Avoiding Quagmire In Afghanistan

Isaiah J. Poole

The essence of President Obama’s analysis of the right-wing “war on terror” is dead-on: The Bush administration’s reframing the phenomenon of rogue extremists as a presumptively defined group of “terrorists” who can be defeated in a “war” led us down a path in which we squandered billions of dollars, thousands of lives and our moral standing in the global community. Meanwhile, a central incubator of Islamic extremism in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan flourished under Bush’s watch.

But as Obama puts forward his own answer to the conflict in Afghanistan, many people in the progressive movement are asking: If Obama has a better diagnosis of the problem than the previous snake-oil merchants in the White House, why does he seem to be using the same failed medicine, only in a different location?

Getting direct answers to blunt questions such as that one must be the urgent priority of Congress, which must not be lulled into rubber-stamping another executive branch military escalation, and of progressive movement leaders.

In his announcement at the White House, Obama says, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just.”

Doing so will involve a 60 percent increase in the $2 billion a month the U.S. currently spends in the Afghan conflict, The Washington Post reports, and will involve sending an additional 4,000 troops over the more than 17,000 troops Obama has already added to that conflict since taking office.

In his speech today, Obama did take pains to say that his stepped-up focus on Afghanistan was not merely exercising more U.S. military muscle. He said there would be a renewed emphasis on preparing Afghans to take care of their own security, plus “a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground” to help Afghans “develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.”

Those are admirable goals, and we’re far behind in meeting them. Last year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof profiled the work of Greg Mortenson, who has built a network of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has succeeded in wooing some families away from the extremism of the Taliban. The schools got the attention of Pentagon brass, who bought several copies of the book Mortenson wrote about his experience, “Three Cups of Tea,” to see what lessons they could learn.

One lesson is clear, Kristof wrote. “Military force is essential in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. But over time, in Pakistan and Afghanistan alike, the best tonic against militant fundamentalism will be education and economic opportunity.”

Unlike President Bush, who truly was a hammer that saw every international problem as a nail, President Obama has shown the capacity to embrace a more complex understanding, and a more sophisticated response, to the challenge of violent extremism. But, just as it has become clear in domestic economic policy, an energized left with thoughtful solutions must be prepared to expand the limits of the debate, and demand that Congress do its job to question executive branch policy and reflect the public will.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is doing important work in that regard with its “Afghanistan: A Road Map to Progress” project. On Thursday, the Caucus held a forum featuring Dr. William Polk, whose direct involvement in Afghanistan policy extends back to the Kennedy administration. Forum sessions continue through May.

Meanwhile, there are several petition drives now underway that call for more robust action by Congress and a clearer demonstration of a U-turn in policy from the administration. One, part of Brave New Foundation’s “Rethink Afghanistan” campaign, is directed at the Senate foreign affairs committees and calls for “a national conversation to address the many questions surrounding this war” in Afghanistan. “At a time when our country faces a credibility crisis around the world, record casualties in Afghanistan, and an economic meltdown at home, oversight hearings are needed now more than ever. The government must examine how foreign policy is being executed in Afghanistan, while helping to alleviate our financial strains.”

Another petition drive—led by Sojourners, the Christian social justice organization headed by Rev. Jim Wallis—is addressed to Obama: “I urge you to strongly press Congress for full funding for non-military assistance and to reconsider the escalation of offensive operations. Instead of increasing our military profile, the U.S. should erect schools for young women, strengthen civil society institutions, promote traditional justice mechanisms encouraging the rule of law, clean up old weapons and landmines, foster local agricultural projects, and make similar efforts.”

If we were listening to the people in Afghanistan, they would tell us, as one Afghan was quoted as saying in a Democracy Now! documentary this week, that the U.S. “should not plan attacks by B-52 or Chinook or pilotless planes,” but instead help the country rebuild its economy and way of life. That is the way out of a quagmire that has already, as William Rivers Pitt writes in Truthout, “lasted longer than World War I, World War II, the Civil War, the Korean War, the first Gulf War in Iraq and the second Gulf War in Iraq.”

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