Saturday, October 31, 2009

Do We Know What We’re Doing in Afghanistan?


We’ve spent over eight years in Afghanistan with no prospect of leaving, no clear mission and no consistent strategy. Yet, we are poised to send more soldiers and pour billions more dollars into a place that has been called the “graveyard of empires.”

One has to wonder if we know what we’re doing.

Our leaders remain in a quandary over the war. For example, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, want to triple the size of the police and military in Afghanistan. General Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of Afghanistan, advocates a counter-insurgency approach and up to 40,000 troops to assist the 68,000 already there. Vice President Joe Biden suggests a counter-terrorism approach that focuses on combating al Qaeda through the use of unmanned drones and special forces instead of additional troops.

“This is the definition of insanity,” said Phyllis Bennis, a foreign policy expert who specializes in Middle East and United Nations issues and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. Recently, she spoke during Peace Week at Western Michigan University where she provided a punchy critique on the war that has already cost $225 billion, 904 Americans’ lives and God knows how many Afghani lives.

Bennis questioned the original purposes and motivations of the war, which were meant to respond to 9/11. However, the hijackers were Saudis and Egyptians who attended flight schools in the United States and they lived in Hamburg, Germany. So why did we invade Afghanistan?

And as horrific as September 11 was, it was not an act of war that warranted the invasion of that country, said Bennis. President Bush called it a “war of justice” when it was really a “war of vengeance.”

“Wars of justice are never legal, never just and they don’t work,” she said.

Bennis called for a strategy that looks at the region as a whole and supports “real diplomacy.” That strategy would include those countries that border Afghanistan including China and Iran who have a stake in what goes on there for their own security needs. However, it’s unlikely that the United States would consult or work with those countries.

She is also concerned about the drones that are launched to kill the bad guys but also kill the good guys.

“It’s harder to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people when you send more troops, destroy their schools, and kill the good guys,” said Bennis. “There is no one at the administration’s table saying this.”

Such missteps have occurred from the very start of this war, she said. From November 2001 until January 2002, American Special Forces only numbered about 2,000. The big action was in the air, mostly over Kabul where cluster bombs were used.

Cluster bombs are softball-size and they explode into several hundred “bomblets” that spread 100 yards before they hit the ground, explained Bennis. However, 10 percent of the cluster bombs dropped don’t explode. Once they are on the ground, they become land mines that endanger civilian populations. (Many countries have banned cluster bombs but the United States still uses them.)

At the beginning of the invasion, President Bush ordered food drops over Afghanistan in order to make the point that the United States was fighting the terrorists and the Taliban, not innocent civilians. Officials calculated that 7.5 million of Afghanistan’s 27 million population was starving. However noble that gesture, the food was wrapped in the same yellow plastic as the cluster bombs, and the people didn’t know if they had come upon a bomb or a food package.

As a result of all these mishaps and the fact that Afghanistan has been largely seen as “the forgotten war,” many Americans wonder why we are still there.

“It’s not about oil pipelines, natural resources or women’s rights,” said Bennis. “George Bush found a great moment to expand the American empire and Afghanistan was the logical place to start. Obama, now, has to make a name for himself. But he had to find a war of his own and Afghanistan was available. He regards it as a good war.”

Meanwhile, American support for the war has flipped from 53 percent in 2001 to an opposition of 58 percent in mid-September. CNN recently reported that 59 percent of people questioned opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan compared to 39 percent who favored the move.

Afghanistan has been a key geographic battleground since Alexander the Great in 327 B.C.E. Genghis Khan took charge of it in 1218-21 but only after reaching “painful accommodations” with the Afghans. The British lost it in 1842 and the Soviet Union was defeated there in 1989 after a nine-year struggle.

There is a reason Afghanistan has not been conquered, said Bennis. Afghanistan is one of the most tradition-bound countries in the world. Clans and tribes rule, not a national government. To try to institute a U.S.-style presidency there is overlooking the fact that whoever controls Kabul, controls nothing else.

Moreover, the United States’ counter-insurgency strategy is aimed at protecting people living in large population centers, which amounts to only 20 percent since 80 percent of the people live in the rural lands, she said.

Those arguing for staying in Afghanistan warn that our safety is at stake: if the Taliban returns because it will team up with Al Qaeda and we’ll have another 9/11.

“That’s probably not true,” said Bennis. “The Taliban and Al Qeada don’t have much in common. That Al Qeada exists at all is very dicey.”

During last year’s presidential campaign Obama promised he’d get us out of Iraq because it was a “war of bad choices.” Instead, he wanted to focus on Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” and do it right this time.

“Apparently, we didn’t hear him or believe him,” she said. “But now it’s Obama’s war.”

After he became president, Obama proposed to send 17,000 more troops in March and then sent 21,000.

George W. Bush never wanted to say what the “War on Terrorism” would cost, how long it would take or what sacrifices Americans would make. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that Americans have been called to sacrifice our country’s valuable resources for a war that could instead be used for health care, education, unemployment, housing foreclosures, decaying cities and crumbling infrastructures.

“The peace movement has a lot of work to do,” said Bennis. “It must demand de-escalation in Afghanistan.”

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