Veterans of the war in Afghanistan offered divergent views on the so-called “long war” Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The veterans — three soldiers and a Marine — shared their experiences on the ground and debated the merits of President Barack Obama’s plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan while drawing down forces in Iraq.
The hearing, chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., came almost 38 years to the day after Kerry famously testified before the same committee against the Vietnam War. He acknowledged the similarities between the two conflicts, but underscored the need for lawmakers to hear from today’s combat veterans.
“History proves that soldiers on the ground have intimate knowledge that is vital to their commanders and to us as policymakers,” he said. “Our job this morning is to listen and learn from your perspective.”
Each of the soldiers endorsed the troop buildup in Afghanistan, saying it offers a chance to fix some of the strategic and tactical mistakes of the past.
“I realize that many of the goals that we set for ourselves at the onset of the war may no longer be fully achievable, but we must try to stabilize and secure Afghanistan before it slips further into violence,” said former Army Staff Sgt. Christopher McGurk, who served in eastern part of the country in 2003.
WASHINGTON (AFP) — As fresh US troop reinforcements prepare to deploy to Afghanistan, veterans of the war Thursday decried past mistakes and warned the conflict cannot be solved by military means alone.
“By the time I left Afghanistan, I felt that the US being there was a big mistake,” retired US Marines corporal Rick Reyes told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I feel strongly that military intervention is not the answer.”
His comments echoed congressional testimony given by committee chairman John Kerry as a Vietnam War veteran in 1971, when he had famously asked: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Now as then, veterans voiced their reservations about the already costly and protracted conflict in Afghanistan, although they argued against a rapid withdrawal of troops.
“If we leave without providing the security, propping up the government, propping the local villages and the people that are there, giving them some sense of structure, some sense of stability and security, then we will be back,” said Genevieve Chase, a retired US Army Reserve sergeant.
“If we don’t do this now, we will be back.”
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States provided financial and military backing to Muhajedeen Islamist fighters, but withdrew its involvement after Soviet forces left the country. The vacuum helped bring the Taliban to power.
Reyes blasted US President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as “a big mistake.” Some 40,000 US troops are already in the country with about 32,000 other foreign allied forces deployed under NATO authority.
“At a minimum, this occupation needs to be rethought,” Reyes said.
But three other Afghanistan veterans argued for more US commitment to the conflict.
“We are underfunded and undermanned in Afghanistan,” retired US Army captain Westley Moore told the Senate panel.
But he also stressed the importance of more non-military aspects of the US strategy.
“If we increase security aspects … then we can actually start allocating more resources to make not only Afghanistan not a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, but also provide the security and safety and the future for the Afghan people,” he said.
Former army staff sergeant Christopher McGurk recalled the dying moments of 19-year-old Evan O’Neill, who apologized for not completing the mission after being shot near the Pakistani border.
“My own anger and sense of betrayal comes from the possibility that we may not come to a resolution in Afghanistan and that the blood that has been shed by the victims of 9/11, the Afghan people and men like O’Neill would be in vain,” McGurk said.
Republican lawmakers expressed skepticism about Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan, which focuses on rooting out Al-Qaeda, boosts civilian efforts to rebuild the impoverished country and places nuclear-armed Pakistan at the center of the fight.
“I have no idea what it is, other than sending additional troops,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker. “I hope we dig a lot deeper.”
Some Democrats also showed concern about the plan.
“The escalation may further destabilize the situation in Afghanistan to the detriment of US security,” said Senator Russ Feingold.
“We may be sending our troops in the eye of the storm without addressing the greatest threat to our security, which lies on the Pakistani side of the border.”
Kerry acknowledged that “there is much still to be done in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Kerry drew an analogy between the war in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War.
“Once again, we are fighting an insurgency in a rural country with a weak central government. Our enemy blends in with the local population and easily crosses a long border to find sanctuary in a neighboring country,” said Kerry.
“We ignore these similarities at our peril.”
Sadly, I’m working on other things, but I’m listening to the livestream of an extremely powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring Afghanistan veterans criticizing the continued war in Afghanistan. Marine Cpl. Rick Reyes denounced the “occupation” of Afghanistan, a policy that he said “forced [me] to become a tyrant,” since he was unable to determine who was a civilian and who was an insurgent. “At a minimum, this occupation needs to be rethought,” Reyes said, as does “sending more troops” to Afghanistan. Not all of his fellow veterans go so far — some, like U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher McGurk are critical of U.S. efforts so far, but contend that U.S. interests compel a deepened commitment to Afghanistan.
I don’t want to say too much about something I’m not fully covering and listening to as a background priority. When I have the statements of Reyes and his colleagues — not all went as far as he did — I’ll write more. But three points really stand out.
First, this is the most prominent forum yet given to forthright critiques of the Afghanistan war, let alone critiques that inch up to the boundary of saying the war is lost. Second, critiques like Reyes are directly reminiscent of the critique delivered to the committee in 1971 by Vietnam veteran and now-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who held today’s hearing as the committee’s chairman. Andrew Bacevich, the Boston University international affairs professor, called the lacunae between resources and strategy in Afghanistan “comparable” to the Vietnam strategy denounced by “a young John Kerry.” (Al Qaeda is a “religiously motivated mafia” that needs to be dealt with by a “sustained, multilateral police effort,” he said, not by a “Long War.”)
Third, while this remains to be seen, the country is facing a test — not just with taking these veterans’ critiques seriously, to inform what U.S. strategy in Afghanistan/Pakistan needs to be, but not to repeat what was done to Kerry in the 1970s. That is, smearing him as a traitor to his fellow veterans by speaking out against an ill-considered war. These veterans are pushing the country’s discourse on Afghanistan into a difficult and uncomfortable area. It would be unconscionable for anyone to attack them for doing such a brave thing.
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.