Needed : Peace Movement Strategy on Afghanistan

Barack Obama with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center foreground, and other officials at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Sunday, July 20, 2008. Photo by AP.

‘Obama’s proposal is so ill advised that one might expect it to die on its own but for the fact that it fits neatly into current U.S. strategic doctrine’
By Morton H. Frank / August 9, 2008

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink (Portside, July 26) has called for a peace movement strategy on Afghanistan. While long overdue, this has become urgent after Barack Obama’s call for an additional 10,000 U.S. troops to be deployed there against the insurgency.

Obama’s proposal is so ill advised that one might expect it to die on its own but for the fact that it fits neatly into current U.S. strategic doctrine. The flaws are overwhelming and it goes without saying that the more quickly the peace movement brings them to public attention the less will be the damage to the people of that country. But if all we do is address the specific flaws that apply to Iraq, or Afghanistan, etc., U.S. intervention into third world countries will continue with no end in sight.

Widely understood as a recipe for failure, Obama’s support for deeper U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan has unleashed a torrent of criticism, including many who are far removed from the peace movement. Among the critics is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, as President Carter’s advisor, had orchestrated the provocation that trapped the Soviet Union into its failed intervention in Afghanistan during the 1970s, and who now warns against the U.S. letting itself get trapped in an unwinnable war.

Additional critics are analysts William Lind and Chuck Spinney, associated with “Defense and the National Interest,” an internet site that features daily expert critiques of ongoing U.S. military policy. Spinney writes that Obama’s deployments to Afghanistan would have to come out of a military that is already overburdened and hollowed out by the Iraq war “to what is perhaps the roughest inhabited terrain in the world, and in a war zone that embodies what is surely one of the most ethnically complex, tribally-organized vendetta cultures of the world.” The tribal groups of Afghanistan have been steeled by years of intermittent warfare against Great Britain until the end of the first world war. Lind says that “The Afghan war is going the way Afghan wars do, as the Pashtun [tribal groups] slowly get their act together to push the occupier out. Spillover from the war in Afghanistan is destabilizing Pakistan, with Washington accelerating the process by putting impossible demands on the country’s leaders.” “Defense and the National Interest” can be accessed at .

Gèrard Chaliand, a French specialist on irregular wars, especially Afghanistan, states flatly that “Victory is impossible in Afghanistan” (Le Monde interview cited by Immanuel Wallerstein). Juan Cole in Salon.com also faults Obama’s ideas about Afghanistan.

A full scale U.S. involvement there would be far more challenging than the invasion of Iraq. U.S. forces have access to Iraq by sea; but Afghanistan is landlocked. Iraq is close to sea level, with most of the fighting in cities, while the Afghanistan fighting is largely in mountainous areas and countryside, posing serious logistical problems for a modern army.. Both Iraq and Afghanistan border on Iran, which supports anti-American fighters. But the Afghanistan resistance in addition has entrée to major additional support in Pakistan. The border line between the two (drawn by the British in 1893) is not recognized by the people who live there, the Pashtun ethnic group, which bears the brunt of the armed struggle. Given millions of Pashtuns on each side of the line, that makes for a very porous border.

An ominous difference between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the generous resources that are available to the Taliban insurgency. The detail here comes mainly from a stunning article in the New York Times Magazine for July 27th by Thomas Schweich, formerly a high counternarcotics official in the Bush administration. The anarchy and high profits associated with heroin have caused production in Afghanistan to increase rapidly. In 2007, nearly 750 square miles of Afghanistan were devoted to cultivation of poppies, chiefly in industrial sized farms, said to provide over 90 percent of the illegal heroin in the world.

The drug traffic supports not only the insurgency, but also corruption in Hamid Karzai’s government, sapping its effectiveness in combating the insurgency. According to Schweich, a U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy was already in being by 2007, and only awaits approval within the Bush administration. Surely this issue deserves attention from the peace movement. If the U.S. can’t attend to it, a demand from the peace movement that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime take on the job would certainly be appropriate.

If Obama’s proposal is a disaster in the making, why does he persist with it? That question can be turned around to “Why do the experts tutoring Obama on military affairs continue to advocate policies that only make things worse, as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq?” The answer is a powerful military orthodoxy fueled ultimately by the profits in military industry that puts force ahead of negotiation. Beyond protesting intervention in Afghanistan, we in the peace movement must also challenge the ideology behind it and the military projects that make victory in Afghanistan appear plausible to some.

And behind it all, of course, are the vested interests in the unholy coalition of military contractors, Pentagon executives and members of Congress. Supporting this coalition are masses of people who depend on it for a living.

In the July/Aug. 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs Obama claims that “To renew American leadership in the world, we must immediately begin working to revitalize our military.” “We must use this moment to rebuild our military and to prepare it for the missions of the future.” We must “become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale.”

Clearly, Obama has assimilated the conventional orthodoxy of the U.S. military establishment. His language refers to two specific projects whose costs are sufficient to imperil the goal of civic reconstruction to which he has committed himself.

The projects he cites (details below) are united by a common strategic concept called Transformation, first enunciated in 1997 by the National Defense Panel, a study group. The idea of Transformation was an alleged imperative to reorient the country’s military for wars already under way and to discard weapons which had been appropriate only for the Cold War. According to its advocates, Transformation mandates that the United States prepare for wars against countries that are poorer than we and whose armed forces are weaker than ours.

Conventional doctrine holds that preparing U.S. forces for the new world situation requires one project about soldiers and another about their equipment. On January 11, 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed a permanent addition of 92,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps, to be carried out over five years. He estimated that it would cost about $1.5 billion annually for each 10,000 added, not counting start-up costs and advanced equipment. The response he got was enthusiastic and fully bipartisan.

The case for the equipment needed for Transformation was best explained in an op ed piece by strategist Kori Schake in The New York Times of February 2, 2006: The military budget is huge, she wrote, but money is being spent on the wrong things. The nation needs an agile force that can quickly defend us against terrorists. Not enough is being allocated for new programs such as unmanned aerial vehicles, high speed sealift and Future Combat Systems, the latter being a package of 18 different weapons and vehicles. Instead, funds are going for unneeded weapons systems designed to combat threats that no longer exist. Schake’s experience at the National Security Council, West Point and the Hoover Institution lent weight to her article.

An editorial dated February 6, 2007 in The New York Times would seem to foretell the difficult choices that a future President Obama will face upon entering office. In that editorial the Times welcomed Bush’s huge new budget of $622 billion for the military, but recommended that “Congress should direct particular attention to the roughly $140 billion … for costs that are not part of the Iraq and Afghanistan section of the budget.” “If the new Democratic-controlled Congress is serious” said the Times “about finding the money to pay for acute domestic needs, it will have to pare back the most extravagant elements of this fantasy wish list” of weapons that were products of Cold War strategic thinking.

To roll back the Afghanistan intervention would not only be a good in itself, but would make significant money available to an Obama presidency for the “acute domestic needs,” that the Times writes about. Even achieving part of that goal would launch the U.S. on a path toward conciliation with the countries of the third world.

The $140 billion mentioned by the Times is a large part of the annual expense of producing and maintaining the military relics of the Cold War. And that is a different matter. To cut into that is far more difficult than the Times would have us think. George Bush senior tried it in 1990 at the end of the Cold War and didn’t get anywhere. The peace movement, which attempted to do it many times after World War II, never made a dent. The military-industrial complex, with its allies in Congress, is simply too powerful, not only economically, but as a political reservoir for the Right.

If the movement to put Obama in the White House is successful and continues to gain momentum, and enough progressive Democrats are elected to Congress, the momentum could go beyond getting us out of Afghanistan and defeat the project for military Transformation.

The most visionary among us might then begin to ponder how to defeat the military-industrial complex as a whole.

Widely understood as a recipe for failure, Obama’s support for deeper U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan has unleashed a torrent of criticism, including many who are far removed from the peace movement. Among the critics is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, as President Carter’s advisor, had orchestrated the provocation that trapped the Soviet Union into its failed intervention in Afghanistan during the 1970s, and who now warns against the U.S. letting itself get trapped in an unwinnable war.

Additional critics are analysts William Lind and Chuck Spinney, associated with “Defense and the National Interest,” an internet site that features daily expert critiques of ongoing U.S. military policy. Spinney writes that Obama’s deployments to Afghanistan would have to come out of a military that is already overburdened and hollowed out by the Iraq war “to what is perhaps the roughest inhabited terrain in the world, and in a war zone that embodies what is surely one of the most ethnically complex, tribally-organized vendetta cultures of the world.” The tribal groups of Afghanistan have been steeled by years of intermittent warfare against Great Britain until the end of the first world war. Lind says that “The Afghan war is going the way Afghan wars do, as the Pashtun [tribal groups] slowly get their act together to push the occupier out. Spillover from the war in Afghanistan is destabilizing Pakistan, with Washington accelerating the process by putting impossible demands on the country’s leaders.” “Defense and the National Interest” can be accessed at .

Gèrard Chaliand, a French specialist on irregular wars, especially Afghanistan, states flatly that “Victory is impossible in Afghanistan” (Le Monde interview cited by Immanuel Wallerstein). Juan Cole in Salon.com also faults Obama’s ideas about Afghanistan.

A full scale U.S. involvement there would be far more challenging than the invasion of Iraq. U.S. forces have access to Iraq by sea; but Afghanistan is landlocked. Iraq is close to sea level, with most of the fighting in cities, while the Afghanistan fighting is largely in mountainous areas and countryside, posing serious logistical problems for a modern army.. Both Iraq and Afghanistan border on Iran, which supports anti-American fighters. But the Afghanistan resistance in addition has entrée to major additional support in Pakistan. The border line between the two (drawn by the British in 1893) is not recognized by the people who live there, the Pashtun ethnic group, which bears the brunt of the armed struggle. Given millions of Pashtuns on each side of the line, that makes for a very porous border.

An ominous difference between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the generous resources that are available to the Taliban insurgency. The detail here comes mainly from a stunning article in the New York Times Magazine for July 27th by Thomas Schweich, formerly a high counternarcotics official in the Bush administration. The anarchy and high profits associated with heroin have caused production in Afghanistan to increase rapidly. In 2007, nearly 750 square miles of Afghanistan were devoted to cultivation of poppies, chiefly in industrial sized farms, said to provide over 90 percent of the illegal heroin in the world.

The drug traffic supports not only the insurgency, but also corruption in Hamid Karzai’s government, sapping its effectiveness in combating the insurgency. According to Schweich, a U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy was already in being by 2007, and only awaits approval within the Bush administration. Surely this issue deserves attention from the peace movement. If the U.S. can’t attend to it, a demand from the peace movement that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime take on the job would certainly be appropriate.

If Obama’s proposal is a disaster in the making, why does he persist with it? That question can be turned around to “Why do the experts tutoring Obama on military affairs continue to advocate policies that only make things worse, as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq?” The answer is a powerful military orthodoxy fueled ultimately by the profits in military industry that puts force ahead of negotiation. Beyond protesting intervention in Afghanistan, we in the peace movement must also challenge the ideology behind it and the military projects that make victory in Afghanistan appear plausible to some.

And behind it all, of course, are the vested interests in the unholy coalition of military contractors, Pentagon executives and members of Congress. Supporting this coalition are masses of people who depend on it for a living.

In the July/Aug. 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs Obama claims that “To renew American leadership in the world, we must immediately begin working to revitalize our military.” “We must use this moment to rebuild our military and to prepare it for the missions of the future.” We must “become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale.”

Clearly, Obama has assimilated the conventional orthodoxy of the U.S. military establishment. His language refers to two specific projects whose costs are sufficient to imperil the goal of civic reconstruction to which he has committed himself.

The projects he cites (details below) are united by a common strategic concept called Transformation, first enunciated in 1997 by the National Defense Panel, a study group. The idea of Transformation was an alleged imperative to reorient the country’s military for wars already under way and to discard weapons which had been appropriate only for the Cold War. According to its advocates, Transformation mandates that the United States prepare for wars against countries that are poorer than we and whose armed forces are weaker than ours.

Conventional doctrine holds that preparing U.S. forces for the new world situation requires one project about soldiers and another about their equipment. On January 11, 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed a permanent addition of 92,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps, to be carried out over five years. He estimated that it would cost about $1.5 billion annually for each 10,000 added, not counting start-up costs and advanced equipment. The response he got was enthusiastic and fully bipartisan.

The case for the equipment needed for Transformation was best explained in an op ed piece by strategist Kori Schake in The New York Times of February 2, 2006: The military budget is huge, she wrote, but money is being spent on the wrong things. The nation needs an agile force that can quickly defend us against terrorists. Not enough is being allocated for new programs such as unmanned aerial vehicles, high speed sealift and Future Combat Systems, the latter being a package of 18 different weapons and vehicles. Instead, funds are going for unneeded weapons systems designed to combat threats that no longer exist. Schake’s experience at the National Security Council, West Point and the Hoover Institution lent weight to her article.

An editorial dated February 6, 2007 in The New York Times would seem to foretell the difficult choices that a future President Obama will face upon entering office. In that editorial the Times welcomed Bush’s huge new budget of $622 billion for the military, but recommended that “Congress should direct particular attention to the roughly $140 billion … for costs that are not part of the Iraq and Afghanistan section of the budget.” “If the new Democratic-controlled Congress is serious” said the Times “about finding the money to pay for acute domestic needs, it will have to pare back the most extravagant elements of this fantasy wish list” of weapons that were products of Cold War strategic thinking.

To roll back the Afghanistan intervention would not only be a good in itself, but would make significant money available to an Obama presidency for the “acute domestic needs,” that the Times writes about. Even achieving part of that goal would launch the U.S. on a path toward conciliation with the countries of the third world.

The $140 billion mentioned by the Times is a large part of the annual expense of producing and maintaining the military relics of the Cold War. And that is a different matter. To cut into that is far more difficult than the Times would have us think. George Bush senior tried it in 1990 at the end of the Cold War and didn’t get anywhere. The peace movement, which attempted to do it many times after World War II, never made a dent. The military-industrial complex, with its allies in Congress, is simply too powerful, not only economically, but as a political reservoir for the Right.

If the movement to put Obama in the White House is successful and continues to gain momentum, and enough progressive Democrats are elected to Congress, the momentum could go beyond getting us out of Afghanistan and defeat the project for military Transformation.

The most visionary among us might then begin to ponder how to defeat the military-industrial complex as a whole.

[Morton H. Frank is affiliated with Progressives for Obama.]

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