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Joseph Gerson Speech: Peace Movement in the U.S. – After NATO Actions: Activities against the War in Afghanistan Wege Zum Frieden in Afghanistan – Bonn, Germany, October 13-14, 2012

Joseph Gerson Speech: Peace Movement in the U.S. – After NATO Actions: Activities against the War in Afghanistan Wege Zum Frieden in Afghanistan – Bonn, Germany, October 13-14, 2012

Published: October 17, 2012

I want to thank the conference organizers for the opportunity to participate in this uniquely important conference. It is a privilege to be joining you.

As a U.S. American, I come with great humility given what the U.S. has inflicted on the people of Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor brags that he lured the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1979.  The Reagan Administration collaborated with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other nations to flood Afghanistan with foreign mercenaries and unleashed a tsunami of weapons across your land.  Our self-described “War President”, George W. Bush, refused to negotiate with the Taliban, preferring instead the indiscriminate violence of war. And President Obama doubled the number of U.S. warriors sent to win an unwinnable war. All of them relied on war lords, many of them misogynists and drug lords. All of this has come at merciless price for the Afghan people, and to a lesser extent those in the U.S. and NATO nations.

War was never the answer.

I have come primarily to learn and to build connections with people dedicated to ending these four decades of destructive and murderous war and to share what I can about U.S. policies and our peace movement.

As we predicted, the U.S. is following in the footsteps of every imperial invader of Afghanistan. While it has not suffered a classical military defeat, it is apparent to all but the most hard line neo-conservatives and militarists – possibly including Romney – that the war cannot be won. Similar to U.S. strategy during much of the Vietnam War, Washington’s policy has become “coercive diplomacy” – seeking to weaken the Taliban to the point that it will negotiate and end the war on U.S. terms.  It has failed once again.

There have been wars within the war. The first has been against Al Qaeda, which is now all but destroyed in Afghanistan, but which has metastasized to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Second has been against the Pakistan Taliban and Islamist extremists who serve as the Pakistani military’s cat’s paw in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and who threaten U.S. regional influence, Pakistan’s government, and Islamabad’s genocidal nuclear arsenal.

Greater than the logistical obstacles to winning the war is the fact that you cannot build on a corrupt foundation. Even as the great majority of Afghan people oppose the Taliban’s return, the Karzai government, dependent on brutal and repressive war lords, opium barons, bribery and embezzlement cannot win Afghan hearts and minds. This explains why the Obama Administration is turning away from counter insurgency warfare, which necessitates nation-building, to counter terrorism with it increased reliance on drones and Special Forces. 

Why is the U.S. at war in Afghanistan?

The reasons are many. Britain’s former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, documented that before George W. Bush became President, he collaborated with U.S. energy companies seeking their unfair share of Central Asian and Caspian Sea basin oil and natural gas. They dreamed of a pipeline carrying natural gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Indian Ocean, which would avoid Russian control over the flow of these economically vital resources.

There is Afghanistan’s mineral wealth worth an estimated trillion dollars that the U.S., China and other nations are pursuing, and which could fuel continuing civil conflict and still  more foreign military interventions in years to come.

There are the geostrategic dictates of Empire and a rising China to be contained. Over history, the nation that dominates Eurasia can potentially dominate the world. For the U.S., this means maintaining toeholds on Eurasia’s western and eastern peripheries (NATO in the west and hundreds of U.S. military bases in Japan, Korea and elsewhere in East Asia and the Pacific), and along Eurasia’s southern underbelly (long the Middle East and now South and Central Asia.)  And, as the U.S. pursues simultaneous engagement and containment of China, the hundreds of U.S. military bases across Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia and the tacit alliance with India reinforce the China’s militarily encirclement.

Most of all, there was the need and instinct to defend the Empire. As Noam Chomsky explained, what was unique about 9-11 was that for the first time since the British invasion of the U.S. in 1812, the guns were turned against the United States in the United States. Bob Woodward has documented that on the night of September 11, 2001, as senior U.S. officials discussed how to respond to the terrorist attacks, Secretary of Defense (War) Rumsfeld maintained that an invasion of Afghanistan could not be justified under international law.  Bush didn’t care, insisting that he wanted “to kick some ass.”  As President Obama explained last month, with Osama Bin Laden dead, the U.S. has demonstrated that those who dare to attack the country will be most severely punished.

My talk’s title implies knowledge of U.S. peace movement’s Counter NATO Summit actions in Chicago last May. What we accomplished may not be familiar to you, so let me bring you up to date:

Social movements rise and fall like the waves of the ocean. In recent years, the U.S. peace and anti-war movements spawned two powerful tides of opposition to the Bush wars, but we have been in a trough since the 2008 presidential election campaign.  In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks and anticipating the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan, we responded with vigils, small demonstrations and public forums under the slogans “War Is Not the Answer” and “No More Victims.” We insisted that the attacks be understood crimes, with justice to be sought through diplomacy and law, not war.  When the Taliban was ousted with brutal dispatch,  organizing against the occupation became more difficult. Exceptions were groups like Families for Peaceful Tomorrows –people who lost loved ones in the 9-11 attacks, Military Families Speak Out, and organizations like the American Friends Service Committee who documented the destruction and raised alarms about the suffering wrought by the invasion, and which provided what little material assistance we could.

A second major wave came in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which – in addition to lives and society it shattered – is seen by many in the U.S. as the “greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history.” On February 15, 2003, we rallied half a million people in New York and roughly half that number in California to prevent a deadly war based on lies and the ambition of reconsolidating U.S. control over Middle East oil. We did not prevent that war, but the reverberations from our mass protests and the continuing opposition that followed were the foundation of President Obama’s 2008 election victory and of U.S. compliance with the Iraqi parliament’s insistence that ALL U.S. forces withdraw from their country by the end of 2011.

            With the Bush focus on the Iraq war’s heavy civilian and military casualties, many in the U.S. forgot about Afghanistan. Among those who worked to wake up our compatriots were the AFSC with our somber displays of military boots and civilian shoes arranged as cemeteries in public places like the Washington, D.C. mall and Boston Common to represent the war dead. Afghan Veterans Against the War understood that the only way to begin healing their deep psychological wounds from what they had inflicted and seen was to speak their painful truths and to transform them into exemplary forces to end the killing and the war. As we could, we brought forward the voices of Afghan war opponents, people like Malali Joya and exiles living in our communities. Most important was the campaign to press members of Congress to follow Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to have voted against authorizing the invasion, and who steadfastly worked to cut off the funding that makes the war possible.

During the 2008 election many in the U.S. Americans saw Obama as the peace candidate, thinking that his references to Afghanistan as the good  war were merely political rhetoric needed to compensate for his opposition to the Iraq War. They were wrong. His mission has been to reconsolidate U.S. global power and influence in the wake of the Bush II disaster. As you well know, he doubled the number of U.S. warriors in Afghanistan and opened the way for a continued U.S. military presence beyond 2014.

Obama’s decision to host the 2012 NATO summit in the United States provided us an extraordinary platform to highlight popular opposition to the war. The majority of U.S. people want U.S. troops to come home, but the challenge is to transform this popular opinion into a political force that can change national policies.

We faced three major obstacles: Few in the U.S. were aware that NATO survived the Cold War.  Fewer still knew that NATO forces were fighting alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan. Almost no one was aware that NATO’s primary mission has become “out of area wars” to reinforce the West’s control of resources. And progressives in the U.S. were understandably focused the economic crisis that has left millions unemployed, facing eviction from their homes and the loss of essential services. But the killing has to stop, and we were spurred by our European movement allies.

AFSC and Peace Action, the country’s largest peace organization, took the lead in organizing the Network for a NATO-Free World: Global Peace and Justice. Thinking both short and long-term, we built alliances and a steering committee that included communities and organizations working for social and economic justice, as well as those working to end the Afghanistan war and to reduce the Pentagon’s gargantuan budget. Our demands were: Complete withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Withdrawal of all foreign deployed U.S. troops, bases, nuclear weapons and “missile defenses. Substantial reductions in U.S. and NATO military spending in order to fund our communities and to meet human needs.
And, Retire NATO!

Our strategy had three prongs: Build a more unified peace AND justice movement for the long term by means of a Counter Summit conference. Impact the wider public with an intense media campaign. And through trainings and public events we sought to help ensure that the march organized by the UNAC coalition, which would also attract wide media attention, remained nonviolent in a city where the mayor and police were creating a climate of fear with announced threats of mass arrests to “prevent” – which is to say - to create, “chaos.”

We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. The conference gathered activists from 22 states and a dozen countries – including Afghanistan. It was broadcast by the most important public radio station in the U.S. Midwest and was covered by many mass media outlets. We placed op-ed and other articles in prominent national and Chicago newspapers and web portals. Radio interviews were broadcast on hundreds of stations. We benefitted from intense television coverage of our events and from press conferences organized by Afghan and Iraq Veterans and by militant nurses. To our amazement, we reached people with 167 million unique hits in cyberspace – enough to impact public opinion, if not to end the war. But in terms of winning hearts and minds, nothing exceeded the reach and impact of dozens of U.S. Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans who returned their war medals with brief speeches and by hurling them in the direction of the NATO summit.

Our greatest achievements were consolidating public understanding that most U.S. people want the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and deepening widespread recognition that if the U.S. is to avoid de-development and the suffering that follows, we must cut Pentagon spending.

Since the NATO summit, U.S. people have been consumed by the presidential and Congressional elections. Our movement is now focused on necessary short term actions and campaigns including numerous forums, vigils and small demonstrations and a flurry of articles and e-mail traffic on the 11th anniversary of the war.

Obama’s and Romney’s approaches to the Afghan war are much the same with a few but potentially important differences. Both have blessed the stated commitment to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces and to restore control over military operations to the Afghan government by the end of 2014. However, Romney insists that he won’t be bound by time lines. Obama’s stated goals are to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven”, to continue to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and to pursue a “negotiated peace” with the Taliban. Romney and his neo-conservative foreign policy advisers reject any negotiations with the Taliban.

But, with the green on blue assassinations, there is growing debate within the U.S. elite about possibly speeding the pace of the U.S. draw down of forces. Growing numbers of senior officials have reportedly given up on the possibility of serious negotiations with the Taliban before 2015. They anticipate a longer war between the Kabul government and the Taliban and possibly a more complicated civil war. This is reminiscent of the “decent interval” used to cover the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. So, we are left to wonder how many U.S. forces will actually remain in Afghanistan after 2014 and what their orders will be.  But, the temptations of Afghanistan’s enormous mineral wealth, the continuing dream of central/south Asian pipelines, and the hundreds of U.S. Afghan and Central Asia military bases and the new alliances which reinforce China’s encirclement are not to be under estimated. So, the U.S. could remain in Afghanistan for a long time.

As in Iraq, Afghans will likely determine if U.S. forces actually remain in their country beyond 2014. In Iraq, Bush’s and Maliki’s intention for U.S. forces to remain was trumped by the Iraqi parliament’s refusal to authorize the continued occupation. In Afghanistan, Karzai will decide what he and his war lord, drug dealing, and embezzling cronies and allies need to retain their power and privilege, and there is the not so small matter of the Taliban. Others here can speak better than I about what the Afghan parliament will tolerate. And, there is the game changing possibility that the pre-revolutionary situation in Pakistan could descend into a catastrophic civil war with regional and potentially global implications.

In the near term there are several significant campaigns that I can highlight that are seeking to place increased pressure on the U.S. and NATO to repatriate their forces before 2014.

First is support for the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ effort to gain two million signatures by Human Rights Day in December urging a ceasefire in Afghanistan. Whether or not the reach their goal, the process of signature collection will help to keep the realities of the continuing war in the public consciousness.

Second is a campaign led by Code Pink feminists, the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, allied activists and some members of Congress against drone warfare. It has become increasingly apparent that these ubiquitous weapons systems, praised for their accuracy, are claiming increasing numbers of civilian lives. They cause psychological trauma as people fear that death and destruction could rain down from the sky at any time, and they leave survivors so angered that they create new fighters to oppose the United States and its clients.

Third is the Budget for All referendum which will appear on more than a million ballots on Election Day in Massachusetts. Recognizing the interrelated crises facing the U.S. people, including the Afghan war, our ballot question calls for 1) maintaining essential social services, 2) investing in job protection and creation, and paying for these by3) increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2%, and 4) ending the Afghan War and bringing U.S. troops home. Our hope is that the referendum will inspire activists in other states to press Congress with these demands.

Fourth is the “Gift of Peace” campaign, designed to build toward the December holidays. It is now being finalized by the United for Peace and Justice, the national coalition that organized the five-hundred thousand strong demonstration on February 15, 2003. This campaign is designed to mobilize popular opinion and action by collecting a million signatures on a statement that demands “the administration and Congress exit Afghanistan with greater speed, for no war against Iran, and includes the economic demands of the Massachusetts referendum

Finally, Peace Action, is conducting its Peace Voter campaign. It identified key issues related to war and peace, sent questionnaires to the major party candidates and published the results. The process builds support for peace-oriented candidates and reminds even those they oppose the movement’s primary concerns that we are pressing for change. The first and foremost question this year being bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.

Before closing, with the Europeans here in mind, I have been asked to say a few words about the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific. After the Bush II’s neglect of Asia and the Pacific, the Obama Administration has announced its “pivot” to the region, designed to reinforce U.S. hegemony there for the 21st century. Why? Because the region produces more than 50% of the world’s wealth, is home to the majority of the world’s people, and is rich in increasingly contested resources. The U.S. is now in a dangerous arms race with China and is building new bases and alliances across the region. The Pentagon will be deploying 60% of its nuclear navy and a host of new weapons systems across the region.

While control of the mineral rich and the geostrategically important South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula have recently been thought to be the region’s most volatile tinderboxes, three weeks ago Japan and China came to the brink of war for control of the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. And the U.S. reiterated that if it came to war, the U.S.-Japan Treaty obligates U.S. to fight on Japan’s side.

During the Working Group’s last meeting, we were reminded that Europe is China’s number trading partner, that Europeans will be playing increasing roles in the Asia-Pacific struggle, and that in addition to our Asian and Pacific movement partnerships, we should be engaging European movements on these issues. I hope that we can explore possible collaborations on the margins of the conference.

Friends, I wish I could say that the U.S. peace movement is a stronger force than it really is. With Obama and Romney running neck and neck, we face the possibility of a Romney presidency and with it the restoration of the disastrous Bush II era neoconservatives. But our organizing and campaigning, combined with yours, adds critical pressure for the withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops, opening the way for the Afghan people to practice national self-determination, hopefully with an end to the violence. And, given what U.S. Americans and Europeans have wrought, we must never forget our responsibility to assist Afghan reconstruction and development in non-imperialist ways.

We must prevail!

*Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs for the Northeast Region of the American Friends Service Committee and directs its Peace and Economic Security Program.