At a time when the continuing economic crisis is creating ever more hardship for the vast majority of Americans and placing ever greater demands on the federal budget, we need clearheaded leadership that is able to strip away myth and dogma and define afresh our most pressing problems and the right strategy for dealing with them. Sadly, in announcing his administration’s decision to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan on top of the 68,000 already there, President Obama has fallen short of this test of leadership.
Not only did the president and his national security team reject far less costly options that would have allowed us to disengage militarily from the conflict in a responsible way; they have decided on a strategy that is so full of muddled thinking and so wasteful of lives and resources that it must be opposed as contrary to the best interests of the American people. And his vow to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 seems not so much part of a carefully considered stabilization strategy for Afghanistan as a way to placate growing Congressional and popular opposition to a war entering its ninth year.
As Obama argued in his West Point speech, the principal purpose of our involvement is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” But he failed to explain why that goal requires 100,000 troops at a cost of nearly $100 billion. By the military’s own calculation, there are at most 100 Al Qaeda operatives, mostly low-level, in Afghanistan, the leadership having fled to Pakistan years ago.
In making this war the key to America’s national security strategy against terrorism, Obama has chosen to perpetuate some damaging myths. The first of these is the notion that the greatest danger to American security is a terrorist attack from Afghanistan. This ignores the fact that 9/11 was not launched from Afghanistan and that Al Qaeda can operate relatively freely not only in parts of Pakistan but in Somalia, Yemen and other countries. The best way to keep Americans safe from terrorism is through effective intelligence, expert police work and judicious homeland defense. These practical measures cost far less than war and occupation in Muslim lands, which arouse hatred of the United States–and give strength to Islamist extremists.
The president nonetheless suggested that there is a larger US interest in stabilizing Afghanistan. But if that is so, he did not explain how a strategy that has so far failed will be successful in the future. He seems to be buying into the counterinsurgency myth: namely, that by deploying more forces to protect the Afghan population in urban centers, by laying down more benchmarks for the government, by mixing in more economic assistance and by training more army and police, we can transform Afghanistan into a coherent nation-state with a functioning government.
The undeniable fact is that eight years of US occupation and war have led to a growing insurgency, fueled by anger at one of the world’s most corrupt governments, run mostly by former and not-so-former warlords who were installed by the United States after 9/11. Many of these warlords are deeply involved in the opium trade, among them the brother of Hamid Karzai, the president, who was re-elected only through massive fraud. Obama was not very convincing when he acknowledged this fraud even as he declared that the resulting government was consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and Constitution. And he did not inspire confidence that we will improve our ability to train the Afghan army and police, given current desertion rates.
Although Obama declared that success in Afghanistan is “inextricably linked” to our “partnership” with Pakistan, he has turned reality on its head by embracing the Pakistan myth: that stabilizing Afghanistan is the key to stabilizing Pakistan. But US pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan is pushing more militants into Pakistan, with the potential for upsetting the delicate political balance there and spreading the Pakistani insurgency beyond the border regions. As many experts argue, elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services support the Taliban not because they are afraid we’re going to leave but because they worry we are going to stay and further open up their backyard to Indian influence. As we should have learned from the past few years, Pakistanis will confront Islamist extremists only when they feel threatened by them, not because a very unpopular Washington wants them to. The Obama administration is deluding itself and the American people if it believes its counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is going to change that reality in any appreciable way. And America’s covert counterinsurgency in Pakistan itself (see Jeremy Scahill’s investigation on page 11) is all too likely to deepen what is already widespread anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis.
This is a tragic moment for the nation and for Obama’s presidency. It is true that it would have taken great courage for Obama to do the right thing and end his predecessor’s war. He would have faced harsh blowback from the right, the military and the media establishment. But in a war-weary and economically distressed nation, Obama could have used his impressive oratorical and political skills to marshal the public to his side. Instead, with this escalation, we see the continuing grip of the national security state, whose premises have been shared by conservative and liberal hawks for close to sixty years, and which essentially remain unchallenged among the establishment and the mainstream media. Obama is now at risk of being held hostage to this mindset, as a war bequeathed to him by a reckless and destructive administration becomes his own.
The failure to explore alternatives to military escalation reveals a deeper structural problem: the fact that there are too few countervailing voices or centers of power and authority to challenge the liberal hawks and interventionists, and rarely are they allowed to enter the halls of power.
Our work now as progressives is to expose the premises of this failed national security state as no longer capable of addressing the challenges of our time, from global pandemics and global warming to economic inequality and instability to nuclear proliferation and, yes, decentralized networks of terrorists. We must be strong advocates for diplomacy and security rather than military ventures that cost American lives and legitimacy. Toward the end of his speech, Obama said, “Our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people.” Let’s hold him to his word and channel the widespread disappointment over this misguided escalation into a broad-based movement–working with Congress, activists and concerned citizens everywhere–to bring our soldiers home.