By Michael Reagan
June, 2011

Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #74


June 30, 2011

By Michael Reagan

Speaking in Afghanistan on his farewell tour, and reiterating his point again in Brussels, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates didn't mince words. He declared that “even as the U.S. begins to draw down next month [in Afghanistan], I assured my fellow [EU] ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part.”  He then added that “we expect the same from our allies.” 

A few days later, President Obama announced that he would withdraw 33,000 soldiers from Afghanistan over the next 18 months.

Gates' comments and the Obama decision mark a significant turning point in the U.S. political discourse on the Afghan war. No longer are permanent escalation, backed by unlimited resources and promises of ultimate triumph, Washington's major talking points.  Instead, current questions revolve around the pace and scale of “winding down the war,” negotiating with the Taliban, and the degree to which the U.S. is indeed looking for the exits, if not rushing to them. 

Two points deserve emphasis: The dominant wings of the U.S. foreign policy elite are determined to scale back the over-reach of the last decade. But they are doing so because they believe such over-reach damages their underlying goal of maximizing U.S global power.

"I have spent my entire adult life with the U.S. as a superpower and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position."

Gates, a pivotal figure in the readjustment of imperial strategy, embodies both sides of this equation. This is the man who told West Point cadets in February that "any future Defense Secretary who advises a President to again send a big land army into Asia, the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined." Yet he recently told Newsweek “I have spent my entire adult life with the U.S. as a superpower and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position.” He went on to advocate the use of “hard power - the size, strength and global reach of the U.S. military” to protect “against the success of aggressors, dictators and terrorists in the 21st century.” 

Grudgingly, Gates and his cohorts (in contrast to the Neocons) recognize that the days of unlimited horizons for U.S. power are coming to an end. As he leaves office (today is his last day) Gates explicitly links this to his own retirement: “To tell you the truth,” he says in the same Newsweek interview, “that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.” 

The era when Washington figures like Gates could command obsequious compliance to their whims across the globe is ending. The incoming generation of state planners face an increasingly we-can-say-no-to-Washington, multi-polar world. This places limits on U.S. global clout and opens up new opportunities for those concerned with peace and justice, while holding continuing dangers for those in the new line of fire. 


Obama’s Afghanistan drawdown is a step in the right direction. But it’s playing tiddlywinks with soldier and civilian lives as this losing war continues. In what scholar and activist Phyllis Bennis calls a “token” redeployment, Obama’s withdrawal doesn’t even return the war to the level of troops deployed at the outset of his presidency.  Meanwhile, pursuing this lost cause is bleeding Pakistan too, causing outrage at the U.S. throughout that country.   

Within the spectrum of what's considered "responsible" politics by foreign policy gate-keepers, Obama sided with the “doves.” Gates and the Pentagon wanted a paltry three to five thousand troop redeployment, clinging to delusions of breakthroughs if Washington stays the course.

Outside the gatekeepers' boundaries, the peace movement continues to demand immediate and total withdrawal. And though few with a foot in official politics go that far, in this round many progressive Democrats and even some prominent Republicans called for a larger and more rapid drawdown. Obama’s decision therefore was seen as the kind of "middle course" which predictably brought criticism from remaining hawks as giving up and from the left as wasting blood and much-needed resources in a war that hurts Afghans and Americans both.   

Two main factors pushed Obama to over-ride the preferred plan of the "generals on the ground."

First is an increasingly vocal opposition coming from both sides of the aisle, backed by the growing public tide against the war, now a whopping 64% up from 12% at the initial invasion.  Behind those numbers has been ten years of peace and anti-war work for activists who’ve gained hardly a mention in the media, but whose work has made a difference. The ascent of anti-war politics in the beltway was demonstrated in the May House vote on an amendment to the military budget that called for beginning negotiations to end the war. That vote was lost by an astonishingly close nine votes, attracting Democrats and 26 Republicans to favor the amendment. 

Second is Washington’s awareness of its increasingly severe economic woes, and rapid growth of the sentiment that the money spent on foreign wars is needed at home.  "Main Street" - not just the left - has decided that spending $10 billion a month "to build bridges in Kandahar" is not worth it when bridges are rotting in Baltimore and Kansas City.


Looking ahead, Obama’s statement that this initial withdrawal will lead to a “responsible” process of “winding down the war,” is reminiscent of Cicero’s famous quip that in the world of politics one should take “first things first, second things never.” Maintaining 65-70,000 troops in Afghanistan at least through 2014 is hardly ending the war.  And there are plans for the stay beyond 2014. According to comments made by Joint Chiefs head Admiral Mike Mullen and Afghan president Hamid Karzai the U.S. and Afghan governments are developing plans for a long term U.S. military presence. Gates himself indicated that negotiations are aimed at securing two to six “joint bases” to remain in Afghanistan following the official end of the war - whenever that may be. 

But even the best laid plans can get fouled up in losing wars. Last year was the deadliest one for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, with deaths spiking even higher in recent weeks. The situation is similar for Afghan civilians.  The only progress U.S./NATO fighting forces - around 200,000 if you include the tens of thousands of mercenaries - have made against twenty to forty thousand Taliban fighters is to arouse the hatred of millions of Afghans. A poll by the International Council on Security and Development found that a whopping 8 out of 10 Afghans are opposed to the NATO presence in their country, and view NATO negatively. Even client President Karzai sometimes blurts out that if civilian deaths continue Westerners will be considered "occupiers." Worse still for war planners, after ten years of "training," U.S. commanders see Afghan forces as incapable of taking over security operations, and that the Afghan military is thoroughly infiltrated by the Taliban. At the same time attacks by militants on the borders are destroying NATO supply tankers and trucks, with dozens destroyed in the last weeks. 

No wonder the U.S. has crossed its previously declared "red lines" and opened up secret high level negotiations with the Taliban.

Washington hopes to salvage its sagging fortunes - and force the Taliban into concessions - by substituting high-tech drone strikes for "boots on the ground." This is "war on the cheap" compared to the costly deployment of troops. But the cost comes in civilian lives; there are weekly reports of dozens of civilians killed, largely ignored in U.S. media. With every life lost, more Afghan hearts and minds are lost as well. 

Obama may be aiming for the kind of retrenchment that allows Washington to continue the war, but once even "token" withdrawals get normalized the U.S. military presence is on a slippery slope. With enough pressure, it can be pushed a lot further downhill than its guardians intend.


As in Afghanistan, drones are an increasing problem in Pakistan. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. staged some high profile drone strikes, again killing numerous civilians. U.S. Pakistani relations were already at a historic low. In the aftermath of the assassination, the Pakistani parliament passed a resolution condemning U.S. unilateral action and affirming Pakistan's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, citing international legal standards. But in the 15 days following the bin Laden raid, the U.S. nearly tripled its rate of drone attacks, including one a mere forty-eight hours after the passage of the resolution. The signal sent regarding Washington's opinion of Pakistani democracy was plenty clear.   

Meanwhile, the Pakistani English language paper the Dawn, in conjunction with Wikileaks, released secret cables confirming that the head of the Pakistani army, General Pervaiz Kayani, had privately sanctioned drone strikes while condemning them in public. The documents further showed that the Pakistani military had long taken secret funds from the U.S. without civilian government oversight, and had an arrangement to maintain a willful ignorance of U.S. actions regarding a possible bin Laden assassination attempt. The revelations have outraged the Pakistani public.  A Pew Research Center poll launched in April and continued in May found little change in Pakistanis’ opinion of the U.S. – three fourths of respondents considered the U.S. an enemy.

The result is an unprecedented diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and the U.S.  Pakistan has expelled U.S. military trainers, outed the Karachi CIA station chief, and forced the U.S. to withdraw troops stationed in the country.  A recent trip of Joint Chiefs head Mullen, Hillary Clinton, and Gates' successor at Defense Leon Panetta to Islamabad to try to patch things up was a failure: Pakistani officials refused to even appear at the post-meeting press conference with Clinton and Mullen. The U.S. needs Pakistan both to continue to Afghan war and for any chance of negotiating a settlement with the Taliban who are under Pakistani influence. So relations are unlikely to reach a total break. But with every drone attack and every day the Afghan war continues, the U.S. is digging a deeper hole for itself with a populous, nuclear-armed country that is strengthening its relations with China every week. 


In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too, the U.S. and Israel are on the defensive. On the diplomatic front the Palestine Authority's campaign to win statehood recognition from the U.N. continues to gain momentum. On the ground, the movement of nonviolent protest in villages like Bilin and at Israeli borders, gaining energy from the region's Arab Spring, is likewise growing apace. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere are providing vehicles to bring the Palestine solidarity message to new sectors - and winning concrete victories in an increasing number of instances as well. The status quo is unsustainable - but the momentum to change it is now on the side of those fighting Israel's colonial project.

But the hard-right Israeli government and its U.S. supporters are counter-attacking. Israel has issued diplomatic orders to all its embassies and dispatched special envoys to Latin America and elsewhere to try to convince governments to vote against Palestine at the U.N. In the Israeli parliament a new spate of racist and repressive laws are moving ahead. And in the U.S. charges against solidarity activists of being anti-Semitic or Self-Hating Jews grow louder.

The next immediate confrontation looms over the Freedom Flotilla about to sale to Gaza, which includes a vessel organized by Americans, The Audacity of Hope. Israel has promised to respond with further violence, and the U.S. State Department has not only refused to offer any protection but is in full blame-the-victim mode. But there is momentum here that even the most ruthless violence will find it hard to stop; Pulitzer-Prize winning author Alice Walker, who will be on the ship to Gaza, is not exaggerating when she calls the effort "The Freedom Ride of Our Era."


Image from We assume "Intel" means "intelligence," and not the computer chip maker.

The domestic front is dominated by the continued economic hammering of working people: high unemployment, large-scale public sector job cuts, cuts in social services, and take-aways and give backs in public and private union contracts. Accompanying the assault are almost equally stunning but far less publicized take-aways on the civil liberties front. Bad enough was the Obama administration’s renewal of the notorious Patriot Act in May. Democratic Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have also revealed that Obama is reaching beyond even Patriot Act powers: They disclosed “a secret Justice Department opinion that grants the FBI broad authority to seize information on innocent U.S. citizens.” 

The opinion at issue concerns Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to collect information on U.S. citizens in connection with terrorism investigations. Udall and Wyden argue that the Justice Department opinion stretches meaning of this Section in a manner comparable to the Bush era memos from the Office of Legal Counsel justifying torture. The specifics of the opinion remain unknown, but the news came a few weeks before it was revealed that new FBI field manual guidelines provide for invasive searches of Americans’ personal material even without any probable cause of wrong-doing.  Agents are granted powers to survey a person’s movements and activities, collect and sort through their garbage, and infiltrate groups they may participate in, all while only opening what the Bureau calls an “assessment” and not a full investigation.

This expansion of executive powers through the Justice Department and FBI is mirrored by Obama’s efforts to circumvent Congress concerning presidential war-making authority. After many in Congress criticized the current intervention in Libya and argued that it is illegal without congressional authorization, Obama and his staff employed the Alice-in-Wonderland defense, arguing that U.S. military operations in Libya do not amount to “hostilities.” The charade became even more ridiculous when the news broke that Obama’s own Office of Legal Counsel, ordinarily the go-to office for giving the President legal advice, did not agree with this claim, and Obama had to get lawyers outside that office to provide legal cover for ordering non-hostility hostilities solely on his own authority.   

Such unchallenged developments establish extremely bad precedent for the future.  Without concerted social action our civil liberties will continue to erode, making future struggles all the more difficult.  These are grave developments indeed, and combined with the severe economic depression, constitute a “frontal assault” on working people.  With the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen, the assault on working peoples’ liberties and well-being constitute a “sixth war” for U.S. planners managing the decline.


The announced drawdown in Afghanistan is a significant improvement from where we were just a few months ago. The deployment needle is headed down, not up. The peace movement should take credit for helping to shift the political discourse from revolving around "victory" to a debate about how fast and how far to get out.

But in Washington talk is cheap. On the ground the murderous wars continue under the banner of “gradual” and “responsible” disengagement. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and other, lower intensity conflicts, the U.S. continues to enforce its geo-political interests. The good news is the guardians of empire now have fewer resources and fewer no-matter-what allies - hence they have somewhat less free reign to do as they please, other powers abroad and public opinion at home be damned.

Gates is telling the truth when he says the U.S. will be a major global player for years to come and is not rushing to leave the stage. But in the drama of U.S. global dominance, we are in transition from the early to the later acts. That means if organizers can successfully tap and channel the increasingly tired-of-the-wars sentiment of the U.S. public, Washington can be pushed a lot closer to the exits a lot faster than Gates would like to believe. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Michael Reagan is an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network andstudent at the University of Washington where he studies the history ofAmerican capitalism.

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