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Obama's Afghanistan Problem – It's in Our Hands

What now for the US in Afghanistan? Does the Obama Administration drop the other shoe and commit us to a second decade of war? Or will it somehow pull up short of the precipice? All of sudden, there’s doubt and the war’s opponents can see a hundred glints of hope – tops among them polls showing Americans now thinking that sending still more troops to Afghanistan because nineteen men hijacked four airplanes eight years earlier might not be the most logical course of action. But before we entertain even modest hopes about stemming the war effort, let’s consider what a recent offhand remark by a former U.S. foreign policy official tells us of what we’re up against.

The figure in question is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. In telling an interviewer that he thought, if it came to it, the US should not sit back and allow Israel to bomb Iran, he explained that the US could easily stop Israeli planes because “They have to fly over our airspace in Iraq.” Got that? “Our airspace in Iraq.”

Brzezinski may be nearly three decades removed from his principal government post, but he has remained a force in the rarified international relations realm and his comment does reflect the viewpoint of a certain set who see themselves as the guardians of American foreign policy. Remember Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn analogy – “You break it, you own it”? Powell, of course, made the statement in relation to Iraq. Well, we sure did break Iraq and if that indeed means we own it, as Brzezinski appears to believe, by now we must certainly own Afghanistan as well. And how can we walk away from a country we own?

The idea that other parts of the world are ours to lose is nothing new to American politics. It was prominent during much of the last century as well, as least since the question of “Who lost China?” arose following the Communists’ defeat of the Nationalists sixty years ago. At first blush, it might be tempting to say that the architects of American foreign policy haven’t learned a thing over all this time, but we might just as well say that they’ve learned too well. They have, after all, slipped almost seamlessly from defending us against the menaces of Communism and atheism to protecting us from the threats of terrorism and Islamism, all the while keeping an eye out for “America’s interests in the Middle East” – which some might say means nothing more than access to the oil on which our way of life is seen to depend.

For his part, Obama might take some solace from the fact that he’s not the only head of state feeling pressure from a populace asking “Why are will still in Afghanistan?” Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Silvio Berlusconi could commiserate. In fact, Brown, Merkel, and Sarkozy have just called for a “conference on Afghanistan before the end of this year” to “agree on new benchmarks and timelines ... to formulate a joint framework for our transition phase in Afghanistan.” In the vernacular, this means “Can we go home now?” But then, it is neither the United Kingdom, Germany, France, nor Italy that owns Afghanistan: the US does. Without the US, there is no Karzai government, as everyone knows.

So Obama does have a genuine homefront problem on his hands and it comes with a generational aspect that magnifies it. When a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 51 percent of respondents now opposing further troop increases, it actually showed a 52 percent majority of those 50 or older supporting escalation, but 62 percent of those under 50 opposing it. Given that Obama won the election on the under-40 vote, this trend has got to be a serious concern in the White House.

The above-mentioned Brzezinski may have left the White House before they were born, but he has probably expressed, as well as any under-30 voter has, a perception of Obama’s candidacy that led to his defeating John McCain by a 2-1 margin among that age group. Brzezinski, a political eclectic who backed both George W. Bush and Obama, says, "What makes Obama attractive to me is that he understands that we live in a very different world where we have to relate to a variety of cultures and people." That perception is about to get a serious test.

General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of the Afghanistan invasion forces, has just assessed his need at 500,000 troops for five years – 350,000 of them to be Afghanis whom the US and other western powers would equip to keep “our” government – Karzai or his successor – in power. This would amount to a thirteen-year commitment to fight the return of a government that the US military overthrew in little more than a month in 2001, a commitment extending through a second Obama term, should he be elected to it.

If Obama really does understand the world in a different way than his predecessor, as so many of his supporters hope he does, he will presumably find significance in the fact that the opposition’s strength has increased apace with western military intervention, and recognize this for the losing strategy that it is. Unfortunately, “expert” voices are already rising to argue that this history only increases the need to fight on. For instance, Brian Glyn Williams, professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, fears “the Taliban of 2001 is not the Taliban of 2009." Nowadays, the organization that started as an offshoot of fundamentalist groups supported by the U.S. in the fight against the Soviet Union “will see the U.S. as an enemy for removing them from power back in 2001," he says. Hard to argue with his conclusion that the Taliban sees the U.S. as an enemy, but why this requires us to stay and actually be that enemy for another five years is less clear.

In short, while the American public’s developing sense that we need to figure a way to get out of Afghanistan rather than plunging on ahead is immensely important, U.S. war policy will not be changed merely by poll numbers. The foreign policy experts who believe that we can’t afford the defeat of “our” government in Afghanistan have the White House’s phone number; we don’t. The Administration needs to see us on television.

This month will see demonstrations across the nation marking the Afghanistan War’s eighth anniversary and calling for its end. As, always, there will be any number of good reasons not to participate:

Demonstrations far larger than anything we can hope to mount against the Afghanistan War failed to stop the Iraq invasion, so why bother?
I don’t like the groups organizing the protests. They’ve wrapped them up in a laundry list of other demands and I don’t agree with some of them.
I have to take the kids to their soccer game.

And so forth. But anyone who opposes this war, yet finds a reason not to publicly demonstrate that fact this month, might ask what else they’re going to do to try to bring it to a close. Unlike Bush, who knew he would not win the support of the opponents of his foreign policy even if he acceded to their demands, Obama risks losing the support of his base should he decide to continue Bush’s policies. But he needs to be shown that he has a real problem.

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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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