Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stop the war in Afghanistan

A critique of President Obama's acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

America should not be fighting a war in Afghanistan. In partial defense of this view, the following are my comments on U.S. President Obama's acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. In brief:

  • The U.S. cannot win the war in Afghanistan. Indeed it is very hard to imagine a military strategy that would prevail. The nature of the terrain, the heroic pertinacity of its people, and the absence of a legitimate central government in Kabul all contribute to the futility of fighting another day there. In addition the U.S. has undermined its reputation in the region to such an extent during the past eight years by bombing, imprisoning, and torturing civilians, as well as propping up dubious governments, that it has no firm hold on the hearts and minds of the average Afghan as to the purpose, sincerity and integrity of its mission. Furthermore, I don't see how it is going to garner that prize by surging its troops. Even if the U.S. could 'win' even a narrowly defined conflict there, I question its motives and what long-term good would come of it, particularly if it involves paying off the opposition -- however that entity is defined -- in the manner that it did in the much more developed country of Iraq. Money can't buy America love, or the demise of the Taliban, or stability in the Middle East/Indian Subcontinent.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
  • The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not justified as President Obama contends, because the U.S. was attacked on 9/11 and is now acting in self-defense to stave off another plot that may be hatched in that country. I believe that this is an aggressive not a defensive military campaign, and if the U.S. is truly interested in defending itself, it should start by further fortifying the home front and by exporting more aid, good will, and an unequivocal message of peace to places in the world that are enveloped in poverty and turmoil.                                                                                                                                                                
  • There are commonly employed moral and religious overtones to Obama's arguments that I believe are at best contradictory and at worst dishonestly cloaking a hidden political and economic agenda. America should get off its high horse until it has proven that it will no longer ride the low one. 

To begin, I wholeheartedly agree with a number of Obama's statements. For instance, "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend." I wrote something very similar not long ago:  In Surveillance, Risks and Gains. And he says, "No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations." Here, here! But in the context of an overall apology for warfare, this and similar lines in the speech reads like rhetorical flourishes intended for immediate applause and next day headlines, the desired effect being to sway skeptics who think Obama should not have received the award. In other words, "take two of these and you'll feel better in the morning" about the deployment of an additional 30k combat troops.

Mid-way through the speech Obama says, "I have spoken at some length to the question that must weigh on our minds and our hearts as we choose to wage war. But let me now turn to our effort to avoid such tragic choices,...". First, since when has Washington's choice to wage war become everyone's choice? Second, take note that the choice has been categorized as "tragic". Let us hope that Obama has not unintentionally uttered a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Overall, Obama's speech reads less like the contemplation of a man genuinely seeking world peace than a politician beholden to various interests: national, corporate, and personal. As a result it does not dish up a coherent philosophical explanation of if and why one should choose war over peace -- a decision Obama has made and so propelled America along with him into an increasingly costly conflict measured in both human and economic terms. On the contrary, the message is muddled by what seems like a half-hearted attempt to unite irreconcilable ends. Before the President opened his mouth to speak, we all knew the outcome -- war as usual has prevailed. For that reason, I do not believe he deserves the prize, but that is a trivial thing compared with life and death issues bound up in his choice to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

The speech was also less than forthright about the reasons America is at war. Namely, we have yet to hear an honest and thorough account from Washington of the reasons it is fighting on two fronts in the region. There are reasons, but reasons that are not going to be admitted in public, namely economic and geopolitical ones versus the stock ideological ones we hear ad nauseam. 

Obama claims that "Evil (note: with a capital 'E') does exist in the world." I agree it does, but the President nowhere defines the nature of evil. Inquiring minds need to know. In the meantime, here is a good rule of thumb: whenever a national leader poses a conflict in terms of Good v. Evil, read instead material resources and political power that we want v. material resources they want. In the over half-century since the end of the Second World War, the United States has, contrary to what Obama asserts, sought to impose its will on the world -- for whatever revolving set of economic, political, and moral justifications it has seen fit to promote, for instance support of 'democracy', 'freedom', or in the current situation 'enlightened self-interest'. But this has been primarily the will, not of the American people, but rather the business leaders of U.S. multinational corporations seeking unfettered access cheap material and human resources globally, as well as the will of leaders in DC beholden to corporate money flowing in to finance the U.S. election system.

"America has never fought a war against a democracy", contends Obama. How about Chile in 1972 when Nixon, Kissinger and the CIA orchestrated a coup that toppled the Allende government after the latter nationalized Chile's copper industry, four-fifths of which were in hands of American multinationals? Or how about in 1953 when the U.S. installed the Shah of Iran after the CIA deposed Mohammad Mossadegh the democratically elected prime minister after an attempt was made to nationalize the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which held a monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil? In short, the U.S. and its allies have a long track record for turning a blind eye to various dictatorships, if not openly supporting them, when it has been economically expedient to do so. 

President Obama claims he wants to replace war and peace, but the actions of U.S. military suggest otherwise. The war in Iraq may indeed be "winding down" with respect to combat operations, but -- don't let them fool you -- the U.S. plans to maintain bases there for an indefinite time (think West Germany, South Korea, Japan), confirming that America invaded that country not mainly to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and round up fictitious WMD, but more importantly to gain a permanent foothold in the oil rich region. See, e.g. If the U.S. is ultimately leaving Iraq, why is the military expanding its bases there? We have established a vast military and economic presence in Iraq, and will not let go unless forced to do so. Moreover, U.S. troops in Iraq are not coming home, but instead are being redeployed to a nearby country for similar purposes. 

Obama says that "we did not seek the war in Afghanistan". This is one of numerous lies propagated by the U.S. disinformation machine (with the bulk of the 4th estate following more or less in toe), and those accepting it suffer from a loss of recent historical memory compounded with a national case of self-deception. In brief, we were covertly at war in that country for many years prior to 9/11. On this point I refer to Pulitzer Prize winning author Steve Coll's 2004 Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. To say that the U.S. did not seek this war is similar to saying a drunk driver who caused an accident was not at the scene. 

Obama condemns the use of religion, specifically Islam, "to justify the murder of innocents", namely the victims of the 9/11 attacks. I do not accept that religious dogma was the primary motive on that day (although it was undoubtedly a powerful tonic). The animosity of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda has its roots primarily in politics and economics, whereas the religious aspects of the movement are secondarily motivational. In other words, it has more to do with opposition to the Saudi monarchy, the U.S. and Israel, than Islamic fundamentalism. In November of 2001, bin Laden said, "America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal." In short, America cannot explain way the conflict by saying it was the victim of some irrational and fanatical movement. One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. And because America and it proxies employ military tactics that -- accept it or not -- are perceived by its adversaries as intentionally brutal. Giving the enemy a set of derogatory labels -- whatever they may be -- is simply part of maintaining public support for a conflict. One can debate forever what those terms mean and whether they are applicable, but at the end of the day the facts on the ground should be the true basis of any propositions regarding the situation.  

Let's face it: there was no way the U.S. was not going to respond militarily to the attacks of 9/11. The logic of that is embedded in numerous narratives, chief among them the primitive and seemingly inexorable one of an "arm for an arm". But connecting the dots we see that the U.S. has been engaged in the game of warfare in this region for decades, and being attacked, and attacking in response, was just another chapter of the ongoing history being written as you read this. The only big difference about 9/11 is that the U.S. sustained casualties on its native soil, something that had not occurred since Pearl Harbor. Ok, America was lucky for decades given its international track record. But compare what Americas lost at home that day to say, the number of civilian lives lost in Vietnam, and then it remains relatively well off. Still, I believe it is essentially misguided -- even perverse -- to make quantitative comparisons involving life and death: when one single soul is lost to violence, that person is not coming back, friends and family are irrevocably harmed, and nothing is righted in the world. (As an aside, I believe that capital punishment is perfect instance of the primitive urge for retribution of a wrong that does not resolve a conflict but instead perpetuates it. Ironically, it gives capital to the idea that murder is justified.)    

Proviso and clarification: I am not taking sides here, am not a patriot of any sort, but rather want to draw attention to the real conflicting reasons that are driving this conflict. As far as violence is concerned, being a pacifist, I do not support any person, group or nation. Any participant is culpable, and there are very few truly justifiable excuses to employ military might to resolve disputes (and to be honest, I am having trouble coming up with one). The phrase "just war" is an oxymoron. Fight, fight in a war and ultimately be damned along with the ever-growing historical catalogue of individuals and organizations who have chosen violent means to settle disputes. Choose the path of peace, and garner praise from those who have faith that humanity can and should at all times live together in harmony and equality.

Where do Christians stand with respect to the death of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we exonerated by virtue of filing those deaths in the "collateral damage" folder? Are we in the right because we are the ones who are doing 'Good'? By slinging around the term 'Evil' without properly appreciating its meaning, how far are we really from believing that the use of force is justified because we are ourselves carrying out a divine will? People should recognize that if they choose to fight fire with fire, they become part of the conflagration. The pathological and seemingly eternal man-made cycle of an eye for an eye will only cease when we understand the true meaning of the imperative, "do unto others as we would have them do unto us" -- that is, stop the violence now or it will never end. (And by the way, the "do unto others" motto is not as Obama says a "law of love". It has nothing to do with love, but rather the instinct for self-preservation and how empathy with other creatures impacts on the success of our co-existence.)  

So what are the material resources America covets in Afghanistan and the region? Well, the answer is in part geopolitical -- and that of course has a long and sorted history -- and part immediately and strategically economic. For one, have a look at Making the TransAfghanistan Pipeline Safe for Democracy and Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. Also consider that the U.S. does not want either Pakistan or India -- nuclear powers at odds with one another -- to fall to an Islamic regime on the Iranian model or something more sinister. Not to mention there is a heck of a lot at stake in keeping the Indian subcontinent friendly for the "free market". When was the last time an American consumer called for technical support and talked with a person physically located in Indiana or Maine? So again, the U.S. has its reasons, but not the ostensible ones being presented by Washington and the mainly sympathetic U.S. press.

More generally, the U.S. military, its corporate defense contractors, and outsourced mercenaries clearly stand to gain from a permanent state of war on one or more fronts. My view is that Obama has essentially caved in to the military branch of the U.S. government (yes, it is de facto one), or at least to pressure from warmongering conservatives from both parties. Worst case scenario: Obama does not really have the authority to cancel the Afghan war and the months of debate was merely perfunctory. In any event, as Lloyd Bentsen famously said of Dan Quayle, Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter.

I have written elsewhere about man's tendencies toward violence, in particular An Interpretation of a Dream. Obama's cursory interpretation of the origins of violence is essentially correct, except that his misses the essential distinction that separates animals from humans, namely animals are not weapons creating creatures and so are never alienated from the immediate violence that they can themselves produce. My point is that weapons make a big difference in any equation that relates to war and peace. In America, violence begins at home with the freedom of the average citizen to own a handgun. Take away those guns and America will begin to address head on a worldwide problem.   

Obama argues that "modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale", but let us not forget that that the power wrought by a superpower employing the most sophisticated weapon systems in the world is in actuality just as terrible. In addition to regularly exercising its own might, the U.S. arms industry exports hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons annually, fueling the vast majority of armed conflicts worldwide, increasing instability, and leading to further violence of all sorts everywhere. See Arms Industry for details. So, I call into question the so-called "plain fact" that the U.S. "has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades" or any period of its existence for that matter. I suppose it depends on what one means by, "global security". Security for Nike to manufacture sneakers in Asia? Freedom for McDonald's to serve up billions of burgers from Seattle to Shanghai?  

Harking back to John F. Kennedy, Obama advises us not to bank on "sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." But human institutions, being nothing more than the sum total of individuals who run them, are just as susceptible to the sort of folly that afflict individuals. Human spiritual evolution must progress in concert with the evolution of its institutions; otherwise the latter will be as ineffective as those who constitute them. Institutions cannot solve issues of war and peace unless they are run by individuals who are not merely giving lip service to non-violent resolutions.

"Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms", claims Obama. What proof do we have of this? Has anyone ever tried? Does this in effect say we will not negotiate? And is this not contrary to the idea that we are now willing to negotiate with some rouge states, considering it is small difference talking with a state versus a small group of individuals? In the President's own words, "Sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door." America should lead the way by opening more doors. If our enemies refuse to negotiate, then let it be well known that we at least genuinely tried to talk and brought serious proposals to the table.

"America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war, says Obama, for "that is what makes us different from those whom we fight." Even if this were true (and it is not), is there really any standard in warfare possibly worth bearing? How easily we forget, for instance that the U.S. assault on Iraq during the first Gulf War was one of the most prodigious slaughters in modern history. A brutal six-week bombardment in 1991 killed an estimated 150,000 people and left millions homeless and destitute. In particular, the U.S. Air Force assault on a retreating Iraqi column at Rumaila, Iraq, two days after a declared cease-fire, has been routinely described as a massacre. And more recently there is Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to consider. So I say in contrast: America must begin to be the standard bearer in the conduct of war. In short, America can and should be a better global partner, but only if it first fully and transparently owns up to its past and present transgressions. Like an alcoholic that finally admits the truth, America is a nation that stands to begin redeeming itself by taking the first step beyond denial. In the warfare business America is not different. If anything, as the only remaining world superpower, it is the leader of a pack.

Obama calls to attention the capacity of human beings "to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God". But indeed, isn't that what Americans have done over and over, e.g. slaughtering its indigenous natives, enslaving imported black Africans, persecuting "communist sympathizers", decimating over a million people in Indochina (recall General Westmoreland's remark, "life is cheap in Asia"), torturing Iraqi prisoners, and indiscriminately bombing Afghani villages? My point: historically Americans are well up there in the roster of nations that have done egregious wrong to their own as well as people of other nations.

Obama declares, "we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes". I call this profoundly glib and defeatist. How does he know? Coming from one of the world's most influential leaders, doesn't this concession aid the possibility that he will be right? On the contrary, wars do end. People do live in harmony with one another. Why is it not possible to achieve this on a grander and more complete scale? It is only when we first imagine things that they may come to be. 

Obama says, "I face the world as it is". I say, we define the world. And since it is a world of our making, we can and must define and make it differently.

America, with Obama's direction, must forgo war and give peace a chance.

Frank X. White
24 December 2009