Obama Quickens Afghan Withdrawal in Face of Pressure for Peace

Obama Quickens Afghan Withdrawal in Face of Pressure for Peace

Obama Quickens Afghan Withdrawal in Face of Pressure for Peace

The president’s announcement that 33,000 troops will leave Afghanistan within a year is a major win for the peace movement. So why are some snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?


Two years ago I was on a Chicago panel with a just-retired military officer, Charles Tucker, a former top adviser to the US embassy in Iraq, general counsel to the Pentagon and a major general in the Air National Guard. During our debate, he made a statement worth remembering on this night of Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan. His words were these:

“The only relevant debate in the next two years will be counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism. After that, Obama will begin surrendering to the peace movement.”

I wasn’t sure whether he liked the scenario he was describing, but I applauded for providing me a ray of hope. His prophecy is coming true. Obama, of course, is not “surrendering” to anyone, least of all the peace activists across the country, but he is responding to massive public pressure for rapid troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. We have crossed the line into de-escalation. The withdrawals will continue as the pressure, especially from voters during the 2012 election cycle, continues to build.

Peace advocates should feel a sense of gratification, not about the numbers involved but about contributing to the vast upswelling of public opinion against Iraq and now Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that not a single network or mainstream newspaper has called for bringing our troops home. There is a magic about public opinion, which still matters despite the shadows of authoritarianism all around.

Let’s be clear about what Obama said, since so many seem utterly unable to grasp the facts before issuing their condemnations. I write here as an organizer who believes a proper analysis of the situation and opportunities is critical in making any progress against the Leviathan we are up against.

First, Obama said he would withdraw 33,000 troops by next summer, twelve months away, which is a new clarification. And he added that he would continue withdrawing troops after that. He said he is hosting NATO for a diplomatic conference in Chicago next summer – a big opportunity for the Chicago and national peace movement. The conclusion we should reach is that we should push forward for more than 33,000 troops withdrawn with an expectation that we will be successful. There is a strategic opportunity, if the peace movement does its job, to demand more withdrawals during the key period of Democratic and Republican conventions next year and during the presidential campaign itself. The period 2011–12 is not over. The political fight is still on.

There will be stages involved, because getting out of a military mess of your own making is one of the most difficult challenges confronting any Machiavellian. (Read Clausewitz on redeployment). Obama will be trying to sell himself to peace voters while watching out for the military, as well as unpredictable pressures from Republicans, and facing military families who wonder just what this was all about. The context between now and November 2012 will be “kinetic,” or fluid, a concept in warfare that can be applied to political battlefields as well.

The Peace and Justice Resource Center prediction of 30,000–33,000, based on interviews and research, has turned out to be accurate. The PJRC supported withdrawing more than 33,000, however. Fifty thousand troops out by 2012 would have de-escalated the American occupation by half, would have gone beyond ending the present surge and would have broken the back of those who believe in the endless war. Of course, a rapid withdrawal of all troops and bases was the preferred position of nearly all peace groups and networks across the country—and that should continue to be the goal. In addition, the peace movement should demand all troops out of Iraq, check Obama’s executive ambitions towards Libya, oppose the secret war in Pakistan and Yemen and choke off all resources for the Long War of fifty to eighty years. The trillions wasted on these wars should be reinvested primarily in our domestic needs, as America’s mayors have recently insisted.

For me, the criterion for success in social movements is whether the participants feel they are (1) gaining mastery of ideas, approaches, strategies and tactics; (2) having a tangible impact on the powers-that-be and public opinion; (3) making measurable gains towards their goals, based on a growing organizational capacity; (4) making everyday life better or more bearable; and (5) developing a sustaining movement culture and heritage. Part of the first criteria, I should clarify, is learning the arts of conflict resolution, which some call political jujutsu, including the ability to understand what an adversary needs to exit an untenable situation. I learned much in the “school” of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Finally, it is important that activists not acquire the habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Already the voices of negativity and alienation are out there, infecting the discourse with unwarranted cynicism and undermining any sense of achievement. Some said the speech was a “disappointment” and “heartbreaking” before it was delivered, mistakenly claiming that Obama was only withdrawing five or ten thousand troops. The 33,000? That would be another broken promise, would never happen. One blogger called the speech “outrageous,” while another opined that Obama would draw down troops only to escalate the wars with drones, which I believe she called the worst weapons in the history of the world. And on and on.

Friends and, may I say, comrades: don’t disparage what your efforts have achieved. Don’t be surprised that gains we achieve are always less than we demand. Don’t forget that we are up against the institutional might of a superpower. Instead, dwell on this simple fact: we the people pushed them back. Then study and discuss where we go from here. If you say 33,000 is not enough, remember it’s ten times more than the generals wanted. Learn from our experience and set to work pushing 33,000 to 50,000 or more by the end of next year.

This de-escalation, and the further de-escalation down the road, is attributable to peace activism and public opinion. Our economic woes are a prime reason as well. But think about it, if public opinion was otherwise, was warlike, if peace groups were demonized and isolated, clearly American imperialism could soldier on, justifying terrible losses and budgetary costs as a price worth paying for empire. But public opinion has not been superheated with martial desire, though that desire is there. Instead, 85 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents and 45 percent of Republicans seem to want a more rapid withdrawal that anyone in established leadership. Despite being marginalized by interest groups and the mainstream media, democracy is coming to the USA (thank you, Leonard Cohen).

Social change is very slow—until it speeds up. Even revolutionaries have to fight step by step, until revolutions come by surprise. Institutions remain impermeable, until falling apart. We could be approaching such a moment, but only if we push, if we organize and prepare, if we light candles instead of cursing the darkness.

No one up there will credit the peace movement for anything, until someday in the future we learn they were scared to death of us. We alone have the power to take heart from our impact, or fall into further despair. And despair never organized anyone. As a historian and former Freedom Rider, I suggest we all learn from the African-American experience. Perhaps no people have been so cast out, so abused, so absolutely hopeless, and yet a community of resistance was formed out of sorrow which marched stage by stage towards dignity and equality. Frederick Douglass, for one, condemned Abraham Lincoln as a hopeless sellout, a racist, but slowly the struggle preceded until Lincoln learned from Douglass, and Douglass appreciated Lincoln, while neither believed that black people could be redeemed by politicians. It was the North Star that mattered, and the transformation of suffering into soul power, movement-building and strategic alliances.

So I say congratulations to the crazy rainbow of peace networks out there who have fought the last two years to cut funding or force an exit strategy from Afghanistan. The quilt works. There is no single thread. The fiery women of Code Pink have been relentless on every front. Progressive Democrats of America have fostered networks on the left of the Democratic Party and linked the war to healthcare. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch, while not opposing the wars directly, have fought brilliantly against secret prisons, torture and detention. United for Peace and Justice led the mass mobilizations against Iraq and continue to battle on grassroots levels. Peace Action, Win Without War, the AFSC, the Institute for Policy Studies and recently the Afghanistan Study Group and New America Foundation have battled inside the Beltway. The National Priorities Project provides invaluable and usable information on the costs of war. Thanks to the Center for American Progress for finally coming around, and John Kerry too. Praise to Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, Dennis Kucinich and the stalwart Russ Feingold. Pacifica, Amy Goodman and the Nation editors always made sure that information remains free and circulating. Wikileaks has blown away the walls of secrecy. Brave New Films has forced a rethink of Afghanistan with countless videos. Sojourners, the Tikkun community, the pastors and congregation at All Saints survived the intimidation and stood tall. The military families and Veterans for Peace lent moral credibility and urgency. Even the most sectarian and difficult groups have to be credited with putting people in the streets year after year. And my favorites are the small groups who have demonstrated on their neighborhood street corners every Friday for a decade, whatever the weather, knowing the sun also rises and night is never permanent.

Anybody I forgot, forgive me, send in the omission, and I will add. As Bobby Sands once said, everyone has a role to play. Peace.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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