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Jonesing in Afghanistan and Iraq

Tom Hayden: The will, the force, and the momentum sustaining American combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are in definite decline as President Obama orders the pullout of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan.
marines afghanistan

Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

American combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is ending. Not that flare-ups, implosions and dramas aren’t ahead. Not that blood won’t be spilled. Not that drones won’t attack from the skies of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. Not that secret ops won’t happen, or American advisers won’t be embedded in obscure places.

But the will, the force, and the momentum sustaining American combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are in definite decline as President Obama orders the pullout of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan and ponders whether to leave a minimal force of 3-4,000 in Iraq.

Here is how the Los Angeles Times reported the good news for peace this week:

“President Obama will announce a plan to slash more than $3 trillion from the nation’s deficit over the next decade by winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, raising taxes on wealthier Americans, closing tax loopholes and cutting the cost of Medicare...senior White House officials said.”(September 19, 2011)

To underscore the shift, the Times reported,

“the Pentagon is planning to slash US assistance to Afghanistan’s army and police by more than half over the next three years, settling for a no-frills Afghan security force to battle the Taliban-led insurgency after American forces pull out...the White House increasingly views high spending on the beleaguered Afghan military as unsustainable and has pressured the Pentagon for steeper cuts than previously planned.” (September 12, 2011)

These decisions are sure to cause a powerful, unpredictable tipping effect on the regimes in Kabul and Baghdad and across the NATO alliance. Without serious diplomatic-political initiatives, sectarian conflict could boil up again, this time with little Western will to intervene. President Obama’s initiatives are sure to have strong domestic support – unless either or both of the shaky client regimes implode amidst angry recrimination by the Pentagon, the Republicans and the mainstream media seeking to blame Obama. The September 13 Taliban/insurgent attacks on the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, followed by the September 20 assassination of Afghanistan’s top reconciliation negotiator, are ominous signs that the Western occupation is nearing collapse. There may be calls for Obama’s phased withdrawal to end, an unlikely prospect so far.

Obama’s war spending policy was previewedseveral weeks ago when Senate Democrats united to include $1.2 trillion for winding down the wars in their budget proposal. The House Democrats, along with a few Republicans, already were there, waiting for the Senate to concur. The Republican response was that the $1.2 trillion was a budgetary gimmick but, significantly, there was no concerted opposition based on Republican support for continued military operations.

Peace advocates may experience withdrawal symptoms of their own during this process, as public opinion turns toward the domestic economic crisis while the wars appear to end. Those who insist that there is “no difference” between the two parties, or that Obama is just another imperialist, may find themselves isolated and unable to take any credit for shaping the public opinion, which is making peace possible. Those who believe America is locked in a “forever war”, or that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue indefinitely, may have to look for other nightmares.

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That is not to say the US withdrawals will be transparent. Machiavellian powers always cover up their retreats in order to protect their reputations. See, for example, the June 25 New York Times op-ed by Gideon Rose, editor ofForeign Affairs, a position virtually making him the voice of the national security establishment. In his article, “What Would Nixon Do?” Rose proposes three rules for departing powers:

  • “You do not talk about withdrawal.”
  • “Lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind.”
  • “Remain engaged, providing enough support to beleaguered local partners so they can fend off collapse for as soon as possible.”

These are cynical propositions in the extreme, but that’s politics. Ignorance of these rules of the game could disempower the peace movement and leave millions of Americans not knowing who to credit and whom to blame. Rose’ advice to presidents trapped in quagmires continues as follows:

“You may agree with the doves about the value of exiting, but you should respect the hawks’ fears about what will happen once people realize what you are doing. You must deflect attention from the true state of affairs, doing everything you can to keep your foes and even your friends in the dark as long as possible.”

No wonder many peace advocates are disappointed with the Obama policy, because if the president follows the advice of the Foreign Affairs editor he will have to keep his friends in the dark.

For clarity, let me summarize what is not likely to change. The Long War, which I have previously described in theLos Angeles TimesThe Nation, and Bulletin will continue through secret operations and predator drones, but without contingents of ground troops costing $168 billion per year, this fiscal year’s sum. A Pentagon strategy relying on Special Forces and aerial bombardment can lessen domestic public awareness, kill targeted insurgent leaders, and deploy mercenary armies, but cannot succeed on the ground without the option of occupying other countries. Will the militarists persuade Obama to invade Pakistan with ground troops? The itch to invade is there, but budget realities and political limits may make it impossible – and erase the possibility of an Afghan settlement involving Pakistan. Obama will have to escalate or negotiate, weighing the political and budget liabilities of sending ground troops into yet another country in an election year.

If he follows the establishment advice offered by Rose, Obama will continue withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and avoid the pressure to send troops into Pakistan. To do so, he will have to come to terms with Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey, the regional powers most able to forge a Pakistan settlement (See Brian Downing, “The Great Afghan Carve-Up”, Asia Times, April 27, 2011). Turkey, a NATO state, may be his closest intermediary. This diplomatic process, too, is likely to be hidden.

A principled few Americans will continue opposition to the wars, researching, writing, advocating, protesting and lobbying to speed the peace process to the very end. The Long War on Terrorism will still need informed and credible opposition. So will the insidious expansion of the Secret State, and US entanglements with unpopular regimes. At the same time, there is a rising need for the larger picture to be confronted, the legacy of an frustrated empire abroad which has stripped American domestic budgets of adequate funding for education, health, and infrastructure needs while maintaining a dangerous dependence on oil, coal and nuclear power. Ending the current wars will save trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, but does not guarantee the dawn of a more democratic and equitable America future.

tom hayden

Tom Hayden
The Peace and Justice Resource Center

See also by Tom Hayden at The Nation, "White House vs. Military Over the Iraq Endgame."

Republished with permission.