Saturday, March 17, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #48 - Part 4

Afghanistan: Time to get out - now.

I haven't talked much about Afghanistan; one reason is that it's hard, even emotionally painful, to think about it. But some recent events have brought it to a focus that can't be ignored.

This is our longest war: about ten and a-half years now, since October 2001. The longest war in our history. Some 90,000 US troops are there now, and by current plans we will have some there more than two and a-half years from now, until the end of 2014. And even that date comes with an asterisk: There are ongoing talks with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai for a "strategic partnership agreement" that would involve keeping US troops - some reports I have seen say it could be up to 25,000 - in Afghanistan for another 10 years, until 2024. They just wouldn't be called "combat" troops, so I guess that makes it okay.

The war has cost over $500 billion. Over 1900 US troops have been killed; nearly 3000 NATO troops in total have died in the war.

But that raises the first thing that causes me that pain: Whenever you see media reports of casualty figures, that's it: US deaths and sometimes those of other NATO forces. What about the Afghans? Don't they have a military? Haven't their soldiers died? Why are they invisible?

You actually have to dig some to discover that according to the Congressional Research Service, as of the end of January, over 6,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed in the war - more than twice as many as NATO forces and more than three times as many as the US. Yet those deaths very rarely gets mentioned. They just don’t count.

And even then, something missing: civilians. How many Afghan civilians have been killed? Do you know? I can guarantee that whatever number is in your head, whatever you might be thinking, it's just a guess. You have no idea - because no one does. For the first six years after our invasion, from 2001 through 2006, no one kept track of civilian deaths. It was not until 2007 that anyone start trying to keep count. Those figures say that since 2007, 12,000 have been killed.

Again, you have to actively dig to find that number. And something else: I absolutely guarantee you that if you do search out that number, you will at that same time be told that most civilian deaths are caused by "the anti-government forces." As if it mattered to the dead who pulled the trigger - especially when it is our presence there that is causing the violence. It may surprise you to learn that we are seen not as saviors or liberators, but as invaders, as occupiers. And that's assuming the death figures are accurate: At a conference between military leaders of NATO forces and Afghan politicians and security experts that was held in Afghanistan on March 4, claims that insurgents caused 77% of civilian deaths were greeted with scorn and called laughable.

But wait - those figures must be right. After all, we said it. Besides, whenever we kill civilians, it's a "mistake," a "regrettable accident." One recent news article said the war had become "a series of US missteps and violent outbreaks." Note the passive voice on "violent outbreaks," which just sort of happen without any causative factor. Meanwhile, when we do something wrong, it's a "misstep." An "unfortunate incident." Like accidentally burning a Koran.

You know about this; I don't need to tell you about it. But there are a couple of things that you should understand. First, the riots were not about the burning of the Koran; that was just the proximate cause. It was, that is, the breaking point of built-up resentment and frustration.

As I believe it was Glenn Greenwald had it, we have occupied their country for more than a decade. We have killed what Gen. Stanley McChrystal himself called an “amazing number” of innocent Afghans in checkpoint shootings. We have repeatedly killed civilians in air strikes. We continue to imprison their citizens for years without charges amid credible reports of torture. Our soldiers, the pride of our nation, have shot Afghan civilians for fun, urinated on their corpses, and displayed them as trophies.

And we wonder why they don't like us.

Second is that to Muslims, the Koran is not just another holy book. Rather, as I have been given to understand it, the recited Koran invokes the “real presence" of God. It's suggested that rather than comparing it to the Bible, a better comparison would be to the consecrated host at the Catholic Mass, which believers regard as the body of the living Jesus Christ.

Which, by the way, raises something else for me. How did this happen? I can understand how it got burned: there's a pile of trash, you're soldiers, you're ordered to burn it, you burn it; you don't look at it to see what's in it. The question is, how did it get in trash? I supposed it may have been completely innocent, a pure accident, but it still seems to me that at some point someone had to have picked up this book - any book - and just decided to throw it in the trash. How do you do that? You don't even know what it is. It was probably in Pashto or one of the other languages of Afghanistan, so you can't read it. (At least I hope you can't read it, because if you can you know it's a Koran, which makes it worse.) How do you pick up a book and just decide to throw it in the trash? I just don't get that.

But maybe was entirely innocent. Maybe it was just another accident, another "unfortunate incident." Because they all are. Every "misstep" is an accident, a regrettable mistake. Either that, or it's some poor schmuck driven nuts by the pressures of war who guns down 16 civilians in cold blood in their own homes.

Again, you've heard about this; I don't need to tell you about it. But it does serve to bring up another thing about the war in Afghanistan that causes me pain.

A headline about this in the Boston "Globe" read "Shooting deaths of civilians complicate Afghanistan mission."

Yeah, because that's what's important about the murder of 16 people: It complicates "the mission." It's another "unwelcome challenge." Another article expressed concern that this could delay signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement.

But don't worry, the Obama administration has vowed that the killings will not alter US plans for the war. Rather, they increase his determination to get us troops out of Afghanistan. Still, there must be no "rush to the exits" because the withdrawal must must be carried out in a responsible way even as the killing spree could be exploited by the Taliban to gain new recruits and anti-Americanism might deepen.

In other words, it's all about us. It's all about our plans, our intentions, our desires, and the plans, desires, and intentions of the people of Afghanistan don't even enter the picture except as a backdrop for our self-centered narrative, their lives little more than placeholders on our scorecard.

I don't care what you thought about the original invasion of Afghanistan; I know there are good people who supported it, people who wouldn’t and didn’t support any of other pointless wallows in blood of past few decades, and supported it because they believed the government of Afghanistan could be directly linked to 9/11 through its having allowed al-Qaeda to act freely within its borders. I'm not going to argue that. Because no matter what justification, stretched or otherwise, could have been offered in the fall of 2001 has long since been drowned out by the hum of the drones, the blasts of the mortars and the IEDs, and the shrieks of the wounded and the mourning. All there is left is the steady drip of blood and the slow grind of death amid the tatters and remnants of flesh. It is time - it is long, long past time - to just stop.

that's not even a radical position. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll says that 54% of the US say US troops should withdraw from Afghanistan on schedule no matter what. Some 60% say the war has not been worth fighting. Only 30% believe the Afghan public supports the US mission there. Even conservatives agree: George Will has been calling for withdrawal for nearly three years. A year ago, March 2011, 16 House Republicans joined a failed effort to require withdrawal in 60 days; 26 voted in favor of a narrowly-defeated a bill to scale back the war.

It's time to stop. And I don't mean in two and a-half years. I mean now.


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