On Sept. 14, 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives considered House Joint Resolution 64, "To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States." The wounds of 9/11 were raw, and the lust for vengeance seemed universal. The House vote was remarkable, relative to the extreme partisanship now in evidence in Congress, since 420 House members voted in favor of the resolution. More remarkable, though, was the one lone vote in opposition, cast by Barbara Lee of San Francisco. Lee opened her statement on the resolution, "I rise today with a heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and loved ones who were killed and injured in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania." Her emotions were palpable as she spoke from the House floor.
"September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. ... We must not rush to judgment. Far too many innocent people have already died. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire."
The Senate also passed the resolution, 98-0, and sent it on to President George W. Bush. What he did with the authorization, and the Iraq War authorization a year later, has become, arguably, the greatest foreign policy catastrophe in United States history. What President Barack Obama will do with Afghanistan is the question now.
On Oct. 7, the U.S. enters its ninth year of occupation of Afghanistan-equal to the time the United States was involved in World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the war in Iraq, but pledged at the same time to escalate the war in Afghanistan. On his first Friday in office, Commander in Chief Obama's military fired three Hellfire missiles from an unmanned drone into Pakistan, reportedly killing 22 people, mostly civilians, including women and children. He has increased U.S. troops in Afghanistan by more than 20,000, to a total numbering 61,000. This does not count the private contractors in Afghanistan, who now outnumber the troops. The new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is expected to ask for even more troops.
This past August was the deadliest month yet for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with 51 killed, and 2009 is by far the deadliest year, with 200 U.S. troops killed so far. These statistics don't count the soldiers who commit suicide after returning home, nor those injured, and certainly don't include the number of Afghans killed. The attacks also are increasing in sophistication, according to recent reports. So it may be no surprise that more comparisons are now being made between Afghanistan and Vietnam.
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When asked about the comparison, Obama recently told The New York Times: "You have to learn lessons from history. On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam. ... The dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues that I think about all the time."
According to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, 57 percent of those asked oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan, reportedly the highest level of opposition since the war began in 2001. Among those polled, 75 percent of Democrats opposed the war, which might explain statements recently from key congressional Democrats against sending more troops to Afghanistan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last Thursday, "I don't think there's a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress," echoing Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Obama said in his health care speech before the joint session of Congress, "The plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years-less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars."
President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war
in Vietnam and ultimately decided not to run for re-election. But he
also passed Medicare, the revered, single-payer health insurance
program for seniors. Barbara Lee presciently compared the invasion of
Afghanistan to Vietnam in her speech back in 2001 and closed by quoting
the Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of the National Cathedral: "As we act, let
us not become the evil that we deplore."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.