Chasing Ghosts in Afghanistan
There were two important hearings regarding Afghanistan on the Hill last week -- in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at the Congressional Progressive Caucus' (CPC) third forum examining the war. Both raised critical questions about the current strategy of escalation -- questions Congress should take to heart as it considers the $83 billion war supplemental in coming weeks.
Senator John Kerry -- who as a young Vietnam veteran famously asked the Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" -- now chaired that same committee's hearing titled "Voice of Veterans of the Afghan War." He said in his opening statement that he "would not compare all of our conflicts to the Vietnam War.... [That] does not mean, however, that there are no parallels between the two wars." The hearing bore out some of those parallels.
There was a diversity of opinion among the four veterans and retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich as to whether sending more troops is the right thing to do. But there was also something they held in common: their connection to this war -- its stakes, costs, and consequences -- is very personal (in the case of Bacevich his personal connection comes not only from having served in Vietnam but also losing his son in Iraq.)
Retired Corporal Rick Reyes was the most vocal of the Afghanistan War veterans in opposing escalation. He spoke of his determination -- and that of his fellow Marines -- to "fight the enemy" following 9/11. But Reyes said that instead they were "sent to fight an enemy we could never see. The entire time we were there, we were chasing ghosts."
Reyes' mission was to "locate and capture suspected members of the Taliban" during nighttime raids. But it was impossible to distinguish between suspected terrorists and the civilian population and "we began creating enemies out of innocent civilians." He told a story of beating a suspected terrorist "to submission" only to discover he was a civilian trying to deliver milk to his kids.
"There were hundreds of incidents like this one," he said. "... Almost 100 percent of the time we would find that suspected terrorists turned out to be innocent civilians."
Reyes called the presence of so many troops "a sign of poor intelligence. With strong intelligence there's no need to occupy the country with [this] massive amount of troops. So we need to strengthen our intelligence, and then plan, and then execute."
He's convinced, in fact, that the escalation will only make the situation worse. "I can almost guarantee you that sending more troops will mean more civilian and US troop casualties, more homes being broken into, more children without food, more women without husbands.... Sending more troops will not make the US safer, it will only build more opposition against us." He concluded with an appeal "on behalf of truth and patriotism to consider carefully and rethink Afghanistan. More troops, more war is not the answer."
Bacevich -- a graduate of West Point and current Boston University faculty member -- also offered compelling testimony on finding an alternative to military force. He drew a parallel to the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson's "tragic failure of imagination, persuading himself that there existed no alternative to a massive US troop commitment."
Bacevich said that if the objective is indeed to ensure that Afghanistan is not a "safe haven" for Al Qaeda, then one example of an alternative to escalation is to "recognize the tribal nature of Afghan politics... and to provide incentives to the tribal chiefs to govern their patch of Earth in ways consistent with our interests. In other words, just don't let Al Qaeda in. And where those incentives don't work then it might be necessary for us to engage in some kind of a punitive action... to eliminate any elements of Al Qaeda." He also spoke of building more "robust defenses" at home, denying terrorist networks financial resources through less dependence on foreign oil, and emphasizing smart police work and intelligence sharing which is more effective and cheaper.
Senator Russ Feingold -- one of the earliest of a growing number of Democrats to question President Obama's policy -- pointed out that increasing the number of troops "may have no lasting positive impact so long as there are safe havens militants in Pakistan.... [it] may further destabilize the situation in Pakistan to the detriment of US national security."
Bacevich agreed. "Even if we could magically wave our wand, and tomorrow have the Afghanistan problem be solved," he said, "...what exactly would we have achieved in a strategic sense...? In many respects the larger problem is in neighboring Pakistan. To invest enormous resources in Afghanistan I think is allowing technical considerations to take precedence over strategic thinking." (A point which seems all the more compelling in light ofrecent events in Pakistan.)
"What about the possibility that an escalation in Afghanistan can actually be more destabilizing to Pakistan?" Sen. Feingold asked. "In other words, in terms of militants spilling back over into that border. Is that a fair concern or not?
"I think it's a very real concern," Bacevich said. "...To some measurable degree, in places like Afghanistan, increasing the US presence actually increases the dimensions of the problem."
Even supporters of President Obama's policy expressed doubt about the prospects for success. Captain Westley Moore said -- even with the escalation -- the number of troops for the mission at hand is still "paltry." (He's right, if one follows General Petraeus' counterinsurgency principles it's been suggested we would need upward of 400,000 troops.) At the CPC forum, Hekmat Karzai, Director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, said: "Counterinsurgency is supposed to be about 80 percent political and 20 percent military... but in Afghanistan we have had over 90 percent of our resources allocated towards military, about 8 percent towards development."
Retired Major General Paul Eaton -- who was charged with rebuilding the Iraqi Armed Forces from 2003-04 and later became an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration -- was also at the CPC forum. He quoted his son's commander in Afghanistan who said, "I don't need any more combat power. I need agriculture experts, I need water engineers, I need doctors, nurses, dentists...."
CPC Policy Advisor Bill Goold posed a critical question as to whether US and NATO forces are widely "viewed as foreign occupiers", and if so, "what military strategy could possibly succeed?"
Clare Lockhart, who served as a UN advisor in Afghanistan during the 2001 Bonn process -- a meeting of Afghans under UN auspices to help the transition to a permanent government and constitution -- said there is indeed "a risk" of the perception of the military as a foreign occupation.
Karzai pointed out that in 2004-05 Afghan support for the international forces was over 80 percent, and that support has now fallen to "the high 40s."
In a dramatic moment, Rep. John Conyers arrived during the forum to make a statement against escalation: "As one who supported the 44th President before nearly everybody else, I want you to understand that my reasons for thinking this is a mistake is not based on the fact that I think I'm smarter than Barack Obama. I think he's the smartest political person in the United States. But I think he's getting some terrible advice. And so I'm here to help straighten that out, because I want him to stay on track.... My first suggestion is that we're making precisely the same mistake that we've been making for six years in Iraq.... [There] is a very suspicious, uneasy feeling among a number of people that this is the beginning of an open-ended situation, that no matter how well tailored it is, no matter how carefully though out it is... we're getting into another hole...."
Conyers is absolutely right. The best thing anyone can do right now to support President Obama is to advise against digging us deeper into what could become a quagmire. Senator Kerry promised more hearings, a thorough vetting of all alternatives, and that the committee will exercise its oversight authority. Let's hope he follows through. Now is also a good time to let your legislators know you are against escalation and that you want to see more hearings that explore alternatives.
As Corporal Reyes suggested, it's time to stop chasing ghosts in Afghanistan.
With reporting from Capitol Hill by Nation Reporter/Researcher Greg Kaufmann
© 2009 The Nation