Posted on March 27, 2009, Printed on March 27, 2009
The Center for American Progress has positioned itself as a "progressive" Washington think tank, especially suited to channel new thinking and expertise into the Obama administration. It therefore is deeply disappointing that CAP has issued a call for a ten-year war in Afghanistan, including an immediate military escalation, just as President Obama prepares to unveil his Afghanistan/Pakistan policies to the American public and NATO this week.
It is likely that Obama will follow most of CAP's strategic advice, assuming the think tank to be the progressive wing of what's possible within the Beltway.
That means a long counter-insurgency war ahead, with everything from massive incarcerations and detention to Predator strikes that amass increasing civilian casualties. CAP begins by calling on the president to meet the request of his commander in Afghanistan for another 15,000 troops in addition to the 17,000 Obama already has committed, which would bring the near-term US total to 70,000. To pay for these additional troops, CAP proposes redirecting $25 billion annually from combat in Iraq to Afghanistan. In addition, CAP favors up to $5 billion annually for diplomatic and economic assistance, also from a redirection of Iraq spending.
Even assuming the economic assistance reaches villages instead of corrupt middlemen, CAP's primary emphasis is a military one, sending larger numbers of American troops on a counterinsurgency mission in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as the outskirts of Kabul. Make no mistake, the American mission will be to fight, kill and capture, and, is intended to leave NATO allies in secondary training roles. The CAP proposal seems to flesh out the Obama strategy already described in a New York Times January 28 headline, "Aides Say Obama's Afghan Aims Elevate War Over Development." The CAP report calculates that in FY 2009, "the ration of funding for military forces versus non-military international engagement is 18 to 1."
There is no exit strategy contemplated in the CAP proposal, although the president apparently is been asking for one behind the scenes. Nor is there any projected cap on future escalation The CAP timeline, front-loaded with military force, is as fanciful about Afghanistan/Pakistan as the neo-conservatives were towards Iraq in the Nineties:
* In the next 18 months, a combat/counterinsurgency push to prevent Afghanistan from being a "safe haven for terrorist and extremist groups with a global reach"; prevent the destabilization of Pakistan by creating "a stable civilian government committed to working toward the elimination of terrorist safe havens" there.
* In three to five years, create a "viable Afghan economy", curb the poppy trade, promote democracy and human rights, and resolve regional tensions.
* In ten years, build an Afghan state that can defend itself, and "prepare for full military withdrawal."
As a practical matter, all that is certain is that there will be blood. When the problem is a nail, reach for the hammer. But military occupation, particularly a surge of US troops into the Pashtun region in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the surest way to inflame nationalist resistance and greater support for the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai said last December that "the coalition went around Afghan villages, burst into people's homes and has been committing extraditional killings in our country." A United Nations investigator made the same point in 2008, accusing the CIA and Special Forces "of conducting nighttime raids and killing civilians in Afghanistan with impunity." Pakistan's prime minister said the same years that "if America wants to see itself clean of terrorists, we also want that our villages and towns should not be bombed." As a January 2009 report by the Carnegie Endowment concluded, "the only meaningful way to halt the insurgency's momentum is to start withdrawing troops. The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban."
CAP takes no notice of the torture and detention without human rights protections at Kabul's Bagram prison, now undergoing massive expansion. Obama's team already says his anti-torture executive order does not cover the hundreds detained in Afghanistan, so it is likely that the American forces will launch a massive "preventive incarceration" campaign in the months ahead. CAP's silence on this matter is especially disturbing since the think tank expressed deep concern over the same policies in Iraq.
Many Americans are confused, but it is not necessary to have a West Point or Ivy League degree to understand the heart of the matter. Whether it is the street of LA or the alleys of Kabul, law-and-order always comes first along with promises of jobs and development "later", a later that gradually becomes never. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the levels of suffering are among the most extreme in the world, and from suffering, from having nothing to live for, comes the will to die for a cause.
United Nations recent development data places Afghanistan 173rd out of 178 countries; Pakistan is 136th. According to such estimates, about sixty percent of children in the Pashtun areas are "moderately" or "severely" stunted. In Afghanistan as a whole, such children will be spared miserable lives because the country has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. No more need be said.
As to the threat from al Qaeda, it is understandable that the president would define himself as an aggressive commander-in-chief. But he must wonder if our killing so many civilians and stunting so many children won't result in yet another generation dying to hate us. He must wonder if he is squandering the good will of the world, including the Muslim world, by sending more Americans to kill and die in a quagmire. He must recognize that he is putting his eight-year presidency on the line.
He must wonder too, as he approaches his meetings in Europe, why NATO is occupying countries so far from its base in the mainly-white Western world. It is hard to avoid the hint that the white man's burden is falling on the shoulders of our first African-American president. The only solution to the Afghanistan/Pakistan quagmires has to be a regional one, as argued forcefully by Tariq Ali in his recent book, as well as by Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid, but NATO is the stranger in the neighborhood. CAP recognizes this critical problem, as does Hillary Clinton who will meet the regional players at the Hague next week. The problem is that NATO, burdened with imperial assumptions, would like China, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics constituting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to be satellite parties to the Western occupation of Afghanistan/Pakistan. But the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while having serious stakes in quelling instability in the region, calls on the US and NATO to go home.
Can the burden be sustained politically and economically for ten years more? Already Canada and the Netherlands have set timelines for withdrawing their forces, assigned now to the most violent regions of southern Afghanistan. Germany may be the next to balk. And with the American economy in shambles, can anyone envision a war whose costs will exceed one trillion dollars a decade from now? Only the neo-conservatives, if Iraq is any example, which makes it tragic that CAP has aligned itself with their strategy of the "long war."
Tom Hayden was a leader of the student, civil rights, peace and environmental movements of the 1960s. He served 18 years in the California legislature, where he chaired labor, higher education and natural resources committees. He is the author of ten books, including "Street Wars" (New Press, 2004). He is a professor at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and was a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics last fall.