DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Victory at all costs in Afghanistan
By David Swanson
Isn't it time to call what the United States Congress will soon vote on by its
right name: war escalation funding?
Early in 2009, President Barack Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan with
21,000 "combat" troops, 13,000 "support" troops, and at least 5,000
mercenaries, without any serious debate in congress or the corporate media.
The president sent the first 17,000 troops prior to developing any plan for
Afghanistan, leaving the impression that escalation was, somehow, an end in
itself. Certainly it didn't accomplish anything else, a conclusion evident in
downbeat reports on the Afghan war
situation issued this month by both the Government Accountability Office and
So it seemed like progress for our representative government when, last autumn,
the media began to engage in a debate over whether further escalation in
Afghanistan made sense. Granted, this was largely a public debate between the
commander-in-chief and his generals (who should probably have been punished
with removal from office for insubordinate behavior), but members of congress
at least popped up in cameo roles.
In September, for instance, 57 members of congress sent a letter to the
president opposing an escalation of the war. In October, congresswoman Barbara
Lee (Democrat) introduced a bill to prohibit the funding of any further
escalation. In December, various groups of congress members sent letters to the
president and to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposing an escalation and asking
for a chance to vote on it. Even as congress voted overwhelmingly for a massive
war and military budget in December, some representatives did speak out against
further escalation and the funding needed for it.
While all sides in this debate agreed that such escalation funding would need
to be voted on sometime in the first half of 2010, everyone knew something else
as well: that the president would go ahead and escalate in Afghanistan even
without funding in place - the money all being borrowed anyway - and that, once
many or all of the new troops were there, he would get less resistance from
congress which would be voting on something that had already happened.
The corporate media went along with this bait-and-switch strategy, polling and
reporting on the escalation debate in Washington until the president fell in
line behind his generals (give or take 10,000 or so extra troops). The coming
vote was then relabeled as a simple matter of "war funding".
This was convenient, since Americans are far more likely to oppose escalating
already unpopular wars than just keeping them going - and would be likely to
oppose such funding even more strongly if the financial tradeoffs involved were
made clear. However, a new poll shows a majority of Americans do not believe
that this war is worth fighting at all.
Nonetheless, as in a tale foretold, congress is expected to vote later this
month on US$33 billion in further "war funding" to pay for sending 30,000
troops (plus "support" troops, etc) to Afghanistan - most of whom are already
there or soon will be. In addition, an extra $2 billion is being requested for
aid and "civilian" operations in Afghanistan (much of which may actually go to
the Afghan military and police), $2.5 billion for the same in our almost
forgotten war in Iraq, and another $2 billion for aid to (or is it a further
military presence in?) Haiti.
This upcoming vote provides the opportunity that our representatives were
asking for half a year ago. They can now vote the president's escalation up or
down in the only way that could possibly be enforced, by voting its funding up
or down. Blocking the funding in the House of Representatives would mean
turning those troops around and bringing them back home - and unlike the
procedure for passing a bill, there would be no need for any action by the
senate or the president.
What does $33 billion look like?
So, how much money are we talking about exactly? Well not enough, evidently,
for the teabagging enemies of reckless government spending to take notice.
Clearly not enough for the labor movement or any other advocates of spending on
jobs or healthcare or education or green energy to disturb their slumbers. God
forbid! Yet it's still a sizeable number by a certain reckoning.
After all, 33 billion miles could take you to the sun 226 times. And $33
billion could radically alter any non-military program in existence. There's a
bill in the senate, for instance, that would prevent schools from laying off
teachers in all 50 states for a mere $23 billion. Another $9.6 billion would
quadruple the Department of Energy's budget for renewable energy. Now, what to
do with that extra $0.4 billion?
And remember what this $33 billion actually involves: adding more troops,
support troops and private contractors, whose work, in turn, will mean ongoing
higher costs to maintain the Afghan occupation, construct new bases there, fuel
the machines of war, and provide the weaponry. Keep in mind as well that
various other costs associated with the president's most recent "surge" are
hidden in the budgets of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of
State and other parts of the government. Looking just at the military, however,
this is $33 billion to be added to an unfathomable pile of waste. According to
the Congressional Budget Office, congress has already approved $345 billion for
war in Afghanistan, not to mention $708 billion in Iraq.
According to the National Priorities Project, for that same money we could have
renewable energy in 1,083,271,391 homes for a year (or every home in the
country for more than 10 years), or pay 17,188,969 elementary school teachers
for a year. There may be 2.6 million elementary and middle school teachers in
our country now. Assuming we could use three million teachers, we could hire
them all for five years and employ that extra $13 billion or so to give them
bonuses. "Honor our brave teachers" anyone?
Even these calculations, however, are misleading. As economists Linda Bilmes
and Joseph Stiglitz demonstrated in The Three Trillion Dollar War, their
book on the cost of the Iraq war alone, adding in debt payments on moneys
borrowed to fight that war, long-term care for veterans wounded in it, the
war's impact on energy prices, and other macroeconomic impacts, the current tax
bill for the Iraq war must be at least tripled and probably quadrupled or more
to arrive at its real long-term cost. (Similarly, the cost in lives must be
multiplied by all those lives that could have been saved through other, better
uses of the same funding.) The same obviously applies to the Afghan war.
The fact is that military spending is destroying the US economy. An excellent
report from the National Priorities Project, "Security Spending Primer",
provides a summary of research that supports these basic and well-documented
Investing public dollars in the military produces fewer jobs than cutting
Cutting taxes produces fewer jobs than investing public dollars in any of these
areas: healthcare, education, mass transit, or construction for home
weatherization and infrastructural repair.
Investing public dollars in mass transit or education produces more than twice
as many jobs as investing in the military.
Investing public dollars in education produces better paying jobs than
investing in the military or cutting taxes.
Investing public dollars in any of these areas: healthcare, education, mass
transit, construction for home weatherization and infrastructural repair has a
larger direct and indirect economic impact than investing in the military or
Too broad a view? Then consider just the present proposed $33 billion
escalation funding for the Afghan war. For that sum, we could have 20 green
energy jobs paying $50,000 per year here in the United States for every soldier
sent to Afghanistan; a job, that is, for each of those former soldiers and 19
other Americans. We're spending on average $400 per gallon to transport gas
over extended and difficult supply lines into Afghanistan where the US military
uses 27 million gallons a month. We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars
to bribe various small nations to be part of a "coalition" there. We're
spending at least that much to bribe Afghans to join our side, an effort that
has so far recruited only 646 Taliban guerrillas, many of whom seem to have
taken the money and run back to the other side. Does all this sound like a wise
investment - or the kind of work Wall Street would do?
What excuses are they using?
A strong case can be made that the war in Afghanistan is illegal, immoral,
against the public will, counterproductive on its own terms, and an economic
catastrophe. The present path of escalation there appears militarily hopeless.
The most recent Pentagon assessment once again indicates that the Taliban's
strength is growing; according to polling, 94% of the inhabitants of Kandahar,
the area where the next US offensive is to take place this summer, want peace
negotiations, not war, and a US plan to seek local consent for the coming
assault has been scrapped.
Many members of congress will still tell you that our goal in Afghanistan is to
"win" or to "keep us safe" or to "get Osama bin Laden". But those who opposed
the escalation last year, and the 65 members of the House of Representatives
who voted to end the war entirely on March 10, seem to be offering remarkably
insubstantial excuses for refusing to commit to a no-vote on the $33 billion in
I recently asked congressman Jerrold Nadler, for example, if he would vote no
on that funding, and he replied that he absolutely would - unless the
Democratic leadership put something so good into the bill that he wouldn't want
to vote against it. In just this way, aid for Hurricane Katrina victims, the
extension of unemployment insurance, and all sorts of other goodies have been
added to war and escalation funding bills over the years.
Nadler claimed that the Haiti aid already in the bill wouldn't win his vote,
but something else might. In other words, if there were any chance of the bill
being in trouble, Nadler's vote could essentially be bought simply by adding
some goody he likes. Never mind whether or not it outweighed $33 billion worth
of damage; never mind if the benefit, whatever it might be, could pass
separately. The point is that Nadler is not really committed to ending the war
or even blocking its escalation in the way he would be if he committed himself
now to a no vote and lobbied his colleagues to join him. Instead, he's ready to
pose as a war opponent only as long as his stance proves no threat to the war.
And in this, he's typical.
Congressman Bill Delahunt gave me a unique excuse for not committing in advance
to a no vote on the funding. He craved the attention, he said, that comes from
not announcing how you will vote - as if such attention matters more than the
lives he might fund the taking of. Radio host Nicole Sandler took up my
question and asked congressman Kendrick Meek what he was planning to do. He
responded by claiming that he hadn't yet been briefed about the war and so
Congressman Donald Payne gave me an excuse (now common among Democrats who
evidently haven't read the constitution in a while) guaranteed to lead to a yes
vote: he must support his president and so planned to vote for what the
president told him to.
Some excuses can only be anticipated at this point. Many congress members will,
for instance, undoubtedly settle for voting for a relatively meaningless
non-binding exit-timetable amendment to the bill, or at least co-sponsor a bill
identical to that amendment, and some will likely use that as reasonable cover
for casting their votes to fund the escalation.
Anti-war advocates for peace and justice are not taking all of this lying down.
Cities are passing resolutions opposing any more war funding. People are
holding vigils and sit-ins at local congressional offices - more than 100 of
which are planned for May 19. Congressional phones are ringing, newspaper
editors are receiving letters and an online whip list - a list of where every
house member stands - is being constantly updated. In the end, though, the
fundamental question is how many people will outgrow their partisan loyalties,
of either variety, and tell their representative that they will vote for
someone else if he or she votes for more war.
An extreme step? Well, what do you call wasting $33 billion on a hopeless,
immoral, illegal war that a majority of Americans oppose, and denying those
same dollars to job creation or any other decent purpose?