Obama's Afghanistan Speech and the Anti-War Movement

— Wesley Strong

While President Obama unveiled his plan to escalate troop levels in Afghanistan last week, anti-war activists were finishing the organization of protests for the following day, Wednesday December 2. Demonstrations took place in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Albany, Providence, Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and several other cities throughout the US. Activists from several sectors of the movement united for the first time in years in response to a national call endorsed by the major anti-war coalitions United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) as well as the newer group, the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations.

Obama speaking at West Point

Numbers were modest at best, but many reports indicated larger crowds than organizers expected. This could represent a significant shift in the anti-war movement from a long period of shrinking and retraction into a period of growth. Of course, we should be hesitant to say that this is the case.

What is clear is the beginnings of disenchantment with Obama among progressive circles. Many anti-war activists voted for Obama last November thinking of him as an anti-war president, despite his campaign support for expansion of the conflict in Afghanistan. Since the election, the anti-war movement has been in a decline, as many had hoped that Obama would bring change and end these wars.

But it is now clear was that this war is not ending. On December 1st, Obama laid out a strategy of escalation in Afghanistan. He has committed 30,000 more troops into the conflict, expanded the CIA drone program which is being investigated for war crimes, and included an expansion of private military contractors. Jeremy Scahill has reported that the Bush/Cheney targeted assassinations plan is continuing under the US Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) and involves heavy collaboration between US Special Forces and private military contractors such as Blackwater.

What many find most disturbing is the drone campaign, which was responsible for the displacement of over two million Pakistanis. While Obama claims the United States is the largest international supporter of these displaced persons, he plans to continue a war and bombing campaign that causes the displacement. With little support from the Pakistani government, these refugees will continue to suffer as conditions are exacerbated by the expansion of the conflict and a continued drone targeted bombing campaign. Though Obama has claimed that the US has no interest in occupying another nation, it is clear that this will continue.

“More than any other nation, the USA has underwritten global security for over 6 decades, a time that for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open and billions lifted from poverty .. we have not sought world domination ... we do not seek to occupy other nations ... what we have fought for and what we continue to fight for is better lives for our children and grandchildren.” – President Barack Obama

An attack drone flies over mountains

So why is the US really there? With continued expenditure on the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and the expansion of the drone campaign in Pakistan, many private contractors are raking in millions in security and construction contracts, while the Afghan people have seen little change and still suffer under an undemocratic government. Karzai, who secured his recent electoral victory by using the influence of prominent warlords and a corrupt system to avoid any serious investigation into electoral fraud, has always been supported by the US. Obama has made clear that the goal of the US is to form a lasting partnership with Afghanistan. Of course, the US idea of partnership is a partnership that operates on the interests of US foreign policy goals and in favor of business. This “partnership” is not a partnership by any means, it is an imperialist objective to secure greater influence for the US in the region.

“America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country ... we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan rounded in mutual respect .. in which America is your partner, and never your patron” – Pres. Barack Obama

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As revelations about the facts on the ground in Afghanistan pile up, perception of Obama as an anti-war president shatters. His recent speech could be a turning point in further breaking progressive forces from Obama - and a re-energized antiwar movement could also have new partners in the streets. Since last January, many labor activists have come out strong against the war. The Troy Labor Council, The American Federation of Teachers, US Labor Against the War, and a new group of labor and anti-war activists calling themselves the Workers’ Emergency Recovery Campaign have released statements against the war and Afghanistan. There have been calls for the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to organize a national march on Washington DC for jobs, peace, healthcare, and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.

Obama's war and our resistance

In response to Obama’s speech on December 1st, anti-war activists organized local actions throughout the country. Reports are coming in of three-hundred in San Francisco, three-hundred in NYC splint in two different demonstrations, two-hundred-fifty in Chicago, two-hundred in Boston, and hundreds more in protests spread around the country in most major cities. These protests are a significant growth since the disappointing October 17th demonstrations that fell well below the expected turnout. What makes these different is the concerted efforts by all sectors of the movement to unite in opposition to the escalation and expanded war in Afghanistan. For the first time in several years, progressive and left sectors of the movement joined together. This unity turned what normally are small protests into much larger and significant actions.

Though there was certainly modest numbers in comparison to previous years and eras, these protests, organized essentially in two weeks, showed a desire from progressive groups to continue opposition to the wars and to take a strong stance against Obama’s Afghanistan policy. This commitment could change the future of the anti-war movement in the US and turn it back into the mass movement that it once was.

Of course, this cannot be achieved just by reigniting progressive sectors of the movement and bringing them back into the streets, but it also requires a commitment from the current movement to identify new people and expand the movement in a significant way. If this growth continues, the capacity of the movement can expand and its ability to reach out to new people will only grow. Despite what seems to be a significant achievement in this recent wave of protests, we also must remain realistic. The anti-war movement may still remain on its back for a while, but only time will tell.

It is unclear what the future of the anti-war movement holds, or if the national March on Washington being organized for March 20th in DC will reach the numbers that have turned out for past demonstrations. But if rank and file activists affiliated with UFPJ reignite their participation in the streets, we can only expect growth.

There are some signs that this is beginning to happen. Since UFPJ’s recent announcement that it might be dissolving due to financial debts, a coalition of progressives and former rank-and file UFPJ activists are organizing a demonstration on December 12th in Washington DC. First appearing in a letter sent to president Obama leading up to his announcement, a collection of former UFPJ activists and prominent voices such as Col. Ann Wright, David Swanson, Chris Hedges, and Cynthia McKinney, Enduswars.org represents the first push from progressive sectors of the movement to challenge Obama on his policies.

“If you choose to escalate, we will oppose this policy with all the energy we possess. We will act to mobilize the largest possible anti-war demonstration in Washington DC and other cities before the end of 2009, and continuously thereafter. We will support anti-war candidates of any party in the 2010 elections. If you are still waging the Afghan war in 2011, we will be forced to seriously consider backing an explicitly anti-war primary candidate to challenge you during the Democratic primaries.” – EndUSWars.org

This moment could represent a turning point in the opinions of progressive who have been giving Obama the benefit of the doubt up until now.

Antiwar march in Minneapolis

What the past year has clarified is that change cannot come from above. We cannot elect away these wars, we must unite and march in the streets in opposition to these wars. Those who had given Obama the benefit of the doubt are finally standing in opposition to his foreign policy.

Now, there are many reasons to be inspired to join the anti-war movement. We have been inspired by the labor activists who have joined those standing up against these wars, by those who took to the streets last January in opposition to the Israeli siege on Gaza calling for the US to withdraw its support, by the growing number of GIs that refuse to deploy to Afghanistan, and now by the progressives who are refusing to support Obama’s policies and have begun to stand up and fight back. If we can continue to seek this inspiration, and continue to build this movement, we can and will rebuild the struggle for peace and justice. Though the future is not set in stone, what is clear is that being in the anti-war movement is as important as ever with popular opinion turning further against the Afghanistan war.