The veterans of the Afghan war testified yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about a seven-year conflict that has attracted little debate, even as President Obama sends reinforcements to take on the Taliban.
The hearing took place as instability in Afghanistan spreads through neighboring Pakistan, and a day after the 38th anniversary of committee Chairman John F. Kerry’s testimony – as a Vietnam veteran – against that war in 1971.
Yesterday, the young veterans offered a sobering picture of the failures of US policy, but none advocated a complete withdrawal.
However, one veteran – Rick Reyes, a former corporal in the US Marines – called Obama’s decision to send 17,000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan “a mistake.”
“At a minimum, this occupation needs to be rethought,” he said.
Reyes, who was among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said he arrested Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism suspects in their homes based on tips by paid informants.
“Almost 100 percent of the time, we would find that the suspected terrorists were just innocent civilians,” he said. “We began to feel we were chasing ghosts. How can you tell the difference between members of the Taliban from Afghan civilians? The answer is: You can’t.”
In his written testimony, Reyes said he and his fellow Marines sometimes broke “hands, arms, legs” and wrecked homes during their midnight raids. But he did not describe these incidents to the committee yesterday, saying later that he did not want to distract from his message of opposition to a troop increase.
However, three other Afghan veterans argued passionately for a stepped-up US commitment, saying the mission could be saved by more troops and smarter tactics.
Westley Moore, a former Army captain who led a program that persuaded moderate Taliban to pledge allegiance to the new Afghan government, called the 17,000 additional troops “a paltry number” compared with what is required to protect the population in the rural areas.
“We are underfunded and undermanned in Afghanistan,” he told the senators. “We asked two brigades to have coverage over a 1,600-mile area that is . . . the most dangerous terrain in the world.” Moore said it would send the wrong message to the world if the United States were to simply leave.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday hosted a hearing of compelling politics and historical parallels, as an Afghan war veteran offered critical testimony of that war in front of a committee chairman who had done the same during Vietnam.
The similarities between the situation that retired Marine Corporal Rick Reyes finds himself in today and that which confronted Sen. John Kerry in April 1971 are obvious. At 28 and a few years removed from combat, Reyes has chosen to go public with reservations about the scope and direction of the military strategy his government is pursuing in a difficult terrain. Having supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election, he now is deeply skeptical about the president’s decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
“We were basically destroying innocent lives and creating more enemies,” he said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “That is exactly what is happening. The escalation and occupation in Afghanistan is counterproductive to what we want to accomplish and the Senate and the president should to rethink Afghanistan.”
Nearly 38 years earlier, John Forbes Kerry was in a similar spot. Called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the three-time recipient of the Purple Heart declared that an “attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy.”
It was a scathing rebuke from an experienced soldier, one that thrust Kerry into the political spotlight. And, as the cause-and-effect of history goes, it led in a way to his current position as chair of the foreign relations where he oversaw Thursday’s “Afghanistan War Experiences” hearing and Reyes’ testimony.
Afghanistan now and Vietnam then, of course, are different theaters. When Kerry returned home from the latter in 1969, more than 540,000 U.S. troops were still deployed and some 33,400 had been killed. Today there are roughly 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where U.S. fatalities have been under 700. Politically, as well, Vietnam was far more toxic than Afghanistan, which remains a largely accepted foreign policy venture for the United States. Several of Reye’s co-panelists, indeed, warned against an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, defining the mission as winnable.
Robert Greenwald’s project proposes to rethink the whole conflict. The film is being released in real-time and online.
Robert Greenwald was in Kabul last week, shooting the third part of his “real-time documentary,” Rethink Afghanistan at the same time that U.S. president Barack Obama, was announcing his new plans to deal with the conflict in that country.
“The people were really worried that the U.S. would continue military action and policies toward Afghanistan. The problem in Afghanistan is not a military one, it is political, ideological, and people want solutions that go beyond the sending of more troops,” says Greenwald, in a telephone interview.
According to him, Afghans are delighted at the election of Obama for President, they are hopeful that the U.S. will help with teachers, hospitals but not with armed people.
He remains optimist, though. “Obama was elected as a change leader. We witness a No to Vietnam, a No to Iraq and a NO to military options for Afghanistan, since they resolve nothing. An alternative non-military solution would be the real change we expect from the president. He is intelligent and has good advisors, with time we will see the expected change.”
On Friday, President Barack Obama outlined his administration’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan calling the situation there “perilous.” In a White House address before an audience of troops and diplomats heading for Afghanistan, Obama unequivocally defined the goal of the U.S. as “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their return to either country in the future.” Warning that the terrorist group was still planning attacks on the U.S. from a haven situated along the border between the two countries, President Obama announced that 4,000 more troops will be sent to Afghanistan in addition to the long-proposed 17,000 troop surge. Their stated objective will be to train and double the size of the Afghan police and army forces. Obama’s speech switching the military focus away from Iraq to Afghanistan prompted numerous and immediate responses. Amid allegations of corruption in his government, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Obama’s strategy “will bring Afghanistan and the international community closer to success.” Not everyone has such optimism, however. Former Democratic Congressman Tom Andrews now National Director of Win Without War, stated that the new course for the U.S. in Afghanistan “takes a significant step toward a perilous quagmire.”
GUESTS: David Harris, former editor at the New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, author of severl books including “The Crisis: The President, the Prophet and the Shah — 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam.” Robert Greenwald, documentary producer, director and founder of Brave New Films
Learn more at www.rethinkafghanistan.com.
President Obama wants to dial down in Iraq and up the ante in Afghanistan. His plan to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan is meeting increasing resistance from his liberal supporters at home and skepticism from some allies. Is there a better strategy? What alternatives has the President considered? What is the military objective? What is the exit strategy? Does history prove that Afghanistan cannot be tamed? Lawrence O’Donnell guest hosts. Also, the administration calls for expanded oversight power of financial system, and how some of California’s homeless became TV talk show celebrities.
By Brian Stelter at New York Times
The activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald has tried for years to speed up the production process for his documentaries. Now, he says, he is creating one he can release almost immediately, in stages.
Mr. Greenwald is showing “Rethink Afghanistan,” a skeptical view of America’s war strategies, in five parts on the Internet, with the implied hope that it will contribute to the foreign policy debate. With the first two parts of the film already online, he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday to conduct more interviews for what he calls his first “real-time documentary.”
Mr. Greenwald is well known in some progressive circles for his films about war profiteers, Wal-Mart’s corporate practices, and the Fox News Channel. His company, Brave New Films, uses documentary expertise to mount political campaigns, including a YouTube series last year about John McCain and what the company called “the politics of hate.”
WASHINGTON – Barack Obama built his career on opposing the Iraq war but now, as president, is poised for a politically perilous effort to pitch the United States deeper into another conflict, in Afghanistan.
Beset by the worst economic crisis in generations and rising diplomatic challenges, Obama is set within days to unveil an overhaul of strategy for a war that has no end in sight after seven years.
Expected plans to boost civilian aid to Afghanistan, woo moderate insurgents and expand the Afghan army will likely attract strong political support.
But the question of sending more troops to war is more controversial and the public’s long-term backing may depend on Obama making the sale.
“I am not opposed to all wars, I’m opposed to dumb wars,” Obama said in his famous 2002 speech against the looming Iraq war.
To convince all Americans that the Afghan conflict is a smart war, he must make the case that the conflict remains vital to US security and establish clear combat goals.
Americans are weary of the six-year war in Iraq, and Obama’s campaign vow to bring troops home was a significant factor in his defeat of Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and Republican foe John McCain last year.
Polls show Obama’s current popularity gives him the leverage to increase US involvement in Afghanistan, but reveal that support for the war may be soft and prone to erosion if the new strategy fails.
Sixty-three percent of those questioned last month in a CNN/Opinion Research poll supported sending more troops to Afghanistan.
But only 47 percent supported the war and 51 percent were against.
In a USA Today/Gallup poll, this month, 42 percent said it had been a mistake to send US forces to Afghanistan to chase Al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the September 11 attacks in 2001, up from 30 percent a month ago.
A Quinnipiac University poll found significant support — 62-31 percent for Obama’s recent decision to sign off on a 17,000 troop increase in Afghanistan, but the idea of sending 13,000 more only drew 47 to 43 percent support.
“It is reasonable to say that support for an increased build up for Afghanistan is soft,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac polling institute.
Pollsters say Obama’s personal popularity may be inflating backing for his Afghan strategy, and support for the war may flag should the president’s approval ratings diminish.
Despite what most of the mainstream media would have you believe, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll revealed that more Americans want troop levels in Afghanistan to remain the same or decrease rather than to grow. It’s time for Congress do its job representing the people by taking a hard look at this war before committing more treasure and lives to it — and before President Obama’s ambitious progressive agenda at home is sacrificed to another quagmire.
With President Obama already announcing his intention to send 17,000 more troops — even before his review of Afghanistan is complete — this is a moment when we need public hearings in order to change course and focus on diplomacy, an international rather than NATO-led effort, and rebuilding Afghanistan. At a time when we face historic economic challenges at home and the need to repair our tarnished image abroad, there are some encouraging signs that — this time around — members of Congress won’t simply follow the drumbeat for war.
One of those signs is the new Congressional Progressive Caucus Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force initiated by caucus Co-Chair Raúl M. Grijalva. Beginning this month, the task force will host a series of six forums that address the many issues involved in Afghanistan policy, including: Afghan history; US strategic interests; regional and international influences; role of the military; and a comprehensive plan. Although topics will be explored from a progressive perspective “each panel or forum is about education, about laying out a range of options; not promoting a predetermined agenda.” The task force will use these forums — which will be open to the public — to craft a policy recommendation for the entire caucus (the largest caucus in Congress). Stay tuned for a detailed schedule by the end of next week.
Also, CPC member Rep. John Tierney has already taken the initiative to raise tough questions as Chair of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. Tierney held a hearing on “Afghanistan and Pakistan: Understanding a Complex Threat Environment” which included testimony from Paul Pillar, former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. (You might recall Pillar for shedding light on cherry-picked intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War.) Tierney and Pillar both asked whether it’s in our national security interest to send more troops to Afghanistan to prevent a safe haven for Al Qaeda when it already has one in Pakistan and could easily establish them in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Algiers, etc.?
Senator Russ Feingold has also been clear and outspoken in laying out why we must not repeat the mistake of rushing to escalate in Afghanistan. Recently, he e-mailed campaign supporters to again express his concern. He linked to his strong Christian Science Monitor op-ed in which he writes: “Few people seem willing to ask whether the main solution that’s being talked about– sending more troops to Afghanistan – will actually work.”