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Afghanistan, the Endless War and Our Torn Flag

We need to acknowlege our torn flag and find a better design.

Sixteen years ago, here in Boston on the afternoon of 9/11, we created the United for Justice with Peace coalition with the slogan “No More Victims Anywhere.” The next day, as police in Boston swarmed Copley Square in search of the bombers and their associates, our quickly planned vigil was moved to Harvard Square in Cambridge. To our surprise, 700 people gathered there, silently and powerfully with our message “War is Not the Answer.” We couldn’t imagine that we’d be out here 16 years later in what may still be the early stages of an endless war.

It has been almost 70 years since George Orwell prophetically published 1984. Recall his vision of endless war on the imperial periphery. We could trace the United States’ endless wars before then to the Spanish American War in 1898 and the beginning of an international empire. We could go back even earlier to the Euro-American conquest of the continent. But our postmodern endless war began with the Carter/Bush alliance with the Saudis, the creation of the Mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, and their being sent into Afghanistan for a long war to sap the Kremlin’s strategic strength, much as the US was drained during Vietnam War.

Those with gray hair remember that during the Vietnam War the writer Norman Mailer asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?” The other day on NPR, a caller answered the question about why we are still in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and so many other countries. He said, “It’s like someone who has been through a series of bad marriages. By the time your fourth marriage has failed, it’s time to realize that it’s not about them, it’s about you!”

Trump’s people tell us that we could be in Afghanistan for as long as US forces have been in South Korea. That’s 70 years and counting. And we know how good that looks at the moment — Not! The plan is to once again increase the number of US and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan, but they won’t say how many more will be sent to kill and die in a futile war. And like Vietnam and Iraq, the Green Zone that houses US embassy, the military command and the so-called Afghan government — the fortress area isolated from the rest of Kabul — will be massively increased in size. This will further isolate them from Afghan society. Like Vietnam and Iraq, it’s hardly a winning strategy that can take us to Trump’s imagined victory.

Like the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mindanao in the Philippines and before them in Vietnam, Cambodia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Grenada and so many other countries, the Afghanistan War is a symptom, not a cause.

There are many reasons for the endless war. Recall that before the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg published a book entitled Papers On the War. In it he explained that every US president from Eisenhower on knew the Vietnam War was a lost cause, but they didn’t want to lose it on their watch. So, 3 million Vietnamese, countless Laotians and Cambodians, and 58,000 US troops were sacrificed; untold thousands of others were wounded, poisoned with by Agent Orange and other defoliants, and have suffered PTSD. I was with representatives of Vietnam’s Agent Orange organization in Hiroshima this past summer. They are still looking for help, as Dow Chemical’s defoliants continue to devastate succeeding generations of Vietnamese as a result of genetic damage.

In the last years of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers told us that 85 percent of the reason that nearly 20-year war continued was to maintain US prestige. Massive killing to maintain US prestige! And this is among the reasons that the US and NATO are still at war in Afghanistan and are once again threatening Pakistan. Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis don’t want to lose Afghanistan on their watch.

Why are we in still in Afghanistan?

Think about oil and natural gas — “the prize” of WWI, and still the prize of our Middle East wars. Think about why Trump travelled to Riyadh and embraced the Saudi monarchy, or why military contest with China for control of South China Sea could escalate to the unthinkable.

How central are oil and gas? Just look to the suffering in Puerto Rico.

And recall that to weaken Russia’s grip on European and world oil and gas supplies, Afghanistan has long been seen as the route for pipelines from Turkmenistan down to Indian ports that can circumvent Russian control.

We’re still in Afghanistan because it has natural resources — an estimated trillion dollars of booty that Trump wants.

We’re still in Afghanistan because of its geostrategic location in relation to Russia and China. Since its inception in 1979, the Afghanistan War has been a continuation of the “great game” of the 1800s. Afghanistan lies on Russia’s soft underbelly and on China’s western flank. By supporting India and preventing Pakistan from gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan, Washington has another resource with which to counter-balance China’s rising power.

We’re in Afghanistan because its government is divided and corrupt to its bones.

You may remember Malalai Joya, the Afghan feminist social worker who visited Boston several times (and who I was privileged to work with in Germany.) A December, 2003 Times carried a picture of her addressing the loya Jirga, convened to adopt a new constitution. “Why,” she asked the delegates assembled there, were her countrymen and women tolerating the presence of “criminals” who had destroyed the country? “They should be brought to national and international justice … If our people forgive them, history will not,” Joya had said. She had to flee the loya jirga for her life, and she was forced to live in hiding for years.

In the article “How the ‘Good War’ in Afghanistan Went Bad,” published in August, 2007 — a decade ago — it was reported that, “Two years after the Taliban fell to an American-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul … to survey what appeared to be a triumph. … They were told that the Taliban were now a ‘spent force.’ Some of us were saying ‘Not so fast, Mr. Burns, now the undersecretary of state … recalled, ‘While not a strategic threat, a number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear.’ But that skepticism had never taken hold in Washington.”

Then, in October, 2008, the Times headlined “Reports Link Karzai’s brother to Afghanistan Heroin Trade.”

Four days later, the Times reported “A draft report by American intelligence agencies concludes that Afghanistan is in a ‘downward spiral‘ and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise of the Taliban’s influence. …. The classified report finds that the breakdown in central authority … has been accelerated by rampant corruption.”

And a week later, we could read that an “Afghanistan Airstrike Threatens to Deepen Anger in an Uneasy Populace.” That was almost 10 years ago, but just last week another airstrike killed a detachment of Afghan police Helmand province. And, this follows attacks on wedding parties and countless other civilians. Not a way to win hearts and minds.

Finally, this past August, the Times carried a story titled “Recipe for an Endless War in Afghanistan” by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub. Here are a few excerpts:

“Its combination of state collapse, civil conflict, ethnic disintegration and multisided intervention has locked it in a self-perpetuating cycle that may be simply beyond outside resolution.”

“American led efforts, despite some successes, have ended up reinforcing and accelerating the broader cycles of violence and fragmentation that have been growing since the state’s collapse in the early 1990s.”

“…the United States aided peace building, working through local warlords who could find the Taliban and impose order … this strategy undermined the government, alienated Afghans and further pushed Afghanistan into a collection of fiefs run by strongmen whose interests cut against American aims.”

Like Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the Afghan war has been a murderous war of choice. On the night of 9/11, when W. Bush’s war council met, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told W. that we couldn’t just invade Afghanistan, that to do so would be a violation of international law. How did Bush respond? It was time, he insisted, “to kick some ass.” We are still paying for that arrogance.

Let us hope that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s arrogant boss doesn’t follow in that tradition with a war of choice against North Korea, a war whose casualties could easily mount to a million human beings in the first 24 hours.

Foreign policy is always an extension of domestic policy, so I’ll close by making a connection to the attacks on the courageous football players who have been taking the knee to protest racist police violence and Trump’s white supremacist arrogance. The flag and the false patriotism of Trump and other scoundrels has long been used to cover up murder and countless crimes here and abroad. Since 9/11, they have been used to divert our attention from a series of catastrophic neocolonial wars in the global South. This was also the case 50 years ago when midst the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, Pete Seeger wrote “The Torn Flag” that envisioned a better design for the stars and stripes and a better vision for our nation.

Friends, this is a dark time when we are confronted by endless war and the not unrelated Trump administration’s ethnic cleansing campaign reminiscent of Germany in the early 1930s. It’s a time when our president praises neo-Nazis as good people and condemns those who uphold democracy, and mocks the steadfast elected officials in Puerto Rico in their time of trauma.

This is when we need to envision and find creative ways to struggle for another, more peaceful and democratic nation. We need to acknowlege our torn flag and find a better design.

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