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Troop Surge in Afghanistan Means No Progressive Consensus

Posted by Meteor Blades on February 23rd, 2009

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President Barack Obama’s Tuesday announcement that the U.S. will be adding 17,000 fresh troops to those already fighting in Afghanistan upended hopes among some progressives that the 60-day policy review he announced February 10 would be completed before any such surge. As has been becoming publicly clear for a while now, progressives themselves are split on the issue.

A few have complained that those who are objecting to Obama’s course should have spoken up during his election campaign. This, delivered with a straight face in spite of the fact that there was broad progressive consensus that getting into a fight over Afghanistan would not help Obama’s chances against McCain. So progressives who opposed a troop escalation in Afghanistan kept mostly silent. Back then, their perspective was simply that there would be time after November 4 to persuade Obama that expanding the U.S. military presence was a bad idea. But since they shut up then in the interests of the greater good, they are told they should shut up now because they didn’t speak up then. Catch-22, subsection 3.

What was a campaign is now an administration. And while diplomacy and rebuilding efforts will surely be getting more attention, there is now every possibility that U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan will double, bringing the total NATO and American armed forces in that country close to 100,000. The NATO contingents are iffy in the long run, but the hints from generals like Petraeus, Odierno and McKiernan indicate that Americans could remain there for five years or more. In the view of some, including progressives, why not? After all, the U.S. still has tens of thousands of troops in Germany and Japan, and look how that turned out. Others see: quagmire.

The split among progressives became pronounced today in the form of a letter soon to be sent by the Get Afghanistan Right coalition to the President, his most powerful Cabinet members and the chief of the Afghanistan policy review team, ex-CIA employee Bruce Riedel. The letter, which argues that it is misguided to escalate U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, comes in response to efforts by the National Security Network to present a progressive consensus statement on the situation.

As Spencer Ackerman reported in the Washington Independent Wednesday in Preempting a Progressive Split on Afghanistan:

The National Security Network, an organization that seeks to bring together policymakers, experts and Democratic activists, plans to release a document, titled “Principles for an Afghanistan Strategy,” later today. Assembled in consultation with Afghanistan experts from the development, diplomatic and defense communities, the two-page document urges the Obama team to create “a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the limits of military power.” It is agnostic on the question of deploying additional troops for the war, and its drafters hope to reach out to progressives who object to military escalation.

But NSN is not “agnostic” on deploying extra troops. From the front page of its Web site:

Terrorist groups plotting from safe havens on Afghanistan’s borders are the greatest threat to our security. Yet the Bush administration let itself be distracted from Afghanistan: now the Taliban insurgency is growing stronger, and the weak government of Afghanistan is threatened. Failure in Afghanistan will again allow Al Qaeda to operate unchecked. The U.S. must redouble its efforts in Afghanistan: by hunting terrorists, by increasing troop levels, by reengaging allies, by increasing reconstruction efforts, and by protecting and supporting the people of Afghanistan.

Ackerman continues:

“The ultimate goal here is for the Obama administration to come out with something 50-plus days from now that most people can live with,” explained National Security Network executive director Heather Hurlburt, referring to the progressive community. If a progressive consensus can be reached, Hurlburt said she planned on taking the consensus document to the Obama team’s review committee, which is headed by former CIA official Bruce Reidel, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Richard Holbrooke, the special administration envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. …

Hurlburt was optimistic that progressive consensus is possible. She said that the network’s role was “to turn down temperature of rhetoric enough to see the truths that the other [progressive] side is offering them.” And she called the Afghanistan strategy review a test for progressives. “This is a great experiment in asking, can the progressive community do a better job with these types of challenges than [it did] in 1993 or 1977 or whatever. We’ve never done this successfully as a community — shape war policy, and shape policy of own [progressive] governments when we manage to elect them.”

But that “test for progressives” has already run into rocky water since NSN’s statement of principles has already been publicly released before any consensus has been reached.

Christina Siun O’Connell, a member of GAR and a blogger who has been covering Afghan civilian casualties for the past two years at Firedoglake, told me: “It’s disappointing that NSN chose to rely on the usual inner circle elite in drafting their statement and [did not invite] comment from those of us who are advocates critical of escalation until after the document was already released to the press. I think the day is long past when you can develop a statement in a private workgroup in D.C. and claim that it represents ‘progressive’ thinking – activists, engaged citizen journalists and more – many of whom have proven much more astute on, say, Iraq, than the inner circles – need to be included in the mix.”

Alex Thurston, a GAR member who blogs at The Seminal, has other objections to the NSN statement.

So, while there is agreement between the progressive National Security Network and Get Afghanistan Right on several aspects of what U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be, NSN apparently includes troop escalation as part of its approach, something with which GAR cannot agree, as seen in its own statement on the subject:

“As Americans eager to help President Obama build prosperity at home and peace abroad, we are gravely concerned by plans to increase our military presence in Afghanistan. Without a clear strategy, benchmarks for success, and a plan to bring our troops home, this escalation will only prolong the American-led occupation – increasing anti-American sentiment throughout the region – while failing to make America any safer. In a time of economic crisis, these resources can be better used to solve problems here at home.

“We urge elected and appointed leaders to postpone troop increases in Afghanistan to allow for a robust public debate on the goals of our presence there and the strategies best suited to achieving them.

“In back-to-back election cycles, a solid majority of Americans repudiated Bush’s handling of wars waged without accountability and transparency. If we are to truly change America’s foreign policy, we must avoid the mistake of escalating a war with no end in sight.”

Turning that view and NSN’s stated support for increasing troop levels into a progressive consensus sounds like an impossible mash-up. As GAR is likely to remind the President in its letter, 48 percent of Americans support either maintaining current troop levels or reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan, versus only 33 percent in favor sending more troops.

But what’s more disturbing to some foes of the troop escalation is the thought that a kind of rebranding may be in the works to separate “reasonable progressives” from “the crazies.” What seems crazy to those foes is moving ahead with an escalation when the 60-day review is just 10 days old. What seems crazy is sending more soldiers and marines to die and kill before an overall strategy is decided and before an exit plan based on clear measurement of the success of that strategy is firmly established.

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to “Troop Surge in Afghanistan Means No Progressive Consensus”

  1. Melissa Buchanan says:

    Many years ago I read an interesting book set in the Middle East and India in the last century, meaning the 19th century. In the book, Russians were invading and fighting Afghanistan and losing soundly. The comment from a historical prespective was made that in all of history, no country has been able to fight Afghanistan and win. If you check history, you will see this is true of the 20th Centuary as well. Why are we getting into a war with a country where the outcome is foretold by history? What is our real objective in wanting to fight there?

  2. vinton heuck says:

    Sorry to be so blunt but there is no need for yet another fact-finding tour to that pathetic Eighth Century country. We need to get out NOW! Period. No more dead NATO troops. No more financial black hole. Let the Tadjiks and Pathans fight it out themselves.
    Tell whoever comes to power that in the event any violent attack on the West is found to have originated or been planned on Afghan soil that the country will be overwhelmingly, severely punished. End of story.

  3. vinton heuck says:

    Sorry to be so blunt but there is no need for yet another fact-finding tour to that pathetic Eighth Century country. We need to get out NOW! Period. No more dead NATO troops. No more financial black hole. Let the Tadjiks and Pathans fight it out themselves.
    Tell whoever comes to power that in the event any violent attack on the West is found to have originated or been planned on Afghan soil that the country will be overwhelmingly, severely punished. End of story.

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