The hopes riding upon the Obama presidency to enact bold changes in health care, education and a green economy may all be lost to a war in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan.
Recent polls show public support for U.S. military action in Afghanistan to be dwindling and congressional opposition to be rising. There is of course continued support among suppliers of helicopters and military equipment, and for some military planners it is a key outpost in a global war against an organized network of terror.
Reasonable sounding military leaders are making the case for adding American and NATO forces until a democratic Afghan government with a well-trained Afghan military can maintain control. They brief the President each day on why the next escalation step is needed after the previous one had failed. In its general outline, this is a rerun of the Vietnam War. The guiding myth then was that losing the war in Vietnam would start the dominos falling in the direction of Soviet style communism through all of southeast Asia. The new myth is that some international terrorist group will be deterred by taking away its safe haven.
Always when troops are increased the enemy is demonized. They are warlords, drug lords and abusers of women’s rights. Strangely, similar conditions in Saudi Arabia or in Colombia seem not to rate headlines. RAWA, the leading democratic women’s rights organization in Afghanistan is clear in its assessment. War is cruel to women. They want the U.S. and all foreign militaries out.
As a candidate, President Obama pointed out that it was not just the vote to allow the invasion of Iraq but the entire mindset encouraging such a policy that was wrong. The flawed mindset begins with naming an evil enemy as the target for a new war. This led us to military incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The planned escalation in Afghanistan repeats the blindness of the Vietnam-era Pentagon.
That mindset drew the world into adversarial camps fighting for ultimate victory with unrestricted military might. It was a view voiced before as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations drew the U.S. into a war in Vietnam. That war was started and continued by public deception, escalated repeatedly after each new military venture had failed. We resorted to toxic herbicides, saturation bombing, burning villages, propping up a succession of puppet governments — all ineffective against an enemy that disappeared among its supporters and was committed to repel the invaders.
Efforts to win the minds and hearts were undermined by military violence. Arming pro-government “pacifiers” proved a costly failure. When war ended, 58,000 American soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese had died. Many more faced lasting effects of land mines, Agent Orange exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Pursuit of enemies into Cambodia contributed to genocide in that country.
President Johnson had been elected in a landslide on the promise of a “war on poverty” and building “the Great Society.” Instead, the Vietnam War drained us and ended his opportunity to be honored in history. Some who advised him admitted they had not understood the culture or the history of Vietnamese resistance against Chinese, Japanese and French invaders. The moment for change had been lost.
Afghanistan is a 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 with Mujahedeen 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 chaotic civil war. By 1996 the fundamentalist Taliban movement ruled most of Afghanistan, but was met with resistance from the Northern Alliance, supported by Russia. The war was in a country with a 64% illiteracy rate, 48% of its children suffering from malnutrition.
Planning to remake Afghanistan in the halls of the Pentagon is to repeat the errors of Vietnam. The Afghanistan people are worldly through contacts with traders and conquerors, yet isolated by terrain and by 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.
Afghans lead a centuries-old agricultural, tribal existence. 85% are farmers and herders, 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, herbicide destruction of crops along with poppy fields. Livestock have perished and rural economies have collapsed. There are few options in Afghanistan beyond labor migration, becoming a mercenary or cultivating opium. For the farmers it is their only way to eke out a living to feed large families, since other crops yield no profit at all. The drug trade is the main economy in Afghanistan, providing the main support of the militant opponents of U.S. intervention but providing an even greater support for the U.S. supported government — recent contested elections notwithstanding
The U.S. led war of retaliation against al-Qaida has killed many more civilians than were killed in the bombing of the World Trade Center. Four million people have taken refuge in other countries. Others live in refugee camps and witness family members die of starvation. Some 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. Pakistani citizens, some equipped and trained by decades of U.S. military assistance, support the resistance of their tribal Pashtoon relatives in Afghanistan. And massive opposition by Pakistanis’ to U.S. killing of civilians in Pakistan is particularly ominous in a country with nuclear weapons.
President Obama 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. The pursuit of al-Qaida leads to many countries and a military expedition to Afghanistan is recruiting new terrorists. More troops, tanks and helicopters will widen an un-winnable war, drain scarce funds, divide the U.S. and bury Obama’s domestic agenda. What a tragic loss for all of us. Obama’s friends should warn him.
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 email@example.com.