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I’d like to unpack a little American zeitgeist for you on the Afghan war.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 64% of Americans now think the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting; and an even more overwhelming 73% want a “substantial number of U.S. combat forces” to withdraw this summer.

To get a sense of the demographics of this vox populi, this same group of folks when asked about the Tea Party, replied 36% favorable, 48% unfavorable, with 16% having no opinion-seemingly, an accurate cross-section of the U.S. populace.

U.S. General David Petraeus reported on Tuesday and Wednesday to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, withdrawal of “some combat forces” may be included in a future set of policy recommendations for President Obama.

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, stated that the proposed drawdown of U.S. and coalition troops, between now and 2014, “…in no way signals our abandonment of Afghanistan. President Obama and President Karzai have agreed that the United States and Afghanistan will have an enduring strategic partnership beyond 2014, and we are currently working with the Afghans on the details of that partnership.”

The problem with our near decade long war in Afghanistan is that the strategy is not based on any lessons learned from history, cannot be sustained due to America’s economic over-extension, and does not have clearly defined, nor tenable goals for success. With recent developments in the Middle East, our boots-on-the-ground traditional military deployment in Afghanistan, to fight a decentralized, asymmetrical foe (al-Qaeda), puts America squarely on the wrong side of history.

Eight years of bungling

Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald’s book, “Crossing Zero”, aptly describes the feckless first eight years of the Afghan war,

“…the rapacious and incompetent mishandling of the country’s reconstruction monies, the confused misapplication of counterinsurgency/counterterrorism doctrine, and a telltale weakness for ignoring Pakistan’s open support for the Taliban, spelled disaster. After eight years and billions spent, the Bush administration’s efforts by 2009 had amounted to the virtual collapse of governance in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the spread of religious violence throughout the region, and the ascent of a narco-funded criminal enterprise global in scope. This is the legacy that has become President Obama’s war.”

Wasted lives and treasure

With America’s deficit for 2011 at $1,500,000,000,000-and our national debt at $14 trillion-the gargantuan annual expense of our military and wars is now threatening to implode our fiscal house. We simply have to find other, more creative and innovative ways to ensure our national security; the Cold War strategic pursuit of supporting strongman thugs, dynastic monarchs, mafia-esque dictators, is not sustainable, nor consistent with the democratic values that we demand for ourselves.  

In his New York Times column, Tom Friedman recently shared the absurdity of continuing to invest in a bad thing,

“When one looks across the Arab world today at the stunning spontaneous democracy uprisings, it is impossible to not ask: What are we doing spending $110 billion this year supporting corrupt and unpopular regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are almost identical to the governments we’re applauding the Arab people for overthrowing?…Last October, Transparency International rated the regime of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan as the second most corrupt in the world after Somalia’s.”

House vote on Afghan pullout

Following on the heels of Gen. Petraeus’ report, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) took to the floor of the U.S. House on Thursday to debate the Afghan war after sponsoring a bill for an immediate pullout. Kucinich warned against the war being open-ended, with no end in sight. He predicted our presence in Afghanistan will continue until 2020 at a cost of at least another trillion dollars. With America’s skyrocketing deficits and debt, something, somewhere has to give.

Kucinich then fired off a series of rhetorical questions,

“Where are we going to get that money? Are we going to cut Social Security for that? Are we going to cut health care and funds for education? Where are we going to get this money? Are we ready to give up our entire domestic agenda so that we can continue on the path of a war to prop up a corrupt regime whose friends are building villas in Dubai, presumably with money that comes through the United States that’s shipped out in planes out of the Kabul Airport? We have to start standing up for America here.”

A different, globally interdependent approach to national security

“We have to start working with the international community on matters of security-and if we need to continue to track down anyone associated with mass violence against the people of our country or any other country, that should be matter of an international police action. And we must stop the policies of interventionism. We must stop the reach for empire; it is destroying our nation… We have to challenge the underlying premise about war being inevitable, because as soon as people start beating the drums of war, there’s an entire marching band and “Chowder Society” at the Pentagon and their people in the contracting business who are ready to make a case for war at any time-and at any place.” –Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH.)

In support of shutting down the war, Republican Dana Rohrabacher (CA-46) made a passionate plea,

“We cannot be a nation that occupies the rest of the world… our foreign policy bureaucracy… set in place a government structure totally inconsistent with the village and tribal culture of the Afghan people… Our troops are there to force the Afghan people to accept an overly centralized and corrupt system put in place by the State Department bureaucracy-I’m sorry, it won’t work. Any attempt to subjugate these people and force them to acquiesce to our vision of Afghanistan will fail… If we’re honest with ourselves, we know (this) tactic won’t succeed. To keep our troops there any longer is sinful! It’s a disservice to our country, but also to those young men who are willing to give their legs and their lives for us.”

Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan is commonly referred to as the Graveyard of Empires“, notably because of defeats and hasty retreats made by the British in the mid-19th century and Soviet Union in the 1980s, precipitating its dissolution.

In Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald’s book, “Crossing Zero”, a dire depiction of a waning U.S. empire is made. As a lone super-power, what if we faced the Truman doctrine of containment-except directed at us-restraining American power instead of protecting it?

Nathan Freier of the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute writes: Imagine, “a new era of containment with the United States as the nation to be contained,” where the principle tools and methods of war involve everything but those associated with traditional military conflict. Imagine that the sources of this “new era of containment” are widespread; predicated on non-military forms of political, econom
ic, and violent action; in the main, sustainable over time; and finally, largely invulnerable to effective reversal through traditional U.S. advantages.

This potential eventuality gives one pause to ask, “Will the American people ever wake up and see what’s really happening, or is it too late to turn things around?”

Diversity of America is key

Back in World War II, when the Allies were attempting to defend against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the total war doctrine leveraged all means of production towards the war effort; Detroit made ships, tanks, planes. FDR called our industrial infrastructure, “the arsenal of democracy.”

The arsenal of democracy has now changed. It is no longer the 20th century accoutrements of power: bullets, bombs, planes, tanks-no, the newest tools of democracy are social networking tools of people reaching out to people with their hopes, aspirations, dreams. This new arsenal is notional and abstract; formerly theoretical and academic-now, a very real catalyst lifting people to higher ground, overturning oppressive regimes, engendering what soon will become a “global vox populi.”  

As we examine the merits and faults of Afghan war debate and the business of American empire, let’s make sure not to get stuck in the rut of obsolete thinking, bogged down in the past. We must begin to embrace a new America connected and collaborating with the world’s nations, not by the end of an M-16 assault rifle, but rather through an RSS feed and tweet. This means shifting our funding priorities towards engagement.

Many of America’s detractors rightfully fear a singular super-power wielding a runaway and corporate-sponsored military. But beyond traditional power, to the world, America also represents the transformative power of innovation and technology now connecting the world’s people in ways never seen before. This is the diverse face of our nation, on one hand, we have supported a plethora of anti-democratic revolutions throughout the last century, on the other, we invented solar panels and made personal computing ubiquitous.

The Afghan war debate is really a debate about American empire and our role as global military hegemon. It’s a role we can no longer afford, and frankly, its fruits largely go to a global elite drawing the most from our world’s economic well-not to the people being maimed and dying in Helmand Province, nor the vast majority of our citizens, everyday middle-class Americans.

More time for war

Historically, America has been a warlike nation-and our war making is evolving into a permanent occupation.

George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years” explains:

“The United States has been at war for about 10 percent of its existence. This statistic includes only major wars-the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam. It does not include minor conflicts like the Spanish-American War or Desert Storm. During the twentieth century, the United States was at war 15 percent of the time. In the second half of the twentieth century, it was at war 22 percent of the time. And since the beginning of the twenty-first century, in 2001, the United States has been constantly at war.”

Warfare has also become increasingly more violent for innocents-the meme about smart bombs and smart warfare only targeting bad guys, is a bad guise for an increasingly more terroristic enterprise:

“Civilian fatalities in wartime climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century, to 15 per cent during World War I, to 65 per cent by the end of World War II, to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.”  ~ Patterns in conflict: civilians are now the target (UNICEF)

How do we as a national family deal with increasing military budgets and debt, heightened violence against innocents, and escalating force commitments with no end in sight?

These are soul searching questions that dig deep down into who and what we are as a people. As history marches on, avoiding these difficult issues will no longer be an option. Sure, it might be easier to pretend we’re still in the springtime of America, summer soldiers, sunshine patriots and all. But as Gould and Fitzgerald say in Crossing Zero, “the United States has crossed a threshold where its capacity for violence undermines its own standards of justice and individual rights without which the violence has no meaning. In other words, the United States has come to a turning point at which the purpose of the force it has created has become its own undoing.”

A dark realpolitik drives the mission

George Friedman, founder and CEO of the think-tank STRATFOR, reveals what really goes down in the minds of strategists creating American foreign policy-that our true intentions in Afghanistan are not nation-building, nor bringing democracy to an oppressed people, but an effort to destabilize, preventing emergent geo-political competitors.

Friedman refers to this as part of our national “grand strategy”:

“The goal of these interventions (Iraq / Afghanistan) was never to achieve something-whatever the political rhetoric might have said-but to prevent something. The United States wanted to prevent stability in areas where another power might emerge. Its goal was not to stabilize, but to destabilize. And that explains how the United States responded to the Islamic earthquake (9/11)-it wanted to prevent a large, powerful Islamic state from emerging. Rhetoric aside, the United States has no overriding interest in peace in Eurasia. The United States also has no interest in winning a war outright. As with Vietnam, Korea, the purpose of these conflicts is to simply block a power or destabilize a region, not to impose order.”

I submit to you, that this kind of thinking, however grounded in the wreckage of the past, is a kind of thinking that will destabilize our ability to lead in the world, and it will topple our nation in the future. If our soldiers only knew they were being used as tools, as a kind of cannon fodder-it’s time for America to awaken out of her media trance and face the music of our being led down a very self-destructive path.

Big picture?

All empires die. They come and go. History shows us this, Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, now we have “Pax Americana”.  If we in America don’t want to follow history’s inevitable prescription, we must demand our leaders make a new way. Given the track record, it would seem the only true and lasting empire would be one made of the common heritage shared by all humankind, the empire of our global family. A family not merely made of one species of life-but rather all species of earth life-the only true empire worth propagating is a government of life and for all life. To me, this would be a new and transcendent “arsenal of democracy” worth going into debt over by borrowing from China to help build.

I will be moderating a Great Minds event with authors Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald, “Crossing Zero: The Afpak War at the Turning Point of American Empire” on April 5th, 2011 in Beverly Hills, CA. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to proctor@artnet.net (310) 858-6643. -BWD