First, Afghanistan. The war President Obama chose to escalate in the face of massive popular and significant military opposition – is back in the news as the countdown to the “draw-down” clicks on.
The commitment of the moment is that all combat troops will be removed by the end of 2014. Still officially on the table is the timetable for withdrawing the 66,000 or so troops currently in Afghanistan (along with 40,000 NATO troops from other countries), what happens to the 100,000 or so U.S.-paid military contractors fighting alongside, and how many and what kind of troops get left behind. Iraq looms large – once the U.S. decision to withdraw its “combat troops” was made there, negotiations began between Washington and Baghdad over the occupying troops that would remain. The Obama administration wanted to keep thousands of troops in Iraq – for training, “counter-terrorism” operations, and more. But negotiations foundered on the issue of immunity for those troops. The Iraqi government, under pressure from its fractious parliament, insisted that U.S. troops must be held accountable in Iraqi courts for any war crimes they might commit, but Washington was having none of it, insisting that Iraq had no right to put any U.S. occupying soldier on trial no matter how heinous a crime they might carry out. The result was a full and complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and Pentagon-paid contractors from Iraq. (Some thousands of State Dept-paid contractors are still there, but a far cry from a continuing even small-scale military occupation.)
Similar debates are now underway regarding Afghanistan. And with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington for talks this week, the issue is back on the front pages. On the question of the pace of withdrawal, President Obama has made clear his preference for a rapid movement of U.S. troops from Afghanistan – so that as the end of 2014 approached, most troops would already be out. But Pentagon generals are pushing back, demanding that most of the troops remain in place throughout the 2014 “fighting season” – which means significantly more Afghans will be killed before the U.S. occupying troops finally leave. It remains unclear whether Obama will give in to the generals’ pressure.
A slower withdrawal timetable might become a bargaining chip if Obama holds firm on keeping only the smallest number of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. The Pentagon provided plans for keeping 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, but reportedly the White House is looking seriously only at the lower numbers. And this is where our work becomes key – that number should be ZERO. There is NO need for any U.S. special forces to remain in Afghanistan to carry out more of the kill-or-capture raids that have so antagonized Afghans and so destabilized the country. There is NO need for any additional U.S. training of the huge government militias known as the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. As we have seen in the recent escalation of Afghan soldier attacks on U.S. military forces, the issue is not ability but loyalty – and keeping U.S. troops occupying Afghanistan even longer is not going to change that. Will there be some level of escalating fighting in some parts of Afghanistan when U.S. troops pull out? Almost certainly – the years of U.S. war and occupation have massively destabilized the country. But keeping those troops there for another two years, or another one year, or another ten years isn’t going to change that.
In a recent column in the Washington Post, veteran investigative journalist Walter Pincus documented the problems of the U.S. still contracting out construction jobs for Afghan military bases for which the contractor will have to provide military-style security when the U.S. troops are gone. He concludes that “real security – as Americans understand it – does not, and probably will not, realistically exist in Afghanistan, no matter how safe it is declared today or next year by U.S. or Afghan officials.” More than eleven years of U.S. war and occupation in Afghanistan hasn’t made the country safer; we need to get the U.S. troops and mercenaries out, and then begin the process of figuring out how to help Afghans rebuild their own country on their own terms.
While the Progressive Caucus failed to hold President Obama accountable during the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and other key members of the Caucus are bringing significant pressure to bear to end the war in Afghanistan even before the 2014 end date. In a recent letter Lee recognized that dealing with the economic crisis “starts and ends at the Pentagon” – and that solutions have to include bringing home the troops, focusing on jobs, and cutting military spending. “We must stop the culture of reckless spending at the Pentagon,” she said.
My colleagues at IPS and I collaborated on a new recent report, “We’re Not Broke,” that documents how the U.S. could find far more money than is currently contemplated in the various “fiscal cliff” fixes, by doing three things: raising taxes on the wealthiest and corporations, stop subsidizing fossil fuels, and end wars and cut military spending. Ending the war in Afghanistan, closing U.S. military bases around the world, cutting back the U.S. nuclear arsenal…these are just the beginning.
Dealing with the reckless spending at the Pentagon should also include something else the inveterate Walter Pincus noticed – the need for a major tax hike on war profiteers making a killing on U.S. wars. Okay, so he called it an “excess profits tax” on “defense contractors,” but whatever the name, it’s urgently needed – as Pincus notes, profits for the five largest U.S. military corporations have increased by 450% since 2002. He quoted FDR’s 1940 call for a World War II “steeply graduated excess-profits tax” to make sure that “a few do not gain from the sacrifices of many.”
Not likely to happen any time soon, but it definitely should be part of our demands on Congress and the President as the debate over budget cuts and tax hikes goes forward. That debate should be at the center of the confirmation hearings for President Obama’s pick for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel. As I wrote in a recent Nation piece, Hagel is not anyone I would choose for anything – a conservative Republican who volunteered to fight in Viet Nam, at least while he was in the Senate he supported school prayer, drilling in Alaska, missile defense, was anti-gay (though he’s apologized for that), opposed women’s right to abortion, and more. He voted for every defense bill he could.
So it’s been amazing to watch the vehemence of the attacks against him from the Republican right, the neo-cons and the pro-Israel lobbies. But, maybe not so amazing – he was one of the first Republicans to criticize the Iraq war, he opposed the “surge” in Afghanistan, and he supports at least some military budget cuts. Hagel had the temerity to talk about how dangerous the Israel lobby’s influence can be, and crucially, he has called for serious diplomacy rather than war against Iran. He’s no supporter of a truly just solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but he supports talking to Hamas. And since our choice will not be between Hagel and a supporter of peace (maybe someone who would view the first job of the secretary of defense to turn our military into a defensive, rather than offensively interventionist, institution, for instance?), but between Hagel and one of several Pentagon insiders who have never publicly disagreed with their boss, an independent voice may not be so bad. I also discussed this on The Real News.
OVER TO THE PALESTINIAN SIDE…
Conditions on the ground inside the occupied Palestinian territory remain dire. The eight-day Israeli assault on Gaza in November left behind a new level of devastation. I had a back-and-forth in The Nation with Erik Alterman, who usually writes about popular culture but didn’t like the piece I wrote on the Israeli attack. He claimed I didn’t explain why Israel attacked Gaza, but I think he really just didn’t like my explanation – which relied on a statement from Israel’s army chief of staff. He also didn’t seem very pleased with my analysis of Hamas’ position after the fighting – in which they are no longer the isolated outlier in the region, but rather looking at their closest allies being Turkey and Egypt, the same two countries Washington is urgently courting as junior partners. The exchange is in The Nation’s hard copy of January 21st which can be viewed here (PDF).
International pressure on Israel finally led to a slight easing of part of the blockade on Gaza, with some limited amount of building supplies allowed in for the first time since 2007, but the overall Israeli blockade continues. In the West Bank, raids by Israeli military forces have led to increased civilian injuries, and the rapid expansion of illegal settlements throughout the West Bank and especially in occupied East Jerusalem continues.
One of the most important international defenders of human rights in the occupied territories is Richard Falk, a longtime friend and colleague of IPS. He has served for five years as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories, and his reports remain among the most influential documentation of conditions facing Palestinians under Israeli occupation. In that position has been attacked far too often by Israel, which arrested him and expelled him when he tried to enter the West Bank to carry out his mandate. But he’s also been attacked by the U.S., whose UN ambassador Susan Rice urged that he be stripped of his UN post, by the UN secretary-general himself, and others. Many of those attacks resulted from smear campaigns launched by UN Watch, a right-wing outfit in Geneva known for its anti-UN, anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel and anti-human rights agenda. It has attacked Richard many times before, but this time, sadly, it managed to influence none other than Ken Roth and the leadership of Human Rights Watch, despite a history of even attacking HRW itself.
In response, a broad coalition of Palestinian, Israeli, U.S., and international human rights organizations mobilized in Richard’s defense; so far Human Rights Watch has yet to adequately respond. My al-Jazeera article, “Human Rights Watch: Time to Stand With Human Rights Defenders,” appeared a few days ago, noting how sad it is that HRW collapsed under the pressure even while its Middle East staff is doing such good work.
Elsewhere in the region, conditions for Syrian civilians continue to worsen as the civil war escalates. New diplomatic initiatives have achieved little, although there have been small shifts in Russia’s position away from defense of the Assad government. Neither Bashar al-Assad’s recent speech, calling for a narrowly-defined reform process involving only those opposition forces recognized by the regime, nor the armed rebels’ position of refusing to negotiate until after Assad’s departure, provide a basis for the negotiated settlement that remains urgent if the 60,000 Syrians already killed in the fighting and the millions displaced within and outside Syria’s borders, are not to increase to even more unimaginable numbers of victims. Working for an end to further militarization of all sides, preventing any greater direct U.S. intervention in Syria, and doing whatever we can to give voice to those Syrians of the original non-violent democratic opposition still trying, against such horrifying odds, to build a new society on their own terms – those remain our crucial tasks.