Saturday, November 20, 2010

Waging endless war

NATO leaders met in Lisbon this week-end and decided to push forward with their offensive in Afghanistan. The BBC quotes NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen as saying, “One thing must be very clear—NATO is in this for the long term [...] We will not transition until our Afghan partners are ready. We will stay after transition in a supporting role. If the enemies of Afghanistan have the idea that they can wait it out until we leave, they have the wrong idea. We will stay as long as it takes to finish the job”.

In practise, this means that NATO will continue to act in a combat role until 2014, at which point, its members agreed, it will hand over the fight to the Afghan government. But if Iraq is the blueprint (and it’s difficult to draw any other conclusion from the statements of American military and civilian leadership), there will likely be large numbers of U.S. and ISAF forces in the country after 2014. Rasmussen’s statement confirms this, and is worrying for its open-endedness.

The lack of self-awareness is also striking. No consideration appears to have been given to the idea that NATO and U.S. troops might be a part of the problem. No one is willing to consider that their continued presence in the country might be a real lifeline for the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda. Or that the human and material damage that drone strikes, night-time raids and military ‘surges’ do might be detrimental to Afghanistan’s future (and to our own).

Moreover there is the appalling reductionism. In Rasmussen’s world (that also inhabited by the Obama administration, the Republican Party and neoconservative as well as so-called realist policymakers of many stripes), there are Afghans and there are the enemies of Afghanistan. The problem with this mindset is that many of the people we consider to be the enemies of Afghanistan are themselves Afghans. And NATO’s promotion of negotiations with the Taliban suggests that the alliance is prepared to fudge its own yardstick of success.

Finally, there remains the all-too-important question of what it actually means to “finish the job”. No one has convincingly presented a vision of the Afghanistan that NATO and the U.S. aspire to leave behind. Each contributing country, depending on the myth, half-truth or outright lie it needs to present its people with, has a different story, and these stories begin to diverge widely during election seasons. Changes in strategy necessarily affect the feasibility of that vision. But the sole consistent element is the fungibility of Afghanistan’s future—tragic given the blood spilt by too many parties, and the crocodile tears shed by too many American and European politicians in the name of ‘saving’ Afghanistan.

Democrats in the U.S. Congress are faced with a choice when it comes to Afghanistan. They can do as they have done since 2001 and allow the President, whether Bush or Obama, to drive a series of wars that are costing our people billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and our security. Our military action has also led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and South Asia, strengthened the moral legitimacy of the Taliban, and made the lives of countless people in Afghanistan and Iraq living hells. Our immoral and misconceived wars, neither of which seems to have an end-point, have wrought untold psychological damage on soldiers who have rotated too many times, in conditions too appalling for most of us to grasp, through combat zones in which there is neither an obvious enemy nor a clear objective.

It has been sickening, during the past week, to see George W Bush back in the news defending his invasion of Iraq. This is the man who allowed his Vice-President and Defence Secretary to claim that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. This is the man whose invasion of Iraq created the first tangible link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. This is the man who, together with Tony Blair, sent thousands of American and British soldiers to their deaths because, he told the world, Saddam was a bad man and Iraqis needed to be freed.

What we got was utter chaos: the destruction of infrastructure as part of a campaign to ‘shock and awe’; the implementation of systematic torture in U.S.-run prisons, the subcontracting of our military affairs to companies like Blackwater which showed total disregard for people’s lives; a situation in which we created a series of alternative power-bases within Iraq, effectively relying on factionalism to ‘pacify’ the country (the so-called Anbar Awakening)—a move all-too-appropriately redolent of colonialism.

George Bush and his administration misled us about the reason for invading Iraq. They manipulated intelligence to murderous effect. They abused the war-making powers that a supine Congress was all-too-eager to grant them.

We once heard the same story about Afghanistan...that we had to defeat the Taliban because they were oppressing Afghans and repressing democracy. But Obama has dropped this pretence, and is telling us that this is a war for our security. But we should remember that every missile that claims a civilian life, every Afghan shot in a botched night-time raid gone awry, contributes more to the cause of insurgents than the survival of any Taliban or Al Qaeda commander. And the longer we remain as an occupying force in South Asia, the more we are likely to foster a hatred of U.S. militarism, a hatred which has brought disaster upon us in the not-so-recent past.

The silver lining in Bush’s reappearance might be that it makes people reconsider Afghanistan, which for too long was considered the ‘good war’. But there remain those who champion the war shamelessly, invoking both the spectre of national security and militarism, and that of a civilising mission.

People like John McCain constantly enjoin Obama to listen to the generals. But when Obama follows his generals’ advice and suggests an openness to facilitating talks with the Taliban to draw down combat operations, McCain idiotically argues that when you fight a war properly, “You win, and then you leave. And that’s what we’ve done in Iraq”. Never mind that there are 50,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq. For McCain and some of his fellow Republicans, the war becomes an ego-driven exercise. It is about winning, whatever the cost. It is about victory, however entirely removed that victory might be from any goals. Materially, it is about sacrificing the lives of as many American soldiers in an effort to kill as many Afghans as necessary to persuade someone—never mind who—to surrender. Because that—killing people, injuring them, destroying their homes and roads and livelihoods—is what war is about, and we shouldn’t forget it.

But it is a choice that other people must make as well, not just an American public and Congress.

In Canada, Stephen Harper announced that Canadian forces will end combat operations at the end of 2011. That will be small comfort to the families of soldiers who are killed in post-combat operations—the grossly misnamed stage at which the U.S. finds itself in Iraq (with 50,000 soldiers still occupying the country). And Harper, true to form, has bypassed Parliament in making this decision, with the craven support of the neoconservative Liberal Leader, Michael Ignatieff, and his party.

Harper’s parsing of the Canadian presence attempts to mislead people into taking December 2011 as the end of Canadian operations in the country. Ignatieff, who has a history of advocating the failed wars of the U.S., has suggested that Canada needs to embrace a foreign policy which “combines military, reconstruction and humanitarian efforts together”.

Across Scandinavia, governments argue that they are trying to do right by remaining in Afghanistan—that theirs is a nation-building, humanitarian exercise. But their governments are deluded if they believe that this is what the ISAF mission in Afghanistan has become. Bare-bones security is the only serious goal of the United States and Britain at this stage. But Scandinavian countries have fewer than 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Britain, whose Prime Minister recently assured a foreign policy audience that “We are there to help Afghans take control of their security and ensure that al-Qa'ida can never again pose a threat to us from Afghan soil”, has around 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. The U.S. over 100,000. Neither country’s government is seriously committed to good governance or nation-building. If we were, we probably wouldn’t be embarking on a program of razing homes, on a strategy of relying on bombing a country from miles in the air, or undertaking the funding of unaccountable warlords whilst funding Pakistan’s brutal and corrupt military and intelligence services.

There are agencies and organisations from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Sweden and Norway which are genuinely committed to improving the lives of Afghans. It is an open question whether or not meaningful political and social change can come from without, and whether these agencies and organisations have thought through how aid in creating an environment in which people can make their own decisions about how they would like to live their lives. But precious little can be done in an environment dominated by a massive occupying force.

A final issue, which has got very little press and has been the subject of almost no debate, is our expansion of the war in Afghanistan to include Pakistan. Obama’s West Point Speech, supposedly his blueprint for the war, did not outline any such military expansion. His dishonesty is reminiscent of the creeping expansion of the Vietnam War.

And this returns us to the choice which lies before Democrats. They can go along with Obama and his Republican allies. Or, because it is the right thing to do, they could oppose our continued presence in Afghanistan. They should make it clear to the President that if he wants the party’s nomination unopposed in 2012, and if he wants the votes of people who are concerned about the loss of life to Americans and Afghans or about the misdirection of our economic resources towards a pointless war which only benefits a criminal global arms trade, he must change his stance on the war.

Nancy Pelosi should lead Democratic caucus in the House into taking a more aggressive approach in confronting the President. Together with Democratic Senators, who at least in theory control that chamber (its medieval structure makes that control terribly tenuous), they should grill the President and his administration (particularly about the expansion of the war into Pakistan), as well as irresponsible Republicans who have yet to answer for their role in forcing the U.S. deeper into Afghanistan.

And the public should begin to make some noise. Polling suggests an underlying worry about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that has yet to translate into any real action or serious concern about what it means that we have been fighting a war for nine years, and have been told by our leaders that we should expect to continue fighting those wars for another four at the very least.

I could not disagree more profoundly when Republican politicians suggest that our government should rein in its efforts on behalf of the public, particularly those members of the public who are most vulnerable at a moment of great economic uncertainty. Their suggestion is all the more hypocritical when it is accompanied by the assertion that one of the two major things that government ought to be undertaking (the other being a full-court economic press on behalf of the wealthy and the corporate) is the waging of endless wars that misdirect our resources, imperil our country, and take the lives of tens of thousands of people.

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