Feinstein gets box of toy soldiers, as Obama prepares to announce troop draw down

Pub date June 20, 2011
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionPolitics Blog

As Obama prepares to announce a troop drawdown this week, Peace Action West’s political director Rebecca Griffin delivered a box of thousands of toy soldiers, each attached to a petition for a swift withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan, to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office on Monday afternoon. Unlike many Democratic senators, Feinstein has not publicly demanded a rapid drawdown.

Griffin said the goal of collecting the messages, attaching them to toy soldiers and delivering them to Feinstein was to draw attention to the organizing that is happening to end the war, which reportedly is costing $2 billion a week. Many of the messages attached to the soldiers came from folks with family in the military.

A representative from Feinstein’s office accepted the delivery in the foyer of the Post Street building where Feinstein’s office is located. But Feinstein continues to support deferring draw down timetables to Gen. David Petraeus, based on comments she made on MSNBC that her press secretary Tom Mentzer referred the Guardian to on Monday, when we asked if Feinstein supports a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, what Obama should do, perhaps this week, when he makes a decision as to how quickly to draw down, Feinstein said Monday that she had had a brief discussion with Petraeus. [Obama nominated Petraeus last June to succeed General Stanley McChrystal, after McChrystal was fired for comments he made to Rolling Stone magazine, which included dismissing the counter terrorism strategy that Vice President Joe Biden was advocating as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan” and showing a lack of respect for civilian leadership. Petraeus intends to retire in September, and Obama plans to nominate him as the next CIA director.]

“What General Petraeus said is, ‘Look, I will give him several options. I may make a recommendation. And then the President will decide,’” Feinstein told MSNBC. “My own view is that this right now is a primarily—should be a military decision.”

Feinstein noted that she is bothered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reaction. [Presumably, Feinstein was referring to comments Karzai made on the weekend, when he stated that the Nato-led coalition forces are “here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.” Last month, Karzai threatened to denounce the coalition as occupiers if they did not stop attacks on Afghan homes, after an airstrike killed civilians, many of them children.]

“I’m really very bothered by President Karzai’s reaction to it,” Feinstein told MSNBC. “That is negative to our troops over there. You know, our people have died essentially so that his country might be secure. I think this is a real problem: to have a President of a country that you are trying to help to stabilize, to get rid of al Qaeda, to see the Taliban doesn’t take over the country, and to receive a comment like that from the President of the country. But I think the President will make a decision—we can all guess, but none of us really know—to begin removing the troops. How big, I can’t say.”

Feinstein’s comments came shortly after Obama’s Sec of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that the U.S is negotiating with the Taliban—an acknowledgement that only came after President Karzai publicly said that the US is in talks with the Taliban.

Asked if she’d like to see a more rapid withdrawal than the 5,000 troops originally suggested, and if she thought with Osama bin Laden’s recent death, and with al Qaeda diminished in Afghanistan, there’s a justification to begin drawing down more rapidly, Feinstein said, “There is a justification,” but she left viewers with a question.

“I don’t want to see what has been a turnaround, in the words of Petraeus, ‘still fragile’ destroyed,” Feinstein said. “I think there have been major inroads made in Afghanistan. Particularly in the south and now the plan is to go east. So that to me is the crux of the decision. How do you begin a significant rollback of troops without destroying the forward momentum that has been made by the surge?”

It’s been 18 months since Obama first ordered a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. And even if he withdraws the surge, there would still be about 70,000 American troops on the ground. And according to the Department of Defense’s website, there are currently 1.425 million active service members in the U.S. military.

Those statistics brings us back to Peace Action West’s Rebecca Grifffin, who noted during Monday’s action that because there is no draft, there is more of a disconnect from and less of an outcry about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then there was about Vietnam. “Because there is no longer a draft, the public is not as touched, as they were by Vietnam,” she said.

As of Dec. 2010, there were 103,700 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, according to DoD numbers. This means Obama has sent an additional 72,300 soldiers to Afghanistan since Dec. 2008, when Bush left office. Obama has significantly reduced troop levels in Iraq—drawing down their numbers from 178,300 in Dec. 2008 to 85,600 in Dec. 2010—but though there is a large military presence still in place, folks are fretting about the safety of those remaining troops as they try to pack up and leave Iraq in the coming years.

So far, there have been 4,408 military deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began March 19, 2003, 36 military deaths in Iraq’s Operation New Dawn, which began Sept. 1, 2010, and 1,590 deaths in Afghanistan’s Operation Enduring Freedom, which began Oct. 7, 2001.

That’s 6.034 deaths in total–a huge loss in terms of the families and communities that have been impacted by these soldiers’ deaths.

And then there are the 11,722 soldiers who were wounded in Afghanistan, the 31, 928, wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the 172 wounded in Iraq’s Operation New Dawn, And that’s not factoring in the impact and cost of dealing—and not dealing–with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 50,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars received a new PTSD diagnosis between 2002 and 2008, but fewer than 10-30 percent, particularly under 25-year-old males, completed a course of treatment sessions.

So, members of Congress are increasingly hearing from their constituents about the impacts of soldiers who were killed, maimed and/or are suffering from PTSD, especially as the recession threatens to translates into cuts to benefits and programs for veterans. And following the May 1 U.S. raid that led to Osama bin Laden being killed in Pakistan, there has been a big uptick in congressional support for a withdrawal, according to Griffin who spends a fair amount of time in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of people are using the raid as their starting point,’ Griffin said, pointing to the House of Representatives May 26 vote, where a measure which would have required Obama to develop an exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan with a clear end date and report back to Congress, only narrowly failed, winning 42 more votes than a similar amendment last year, and with a score of Republicans siding with the Democrats.

And in mid- June 16, a bipartisan group of senators wrote Obama, urging him to use his self-imposed July troop draw down deadline as an opportunity to begin a “sizable and sustained” draw down of troops that puts the U.S. on a path toward removing all regular combat troops from the country. But while a third of the Senate spoke out in that letter, and its signatories included Dem leaders Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Barbara Boxer, and a host of moderate Democrats and Republicans, it did not include Feinstein.

U.S. military officials have voiced concern that a rapid withdrawal of troops could undercut gains in southern Afghanistan, a traditional Taliban stronghold. And Feinstein certainly seems to share those worries. “It took 10 years and for the first time we now have a turnaround,” Feinstein, who is the Chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, told reporters earlier this month. “I would like to not telescope what we are going to do; wait and see a little bit more about what happens. I think it’s important candidly to keep all our options open.”

In face of comments like this, Griffin and Peace Action West’s field organizers have spent the last two months collecting toy soldiers and messages to attach to them, with the help of an online outreach effort that they launched in May.“Part of it is to create a physical reminder of the public’s opposition to war. People talk about wanting their family members to come home, Griffin said, pointing to the handwritten messages that are attached to each toy soldiers. “Some politicians are saying, ‘Give them a little more time.’ But the casualties are going up each month, and last month was the deadliest for Afghan civilians on record. So, while Defense Secretary Gates, who is very invested in his counter insurgent strategy, is doing his farewell tour, the troops are asking, do we get to come home sooner because Osama bin Laden is dead?”

Griffin observed that DoD statistics show that double and triple amputations due to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) have increased, and that PTSD levels continue to rise as veterans return, yet it’s not clear that at-risk veterans are getting the help they need.

“There’s been a perception shift about Afghanistan,” Griffin continued, noting that it’s been going on for almost a decade, and that pressure from the public and Congress will make it more difficult for Obama to not follow suit.

But while Griffin is clearly against the war in Afghanistan, she believes there are alternative ways for the U.S. to be productively engaged. These include playing a role in regional diplomacy with Iran, Russia and Iraq, helping facilitate political negotiations with Afghan, and partnering with the Afghan people on development projects that help.

“But that does not include giving money to the military to build stuff because then it becomes a Taliban target,” Griffin explained.

Noting that Sen. Boxer has suggested drawing down the troops by 30,000 and Congressmember Barbara Lee has advocated reducing the troops by 50,000, Griffin believes that Obama’s July decision is very important in terms of setting the debate about when we are going to get out of Afghanistan entirely.

‘Will it be 2014, or much longer?” Griffin asked.

She believes the coming election season will help tip the balance, especially since recent polls show the American public supports a troop withdrawal, especially in the wake of the Osama raid. “But if there aren’t strong actions, it will fester and will risk getting bogged down,” she said, warning folks that they also focus on making sure that reduced military budgets don’t translate into cuts to veterans benefits and pay. “

A lot of people who are uncomfortable with what’s going on, don’t know what to do,” Griffin said, explaining that she is looking for people who want to end the war, and is urging them to visit Peace Action West’s website to learn about things that they can do,that they feel comfortable with. “We want people to know that even though it might seem hopeless, there’s a lot they can do.”

And with that Griffin shared with me a list of some of the reasons Californians gave when asked why they want to end the war:

“My nephew wants to come home.”

“I want my friend to be able to raise his son.”

“My ex-boyfriend never came back alive from Iraq. He was even against the war. And America is generally unhappy (to be mild) about our ‘fight’ still going on.”

“I want my legs back.”

“I have a good friend who is just back from Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD. He is 22 years old. Stop doing this to young people.”

“If we can’t afford Medicare, then we can’t afford bombs.”

“Because my brother has been deployed several times and he has a family at home.”

“Stop because my son is in there for six years.”

“My brother has been to Iraq three times. The first time he was in the army for six months. We train football players longer than that.”

“My 21-year-old grandson was just sent with his army unit to the front lines in Afghanistan. Every day we wonder if he will come home alive and uninjured. And for what? Why does the U.S. have to police the entire world?”

All good questions and reasons as Obama prepares to tell the nation how many soldiers he plans to withdraw in July–and when the rest of them and their families can expect to see them come home….