Obama’s Withdrawal Speech:Contrasting Views from Two Peace Advocates

Rebecca Griffin and Tom Hayden are both strong peace advocates who have worked long and hard to end the wars in the Middle East. Hayden, with a background in the civil rights movement and the heady days of anti-Vietnam-War organizing, served as a California State Senator and has had an illustrious career as a political activist both inside and out of government. Griffin has been one of the leading organizers challenging the Afghan war. She is based in California’s Peace Action West – the most active and powerful chapter of national Peace Action. Their views on President Obama’s speech about his Afghan war plans are quite divergent, yet both make valid and important points. -ED.

President Obama’s Disappointing War Plan

by Rebecca Griffin

Graph courtesy of Think Progress

In his speech to the nation Wednesday evening, President Obama closed the loop on a promise he made in December of 2009 to begin the process of ending the war in Afghanistan in July of 2011. That pledge was a recognition of impatience with the war effort, linking the escalation of the war with a promise to begin winding it down this year. Unfortunately, the president’s plan allows the war to last indefinitely and leaves in place almost twice as many troops as when he came in office.  The American and Afghan people will pay the price for prolonging this disastrous policy.

Plan Keeps U.S. on Dangerous Path

Some of the media coverage portrays the plan as far more ambitious than what the military leadership was pushing for behind the scenes, but that greatly overstates the aggressiveness of the plan. Early leaks in the Wall Street Journal indicated that the Pentagon was comfortable with 5-10,000 troops withdrawing in 2011 (and we still don’t know how many of those will be support personnel rather than troops regularly engaged in combat). The New York Times called the plan a victory for Vice President Joe Biden, who has advocated a more focused counterterrorism strategy. That claim doesn’t hold up, however, given that the administration plans to plow ahead with a counterinsurgency strategy and still leaves a much higher number of troops in Afghanistan than necessary for targeted counterterrorism.

While the political pressure generated by the public and Congress surely contributed to the president’s decision not to opt for the kind of bare minimum withdrawal supported by people like Sen. John McCain, it still keeps the U.S. on a dangerous and expensive path without justification.

Important Reasons the Withdrawal Plan is Inadequate

Rather than shifting to a more effective strategy, this plan leaves nearly 70,000 troops on the ground by the end of President Obama’s first term. The war in Afghanistan is already the longest war in American history. By withdrawing 10,000 troops this year and the rest of the forces from what the administration calls the “West Point surge” by September of 2012, President Obama will end his first term with nearly twice as many troops on the ground in Afghanistan as when he came into office, in a war that will by then be more than 11 years old.

President Obama and the military leadership claim that this level of military presence is necessary to maintain “fragile and reversible” progress. However, the facts on the ground belie the military’s claims that the strategy is working. Violence against U.S. and NATO troops and Afghan civilians has increased. The Karzai government is still unstable, and the relationship with the U.S. is fraught, as exemplified by Karzai’s unheeded warnings that NATO must stop air strikes that kill civilians.

Former DIA analyst Joshua Foust meticulously catalogued the many times over the years that the Pentagon has promised that we are at a “turning point” in Afghanistan—promises that haven’t brought about results.  An active duty colonel told Time’s Battleland blog, “The mendacity is getting so egregious that I am fast losing the ability to remain quiet; these yarns of ‘significant progress’ are being covered up by the blood and limbs of hundreds – HUNDREDS – of American uniformed service members each and every month, and you know that the rest of this summer is going to see the peak of that bloodshed.”

When Does This War End?

President Obama’s plan still lacks clarity about the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The 2014 date for “transition” guarantees there will be a significant military presence in Afghanistan for at least another three and a half years. President Obama said that our commitment is not “open-ended,” but his language about 2014 was (deliberately) ambiguous. He did not say all troops would be out by the end of 2014. He only noted that the “process of transition will be complete, “as our “mission change[s] from combat to support.” “Combat troops” left Iraq last year, but there are still 50,000 soldiers on the ground there, so the 2014 date does not signify a complete withdrawal. There are reports of negotiations by the Pentagon that would leave a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for “decades.”

There are better strategies. We don’t need 70,000 troops in Afghanistan to keep Americans safe. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden hammers home the point that we’ve been making for years—military response is not the most effective response to terrorism. Osama bin Laden was found through smart intelligence work and international cooperation. The administration acknowledges that there has been no significant threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in years; by its own estimates, there are 50-100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are not bound by national borders, and a massive military presence is unnecessary to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.

The U.S. could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars by shifting to a more effective counterterrorism strategy based on policing and intelligence. That can be paired with regional diplomacy, internal political negotiations, and development and humanitarian aid. A recent report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shows that we can be far more effective by switching from a military-dominated aid approach to small, Afghan-led programs that make real differences in people’s lives. There are many credible plans that the administration could draw from that propose more significant troops withdrawals.

Financial and Human Costs are Unjustifiable

Given the absence of real benefits of the current strategy to the American and Afghan people, the enormous financial and human cost of the wars is untenable. American taxpayers have already spent more than $400 billion on the war. At the cost of roughly $1 million per year per soldier, the president’s plan signs up the American people to shell out tens of billions of dollars a year into the foreseeable future. President Obama’s 2012 budget request already contains painful cuts to programs like Pell Grants for college and low-income home heating assistance—cuts that would be unnecessary if the US got its priorities straight.

More importantly, the human cost of the war is devastating. More American troops have died in Afghanistan since President Obama took office than in the previous seven years of the war. A new Defense Health Board report shows a sharp increase in the number of troops needing multiple amputations due to IED attacks. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental and physical wounds affect thousands of troops, and the suicide rate has been skyrocketing amongst active duty troops and veterans. Last year was the deadliest year on record for US troops, and 2011 is on pace to beat that tragic record.

Meanwhile, May was the deadliest month for Afghan civilians since the UN started tracking civilian casualties. Any illusions the military has of winning hearts and minds are blasted by angry Afghans protesting in the streets, often bringing bodies of villagers killed in NATO air strikes to show in graphic detail the havoc the military presence has caused.

Americans Want This War to End

The impatience with the war that President Obama tacitly acknowledged in his 2009 speech has grown significantly in strength and intensity. A recent Pew poll has a record number of Americans wanting to see troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. With the US military involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya, 72% of Americans want to see US military engagement abroad scaled down.

The expression of this frustration at wasting lives and money on a war Americans don’t want or need has manifested in strong congressional pushback. Last month, a record number of House members, including nearly every Democrat and 26 Republicans, voted for an amendment requiring a plan for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. Twenty-seven senators followed with a letter to the president calling for a significant and sizable withdrawal. Many unusual suspects, from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA) have taken the floor of Congress and the airwaves to call for a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The combination of lack of public support, unjustifiable cost, and failure of the military strategy makes President Obama’s modest plan to slow walk a withdrawal from Afghanistan glaringly inadequate.

What’s Next?

The work of supporters of a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan to mobilize voters and pressure politicians has had an enormous impact. We have laid the groundwork to continue to push back against the continuation of the war, and have a slew of new congressional allies to work with to keep the pressure on the administration.

With the 2012 election on the horizon, and several Republican candidates calling for a quicker military withdrawal from Afghanistan, we will have an opportunity to keep the Afghanistan war at the forefront of the debate and hold politicians who still support the war accountable. We must remain vigilant until every last troop comes home from Afghanistan. Φ

Rebecca Griffin is the Political Director of Peace Action West. You can reach her at 510.830.3600 x113; rgriffin@peaceactionwest.org. This article is reprinted from Peace Action West’s blog at


Obama Quickens Afghan Withdrawal in Face of Pressure for Peace

By Tom Hayden

Two years ago I was on a Chicago panel with a just-retired military officer, Charles Tucker, a former top adviser to the US embassy in Iraq, general counsel to the Pentagon and a major general in the Air National Guard. During our debate, he made a statement worth remembering on this night of Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan. His words were these: “The only relevant debate in the next two years will be counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism. After that, Obama will begin surrendering to the peace movement.”

I wasn’t sure whether he liked the scenario he was describing, but I applauded for providing me a ray of hope. His prophecy is coming true. Obama, of course, is not “surrendering” to anyone, least of all the peace activists across the country, but he is responding to massive public pressure for rapid troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. We have crossed the line into de-escalation. The withdrawals will continue as the pressure, especially from voters during the 2012 election cycle, continues to build.

Peace is Within Our Reach

Peace advocates should feel a sense of gratification, not about the numbers involved, but about contributing to the vast uptick in public opinion against Iraq and now Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that not a single network or mainstream newspaper has called for bringing our troops home. There is a magic about public opinion, which still matters despite the shadows of authoritarianism all around.

Let’s be clear about what Obama said, since so many seem utterly unable to grasp the facts before issuing their condemnations. I write here as an organizer who believes a proper analysis of the situation and opportunities is critical in making any progress against the leviathan we are up against.

First, Obama said he would withdraw 33,000 troops by next summer, which is 12 months away and a new clarification. And he added that he would continue withdrawing troops after that. The conclusion we should reach is that we should push forward for more than 33,000 troops withdrawn with an expectation that we will be successful. There is a strategic opportunity, if the peace movement does its job, to demand more withdrawals during the key period of Democratic and Republican conventions next year and during the presidential campaign itself. The period 2011-12 is not over. The political fight is still on.

Beginning to Clean Up the Mess

There will be stages involved, because getting out of a military mess of your own making is one of the most difficult challenges confronting any Machiavellian. (Read Clausewitz on redeployment). Obama will be trying to sell himself to peace voters while watching out for the military, as well as unpredictable pressures from Republicans, and facing military families who wonder just what this was all about. The context between now and November 2012 will be “kinetic,” or fluid, a concept in warfare that can be applied to political battlefields as well.

The Peace and Justice Resource Center prediction of 30,000-33,000, based on interviews and research, has turned out to be accurate. The PJRC supported more than 33,000, however. Fifty thousand troops out by 2012 would have de-escalated the American occupation by half, would have gone beyond ending the present surge and would have broken the back of those who believe in the endless war. Of course, a rapid withdrawal of all troops and bases was the preferred position of nearly all peace groups and networks across the country—and that should continue to be the goal. In addition, the peace movement should demand all troops out of Iraq, check Obama’s executive ambitions towards Libya, oppose the secret war in Pakistan and Yemen and choke off all resources for the Long War of 50-80 years. The trillions wasted on these wars should be reinvested primarily in our domestic needs, as America’s mayors have recently insisted.

For me, the criterion for success in social movements is whether the participants feel they are 1) gaining mastery of ideas, approaches, strategies and tactics; 2) having a tangible impact on the powers-that-be and public opinion; 3) making measurable gains towards their goals, based on a growing organizational capacity; 4) making everyday life better or more bearable and 5) developing a sustaining movement culture and heritage. Part of the first criteria, I should clarify, is learning the arts of conflict resolution, which some call political jujutsu, including the ability to understand what an adversary needs to exit an untenable situation. I learned much in the “school” of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Finally, it is important that activists not acquire the habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Already the voices of negativity and alienation are out there, infecting the discourse with unwarranted cynicism and undermining any sense of achievement. Some said the speech was a “disappointment” and “heartbreaking” before it was delivered, mistakenly claiming that Obama was only withdrawing five or ten thousand troops; but 33,000…That would be another broken promise, one that would never happen. One blogger called the speech “outrageous,” while another opined that Obama would draw down troops only to escalate the wars with drones, which I believe she called the worst weapons in the history of the world.

Peace Groups Must Not Give Up the Fight

Friends and, dare I say, comrades: don’t disparage what your efforts have achieved. Don’t be surprised that gains we achieve are always less than we demand. Don’t forget that we are up against the institutional might of a superpower. Instead, dwell on this simple fact: we the people pushed them back. Then study and discuss where we go from here. If you say removing 33,000 troops is not enough, remember it’s ten times more than the generals wanted. Learn from our experience and set to work pushing 33,000 to 50,000 or more by the end of next year.

This de-escalation, and the further de-escalation down the road, is attributable to peace activism and public opinion. Our economic woes are a prime reason as well. But think about it, if public opinion was otherwise, was warlike, if peace groups were demonized and isolated, clearly American imperialism could soldier on, justifying terrible losses and budgetary costs as a price worth paying for empire. But public opinion has not been superheated with martial desire, though that desire is there. Instead, 85 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Independents and 45 percent of Republicans seem to want a more rapid withdrawal that anyone in established leadership. Despite being marginalized by interest groups and the mainstream media, democracy is coming to the USA. [thank you Leonard Cohen].

Social change is very slow—until it speeds up. Even revolutionaries have to fight step by step, until revolutions come by surprise. Institutions remain impermeable, until falling apart. We could be approaching such a moment, but only if we push, if we organize and prepare, if we light candles instead of cursing the darkness.

No one up there will credit the peace movement for anything, until someday in the future we learn they were scared to death of us. We alone have the power to take heart from our impact, or fall into further despair. And despair never organized anyone. As a historian and former Freedom Rider, I suggest we all learn from the African American experience. Perhaps no people have been so cast out, so abused, so absolutely hopeless, and yet a community of resistance was formed out of sorrow which marched stage by stage towards dignity and equality. Frederick Douglas, for one, condemned Abraham Lincoln as a hopeless sellout, a racist, but slowly the struggle preceded until Lincoln learned from Douglas, and Douglas appreciated Lincoln, while neither believed that black people could be redeemed by politicians. It was the North Star that mattered, and the transformation of suffering into soul power, movement-building, and strategic alliances.

Thank You and Good Job

So I say congratulations to the crazy rainbow of peace networks out there that have fought the last two years to cut funding or force an exit strategy from Afghanistan. The quilt works. There is no single thread. The fiery women of Code Pink have been relentless on every front. Progressive Democrats of America have fostered networks on the left of the Democratic Party and linked the war to health care. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch, while not opposing the wars directly, have fought brilliantly against secret prisons, torture and detention. United for Peace and Justice led the mass mobilizations against Iraq and continue to battle on grass roots levels. Peace Action, Win Without War, the AFSC, and recently the Afghanistan Study Group and New America Foundation have battled inside the Beltway. Thanks to the Center for American Progress for finally coming around, and John Kerry too. Praise to Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, Dennis Kucinich and the stalwart Russ Feingold. Pacifica, Amy Goodman and The Nation editors always made sure that information remains free and circulating. Wikileaks has blown away the walls of secrecy. Brave New Films has forced a rethink of Afghanistan with countless videos. Sojourners, the Tikkun community, the pastors and congregation at All Saints survived the intimidation and stood tall. The military families and Veterans for Peace lent moral credibility and urgency.  Even the most sectarian and difficult groups have to be credited with putting people in the streets year after year. And my favorites are the small groups who have demonstrated on their neighborhood street corners every Friday for a decade, whatever the weather, knowing the sun also rises and night is never permanent.

If I have forgotten anybody, forgive me, and please send in the omission so I can add you to the list. As Bobby Sands once said, everyone has a role to play. Peace. Φ

Tom Hayden is the publisher of the online Peace Exchange Bulletin, a former California State Senator, one of the original founders of Students for a Democratic Society and a member of the Chicago Eight.

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