March 28, 2009
I feel now like I did in 1961 when I enthusiastically welcomed the transfer of political power in Washington from a staid, conservative, anti-communist, old (reflecting the arrogance of my youth), and anti-intellectually driven Eisenhower administration to a new Kennedy Administration.
Early on, the new President Kennedy sent his Vice-President to Vietnam to assess the low-grade war and the corrupt, dictatorial, minority Catholic regime in South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, and a bit later, retired General Maxwell Taylor, Secretaries of State and Defense and Rusk and McNamara, recommended escalated US troop commitments in South Vietnam to save a friendly regime which was totally a geographic and political creation of the United States. The enemy was identified as communism. Even though South Vietnam existed only because of US money, advisors, and soldiers, when President Eisenhower left office there were just 1,000 US military troops there.
As the Vietnam War escalated in the 1960s and opposition grew, it became clear to all that policymakers, media pundits, and those of us who joined a national anti-war movement knew little about the history of Vietnam and its political/economic/ cultural context. We did not know about the hundreds of years of struggle by the Vietnamese people to oust external oppressors from their land: Chinese, French, Japanese, and Americans. We surely did not know that President Diem, who led a regime which was imposed on the Buddhist South from 1954 to 1963, was a Catholic who sought to inflict his dictatorial will on a country of rural and communal people tied to the land of their ancestors. The world as it was presented to the American people about Vietnam, from Truman through Nixon, was not about the Vietnamese people but about the international struggle between “international communism” and the “free world.”
Once again, we are experiencing a new President who is the polar opposite of his predecessor. Obama is intelligent, grounded in grassroots experiences of working people and people of color, intellectually shaped by his education and extraordinary talents, and committed to economic reconstruction in the face of the deepest crisis since the 1930s (although Kennedy did face a modest recession when he came in office).
And, unfortunately, within two months of entering office, President Obama told the American people of his plans to send, not only an additional 17,000 troops to up the 34,000 US troops already in Afghanistan, but also an additional 4,000 advisors.
Some initial comparisons readily come to mind:
The Kennedy program of economic and military assistance to countries perceived as poor and politically unstable seemed at the time modest, selfless, and in the best interest of United States security. Most importantly, the Kennedy policy of globalizing what I later would regard as US imperialism was framed as far more modest and carefully conceived than the demonic “good guys-bad guys” vision of the world projected by the Eisenhower diplomatic team. Some naively superficial reactions to the Obama program for Afghanistan, and Pakistan, distinguish it from the dreaded Bush neo-conservatives who frankly advocated for US global domination.
As with collective ignorance of Vietnam in the 1960s, most Americans today have little or no sense of the history of Afghanistan. We need to know that virtually every world empire experienced defeat in efforts to conquer Afghanistan from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, to the British who lost two wars in Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century, to the former Soviet Union. Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires.”
In addition, what is left out of most commentaries concerning the troubled experiences of the Afghan people in recent years is the story of United States covert operations in that country which began in the Carter Administration. While the United States did not unilaterally launch a guerrilla war against the pro-Soviet regime that came to power in Kabul in 1978, it surely fueled the mobilization of a variety of virulent, militant, fundamentalist armies to fight a civil war against the beleaguered regime. Among the recipients of US military largesse was Osama Bin Laden. Ironically, so-called “political Islam” became a tool of US empire in the 1980s in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia.
Americans need to know that with the defeat and collapse of the regime in Kabul in 1992, a struggle for power among the various disparate fundamentalist armies ensued, each driven by its own brand of corruption and ideology. Out of this ideology a youthful army of religious fundamentalists, the Taliban, mobilized to seize power and purge the country of moral corruption. The Taliban came from the largest ethnic group in the country, the Pashtun. They ruled Afghanistan with a brutal and iron fist from the mid-1990s until after the US military invasion in October, 2001. An internal war ensued from that point until today. Apparently the Taliban continue to have a significant base of support in the countryside particularly among the largest ethnic group in the population, the Pashtuns. This support is broad based in the southern regions of Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
For Bush, the Taliban regime, with which the US had normal diplomatic relations, was hosting Al Qaeda, the terrorists, we were told were responsible for 9/11. The two, Al Qaeda and the Taliban were increasingly seen as the same. And with the initiation of war on Afghanistan in October, 2001, the global “war on terrorism” was launched. Ever since, the war on terrorism has been defined as a struggle against Al Qaeda, that shadowy organization with a presence in dozens of countries which is forever planning to initiate new acts of terrorism against the United States. Like “international communism” the consciousness of the American people has been shaped by this demonic force that we know very little about. We know even less about why it is planning criminal acts against US and other targets.
Most importantly, Americans are not told about the emergence of enormous opposition to US policy in countries from the Middle East to East Asia. We are not told about Muslim peoples who oppose violence and the use of terrorism as a tactic but abhor the pervasive presence of US military forces in their homelands. They are outraged that the United States stands in the way of achieving social and political justice for Palestinians in the Middle East. And, they demand the right to national sovereignty and the control of their own natural resources, particularly oil.
In other words, Americans in the main do not receive information to help understand why peoples around the world might sympathize with the politics of “the terrorists” even if they oppose their tactics. In comparison, in the 1960s, there was little discussion of the Vietnamese people’s passion for national independence. So, in the end, the escalating war in Afghanistan is presented to the American people as a necessity borne of some ill-defined threat to national security and world stability.
Assuming that opposition to the United States exists and that for whatever reasons Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are now experiencing internal war, what kind of policies should the Obama administration adopt, as an alternative to the slow, steady, dangerous escalation of war on the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
First, the new administration should call for an international peace conference on the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia (or parallel meetings addressing each area with an overarching structure to shape a comprehensive peace plan). All parties to conflicts in these regions should be invited to attend, irrespective of their ideologies and official proclamations. The international peace conference should have as its agenda the achievement of political stability, violence reduction, and the expansion of economic and social justice. The initiation of the movement for this peace conference and its structure should be organized by the General Assembly of the United Nations. A premium should be placed on the comprehensiveness of participation.
Second, the United States, NATO countries, and others involved in the conflict in Afghanistan today should create an economic development fund, to be administered by appropriate committees of the United Nations.
Third, the initiation of the peace conference and dialogue concerning economic development in the region should be met by a phased withdrawal of all US and other NATO military forces from Afghanistan.
And what about the terrorists? This proposal is based on the proposition that violence and hatred are borne in the soil of military domination and economic misery and as these twin plagues are eliminated terrorist threats will decline.
While this proposal may seem impractical, it is clear that a US program of increasing diplomatic initiatives and economic development projects while drawing down US militarism in the region constitutes the only path to avoid the quagmire that the Vietnam War became in the 1960s.