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Progressives Complicate Obama’s Afghanistan Plans


Paktika Province, Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Micah E. Clare)

As President Obama and his advisers debate strategy for the Afghanistan war and its related crisis in Pakistan, a factor that so far has not intruded on their discussions is emerging: the antiwar movement is showing signs of strength.

In Congress and around the country, a segment of the progressive movement that helped elect Obama is coalescing around a critique of the eight-year war. That cohort, of unknown size as yet, is skeptical of an open-ended commitment; willing to provide Obama with friendly criticism; unwilling to accede to a second escalation of U.S. troops under the new administration; and searching for an exit strategy. Powerful progressive groups and members of Congress that quietly accepted Obama’s infusion of 21,000 new troops for Afghanistan this spring, however uncomfortably, are finding their footing to oppose the current one, even if they are not yet demanding fixed dates for troop withdrawals. It is unclear what effect they will ultimately have on the debate, but, buoyed by polls demonstrating the war’s unpopularity, they complicate Obama’s decisionmaking.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Progressives are “asking ourselves what we’ve not accomplished in last eight years that we could possibly accomplish over the next eighty,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), a favorite of liberals and an opponent of the Afghanistan war, “and more and more, the answer is: nothing.”

That hope is frustrated by the present debate. For the past two weeks, cabinet-level officials and military commanders have met with the president at the White House to consider whether to continue with an expansive military-led effort in Afghanistan aimed at weakening al-Qaeda’s insurgent allies through bolstering the Afghan government or whether to focus the mission around harassing al-Qaeda directly in its tribal Pakistan safehaven. While officials have stated to reporters that all assumptions are subject to examination, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a joint appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, said withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is not under consideration. That means the baseline resource commitment under discussion is 68,000 U.S. troops, the highest troop deployment America has ever sent to the beleaguered central-Asian country.

Grayson is hardly the only Afghanistan skeptic in Congress, even varieties of congressional skepticism are still inchoate within the Democratic caucus. After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rolled her eyes when her Senate counterpart, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), pledged support for Obama’s ultimate decision. “Whether we agree with it, [and] vote for it, remains to be seen,” she said. Two days later, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), the chief House appropriator, called a counterinsurgency strategy “futile” and expressed doubt that the U.S. could reverse Taliban advances at acceptable cost.

In the Senate, Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) has called for a “flexible timetable” for withdrawal. While the influential Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), remains a supporter of the war, he has balked at a call for a second troop increase this year, preferring to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces instead. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also remains a cautious supporter of the war, although he has backed away from what he once called a “global counterinsurgency” by holding a series of recent hearings in which he raised probing questions about the prospects for successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Late last month, the antiwar movement received an infusion of support from a pillar of the new progressive online infrastructure: MoveOn.org, the progressive netroots organization with over 5 million members, and a staunch ally of Obama’s. Despite staying largely out of the spring debate on escalation, MoveOn, which ardently opposed the Iraq war, began emailing supporters to urge the president to adopt a “clear exit strategy” for Afghanistan, and on Sept. 29, sent out a request to its members to host country-wide screenings for filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s antiwar documentary “Rethink Afghanistan.”

Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s director of political advocacy and communications, explained that the organization’s membership, so far, wanted “to understand what the plan is” in Afghanistan. “Escalation with no exit strategy is all too familiar to them” from the Iraq debate, Hogue said, as are policy prescriptions “ramrodded from hawks outside and inside” an administration. The overall decline in public support for the Afghanistan war is reflective of MoveOn’s supporters, Hogue added. Recent polls have found that only 47 percent of the country thinks the war is worth fighting, and up to 70 percent of Democrats oppose it.

Escalation in Afghanistan comes as an anomaly to many Democrats. Obama on Friday received an unexpected Nobel Peace Prize, yet he campaigned for the presidency on a platform of recommitting to the Afghanistan war and increased troop levels by almost half within weeks of taking office. “One of the reasons [progressives] supported his campaign is because they believe in his multilateral approach to foreign policy issues,” Hogue said, including an increased reliance on diplomacy and a “clear plan on the ground” for the war.

Accordingly, the Obama administration’s Afghanistan critics are reluctant ones. Hogue said the progressive pressure on him was “to support Obama” by ensuring that the drift over the war doesn’t overtake his broader agenda and so he can explain to the country “how he’s going to achieve goals, what we’ll achieve, and how we’re going to get out.” MoveOn’s supporters, like many Democrats, are not yet at the point of demanding a concrete date for withdrawal, preferring at this point to insist Obama articulate a plausible plan for Afghanistan that includes an exit strategy.

Similarly, Greenwald said he was encouraged by Obama’s Afghanistan strategy review, particularly as it, reportedly, begins to distinguish between al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies while setting the goals for the war. “Why would you occupy a country for 100 [al-Qaeda] evildoers? It just doesn’t make sense to me if security is primarily the issue for our country” in Afghanistan, the filmmaker said shortly after premiering his film in Washington D.C. last week. While Greenwald said he would like the review to be “tougher, smarter and broader,” he said he hoped it would address the “implicit assumption” that “sending more troops will help our country.”

Greenwald, who has worked with MoveOn on previous anti-Iraq war and Fox News-hounding projects during the Bush years, said it was “great to have the most effective, efficient, smartest and biggest online group working with us and using the film.” His documentary — much of which was shot in Afghanistan — had reached about 600 screenings in people’s homes and from student groups and unions in its first three weeks of full release, after being available in installments for months on his website and primarily not yet available in theaters.

The next steps, Greenwald said, would be to target screenings to progressive members of congress’ districts and “invite congressmen and -women and staffers to come to the screening.” At the screenings, he hopes to present members or their staffs with concrete figures about how the costs of the war, an estimated $228 billion over eight years, has impacted specific districts in terms of measurements like lost jobs.

It will not be easy to predict how the emerging antiwar movement impacts the president’s decisions, particularly as much of the overlapping progressive infrastructure views the healthcare reform fight as its primary effort — and there the Obama administration is a crucial ally. While MoveOn can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” Hogue said “I’m not going to lie to you, we’re in the middle of a huge health care fight” and MoveOn had placed “enormous resources into that.”

Yet Grayson and another beloved progressive member of Congress, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), attended Greenwald’s Washington premiere last Tuesday and spoke at a panel afterwards. “The war itself is destructive, not constructive,” Grayson said at the panel.

In an interview just after Obama’s Nobel Prize was announced, Grayson combined support for Obama with opposition to the war Obama may decide to escalate. “Logically,” he said, “if you win the Nobel Peace Prize then you’re a man of peace. I think ultimately the commander-in-chief will make up his mind to end the war and bring our troops home. I hope it happens sooner rather later but I think it’s inevitable. I don’t think we’ll be in Afghanistan in the year 2089.”

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