As President Obama and his advisers debate strategy for the Afghanistan war and its related crisis in Pakistan, a factor that so far has not intruded on their discussions is emerging: the antiwar movement is showing signs of strength.
In Congress and around the country, a segment of the progressive movement that helped elect Obama is coalescing around a critique of the eight-year war. That cohort, of unknown size as yet, is skeptical of an open-ended commitment; willing to provide Obama with friendly criticism; unwilling to accede to a second escalation of U.S. troops under the new administration; and searching for an exit strategy. Powerful progressive groups and members of Congress that quietly accepted Obama’s infusion of 21,000 new troops for Afghanistan this spring, however uncomfortably, are finding their footing to oppose the current one, even if they are not yet demanding fixed dates for troop withdrawals. It is unclear what effect they will ultimately have on the debate, but, buoyed by polls demonstrating the war’s unpopularity, they complicate Obama’s decisionmaking.
Progressives are “asking ourselves what we’ve not accomplished in last eight years that we could possibly accomplish over the next eighty,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), a favorite of liberals and an opponent of the Afghanistan war, “and more and more, the answer is: nothing.”
That hope is frustrated by the present debate. For the past two weeks, cabinet-level officials and military commanders have met with the president at the White House to consider whether to continue with an expansive military-led effort in Afghanistan aimed at weakening al-Qaeda’s insurgent allies through bolstering the Afghan government or whether to focus the mission around harassing al-Qaeda directly in its tribal Pakistan safehaven. While officials have stated to reporters that all assumptions are subject to examination, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a joint appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, said withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is not under consideration. That means the baseline resource commitment under discussion is 68,000 U.S. troops, the highest troop deployment America has ever sent to the beleaguered central-Asian country.
Grayson is hardly the only Afghanistan skeptic in Congress, even varieties of congressional skepticism are still inchoate within the Democratic caucus. After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rolled her eyes when her Senate counterpart, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), pledged support for Obama’s ultimate decision. “Whether we agree with it, [and] vote for it, remains to be seen,” she said. Two days later, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), the chief House appropriator, called a counterinsurgency strategy “futile” and expressed doubt that the U.S. could reverse Taliban advances at acceptable cost.
In the Senate, Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) has called for a “flexible timetable” for withdrawal. While the influential Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), remains a supporter of the war, he has balked at a call for a second troop increase this year, preferring to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces instead. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also remains a cautious supporter of the war, although he has backed away from what he once called a “global counterinsurgency” by holding a series of recent hearings in which he raised probing questions about the prospects for successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Late last month, the antiwar movement received an infusion of support from a pillar of the new progressive online infrastructure: MoveOn.org, the progressive netroots organization with over 5 million members, and a staunch ally of Obama’s. Despite staying largely out of the spring debate on escalation, MoveOn, which ardently opposed the Iraq war, began emailing supporters to urge the president to adopt a “clear exit strategy” for Afghanistan, and on Sept. 29, sent out a request to its members to host country-wide screenings for filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s antiwar documentary “Rethink Afghanistan.”
Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s director of political advocacy and communications, explained that the organization’s membership, so far, wanted “to understand what the plan is” in Afghanistan. “Escalation with no exit strategy is all too familiar to them” from the Iraq debate, Hogue said, as are policy prescriptions “ramrodded from hawks outside and inside” an administration. The overall decline in public support for the Afghanistan war is reflective of MoveOn’s supporters, Hogue added. Recent polls have found that only 47 percent of the country thinks the war is worth fighting, and up to 70 percent of Democrats oppose it.
Escalation in Afghanistan comes as an anomaly to many Democrats. Obama on Friday received an unexpected Nobel Peace Prize, yet he campaigned for the presidency on a platform of recommitting to the Afghanistan war and increased troop levels by almost half within weeks of taking office. “One of the reasons [progressives] supported his campaign is because they believe in his multilateral approach to foreign policy issues,” Hogue said, including an increased reliance on diplomacy and a “clear plan on the ground” for the war.
Many of us who marched against the Vietnam War 40 years ago have a terminal case of déjà vu over Afghanistan as we blunder into our ninth year of bombing and occupation. More than 90 percent of U.S. funding there goes to military purposes, and we still aren’t winning hearts or minds. Our Nobel Prize-winning president promised to “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” but so far he has only threatened to escalate our troop level by tens of thousands.
In the film, Greenwald and his team ask Afghans themselves if American troops are making them safer. The answers are no, no, no, a thousand times no.
So thank goodness for documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, a latter-day saint in my book. It took Greenwald 40 years to figure out how to be the activist he was not during Vietnam. But he’s making up for lost time by getting us to rethink what’s going on in Afghanistan.
Greenwald was born into the back end of the Silent Generation, in 1943. Despite being raised in the hot pink sandbox of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he joined a common fraternity for boomers in college—those whose only resistance was to the draft.
Greenwald went on to a successful career in Hollywood, having made more than 50 movies, including a documentary about the 1972 Olympics, 21 Hours in Munich, and The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett. His latent activism didn’t surface until three events coincided: the September 11 attacks, his father’s death, and his own arrival in middle age. “I was very well compensated for my work in commercial film and TV,” says Greenwald. He could afford to take up a mission of social change. He launched Brave New Films in 2006 to make bold documentaries by accepting donations for funding and taking no compensation.
If you follow my seriousish blog at DownWithTyranny with any regularity you probably also know that as a hobby I run a fun travel blog on the side. I ran away from home when I was 13 — hitchhiked to Florida (though I only got as far as the New Jersey Turnpike where I was arrested) — and I’ve been on the road ever since. I lived overseas for almost seven years and I normally spend at least a month out of the U.S. every year — a habit I got into in the late 1970s. Lately I’ve been to Mali and Bali and I’m putting the finishing touches on a trip to Albania. When I write about foreign policy questions I like to think my time abroad informs what I have to say.
There aren’t many members of Congress who have traveled extensively out of the country. In his delightful book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, Rep. Robert Wexler marvels at how many of his Republican colleagues seem to think not possessing a passport is a badge of honor! Last weekend I spent some time with Rep. Barbara Lee who is no longer surprised when she talks with Republicans who haven’t been — and don’t want to be — outside of the U.S. The opposite extreme would be one member who certainly qualifies for the Century Club, Rep. Alan Grayson. When I told him I was going to Mali he was able to give me some travel tips for remote, seldom visited villages like Bandiagara and Sanga, and a few weeks ago he told me about some odd customs I can expect to experience in Albania.
In 1969 I drove to Afghanistan. Between then and 1972 I spent over half a year there, and never spent one single day in a hotel. Traveling from London, through then still-Communist nations like Hungary and Bulgaria, then through Turkey and Iran and into Herat, the most important component doesn’t feel like mileage, but time. Sure, I traveled in space; but what seemed far more profound was a trip back in time. Afghanistan was like being in the 11th Century, not the turn of the 20th. And I noticed immediately that the people there don’t recognize a country called “Afghanistan.” In Herat and Kandahar, respectively the 3rd and 2nd biggest towns, there was resentment towards the “central government” as a pretension — backed by foreign military equipment — of Kabul, the biggest town and what foreigners insist is the capital of “the country.” The only part of the discussion of Afghan policy more awkwardly missing from the calculations that there is no Afghanistan, is that all the men there — yes, all of them — are stoned all day, every day on the strongest hash (much of it opiated) on God’s earth. I know West Point was just named the best college in America by Fortune but do they teach them that stuff there?
This week Robert Greenwald debuted his intense new documentary, Rethink Afghanistan in Washington, DC. Rep. Grayson was on a panel and made some remarks worth taking a look at
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By Byron York at Washington Examiner
Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, attended the premiere of the anti-war film, “Rethink Afghanistan” in Washington last night. In remarks afterward, Edwards quoted a House colleague, whom she did not identify, saying anti-war Democrats must work to rescue President Obama from his commitment to escalate the war in Afghanistan. “As one of my colleagues, who shall remain unnamed, said, ‘Indeed, we may have to save this president from himself on Afghanistan,’” Edwards told the audience. “I take that really seriously.”
Edwards said she believes Obama is “capable of setting aside this language of a campaign” as he decides U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “Even though we talked about Afghanistan as sort of the good war, there is no good in that war,” Edwards said. “We have to be vocal and insistent on this administration and this Congress not to fall prey to the language of the good war.”
“Rethink Afghanistan” is the work of left-wing documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald. Featuring commentary by war critics Juan Cole, Robert Baer, and others, the movie calls for the U.S. military offensive in Afghanistan to be replaced by a large-scale humanitarian effort. Rep. Alan Grayson, the self-styled “Democrat with guts” whom MSNBC host Ed Schultz recently dubbed “the new hero on the lefty block,” also attended the showing.
In an interview after the film, Edwards expanded on her remarks. “I think it’s clear just reading the headlines, that the president is getting some advice and push to escalate the war in Afghanistan,” she said. “I don’t want to push the president toward any particular decision, but I’m concerned that in fact there are some who would choose to push him toward an escalation, and I want him to have the opportunity to step back, make a full assessment, and then give a rationale to the American people about why we’re still in Afghanistan and what the strategy is going forward.”
If Obama ultimately decides to send more troops to Afghanistan, Edwards suggested that a large number of majority Democrats will abandon him when it comes time to vote for extended funding of the war. “In order to go forward to continue the funding,” she said, “it is going to be largely, I think, a Republican vote that would stand with the president, if that’s the decision that he makes.”
Today, the Obama administration is having its fourth cabinet-level meeting on what to do about the war in Afghanistan, a conflict now eight years old. As the president and his team decide on a course of action, documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has debuted “Rethink Afghanistan,” a politically-minded documentary being released in segments online for free (you can see the film in its entirety on his Web site).
In a phone interview with Speakeasy, Greenwald said that two events motivated him to make the film: a Christmas trip to Vietnam, where he saw “wonderful things happening between us and Vietnam,” and his re-reading of David Halberstam’s book on the war, “The Best and the Brightest.”
“The argument we make in the film is that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the war: How many troops? What’s the cost in lives and treasure?” says Greenwald. “In the film, we try to ask these fundamental core questions. It’s not just 10,000 troops there, or 12,000 there, it’s why troops at all?” He added, “Those are the questions we need to ask, and those are the questions you need to ask in a democracy.”
During a recent panel about the film, Greenwald said his production company, Brave New Films, took a lot of heat for the movie’s subject, and many donors backed away, citing deference to Obama and the notion that Afghanistan “was the right war.” Greenwald also said this was the first time he had ever released a movie entirely online, saying it made it easier to get many people talking about “rethinking” policy in Afghanistan prior to its full release.
By Kathleen Miller at The Raw Story
The left-wing filmmaker behind a documentary that questions U.S. policy in Afghanistan says he “took a lot of grief” and lost progressive donors when he began making the movie “Rethink Afghanistan.”
Robert Greenwald’s latest effort criticizes the U.S.’s current approach to the war in Afghanistan, even if it tarnishes the image of Pres. Barack Obama by association. Greenwald says his intent with the film is to get people talking about the Afghan war and questioning U.S. policy there, which made some progressives angry in the early days of the Obama administration.
“When we started doing it, we took a lot of grief, we lost funders, people were mad at us,” Greenwald said in a phone interview with Raw Story. “It was at a time when there was this notion that anything the Obama administration did you were not supposed to question.”
Greenwald has a petition on the movie’s website that calls on Congress to debate “civilian alternatives to a failed military-based approach to bringing peace and security to the region.” He told Raw Story he was prompted to make the movie after a recent trip through Vietnam when he noticed parallels between the Afghan war and the Vietnam war.
“I started thinking, literally, you could cross out Kennedy and replace it with Obama, and cross out communism and replace it with a fear of terrorism,” Greenwald told Raw Story.
This past weekend, AlterNet had the privilege of hosting a screening of Robert Greenwald’s important new documentary, Rethink Afghanistan, in New York City. It was just one of several screenings to kick off an impressive nationwide campaign by Brave New Films to spread a crucial message about the war in Afghanistan: This is not the “good war” as we have been told by so many for so long. This is a losing battle, and it is costing us dearly: in billions of dollars, in thousands of lives, and in the eyes of the rest of the world.
And of course, it is costing the people of Afghanistan more than anyone. Perhaps one of the most jolting things about watching the film is seeing image after terrible image of civilian suffering: desperate families mired in refugee camps, pain-stricken schoolgirls attacked with acid by the resurgent Taliban, countless injured men, women and children who are the collatoral damage from errant U.S. bomb strikes. It is a punch-to-the-gut reminder of just how sanitized this war — which Obama has always called the “right front” of the so-called war on terror — has been.
Of course, if you’re the New York Times, these very images, which have the power to awaken people to the human cost of war, are actually proof of a slanted agenda on the part of the filmmaker. “At an almost breathless pace that leaves little room for reflection, Mr. Greenwald presents a flurry of sights, voices and figures, many of them compelling but all reflecting his point of view,” writes NYT film reviewer Andy Webster in a dismissive 250-word review today.