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Why Peaceniks Should Care About the Afghanistan Study Group Report

There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. “There are three ways to get out,” goes one waggish response. “Air, land, and sea.” This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else’s notion of what is practical.

There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. “There are three ways to get out,” goes one waggish response. “Air, land, and sea.”

This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else’s notion of what is practical.

On the other hand, peace activists can’t be satisfied with being right; they also are morally compelled to try to be effective. And part of being effective is giving consideration to, and seeking to publicize, arguments are likely to end the war sooner rather than later. It’s not likely, for example, that discussing ways in which the war might be useful for the long-term maintenance of the “capitalist world system” will turn the Washington debate against war in the short run. If, on the other hand, central to the official story is a claim that the war is a war against Al Qaeda, but senior U.S. officials publicly concede that there is no significant Al Qaeda presence today in Afghanistan, that is certainly a fact worth knowing and spreading.

This is why it is important for as many people as possible to read and digest the short and accessible report of the “Afghanistan Study Group” which has been publicly unveiled this week. The assumptions and conclusions of the ASG report should be the subject of a thousand debates. But there are a few things about it that one can say without fear of reasonable contradiction. The authors of the report oppose the war and want to end it. The principal authors of the report are Washington insiders with a strong claim to expertise about what sort of arguments are likely to move Washington debate. The authors of the report have a strategy for trying to move Washington debate so that at the next fork in the road, the choice made is to de-escalate the war and move towards its conclusion, rather than to escalate it further. Therefore, the arguments made deserve careful consideration. They may not be particularly useful for making posters for a demonstration. But for lobbying Congressional staff, writing a letter to the editor, or making any other presentation to people who are not already on our side, the arguments of the Afghanistan Study Group are likely to be useful.

Many of the authors and signers of the report are known to peace activists who follow policy debates. Former Marine Corps captain Matthew Hoh, director of the ASG, made waves last October when he became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. Stephen Walt, with his co-author John Mearsheimer, helped break open mainstream debate about U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians with their book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Juan Cole, author of the blog Informed Comment, is the author of “Engaging the Muslim World.” Robert Pape, author of “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” has documented how U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan has produced more terrorism. Former CIA official Paul Pillar attacked the central justification of the current military escalation in an op-ed in the Washington Post last September, arguing that there was little reason to believe that a “safe haven” for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would have any significant bearing on the terrorist threat to the United States. Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, author of the blog Washington Note, originally convened the ASG.

Of course, these impeccable “establishment dissident” credentials do not put the assumptions or conclusions of the report beyond criticism. But they do make a strong case for consideration of the report.

Furthermore, the Afghanistan Study Group does break new ground politically, in the direction of ending the war.

By far the most important contribution, in my view, is the report’s call for expedited and more vigorous efforts to resolve Afghanistan’s civil war through political negotiations leading to decentralization of power in Afghanistan and a power-sharing agreement between the government and the insurgency. This call should be a commonplace, but the opposite is currently true: people in Washington, even critics of the war, are afraid to say out loud the most important fact about ending the war: there needs to be a political deal in Afghanistan with the Afghan Taliban insurgency. One of the most important potential accomplishments of an experts’ study group is to try to put into play key facts which experts know but politicians are afraid to say. It’s the “Murder on the Orient Express” strategy: if there’s something important that no-one wants to say, have a bunch of people say it together. If the Afghanistan Study Group makes it easier for people to say out loud, “There needs to be a political deal with the Afghan Taliban,” it will have made a major contribution to ending the war.

The second important contribution is to focus attention on the urgent need to engage “regional stakeholders,” especially Pakistan, India, and Iran, in a political resolution of the armed conflict. In particular, current U.S. policy has appeared to be predicated on the bizarre belief that the U.S. can cajole Pakistani decision-makers into abandoning what they perceive to be their core national security interests in Afghanistan, rather than on the far more realistic approach of engaging with Pakistan so that its national security concerns are met in an Afghan political settlement. The approach of trying to “wall out” antagonistic regional actors has failed spectacularly in Afghanistan and produced much needless death and human suffering, as it failed before in Iraq and Lebanon. If the Obama Administration would implement the course correction in Afghanistan which the Bush Administration implemented in Iraq and Lebanon after 2006 – accepting that antagonistic regional actors could not be walled out, and that the U.S. is better off trying to manage their influence rather than exclude it – it would be a major step to ending the war.

The third important contribution is the call for the U.S. to reduce and eventually end its military operations in southern Afghanistan. Southern Afghanistan, the historic heartland of the Taliban insurgency, is the focal point of the current U.S. military escalation; the current U.S. military escalation in southern Afghanistan is the main cause of the fact that U.S. troops are dying in record numbers.

The fourth major contribution of the report is to attack the central justification of the war: the claim that it will reduce the threat of terrorism against Americans. The report argues:

First, the decision to escalate the U.S. effort in Afghanistan rests on the mistaken belief that victory there will have a major impact on Al Qaeda’s ability to attack the United States. Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan today is very small, and even a decisive victory there would do little to undermine its capabilities elsewhere. Victory would not even prevent small Al Qaeda cells from relocating in Afghanistan, just as they have in a wide array of countries (including European countries).

Second, a U.S. drawdown would not make Al Qaeda substantially more lethal. In order for events in Afghanistan to enhance Al Qaeda’s ability to threaten the U.S. homeland, three separate steps must occur: 1) the Taliban must seize control of a substantial portion of the country, 2) Al Qaeda must relocate there in strength, and 3) it must build facilities in this new “safe haven” that will allow it to plan and train more effectively than it can today.

Each of these three steps is unlikely, however, and the chances of all three together are very remote.
Most importantly, no matter what happens in Afghanistan in the future, Al Qaeda will not be able to build large training camps of the sort it employed prior to the 9/11 attacks. Simply put, the U.S. would remain vigilant and could use air power to eliminate any Al Qaeda facility that the group might attempt to establish. Bin Laden and his associates will likely have to remain in hiding for the rest of their lives, which means Al Qaeda will have to rely on clandestine cells instead of large encampments. Covert cells can be located virtually anywhere, which is why the outcome in Afghanistan is not critical to addressing the threat from Al Qaeda.

In short, a complete (and unlikely) victory in Afghanistan and the dismantling of the Taliban would not make Al Qaeda disappear; indeed, it would probably have no appreciable effect on Al Qaeda. At the same time, dramatically scaling back U.S. military engagement will not significantly increase the threat from Al Qaeda.

From the point of view of official Washington, this speaks to the core of the argument against the war. Continuing the war is not promoting the national security interests of the United States, and in fact is counterproductive to those interests.

This is also the part of the argument that is most likely to stick in the craw of many peace activists, in part because they have a well-grounded allergy to efforts to promote the purported “national security interests of the United States,” and in part because the report, if implemented, still envisions a potential role for U.S. military force in the region.

However, a bit of realism about prospects in the near-term future is in order. If you look around the world, the U.S. is currently deploying military force in a lot of places. In the places where the U.S. is deploying military force without the presence of a significant number of U.S. ground troops, this activity goes on without occasioning significant public debate in the U.S. There is essentially zero public debate over what the U.S. is doing in the Philippines, almost zero about what the U.S. is doing in Somalia, very little about what the U.S. is doing in Yemen, not very much about what the U.S. is doing in Pakistan. Following the blip occasioned by President Obama’s announcement of the so-called “end of combat mission” in Iraq, it is likely that public debate about what the U.S. is doing in Iraq will fall back towards Pakistan levels.

That these things are true, of course, does not make them just. However, as I wrote at the outset, it is not enough to be right; one has the moral obligation to also try to be effective. And part of being effective is understanding where the adversary is vulnerable, and where the adversary is not, at present, very vulnerable. The permanent war apparatus is currently politically vulnerable over the war in Afghanistan primarily because U.S. troops are currently dying there in significant numbers for no apparent reason, so it makes sense for this to be a central point of attack.

The choices before Washington in Afghanistan, in the short run, are not “counterterrorism” or “counterinsurgency.” Washington is already pursuing counterterrorism in Afghanistan, as it is in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and almost certainly it will continue to do so in some way in the near future, under any conceivable U.S. policy likely to be implemented. The choices before Washington in Afghanistan in the short run are “counterterrorism” and “counterinsurgency” or “counterterrorism” alone. “Counterterrorism” in Afghanistan and elsewhere is killing innocent people, and that must be opposed. But “counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan is killing far more people, and it is much more politically vulnerable.

The fact that you cannot, at present, see your way clear to quitting drinking, is not a good reason not to quit smoking. The recommendations of the Afghanistan Study Group, if implemented, will significantly reduce the harm currently caused by U.S. policy in Afghanistan, both to Americans and to Afghans. That is why its conclusions should be urgently pressed on Members of Congress and officials of the Obama Administration, and should be pushed into the mainstream media and public debate.

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