With the War in Afghanistan Ending, Where Does the Peace Movement Go Next?
President Obama plans to remove all but 6,000 to 9,000 US troops from Afghanistan by 2014, ending the American combat role, saving tens of billions of dollars and leaving an unpopular, incompetent and corrupt Karzai regime needing a diplomatic fix to avert collapse into civil war.
Although not officially announced, the numbers have been reported in recent days. The Los Angeles Times predicts 6,000–9,000, while the New York Times reports “under 10,000.” Troop cuts in that range will mean a 90–95 percent reduction from 109,000, the highest US level reported in 2010. It would require a 60,000 reduction between now and late 2014. The pace of the withdrawal has not been announced but is expected any day.
The numbers are well below those requested by the Pentagon, which range from 15,000 troops and upward. Opposition to Obama’s reductions is expected from neo-conservative and military advocates as well as congressional hawks. Obama has gained political cover, however, from the recent sixty-two Senate votes cast for “accelerated” withdrawal and a similar message in a letter from ninety-four House members. The recent New York Times editorial finally endorsing a one-year withdrawal also provides critical support from within the mainstream political and national security establishments.
Obama’s decision, and the stand taken by congressional peace advocates, is consistent with his campaign pledge to begin steady American withdrawals after a two-year surge of 33,000 troops. The surge was a concession to generals like Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and to cabinet hawks including Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, who fought for withdrawals to be based on “conditions” rather than timelines. In Bob Woodward’s account, Obama’s Wars, the president is quoted as saying, “I’m not an advocate of the timetable, but it will come from the Hill,” by Democrats in Congress. In fact, the White House quietly supported language advocating an accelerated timetable for “swift withdrawal” and a “significant and sizable reduction no later than July 2011” in the Democratic National Committee resolution of February 24, 2011. The resolution was sponsored by Representatives Barbara Lee and Mike Honda, and longtime Democratic leaders Donna Brazile and Alice Germond.
The critical resolution reflected the demands of local peace networks and rank-and-file Democrats across the country. Behind closed doors, Obama told Senator Lindsay Graham, “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party. And people at home don’t want to hear we’re going to be there another for another ten years.”
As the recent reports show, the new Obama plan already “has sparked internal criticism at the Pentagon” which argues for a “sizable military presence” to be deployed in southern and eastern Afghanistan, according to the LA Times. Obama’s troop reductions are likely to spur even sharper cuts in NATO forces. The Afghan army, according to Pentagon sources, will face “enormous difficulties” as the American troops leave. There were 2,500 insurgent attacks every month this year from April to September, higher levels than in 2009, according to a recent Pentagon report to Congress.
Whatever decision Obama makes will be the subject of ongoing talks between Washington, Kabul and NATO powers. Bagram air base, along with smaller bases around Kabul, will be the defensive hub for any residual US force. The most controversial US mission, though smaller in scope, will be counterterrorism. Embassy protection and training Afghan troops will also be included. Virtually none of the Afghan army’s twenty-three brigades can operate on their own, suggesting that Western air support will be authorized as well.
In the end, the discussion of a smaller residual force might be undone altogether by Afghan insistence on stripping immunity from American personnel violating Afghan laws and procedures. A similar scenario occurred during the endgame in Iraq. One American official told the LA Times that “one of the things that Obama and Karzai have always agreed on is the need for a reduced force presence. I could see them both wanting zero, but at the end of the day I don’t think that will happen.”
Nothing will change the shifting balance of forces as Karzai’s army and regime are left on their own amidst corruption and insurgency. The danger of renewed civil war will increase unless diplomacy creates a power-sharing arrangement on the ground. Republicans so far have blocked Obama’s efforts to release several Taliban detainees from Guantánamo in exchange for an American POW, Bowe Bergdahl, captured by Afghan insurgents in 2009. A larger diplomatic settlement will require controversial contacts with Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan, all states with proxy interests in divided Afghanistan. If all efforts fail and Afghanistan implodes into civil war, Obama will have to count on American domestic exhaustion with the decade-long war to protect him against military claims that he “lost” Afghanistan.
Feminist groups which originally supported the war will have to lobby successfully to ensure the meager gains of Afghan women are preserved in an enforceable aid and assistance package.
In summary: it’s official: America’s longest war is ending soon. The peace movement, which built a necessary groundwork of opposition, is ten years older.
What are some next steps for the peace movement?
First, unlike the Cold War era, the peace forces have won most of the all-important battle for public opinion. It’s possible that a window will open, however briefly, for the peace forces to link with labor, civil rights and environmental coalitions in an effort to put some definition and muscle into Obama’s repeated promise to “do some nation-building here at home.”
This shift to domestic priorities will be very difficult. The United States is an empire with 800 military bases, a growing interest in deterring China, a role in hot battlefields such as Yemen and Mali, risky brinksmanship with Iran, dangerous ties to Israel’s hawks, and an unknown number of CIA operations around the planet. If expensive US ground wars are no longer affordable or winnable, there will be momentum towards drone wars, cyber wars, black operations, and an edifice of greater secrecy over our institutions. The military budget, despite its gargantuan size, will be difficult to assail politically. Peace doves will have to become fiscal hawks in attacking wasteful military spending.
A top priority will be reversing, and trying to end, the escalating use of drones. Public opinion, unfortunately, is favorable toward killing hundreds of alleged foreign terrorists in faraway lands, assuming the alternative is putting American troops in harm’s way at an extraordinary cost to taxpayers. The growing protests against drones, coupled with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Foundation’s educational documentary, if combined with civil liberties and human rights groups’ complaints over detentions and “kill lists”, will gradually build a climate of dissent from current policy.
The most important challenge will be to revise the 1973 War Powers Act to require public disclosure and Congressional approval of drone attacks, cyber-wars, and secret operations by the CIA in places like Libya. President Obama, as a constitutional lawyer, can hardly wish to be remembered as rebuilding the Imperial Presidency, but that is the path he is on. Perhaps aware of the peril, Obama has taken the unusual step of appealing to the public and Congress to “rein in” his exceptional powers with “new legal architecture” in the coming year. That invitation should be taken up at once by civil liberties and peace communities with interests to protect.
One possible scenario might be to de-escalate and phase out the drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas as part of a diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan. It’s highly doubtful after a decade of war that the Taliban will be driven to the table by drones, and no serious diplomat should expect them to acquiesce. But a permanent suspension of drone attacks is a necessary ingredient of any peace settlement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Obama well knows.
If that occurs, a parallel process of drafting and debating new Congressional policies to “rein in” the imperial presidency could gain traction.
Finally, peace advocates will have to keep challenging the paradigm of the “war on terrorism” with its underlying rationale and legislative authorization that sustains the secretive Long War. There is no single path to an alternative narrative, any more than there is a single effective approach to slowing the domestic “wars” on gangs and inner-city youth that have resulted in mass incarceration. The neoconservatives and the domestic right wing play on racial fears to mount their militarized approaches to both domestic and foreign policy. Peace and civil rights critics might gain traction, however, when their constitutional and moral arguments are reinforced by the expensive failures of the Long War abroad and mass incarceration at home.
There is a connection between the Long Wars and domestic inequality that peace advocates also might offer to civil rights and labor reformers. It is that corporate and financial globalization result in an exploding gap between the rich and the underclass. The model offered by neoconservative theorists is a failed one. Even as we militarize our relationship to Pakistan, we privatize the sweatshop conditions that draw investment away from US labor markets. By a similar process, the “deindustrialization” of American cities in the 1980s led to increased joblessness and despair among inner city youth, with expensive and unconstitutional policing and imprisonment as false solutions. A global living wage is needed for the world, one built on the experience of winning living wage ordinances in American cities.
Finally, the experience of the peace movement offers a message to environmentalists: that the continuous Long War over oil, gas, minerals and other resources is a direct obstacle to a new priority on developing conservation and renewable resources. Ending the Long War is a precondition to transitioning to an energy-efficient future.
New coalitions are likely to form as “nation building at home” challenges the Long War as the agenda of the coming four years.