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2010-06-24

3 US Soldiers Speak Out on McChrystal’s Firing, Petraeus as Replacement, and the Unending War in Afghanistan

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Guests

Victor Agosto, soldier who refused to deploy to Afghanistan after serving in Iraq. In August 2009 he was demoted and sentenced to one month in jail. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Camilo Mejia, first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war and was imprisoned for refusing to go back for almost a year. He is the former chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Brock McIntosh, soldier who served in Afghanistan from November 2008 to August 2009. He is still serving in the military and is filing for conscientious objector status.

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President Obama says the Afghan war will continue as planned despite his firing of General Stanley McChrystal over disparaging comments made by McChrystal and his aides about top US officials. Obama has named General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command and architect of the surge in Iraq, as a successor. The firing of McChrystal comes at a perilous moment in the Afghan war, with June now the deadliest month for the NATO force since the 2001 invasion. We speak to three soldiers: Brock McIntosh, an Afghan war vet who has filed for conscientious objector status; Victor Agosto, who was jailed after refusing to deploy to Afghanistan after serving in Iraq; and Camilo Mejia, the first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show on Afghanistan. President Obama says the Afghan war will continue as planned despite his firing of General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal was fired Wednesday after being summoned by Obama to explain remarks he and his aides made in a Rolling Stone article that disparaged the US president and other senior civilian leaders.

On Wednesday, Obama named General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, to replace McChrystal. Petraeus oversaw the so-called surge in Iraq. Like McChrystal, Petraeus is a strong advocate for counterinsurgency warfare.

The firing of McChrystal comes at a perilous moment in the Afghan war. Earlier this month, General Petraeus admitted stabilizing Afghanistan would, quote, "be harder than Iraq due to the lack of human capital, damage after thirty years of war, illiteracy, lack of infrastructure and so on," he said. Seventy-nine NATO troops have died in Afghanistan so far this month, making it the deadliest month on record for international troops. We don’t have the exact figures for Afghan casualties. More US and NATO troops have died this month than in all of 2002, 2003 or 2004.

The Afghan war recently entered its 104th month, making it the longest war in US history, surpassing the Vietnam War. US relations with the Afghan government are also tenuous. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reportedly lost faith in the US and NATO to prevail and has begun secret negotiations with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the US military is preparing for what could be another public relations disaster. The watchdog website Wikileaks has said it plans to soon release a classified video showing US troops killing scores of civilians in the Afghan village of Garani thirteen months ago.

To talk more about the US war effort, we’re joined by three soldiers. They’re here in Detroit attending the US Social Forum. Brock McIntosh is an active-duty soldier who served in Afghanistan from November 2008 to August 2009. He’s filed for conscientious objector status. Victor Agosto refused to deploy to Afghanistan after serving in Iraq. In August 2009 he was demoted and sentenced to a month in jail. He’s a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. And Camilo Mejia also joins us. He’s the first GI who served in Iraq to have publicly resisted the war and was imprisoned for refusing to return for almost a year. He is the former chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Brock, I’d like to begin with you. When did you return from Afghanistan?

BROCK McINTOSH: August 2009.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the firing of General McChrystal and the naming of Petraeus to replace him.

BROCK McINTOSH: Well, I was sort of shocked that he fired General McChrystal, because this counterinsurgency plan is sort of his — it’s his proposal. And I feel like Obama was digging himself in a hole when he began this counterinsurgency plan, because it requires years and years and lots and lots of money. It requires casualties on both sides, in Afghanistan and also American lives. And so, he was setting himself up for either a protracted war or having to cut the war short and sort of flee Afghanistan in the same way that we fled Vietnam. So I was shocked that he fired General McChrystal. And I feel like General Petraeus, having General Petraeus there, it’s not really going to change our strategy very much. And, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a big proponent of counterinsurgency when you went to Afghanistan. Why?

BROCK McINTOSH: Because with counterinsurgency, you measure success not by how many enemies you kill, but by how many civilians you protect. And so, to me, it was sort of like Batman warfare, where you’re protecting civilians and you’re not worried about killing enemies. And so, it was something that was really attractive to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you change your view?

BROCK McINTOSH: Well, counterinsurgency has a lot of contradictions and paradoxes in it. And in the counterinsurgency manual itself, it lists twelve paradoxes, and even that list isn’t exhaustive enough. But when I talk about counterinsurgency with my fellow soldiers, they talk about not being willing to put their own lives on the line in order to save civilians. It’s not something that the regular soldier, I think, is willing to do. And there are several other paradoxes with counterinsurgency. But also what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to legitimize and support a government in Afghanistan that I believe is irreversibly corrupt, whose foundations is based on drug lords and warlords.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’ve returned from Afghanistan, and you’re filing for conscientious objector status, though you’re active-duty now?

BROCK McINTOSH: Yeah, I’m in the National Guard, but I’m still on active orders. I drill one weekend a month. And I’m currently in the process of filling out the application. But the first question is a pretty hefty question, because I’m supposed to describe the nature of my beliefs, which is taking a pretty long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to ask you further about that, but, Victor Agosto, you served in Iraq. You refused to deploy to Afghanistan. What are your feelings about the war today, as General McChrystal has been fired and Petraeus has been named to replace him?

VICTOR AGOSTO: Well, I think General Petraeus will be less critical of the Obama administration’s plan than General McChrystal was. And I think this shows that there are strong divisions within the administration as to how to proceed. But in reality, there is no good way to conduct this occupation. What needs to happen is an immediate withdrawal of all American troops. The United States needs to pay for the damages, and the Afghan people have to be allowed to determine their own fate.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you return — refuse to deploy to Afghanistan?

VICTOR AGOSTO: Because the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with making the American people safer. It’s really about projecting American power in Southwest Asia. And I didn’t want to be part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to ask you about why you originally signed up then, and also we’ll be talking with Camilo Mejia, who is well known as the Iraqi officer — as the US officer who fought in Iraq, returned home, and then refused to go back and was imprisoned for almost a year.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Brock McIntosh — he served in Afghanistan for a year, has returned, continues on active duty, but has applied for conscientious objector status; Victor Agosto, refused to deploy to Afghanistan after serving in Iraq; and Camilo Mejia is a staff sergeant. He’s the first GI imprisoned for refusing to return to Iraq. He was imprisoned for close to a year.

Camilo Mejia, you’re the former chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. But that’s Iraq Veterans Against the War. What is the stance of IVAW on Afghanistan?

CAMILO MEJIA: We passed a resolution by a majority vote, I believe two years ago, in which the organization officially took a stance against the Afghanistan war. And we basically adopted Afghanistan within our organizing goals to — you know, of full and unconditional withdrawal for troops from that country, as well as, you know, from Iraq, and reparations to the people of Afghanistan and full benefits for returning veterans from that war, as well. Actually, we stand for full benefits for all veterans. But the key thing was that we adopted Afghanistan into our strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: The firing of McChrystal, the replacing him with General Petraeus, who was the architect of the surge in Iraq?

CAMILO MEJIA: I agree with both Brock and Victor. Petraeus, I think, was one of the main creators of the counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan. We don’t believe that there is going to be a change in ideology. We don’t believe that there’s going to be a change in strategy. We don’t believe that there’s going to be a change in US commitment to the mission in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is that a problem for you?

CAMILO MEJIA: It’s a problem because I think that what we’re seeing now is not necessarily a problem or a matter of who is in charge in Afghanistan or who is in charge even here, but the fact that this is in an unwinnable situation both for America and for Afghanistan. And this is the main thing that we have to draw from this, that we cannot place our hopes neither in Obama or in any general that is in Afghanistan, until there is a change in attitude, until there is a decision made to bring all the troops home and, you know, put an end to both the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re not hearing very much debate about this. I mean, right now, I would say, in the media in the United States, it’s pretty much — well, reflects what we’re seeing in Congress, the Republicans and the Democrats joining together now, uniting around Petraeus, saying this is going to be the shortest hearing for confirmation in the history of the country. We hear a, you know, really uniform approval of the choice of Petraeus and moving forward with the war in Afghanistan.

CAMILO MEJIA: But that’s not what we’re hearing from the public. I think that the President’s approval rating has dropped to, I think, below 45 percent. Afghanistan, as you mentioned, is now officially the longest US war in history, and we have record casualty numbers in Afghanistan both for American and NATO troops. So I think dissatisfaction among the public and the troops themselves has grown to an unprecedented high level. And I think that people should concentrate more on that side of things than on the side of the government and Congress. I think that people should view the reality in Afghanistan, that we have a very corrupt government, that we have a strategy that’s bound to fail, that there is high dissatisfaction and low morale among the troops, and that this is yet another opportunity for President Obama to do what he was elected to do, which is to listen to the American people and act appropriately and accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: Brock McIntosh, General McChrystal recently admitted US forces are killing innocent Afghans at military checkpoints. He said, quote, "We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." That was General McChrystal. What do you think of the surge in Afghanistan? You were a part of it. You are. You’re still in the military.

BROCK McINTOSH: Yeah, I was —- they were transitioning into counterinsurgency while I was over there. But it’s important to recognize that the surge in Iraq was a lot different from the surge in Afghanistan, because with the surge in Iraq, it was trying to counter an urban insurgency, so it was really more of a surge into Baghdad and the suburbs, whereas in Afghanistan, the insurgencies rule, so you have to have a surge in every little village and hamlet in Afghanistan, which requires hundreds of thousands of troops. Every counterinsurgency expert says it requires hundreds of thousands of troops, which we don’t have. And one of the ways that General McChrystal wanted to make up for this disparity is by quadrupling the Afghan security force from 100,000 to 400,000. And every single one of their salaries are paid by us, and their weapons are supplied by us, and they’re very prone to mutiny. And then they use those weapons against us. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to be active-duty right now, if you — well, would you refuse to return to Afghanistan?

BROCK McINTOSH: It’s hard to say at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: And why do you have questions?

BROCK McINTOSH: I was actually — I was watching the World Cup a couple weekends ago, and I made a joke: why don’t we just settle conflict with sports, with soccer? And my friend was like, "Because then America would lose," because we’re not very good at soccer. And I realized that what we’re really good at is war and that there’s really not much of a difference between the sport of war and the sport of soccer, because in both cases values are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter who’s more righteous, who has the better values. What matters is who has the best skills at this particular sport. And being proficient at the sport of killing is not something that I want to be proficient at, and I don’t believe that being good at killing proves that I have better values.

AMY GOODMAN: Victor Agosto, you served in Iraq. You refused to go to Afghanistan. You were court-martialed. What caused you to change? Why did you sign up for the military?

VICTOR AGOSTO: I just grew tired of sitting in classrooms. I wanted to do something. And the military was a way of seeing the world and getting a job. And that’s — and, of course, patriotism played a role, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re in Iraq. What changed your attitude?

VICTOR AGOSTO: It just didn’t make sense to me why we were there, why — why these contractors were making, you know, all this money. And eventually, I started making the connections between that and just the idea of empire. And I realized that what I was doing there was just that, just being a soldier for empire, basically, not to make America or Afghanistan a better place, I mean. So I read some books. I read some Chomsky. I realized that there’s absolutely no American moral superiority. There’s no — we were no one to impose anything on the people of Iraq or Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get a Noam Chomsky book in Iraq?

VICTOR AGOSTO: I ordered it on Amazon.com.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. Peter Pace was asked on Meet the Press about a former prime minister — I think it was Jaafari — that he said Chomsky was his favorite author, and Pace said, "I hope he has some other books on his bookstand." So, you came back. You said no. Describe the court-martial process, what happened to you.

VICTOR AGOSTO: Well, it was pretty — pretty quick proceeding. Cindy Thomas from Under the Hood Café in Killeen, Texas, spoke to my character. And I also — I pled guilty to refusing an order. That way I would get a summary court-martial and face a maximum penalty of thirty days. But I also said that I felt that eventually the wars would be ruled illegal, because they violate international law, the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your sense of soldiers, soldiers you served with, soldiers going to Afghanistan, whether they support the war or not?

VICTOR AGOSTO: Well, it’s interesting. I heard a presentation by a reporter who was embedded with troops in Afghanistan, and he had been with like a Stryker platoon, and he had conducted a straw poll, which — in which he asked, "Do you think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting?" And out of this group of twenty-four soldiers, none of them felt it was worth fighting. And he also expressed the sentiment, that soldiers were giving him, that they felt that they were fighting for checkpoints and intersections and nothing else.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, the big debate around the Rolling Stone piece, what’s most being talked about is the name calling, as, you know, which official was called by McChrystal or his staff what name, you know, whether we’re talking about a "wounded animal" or a "clown," whether President Obama, McChrystal felt, was uncomfortable or unprepared in a meeting. But that has overshadowed the bigger issue of how the war is going. In the Rolling Stone piece, a senior US adviser to McChrystal said, quote, "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular."

Yesterday at the US Social Forum, I attended a session that you were all at, talking about the war and what soldiers should do and what people who are — if they’re recruited, what they should do. I went across the hallway, and there were some folks who were cleaning the convention center, a man and woman, and they were sitting there taking a break. And I asked them if they knew what the US Social Forum was about. And the man, an African American man in his twenties, said that he was sort of interested in what was going on. And I said there was this session right across the hallway about the wars. And he said, "Do you think I could go into it?" And I said, "I’m sure you could." He said, "Because I’m against these wars."

Now, that sense of whether Americans are against the war — what are you doing here at the US Social Forum? And how do you advise young people, who are recruited or who are weighing the war, or soldiers, what they can do right now?

CAMILO MEJIA: I think we are all here because we want to participate in this gathering, in this open-space gathering, with other movements, because I believe that we, as antiwar activists, need to build bridges with other movements, because we’re not — we should not be a one-issue organization. We should not be — even movement-wide, we should not be a one-issue movement. I think that antiwar movements should build bridges to work with the immigrant rights movement. I think that we should be fighting poverty. I think that we should be fighting for equality. We should be fighting for all these things.

And we should be actually working in coalition with not only grassroots organizations but within our own communities and people like the young man that you spoke to across the hall from our workshop yesterday, because in order for us to accomplish our mission, which is the withdrawal from occupied nations and benefits for veterans and reparations to the people of those countries, we’re not going to be able to accomplish that unless we build a support network upon which soldiers who are resisting can fall and that they can be embraced by the civilian community and the civilian movement. And for that, we need to do this kind of work. And I think that the US Social Forum is the perfect place where you can find those people, learn about what they’re doing, and build those very important connections to build, you know, a movement that not only goes after one issue, but that aims to, you know, rebuild the system from the ground up.

AMY GOODMAN: Victor Agosto, what do you tell young people who served, like you did, and are refusing to return? I mean, yesterday there was very practical advice being given in these sessions. People felt they weren’t getting accurate information, they didn’t have the proper advice, and they were scared.

VICTOR AGOSTO: In terms of soldiers who are —-

AMY GOODMAN: Like you, perhaps, served, don’t want to go back, or young recruits?

VICTOR AGOSTO: Right. There are many resources available. There is a GI Rights Hotline. There’s Iraq Veterans Against the War, has many resources on its website. There’s many options for people who are determined not to deploy. There’s conscientious objector status and ways of -—

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think most people — now, how often, for example, are any of you interviewed in mainstream media? The debate in Washington is whether McChrystal should have been fired. It is not whether you should refuse to deploy. How often, for example, Camilo, are you interviewed in the mainstream media?

CAMILO MEJIA: Not very often at all. I had one interview last month, and before that, I don’t remember when was the last time that I spoke with any mainstream media.

AMY GOODMAN: Brock McIntosh, you are, like the other guests here today, unusual. You’ve served in Afghanistan. You’ve come back. Now you’re applying for CO status. Are interviewers knocking down your door to talk to you about your situation?

BROCK McINTOSH: No, because war is a top-down approach, so it doesn’t matter what people on the ground think, they perceive.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel you have support from other soldiers, other people in the Army National Guard?

BROCK McINTOSH: A lot of my fellow soldiers are either supportive, or at least they recognize my freedom of speech. So they’re understanding. There’s a few soldiers who have made threats at me, you know, threatening to burn me, whatever that means. But they’re all empty threats. But most people have been pretty supportive. So...

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid to return to Afghanistan?

BROCK McINTOSH: No, I’m not. I’m just afraid to kill. I would have returned to Afghanistan as a civilian in a heartbeat.

AMY GOODMAN: Today there’s going to be a big antiwar session at the US Social Forum here in Detroit. Among those who will be speaking are, well, Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, who tried to go to Canada yesterday, but she was detained, along with another person, and she was turned back. Among those who will be speaking are Colonel Ann Wright. We had Colonel Ann Wright on yesterday, who helped to open the mission in Afghanistan, the embassy, in 2002, feels, though, the war is wrong.

Victor Agosto, what would you say to a young person now who’s been recruited out of high school? What would you tell them? What if they’re in boot camp and they’re changing their mind?

VICTOR AGOSTO: Well, I find that just about anyone who signs up for the military really believes that they are doing something good. So I would basically try to convince them that, in reality, instead of being a force for good, they’re going to be a force for evil, really, in that the wars aren’t making anybody any safer, they are just bringing misery to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that they’re drawing away vital resources here at home.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Camilo Mejia? You’re the former chair of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. As you organize, your thoughts?

CAMILO MEJIA: Well, I want to speak to the question you just asked. And I want to address servicemembers who are considering not re-deploying to either Iraq or Afghanistan or to, you know, filing a CO claim. In my experience having fought in Iraq and come back, being court-martialed, applied for CO status and denied so far, and served time in jail — I actually served almost nine months of a year sentence. I have not spoken with a single war resister who has taken a stance against war and has served time in jail, who has any regrets about the decision to speak your mind freely and follow your conscience. I would say to young people in the military to follow their conscience and to not be afraid of jail, because in the end, if they do follow their conscience, they will have no regrets, whatever the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, thank you for being with us, former staff sergeant. Victor Agosto served in Iraq, refused to go to Afghanistan. And Brock McIntosh, thank you for being with us, still active-duty, recently came back from Afghanistan.

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