The Hopes for Obama May Die in Afghanistan


By Marc Pilisuk
Sometimes we separate foreign policy and national security issues from our domestic agenda, leaving the former inordinately in the hands of experts and officials. We do so at our peril. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has begun an escalation of the war in Afghanistan while US citizens weigh in on abortion, clean fuels and health coverage. Despite the financial meltdown, hopes abound for major changes in health care, education and the green economy. Sadly, this may all be lost in the inhospitable mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and its Pakistan border. Recent efforts to kill militants are predictably killing civilians and creating enemies. The prospect of widening this war threatens to undo the Obama presidency.


As a candidate, Obama pointed out it was not just the vote to allow the invasion of Iraq but the whole mindset encouraging such a policy that was wrong. That same mindset was one that drew the world into adversarial camps in a fight for ultimate victory with unrestricted use of military means. It was a view voiced before by the brightest and the best as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations drew the US into a war in Vietnam. That war was precipitated by false evidence, continued by massive public deception, escalated time and again when each previous promise of victory and each call for escalation proved itself to be wrong. Fear of admitting we were wrong led to one new tactic after another. With military efforts bogged down in unfriendly jungle areas, we resorted to the use of toxic herbicides and “open target area” bombing, burning villages, torturing peasants for information, propping up a succession of puppet governments -- all ineffective against an enemy that disappeared among its supporters and grew increasingly committed to repel the invaders. Efforts to "win the minds and hearts" of people were undermined by military violence and the arming and training of pro-government "pacifiers" proved a costly failure. By the time it ended 58.000 American soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese had died. Many more faced the lasting effects of land mines, agent orange exposure, PTSD, and substance abuse. But for President Lyndon Johnson who was voted in with a landslide on the hope and promise for a "war on poverty" and building "the great society," the Vietnam war proved to be a huge drain. It was the end of his dream and a closing of the opportunity to be honored in history. And some of the best and the brightest were forced to admit that they had not understood either the culture or the history of Vietnamese resistance against Chinese, Japanese and French invaders. Those who had opposed the war from the start were right but the moment for change had been lost.
The mindset is to “kill the bad guys.” It begins with naming an enemy as the center for a new war against a new evil and it has led us to military incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The planned escalation of war in Afghanistan repeats the mindset and the blindness of the Pentagon and CIA officials who provided the daily briefings to the President during the Vietnam era.
Afghanistan is a strategic gateway for trade between Europe and India. Its history has been a battle of invaders from Alexander the Great in 328 BC, to the Huns, the Turks, the Arabs, and Imperial Britain. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets were met with Mujahedeen resistance fighters who were supported by the U.S., Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1989, the USSR withdrew leaving the land in ruin and the warring factions in chaos. Civil war ensued in which tribes fought for control. By 1996 the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban movement ruled most of Afghanistan, but was met with resistance from the Northern Alliance, supported by Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The legacy of that war includes a country with a 64% illiteracy rate, a reported 48% of its children suffering from malnutrition, and a life expectancy of 46 years according to a World Bank, Report of 2001.
Planning to remake Afghanistan in the back offices of the Pentagon is to repeat the neglect of cultural and historical factors in VietNam. The Afghanistan people are worldly through contacts with traders and conquerors, yet isolated by terrain and a 250 year old agreement permitting self-governance for its tribal leaders. This tribal federalism defies U. S. led coalition attempts to superimpose a central government. Ten major tribes speak more than 30 languages. Lacking a national identity, Afghans do not refer to themselves as Afghans until they leave Afghanistan.
Afghans have never left a centuries old agricultural, tribal existence. 85% are farmers and herders of sheep and goats, many nomadic, moving with their herds. Their sparse existence is upon a land that has been destroyed by years of war and drought; 10 million landmines, unsafe drinking water that must be avoided by children and adults, herbicide destruction of crops along with poppy fields, livestock have perished, and rural economies have collapsed. There are few economic options in Afghanistan beyond labor migration, becoming a mercenary or cultivating opium. The global trade in illegal drugs generates billions of dollars in profits for the refiners and distributors. But for the farmers it is their only way to eke out a bare living to feed large families, since other crops yield no profit at all. The only drop in opium cultivation followed a time when a US supported Taliban religious leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar invoked a mandate to stop growing poppies. All that has been reversed since the US military incursion. Now opium is their only tradable commodity.
Both the U. S. and Britain saw the drug trade as a threat to Afghanistan's economy and the burgeoning democracy that they have tried, unsuccessfully, to set up in Kabul. The publicized post-invasion gains in education for girls and voting in elections have affected only a miniscule number of people in the cities. For the rest, war brings disaster and deaths of civilians doom efforts at community outreach. A military occupation is violent and insensitive to the history and culture of the region. It has cast into doubt upon the idea that either democracy or legitimate economic development can be attained by military force.
The paradox is that war increases poverty, degrades living and incites people to strike back violently. Weapons flow to Afghanistan from the US led coalition and from international traffickers. If stabilizing the economy and democracy in Afghanistan are true goals, rural communities will need alternatives to the credit, employment, and cash incomes that opium provides. They do not need US soldiers. 
Afghanistan does have the location for a pipeline for oil to the Caspian Sea. But the short booms created by massive construction projects replace what few viable resources people had before. Contractors lobby for such contracts as props to local economy. Such projects, however, do not support small farms, schools or medical facilities. Instead they devastate the ecology leaving people as impoverished as they were before.
The U.S. led war of retaliation against al-Qaeda has killed many more civilians than were killed in the bombing of the World Trade Center. The continuing war and the extreme poverty in Afghanistan have sent more than four million people to take refuge in other countries and several hundred thousand have been displaced within their own country. Many live in refugee camps. They witness family members die of starvation, particularly in the winter. Some have fled to join militant Muslim groups across the Pakistan border. Aerial raids kill civilians and makes enemies. Hot pursuit of suspected militants terrorizes civilians and turns them into supporters of terrorist resistance. Whether the Pakistan government officially condones such actions matters little since many civilians in Pakistan, some equipped and trained by decades of US military assistance, support the resistance of their tribal relatives in Afghanistan.
The President has said he would send more troops to Afghanistan but he has also pledged not to send troops anywhere without a clearly defined mission and an exit strategy. Afghanistan does need help but more troops, tanks and helicopters will only widen an un-winnable war. It will drain scarce funds, divide this country and bury Obama's domestic agenda. What a tragic mistake and a loss for all of us!
Marc Pilisuk is Professor Professor Emeritus at the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, University of California Berkeley