‘The Comeback Kid’ and the Kids Who Won’t
President Barack Obama signed a slew of bills into law during the lame-duck session of Congress and was dubbed the "Comeback Kid" amid a flurry of fawning press reports. In the hail of this surprise bipartisanship, though, the one issue over which Democrats and Republicans always agree, war, was completely ignored. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in U.S. history, and 2010 has seen the highest number of U.S. and NATO soldiers killed.
As of this writing, 497 of the reported 709 coalition fatalities in 2010 were U.S. soldiers. The website iCasualties.org has carefully tracked the names of these dead. There is no comprehensive list of the Afghans killed. But one thing that's clear: Those 497 U.S. soldiers, under the command of the "Comeback Kid," won't be coming back.
On Dec. 3, Commander in Chief Obama made a surprise visit to his troops in Afghanistan, greeting them and speaking at Bagram Air Base. Bagram is the air base built by the Soviet Union during that country's failed invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Now run by U.S. forces, it is also the site of a notorious detention facility. On Dec. 10, 2002, almost eight years to the day before Obama spoke there, a young Afghan man named Dilawar was beaten to death at Bagram. The ordeal of his wrongful arrest, torture and murder was documented in the Oscar-winning documentary by Alex Gibney, "Taxi to the Dark Side." Dilawar was not the only one tortured and killed there by the U.S. military.
Obama told the troops: "We said we were going to break the Taliban's momentum, and that's what you're doing. You're going on the offense, tired of playing defense, targeting their leaders, pushing them out of their strongholds. Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control, and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future."
Facts on the ground contradict his rosy assessment from many different directions. Maps made by the United Nations, showing the risk-level assessments of Afghanistan, were leaked to The Wall Street Journal. The maps described the risk to U.N. operations in every district of Afghanistan, rating them as "very high risk," "high risk," "medium risk" and "low risk." The Journal reported that, between March and October 2010, the U.N. found that southern Afghanistan remained at "very high risk," while 16 districts were upgraded to "high risk." Areas deemed "low risk" shrank considerably.
And then there are the comments of NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Joseph Blotz: "There is no end to the fighting season.... We will see more violence in 2011."
Long before WikiLeaks released the trove of U.S. diplomatic cables, two key documents were leaked to The New York Times. The "Eikenberry cables," as they are known, were two memos from Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging a different approach to the Afghan War, with a focus on providing development aid instead of a troop surge. Eikenberry wrote of the risk that "we will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves, short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos."
A looming problem for the Obama administration, larger than a fraying international coalition, is the increasing opposition to the war among the public here at home. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 60 percent believe the war has not been worth fighting, up from 41 percent in 2007. As Congress reconvenes, with knives sharpened to push for what will surely be controversial budget cuts, the close to $6 billion spent monthly on the war in Afghanistan will increasingly become the subject of debate.
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz repeatedly points out, the cost of war extends far beyond the immediate expenditures, with decades of decreased productivity among the many traumatized veterans, the care for the thousands of disabled veterans, and the families destroyed by the death or disability of loved ones. He says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost between $3 trillion and $5 trillion.
One of the main reasons Barack Obama is president today is that by openly opposing the U.S. war in Iraq, he won first the Democratic nomination and then the general election. If he took the same approach with the war in Afghanistan, by calling on U.S. troops to come back home, then he might truly become the "Comeback President" in 2012 as well.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2010 Amy Goodman