Afghanistan War

UN: Time for Direct Talks with Afghan Taliban Leaders

The top United Nations official for Afghanistan has called for direct talks with senior Taliban leaders. Is anyone in Washington listening?

The New York Times reported Sunday that Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, "called on Afghan officials to seek the removal of at least some senior Taliban leaders from the United Nations' list of terrorists, as a first step toward opening direct negotiations with the insurgent group."

Eide also called on the U.S. to speed its review of the roughly 750 detainees in its military prisons in Afghanistan - another principal grievance of Taliban leaders.

Eide said he hoped that the two steps would open the way for face-to-face talks between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders.

"If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," Mr. Eide said. "I think the time has come to do it."

It's an unquestioned dogma in official Washington that while of course every informed person knows that the endgame in Afghanistan is a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, the time is not ripe for negotiations; the Afghan Taliban have to be weakened first through military escalation, because their leaders are not ready to talk peace.

It's never explained how U.S. officals know that Afghan Taliban leaders are not ready to talk peace, unless the definition of "talking peace" is "acceding to U.S. demands." A reasonable inference is that these statements by U.S. officials are a dodge: U.S. officials are not ready to talk peace.

Can Cheryle Jackson End the War in Afghanistan?

Add Illinois to Pennsylvania as states where there is a contested Senate primary in which the war in Afghanistan has become an issue. The Chicago Tribune reports that the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama's former seat in the Senate have staked out diametrically opposed positions.

A Tribune poll last month reported that Alexi Giannoulias and Cheryle Jackson were the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination.

On Afghanistan, the Tribune reports that Cheryle Jackson wants to end the war, while Giannoulias supports it:

"It is time to take care of America again and time to bring our troops home," said Democratic Senate contender Cheryle Jackson, a former president of the Chicago Urban League. "Until we stop spending hundreds of billions on wars, we will not have the focus or money to solve the challenges we face at home."

[...]

But first-term state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat, said he fully supported Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and indicated that those who oppose it are engaging in wishful thinking.

Indeed, Cheryle Jackson's first TV ad takes direct aim at the wars - "It's time to leave Afghanistan and Iraq":

Can Arlen Specter End the War in Afghanistan?

Who knew Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter would emerge as one of the most vocal opponents in the Senate of the President's military escalation in Afghanistan?

But so it is. In an op-ed this week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Specter not only challenges the "surge"; he also challenges fundamental premises of the war. Specter writes:

I'm opposed to sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan because I don't believe they are indispensable in our fight against al Qaeda.
[...]
But if al Qaeda can organize and operate out of Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, then why fight in Afghanistan, which has made a history of resisting would-be conquerors - from Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, to Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s?

What can one Senator do? Well, one Senator can introduce legislation, for starters. At this writing, there isn't a single piece of legislation before the Senate that expresses opposition to continuing the war indefinitely. This is in marked contrast to the House, where Representative McGovern's bill requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy from Afghanistan has more than 100 co-sponsors. That's like having 23 Senators.

But Arlen Specter is in a unique position to do much more than introduce legislation. He could turn his Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary into a referendum on the Afghanistan war, because his primary opponent, Joe Sestak, supports the war and supports the escalation:

Obama Invokes "Just War," But Is the War in Afghanistan "Just"?

"Accepting Peace Prize, Obama Evokes 'Just War,'" notes the headline in the New York Times, referring to President Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. President Obama did indeed invoke the concept of a "just war." But tellingly, he did not try to argue that the U.S. war in Afghanistan meets the criteria to be judged as a "just war."

A plausible explanation for the President's failure to argue that the war in Afghanistan is a "just war" is that he recognizes that such an argument would not be convincing.

As President Obama noted in his speech, there are criteria involved in the "just war" concept. It isn't just a matter of proclaiming that a war is justified. There are tests.

This matters, because a substantial part of the U.S. and world population subscribes to the theory of "just war." In particular, more than a fifth of the U.S. population are estimated to identify as Catholics. The concept of "just war" - that wars can be considered "just" only if they meet certain criteria - is an official doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Here's part of what the official Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about this:

Avoiding war

2307 The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

Illinois Grad Employees Strike for Education Security

While former Illinois Senator Barack Obama mulls flushing another $40 billion a year in our tax dollars down the toilet in Afghanistan - that's the estimated annual cost of sending 40,000 more troops for the next several years - graduate employees at the University of Illinois, a "land grant" public institution, are going on strike at 8 AM this morning Chicago time to protect their ability to complete their education, against threats from the University administration to withdraw tuition waivers from graduate employees.

For many teaching assistants and graduate assistants, the withdrawal of a tuition waiver would be an educational death sentence, a de facto financial expulsion from the University. But even though access to a tuition waiver is a basic condition of employment, since without also being students graduate employees would lose their jobs, the University of Illinois administration refuses to bargain the issue with the members of the Graduate Employees Organization, a local of the American Federation of Teachers, even though under Illinois labor law the GEO is the recognized bargaining agent for graduate employees.

The University administration claims that in a time of financial constraint, it needs "flexibility" to undermine a basic condition of graduate employment. It's true, of course, that the University is financially constrained, given the decline in government support for public higher education. But how the University responds to that environment is a choice. Trying to balance your budget by taking essentials away from the weakest people in the food chain is a choice - a choice often made, but still a choice.

A Hundred Cities Against Escalation As the President Announces It

Recent press speculation suggests at least even odds that sometime in November, President Obama will give a speech announcing that he intends to send tens of thousands of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2010. Not a temporary "surge," but a permanent escalation. While certainly it's good news - at least temporarily - that AP is reporting that President Obama "won't accept any of the Afghanistan war options before him without changes," and that the Washington Post is reporting that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry is lobbying strongly against sending more troops, note that AP goes on to say:

Obama is still expected to send in more troops to bolster a deteriorating war effort.

He remains close to announcing his revamped war strategy - troops are just one component - and probably will do so shortly after he returns from a trip to Asia that ends Nov. 19.

"Lessons in Disaster": If Obama Caves to the Pentagon, He's No Jack Kennedy

President Obama knows better than to agree to General McChrystal's proposal for military escalation in Afghanistan. He read the book.

On October 7, the Wall Street Journal reported that top officials of the Obama Administration, including President Obama himself, had recently read Gordon Goldstein's book on the path to U.S. military escalation in Vietnam: Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

The Journal reported that "For opponents of a major troop increase, led by Biden and Emanuel, "'Lessons in Disaster' ... encapsulates their concerns about accepting military advice unchallenged."

Indeed, a central theme of the book is President Kennedy's willingness, on the question of ground troops in Vietnam, to do what President Obama has not yet done regarding demands for military escalation in Afghanistan: stand up to the U.S. military and say no.

Journalist Seymour Hersh, a close student of the U.S. military since he broke the story of the My Lai massacre, says the U.S. army is "in a war against the White House - and they feel they have Obama boxed in." Hersh says the only way out is for Obama to stand up to the Pentagon. "He's either going to let the Pentagon run him or he has to run the Pentagon," Hersh said. If he doesn't, "this stuff is going to be the ruin of his presidency." The only way for the U.S. to extricate itself from the conflict, Hersh says, is to negotiate with the Taliban. "It's the only way out," he said. "I know that there's a lot of discussion in the White House about this now. But Obama is going to have to take charge, and there's no evidence he's going to do that."

NoEscalation.org: Can the Peace Movement Reach President Obama?

If there were ever a time when the peace movement should be able to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy, that time should be now. If there were ever a time for extraordinary effort to achieve such an impact, that time is now.

The war in Afghanistan is in its ninth year. McChrystal's proposal could continue it for another ten years, at a likely cost of a trillion dollars, and many more lives of U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians. The contradiction between domestic needs and endless war was never more apparent. Congress fights over whether we can "afford" to provide every American with quality health care, but every health care reform proposal on the table will likely cost less than McChrystal's endless war. A recent CNN poll says 6 in 10 Americans oppose sending more troops.

Democratic leaders in Congress are deeply skeptical: as far back as June, Rep. Murtha and Rep. Obey voted for Rep. McGovern's amendment demanding an exit strategy, and that was before the Afghan election fiasco, when international forces failed at their key objective of providing security, and before McChrystal demanded a 60% increase in U.S. forces, on top of the 50% increase approved earlier this year. Our troops are "exhausted," Murtha says.

Top Administration officials share the skepticism. Vice-President Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, and Afghan scholar Barnett Rubin, an advisor to Ambassador Holbrooke, have all been arguing against a troop increase: the political people on the grounds that the American people and Congress won't support it; Biden on the grounds that it would be a diversion from Pakistan; Rubin on the grounds that it would be counterproductive to reconciliation in Afghanistan.

McChrystal's "Ground Truth": Need Half a Million Boots on the Ground

Journalist Andrea Mitchell has noted that General McChrystal's report to President Obama calls for 500,000 troops in Afghanistan. [That's not 500,000 U.S. troops, but 500,000 troops overall.] Mitchell correctly notes that if you don't believe that the goals in McChrystal's report for increasing the size of the Afghan army are realistic, that should lead you to question agreeing to send more U.S. troops, because the premise of the request for more troops is that if you add more U.S. troops there's going to be "success," and that success, apparently, requires 500,000 boots on the ground. If you don't believe there's going to be success even if you add more U.S. troops, then you shouldn't add more U.S. troops - you should do something else.

McChrystal has suggested that without more U.S. troops we will "fail" - but the same logic says that without more Afghan troops we will also "fail." If adding the additional U.S. troops will not lead to the required addition of Afghan troops, then U.S. policy will "fail," even with the additional U.S. troops.

Some have dismissed the concern occasioned by Mitchell's comments by saying of course there aren't going to be half a million U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It's certainly true that there aren't going to be half a million U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But supporters of sending more troops have to answer this: to defend sending another 40,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, they have to defend their scenario that there's going to be 350,000 Afghan boots on the ground. Otherwise - according to General McChrystal - their plan is not going to work. Furthermore, they should say now what they will propose then if adding 40,000 more U.S. troops does not produce 350,000 Afghan troops. Do they promise not to ask for more U.S. troops? Would anyone believe such a promise?

On Afghan Election, Panetta is Simply Stating the Obvious

Live long enough, and you get to have diverse experiences. Today I get to defend the head of the CIA for telling the truth.

CIA director Leon Panetta is catching some flak on the Intertubes for telling Voice of America that

even if suspect ballots are discounted, President Hamid Karzai will in all likelihood win re-election.

But if you look at the numbers for 15 seconds, it's clear that Panetta is simply stating the obvious.

Panetta's full quote was:

"It's clear that there was some degree of corruption and fraud involved in the election," Panetta said. "It's being viewed now by the commissions involved in counting those votes. I think what appears to be the case is that even after they eliminate some of the votes that resulted because of fraud, that Karzai will still - still looks like the individual who's going to be able to win that election."

Here are the numbers, according to the New York Times on September 16:

Current tally:

Karzai 3,093,256 54.6%
Abdullah 1,571,581 27.8%
Valid votes 5,662,758

Ballots being reviewed:

Karzai 1,100,000
Abdullah 300,000

So, if every ballot being reviewed were thrown out, the result would be:

With all reviewed ballots excluded:
Karzai 1,993,256 46.8%
Abdullah 1,271,581 29.8%
Valid 4,262,758

But if half of the reviewed ballots were thrown out (assuming that half of reviewed Karzai ballots and half of reviewed Abdullah ballots are thrown out - that is, throwing out more than 3 times as many Karzai ballots as Abdullah ballots), the result would be

With half of reviewed ballots excluded:
Karzai 2,543,256 51.2%
Abdullah 1,421,581 28.6%
Valid 4,962,758