Obama’s Afghan Plan

President Barack Obama inherited two seemingly intractable wars, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, alongside a financial crisis that continues to escalate. Obama positioned himself against the unpopular Iraq war, but he did not place himself in the anti-war camp. It had become strategically important for his electoral success to make the claim that President George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq had reduced the pressure on Al Qaeda and that it therefore increased the insecurity of the United States.

From the very first, then, the Afghanistan war was to be the good war, while Iraq was the bad war. The anti-war movement’s Left flank went along with the Obama tidal wave because it enabled part of its goal to be met: it brought the criticism of the Iraq war to the mainstream and it rejected the view that U.S. security could only be purchased from the barrel of a gun. The anti-war movement’s liberal section was never against war itself but only against the Iraq war. It is this unstable union of those who opposed the Iraq war only and those who opposed U.S. war-mongering in general that has now come apart.

On February 27, Obama made a cautious statement about drawdown from Iraq, promising to remove 142,000 troops and to end all combat operations by August 31, 2010. This appeased the liberal anti-Iraq war wing, who were broadly pleased with the “responsible” and “thoughtful” exit strategy, even as some of them wanted the timetable to be shortened.

The Left anti-war bloc was disappointed by the vagueness of the statement, which did not touch on the question of a permanent military presence (through bases). “The good news is that he has a plan,” said Leslie Cagan of United for Peace & Justice (a Left anti-war coalition), “and that obviously his election in no small measure was the result of the massive anti-war sentiment in the country, and he understands that.” The bad news is that U.S. militarism continues, and “our work as an anti-war movement is far from over,” said Leslie Cagan.

In early April, Obama earned the approval of two-thirds of the U.S. population, much higher than that of Bush and Bill Clinton at this point in their presidencies. Two wars, a complex financial crisis, and a major national debate on his stimulus spending have not dented his enormous popularity. The typical mood is to give Obama time to try out his policies. Republican grumbles sound like bitterness. In fact, the Republican Party has now dissolved into irrelevance, being caught up in an internecine debate over its future (much the same happened to the Conservatives when Tony Blair first took office in 1997). The Democrats are loath to criticise Obama, and Democrat-leaning groups are equally wary.

The 77-member Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) in the U.S. House of Representatives has been very quiet, offering suggestions that are couched in reverence. Representative Jose Serrano of the Bronx, New York, was an outspoken critic of the Bush wars. After Obama’s speech in which he spoke about the plan to withdraw by 2010, Serrano offered his support and then carefully tried to say more: “Do I wish [the withdrawal date] was nine months [from now]? Absolutely. Do I wish [the U.S. would leave] zero troops? Absolutely.” The tone of both Serrano and Leslie Cagan’s comments is also indicative of how far one can go with criticism; the good news comes first, and then, gently, the bad.

Obama’s February 27 statement seems to have removed Iraq from the table. Over the past four months, the U.S. economy has shed an average of 684,000 jobs. Attention within the U.S. is now on the precariousness of one’s livelihood. Over the past five years, the U.S. military had a hard time filling its ranks. Now things have changed. The military says that the upsurge in recruitment has to do with the good news coming out of Iraq, but the surveys they have conducted show that the spur is the poor civilian job market (and a reduction in the military’s standards for who it recruits). Military spokesperson Eileen Lainez told the CNN: “Recruiting is always a challenge, but a tighter job market provides many opportunities to make our case to young men and women.”

The regular news of bomb blasts have now been moved to the centre pages of the newspapers, and they have all but disappeared from the television news. Such disturbances are no longer news, having become what the U.S. population assumes is the normal condition of life in Iraq. Only 42 U.S. troops died in the first three months of this year compared with 108 in the first three months of 2008 and 245 in 2007 during the same period.

A new book by The Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, claims that the great victory in Iraq is not far and that the credit for it should go to the Surge that began in 2007. This sort of account provides comfort that Obama’s gradual withdrawal will now end what should never have begun in the first place.

The real war, Obama suggests, is the Afghan one: Bush should have prosecuted that conflict with all the resources of the U.S. government rather than shifting talent and firepower to Iraq. The imputed success of the Surge led to a section of the Obama administration making the case for more military force and greater concentration of power to clamp down on the insurgency, to repeat, in other words, the Iraq game plan. The army, it said, should not concentrate on the interdiction of the enemy, but on the protection of the population. That is the basis of the Surge. But another camp in the administration called for an alternative strategy.

Writing in The Guardian (March 30), Representative Mike Honda of California captured the tenor of this second approach: “This administration recognises the benefits of a more comprehensive security strategy and that we must help the tribal Pashtun-Pathans feel secure by making sure they have a crop that won’t be sprayed, a school that functions, a hospital that is stocked with basic supplies, and a job that pays more than $3 a week. That is a definition of security that is likely to provide more long-term security, given what we know about increased income, employment and educational enrolment correlating directly with decreased risks of violent conflict.”

The Obama plan on Afghanistan draws from both sections of his administration, with a commitment to troop increase to try out the Surge and an increased commitment to social spending to bolster the well-being of Afghans. The plan makes no mention of an exit strategy, and neither does it promote the start of a genuine political arena within Afghanistan. For instance, the creation of political parties to harness the opinions in the country into a democratic process.

The split in the Obama position (many more guns, some more butter) disabled unity within both the CPC and the anti-war movement in general. The two co-chairs of the CPC disagreed, with Representative Lynn Woolsey of California taking a strong anti-war position and Representative Ray Grijalva of Arizona adopting the Obama strategy. Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, like Lynn Woolsey, came out against the Obama plan, saying, “I simply cannot endorse a budget or a plan that sends more of our brave men and women to Afghanistan, a conflict which has the potential to become this generation’s Vietnam.”

The Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus is also split on Afghanistan, here between Lynn Woolsey and Representative Barbara Lee of California. Barbara Lee is the only one in the U. S. Congress who voted against the authorisation of the war against Afghanistan in 2001, but she is as yet silent. (Her office says that she will offer only a joint statement with Lynn Woolsey, and that they are working on this.) The CPC held a vibrant forum on March 25 on “Afghanistan: A Road Map for Progress”, and has planned to hold five more such forums. The CPC is using these forums as a way to study the issues and to derive a policy based on their own discussions. It is not clear when it will be ready to have a single policy framework to offer as an alternative to the Obama plan.

Fractured movement

The anti-war movement that is outside the Congress is much more fractured. Sections of the liberal wing that opposed the Iraq war are now closely aligned with the Obama administration. The Centre for American Progress, MoveOn, the Service Employees International Union, and Win Without War were the core elements of the Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI). This group spent millions of dollars to stop the Bush agenda and, later, to elect Obama to the presidency.

The Centre for American Progress became the main conduit for those who entered Obama’s administration (its head, John Podesta, ran the Obama transition team). During the debate within the administration, the Centre set up the Sustainable Security in Afghanistan team, whose report, authored by Lawrence Korb and others, was released in March 2009. The report warned the administration not to mimic the Iraq Surge, but yet it did not offer any plan for de-escalation or withdrawal. It called for more military commitment, as well as more economic commitment, the same tonic that would eventually find its way into the Obama plan.

The AAEI was run by three men, all of whom are now in the Obama administration: Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes are political aides to Obama, while Brad Woodhouse is Obama’s Director of Communications and Research. MoveOn, meanwhile, has abandoned its anti-war activism for a new grassroots campaign on clean energy and health care. The liberals, in other words, have abandoned the anti-war terrain. A demonstration held in Washington, D.C., on March 21 failed to draw the kind of crowds that came to anti-war protests before the past election. A few thousand people gathered, as Jerry Young of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars asked, “How can we ensure that our next demonstration is larger than this one?”

Groups such as Code Pink, World to Win, PeaceAction, American Friends Service Committee, the United for Peace & Justice coalition, and ANSWER have begun to test the waters, to see whether they can galvanise people into action against the build-up in Afghanistan and the continuation of warfare in Iraq. A recent poll shows that 42 per cent of the U.S. population opposes the Afghan escalation. The anti-war movement will try to speak for this sizable number, as will the CPC. But first it will have to figure out how to move the population around Obama.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).