US Braced for Surge of Protest Over War in Afghanistan
The conflict in Afghanistan used to be called the 'forgotten war'. But with the number of soldiers dying there outstripping casualties in Iraq, support – for the fighting and for President Obama – is melting away
At his home in Richmond, Virginia, Larry Syverson spends part of every day worrying there will be an unwanted knock on the door. Syverson's son, Branden, is an American soldier serving in Afghanistan, conducting dangerous patrols in an area infested with Taliban.
"I worry every day that I might hear someone come to the door unexpected. Just last week two of his best friends were killed over there," he said.
That's why Syverson, 60, an environmental engineer, is trying to organise a protest in Richmond against the war in Afghanistan for the second weekend in October, almost eight years after the conflict began.
He is a member of Military Families Speak Out, an anti-war group made up of relatives of military personnel that is preparing to turn its attentions from the conflict in Iraq to the one in Afghanistan. He has three sons in the military who together have served five tours in Iraq as well as Branden's stint in Afghanistan.
"I am extremely proud that they have chosen a military career. I just don't like the way that they are being used to fight these unnecessary wars," said Syverson.
That is a growing sentiment in America. As Barack Obama appears likely to increase America's already greatly enlarged troop commitment to the Afghan war, the war itself is becoming increasingly disliked.
The conflict used to be called America's "forgotten war". No longer. As casualties have spiked, so has hatred for the war: a solid 57% of Americans now oppose it. That has seen the anti-war movement in America prepare to turn its attentions from Iraq to Afghanistan, gearing up for an autumn campaign of marches and civil disobedience.
They hope to emulate the anti-Vietnam war protests, using highly visible public campaigns to force the hand of the White House to pull out of the country, not escalate the conflict.
The first major protest will happen next weekend, when anti-war protesters plan to arrange more than 500 empty pairs of boots on a grassy lawn right outside the White House. Each pair will represent an American soldier killed in the war.
Syverson knows that such a move is symbolic but he hopes its position so close to the centre of power will be effective, just like the old Vietnam war protesters who regularly thronged Washington's Mall in the 1960s.
"If Obama looks out of his window, he is going to see a symbol of over 500 soldiers who died in Afghanistan. He is going to know the public is waking up to this war. The honeymoon with Obama is over and the American people are not going to stand for it much longer." Syverson said.
One person who will be in Washington for the boots protest is Cindy Sheehan, perhaps the most famous single protester to emerge from the demonstrations against the Iraq war. Since her son, Casey, was killed in Iraq, Sheehan has become a bête noir to many conservatives and an outspoken rallying point for the anti-war movement. She was a one-woman force of nature who dominated the headlines when she camped outside the Texas ranch of President George W Bush.
Now she too is concentrating on opposing the war in Afghanistan. She has already kept a vigil outside Obama's summer holiday home on Martha's Vineyard and will be going to Washington next weekend. "It's unfortunate that it has taken eight years for the anti-war movement to focus on Afghanistan," she told the Observer. "We have to start to put a human face on what is happening over there."
Sheehan said that she and her fellow organisers would be gearing up for next year, which will feature midterm elections to Congress. She sees this autumn's events as being a preview of mass actions to come all the way through 2010.
"It is year of the midterm elections. I can't tell you what we are planning but it is going to be brilliant. There will be a lot of protests, a lot of civil disobedience," she said.
A broad coalition of anti-war groups is also already co-ordinating protests and demonstrations for the coming weeks, hoping to emulate the successes of the Vietnam protests in a way that the anti-Iraq war movement never pulled off. There will be vigils, memorials, teach-ins, demonstrations and marches. They will range in scale from a few individuals to events where thousands of people will be expected to turn up.
Groups involved include Military Families Speak Out, Win Without War, Code Pink, United For Peace and Justice and Iraq Veterans Against the War.
"There will be hundreds of events all across the US," said Syverson. Some other groups, like US Labor Against the War, which represents 190 unions, which have been largely silent on Afghanistan compared to Iraq, have also announced they are now planning to start opposing the Afghan war too.
The movement is certainly tapping into a growing public mood of anger and discontent. For years, Afghanistan was seen as the "good war" as opposed to Iraq's "bad war". It had supposedly been won with relatively little loss of life, deposed a reviled government and been justified by the Taliban's open support of al-Qaida.
But now, there are more US casualties each day in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and American troop numbers will have risen dramatically to 68,000 by the end of the year. Indeed, Washington and the White House are consumed by speculation over whether Obama will accept a request from General Stanley McChrystal for yet more troops to be sent to the combat zone.
On American television screens, reports from Iraq have become rare. But news from Afghanistan - nearly all of it bad - has become common. Pictures of the carnage reach into every American living room and are frequently splashed across the front pages.
Now public sentiment has shifted firmly towards wanting American troops to pull out, a reversal of the once common opinion that Afghanistan had been a conflict worth fighting. As recently as April, a majority of Americans supported the war. Now only 43% do.
It has hit Obama's personal ratings too. When it comes to Afghan policy, his approval score has dropped 18 points from 67% to 49%. A handful of soldiers are also refusing to serve in Afghanistan. In Fort Hood, Texas, Iraq war veteran Victor Agosto was sentenced last month to 30 days in jail and his rank reduced to private after refusing to deploy there. He was the second Fort Hood soldier to do so.
But sustaining a meaningful opposition movement to the war in Afghanistan is not going to be easy. Much of the wind was taken out of the anti-war movement by the election of Obama, who, it is safe to say, the majority of protesters supported in the 2008 election.
Even Sheehan admits that taking the anti-war fight to the White House under Obama is not going to be a walk in the park, despite the fact that he is presiding over a massive escalation of the war. "It was super-easy to hate George Bush. It was also easy to embrace Obama. But both emotions are irrational when the policies remain the same. We have to make it about the policy, not the person," Sheehan said.
Yet so far, the Obama administration does not appear to have much fear of the doveish wing of the broad liberal coalition that put Obama into the White House. In America's two-party system of government, the Republican party offers an alternative on Afghanistan that is more hawkish, not less. Indeed Obama, who has championed the already massive increase in US troops there, has been criticised only for seeming to hesitate in agreeing to McChrystal's latest request for yet more troops. The request was included in a confidential assessment of the situation that concluded the entire mission would most likely result in failure without more soldiers.
"This is not the time for Hamlet in the White House," said Mitt Romney, one of the likely candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Yet that criticism seems unfair. Though Obama is reportedly striving to reshape Afghan policy in the face of the worsening violence there and the fallout from an Afghan election widely regarded as deeply fraudulent, no one seriously expects America's troop commitment to the country to be radically cut. That means the anti-war movement too is gearing up for a long struggle and a war of attrition aiming to chip away at Obama's popularity.
It might work. After only a year in office, Obama's approval ratings have dipped across the board and the war in Afghanistan is increasingly seen as "Obama's war", not just the legacy of Bush and his neoconservative foreign policy. Indeed, Obama fought his election on a campaign promise of shifting the focus to Afghanistan away from Iraq.
"If Obama's decisions are seen as a continuation of Bush's, then Obama will lose the effect of his honeymoon period. You can already see that happening," said Mitch Hall, a history professor at Central Michigan University.
The irony of left wing, anti-war protesters campaigning against Obama is not lost on many of them, including Syverson, who voted for Obama, went to his rallies and campaigned for him.
"I feel really let down," he said. He is unlikely to be alone. But American history has shown repeatedly, especially with Vietnam, that political stripes at home often mean nothing abroad. After all, it was under the liberal Democrat presidents JFK and Lyndon Johnson that US involvement in Vietnam escalated and under conservative Republican Richard Nixon that America finally got out. Some prominent commentators have drawn other parallels with Vietnam, comparing McChrystal's troop increase request with those of General William Westmoreland, who demanded extra troops for the doomed fight in Vietnam. "In Vietnam and Afghanistan, as the situation worsened and public opinion began turning against the war, the commanding generals - Westmoreland and McChrystal - put in requests for thousands of extra troops," wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joel Brinkley. Given that history, it seems perfectly possible that the deepening quagmire in Afghanistan might last for every year of Obama's time in office, even if he serves two terms.
For Syverson, though, Obama's policy on Afghanistan has already been enough to make him angrily tear off the Obama bumper sticker he had put on his car. "Hell, if I'd ever vote for him again," he said. As the anti-war protests unfold, Obama's presidency may end up being defined by how many Americans can be persuaded to take a similar view.