In 1949, shortly after the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon, the United States and 11 Western European nations formed NATO. The organization's original goals were the deterrence of Soviet aggression against the war-ravaged nations of Western Europe and containing Soviet influence within the boundaries of its already existing Eastern bloc.
Now, more than six decades later, as the 28-country alliance gathers in Chicago for its summit, the Afghan war and U.S. military spending in general are due for some increased scrutiny. President Barack Obama's recently announced joint agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calls into serious question Obama's intention to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014 and the administration's promise to be the most transparent in American history — ironic, since the proposed agreement bypasses Congress entirely.
If there is no accountability to Congress, the will of the American people is being ignored. A recent New York Times poll shows that nearly 7 out of 10 Americans (69 percent) believe the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan. Opposition to the war cuts across ideological divides, with 68 percent of Democrats saying the war was going somewhat or very badly and 60 percent of Republicans agreeing. Strikingly, a plurality (40 percent) of Republicans asserted that the U.S. should exit Afghanistan earlier than 2014. A recent Christian Science Monitor poll showed that 63 percent of U.S. respondents rejected the Obama-Karzai deal, while only 33 percent approved.
With such overwhelming public opposition, it is no surprise that 39 peace and justice groups nationwide have formed the Network for a NATO-Free Future and will host a "Counter-Summit for Peace and Economic Justice" prior to the NATO affair.
But activists and street protesters are not the only ones voicing discontent. The unpopularity of the war is shared in other NATO nations, and some governments are listening. Five member states have completed or announced withdrawal plans: Canada in 2011, Poland in 2012, the United Kingdom by 2015, France is set to leave by the end of the year, and Australia is about to announce its own acceleration of troop withdrawal. Yet on NATO's agenda in Chicago is an attempt to shore up flagging support from allies as well as selling them on the new agreement.
Is there still a need for NATO? With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO's original raison d'etre disappeared. With Europe rebuilt, the threat from a greatly diminished Russia was no longer credible. The U.S. had emerged from the Cold War as the globe's only remaining superpower. With the ideological struggle of the Cold War a thing of the past, thoughts turned to a future with less need for expensive military alliances, such as NATO. It was the era when all were wondering how the so-called peace dividend would be spent.
A funny thing happened on the way to that bright and happy future. NATO did not wither away, but grew steadily. It reimagined and re-missioned itself, poised to confront what it termed "complex new risks to Euro-Atlantic peace and stability." It might not have been clear at the time exactly what those risks were, but the military bureaucracy seemed sure they existed.
Notwithstanding NATO's intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1995, its central mission remained vaguely defined until after Sept. 11, when it became a partner-in-arms to then-President George W. Bush's "global war on terror." The terrorist attacks led to the first invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on any member state will be treated as an attack on all.
Within a month, NATO was involved in the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. The attack was defined as an attempt to effect regime change, dismantle al-Qaidaand, in particular, capture or kill Osama bin Laden.
Fast-forward to the present day. Bin Laden is dead. The CIA estimates fewer than 100 al-Qaida members remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban no longer rules that nation. Yet the U.S. and its NATO allies remain embroiled in a stalemated quagmire that is arguably the longest war in U.S. history. The war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. military personnel and untold thousands of Afghan civilians. At the time of this writing, the economic costs totaled a staggering $527 billion.Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the total long-term costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars at $4 trillion. For perspective, that is roughly 28 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, the total of all economic activity in the country each year.
Details of the U.S.-Afghan Status of Forces Agreement to stay in Afghanistan are supposed to be worked out in the next year, potentially committing tens of thousands of troops and billions of tax dollars through 2024 with little congressional oversight. While President Karzai stressed that the agreement would need to be approved by the Afghan parliament, the White House has maintained that the agreement — despite its authorization of continued military alliance with a sovereign foreign nation — is not a treaty and therefore not in need of ratification by the Senate. One wonders which country is the established democracy.
As Chicago closes schools and imposes draconian cuts on agencies crucial to the city's most vulnerable, our national leaders will be arguing for increased military spending, which already consumes more than half of the discretionary budget of the U.S. government. It should be a hard sell.
Does anyone truly believe that spending those funds fighting an unwinnable war and killing innocent Afghan civilians in drone attacks is making anyone anywhere more secure? Clearly the American people do not believe so. It's time for their government to listen to them.