Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Graveyard of Empires

I have always appreciated the freshness that President Obama brought to a broken, artificial political process. Only a few years removed from anonymity and relative powerlessness himself, Obama understands and fears the power of the mainstream media and special interest groups to shape and drive debate in this country. Throughout the campaign, particularly the more intimate settings of early primary season, I saw Obama plead for us, the Democratic primary voters, the progressive supporters, to hold him accountable once he won. He does not want people like me to support him blindly, he wants us to tug on him to the left, make some noise, and raise some hell, because God knows how many insidious forces will give no quarter in dragging him in the wrong direction.

That is why my honeymoon period with the President is over. Let’s start with the first issue to ever move me to the streets, the senseless war in Afghanistan. From the beginning it was a misguided adventure, where we sent 15 year old boys with pitchforks and rifles as proxies to fight the Taliban on the ground, carpet bombing and incinerating the already devastated countryside with 15,000 pound Daisy Cutters and dropping yellow cluster bombs that looked tragically like yellow food package drops. Children continued to be maimed by cluster bombs that failed to diffuse on impact long after our initial invasion. And despite the death of as many Afghani civilians as died on our soil on September 11th, we had little to show for our effort- most of Al Qaeda’s leadership had escaped, along with one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar. We installed an oil hack, Hamid Karzai, as the glorified mayor of Kabul. Seven years later, the Karzai presidency faces its first serious electoral test, facing Haji Baryalai, whose main platform is reconciling with moderate members of the Taliban. Yeah democracy! That was worth it! Can we leave now?

Unfortunately not. President Obama wants to double-down, sending at least 30,000 more troops to a land that is actually called “the graveyard of empires.” It’s funny, during general elections all candidates are expected to make promises they don’t keep- just part of the game. When Obama would constantly bring up sending more troops to Afghanistan, it seemed like a pretty transparent ploy to make him seem tough, given his very well known (some chicken hawks would call it ‘weak’) position on withdrawing from Iraq. Especially when the recession could have given him an economic excuse, or at least sufficiently distracted the public, it seemed like the Afghanistan troop surge would quietly exit. And yet, here he is, sending more troops without any political demand whatsoever. It’s one of the few campaign promises he’s been able to follow through on. This insistence not only surprised me, but probably our European allies, who probably also thought he had been bluffing all along. When he went to Europe last week to ask him for more troops, the main response was, “No, are you joking?” Italy, France and Germany may send something like 2400 troops to help monitor elections, but then they’ll bounce. No, it will just be us, hanging out, living out a wretched, doomed plan.

Shockingly, the American people may actually come around on Afghanistan faster than the President. A USA Today/Gallup poll released on March 17 showed that 42% of Americans thought the U.S “made a mistake in occupying Afghanistan”, a number so mind-blowing that I did a triple-take when I passed a newsstand that morning and saw it. The recession is clearly a factor- the number was only 30% a year ago, and has been on a steady trajectory since its all-time low of 6% in January of 2002, back when we “won.” Maybe Americans don’t see the point in propping up a corrupt government in a country that exports 75% of the world’s heroin (though not 75% of the world’s heroines). Whatever the reason for the change of heart, I’ll take it, because that’s a number that will only go up.

I’d feel worse about opposing the troop escalation if it had any logical basis to it. Apparently, the current problem in Afghanistan is our troops are too centralized, and when we raid outposts in the countryside, extremist groups/Taliban/Al-Qaeda/local tribes tend to regroup as soon as we leave. Our solution is to send these reinforcements to stay at the outposts, so these enemies can’t regroup. And I imagine that these people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years, will eventually be discouraged by our makeshift barracks and surrender, bringing true democracy to Afghanistan. Assuming our presence in those regions last…forever?
Oh, and how could I leave out the “training”? You know, training the troops and the police officers. The thing we were so good at in Iraq. I’ve actually spoken to someone who had to train cops in Afghanistan, who told me the biggest problem he faced was illiteracy. “You can’t even give them a manual, assuming you had one in their language in the first place.” I understand that Obama is genuinely nervous about that region of the world imploding. After all, Pakistan is a deeply unstable nuclear state, and Waziristan is truly a threat to regional and global security. Sending unmanned drones in to blow up wedding parties and civilian homes isn’t going to solve the terrorist recruitment problem, though. The solution lies in partnering with India and Pakistan, both of whom have serious concerns about Waziristan-driven terrorism.

The politically savvy-to-the-point-of-cynicism in me says that perhaps Obama is only out front on Afghanistan to neutralize Republicans on the only issue that they could even lay a glove on him for in the ’08 elections, which is national security/foreign policy. Republicans have completely lost the battle on social issues (See Iowa) and Obama’s domestic plan, including the stimulus, is extremely popular. Cut off on foreign policy, Republicans will likely turn to nativist anti-immigration screeching and try to tie Obama to the bailout crisis, the latter being Obama’s biggest political vulnerability today. If all this ruminating is correct, Obama will turn around once his cute little “Afghani-surge” is over and bring the troops home.

On a related note, please continue to join us for Make Out Not War on Saturdays, 4pm-5pm, in Union Square. In my mind, this is the war I am making out against.

On a happier note, please enjoy David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing Christmas carols: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-OTQmVOqJU
I know. It’s been a weird day.

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