Rare good news for anti-war advocates - Afghanistan is finally climbing up the ladder in US voters' minds. The Obama administration has exploited public apathy by continuing the war as it sees fit, and now offers a chance to take that misguided power back. Recent polls have found the war at the bottom of voter priorities, as low as 3%.
So things are looking up when the latest Reuters poll discovered a whopping 8% of respondents deem the sinking war as America’s top concern.
Of the vast fallout spawned by the US recession, a blackout in US foreign policy deserves a spot at the top. People generally care less about others when fending for themselves - and without the imminent danger or nationalism that often induces sacrifice. Opponents of George Bush had plentiful time and funds during the mid-2000's to protest the ever-expanding “War on Terror." As economic prosperity manifests in discretionary spending, so too does economic security allow for deeper engagement with foreign issues.
Consequently, the 2007 recession has triggered a dark age in foreign policy. Without job security, facing a shrunken employment pool and losing their homes, Americans have no choice other than to put themselves first. The economy and health care have assumed dominance in voters’ agendas; the economy, usually approaching 50% as a “top priority,” boosts to over 70% when combined with health care. Understandable as this reaction is, the disproportionate concern between America’s domestic and foreign agendas is wrecking havoc on US foreign policy, which should operate under a vigilant public watch rather than the preferable secrecy of Washington.
Although the Afghan war isn’t equivalent to America’s economy, foreign policy in general doesn't belong at the bottom of the pile either. How America interacts with the world influences the homeland, for better or worse. The resulting unsustainable policy: one crisis hiding a pile of others.
With less than 10 months until July 2011, President Barack Obama has preempted his Afghan war review in December by declaring “no major changes” will be issued. There’s reason to believe Obama will keep his promise to begin withdrawing US troops where authority has been transferred to Afghan forces. Having never given a figure, their number could be as little as 1,000. Pentagon officials including General David Petraeus, commander of all forces in Afghanistan, began softening the deadline in May, before being installed as chief commander. Anti-war opponents must realize what’s coming.
The Obama administration is fully conscious that voters remain tuned out of Afghanistan, recounts Bob Woodward in his new book Obama’s Wars, and a symbolic withdrawal is likelier than a rapid one.
Meanwhile slight signs of progress accompany one delay after another. Afghanistan’s parliamentary election could cause more harm than good in the end. President Hamid Karzai’s modest popularity is dropping and US officials still lack a plan for Wali, his allegedly corrupt brother and chief of Kandahar’s provincial council. Kandahar’s operation has met Marjah's fate - time-lines that defy NATO expectations by months and possibly years. Pakistan remains possessive of its strategic depth and while Afghan forces are reportedly on track, independent sources claim otherwise.
US soldiers and local Afghans both agree that Afghan soldiers grade poorly in the violent south.
Counterinsurgency creates a deadly illusion of progress that often fails to eclipse the unintended damage, and US officials have squeezed every positive to conceal the dark side of COIN. Even those unconcerned with Afghanistan have become aware thanks to drones, night-raiding Special Forces, and CIA-trained Afghan paramilitaries supposedly recruited to infiltrate Pakistan’s border. These attacks may kill scores of al-Qaeda and Taliban “commanders,” but they aren’t winning hearts and minds crucial to counterinsurgency.
According to a July 2010 poll by the New American Foundation, over 75% of respondents in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) rejected al-Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan. Over 65% oppose the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and 60% even disapprove of Mullah Omar, chief of the Afghan Taliban. Almost 90% also oppose the US military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban into Pakistan.
Nearly 80% believe the “War on Terror’s” real objective is to divide and conquer the Islamic world.
Somewhat amazingly, though surely tied to al-Qaeda and the TTP’s mistreatment, is the fact that nearly 75% of respondents said their perception of America would improve with “the right policies”: visas and education. Their feedback indicates that Obama has yet to apply the most appropriate strategy in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and the study notes its own surprise when concluding: “For many FATA residents, opposition to the U.S. is based on current American military policy, not any intractably held anti-American beliefs.”
Afghanistan’s precarious situation offers a false shield around Obama’s argument. “Major changes” are hard to find; the Pentagon absolutely opposes a quicker withdrawal, while deploying additional troops to create the decisive military force that NATO still lacks will draw unwanted attention. Negotiations with the Taliban were alluded to from the beginning, however Washington’s sincerity has yet to prove itself. A dramatic increase in non-military funding could offer salvation - if only it didn’t run straight into Pakistan’s bureaucracy.
Obama is stuck in stalemate because of his unwillingness to deploy the necessary resources, a decision based on his accurate prediction that the US public wouldn’t support deeper engagement during a recession. Yet without an anti-war movement he’s showing little urgency or willingness to address the conflict.
But a bubble of inattention has enveloped more than Afghanistan, often the only foreign policy option listed. While still receiving some attention, Iraq has dropped from other polls altogether. Unfortunately its insurgency is far from over, as Iraqi security forces battle a resurgent al-Qaeda and marginalized Sunni and Shia militiamen inside a political vacuum. US and Iraqi officials argue over the readiness of Iraqi forces. However, unflinching US support for Nouri al-Maliki’s second term as prime minister indicates that Washington plans to re-negotiate its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), allowing part of the remaining 50,000 US troops to stay beyond the 2011 deadline.
Obama marked the withdrawal of all “US combat troops” in late August with a couched victory speech - and spent the majority of his time on the economy rather than explaining Iraq’s present and future conditions.
Oddly, Iran doesn’t turn up on many polls either despite its potential as America’s next “big war.” Perhaps the country is included in “non-proliferation,” which generally polls higher than Afghanistan. Or maybe the majority of pro-Israeli Americans approve of strikes on Iran’s nuclear program, although this makes little sense if concerned about runaway military spending. Conversely, the Palestinians’ struggle for independence barely registers on most Americans’ minds even though resolution to the conflict could pay dividends in Afghanistan.
Why care about Palestine - or Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination for that matter - if Afghanistan isn’t a priority?
As for Somalia and Yemen, the next proxy wars in America’s war against al-Qaeda, try bringing up these topics and meet blank stares or a “who cares” attitude that frequently accompany reports on the conflicts. Or worse, something in the neighborhood of “kill Muslims.” The roots of America’s lethargy can be traced to these conflicts, in an idea expounded by the left and right alike: “Why nation-build overseas, especially in nations hostile towards America, when nation-building is required at home?”
It’s almost a flawless argument.
Opposition to large-scale warfare has combined with inattention from the economic crisis to accelerate Obama’s limited and proxy wars, run through a growing network of US Special Forces. Despite its civilian camouflage from the State Department and “dual track” diplomacy with needy foreign states (and their low accountability), military expenditures still dominate non-military spending in US counterinsurgencies. $1.21 trillion has been allocated to the “War on Terror” since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the Pentagon received $1.1 trillion of it. With a total of $160 billion allocated to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, $105 billion to Kabul, the State Department and USAID will walk away with $8.2 billion. 2011's request stands at $159 billion to DOD and 8.7 billion to State.
US counterinsurgency has yet to actually evolve from an advanced state of counter-terrorism. Thus the insurgencies America finds itself at war with will continue to evolve their own struggles, gradually enlarging these wars’ funding while chancing the risk of external attacks that could trigger large-scale conflicts.
If the economic crisis persists, which it has beyond expectations, Americans will find a smoldering inferno rather than blue skies when they finally emerge from their tunnel. Washington’s array of fourth-generation wars cannot be treated as distant conflicts to be ended or continued in a vacuum. Lack of political pressure has allowed the White House to expand US policy in Afghanistan despite numerous disadvantages and a 60% disapproval rating. It's concealing what may be an extended stay in Iraq, inching towards war with Iran, launching open-ended proxy wars in failed states, squabbling over Sudan’s civil war, and through it all trampling on anti-war opponents in relative silence.
Washington has no intention of restoring light to US foreign policy, but it’s hard to blame Obama and the “old white people” behind him so long as Americans remain tuned out. It’s up to us to flip the lights back on.