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Afghan War Vets Patrol Halls of Congress to Stop Troop Escalation

by Ryan Grim

A little more than two months ago, Brock McIntosh was fighting in Afghanistan, a member of the Army National Guard. This week, he's walking the halls of Congress, trying to end a war that began when he was 13 years old.

McIntosh, now 21, and four other vets are in Washington for something of a preemptive strike. A new pro-war group calling itself Vets For Freedom plans to begin lobbying Congress Thursday, pushing for an escalation. The anti-war vets hope to head them off.

But if their erstwhile comrades and now political opponents are "for freedom," that raises an unusual question. "What does that make us?" mocks Devon Read, 29, served for eight years and took part in the invasion of Iraq before leaving the Marine Corps in 2008. "Vets Against Freedom? Vets For Terrorism?"

Technically, they're with Veterans For Rethinking Afghanistan, having linked up with Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald, whose documentary project "Rethink Afghanistan" urges a drawdown of the American presence in that country.

As the vets wait outside the office of Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jake Diliberto, 27, recounts tales from the first skirmish with Vets For Freedom earlier in the morning.

Diliberto went mano a mano on CNN with VFF rep Thomas Cotton. Cotton had a simple appeal to authority: He's for whatever General Stanley McChrystal wants -- and that's more troops.

Before they went on, says Diliberto, he could hear his opponent prepping himself. "He kept repeating, 'General Stanley McChrystal. General Stanley McChrystal. General Stanley McChrystal.' "

Backers of escalating the eight-year-old war present a variety of complex arguments, but at their heart is Cotton's mantra: "General Stanley McChrystal. General Stanley McChrystal. General Stanley McChrystal."

The troops were joined in Grijalva's office by Malalai Joya, an Afghan member of parliament who has been suspended for speaking out against the warlords who run the country. She is appealing her suspension and, in the meantime, promoting her new book, "A Woman Among Warlords." Joya, too, has a simple message: Go home, USA.

"It's much easier to fight against one enemy than two," Malalai Joya tells Grijalva, identifying the two current enemies as the Taliban on the one hand and the United States and the Afghan government it props up on the other.

The Afghan government, she says, is hopelessly corrupt; President Hamid Karzai is in league with powerful warlords and druglords, some of whom are his close relatives. His top opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, is himself a well-known warlord, she says. The election process is controlled by warlords for their benefit. The farce that was the previous election will not lead to a run-off because Abdullah doesn't believe it will be fair.

"It's not important who's voting. It's important who's counting," says Joya, adding that the canceled election matters little since both candidates are representatives of the warlord class. "They both call the Taliban brother."

Both President Obama and General McChrystal have said that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan cannot succeed without a governing partner that is seen as legitimate by the Afghan people. That's a tremendous problem for proponents of a troop escalation, since Karzai is seen as anything but that.

The problem for the war's opponents, however, is that it's hard to comprehend just how corrupt the Karzai regime is. Seeing it first hand persuaded the troops.

"The Taliban isn't their enemy," says Rick Reyes, who served with the Marine Infantry in Afghanistan. "The greatest enemy of the Afghan people is the Afghan government and the occupation forces."

McIntosh, who takes some time to get over his nerves in the congressman's office, tells Grijalva that the Afghan people appreciate the occupation army most for the medical services it provides. Afghan doctors, he says, were poorly trained, because the Taliban banned pictures in text books. The health care makes them dependent, he says, when what they need is training.

"They can do it on their own," he says. "They're fully capable human beings."

Grijalva nods, acknowledging the wisdom from the young man who just recently got the legal right to drink.

The kind of training Afghans don't need, the Marines say, is military. We've been training young men to fight in Afghanistan for decades, they note, and look where it's gotten us. An overwhelming number of men trained by the U.S. go on to fight for the Taliban instead, which was itself originally trained by the U.S., notes Reyes. "So if we train 400,000 soldiers and 200,000 go fight for the Taliban, what have we gained?"

"We don't expect anything good from you," Joya tells Grijalva. "Just stop doing wrong." As she brandishes photos of dead civilians, known warlords, and evidence of Karzai's corruption, her voice gradually rises. With a finger pointed squarely at the progressive congressman, she repeatedly indicts the occupation and those who allow it to continue.

"This is what your government has done," she fumes. "Silence of good people is worse than action of bad people."

Witnessing her rough treatment of Grivala, who agrees with her, it isn't hard to see how she has found herself out of favor among the warlords.

After the meeting, Grijalva says that Joya helped alter his perspective. "Sometimes in our urge to fix things, we just pile money on top of a [friendly] government," he says. But Joya had convinced him, he says, that the U.S. is "funding fundamentally the people who are unraveling the country."

Outside in the hall, the vets assess the meeting. "I don't think he needed a whole lot of convincing," offers Diliberto. Next up: Reps. John Tierney (D-Mass.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). "But we're not just meeting with progressives," assures Leighton Woodhouse, a Brave New Films aide escorting the men. Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), David Price (D-N.C.), Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) and Sylvestre Reyes (D-Texas) were also scheduled to receive the veterans.

One member had previously offered a "walk and talk" with the vets, but had since demoted them to a sit down meeting with the chief of staff.

He might not get off that easy. The vets are neither your typical lobbyist nor your standard anti-war protesters. Diliberto suggested they deal with that congressman in a way that would convey the gravity of their message.

"We should just go to his door," he suggests, 'and say, 'Look, motherfucker.'"

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