Afghanistan: The Case for Out Now

Posted October 7, 2009

— David Finkel

For the Solidarity Political Committee

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION is staring into the abyss called “Afghanistan,” or more accurately, “endless war and destruction in Afghanistan.” General McChrystal is requesting 40,000 additional troops to avert “the risk of failure” for the NATO mission. Added to the 68,000 U.S. soldiers already there – including the 21,000 new troops ordered into action by president Obama – that would bring the total close to the numbers of Soviet troops who fought (and lost) in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

As president Obama and his advisors lean over this bottomless pit, it’s absolutely for the antiwar movement and every voice of sanity to yell at the top of our lungs: “DON’T JUMP!” It’s not just that this would be a suicide mission for Barack Obama’s presidency. Mainly, it’s that the rest of us would be pulled down too.

This war already costs the United States $4 billion a month. That expense would even be worth it if it meant paving Afghanistan’s roads, providing telephone service and building basic infrastructure – frankly, this country owes the people of Afghanistan lots more than that for wrecking their country over the past 30 years – but not for more destruction and killing in the name of “fighting an insurgency” that becomes stronger precisely as the foreign occupation (that’s us) becomes more pervasive and oppressive. Meanwhile, our own infrastructure at home is crumbling, along with the hopes for a progressive agenda that accompanied Barack Obama’s historic election.

A growing percentage of the U.S. public, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” sees this war as unwinnable and pointless. They are quite right. People can see, as much as the policy wonks may try to obscure the facts, that the so-called “good war” in Afghanistan is about maintaining a fantastically corrupt, incompetent, election-stealing regime of warlords and drug lords against a powerful insurgency – an insurgency that is led by horrible religious-totalitarian forces, but increasingly draws on the grievances of ordinary Afghans. Not only that, but the insurgency – in fact, the very worst elements of the Taliban leading it – are supplied and protected by sectors of the military in neighboring Pakistan, the United States’ supposed ally in the “war on terror”!

How many American lives, and a hundred times as many Afghan ones, are worth sacrificing to bring about a victory of the warlords over the Taliban, even assuming that this is possible?

It’s necessary to be clear about some very stark realities. First, we have no reason to doubt General McChrystal’s professional military judgment that the current troop levels and the strategy pursued up to now are a recipe for defeat. Second, the civil war and imperialist occupation (to call the U.S./NATO presence by its right name) in Afghanistan are deeply interconnected with the crisis of the state in Pakistan, with the looming confrontation of the United States and western powers with Iran, and with the tangled complexities of relations between the United States and Russia.

Third, we recognize of course that the Obama administration inherited the Afghanistan debacle from the George W. Bush regime, along with the attempted salvage operation in Iraq following the defeat of the criminal war launched by Bush and Cheney to “remake the Middle East.” That war was not only a first-class strategic blunder – which of course it was – but a crime against humanity. But right now all these complexities point to the logic and the necessity of withdrawal from Afghanistan now, not maintaining the present course let alone plunging in deeper.

The choice facing not only Obama’s team, but the American people, is to double down on George W. Bush’s bad wager in Afghanistan, or to quit it. The choice of “getting in all the way” means a war lasting, at least, through Obama’s entire presidency (both terms) and probably the next president’s too – maybe decades. The idea that U.S. troops will somehow turn into some kind of heavily armed Peace Corps living among the villagers they protect is a bizarre fantasy, a departure from over two centuries of U.S. military doctrine which has always prioritized the use of massive, concentrated military force – and the history of U.S. “counterinsurgency” of the past century from the Philippines to Nicaragua (1909-1934) to Vietnam (1961-1975) shows how bloody and horrific it is.

The American general’s infamous phrase from the Vietnam war, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” will apply to the entire country of Afghanistan if the Obama administration takes the fatal plunge. Continuing this war will also sharpen the U.S. conflict with Iran, while simultaneously exposing Washington’s inability to win – a highly dangerous combination.

On the other hand, getting out of Afghanistan represents the only hope that the people of that country, who have suffered way more than enough, can forge a popular and democratic alternative to both the current warlord regime, which disgusts them, and the Taliban, who terrify them. We do not imagine that this will be quick or easy, but it is the only conceivable progressive outcome of this tragedy.

As socialists, anti-imperialists and supporters of democratic values we want to be clear about something else too. Our case for withdrawal from Afghanistan has nothing to do with the contemptible attitude that “Afghanistan is too broken-down and backward for we Americans to fix, despite our noblest intentions.” If Afghanistan is broken it’s because the United States, and the Soviet Union, broke it during the brutal proxy war they fought there in the 1980s. The hopes of Afghan women, above all, were sacrificed on the Reagan administration’s altar of “defeating Communism” by supporting ultra-reactionary Islamist insurgents financed by the CIA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistani intelligence.

What did the Great Powers gain by ruining Afghanistan? The Soviet Union wound up destroying its own army and ultimately its entire state. Post-Soviet Russia inherited Islamist insurgencies in Chechnya and the former Soviet Central Asia. The United States created Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and wound up with 9/11. We haven’t yet seen the end of the fallout, but the time to end the war and stop destroying Afghanistan and ourselves is now.

The only way out of Afghanistan is to get out of Afghanistan. The American people are increasingly making their choice, and it’s the sensible one: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. The organized antiwar movement, at this moment, is distressingly lagging behind public sentiment. We are at one of those critical moments where the imperial elites are undecided, and vocal popular sentiment makes a difference. President Obama: Don’t Jump!