The US War in Afghanistan: Goals, Future, and Alternatives

Speech to the International Afghanistan Congress
Hanover, Germany
June 7-8, 2008

I want to begin by thanking Reiner Braun and the other organizers of this conference for the opportunity to be a part of this important conference, and to be learning from my European and Afghan friends. I have been asked to give a brief and sober report about perspectives from the U.S. peace movement, and I will do my best to fulfill this expectation.

Recent Developments

First, let me review some recent developments, some of which you may not have heard or read about.

This past November, the U.S. National Security Council concluded that U.S. goals for the Afghanistan War were not being met, and that despite battlefield victories, the overall situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. That report highlighted the "Taliban's unchallenged expansion into new territory", the increasing cultivation of opium poppies, and President Karzai's weakness." More recently, Director of. National Intelligence McConnell described the situation as "deteriorating," and he warned that "Taliban forces expanded their operations into previously peaceful areas of the west and around Kabul."[1]

Three thousand more U.S. Marines have been deployed to southern Afghanistan.

The U.S. Marine Corps decided last week not to bring criminal charges against the commanding officers of a unit responsible for the shooting deaths of up to nineteen civilians in northeastern Afghanistan

NATO Sec. Gen. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, warned that Afghanistan is a test of NATO's resolve, saying that "It is Europe's Iraq." Friends, I don't think any of you want to be fighting a European Iraq war.

Since the new government came to power in Afghanistan, the number of Taliban raids launched from Pakistan has doubled. As the New York Times reported, "Pakistani officials are making it increasingly clear that they have no interest in stopping cross-border attacks...into Afghanistan, prompting a new level of frustration from Americans who see the infiltration as a crucial strategic priority in the war in Afghanistan." Worse, from Barack Obama to the Washington Post and the right-wing Heritage Foundation, there are calls to "Try Pakistan First," meaning to go to war in and against Pakistan.[2]

It turns out that the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have tortured prisoners, is no longer large enough to accommodate the growing number of Afghan prisoners. Sixty million dollars has been allocated to build additional U.S. military prison in Pakistan.

U.S. Elections

Then there is the U.S. presidential campaign, which has been underway for at least two years.

Many look to the U.S. elections as an opening to an era of greater diplomacy and end the Bush era wars. Regardless of whether Obama or McCain win, the coming regime change in the U.S. will have only limited foreign policy impacts. Certainly, even as McCain -- who could actually win this election -- tilts back toward the neoconservatives, the era of U.S. military unilateralism is coming to an end. With the failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. elite has recognized that it cannot go it alone, and wants to turn back toward the exercise of hegemony through greater reliance on its military and political alliances. But the truth is that what President Eisenhower described as the subversive influences tentacles of the military-industrial complex remains quite powerful.

Throughout the primary campaign season, Obama, Clinton and McCain all committed themselves to increasing the size of the U.S. military. McCain said that U.S. troops could remain in Iraq for one hundred years, and -- not much better -- both Obama and Clinton refused to pledge that they would withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq before the end of what would be their first term in office in 2013.

In Afghanistan, we are witnessing the latest installment of 19th century's Great Game -- this time related to oil. On May 21 Obama repeated what has been a central theme of his campaign, hitting Bush and McCain from the right: He repeated that Iraq is not the war that the U.S. should be fighting, and he stressed that "Afghanistan is the war we must win." A year ago he said that "When I am president, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy...Getting out of Iraq and onto the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan."[3] As I noted earlier, Obama has repeatedly threatened U.S. military attacks against Pakistan.

John McCain is tied to the primacy of, and victory in, the Iraq war, but he has long advocated that the U.S. and NATO must prevail in Afghanistan, that the stakes -- including the future of the NATO alliance -- "have never been greater: " He has argued that "the fundamental character of NATO -- is tested by the alliance's most important endeavor today: stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan....our alliance is now intimately bound" he said, "with the outcome in Afghanistan, and our success or failure there will impact not only the security of each of our member states, but also the credibility and effectiveness of NATO itself...If NATO does not prevail in Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine the alliance undertaking another 'hard security' operation -- in or out of area -- and its credibility would suffer a grievous blow." McCain has also been clear that the U.S. needs permanent military bases in Afghanistan not only to contain Al Qaeda, but to ensure a U.S. military presence on the "doorsteps" of Iran, and nuclear China, Pakistan and India.[4]

The Goals of Bush's Afghan War

As with most wars and major foreign policy initiatives, the Bush Administration had multiple goals when it launched its war to topple the Taliban. In the first place, as the insider accounts inform us, in the wake of the 9-11 bombings Bush was intent on "kicking someone's ass" and he didn't care if doing so violated international law. Domestically he needed to demonstrate that he was taking action against the perpetrators of the shocking attacks, and internationally he and his cohorts wanted to demonstrate that the Pentagon doctrine of "Full Spectrum Dominance" (the ability to dominate any nation, anywhere in the world, at any level of power, at any time) was still in force, and that no one should even think about messing with the United States.

But there was more. As we could read in the New York Times, "There [was] talk of a new American empire, a world that presents the global superpower with a unique opportunity to exploit a victory in force decisions in every capital...and to rethink the principles around which nations cooperate." Even earlier, in May 2001, Vice President Cheney was quoted in The New Yorker as saying that the U.S. was about to impose "the arrangement for the 21st century" to ensure that the U.S. remained the world's dominant military, economic and political power. The 9-11 attacks provided the political cover to attempt to fulfill this vision of colonizing time as well as space.

Essential to the arrangement, of course, was control of oil. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vast oil reserves of the Caspian Sea/Central Asia region became up for grabs, and the U.S. elite and oil companies were anxious to grab as much as they could. Oil is a strategic military resource, as well as being essential to modern industrial civilization. When George Bush the Elder was forced out of the White House, his Secretary of State James Baker, Condoleezza Rice and others went to work to broker deals to obtain privileged access to these oil reserves for U.S. based oil companies. Even as Governor of Texas, in association with his friend Ken Lay of ENRON, George W. Bush did his part to secure access to oil and gas in Uzbekistan.

Among the first, albeit failed, Bush Administration initiatives after the fall of the Taliban was to try to secure a pipeline to bring oil and gas from Turkestan, through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports. The war also provided an opportunity to create U.S. military bases in Central Asia -- much as it has in the Middle East -- to secure privileged access to the regions resources. Thus, in its war for "Enduring Freedom," it created a military base in Uzbekistan, a dictatorship where people are quite literally boiled alive.[5] Basing access agreements were concluded with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and of course, Afghanistan.

Another goal, which as in Vietnam has developed over time, is to preserve U.S. prestige. Losing the war in Afghanistan will further undermine U.S. power and influence across Central Asia, in the Middle East, and globally.


There were, of course, alternatives to the war in Afghanistan from the beginning. The consensus position which quickly developed in the U.S. peace movement had four elements:

* That the 9-11 attacks were outrageous, indiscriminate crimes whose perpetrators must be brought to justice. As a poster that we distributed across New England in September and October 2001 said, we called for "Justice Not War."

* That "War is not the answer."

* That we must defend our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and the immigrant communities that we knew would come under attack.

* That we must address the root causes of the attacks, which included the presence of U.S. military bases near the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the rights of the Palestinians, and the long history of military interventions and subversion to maintain U.S. hegemony over Middle East oil.

In a conference that we organized in December 2001, Noam Chomsky outlined a number of alternatives that were not pursued.[6] He noted that the U.S. had refused Security Council authorization, and that building on the Clinton/NATO precedent in the Kosovo/Serbia War, the Bush Administration acted unilaterally in violation of international law. (In fact, on September 11, in a war council, Bush said that he wanted to "kick some ass" and didn't' care about international law. The Bush Administration wanted war and contemptuously dismissed the tentative offers made by the Taliban to consider extradition of Bin Laden and his associates. As Noam observed, we'll never know how real this possibility was, because it was never tried.

Here in Europe, the Vatican called for proportionate responses to the crimes.

The military historian Michael Howard urged that what was needed was "patient operations of police and intelligences forces," "a police operation conducted under the auspices of the U.N. on behalf of the international community as a whole, against a criminal conspiracy..."

Afghan opposition leader Abdul Haq wanted to "create a revolt within the Taliban," but the U.S. bombings negated this possibility.

RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, urged that the "Taliban be overthrown by the uprising of the Afghan nation" not by "a vast aggression on our country" that "will shed the blood of numerous women, men, children, young and old of our country."

And, later, after topping Taliban, there was a consensus on a panel held at Harvard University's J.F. Kennedy School of Government that at least 30,000 U.N. Peacekeepers would be needed to restore stability -- but this option was never pursued

The Role of Military Bases

As you may know, the United States maintains a global network of something more than 735 military bases and installations around the world. This is an imperial infrastructure that is unrivaled in human history, even during the Roman Empire. These bases serve as jumping off points for invasions, serve the U.S. Air Force and Navy, and make U.S. first-strike nuclear war possible. U.S. bases in Britain can listen in on every telephone call that you make or read every e-mail that you send. And it is no accident that the greatest concentrations of U.S. military bases are in Germany and Japan. These were imposed not only to contain the Soviet Union, but to contain and profoundly influence your governments and political life.

Back in 1776, when Britain maintained military forces in North America, one of the reasons given in the U.S. Declaration of Independence for declaring independence from Britain and even going to war was that King George had "kept among us" in times of peace "Standing Armies" which committed unacceptable "abuses and usurpations." Friends, the "abuses and usurpations" committed by U.S. foreign military bases today far exceed those of Britain two centuries ago. They include rape and sexual harassment, environmental damage with military toxics, live fire and other military accidents, the terror of low altitude and night landing exercises, support for dictators - like Karimov in Uzbekistan who is supported by both the U.S. and Germany, and of course the undermining of national sovereignty and complicity in wars of aggression and preparations for nuclear war.

Here in Germany, U.S. bases in Ramstein, Spanddahhelm, Schweinfurt, Weisbaden and other communities have all played critical roles in making the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq possible. Friends, you will never be truly free until all U.S. troops and bases leave Germany.

U.S. Peace Movement and the Future

The truth is that once the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001, it became clear that the Bush Administration had still larger ambitions: the invasion of Iraq. Like the U.S. people as a whole, the U.S. peace movement turned its attention away from Central Asia and toward the Middle East. But, with Obama having reiterated that Afghanistan is the "war we must win", the U.S. peace movement will soon be forced to turn attention, resources and campaigning back to Afghanistan and the need to develop non-military alternatives to addressing non-state terrorism.

As we urged in the fall of 2001, we will need to remember that the Taliban is not Al Qaeda, and that we should be relying on law -- domestic and international, on intelligence, diplomacy and wisdom to resist and contain terrorism. As we learned during the Cold War, when U.S. presidents talked with Khrushchev and Mao, or when Tony Blair opened negotiations with the IRA, peace is negotiated between enemies, not friends, and this -- one way or another -- includes the Taliban, which is only marginally different than the war lords the U.S. has been supporting, and just as unlikely to disappear.

I want to remind you how important European peace movements have been for those of us in the United States. You have inspired and sometimes embarrassed us into do what has needed to be done. During the Vietnam War and then again during the reckless nuclear arms race of late 1970s and 80s, your moral vision and actions helped to empower us to challenge and transform deadly U.S. actions and policies. You can do this again. With your coming unified September 20 out of Afghanistan demonstration here in Germany, the European 60 Years of NATO is enough actions next spring, and other actions and initiatives, you can help us to finally bring U.S. -- as well as European -- troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

What will follow may not be entirely pretty, but let me close with a few words from Mahatma Gandhi. In the last days of the British Raj in India, Lord Mountbatten warned Gandhi that if the British left, chaos would follow. Gandhi's reply was "Yes, but it will be our chaos." History tells us that we cannot export democracy with bombs and bullets, that nations and cultures must exercise their own self-determination, and that the colonial era ended with Vietnam if not earlier.

Together, Give Peace a Chance. All Troops Out of Afghanistan.

* * * [1] Washington Post. November. 25, 2007; Baltimore Sun Times, cited in Japan Times February 29, 2008

[2] New York Times, May 16, 2008; Jim Hoagland. "Try Pakistan First", The Washington Post National Weekly edition, May 5-11, 2008

[3] Barack Obama, August 1, 2007.

[4] John McCain. Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 10, 2007.

[5] See, Craig Murray, Dirty Diplomacy

[6] Noam Chomsky. "After September 11: Paths to Peace, Justice and Security".

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