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Speaking of Afghanistan . . .

By Chris Black at New York Times

When the Obama administration last week rolled out its new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, it competed for media coverage with White House gate crashers and Tiger Wood’s indiscretions, along with the Senate debate on health care reform, its more worthy and relevant adversary for our attention.

The usual suspects weighed in from the right: former Vice President Dick Cheney warned anew of the wages of weakness, and Rush Limbaugh could discern only marginal relief from the long weeks of “dithering”.

But where was the left? Conspicuous in its absence has been protest over the surge from much of the antiwar movement. Whether from reluctance to challenge the president they supported, or perhaps wanting to trust in his judgment, and possibly short on resources to devote to world affairs in the current economic climate, there was not much push back from that quarter.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking and talking about it. A dozen or so members and guests of the local group “Essex County For Change” gathered to do just that on Sunday, in the South Orange living room of a couple whose children were out for the afternoon.

They met for a few hours to try to figure out what the surge is likely to accomplish, and how to respond, as an organization and individually. The discussions occurred after watching segments of Robert Greenwald’s film “Rethink Afghanistan” (which can be streamed free). The film itself presents little new material, but is organized into six different aspects of the Afghan war and its consequences, showing video clips and interviews with familiar figures like Andrew Bacevitch, Linda Bilmes, and Matthew Hoh.

The questions, developed by the group’s discussions after viewing each segment, illustrate the complexity of the Afghanistan problem, and they reflect a surprising diversity of views among what could be described as a progressive group.

The issue of whether we could do ourselves or the Afghans more harm by leaving than staying led to questions about what we are trying to accomplish, and what is actually possible there. Numbers of troops seemed to matter less than having a clearly defined mission.

Does the corruption of Afghanistan’s central government render long term stabilization of the country unattainable? Is the physical challenge of containing an insurgency in an area encompassing parts of Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, too great for the present troop commitment? How can the stability of Pakistan be factored into our Afghanistan planning, and is a unified approach even possible?

Does India have a dog in this fight? Is what we learned in Iraq applicable in Pashtunistan? Where is the money to pay for all this going to come from?

Consensus eluded the gathering, except that none in the room advocated abrupt unilateral withdrawal of all forces, and everybody wants local Afghan cultures respected rather than simply coerced. Someone observed that the meetings President Obama held before making his decision likely mirrored some of today’s discussion.

Another generally held view among the group is that the world community is skeptical of our stated intentions in Afghanistan. The fiasco resulting from our attacking Iraq, our rendition and torture policies, and the disclosure of huge profits by corporations and individuals are more on the minds of our allies than we might suppose, and makes this mission harder to sell.

The cost of maintaining a soldier in Afghanistan is said to approach a million dollars a year. Where does all that money go? What if it were used to build schools or hospitals in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or even in America?

Greg Mortenson was mentioned at several points during the meeting as an example of how to approach a population you need on your side but don’t understand. He is topical for having worked in the area of focus since the 1990s, and for having gained both the trust of Pashtun villagers, and an understanding of their culture.

On a NPR talk show to promote his recent book “Stones Into Schools”, he described the most basic aspiration of the Pashtun, not as seeking to destroy our way of life but “not to have their babies die, and to have their children go to school.” This past summer, the opening of one of his schools was attended by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, which may indicate more willingness on the part of the military to engage local communities in peaceful ways.

The risks and costs of our foreign policy need to be debated, both in Congress and in living rooms. Sunday’s discussion in my neighbor’s living room included pragmatic acknowledgment of the economic benefits of operating a huge military, including the conduct of this war, though the very discussion of the topic feels vaguely uncomfortable, even unpatriotic.

During tough economic times, while also trying to reform our health care delivery/payment system, such factors need to be analyzed to make reasoned decisions.

The arrival back home of the children signaled adjournment of Sunday’s discussion, but all were in favor of continuing the conversation, possibly in another living room, maybe in a larger forum, co-sponsored with other local groups.