The Hopes for Obama May Die in Afghanistan

Marc Pilisuk

afghanistanSometimes we separate foreign policy and national security issues from our domestic agenda, leaving the former inordinately in the hands of experts and officials. Today, we do so at our peril.

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has begun an escalation of the war in Afghanistan while U.S. citizens weigh in on abortion, clean fuels and health coverage. Despite the financial meltdown, hopes abound for major changes in health care, education and the green economy. Sadly, this may all be lost in the inhospitable mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and its Pakistan border. Recent efforts to kill militants are predictably killing civilians and creating enemies. The prospect of widening this war threatens to undo the hopes that have been raised by the Obama presidency.

As a candidate, Obama pointed out, it was not just the vote to allow the invasion of Iraq but the whole mindset encouraging such a policy that was wrong. That same mindset was one that drew the world into adversarial camps in a fight for ultimate victory with unrestricted use of military means. It was a view voiced before by the brightest and the best as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations drew the U.S. into a war in Vietnam. That war was precipitated by false evidence, continued by massive public deception, escalated time and again when each previous promise of victory and each call for escalation proved itself to be wrong.

Fear of admitting we were wrong led to one new tactic after another. With military efforts bogged down in unfriendly jungle areas, we resorted to the use of toxic herbicides and “open target area” bombing, burning villages, torturing peasants for information, propping up a succession of puppet governments — all ineffective against an enemy that disappeared among its supporters and grew increasingly committed to repel the invaders. Efforts to “win the minds and hearts” of people were undermined by military violence and a nearly universal wish to get the U.S. trops out of their country. The heralded program of “Vietnamization,” the arming and training of pro-government “pacifiers” proved a costly failure. By the time it ended 58,000 American soldiers and two million Vietnamese had died. Many more faced the lasting effects of land mines, Agent Orange exposure, PTSD, and substance abuse.

But for President Lyndon Johnson who was voted in with a landslide on the hope and promise for a “war on poverty” and building “the great society,” the Vietnam war proved to be a huge drain. It was the end of his dream and a closing of the opportunity to be honored in history. And some of the best and the brightest insiders were forced to admit that they had not understood either the culture or the history of Vietnamese resistance against Chinese, Japanese and French invaders. Those who had opposed the war from the start were right but the moment for change had been lost.

Now Secretary of Defense Gates acknowledges that Afghan soldiers and police will have to take the lead to counter the expected Afghan public turning against foreign troops occupying their country. At the same time he announces the sending of three brigades of U.S. troops and vice-president Biden presses Europe to send more. Predictions of what will happen here are no more realistic than those made by the former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and former vice-president Cheney who told us, six years ago, that the invasion of Iraq would be quick and result in a secure and democratic Middle East. Instead, the families of more than one million killed and four million displaced Iraqis have learned to despise the United States. The argument in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, will be over tactics but the underlying mindset will doom the effort. Afghanistan through history has been a graveyard for empires that sent military incursions.

The mindset is a strategic game called “kill the bad guys.” It begins with naming an enemy as the center for a new war against a new evil and it has led us to military incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The planned escalation of war in Afghanistan repeats the mindset and the blindness of the Pentagon and CIA officials who provided the daily briefings to the President during the Vietnam era. Each day they recount acts of military resistance, the bombing of the Khyber Pass bridge, new caches of weapons being delivered, the leads provided to a secret intelligence unit that some paid informant was telling us which house to bomb to kill some militant leader. The President will hear of “success” claimed by military authorities in getting the U.S.-supported government in Kabul, or in Islamabad, to cooperate with us at the cost of increased internal strife in their own countries. He will not hear daily reports about how the expanding costs of that war are draining our economy and our soul, with no end in sight.

Afghanistan is a strategic gateway for trade between Europe and India. Its history has been a battle of invaders from Alexander the Great in 328 BC, to the Huns, the Turks, the Arabs, and Imperial Britain. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets were met by Mujahedeen resistance fighters who were supported by the U.S., Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1989, the USSR withdrew leaving the land in ruin and the warring factions in chaos. Civil war ensued in which tribes fought for control. By 1996 the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban movement ruled most of Afghanistan, but it was met with resistance from the Northern Alliance, supported by Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The legacy of that war includes a country with a 64% illiteracy rate, a reported 48% of its children suffering from malnutrition, and a life expectancy of 46 years according to a World Bank Report of 2001. By the time of the destruction of the World Trade Center the Taliban were the government of Afghanistan. They asked to see the evidence against Osama bin Laden. The U.S. refused to provide the evidence. It is not only Afghans but a significant portion of the U.S. population who have still not been convinced by the evidence of sole responsibility by Osama bin Laden.

Planning to remake Afghanistan in the back offices of the Pentagon is to repeat the neglect of cultural and historical factors in Vietnam. The Afghanistan people are worldly through contacts with traders and conquerors, yet isolated by terrain and a 250 year-old agreement permitting self-governance for its tribal leaders. This tribal federalism defies U. S.-led coalition attempts to superimpose a central government. Ten major tribes speak more than 30 languages. Lacking a national identity, Afghans do not refer to themselves as Afghans until they leave Afghanistan. Contrast this reality with the U.S. plan to arm and train Afghan soldiers and police. When this was tried in Vietnam the effort helped to undermine the U.S. supported South Vietnam authority. The military were filled with Vietcong supporters who transferred military equipment to them. The loyalty of different Afghan soldiers will reside with their family tribal units and not with a central government supported by a foreign power. Setting up a network of local units to receive aid in return for turning in Vietcong supporters was tried and failed in Vietnam. It will not work against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghans have never left a centuries-old agricultural, tribal existence. 85% are farmers and herders of sheep and goats, many nomadic, moving with their herds. Their sparse existence is upon a land that has been destroyed by years of war and drought: 10 million landmines, unsafe drinking water that must be avoided by children and adults, herbicide destruction of crops along with poppy fields, livestock have perished, and rural economies have collapsed. There are few economic options in Afghanistan beyond labor migration, becoming a mercenary or cultivating opium. The global trade in illegal drugs generates billions of dollars in profits for the refiners and distributors. But for the farmers it is their only way to eke out a bare living to feed large families, since other crops yield no profit at all. The only drop in opium cultivation followed a time when a U.S.-supported Taliban religious leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, invoked a mandate to stop growing poppies. All that has been reversed since the U.S. military incursion. Now opium is their only tradable commodity.

Liberating Afghanistan

Both the U. S. and Britain saw the drug trade as a threat to Afghanistan’s economy and the burgeoning democracy that they have tried, unsuccessfully, to set up in Kabul. The publicized post-invasion gains in education for girls and voting in elections have affected only a miniscule number of people in the cities. When regions anywhere become highly militarized, the results are worse for women. Rapes, prostitution and trafficking increase sharply. For the rest, war brings disaster and deaths of civilians doom efforts at community outreach. A military occupation is violent and insensitive to the history and culture of the region. It has cast into doubt the idea that either democracy or legitimate economic development can be attained by military force.

The paradox is that war increases poverty, degrades living and incites people to strike back violently. Weapons flow to Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition and from international traffickers. If stabilizing the economy and democracy in Afghanistan are true goals, rural communities will need alternatives to the credit, employment, and cash incomes that opium provides. They do not need U.S. soldiers.

Afghanistan does have the location for a pipeline for oil to the Caspian Sea. But the short booms created by massive construction projects replace what few viable resources people had before. Contractors lobby for such contracts as props to the local economy. Such projects, however, do not support small farms, schools or medical facilities. Instead they devastate the ecology leaving people as impoverished as they were before.

The U.S.-led war of retaliation against al-Qaeda has killed many more civilians than were killed in the bombing of the World Trade Center. The continuing war and the extreme poverty in Afghanistan have sent more than four million people to take refuge in other countries and several hundred thousand have been displaced within their own country. Many live in refugee camps. They witness family members die of starvation, particularly in the winter. Some have fled to join militant Muslim groups across the Pakistan border. Aerial raids kill civilians and make enemies. Hot pursuit of suspected militants terrorizes civilians and turns them into supporters of terrorist resistance. Whether the Pakistan government officially condones such actions matters little since many civilians in Pakistan, some equipped and trained by decades of U.S. military assistance, support the resistance of their tribal relatives in Afghanistan.

The administration has begun spreading the war to Pakistan, a nation with over 100 million people, an historically autocratic military with nuclear weapons at its disposal. The largest tribal group are Pashtun, 40 million strong, who are the most offended by the U.S. military incursion. U.S. policy, since its encouragement of the Mujhadeen to disrupt the Soviet Union, has assured that Iran on the western border and the ex-Soviet states on the northern border will not be helpful to any military effort.

The Change We Need

President Obama on whom so many hopes for change now rest, has said he would send more troops to Afghanistan — but he has also pledged not to send troops anywhere without a clearly defined mission and an exit strategy. Afghanistan does need help. It needs help to lessen hunger, to restore lost herds. It needs help in removing land mines and providing medical care. It needs dialogue with how best to preclude terrorist activities by militants in their country and by the coalition forces against suspected enemies. It needs a respectful dialogue with Taliban leaders. They need to hear the leader of the world’s most powerful country saying that collateral damage is illegal, that it is terrorism and not to be U.S. policy–just as it must not be the policy of adversaries. They need to hear Obama repeat to Washington insiders the words of British Prime Minster Arthur Gladstone more than a century past: “Remember the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as your own.” Such actions would do more to protect our security than military measures could ever hope to achieve.

And we in the U.S. need to hear President Obama rise to the stature shown in his candidacy when he spoke about race and how it is used to blame and scapegoat instead of permitting the needed change for economic justice. He now needs to tell the American people that if we allow the military intelligence community to create exaggerated fear of enemies, we will never make the turn to a society in which hopes can flourish. We need to hear that dialogue is the first measure of the courage needed to protect our lives.

More troops, tanks, helicopters and drones will only widen an unwise and an un-winnable war. That was the path in Vietnam and it doomed the Great Society and Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as well. Homeless veterans of that war are still pan-handling on our streets. War in Afghanistan will drain scarce funds, divide this country and bury President Obama’s domestic agenda. What a tragic mistake and a loss for all of us!

PsySR member Marc Pilisuk is Professor Emeritus, the University of California, and Professor, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. Marc is the author (with Jennifer Achord Rountree) of Who Benefits from Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System (Greenwood/Praeger, 2008). He can be reached at


2 Responses to “The Hopes for Obama May Die in Afghanistan”

  1. Stan Krasnoff Says:

    Clear thinking is needed in Afghanistan. In 2001 acting in the defense of the Homeland post 9/11, the Northern Alliance, with heavy US fire support, ousted the Taliban and cornered el Qaeda in the mountains of Tora Bora. Instead of sending in a US Ranger or Marine Brigade to collar the remnants—which would have dovetailed with the post 9/11 mission—the US sat on its hands allowing the Northern Alliance to broker a dubious cease-fire. In the seven years that the Bush administration ‘took its eye off the ball’ Karzai failed to rein in the Taliban, Hisb-i-Islami, and Haqqanis. He also failed to curb corruption within his administration. Presidential elections are scheduled for Afghanistan in August 2009. Karzai would have a hard time getting 20% of the votes. The people blame the US and NATO for the increase in the power of the warlords. The United National Front (Northern Alliance) in parliament, demand a change in the constitution to bring in a parliamentary system of government with political parties and elections by proportional representation. An international meeting to settle the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan through the United Nations has been called for; the meeting to include all neighboring states as well as representation from Afghanistan’s political groups, including the armed opposition. The Bush administration, in the past, has opposed this. What is Obama’s position? Under the circumstances it would be wise for the US to limit military operations to search and destroy tasks aimed at fulfilling its original mission of capturing bin Laden and destroying el Qaeda, and keep away from ‘Americanizing’ attempts at nation building, failed examples of which are legion.

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