The Peace Movement and The Roller Coaster Ride of US War Policy

It’s considered unsportsmanlike to say, “We told you so.” But since all’s fair in love and war and we’re definitely at war, it’s fair to say the peace movement has been right about the whole sordid reality of US war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That may sound audacious or ridiculous to some, especially to those knee-jerks who love to ridicule the peace movement while knowing nothing about what it really stands for.

It’s important to note here, that the peace/antiwar movement doesn’t have quite as extensive a public relations and propaganda program as that employed by the military and its supporters in the federal government and the mainstream media.

For instance, the peace movement doesn’t have well-funded, highly-trained Psy-Ops Teams such as Rolling Stone has shown the military has. So no one is able to brainwash US Congress members into cutting the military budget and de-funding the wars.

The peace movement also tends to be concerned about the poor, long-term ecological sustainability issues, improving education, creating jobs and figuring out affordable health care for all Americans, which is why we’re always attacking the Pentagon sacred cow and the runaway wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, the peace movement suffers because we live in a world gone mad and few today seem to have the courage to listen to, and give credence to, a movement without guns and prisons.

Interestingly, current reports surrounding Afghanistan are in synch with what the peace movement has been saying since the beginning about the dismal outlook for the Petraeus counter-insurgency program in that ancient, rugged land.

For instance, one of the fundamental mantras of Veterans For Peace, the antiwar organization I have worked with for 26 years, is: “Wars are easy to start and very difficult to stop. So it’s best not to start them.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon and the Pech ValleyDefense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon and the Pech Valley

What Defense Secretary Robert Gates just told cadets at West Point was a distinct echo of this mantra. Here’s what he said:

“(A)ny future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

Amen! In fact, I think we should retrospectively examine the “heads” – ie. the motivations driving their decisions — of Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and a host of others in this context. All of us in the peace movement were doing essentially that in those huge demonstrations of February 15, 2003 and in other venues. Our message to our president was: “Don’t do it!”

The peace movement wanted nothing to do with blatantly displaced revenge for 9/11 and preferred a more boring policy based on police actions, diplomacy and containment. Looking back, who knows what might have happened to Saddam; or if he had lasted that long, whether he might have suffered the fates of Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi.

Secretary Gates, of course, has a long way to go before he can qualify for the peace movement. In his speech, he was talking about ground troops. He’s still a devotee of aerial bombardment, remote drone attacks and God knows what future order of lethal robots to address the “festering problems” facing the United States around the world.

This week The New York Times reported that the US is pulling out of the Pech River Valley in Afghanistan, a rugged, rural battleground it has committed young American lives to since 2003.

The Times cites an “internal assessment by the military that (says) it would have been better served by not having entered the high valley in the first place.”

“What we figured out,” an American military official told The Times, “is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-US or anti-anything, they just want to be left alone. Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

Pardon me, but I have to, again, emphasize that the peace movement has been saying precisely this until it was as blue in the face as Cassandra for years. In fact, the peace movement’s position is it’s our military presence – period — that’s destabilizing the whole area.

The plan to pull back from the Pech Valley and other rural areas is to re-deploy our limited US troops to secure cities like Kabul.

One might be excused at this point for thinking this sounds a bit like the excuses of an over-stressed army pulling back to circle the wagons in Afghanistan’s more modern cities. Kabul, of course, is ruled by America’s hand-picked, but corrupt, would-be-puppet President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun who tends, lately, to bite the hand that feeds him and who constantly threatens to make peace with the Taliban.

The military debates itself over the mission

It’s hard to know, given the military’s absolute reliance on either secrecy or public relations, what exactly is going on. But it seems there is a major argument going on within the ranks of the military and Washington that it isn’t working in Afghanistan and what to try next.

It seems to be a struggle between the fashionable proponents of counter-insurgency, or COIN, theory who feel democracy and human development are the way out and a tough brand of soldiers who doggedly insist, to the contrary, the only way out of Afghanistan is to cut the crap and focus on killing.

Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl, both former soldiers well respected as counter-insurgency theorists, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The ‘Long War’ May Be Getting Shorter,” in which they express great optimism that the US will be able to draw down its forces “from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years,” which they decide is a “shorter” war.

Like all war defenders, Fick and Nagl put our troops on a patriotic pedestal and point out what they see as successes, such as recent high profile assassinations of Taliban leaders by either remote drones or Special Ops hunter/killer teams.

But, then, they offer what has become the COIN mantra: “The United States certainly can’t kill its way to victory.” The solution has to be political and developmental; we have to protect and win over the population.

They naturally mention the two most irksome issues for all proponents of the war, the use by the Taliban of sanctuaries in Pakistan and long-standing connections between Pakistani intelligence and Afghan insurgents, something Pakistan sees as a counter balance to India, its hated neighbor.

Fick and Nagl, of course, don’t mention huge, overarching factors like the possibility of political eruptions across North African and the Middle East seeping into Pakistan or Afghanistan.

They certainly don’t mention the growing international scandal of CIA agent and possible assassin Raymond Davis arrested for murder by Pakistani authorities and what effect this deepening affair may have on the US presence in the region. Boiled down to its essence, the Pakistanis are complaining about being treated like lower-status wogs by the US. They are demanding the US reveal all its covert CIA and other intelligence agents loose in Pakistan, which would be a major setback for US proponents of the cross-border war.

The mantra of current US policy is to “protect the Afghan population.” Such a policy revolves around the imperial confidence that, with enough troops and materiel, we could “protect” Afghanistan and Afghanis from insurgents forever. But as everyone knows, to effectively do that would mean deploying so many US soldiers for an indefinite period that the notion is impractical. No, it’s absurd. Such a martial fantasy would lead to the bankruptcy of the United States and the US population would eventually erupt as in Cairo.

So the solution is, according to Fick and Nagl, a calculus of selectively “protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity.” This, of course, has to be done in conjunction with very sophisticated public relations and propaganda (now, it seems, even “brainwashing”) aimed at the home front and especially key decision makers in Washington. Fick & Nagl’s op-ed is, of course, part of that public relations campaign.

Bing West, on the other hand, is currently criticizing the COIN program from the right. He is a highly respected warrior/journalist who thinks the solution to Afghanistan is to give up on counter-insurgency theory and do more of what infantrymen are supposed to do: Kill the enemy. Here’s how he puts it in his new book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out Of Afghanistan:

“These social services – governance, economics, the addressing of grievances – transformed the military into a giant Peace Corps. … It is self-defeating to cling to a theory that has enfeebled our warrior ethos. … Neutralizing the enemy, not protecting the population, must be the main mission.”

What the US needs to do, he says, is rely on 100 plus tough adviser task forces to live and work with the Afghan army to train them so they can eventually replace these task forces and secure the Afghan state. At the same time, more Special Operations Forces would be employed to hunt down and kill insurgent leaders. The point is to kill the enemy, not win over the population.

“This war will be decided by grit,” West writes.

Bing West at 70 is the ultimate embedded combat reporter fully bonded with the mythic warrior ethos of the “grunt.” As he sees it, the infantryman is the nation’s greatest hero, a selfless man (there are few women in this club) often misunderstood or forgotten and usually betrayed by shifty politicians.

West’s 1972 book The Village is a study of Combined Action Platoons living and fighting inside Vietnamese villages. It is considered a classic and the basis for his current ideas in Afghanistan. The current book is based on many trips and incident after incident of on-the-ground experience with infantrymen. In one case, he tells of being on death’s door with cholera. So he cannot be criticized for not being there.

West clearly feels President Obama, Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen are all speaking double talk and covering their asses about the war in Afghanistan. He concedes it’s a failure.

“Neither side is winning,” he writes, while pointing out, “we can’t afford $100 billion a year.” He calls for a strategy “that matches our reduced means.”

What Bing West refuses to see

As a veteran activist member of the peace movement, I don’t presume to belong to Bing West’s beloved class of warriors that he describes this way: “hardy, adventurous men who embrace the sweat, heat, cold, bruises, vomit, cordite smell, blasts, rifle cracks, screams and camaraderie, knowing that some among them will lose limbs or bleed out.”

I was a pretty naive and ignorant 19-year-old radio direction finder in Vietnam. I used radio equipment to find the “bad guys” so West’s infantrymen could go get them. Lacking the emotional and physical bonding that comes with the pain and glory and even the “high” so honored by West’s elite warrior class, I see the issue differently — from the point of view of a tiny cog in a huge, historic movement.

From what I’ve learned over the years, I can’t help but see that huge, historic movement as tragic and, ultimately, misguided. That’s also the view of the peace movement, some of whom would add the word “criminal.”

Besides the obvious — that, despite the bravery of West’s Combined Action Teams, we lost the Vietnam War — what Bing West overlooks is how his beloved warrior ethos, when put into lethal practice, incites, encourages and inflames a complementary warrior ethos in the hearts and minds of those designated as the enemy, be it the Viet Cong or the Taliban.

This complementary enemy warrior ethos, the peace movement would submit, is exactly what has motivated insurgent elements like the Taliban and al Qaeda from the beginning, a motivation rooted in a long history of foreign military intervention in Islamic lands, be it for oil in Saudi Arabia or for the defense of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians.

This line of argument, of course, was virtually crushed after 9/11.

As anyone who has served in a war zone like Vietnam knows, once a war is started and given time to heat up, animosities, hatreds and calls for revenge over the heinous barbarism of the enemy lead to a widening cycle of violence and the war becomes like a runaway train.

Thus the peace movement argues humbly and passionately against starting wars in the first place. Of course, as we all know, the United States does not do humble well, and many on the runaway train so love the breeze they tend not to listen.

West’s book is a powerful statement about how the US, policy-wise, has stumbled around in Afghanistan for ten years and created nothing but a corrupt “culture of entitlement and dependency.” That is certainly true, as it was true 40 years ago in Saigon.

But the solution cannot be to simply fall back on the old John Wayne archetype of the tough-guy infantryman killing the equivalent of demonized “gooks.”

West wants teams of tough, very smart US soldiers to live ruggedly among Afghan soldiers with the dual goal of killing the enemy and training up the Afghans to replace them. One can have great respect for the “grit” and bravery of such men but still recognize the fundamental problem that, no matter how tough and rugged these soldiers may be — no matter how admirable they may be in our eyes here at home — for a very significant element of Afghanis they will always remain foreigners intervening violently in their country.

As cannot be emphasized enough, William Polk writes in Violent Politics, his smart little book on the history of insurgency, there is one thing “common to all insurgencies. … (A)single thread runs through them all: opposition to foreigners.”

In the end, training Afghan soldiers cannot guarantee their loyalty to US interests, which of course is the whole point of the Washington policy in Afghanistan, not the honor or glory of the US soldiers doing the training.

While it’s hardly an epidemic, the instances of Afghan and Iraqi trainees shooting US trainers is not insignificant. Plus, we shouldn’t forget that we’re training soldiers in an Afghan government army commanded by Hamid Karzai, who constantly threatens to negotiate with the insurgents we want to kill. Once we train his army, that may be in his and Afghanistan’s interest.

So the only real guarantee of US interests, it seems, is a massive US military presence to intimidate our Afghan allies. And that’s something we can no longer afford.

The famous film The Battle Of Algiers gives a sense of this kind of historic arc of events. The French army uses violence and torture to successfully decimate the FLN insurgents in the city of Algiers – only to be confronted with massive demonstrations in the street two years later that drive them out. We can only wonder if there is a real-life echo of this now in the street eruptions in North Africa and the Middle East.

So maybe it’s time for US policy makers to try humble.

Maybe its time to back up and re-think the whole damn thing that was set in motion by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Really go back and examine all those “heads.” Maybe it’s time to use our diplomacy to help devise a strategic peace between India and Pakistan that would release pressure on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maybe it’s time to sit down with Karzai and the Taliban.

Maybe it’s time to try something different and at least listen to the peace movement for a change.