Bizarre bedfellows rally to Afghanistan
By Brian M Downing
The war in Afghanistan, now almost nine years on, is reaching an important juncture. The conflict itself is plodding along as the insurgency spreads, but public support in Europe and the United States is waning. The Dutch have withdrawn. Canada will have most of its troops out at the end of 2011. The British, French and German publics are increasingly uneasy about the war and seem to be searching for a graceful exit that will not greatly alienate the US.
The American public is also restive. The Barack Obama administration is weighed down with economic problems and has not made a serious effort to rally support for the war. The president’s address on the surge in Afghanistan last year was deliberate and analytic rather than emotional and hortatory. There is no meaningful anti-war movement, only the occasional
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// ]]>grumblers and growlers just before a war-funding vote that wins by a wide margin. Nonetheless, a public debate has been underway for quite some time.
Disparate groups in the pro-war camp
Three disparate groups are making efforts to bolster support for the war – the military, neo-conservatives and human-rights groups, especially feminist organizations. Politics makes strange bedfellows; foreign policy makes bizarre ones.
Over its long history, the US military has built an institutional culture of confidence – finishing what it sets out to do, seeing things through. This culture was firmly established in the heady aftermath of World War II, gravely damaged during the Vietnam War, but painstakingly rebuilt in the decades that followed. Defeat and attendant weakened prestige make the military even more determined to succeed in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the military seeks to consolidate a prominent position for itself in the post-Cold War world. Success in Afghanistan will obviously help achieve that. Abandoning Afghanistan will be seen as dishonorable, a concession to world terror, and a diminution of the military’s prestige and role in US foreign policy. It is significant that it was the military that made public the geological survey results showing mineralogical wealth in many parts of Afghanistan. And General David Petraeus, the US’s top man in Afghanistan, is reminding the public of this in interviews.
The generals will make their case for standing in Afghanistan in cool, professional presentations before the US Congress and on public affairs programs – as will many of their retired colleagues. They will have the appearance of straightforward presentations unsullied by partisan, institutional or corporate interests.
Neo-conservatives also support the war. They see American military power as a sign of national might and virtue and as an instrument of spreading US beliefs and ideals around the world. Afghanistan was not part of the neo-conservative plan to transform the Middle East into a free-market, democratic region on good terms with the US and its allies, but defeat in Afghanistan will be a setback to its agenda, discredited though it is in many quarters now.
Neo-conservative prominence in television, radio and print media affords them the opportunity to present their case repeatedly – daily, if need be. And should the effort in Afghanistan fail, the neo-conservative media will argue that failure stemmed from lack of resolve in the current administration and that a return to the neo-con agenda is needed.
Neo-conservatives and the military have a long working relationship. In the chaotic aftermath of Vietnam, neo-cons saw the nation imperiled by immorality at home and accommodation with the Soviet Union. A revitalized military was the answer to both problems: the military would once more become a respected bastion of moral vision inspiring the nation and standing up to communism and other evils around the world.
Human-rights groups have opposed muscular foreign policy in preference for aid programs and examples as instruments of world change. In Afghanistan, however, they find themselves in the same camp as long-standing opponents in the military. The brutality of the Taliban, while they were in power and as they wage the insurgency, has alarmed human-rights activists in the US and elsewhere in the world. The Taliban destroyed the statues of Buddha that had stood in Bamiyan province for 1,500 years, imposed a harsher understanding of Islamic law than most scholars call for, and killed thousands of Shi’ite Muslims.
Prominent in human-rights arguments is the Taliban’s oppression of women and girls. They oppose the education of girls (a contested issue in Afghanistan since reforms in the 1970s) and attack schools built for that purpose. In recent weeks, the cover of Time featured a young woman whose face had been disfigured by the Taliban. Reports circulate of a pregnant woman executed for adultery. Emotional issues such as these are more powerful than dry analyses.
The anti-war camp
Opponents of the war are less organized and less passionate than most counterparts in the pro-war factions. Afghanistan is not like Iraq, which was widely considered a war initiated by a cabal of special interests. Few doubt that the invasion and initial occupation of Afghanistan stemmed from legitimate security concerns after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
A protracted presence and a growing insurgency have made the public uneasy, but only parts of it are adamantly opposed to continued presence. There is no anti-war movement as seen a few years ago regarding Iraq, let alone what took place amid the Vietnam War. And thus far the casualties in Afghanistan are significantly lower than those incurred at the height of the insurgency in Iraq.
Political analysts and more than a few retired officers make the case, in print and over the airwaves, that there is no national security issue at stake in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, they contend, has been driven out and can never operate there as it once did. The US presence only serves to inspire Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and throughout the Islamic world.
Emotional tacks are also in evidence in the anti-war camp. The war is causing the senseless deaths and injuries of hundreds of US and allied forces every month. Combat-related mental issues are prevalent and suicide rates are appallingly high. Even far more casualties have been inflicted on Afghan civilians.
Anti-war positions are prevalent in the public; as noted, polling data show 56% of the public oppose the war. But the intensity of that position is weakened by the lingering fear – however unfounded – that al-Qaeda could well return there and strike again on US soil. And there is the long-standing concern of almost all wars that the US cannot withdraw, as that would mean that many Americans would have died in vain.
The balance of power in the public mind
What are the merits and more importantly the effectiveness of each side’s arguments? Clearly, a majority opposes the war, but at least thus far their intensity, organization and prevalence in the media lag behind their rivals. Accordingly, anti-war sentiment is unlikely to force change in the country’s position in Afghanistan, especially since most people opposed to the war support the Democratic president on many other issues.
It is significant (perhaps even regrettable) that American casualties do not figure more highly in the discussion. When they do, it is usually in a transparently manipulative and off-putting manner. The war is being fought by working-class and lower-middle-class Americans, mainly from small towns and rural areas. In contrast to World War II and even Vietnam, few Americans know anyone in the military today, resulting in a “moral hazard” whereby the consequences of an action do not affect the public at large.
The neo-conservatives and human-rights activists who support the war are as unfamiliar with military service as they are with the topography of the Moon. The US officer corps is also supportive of the war – and they know military service and have dedicated their careers to it. Yet many in the American public, especially veterans of past wars, wonder if generals adequately consider the lives of young men and women in their war calculus any more than the public does.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.