Obama’s Neoliberals: Selling His Afghan War One Report at a Time

by , April 04, 2009

Reading the Center for American Progress‘ new report supporting President Obama’s escalation of the US war against Afghanistan is a very powerful reminder of how much neoliberals and neocons are alike. This, of course, is not some genius observation, particularly since CAP and the neocons are making it hard to miss, what with their love triangle with the war. Indeed, CAP’s launch event for its report, "Sustainable Security in Afghanistan: Crafting an Effective and Responsible Strategy for the Forgotten Front," included a leading neocon, Frederick Kagan and was promoted by William Kristol‘s new version of the Project for a New American Century, the Foreign Policy Initiative. So, here is part of what we are seeing unfold: Running parallel to the bi-partisan war machine within the official government is a coordinated campaign in the shadow government — the think tanks. Or, as Naomi Klein describes them, the people paid to think by the makers of tanks. CAPs particular role in this campaign appears to be attempting to sell Obama’s war.

"The problem is not that the Bush administration’s effort in Afghanistan failed," CAP declares. "The problem is that it was never given a chance to succeed." The report is replete with the language of Empire and phrases like, "vital U.S. interests" and "U.S. national interests." The phrase "Afghan interests" is never used. CAP also calls for a continuation of the US bombing raids in Pakistan. In calling for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, CAP relies on the classic hubris of empire, saying, "U.S. policymakers and military leaders must be aware that throughout their history Afghans have resisted large numbers of foreign forces on their soil, but today the situation is different." Why is it different? According to CAP, "Nearly two-thirds of Afghans still support U.S. forces throughout the country." This claim would be funny if it wasn’t so lethally misleading.

US-backed leader Hamid Karzai can barely step foot outside of his palace without risking being killed. "Some intelligence officials estimate that the government of president Hamid Karzai now controls approximately one-third of Afghan territory," CAP acknowledges. How on earth, then, do they pretend to know that Afghans actually love the US occupation? Well, check the footnotes in CAPs report and you see that CAP is basing its claim on an ABC News poll, "Public Opinion Trends in Afghanistan," which is based on 1,534 interviews conducted in December 2008/January 2009. When you actually take the time to read the details of the poll CAP cites, that claim that "two-thirds" of Afghans "support…U.S. forces throughout the country" is extremely dubious and outright misleading. The poll actually says that 52% of Afghans have an "unfavorable" view of the United States — up from 14% in 2005. It also says Afghans give the US a 32% performance rating, down from 68% in 2005. Only 37% of Afghans say there is "support" in their area for US/NATO/ISAF forces. The statistic the CAP report singles out for its "two-thirds support" claim is one labeled "Presence of US Forces in Afghanistan," which says that 63% of Afghans support it. However, in the next graph, only 18% of Afghans say they want the force increased and 44% want it decreased. So, read into this what you will, but do read it before buying CAP’s claim.

In its report, CAP acknowledges the growing global unpopularity of the US occupation of Afghanistan, saying, "In a U.S. poll taken in mid-March, 42 percent of the respon-
dents said the United States made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan, up from 30 percent just a month before and from 6 percent in January 2002. Europeans are even more skeptical, with majorities in Germany, Britain, France, and Italy opposing increased troop commitments to the conflict." Such public opinion is worrying to CAP and the report says, "Convincing the American people, our NATO allies, and the countries in the region why an increased effort in Afghanistan is essential to their vital security interests will be one of the most difficult challenges facing the new administration." In its report, CAP called on Obama to forcefully make the case for escalating the war in Afghanistan and Obama certainly did his best on his trip through Europe for the G20. The bottom line for CAP’s argument, which is also Obama’s, is this: "Unlike the war in Iraq, which was always a war of choice, the war in Afghanistan was and still is a war of necessity." This line is hardly new. The report says "vital US interests will be served" by:

— "Ensur[ing] that Afghanistan does not again become a launching pad for international terrorism."
— "Prevent[ing] a power vacuum in Afghanistan that would further destabilize Pakistan and the region."
— "Prevent[ing] Afghanistan from being ruled by extreme elements of the Taliban and other extremist groups."


Of course, there are opponents of the Obama administration’s escalation in Afghanistan who argue for a withdrawal from Afghanistan on moral grounds, as the War Resisters League, Peace Action and others have. "Others have laid out reasons ­from Afghanistan’s topography to the U.S. economic crisis ­that would make an expanded war in Afghanistan ‘unwinnable,’" declared the WRL in a recent statement. "WRL does not base our opposition on such arguments. While they may be correct, we challenge the very idea of a ‘winnable’ war and oppose this one as we oppose all war: not solely for practical and strategic reasons, but because of our, and [Martin Luther] King Jr.’s, decades-long commitment to nonviolence." That position is very clear. However, there are others who agree with Obama and CAP in their basic portrayal of the "threats," but who still question the military escalation, arguing that it will make the situation even worse. As Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin recently argued, "the decision to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan — and possibly an additional 10,000 troops next year — before fully confronting the terrorist safe havens and instability in Pakistan could very well prove ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. So long as the Taliban can flee into Pakistan and operate from there with relative ease, any gains against them in Afghanistan may well be temporary at best. Meanwhile, our troops would be threatened by forces who are largely beyond their reach, in Pakistan, while our increased military presence in Afghanistan could stoke resentment among the Afghan people."

In late March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent Obama a letter arguing, "The 2001 authorization to use military force in Afghanistan allowed military action ‘to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.’ Continuing to fight a counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan does not appear to us to be in keeping with these directives and an escalation may actually harm US security."

CAP, however, is clearly not listening to "progressive" or anti-war lawmakers. In fact, CAP says that Bush did the war against Afghanistan "on the cheap and committed too few troops and resources." Therefore, CAP is calling for a stunning expansion of the scope of the military occupation of Afghanistan, a "nearly 300 percent increase over the average force level for the period from 2002 to 2007," according to the report. CAP goes beyond what Obama has already committed to and calls for 70,000 US troops and an additional 30,000 allied troops — a total of 100,000 troops, plus an expanded Afghan Army and police force. CAP calls for "a prolonged U.S. engagement using all elements of U.S. national power — diplomatic, economic, and military — in a sustained effort that could last as long as another 10 years."

To pay for this, CAP in part suggests taking what it claims will be a $330 billion savings from "reduced combat missions in Iraq" and applying $25 billion of it every year for five years to the "increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan" with another $5 billion per year "to increase U.S. foreign aid and diplomatic operations." While there is a much bigger argument to be had here about spending priorities while millions of Americans are suffering from the economic meltdown, there is serious reason to question the idea that somehow we are going to be seeing any substantial "savings" in Iraq spending (except, of course, through the kind of creative accounting that masks actual US military expenditures, particularly relating to Iraq).

While calling for the US military to hammer the regions of Afghanistan where opposition to the occupation and the puppet regime in Kabul is strongest, CAP suggests the US "disperse economic assets and development teams to more stable and cooperative parts of the country." The goal of this is to "reward the allied population with improved economic conditions and to demonstrate to the adversarial population the tangible benefits of cooperating with U.S. and allied forces." This is similar to the US economic wars against Iraq and Cuba where the population is punished for its leadership and the US attempts to force them into submission to occupation or subjugation.

CAP acknowledges the "Taliban’s increasing power and influence," adding that "many Afghan leaders have become increasingly critical of the conduct of international military operations in the country… Primarily because of the increasing and understandable unpopularity of NATO and U.S. air strikes," but doesn’t call for a halt to them. Instead, CAP concludes, "it should be noted that violent insurgent attacks, particularly the proliferation of suicide bombings, still inflict the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan."

CAP doesn’t just limit its belligerence for the Afghans. The report bluntly states that Obama must "Maintain capability to conduct missile strikes in Pakistan’s border regions absent Pakistani capability and will to do so itself." Perhaps CAP should check in with retired United States Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and ask him why he recently declared that the U.S. should halt all Air and Predator drone strikes against Pakistan.

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald just returned from Afghanistan as part of his important documentary series, Rethink Afghanistan, which he is producing as a rolling web-based work-in-progress. In a climate where anti-war voices are being systematically kept off the corporate airwaves, Greenwald has managed to break up the party a bit, even making it onto MSNBC where he said "there is a significant belief that troops are not the answer." While Greenwald is not exactly storming the White House to demand the immediate withdrawal of all US troops, his Brave New Films Foundation has issued a petition calling for hearings in both the House and Senate before Obama deploys more troops to Afghanistan, saying, "At a time when our country faces a credibility crisis around the world, record casualties in Afghanistan, and an economic meltdown at home, oversight hearings are needed now more than ever." That is the least Congress could do and Greenwald’s ever-expanding film would be a good starting place for lawmakers to do some (overdue) fact-finding. The folks at CAP would be wise to watch them as well before putting out any more reports.

Here is the bottom line: the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. As CAP states, "Last year was the deadliest on record for American troops, and fatalities in the first two months of 2009 are outpacing 2008 figures for a similar period. Afghan civilian casualties skyrocketed 40 percent in 2008 — their highest since the beginning of the war." According to the UN 2,118 civilians were killed in 2008 (other estimates put the number much higher). CAP even admits, "U.S. and NATO efforts to respond to the rise in attacks, have led to a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties suffered by the Afghan people."

And yet somehow, in the eyes of CAP, all of these statistics seem to just beg for even more US troops in Afghanistan, continued bombing and sustaining the missile strikes in Pakistan. Those opposed to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan can take heart in the justice of their cause: on this issue, CAP is not on the side of those who were right about Iraq, who confronted the WMD lie, who stood up to the illegal war. No, instead, CAP is on the side of the neocons, the "experts" who know so little about so much who have been wrong about, well, almost everything for a long time.

Read more by Jeremy Scahill