A Place for the Afghanistan War In This Election?

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Common Dreams

A Place for the Afghanistan War In This Election?

The polls keep coming: America has had more than enough of the ten-year old Afghanistan War, to the point where Republicans now don’t even like it. Unfortunately, though, this war yet to wear out its welcome where it counts – with the major party presidential candidates. Meaningful debate on this in the presidential race? Forget about it.

Like it or not, Barack Obama’s political strategy on the war has been masterful. When he sent more troops he told us that they’d be back so soon that it was hardly worth complaining about. And few did – far fewer, certainly, than if it had been John McCain sending them. Now, as Obama announces that the soldiers he sent are coming back – by the end of 2014, anyhow – the fact that he’s committing 25,000 “coalition” troops to stay there through 2024 is really just an afterthought. Hopefully no one will mind. Hey, haven’t we had troops in Japan, Germany and Korea for, like, forever and hardly anyone gets hurt in those places, right?

Mitt Romney, for one, is not going to complain about keeping those troops there – his website criticizes the President for not appearing “fully committed to success.” So if Obama’s in for twelve more years, Romney might just go for twenty-four. At any rate, it’s pretty clear that if we want this war to become any kind of issue in the fall elections, we’ll have to find a way to do that ourselves.

How? Well, twenty four states (plus the District of Columbia) allow citizens direct ballot access via initiative petition, many legislatures hold that power themselves, and no two sets of rules are the same. There’s an even more bewildering variety of ballot law on the local level, but this is the realm where a small group of determined activists might still be able to make something happen this November. In fact, if you’re sold on this being a good idea, you probably should stop reading and start researching your local reg’s right now. Some situations may require immediate action. Some may have required action yesterday.

As to ballot language, Representative Barbara Lee’s amendment limiting further funding of the war to the purposes of achieving the "safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and military contractors from Afghanistan" put the question quite neatly. In the districts of the 113 US House members who voted for the amendment it would be a chance to affirm public support for ending the war right away and in the other districts, particularly of the 79 Democrats who voted against the Lee Amendment – including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – it might be a way to force the issue into the Congressional election campaign debate.

Ballot Access

In states where the right of petition exists, we face something of a bootstrap problem: Despite its unpopularity, there has been very little organized activity against the Afghanistan War, so the prospect of gathering valid signatures equal to, say, 8% of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election, as is the requirement in Illinois – about 280,000 state-wide or about 58,000 in Chicago – is likely beyond this underdeveloped antiwar movement’s capacity. (There was not a great deal on this front even during the much more heavily protested Iraq War – a South Dakota “Home from Iraq” proposition failed to garner the necessary signatures in 2008.)

The legislative route might be somewhat easier, although there’s no recent record of success here either. In 2007, the Democrat-controlled California Legislature voted to place a question on the 2008 presidential primary ballot asking whether Republican President George W. Bush should end the United States occupation of Iraq, only to have it vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The state’s still Democrat-controlled legislature has placed no similar bill regarding Democratic President Barack Obama and the Afghanistan War on the desk of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. Plus it’s probably pretty late in the game for any statewide questions this fall, anyhow. (Unfortunately, it might be to the point to start thinking about this for 2014, though.)

On the local level, hundreds of Iraq War resolutions did make their way through the crazy quilt of ballot access laws. A 2006 question asking “Shall the State Representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a resolution calling upon the President and Congress of the United States to end the war in Iraq immediately and bring all United States military forces home from Iraq?” appeared in 36 Massachusetts legislative districts and won in each one with support ranging from 53 to 76 percent. Massachusetts has one of the easiest routes to the ballot – 200 registered voters’ signatures within a Representative district.

In 2007, Philadelphia antiwar activists followed a more typical path – through their City Council which voted 14-3, on straight party lines, to place a question on the primary ballot urging “the United States to make year 2007 the time to redeploy U.S. troops out of harm’s way in Iraq.” It passed with 71 percent.

In 2008, San Francisco passed probably the strongest anti-Iraq War measure, calling on the city’s congressional delegation to vote against any further Iraq War funding (identical to the House language mentioned above except for the war in question) with 59 percent (61 percent in the district of then Speaker of the House Pelosi.) San Francisco provides three routes to the ballot – the signature of the mayor, or those of four or more of the 13 member Board of Supervisors, or 7,000+ voters (5% of the last mayoral election total.) This question appeared via the middle option.

So while the state level may be beyond reach, local ballot access regulations are not necessarily onerous and there’s no reason to automatically assume that a dedicated core group cannot still do something worthwhile on the war.

Afghanistan – Absurd, Unaffordable, Self-Destructive War

Whatever the route and the exact language, a ballot question would at least provide a challenge to the passive acceptance of permanent war as the new normal. And everything the anti-Afghanistan War movement may lack in organization is more than made up for by the abundance of sound arguments for not committing another life or dollar to this war.

The enemy. Whether or not invading Afghanistan ever was a sensible response to the 9/11 attacks, our official enemy in this war has always been al Qaeda, although it has never exactly been an army in the conventional sense. Whatever military force al Qaeda may have commanded at its height, intelligence officials estimated its number in Afghanistan as down to about 100 as far back as 2009. The following year, CIA Director Leon Panetta put it at “50 to 100, maybe less” – this at a point where there were 100,000 American troops in the country. To the extent that al Qaeda was the enemy, the war has long been over.

The Taliban, for all practical purposes the actual day-to-day enemy, are quite another matter. Everyone understands that the Taliban, whose roots lie in the U.S.-funded anti-Soviet resistance, will still be around after the U.S. leaves, whether that be two, twelve, or twenty years hence. The U.S. invasion has turned an extremely unappealing group into the leadership of a war of national resistance. They will be part of any face saving negotiations the U.S. engages in prior to its departure and will wave goodbye to the airplanes carrying the last American troops out, although they may have to duck a drone-launched missile or two. To the extent that the Taliban is the enemy, this war can’t be won.

The cost. When Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) asked Defense Department representatives "What is the cost per soldier, to maintain a soldier for a year in Afghanistan?" he got an answer he said “kind of takes my breath away”: $850,000. A Pentagon spokesman later claimed it was more like $815,000, but the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments believes both figures actually lowball the true expenditures by not counting construction costs. They put the average annual per capita cost at $1.2 million and estimate that it will hit $1.4 million this year. No budget cutting here.

The dangers. Thus far, Afghan soldiers, or at least men in Afghan Army uniform, have killed 22 American or other “coalition” military this year and another 35 last year. We clearly now have more enemies within the Afghan armed forces than there are members of al Qaeda in the entire country. Much the same phenomenon is in play in Pakistan, the country next door that we “secretly” bomb with regularity.

Why Bother?

Inadequate to the task of ending the war as any collection of local initiatives may be at this point, they would at the least broaden the discussion to include some of the 99+ percent of us who don’t make foreign policy. Occupy, arguably still the movement of the moment on the left, has never particularly dealt with this issue, but any of its organizers or sympathizers who don’t already see this war as part of the problem very likely will once they know more about it. They’re not a likely source of any ballot activism, though, due to their alienation from the political process. Likewise, while the Ron Paul people have probably been the most active national antiwar force this year – like it or not – their alienation from government will also keep them from taking the lead on this.

The task will have to be taken up by the anti-Afghanistan War movement, ever-so-humble as it may be.

Tom Gallagher

Former Massachusetts State Representative Tom Gallagher is the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.'  He lives in San Francisco.


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