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Progressives Launch Attack on Afghanistan

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Afghan-12309.jpg

U.S. Army soldiers and helicopters in Afghanistan (army.mil)

Even before President Barack Obama took the oath of office Tuesday, a coalition of progressives assembled to steer him away from his long-discussed plans to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by nearly 30,000.

Starting last week, a website called Get Afghanistan Right began publishing critiques of escalation in Afghanistan, arguing that sending more troops to Afghanistan would be an expensive, bloody and ineffective approach to a war that has suffered from a lack of overall strategy. The progressives at the helm of the effort — Alex Thurston and Jason Rosenbaum of the liberal blog The Seminal; filmmaker Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films; and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine — contend that their first priority in writing against escalation is to dispel the perception that a consensus exists in the country on behalf of increased troop deployments. Though in its early stages, the effort signals two broader challenges that the Obama administration will face: finding a clear and viable strategy for a war that has grown more chaotic seven years after it began; and diminished progressive patience for the Afghanistan war.

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Nationalsecurity_4912.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“We need at a minimum to show that not everyone agrees” with an escalation, said Greenwald, the producer of popular progressive documentaries like “Outfoxed” and a prolific viral-video creator. “We don’t need to have a solution, have an answer, or have a ten-point program, but we do have to show that many people don’t agree, and encourage others to start asking questions, which I believe the smart people in the Obama administration will do.”

The effort so far focuses on fostering a debate within progressive circles before talking to a broader and more ideologically diverse audience. It may provide a test as to how deep American support is for an Afghanistan war that has suffered from years of policy, media and public neglect — something the Obama administration will have no choice but to confront.

For years, many progressives have argued that the real war on terrorism is in Afghanistan as a rhetorical bludgeon to argue against the Iraq war, and relatively few criticized Obama’s plans for escalation. Thurston was one of those few, arguing during the height of the general election that Obama’s position on Afghanistan was unworkable. “Come November 5th,” he wrote on his blog, “we’re going to need to pivot on Afghanistan: we’re going to need an honest debate about facts in the present, not outdated fantasies about what could have been in 2002, or even 2007.”

Get Afghanistan Right is a follow-on from that advice, emerging around the election after Thurston, Greenwald and other progressives found themselves on the same side of the issue through blog posts and email debates on progressive listservs.

Last week, when the site launched, its activist-authors encouraged readers to blog about Afghanistan themselves, and credited readers with producing “dozens of pieces” from 35 authors and 22 websites — among them a series of posts on the liberal Daily Kos, one of the most popular political blogs of any ideological disposition. The effort’s founders said they’ve received “a lot of emails this week,” in Thurston’s words, though no one specified an exact number. The arguments hosted on the website itself contended that Afghanistan’s history of resistance to foreign troops renders a troop increase inherently problematic; that a troop increase without a broader strategy to the region is folly; and that Afghanistan itself is no longer a just war.

A former civilian spokesman for NATO wrote to the site to argue that a foreign troop increase would fail. “It is immensely dishonest,” wrote Nicholas Lunt, spokesman for the military coalition in Kabul during 2007, “to pretend that outsiders can change this reality [of dysfunctional Afghan governance] by blanketing parts of the country with foreign soldiers and hoping that good governance (and that means widespread local acceptance or buy-in) will follow. It won’t.”

Vandel Heuvel feared that Obama’s embrace of the Afghanistan war could jeopardize the rest of his agenda. Like the other members of the effort, she cast her position as one of support for Obama, not opposition.

“I’m participating in Get Afghanistan Right because I want this administration to succeed,” she said in an email. “And with our first Community-Organizer-in-Chief in the White House, I believe we have a real chance with this project to persuade President Obama that he risks endangering the promise of his administration by escalating militarily–and further draining resources that are vital to rebuilding here at home.”

Currently, Get Afghanistan Right doesn’t take a position on Afghanistan beyond arguing that the troop increase is a poor course of action. Thurston, Rosenbaum and Greenwald said in interviews that there may be an expansion of the group’s position on the war more broadly in the future, but for the time being, the focus is on arguing against escalation. Partially, that’s due to the inherent difficulties in creating a consensus among any coalition of activists. But, Thurston said, “our main objective is to push the debate, and I don’t see it as our role to provide an extremely detailed policy position at this point, though that might change.”

Its leaders are also not entirely sure where their efforts go next. But beyond blogging against escalation, “it depends where people want to take it,” said Rosenbaum. He said people involved in the anti-escalation push have ties with “people who lobby, and have good relations with the Hill and that’s a definite possibility,” but it would be premature to sketch out next steps. Asked if Greenwald would create some of his popular viral videos for the website, he said simply, “Stay tuned.”

The Obama administration has no shortage of military and strategy reviews for the Afghanistan war. At her confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged that the administration would conduct a broad-brush review of what the goals of U.S. policy are in Afghanistan. A spokesman for the National Security Council, Benjamin Chang, said it was unclear what the timetable was for that review to proceed. The administration will also inherit highly anticipated military reviews are underway from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia; Gen. Douglas Lute, the so-called White House “war czar” responsible for coordinating government-wide policies in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But any movement to stop the troop increases faces obstacles. There has been, so far, something of a consensus within the administration on the troop increases that Obama advocated for Afghanistan since 2007 as a presidential candidate. The new administration “will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan’s economic development,” promises the new White House website’s statement on Afghanistan.

Yet there has also been a recent vein of skepticism emerging from within Democratic foreign-policy circles. During Clinton’s nomination hearing, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worried aloud that Afghanistan could become another Vietnam. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), urged Michele Flournoy, the incoming undersecretary of defense for policy, to come up with “a clearly articulated end point” for the Afghanistan war, since otherwise “we tend to move in an ad hoc way, staying in different places and not necessarily resolving the problem in way that fits our national interest.” Additional skepticism toward a troop increase — though not yet opposition — has been voiced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.) as well.

“I don’t think there needs to be a troop buildup in Afghanistan,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Flor.), a newly elected progressive Democrat, who argued that the majority of viable military missions in Afghanistan could be accomplished by Special Forces troops rather than tens of thousands of new Army soldiers, which he feared would “inflame the local population and the Muslim world.” Grayson added that he thought the administration would receive congressional “discretion” on Afghanistan befitting an incoming commander-in-chief and that “I hope he uses that discretion wisely.”

Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urged some patience as the Obama administration’s strategy reviews unfold. “Until you know what the [strategic] context is for a troop increase, where they’re going, how they’re focused, how it’d deal with aid issues, how it’s tied to Pakistan, you don’t have a position to criticize,” he said.

Indeed, few advocates of a troop increase consider such an increase a sufficient approach to the myriad problems of Afghanistan. Both Petraeus and Defense Secretary Bob Gates have embraced exploring negotiations with insurgents even as the fighting continues, a position Obama himself appeared to embrace during an October interview with Time’s Joe Klein. Flournoy, like many counterinsurgency advocates, said at her confirmation hearing last Thursday that she favored a “whole-of-government” approach that emphasized increased development aid and other non-military resources to deal with Afghanistan in supplement to troop increases.

“The bigger issue is, if we’re going to double down in Afghanistan while drawing down in Iraq, are we putting in the resources, the training and the other things to build up a legitimate and capable government in Afghanistan?” said Michael Noonan, a counterinsurgency advocate and defense expert with Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Thurston, speaking for himself and not the whole group, said he found “some consensus between the anti-escalation people, the pro-escalation people, as well as some people who are conflicted,” citing Petraeus’ recent call for regional diplomacy with Afghanistan’s neighbors. “Very few people, from what I understand, say ‘Put in more troops and see what happens.’”

Similarly, some progressive organizations who don’t oppose escalation see value in Get Afghanistan Right’s efforts. Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, an organization that brings together Democratic politicians with progressive national-security thinkers, applauded the group for opening up the debate. “This shouldn’t be a debate about troop numbers,” she said, “it should be one about the long-term goal [in Afghanistan], and then then you come to [asking] how to get there.”

The network’s blog, Democracy Arsenal, published critiques of the effort last week, and Hurlburt said that “we don’t think that because the solution is not primarily military, the answer is to immediately bring the troops home. It doesn’t mean there’s no military role.” But she said that the more important role that the National Security Network would play in the debate was “as a convener,” bringing together progressive groups of different view points on Afghanistan “to deal with the contradictory points.”

Rosenbaum said that he understood the reticence on the part of some progressives to Get Afghanistan Right’s positions. “Most people that I’ve seen who aren’t with us for opposing escalation say ‘We want to see the [administration's] strategy first and then make up our minds,’” he said. “That’s a fair position. I just wonder if that strategy is coming.”

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