The war in Afghanistan is an albatross that risks dragging down the Obama administration and undermining its progressive policy agenda. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war, and its failure would be Obama’s failure, with disastrous political consequences for other issues. The president’s political standing, the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in 2010 and 2012, the government’s ability to fund health reform and other social priorities–all will be jeopardized if US policy in Afghanistan continues to falter. Progressives who care about this administration and want it to succeed must rally to protect the president. We must argue for a more effective and less militarized strategy in Afghanistan and work to prevent further military escalation.
The Obama administration will soon have to decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. Even as the White House announced the deployment of 21,000 additional troops in March, some military commanders were arguing that additional forces would be needed. National Security Advisor James Jones told commanders not to expect more troops and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed reluctance about further escalation, but pressures for additional forces are increasing as the military and political situation continues to deteriorate. Violent attacks have increased tenfold in recent years, civilian and military casualties are mounting, and Taliban influence is spreading. Senator John McCain called for more troops during a recent visit to the region. A senior adviser to the Pentagon returned from an assessment mission calling for up to 45,000 more troops. US experts are predicting that the military struggle in Afghanistan will last at least a decade and cost more than the war in Iraq, which has totaled approximately $650 billion. Commanding General Stanley McChrystal is scheduled to release a Congressionally mandated report in September that will likely become the focal point for debate about sending more troops.
Many observers have grave doubts about the prospects for achieving military success in Afghanistan. The country’s reputation as the graveyard of empires is well earned and based on a long history of fierce resistance to foreign military intervention, most strikingly in the defeat of the Soviet occupation of 1979-89. A similar pattern of resistance has emerged now, most intensely in the Pashtun region but spreading throughout the country and into Pakistan as well. The meager results so far of eight years of US/NATO military operations reinforce doubts about military viability. Empirical evidence confirms that war is not an effective means of countering terrorist organizations. A recent RAND Corporation study shows that terrorist groups usually end through political processes and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force. An examination of 268 terrorist organizations that ended during a period of nearly 40 years found that the primary factors accounting for their demise were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases examined.
Sending more troops will further militarize an already overly militarized policy. A recent report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cited “the presence of foreign troops” as “the most important factor in mobilizing support for the Taliban.” In Pakistan, US military policies and drone airstrikes are “driving more and more Pashtuns into the arms of Al Qaeda and its jihadi allies,” according to former Washington Post correspondent Selig Harrison. When the United States invades and occupies Muslim countries, it bolsters Osama bin Laden’s false claim that America is waging war on Islam. Polls in Muslim countries show that up to 80 percent of respondents believe that US policy is intended to weaken and divide the Islamic world. The latest Gallup Pakistan poll found that people in that country consider the United States a far greater threat than the Taliban. As long as these attitudes prevail, there will be no end of recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and their supporters.
Opposition to an endless war strategy is growing. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold has spoken out against further escalation. In May Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill requiring an exit strategy for US troops. The amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives but received 138 votes, including a majority of the Democratic Party caucus. Some antiwar groups have called for immediate military withdrawal, but this is not a widespread view. A narrow emphasis on military withdrawal implies indifference to the plight of the Afghan people and a willingness to cede the country to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Many Americans believe that the United States has an obligation to help the people of Afghanistan, especially its women. Many who oppose current war policies have urged an increase in civilian assistance, including expanded programs for economic development, human rights protection and democratic governance. The call for removing foreign troops, in this view, needs to be linked to greater civilian support for development, diplomacy and democracy.
Many uncertainties exist about the best way forward in Afghanistan, but a consensus is growing that further military escalation is unwise and risky. In choosing such a path the Obama administration would face the prospect of rising human and financial costs, with little hope for military success–a formula that could bring political disaster. Progressives must unite in saying no to military escalation, and demanding new, less militarized strategies for building security in the region and preventing violent extremism.