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Obama's Afghanistan Speech: Where Do We Go from Here?

What the president said, what he left out, and what we can still do to promote peace.
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  • The speech assumed Afghan support for the U.S. occupation, ignoring the massive evidence to the contrary. Just hours before Obama spoke, the Wall Street Journal stated matter-of-factly that “when the U.S. forces enter an area, the levels of violence generally increase, causing anger and dissatisfaction among the local population.” It quoted a pro-Karzai parliamentarian who said, “If new troops come and are stationed in civilian areas, when they draw Taliban attacks civilians will end up being killed.”
  • Obama paid no attention to the increasingly visible opposition to the Karzai government and the U.S. occupation from the majority Pashtun population—whose southern and eastern Afghanistan territory will be the operations center for the new troop escalation. The Journal quoted a shopkeeper in the southern city of Kandahar who said, “If we get more troops, there will be more bloodshed. Only Afghans themselves can solve this problem.” The Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban, are increasingly defining Afghanistan’s civil war as an ethnic war against supporters of the old U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, whose Tajik and Uzbek militants now make up the majority of the Afghan National Army.
  • There was no reference to the U.S.-paid mercenaries (both local and internationals, all paid through U.S. contractor corporations) in Afghanistan, whose numbers rose by 40 percent just between June and September, now totaling 104,101, and already outnumbering U.S. troops.
  • While claiming the U.S. may not have the same interests as earlier empires, Obama has now acknowledged that the U.S. is occupying Afghan land not to protect Afghan interests, but to protect the U.S. and U.S. citizens.
  • There was no acknowledgment of the widely held view that there are fewer than 100 members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and perhaps as few as 300 over the border in Pakistan—so the U.S. will now be deploying more than 100,000 of its own troops, plus tens of thousands of NATO and other allied troops, in a global, lethal, impoverishing war to go after 400 people.
  • Obama spoke of Afghanistan as a war of necessity, saying “We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people.” He ignored the fact that none of the hijackers were Afghans, none lived in Afghanistan (they lived in Hamburg), none trained in Afghanistan (they trained in Florida), and none went to flight school in Afghanistan (that was in Minnesota).
  • Obama spoke of the existing involvement of NATO and other allied governments, and asked for additional troop commitments; he did not mention the massive opposition to the war all those government face (70 percent opposition in the UK, the highest troop contributor), with several countries pulling their troops out. He described the “broad coalition of 43 nations that support our aims,” but ignored the reality that many of those nations have deployed troops numbering only in the double or even single digits—one from Georgia, two from Iceland, four from Austria, seven each from Ireland and Jordan, 10 from Bosnia, etc.
  • The speech acknowledged that the recent election of President Karzai was “marred by fraud,” but maintained the fiction that Karzai’s presidency is somehow still “consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution.” There was no acknowledgment of the widespread Afghan view of Karzai as simultaneously corrupt, incompetent, and dependent on the U.S. occupation, and that trying to win “hearts and minds” to back a government lacking local legitimacy ensures failure.
  • Describing an alleged “partnership” with Pakistan, Obama ignored the danger of a U.S. troop escalation further destabilizing Pakistan, and sidelined the fact that recent polls indicate 59 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. as the greatest threat, more than three times as those who see arch-rival India as the most threatening, and almost six times more than those who identify the Taliban. Obama stayed silent about the on-going special forces and drone strikes in Pakistan, with no indication whether his future escalation will include ratcheting up those attacks.
  • There was no reference to the need for a broad regional diplomatic strategy; the word “India” did not appear in the speech and Obama ignored Islamabad’s concerns vis-à-vis India, which shape much of Pakistan’s historic support for the Taliban and other insurgent forces in Afghanistan. He thus disregarded the most important regional dynamics at work.
  • While referencing the U.S. “transition” out of Iraq, Obama didn't acknowledge the level of violence continuing there, where more civilians continue to die than are dying in Afghanistan, nor the 113,731 mercenaries bolstering the U.S. military there. While proposing Iraq as a model for getting U.S. troops out, he ignored the reality that there are still 124,000 U.S. troops occupying Iraq.

Near the end of his speech, Obama tried to speak to his antiwar one-time supporters, speaking to the legacy of Vietnam. It was here that the speech’s internal weakness was perhaps most clear. Obama refused to respond to the actual analogy between the quagmire of Vietnam, which led to the collapse of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, and the threat to Obama’s ambitious domestic agenda collapsing under the pressure of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he created straw analogies, ignoring the massive challenge of waging an illegitimate, unpopular war at a moment of dire economic crisis.

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Obama also did not acknowledge that about 30 percent of all U.S. casualties in the eight-year war in Afghanistan have occurred during the 11 months of his presidency. He did not remind us that the cost of this war, with the new escalation, will be about $100 billion a year, or $2 billion every week, or more than $11 million every hour. He didn’t tell us that the same one-year amount, $100 billion, could cover the cost of ALL of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: clean water, health care, primary education, and vaccinations for the people of every one of the poorest 21 countries in the world.

He didn’t ask us to consider what adding another $100 billion—let alone $500 billion, or half a TRILLION dollars over the next five years—to the already ballooning deficit will do to our chances for real health care reform.

President Obama didn’t ask us that. But we know the answer to that question. We need to build a movement that can respond to that answer, that can respond to the new challenges of these new conditions—because while this is not a new war, we face a new political moment. We need to build new alliances into a movement that can bring this war and occupation to a rapid end, so that we can begin to make good on our real obligations to the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as to the people of our own country who struggle to find jobs, health care, and climate justice.

We need to build a movement with roots in the trade unions, in the labor movement, and among those struggling for economic rights, particularly among communities of color. We have to push Congress to make good on their “concerns” regarding this new escalation by refusing to pay for it, and to support those members of Congress who are trying to do just that. Congress hasn’t given Obama a blank check for this war yet–not even a $30 billion check. And there’s still time for us to make sure they don’t.

We have a lot of work to do.
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Phyllis BennisPhyllis Bennis wrote this article for YES! Magazine and Foreign Policy in Focus. Phyllis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author with David Wildman of the forthcoming Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer.

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