Foreign policy is a tough mess of an issue—and a distant one at that. As a college student, it is so easy for me (perhaps more than others) to think so self-centeredly. I am in the middle of spending thousands of dollars on my education, I have to figure out what I want to do with that education, how I might pay it all off—the list goes on. What I have realized however is that I cannot afford to forget about the harsh realities beyond the American microcosm I call life. Brave New Films has launched a “Rethink Afghanistan” campaign that is zeroing in one of—if not the most pressing—of such issues.
President Obama made it clear that bringing the Iraq War to an end was essential to aide America in nation-building both socially and economically. However, his plan to send over 20,000 to Afghanistan could have serious reparations. Furthermore, this would seem like a considerable step away from the original game plan we all heard so much about during campaign season. Ending “the war on terror” is going to take more than renaming it; serious action needs to follow suit.
But even that action needs to be ignited by a larger group of informed and insistent citizens, including students like myself—who, from what I could tell on election night, were hopeful and empowered by Obama’s victory. If we really respect what this administration sets out to do, we all need to hold it accountable.
I would like to strongly urge policy makers to rethink Afghanistan. Currently we have a unique and rare opportunity to change the negative view that much of the world has on us and possibly change our reputation from that of warmongers and profiteers to promoters of peace. In what way will continued Military action help to bring peace on an international level? Violence begets violence so let us not continue along such a path but instead take advantage of the opportunity for real change on a global level and let us be innovators of peace instead.
What happens when you have an administration that doesn’t release its benchmarks for tracking military escalation in a foreign country? What happens when congressional leaders won’t exercise oversight to hold the administration accountable, or compel them to explain to the rest of us what the hell is going on? They all become prey to Pentagon demands, widespread criticism, and waning public support. This is exactly what we’re seeing right now with the war in Afghanistan.
President Obama promised to establish benchmarks by which his plan for Afghanistan could be measured, but so far the administration has refused to issue any information regarding these metrics. As The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss reported yesterday, the lack of benchmarks led Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) to ridicule the administration while speaking at the neocon Foreign Policy Initiative summit. It also prompted Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations to slam Senators John Kerry and Carl Levin for failing to demand benchmarks from Obama after they led the metrics charge during President Bush’s surge in Iraq.
The reason the administration hasn’t released benchmarks, it seems, is that it hasn’t created them yet. According to McClatchy, “Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said the administration hasn’t yet developed benchmarks to measure progress, but she predicted high human and financial costs for the U.S. in the campaign against Islamic militants in the two countries.” Meanwhile, Gen. David Petraeus told Congress he wants 10,000 more troops in addition to the 21,000 Obama has already pledged. As Steve Hynd as Newshoggers said, this amounts to “metric-free mission creep.”
I’m curious to know what Afghanistan David Brooks visited? The deeply conservative NY Times columnist wrote about his recent trip to Afghanistan last weekend, making these sweeping generalizations that Afghans are “warm and welcoming” of our ever-increasing military presence; that the US military is “well through the screwing-up phase of our operation”; coalition forces are learning quickly; aid agencies have no chance until the military kills all the “bad guys”; Afghan leadership is improving; and that 17,000 troops indicate the US is “finally taking this war seriously.” Either Brooks spent all his time hanging out with military leaders or there’s a whole crisis he’s deliberately trying to downplay.
What war Brooks thinks we can win with 17,000 troops is anyone’s guess. As I’ve written before, most foreign policy experts agree that 17,000 troops will be insufficient to achieve stability in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich, for instance, said 17,000 “hardly amounts to more than a drop in the bucket.” But if Brooks disagrees with critics on the left who claim the Obama administration is simply rehashing the Iraq surge strategy, what about voices on the right like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who claim the only way to bring about “success” in Afghanistan (as they define it) is through an all-out war that requires a massive, long-term military commitment?
As Afghanistan experts in NGOs which actually work among the people frantically try to tell Obama that he is making a big, big, mistake, the arrival of the first of 17,000 more American troops has already borne fruit. It has managed to unite different factions of Taliban under the banner of Mullah Omar, who a month ago was wondering how to stay alive day-to-day against Predator strikes on one hand and radical young Taliban commanders who would like to take his place on the other. Obama single-handedly solved many of his problems. The UK Guardian:
three rival Pakistani Taliban groups have agreed to fight together against international troops in Afghanistan. The pact occurred after Mullah Omar, the cleric who leads the Afghan Taliban, called for all militants fighting in Pakistan to stop and come to Afghanistan to “liberate Afghanistan from the occupation forces.” The united group is calling itself Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen, or Council of United Holy Warriors.
Most of the “Taliban” rank-and-file in Afghanistan currently consists of 19-year-old kids who stash their weapons under rocks until some Americans come around, which gives them the chance to fight and make a few bucks.
The Obama plan is missing the forest for the trees, as do almost all present discussions of the insurgency. The West cannot understand that you cannot have 50% of children stunted through malnutrition, a 40% unemployment rate, no alternative to growing poppies as a means to feed your family, and foreign troops on the ground as a nice big red flag and not have an insurgency.
After the Bush administration went to war based on charges of WMD programs that were later found to have been nonexistent, you would think there would be a strong demand for a thorough examination of the strategic rationale the next time an administration proposes a new war or a major escalation of an existing one.
Yet there has been no public examination of the Obama administration strategic argument that the United States must do whatever is necessary in Afghanistan to ensure that al Qaeda cannot have a safe haven there. The assumption seems to be that that there is no need to inquire about the soundness of that premise, because al Qaeda planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.
But the rationale for U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan that seemed obvious in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks no longer applies today. Osama bin Laden and the central al Qaeda organization left Afghanistan in late 2001 for Pakistan, where they have now established an even more secure base than they had in Afghanistan, thanks to the strong organization of Islamic militants in the Northwest tribal region of Pakistan. So the real al Qaeda safe haven problem is not about Afghanistan but about Pakistan.
It’s time, as a start, to stop calling our expanding war in Central and South Asia “the Afghan War” or “the Afghanistan War.” If Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke doesn’t want to, why should we? Recently, in a BBC interview, he insisted that “the ‘number one problem’ in stabilizing Afghanistan was Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan, including tribal areas along the Afghan border and cities like Quetta” in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
And isn’t he right? After all, the U.S. seems to be in the process of trading in a limited war in a mountainous, poverty-stricken country of 27 million people for one in an advanced nation of 167 million, with a crumbling economy, rising extremism, advancing corruption, and a large military armed with nuclear weapons. Worse yet, the war in Pakistan seems to be expanding inexorably (and in tandem with American war planning) from the tribal borderlands ever closer to the heart of the country.
These days, Washington has even come up with a neologism for the change: “Af-Pak,” as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations. So, in the name of realism and accuracy, shouldn’t we retire “the Afghan War” and begin talking about the far more disturbing “Af-Pak War”?
One day back from my trip to Afghanistan, and I first want to thank so many of you who sent wonderful messages, encouragement, and suggestions. Being in a dark room in Kabul while being able to post on Facebook and Twitter truly speaks to the connected universe.
The final day in Kabul: We were on our way to the peace and reconciliation committee when our “fixer” (that is the official name of the person who translates and helps arrange interviews, accommodations, and security) let me know that there would be 20 or so members of the Taliban turning in their weapons that day! I almost jumped out of my seat, which is relatively simple because virtually none of the roads are paved and so the bumps are big and continuous.
When we arrived, sitting in the courtyard were 20 or more men, their weapons lined up against the wall. I conducted an abbreviated interview with the head of the committee, then raced with cameramen to begin talking and interviewing the Taliban. Within a few minutes I was engaged in interviewing, talking, and asking the various Taliban how long they had been fighting (from 2-30 years), why they fought, what they wanted to say to the United States, and what they wanted in general (jobs and to take care of their families).
As we raced to the airport after the interviews, I emailed our Producer Jason Zaro to find a translator who could work this weekend so we could get the interviews translated and begin editing Monday.
At the airport in Kabul I met Nazir, who had found me through Facebook/Twitter. He had film of the refugee camps that he wanted me to have. Sitting in the general waiting area, surrounded by many Afghans waiting for flights, Nazir popped a DVD of his footage into my computer, and proceeded to show me deeply dramatic faces of “collateral damage”: children, tents, hunger, deprivation.
With both the video of the Taliban interviews and the DVD of the refugee camp, I boarded my plane back to the States. I will be posting clips as we edit and get them translated in the coming days. You will be able to see them on Facebook, Brave New Films, the Rethink Afghanistan website.
17,000 or 21,000 more US troops will not protect Americans against Al Qaeda attacks.
The Obama plan instead will accelerate any plans Al Qaeda commanders have for attacking targets in the United States or Europe. The alternative for Al Qaeda is to risk complete destruction, an American objective that has not been achieved for eight years. A terrorist attack need not be planned or set in motion from a cave in Waziristan. The cadre could already be underground in Washington or London. The real alternative for President Obama should be to maintain a deterrent posture while immediately accelerating diplomacy to meet legitimate Muslim goals, from a Palestinian state to genuine progress on Kashmir.
President Obama is right, at least politically, to take very seriously the threat of another 9/11 from any source. Besides the suffering inflicted, it would derail his agenda and perhaps his presidency. This is all the more reason he must understand that by repeatedly threatening to “kill Al Qaeda” he is provoking a hornets’ nest without protection against a devastating sting.
Rethink Afghanistan Director Robert Greenwald is currently in Kabul. Here is his account of the intense security:
It’s hard to put into words many things about Kabul, where I’ve been interviewing members of the Afghan parliament, women’s advocacy groups, and former Taliban members who want to negotiate peace.
One of the most sobering things I’ve seen is how security takes over your daily life, and this footage of the front of the hotel tells it all. Guards with machine guns patrol everywhere–the face of a conflict brought home.