. We knew he was a lot more of a political moderate than the left — which was about getting rid of George W. Bush and voting for a candidate who was against the war in Iraq — always wanted to acknowledge. And we knew that the key to a progressive national agenda was keeping the pressure on the new president, who won on the basis of massive grassroots support and would be, we hoped, swayed be the mobilization of that same coalition on key political issues.

And now, after the biggest disappointment yet of his young presidency, it’s more important than ever for the movement that swept Obama into office to get back into the streets. Because the president’s decision to put 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan — to escalate, at great expense, a war the United States can’t win — is a disaster for the nation.

Obama was, to some extent, trapped by his own political rhetoric. Reportedly during the campaign, he chided the Republicans and their candidate, John McCain, for the morass of Iraq and argued that the real fight was in Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden and his terrorists were holed up. That was probably untrue back then, and it’s almost certainly untrue now: ss Harvard professor and Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart noted on Bill Moyers’ TV show Journal show Sept. 25th, al Qaeda is in Pakistan now. It’s true that the Taliban — a brutal and repressive fundamentalist sect — is gaining ground in Afghanistan, but the people under the sway of that religious movement aren’t a serious threat to U.S. national security. As Stewart noted:

“One of the things that’s a little misleading about people who say, ‘If we don’t fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, we’re going to have to fight them in the streets of the United States’ is that most of these people we’re dealing with can barely read or write…. They’re often three hours’ walk from the nearest village. The idea that they’re somehow going to turn up on the streets of the United States with a train of goats behind them in order to conduct war here is a bit misleading.”

And the president didn’t make things any better by asking the generals on the ground to tell him how many more troops they needed — without spelling out exactly what the mission was or how success would be measured. Now that the Pentagon — as usual — has asked for more troops, Obama was in a bind, and was unable to show the courage to reject that proposal and completely rethink the U.S. role in Afghanistan.

Then there’s the fact — and it’s a cold, hard fact, borne out by centuries of history — that invasions and nation-building efforts by outside military forces never succeed in Afghanistan. Everyone who’s ever tried to conquer Afghanistan — from the Mongols to the British to the Russians — has failed. It’s a rough country with little civilian infrastructure. There’s no effective national leadership — the government of Hamid Karzai is monumentally corrupt and incompetent — and most civil authority rests with tribal councils and warlords. In fact, it’s probably misleading to call Afghanistan a country; it’s never had much national government. For the past 40 years, the place has been ravaged by war. “To rebuild a country like that would take 30 or 40 years of patient, tolerant investment,” Stewart notes — and even then the result would probably be closer to a state like Pakistan, which is hardly a shining example of democracy (and is, in fact, more of a threat to our security).

So why, exactly, is the United States still there — and what possible reason could Obama have for expanding the war effort, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars that are badly needed back home to create jobs and stabilize the economy? It’s the worst mistake of his presidency and the worst threat to his legacy and the U.S. national security and any hope of brining the U.S. back into a leadership role in creating a more peaceful and stable world.

As Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the U.K. Guardian noted Nov. 17, “If militarism wins and Obama commences a 10-year battle over the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, it will spell the end of America’s status as cold war victor and putative world policeman. The complex will have him trapped. The Taliban will have him cornered, as will bin Laden. America’s democratic leadership will have been pitted against American militarism — an informal component of the republic since the founding fathers — and will have capitulated.”

The antiwar movement needs to come back to life, quickly, on every level and every front, to demand a reversal of this misguided policy, a quick withdrawl of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan and an end to decades of failed military and foreign policy. And that movement can and should start in San Francisco, bringing pressure on Rep. Nancy Pelosi not to fund the Afghanistan war and giving support to the antiwar Democrats who will have trouble opposing the Democratic president.

This city, and this newspaper, have opposed foolish military adventures in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq. It’s time to start beating the drums again: U.S. out of Afghanistan!

PS: The Nation has a stunning report in its Nov. 30 edition on how U.S. contractors are paying off the Taliban to protect military shipments through the country. That’s a major source of income to the fundamentalists. In other words, U.S. tax dollars are funding the U.S. enemy. That’s how screwed up this war is.