The devastating occupation of Iraq is entering its seventh unjustifiable year. Young men and women who were eleven years old when the US invaded Afghanistan are now being deployed into combat there. With media coverage of the wars almost non-existent, an economic collapse of terrifying proportions underway and a whole new political landscape in DC, it’s important that progressives, revolutionaries and socialists take a long and careful look at the situation facing us on this deadly anniversary.
Afghanistan is a pawn in the game of US domestic politics. Obama ran on Bush’s failure to keep his promise to capture Bin Laden, and in his statements during the campaign and since has repeatedly made his own pledge?Victory in Afghanistan. Yet no one in the administration can say what that would look like and it is acknowledged that so far there exists neither an overall strategic plan, clear goals nor an exit strategy.
The situation in Afghanistan is dire for US imperialism. Even its military supply lines are in a shambles. Al Qaeda-associated forces recently blew up the main road bridge linking Pakistan to Afghanistan, after years of merely stealing half of everything that came through, including supplies for the occupation. The government of Kyrgyzstan is threatening to ban US flights into Manas Airbase, cutting the main air link for overland traffic into Afghanistan from Central Asia.
The 17,000 new troops that Obama is rushing to Afghanistan are a stopgap to prevent the defeat, otherwise very likely, of the occupation and the Karzai government. It is in reality a deposit, a down payment on a much larger occupation force. Bear in mind that the Soviet Union?with a modern military, hundreds of thousands of occupation troops and the will to kill 600,000 to 2 million Afghans over a decade?got its ass kicked so thoroughly there that it was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
The War in Afghanistan and the Movement
The anti-war movement correctly made Iraq the center of its work, but did not do enough to challenge the bogus view that Afghanistan is “the good war” because of the 9/11 connection. Thus we have to ramp up education and organizing around Afghanistan to catch up with developments as Obama escalates.
We are starting behind the curve. While people in this country overwhelmingly favor a pullout from Iraq, one recent poll showed 65% in favor of the escalation in Afghanistan. Many people who would have been going nuts if Bush sent 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, especially without having withdrawn a single soldier from Iraq, are silent or even supportive of the escalation.
Our education and organizing faces some big obstacles. There is profound ignorance in the US about Afghanistan and how the US government helped ferment the whole mess there, starting in the Carter administration. Even the Iraq catastrophe has not ended the imperial arrogance which assumes that the US military is the way to straighten out Afghanistan’s (and the world’s) problems, especially since reactionary and misogynist stances taken by the Taliban make it easy to demonize.
The biggest problem, though, is the Obama factor. Many of the passionate supporters who powered his campaign don’t want to hear any criticism of him. And even among many who didn’t vote for him, he is currently seen as smart, capable and principled, and thus people tend to follow his lead on Afghanistan.
As a result Afghanistan has become contested terrain in the anti-war movement. A right wing, inside-the-Beltway current which had been pushed to the sidelines as the movement around Iraq grew has reasserted itself. Think tanks and lobbying groups tied to the Democrats have put out the call for a better managed war, and gone so far as to hail Obama’s increase in troops for the Afghanistan occupation.
The Situation in Iraq
The situation in Iraq remains static, which is because the various Iraqi factions?military, political, commercial, religious and tribal?are in a standoff. All are waiting for total or even significant US withdrawal to break the stasis and permit the redistribution of territory and power. The immiseration of the people has been brutal. With petroleum driven by the global economic meltdown to or below the $40 a barrel mark for the foreseeable future, there won’t be anything in the Iraqi treasury which can change that. In fact the struggle over money and state resources will inevitably intensify.
Obama has pledged to remove “combat troops” by mid-2010, and has struck back against a campaign of media leaks from within the military that this would be too much, too soon. He underlined his withdrawal date recently when he promised to cut the federal budget deficit to $533 billion by 2013 and officials said a big chunk of the savings will come from “winding down the war in Iraq.”
The US ruling class has been caught in a deadly trap in Iraq for almost six years. On the one hand, the cost of continuing the war has been intolerable, de-legitimating the government and damaging the budget and the economy even while the credit bubble was still inflating. On the other, the cost of leaving Iraq and giving up control on the oil spigot provided by the occupation would be a major blow to US power.
The equation seems to be shifting slightly now. The expense of the occupation is harder for the state to bear, while the economic meltdown will continue to force oil prices down and supplies up for several years to come, at least. In the meantime, Obama is trying to use the depression to reduce US structural dependence on oil.
There are great unknowns here. No one in the Obama administration or the Pentagon has said how large a force of “non-combat troops” will remain. No one in the media has even asked how many combat and logistical support contractors (i.e. mercenaries) will remain in Iraq under US or “joint US-Iraqi control,” in Obama’s plan.
It is clear from the giant US embassy and bases still being built, that a substantial permanent US military presence is envisioned. That presence could be expanded rapidly in case internal strife in Iraq breaks out and loss of US influence is threatened. And, of course, it would be mighty handy when oil scarcity and oil prices lurch upwards again.
The present fragile stasis has been a product of many factors, including Iranian backing for dominant factions in the Iraqi parliament and pressure on Shi’ite militias, the segregation of most of the country along confessional and ethnic lines, and massive US payments to Sunni militias called “Awakening Councils” to cease attacks or even fight other Sunni military groups still attacking US forces.
Any number of things could blow things wide open again. One notable hotspot is oil-rich Kirkuk where Kurds have tried to force out or neutralize Arab and Turkoman residents and the provincial elections held elsewhere in Iraq have been postponed indefinitely. US forces, if not directly targeted in new clashes, could be ordered either to stand by, reducing US influence on developments further, or to take sides, intensifying the fighting and being drawn back into heavy combat.
For many Americans, the war in Iraq has already fallen off the map, despite the 140,000 troops still stationed there. With relatively few US deaths and not one of the four major television networks maintaining a bureau in Baghdad anymore, it has become increasingly hard to follow the situation on the ground in Iraq, even for people who want to. And most people really don’t.
The State of the Anti-War Movement
The anti-war movement in this country is at what may be its weakest point since shortly after the invasion of Iraq, certainly since public opinion turned decisively against the war in 2005. Ironically this weakness comes as the politician whose election the anti-war movement made possible, Barack Obama, commences his presidency. We need to remember that there was a time when talking about ending the war meant you were a terrorist. “You are either with us or against us.” The social movements against the war created the opening for people to begin questioning and challenging the war, leading to an over-whelming majority of people in the US opposing the war in Iraq, which in turn paved the way for a president like Obama. We do have the power to shift and change things as a social movement. We cannot forget that it is the social movements, not Obama, who are responsible for ensuring that the war in Iraq ends and to similarly shift the ideology on Afghanistan toward a troop withdrawal.
The sixth anniversary of the Iraq invasion will unfortunately see the smallest protests by the anti-war movement yet. Four major demos have been called around the 6th anniversary of the invasion (DC, SF, LA on March 21 and NYC on April 4) and it would be a most happy development if even 100,000 protesters turn out.
It feels like the situation in the early ‘70s after the power of the anti-war movement had forced Nixon to end the draft, to hold truce talks with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the government of North Vietnam, and to start the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. Then it seemed like the movement just ran out of steam.
Sources of the Slowdown
The first is simply fatigue. The broad core of the anti-war movement (which for convenience’s sake we might define as the couple hundred thousand people who engage in major activity against the war at least 3-4 times every year), and even more so the hard core and full timers, are tired?tired to the bone?weary, drained.
The second is the economic depression we have entered. The number one concern for the majority of people in the US is what the economic future holds. The prospect is ugly and the reality will be worse. For many, survival will be priority one, and anti-war activism a luxury. Financial contributions to antiwar groups have dropped catastrophically and continue on a downward trend.
The third is the difficulty of maintaining one’s footing in a shifting situation. The Iraqi armed resistance didn’t continue to engage in combat and hammer US troops (and take losses) at the 2007 level. The civil war there cooled down, or was decided for a time. Now we have the Obama effort to shift from Iraq to Afghanistan as the focal point of US global aggression.
The fourth is that Obama’s candidacy (and to a lesser extent, those of other, left-leaning Dems) drew considerable energy, resources and momentum away from the anti-war movement starting in mid-2007. Yet the movement is holding no markers they can cash in with the new administration, as more organized and better-funded forces like the trade unions are doing.
Complicating matters is Obama’s public image. We now have a President who is not the easy-to-hate reactionary numbskull Bush was, but the bright, dynamic young first black president for whom many have high hopes and warm best wishes. But organizing protests and shaping demands does require a target.
To attack Obama up-front risks losing the support or sympathy of the millions galvanized by his campaign. Some, in UFPJ and elsewhere, have proposed to leap over the problem by calling for the movement to direct its main fire not at the occupations but instead at the military budget. It’s a potentially popular stand?money to fight the depression, instead of funding the war. It’s “Money For Schools, Not For War” on steroids. And if we can actually get the military budget slashed, the reasoning goes, then they won’t be able to continue the wars.
There are a few big problems with this approach. First it leaves the suffering of the US has invaded and the nature of the occupations unaddressed. Second, it means meaningful activity can only take place during the budgeting process, when funding bills come up, and perhaps on April 15. Third, it assumes that the logic is self-evident. Unfortunately, it is a commonplace view that it was military spending and WW2 that really ended the last depression in this country. There are, to be sure, strong arguments to be made against “military Keynesianism,” but they are complex. Fourth, the military budget has not had even a dollar cut out of it since the 1950s. To assume that a demoralized anti-war movement can make that happen is optimistic at best.
Tasks of the Anti-War Movement
We need to continue to strengthen the veterans and military families movement such as organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War. They are steadfast because they have first hand knowledge of the stakes. Its activists have strong ties with young men and women whose lives are directly and adversely affected by the continuation of the occupations, who will continue to be placed in harm’s way and who face grueling multiple deployments and Stop Loss under Obama just as they did under Bush.
Second, we need to go back and begin the task of educating our base again, this time about the idiocy of a military build-up and continued occupation in Afghanistan. The bogus “War on Terror” will not be won. Nor can we afford to get dragged into fruitless debate about the best ways to defeat the Taliban.
Third, we need to continue to raise the demand of “all soldiers and mercenaries out of Iraq?no soldiers left behind!” The 50,000 troops currently scheduled to remain past mid-summer 2010 will be combat soldiers in all but name.
Fourth, we cannot afford to give in to imperialist privilege. We have a responsibility to the Iraqi people. We, meaning the government that the people of this country elect and the armed forces we arm and pay with our tax dollars, have killed thousands of men, women and children there Of Iraqi women aged 15 to 80, one in eleven is a widow! We have destroyed a nation and left 2 million people refugees in neighboring countries and another 2 million internally. We need to fight for reparations and the rebuilding of Iraq. This will cost money, and as painful as that is, we need to fight for it.
Fifth, we need to continue to plug into local organizing efforts, especially any local motion that brings new fighters into the movement. The promising eruption of anger and protest among the young in response to the Israel’s attacks on Gaza shows that a part of the up and coming generation is taking a turn toward activism—and towards anti-imperialism! That outrage should also be focused against the ongoing Obama-sanctioned missile attacks in Pakistan that are indiscriminately killing civilians and enraging the population.
Last and most important, no matter how tiring and frustrating the work, no matter how pressing other issues may be, we cannot give up.Download this piece as a PDF