Losing in Afghanistan
By Marjorie Cohn
July 6, 2010
Submitted to portside by the author
Last week, the House of Representatives voted 215-210 for $33
billion to fund Barack Obama's troop increase in Afghanistan.
But there was considerable opposition to giving the President
a blank check. One hundred sixty-two House members supported
an amendment that would have tied the funding to a withdrawal
timetable. One hundred members voted for another amendment
that would have rejected the $33 billion for the 30,000 new
troops already on their way to Afghanistan; that amendment
would have required that the money be spent to redeploy our
troops out of Afghanistan. Democrats voting for the second
amendment included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and nine
Republicans. Both amendments failed to pass.
The new appropriation is in addition to the $130 billion
Congress has already approved for Iraq and Afghanistan this
year. And the 2010 Pentagon budget is $693 billion, more than
all other discretionary spending programs combined.
Our economic crisis is directly tied to the cost of the war.
We are in desperate need of money for education and health
care. The $1 million per year it costs to maintain a single
soldier in Afghanistan could pay for 20 green jobs.
Not only is the war bankrupting us, it has come at a tragic
cost in lives. June was the deadliest month for U.S. troops
in Afghanistan. In addition to the 1,149 American soldiers
killed in Afghanistan, untold numbers of Afghan civilians
have died from the war - untold because the Defense
Department refuses to maintain statistics of anyone except
U.S. personnel. After all, Donald Rumsfeld quipped in 2005,
'death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.'
There are other 'depressing' aspects of this war as well. As
Gen. Stanley McChrystal reported just days before he got the
axe, there is a 'resilient and growing insurgency' with high
levels of violence and corruption within the Karzai
government. McChrystal's remarks were considered 'off
message' by the White House, which was also irked by the
general's criticisms of Obama officials in a Rolling Stone
article. McChrystal believes that you can't kill your way out
of Afghanistan. 'The Russians killed 1 million Afghans and
that didn't work.'
He and his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, likely disagree on
the need to prevent civilian casualties (known as 'Civ Cas').
McChrystal instituted some of the most stringent rules of
engagement the U.S. military has had in a war zone: 'Patrol
only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will
not have to defend yourselves with lethal force.' Commanders
cannot fire on buildings or other places if they have reason
to believe civilians might be present unless their own forces
are in imminent danger of being overrun. And they must end
engagements and withdraw rather than risk harming
noncombatants. McChrystal knows that for every innocent
person you kill, you create new enemies; he calls it
'insurgent math.' According to the Los Angeles Times,
McChrystal 'was credited with bringing about a substantial
drop in the proportion of civilian casualties suffered at the
hands of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and
its Afghan allies.'
While testifying in Congress before he was confirmed to take
McChrystal's place, Petraeus told senators that some U.S.
soldiers had complained about the former's rules of
engagement aimed at preventing civilian casualties.
According to the Rolling Stone article, Obama capitulated to
McChrystal's insistence that more troops were needed in
Afghanistan. In his December 1 speech at West Point, the
article says, 'the president laid out all the reasons why
fighting the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea: It's
expensive; we're in an economic crisis; a decade-long
commitment would sap American power; Al Qaeda has shifted its
base of operations to Pakistan. Then,' the article continued,
'without ever using the words ‘victory' or ‘win,' Obama
announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to
Afghanistan, almost as many as McChrystal had requested.'
Both Obama and Petraeus no longer speak of 'victory' over the
Taliban; they both hold open the possibility of settlement
with the Taliban. Indeed, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, chief of
operations for McChrystal, told Rolling Stone, 'It's not
going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a
The majority of Americans now oppose the war in Afghanistan.
Fareed Zakaria had some harsh words for the war on his CNN
show, saying that 'the whole enterprise in Afghanistan feels
disproportionate, a very expensive solution to what is
turning out to be a small but real problem.' Noting that CIA
director Leon Panetta admitted that the number of Al Qaeda
left in Afghanistan may be 50 to 100, Zakaria asked, 'why are
we fighting a major war' there? 'Last month alone there were
more than 100 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan,' he said.
'That's more than one allied death for each living Al Qaeda
member in the country in just one month.' Citing estimates
that the war will cost more than $100 billion in 2010 alone,
Zakaria observed, 'That's a billion dollars for every member
of Al Qaeda thought to be living in Afghanistan in one year.'
He queried, 'Why are we investing so much time, energy, and
effort when Al Qaeda is so weak?' And Zakaria responded to
the argument that we should continue fighting the Taliban
because they are allied with Al Qaeda by saying, 'this would
be like fighting Italy in World War II after Hitler's regime
had collapsed and Berlin was in flames just because Italy had
been allied with Germany.'
There is also division in the Republican ranks over the war.
Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele made
some gutsy comments about the war in Afghanistan, saying it
is not winnable and calling it a 'war of Obama's choosing.'
(Even though George W. Bush first invaded Afghanistan, Obama
made the escalation of U.S. involvement a centerpiece of his
campaign.) Steele said that if Obama is 'such a student of
history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one
thing you don't do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?
Everyone who has tried, over 1,000 years of history, has
failed.' Interestingly, Republicans Lindsey Graham and John
McCain slammed Steele and jumped to Obama's defense. Rep. Ron
Paul, however, agreed with Steele, saying, 'Michael Steele
has it right, and Republicans should stick by him.'
Obama will likely persist with his failed war. He appears to
be stumbling along the same path that Lyndon Johnson
followed. Johnson lost his vision for a 'Great Society' when
he became convinced that his legacy depended on winning the
Vietnam War. It appears that Obama has similarly lost his
[Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law,
is immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild and
deputy secretary general of the International Association of
Democratic Lawyers. She is co-author (with Kathleen Gilberd)
of Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military
Dissent. See www.marjoriecohn.com.]
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