PASADENA, Calif. — While applauding President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by 2011, a longtime peace activist cautioned that Afghanistan may be the next U.S. military quagmire.
America continues to commit “smaller numbers of troops to larger and larger battlefields,” Tom Hayden told a receptive audience at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday.
“President Obama kept his word,” Hayden said of then-candidate Obama’s promise to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. “But,” Hayden warned, “if there is a crisis on the way out of Iraq, Obama will be held accountable.” Hayden called military disengagement the most “precarious political position” for an American politician. But Hayden’s concern now is that President Obama will escalate the war in Afghanistan before gathering all the facts.
Hayden, a 1960s anti-war activist who later was elected to the California legislature, called for a “fact-based policy to replace faith-based ones” when it comes to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He explained his use of the word “faith-based” to mean not seeing the reality of the situation in Afghanistan.
Citing the increasing stresses on the U.S. military, Hayden also explained his premise that fewer U.S. troops were being asked to fight increasingly larger geographic wars. “In South Vietnam, the U.S. deployed 500,000 troops on a battlefield of 67,000 square-miles with 19 million people. In Iraq, the U.S. deploys 160,000 troops on a battlefield of 168,000 square-miles, with a population of 26 million people. In Afghanistan, the U.S. plans to deploy 60,000 troops on a battlefield of 250,000 square miles with 30 million people. The war might spread to Pakistan with over 310,000 square miles and 162 million people.”
Another reason the United States should not escalate the Afghan war is the financial burden during a time of economic hardship. Hayden said the costs of the war in Afghanistan alone will be more than a half-trillion dollars before President Obama’s first term ends. “When you add in the indirect costs,” Hayden noted, “the Afghanistan war will cost close to a trillion dollars” during the next four years.
Hayden commented that “the U.S. does not have funds both for war and for national health care.” According to Hayden, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated no further funds for Afghanistan will come from France, leaving the United States to seek funds elsewhere or fund most of the war itself.
Greater than the financial burden is the toll on human life in Afghanistan, according to Hayden. Although 645 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan already, Afghan deaths are almost 15 times that. According to the United Nations, more than 8,700 Afghanis have been killed in the conflict. The U.N. estimates 67 percent of those Afghan civilian deaths were the result of American military action.
Hayden also argued the continuing U.S. military involvement in the region weakens our national security. The war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan increases, rather than decreases, the cycle of violence against Americans. Hayden cited the resentment of Pakistani officials to U.S.-caused civilian casualties along their border with Afghanistan. “If America wants to see itself clean of terrorists, we also want that our villages and towns should not be bombed,” he quoted Yousaf Raza Gillani, prime minister of Pakistan, as saying in a New York Times interview.
President Harmid Karzai of Afghanistan also has raised the civilian casualty issue with American diplomats and military commanders. Last December, Karzai charged, “The (U.S.-led) coalition went around the Afghan villages, burst into people’s homes and has been committing extra-judicial killings in our country.”
Another caution for U.S. military planners is Afghan public opinion, which is running against U.S. involvement. In 2005, 83 percent of Afghanis held a favorable view of Americans, but now only 47 percent do. Hayden also cited an ABC/BBC poll of February 2009 showing 80 percent of Afghanis find “civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes unacceptable.”
Refuting the argument that we are helping rebuild Afghanistan, Hayden pointed out the extreme poverty of Afghanistan. Listed at 173 out of 178 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, Afghanis have not materially benefited from the $36 billion in annual U.S. military aid, or the $10 billion in U.S. aid pledged to redevelop the country. Narcotics production is a continuing problem in Afghanistan as 90 percent of the world’s heroin trade is based in Afghanistan. Local warlords resist eradication measures because poppies bring 12 times what the same amount of wheat would bring.
All of these problems demand that the United States pay more attention to its course of action in Afghanistan. Hayden is calling for hearings in both the House and Senate before the United States commits more troops or funds to the Afghanistan war.
Finally, while Hayden recognized that the United States invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, to strike back at Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Hayden asked, “How long is revenge a valid motive for war?”
The war in Afghanistan poses two threats, Hayden said. “One is the (political) threat to Obama; and second, to our security for going to war against Islamic jihad.” Hayden said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are neither just nor winnable. He added that President Obama may feel the same way, citing the possibility that the United States may engage in dialogue with some faction of the Taliban.
“I find people like yourselves in every city,” Hayden told the audience in the church’s lecture hall. “Continue your work for peace and justice.” After Hayden’s lecture, the church hosted a news conference featuring Hayden; the church’s pastor, Rev. Ed Bacon; and other anti-war activists, who repeated Hayden’s call for congressional hearings on the future of the Afghanistan war.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.