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2009-09-15

As Obama Escalates War in Afghanistan, US Peace Activists Call for Near-Term Withdrawal of Foreign Troops

Topics

Guests

Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and the co-founder of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Earlier this month, he returned from a five-day trip to Afghanistan.

Medea Benjamin, longtime peace activist and founder of CODEPINK. This week the group is delivering a petition to Congress calling for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The petition is called "Take Action Against the War."

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The coming weeks hold critical significance for the US occupation of Afghanistan. The Senate is expected to vote on the Obama administration’s $128 billion request to fund war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the coming fiscal year. Next week, the Obama administration will unveil a report on whether US benchmarks for success in Afghanistan are being achieved. It’s widely believed President Obama will receive a military request to escalate the Afghan war with thousands of additional troops. The apparent congressional unease over a troop escalation comes near Friday’s eight-year anniversary of the vote authorizing the attack on Afghanistan. We speak to Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy on his recent trip to Afghanistan and CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to this very significant eighth anniversary. Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the coming weeks hold critical significance for the US occupation of Afghanistan. The Senate is expected to vote on the Obama administration’s $128 billion request to fund war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the coming fiscal year. Next week the Obama administration will unveil a report on whether US benchmarks for success in Afghanistan are being achieved. It’s widely believed President Obama will receive a military request to escalate the Afghan war with thousands of additional troops.

Top Democratic lawmakers have recently voiced new skepticism about a potential troop increase in Afghanistan. Last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin said he would oppose a troop increase until the US improves the training of Afghan forces. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested she would oppose sending more US troops to Afghanistan.

    HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: September 24th is fraught with meaning for us. This is the date, according to the supplemental, that the metrics as to what’s going in Afghanistan are to be reported to Congress. I’m more interested in that report. I hope that we will be briefed on the McChrystal [assessment] when the President receives it. Perhaps next week we will see that. I don’t think there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan, in the country or in the Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: The apparent congressional unease over a troop escalation comes near Friday’s eight-year anniversary of the vote authorizing the attack on Afghanistan. To mark the date, a group of peace activists have launched a new petition calling for a near-term withdrawal of US and NATO troops. The petition is called "Take Action to End the War in Afghanistan."

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK, one of the groups sponsoring the petition, joining us now by Democracy Now! video stream.

We’re also joined by Norman Solomon. He recently returned from Afghanistan, where he took part in a delegation with his group, the Institute for Public Accuracy. Norman Solomon joins us from Washington, DC.

Norman, let’s begin with you. What did you find in Afghanistan?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I found in Kabul, the capital of the country, a deteriorating situation, in any human terms, and a reality that’s much worse on the ground than what we get through the news media or even from Capitol Hill among people who are now portrayed as dissenters.

We just heard Nancy Pelosi talking about metrics, which is a new sort of buzzword in politics in Washington dealing with Afghanistan. I’ve got a few metrics for the Speaker of the House and the people of this country. When you have only ten percent of the money from the US government that is for non-military activities flowing into Afghanistan, you have upwards of $150 million a day going there, while the US is widely and increasingly resented for killing civilians, often from the air. You have, as I met at a refugee camp, 700 families in Kabul displaced, and that’s just one of the refugee camps, displaced from US bombing efforts in southern Helmand, including a seven-year-old girl who now has one arm courtesy of US taxpayers. So we have a lot of metrics.

And here’s one more. The latest CIA fact book tells us that out of a thousand live births in Afghanistan, there are 154 deaths among infants below age one. That’s a death rate among infants of more than 15 percent in Afghanistan. That’s the metric that we should be taking on. This administration and the US government is waving the white flag against the biggest enemy in Afghanistan, which is poverty.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you raise this issue of poverty. Talk about how you went to Afghanistan. And also, you write about how senators and Congress people go to Afghanistan, and staffers go, but they’re escorted there by the military. Explain that difference.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes. Well, our delegation, which is sponsored by the organization where I work, the Institute for Public Accuracy, went to Afghanistan with great difficulty, and we chronicled that on our website, accuracy.org. We encourage and request public support, because we were swimming upstream the entire way.

We had lined up a member of Congress who agreed to go, congressional staffers, who have a key role in formulating policy from Capitol Hill on Afghanistan. The State Department intervened and essentially discouraged and, in effect, blocked that participation from Capitol Hill, because our trip was independent. It was an effort, a civic delegation, to move outside the usual bubble, where virtually all US employees, including from Capitol Hill, go, and they find out the official line when they go to Afghanistan and come back.

We had an opportunity to meet with a wide range of people as a small Institute for Public Accuracy delegation. We met Afghan officials. We met Afghan and other NGO organizations. We met refugees. We met with UN agencies. We met with feminists, including Malalai Joya, who was subjected to five assassination attempts, because while in the Afghan parliament she denounced the warlords, many of them still supported by the US government.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Norman Solomon, the issue of who the US is allying itself with in Afghanistan? We have Hamid Karzai, who has been accused of widespread fraud in this recent election, the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, as well. Can you talk about who the US is allying itself with and what you see as the ultimate mission in Afghanistan of the Obama administration?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I met with and talked to scores of Afghan citizens in Kabul, and with the exception of Hekmat Karzai, who happens to the President’s cousin, virtually all of them expressed, particularly in private, a belief that the Karzai government has lost whatever legitimacy it may have had. It was known for a long time widely corrupt, known for a long time inept, now illegitimate, as well.

And it’s just laughable to hear the US talk about this war as, among other things, being a war against opium and heroin and so forth, when it’s widely known that Wali Karzai, the brother, one of the brothers of the President of Afghanistan, is a huge drug trafficker in his role as head of the provincial council in Kandahar.

We found, really, I think, a sense of despair, frankly. Kabul in recent months has become more violent. You can see the AK-47s and machine guns on the street — in the case of AK-47s, virtually block by block. And people are trying now to see how to get out of this mess.

Abdullah Abdullah, who gets some good US coverage from the media, as well as support from Washington, is a warlord himself. He was one of the major warlord combatants in the very horrific four-year period between 1992 and 1996, when in Kabul 65,000 residents lost their lives. And so, you’ve got the President of Afghanistan lined up with warlords with blood on their hands. Same goes for Abdullah Abdullah. And meanwhile, the people of Afghanistan are suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman, you — Ken Silverstein, in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, has a very interesting breakdown of the amount of money that is going to Afghanistan, that actually the vast majority of it stays right here in the United States, a kind of corporate welfare.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. Well, we saw that on the ground, and it’s worse than the figures that I had seen before getting to Afghanistan. You know, the President pushed through a supplemental appropriation this spring, 90 percent military, ten percent non-military. But the ten percent overstates it. A lot of the money is cycling back to US-based contractors and so forth.

There’s also an emerging, bubbling scandal that hasn’t really hit the US yet. USAID, which is dispensing taxpayer money supposedly in a humanitarian way, widely understood to be corrupt, dispensing money in ways that is not helping people. I mean, when I go to — and anybody could do that who wanted to go — and meet refugees in Kabul, who were first bombed, courtesy of US taxpayers, and now they’re left to fend for themselves and await help, voluntary assistance from Afghan businessmen, that tells you about the priorities. I mean, the real myth is that this war is about helping people in Afghanistan. I see no appreciable evidence of that.

One more example, at a policy realm, which has gotten virtually no media attention in this country — I met with Mohammed Zia, who is reputedly perhaps the only major minister of the Afghan government who is not corrupt. He’s the head of Rural Development and Rehabilitation for the Karzai government. And he told me that what in the Global South is known as the neoliberal model is being imposed with a vengeance on Afghanistan. This is an agricultural society where farmers need to be able to sell their wares, their fruits, their vegetables. And the US government, along with its allies, is insisting that protective tariffs not be imposed by the Afghan government to protect and sustain its own capacity to grow food.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Norman Solomon, you’re the co-founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. You’ve been a longtime analyst of the US media, the corporate media in this country. And I wanted to ask you about a quote that Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist — he had a column just a few days ago in the paper. This is some of what he wrote. He said, “Iraqis and Afghans have one big thing in common: They are like battered children. And battered children often grow up to be battering adults. That is, to survive under Saddam in Iraq or to survive the Russian occupation and the Taliban years in Kabul was to survive terrifying levels of brutality. And it made many people brutal and corrupt to get by.” That’s Thomas Friedman. Can you respond to that and also this issue of media coverage overall?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. Well, Thomas Friedman and the column on Sunday — last Sunday is a good example — gives paternalism a bad name. Here is somebody who has been advocating for US military intervention and occupation, who, every six months, would say, for years on end in his column, that the US had six months to “get it right,” quote-unquote, in Iraq. And then he would just simply rewind the tape. And this went on for years at a time. Now he’s cheerleading for a escalation of the US war in Afghanistan.

The reality is that it’s easy enough to do, if you buy into all the assumptions that have helped to escalate this war for years. I would say that the news media, in general, are way out of step with the public of the United States. There’s a CNN poll released just hours ago showing a twenty-point gap between approval and disapproval of this war in Afghanistan, with close to 60 percent of the American public now opposed to this war. And that’s a real opportunity for progressive people who want peace and justice rather than escalation and militarism to deepen the opposition, so that it opposes, by any name, the so-called war on terror and raises fundamental questions about US foreign policy and priorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Norman Solomon, you were an Obama delegate. Are you disappointed now?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, you know, I haven’t met a progressive yet who would just as soon have John McCain as president. That said, we always choose from the choices that we’re facing at a particular time. And while, as I said a year ago, the best way not to become disillusioned is to not have illusions in the first place, my somewhat low expectations from President Obama have not been met. This guy has rushed into the arms of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

And I would say that, whether it’s Obama or even the voices such as now being heard from Capitol Hill from some Democrats, like Nancy Pelosi, we depend on them for a sane foreign policy at our peril and the peril of people in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We’re going to have to do it from the grassroots. That’s always been the case. The warfare state perpetuates itself. We need to pursue a different vision. And we will be able to do that effectively, if we stick to the grassroots work and do the organizing effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, speaking of organizing, you’re a longtime peace activist, co-founder of CODEPINK, speaking to us from the CODEPINK house in Washington via Democracy Now! video stream. Talk about the petition that you’re delivering to Congress.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, this is to mark the anniversary of that vote in Congress that authorized the use of force in Afghanistan, and it’s a petition that’s being spread by many groups throughout the United States, the antiwar community, members of the religious community, and it’s appeal to the White House, to Congress, to set a timetable for the withdrawal of troops. We feel, as Norman does, that this is the time for action. President Obama is on the wrong path. He’s already authorized 21,000 troops. He may be about to call for another 20,000 troops.

If your listeners, Amy, out there don’t want to see decades more of US presence in Afghanistan, this is the time to stop it in its tracks. This is the time to join us, signing the petition. You can see it online at codepinkalert.org. And the media week we are launching this week to tell people to contact their letters — write letters to the editor, to call into the radio shows, to join us when we deliver our petitions to Congress on Thursday, to be visible this week, and to lead up to a month of actions in October, when we mark the anniversary of the invasion itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Let us ask you the same question. You’ve actually taken up residence in Washington, DC, from the Bay Area, from San Francisco. During the Obama administration, the kind of activism you see that’s needed right now?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I say come to Washington, whoever can. We just heard a little clip of Nancy Pelosi talking about September 24th being a very important date, when McChrystal will brief Congress. We should be there flooding the halls of Congress. It’s a little lonely here, Amy. The antiwar movement is way too quiet. We should be flooding the halls of Congress every day now. This month and the next month are absolutely critical months. We have to be seen. We have to be heard. So I would say that the most important thing is to reactivate the networks that were so active during the Bush years to force Obama to do the right thing, which is to set an exit strategy and bring our troops home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Medea Benjamin, we want to thank you very much for being with us, founder of CODEPINK, the group delivering a petition to Congress calling for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The petition is called "Take Action Against the War."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable with attorney David Cole. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. That video, produced by CODEPINK, featuring the words of Democratic Congress member Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker in either chamber of Congress to vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force in the so-called war on terror. This Friday marks the eight years since that vote was taken.

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