Monday, March 21, 2011

Meanwhile, In Afghanistan . . .

As we become enmeshed in yet another war, is anyone paying attention to America's longest?  AP reports that 1,399 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.  We don't know how many Afghanis and Pakistanis have been killed by our forces and our drones, but the casualties continue to mount.  There are too many horror stories about the killing of innocent civilians, such as the one this month where nine boys collecting firewood in eastern Afghanistan were killed by NATO helicopter gunners who mistook them for insurgents.  Corruption is rampant and even our supposed ally, Hamid Karzai, who is still president thanks to a fraudulent election, is asking that we leave.  Despite the 30,000 additional troops added by President Obama last year, which brought the total number of American forces to 100,000, the Taliban, in the recent words of General Petraeus, remain "resilient."

Gen. Petraeus reported to Congress last week that the recent gains against the Taliban are "fragile and reversible."   His cautiously hopeful view was more optimistic than other analysts who, as the Los Angeles Times noted, contend "the Taliban still holds sway over much of the Afghan population and territory and remains a significant political and military force," there has been inadequate progress in reforming President Karsai's corrupt regime, and "Pakistan remains a haven for terrorists."

According to the New York Times, Petraeus said he is still "preparing options" for the withdrawal that is set to begin in July, casting doubt on its size, and he was non-committal about whether combat troops will be part of the initial draw down.  It also seemed clear from his remarks that substantial reductions are not expected until 2014.  

It is true that Japan is a far more catastrophic and immediate crisis, and the rebellions in Arab nations are more volatile, but even before the emergence of these events it seemed that the media, the Congress (with a few notable exceptions) and the public were not concerned about Afghanistan and were resigned to the ongoing muddle until at least 2014.  This is exemplified by the apathetic response to General Petraeus' testimony.  As Doyle McManus described in the L.A. Times, "most of the seats in the public and news media sections were empty. Senators and House members drifted in and out, just as they do in hearings about farm price supports or bank reform."

With over $450 billion already spent on the war, President Obama has asked for another $113 billion in his 2012 budget.  A bill sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich which called for a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and highlighting the cost, was designed to appeal to fiscal conservatives, was defeated last week, although it garnered 93 votes (a similar resolution won 65 votes last year.)  And even though no one appears to be paying attention, at least when asked there is strong opposition to our continued presence, as a recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows that nearly 2/3 of Americans no longer believe the Afghan war is worth fighting.

While Kucinich's bill failed, he is on the right track by asking  "Congress to exercise fiscal responsibility" and determine, as badly needed funds are cut from many government programs, whether the incremental progress that is being made is worth it.  (ThinkProgress lays out some of the alternatives that could be funded for the cost of one year of the war.)  His fellow Democrats in the House and Senate should be making a strong push for withdrawal.  Like so many other issues, this is one in which the best policy is also the best politics.


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