Sunday, March 28, 2010
Rethink Afghanistan (Brave New Films, 2009)
First U-U Church Screens “Rethink Afghanistan”
Three Veterans for Peace Second Hard-Hitting Message of Film
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO: Jack Doxie and Jim Brown
The three members of San Diego’s chapter of Veterans for Peace who spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church March 18 after the church showed Robert Greenwald’s hard-hitting anti-war movie Rethink Afghanistan may have been talking about the earlier wars in which they had served, but their meaning was unmistakable. “In Viet Nam, they had a campaign for us to work with the villagers, to try to win their hearts and minds,” said Jim Brown. “We’d do that during the day — and then at night we’d shoot at them. It’s crazy to send in an army, whose job is to kill, and expect them to help build a country. Troops don’t go out there to do good. They’re there to maintain order and kill people.”
Brown’s remarks made a mockery of “nation-building,” “counter-insurgency,” “counter-terrorism” and all the noble-sounding lies with which the American people are brainwashed by their government and media to support one war of naked conquest and aggression after another. So did Rethink Afghanistan, a 62-minute DVD from Greenwald’s Brave New Films that meticulously demolished all the various justifications that have been offered by two consecutive Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and many other politicians and opinion makers for the U.S.’s continuing and escalating military involvement in Afghanistan — including the idea that by intervening in Afghanistan we are fighting al-Qaeda and making the U.S. safer from terrorism.
Greenwald made his film in 2009, releasing it as Obama was considering whether to grant the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, his request for 40,000 additional troops for the war effort. Obama eventually authorized 30,000 but said they would be withdrawn within a year and a half. The movie features interviews with a wide variety of sources, and not all of them the usual suspects from the Left either. Among Greenwald’s interviewees are former CIA field operative Robert Baer — who bluntly calls the idea that the U.S. is fighting terrorism in Afghanistan “bullshit” — and former CIA station chief Robert Grenier, as well as former Taliban official Ursala Rahmani and Mohammed Osman Tariq, former commander in the mujahedin — the so-called “freedom fighters” the CIA recruited to fight the secular, socialist, Soviet-supported Afghan government in the 1970’s and who eventually morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Rethink Afghanistan focuses much of its attention on a truly dangerous country sandwiched between Afghanistan and India: Pakistan. “It’s not as if Pakistan is standing idle; 120,000 troops have been dispatched to the Afghan border,” says CNN correspondent Stan Grant in a clip shown in the film. “The [Pakistani] government says more than 1,000 soldiers [were] killed in the fighting. But the United States and others still question whether the Pakistan Military and Intelligence Service are playing a double game, [with] elements secretly supporting the Taliban to block a potential India-Afghanistan alliance.”
The sources quoted in Greenwald’s film — including Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation; and Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives — note that the one country Pakistan considers an “existential threat” is India, against which they have fought two wars over the disputed province of Kashmir. “The Pakistan army fears that India sees Afghanistan as a way to encircle Pakistan, to come in through the back door, to promote instability,” Coll says in the film. Other sources note that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the country in the region the U.S. should be worried about: it has a weak central government, a strong movement promoting militant Islam, and fully developed nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan fall into the hands of militant Islamist military officers or its own version of the Taliban, these sources warn, they could make nuclear weapons available to terrorists for an attack on the U.S. that would make 9/11 look like a mugging in the park by comparison.
Other topics covered in Rethink Afghanistan include the endemic corruption in the current Afghan government, the way U.S.-based contractors and their Afghan subcontractors are siphoning off vast amounts of money intended as reconstruction aid, and the sheer cost of the war to the U.S. itself. Linda J. Bilmes, co-author of The $3 Trillion War, estimates the cost of maintaining the U.S. forces in Iraq as $500,000 per troop per year — and for Afghanistan that figure is still higher, $775,000, mainly because it’s much harder to get supplies into Afghanistan’s landlocked, mountainous territory than into Iraq, which has ports and is virtually all flat desert. By contrast, Blimes says, the inflation-adjusted cost of the U.S. involvement in World War II was $50,000 per troop per year.
“Right now, the United States, through fiscal year 2009, will have committed and/or spent more than $185 billion on the U.S. war in Afghanistan,” says Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project. Comerford devised an intriguing way to look at the cost of the war by breaking it down per U.S. state, calculating that Alabama has contributed $1.695 billion to the war effort — enough to pay for full health coverage for all Alabamans, plus 200,000 other Americans, for one year. In New York, the cost will have been $17 billion — enough for “nearly two million Head Start placements.” Arizona’s share of the tab for the war is $2.5 billion — enough to cover half the 20 percent of Arizonans who don’t currently have health insurance.
One of the more powerful sections of Rethink Afghanistan is the one about women. Many otherwise progressive Americans were encouraged to support the war by the horror stories of how Afghan women were treated under the Taliban. But according to the film, life for women in Afghanistan was hell before the Taliban took over — and it still is. One anonymous representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) reports at least 23 rapes in just two months in northern Afghanistan and “a lot of violence against women in west Afghanistan.” The film shows girls who have had acid thrown in their faces for the “crime” of going to school, and Kabul in Winter author Ann Jones quotes Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Faisal Ahmad Shinwari — a hard-core Islamist personally appointed by supposedly secular president Hamid Karzai — as saying that Afghan women have two “equal rights”: to obey their husbands, and to pray (but not inside a mosque, since that space is reserved for men).
“The situation for women today in the Pashtun areas is actually worse than it was during the Taliban time, and the reason is because under the Taliban women were kept in burkas and in their homes, away from education,” says Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent Anand Gopal. “Today, the same situation persists — they’re kept in burkas, in homes, away from education — but on top of that, they’re also living in a war zone. And women disproportionately suffer, from the effects of a war. The majority of civilian casualties have been women. Women that I talk to in these areas often say that they actually wish the Taliban were back in power, because even though their lives were a prison then, at least they were kept free from bombs or from house raids. … Women also suffer in war zones because when their husbands are killed, they can’t work in any traditional jobs, so often they have to turn to prostitution. Otherwise they can’t work at all.”
Perhaps the most heart-rending section of the film is the one in which Greenwald and his translators interview Afghans trapped in an IDP (internally displaced persons) refugee camp in Kabul because their homes and farms have been destroyed by U.S. air raids. “If it wasn’t for the war, I would want to go back,” one unidentified man tells them. “If there was freedom, I would want to go back. Why am I here? Now there is war and bombardment. I can’t go back. Before I was a farmer, but I can’t go back. I was growing wheat and poppy and corn, melons. I was taking care of the children. But right now I can’t do anything. Look, they are barefoot in this cold weather. … One of my daughters is dead, and they will die too. This child, I can sell her but nobody would buy her. What can I do? … I have nothing. I am poor. I don’t have any blankets or shawls. I don’t have any clothes. There is no food that I can put in her mouth. … I know nobody wants to sell their daughter, but I have to. She is innocent, but I am poor.” Then a title reveals that the girl he was talking about trying to sell, just to get her out of the refugee camp and into the hands of people who could afford to take care of her, has since died.
Greenwald follows this heartbreaking sequence with a devastating demolition of the whole idea that we’re fighting in Afghanistan to protect Americans against future attacks by al-Qaeda. “Both wars have made the Middle East and the world much more dangerous for Americans and for any American presence overseas,” says Graham Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul and former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council. “Terrorism has increased worldwide in the past seven years,” adds Carl Conetta, “and we’ve spent a tremendous amount of treasure and blood to achieve a result of increased terrorism.”
Finally, the film’s “Solutions” segment focuses on non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) which are actually building schools, providing jobs and offering health care to Afghans. The film depicts the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (www.Afghanistan.no/ English/Education/index.html), which operates schools for Afghan girls and distributes food for 50,000 students; Jobs for Afghans (www.jobsforafghans.org), which seeks to provide just that — jobs for Afghans — so they can survive without joining the Taliban just for the $8 per day stipend the Taliban pays its fighters; and Emergency in Afghanistan (www.emergency.it), which has built three hospitals and 30 clinics. All their care is provided free of charge, explains Emergency in Afghanistan medical director Dr. Marco Garatti, “because we believe that a state, a decent state, should take care of its own citizens” — an ironic thing to hear at the end of the acrimonious Congressional debate on health insurance reform, which if nothing else made clear how many in Congress and the American public don’t agree that the state has a responsibility to safeguard its citizens’ health.
The three Veterans for Peace representatives who led the post-film discussion at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church March 18 — Viet Nam veteran Jim Brown, Korean War veteran Jack Doxie and Gil Field, a Viet Nam-era veteran but one who avoided combat by volunteering for the U.S. Coast Guard — made brief opening statements and then threw the meeting open to questions. “After serving in Viet Nam, it was obvious to me just from being on the ground that we were pulling the triggers as Americans — and the people we were shooting lived there,” said Brown. “We coerced the government into giving us ‘permission’ and stayed there as long as we could make people money. Our leaders will send us off to war anywhere in the world to take what we want. We could have all the raw materials we needed if we paid for them and hired local people, and built them schools and hospitals, and this would cost far less than what we spend on combat.”
“Well over 50 years ago, I was in combat in Korea — and we still have troops in Korea,” Doxie said. “They sent us to Korea in a World War II-era transport ship that was probably built in eight days, and it took us 16 days to meet the enemy. The thought came to me that if I had to go 16 days to meet the enemy, then perhaps this was not my enemy. … It’s amazing that we can’t learn our lesson. We persist in trying to resolve issues through violence. In a very unjustifiable way, we show our might. I’d like our country to have a bias towards negotiating instead of fighting. Just weeks before we invaded Iraq, the whole world realized we were wrong. Two million people in London, one million in Rome and hundreds of thousands elsewhere asked us not to do what we did. Where would we be now if we had gone to the United Nations instead of going to war?”
“By sheer luck of birth, I was born in 1948, finished college in 1970 and immediately applied to the Coast Guard in New York City,” said Field. “I served admirably on a small island in New York harbor. … So much of the background of the Veterans for Peace is determined by our ages and backgrounds. People three years younger didn’t go at all. People four to five years older had to go. It’s amazing how our government uses situations as they occur to create excuses to go to war.”
The questions covered a wide range of topics, moving far back in history from Afghanistan and Iraq not only to the wars Doxie and Brown served in but even farther — questioning whether the U.S. even had a right to fight World War II, Some audience members raised the argument made by pacifists at the time — that the U.S. and the other victors in World War I created the Nazi threat by imposing a harsh peace on Germany in 1919 and thereby wrecking its economy and creating the political situation that allowed Hitler to come to power. “Is there any such thing as a ‘good war’?” Brown said. “Was World War II something we should have been in?”
Definitely not, said Doxie. “Seventy to 80 percent of the U.S. people did not want the war,” he noted. “Franklin Roosevelt won his third term by saying he wouldn’t send soldiers into war. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because the U.S. had a plan to embargo Japan and keep them from getting oil and rubber. When you poke a smaller adversary in the eye with a brush, they’re going to react. The Japanese may not have been justified [in attacking Pearl Harbor], but we were the ones who dropped the A-bombs on civilian targets in Japan.”
An audience member raised the controversial claim — still hotly debated among historians — that President Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance and allowed it to happen because he knew the only way he could unify the country in support of a war it didn’t want was to frame it as a response to foreign aggression. The same person also claimed that the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by Osama bin Laden but were either known in advance or actively perpetrated by the U.S. government — and Doxie hinted that he agreed. “It looked like a controlled demolition,” Doxie said, “not something that happened from outside.”
Brown also expressed his cynicism — largely shared by most of the audience — that President Obama has any intention of pursuing a policy in Afghanistan or Iraq that differs in the slightest from President Bush’s. “We’re supposed to be out of Iraq by 2011, but I haven’t seen anyone pulled out,” Brown said. “I’ve heard he’s being politically expedient for the powers that be in America, and will pull the troops out by the end of his term, but I don’t believe that. That’s what they said in Viet Nam, too.”
“Obama said he was going to escalate in Afghanistan in his campaign,” said Peace and Freedom Party organizer Roger Batchelder. “Even in the peace movement, we labor under delusions, including the idea that America is not an empire. We are an empire. The other myth is that the Democratic Party is the party of the little person and the party of peace. World War II could have been stopped if Americans like Prescott Bush [father and grandfather of the two Presidents Bush] and Henry Ford hadn’t helped Hitler. We have a ruling class that gives to both parties, and Wall Street gave more money to Obama than to McCain. FDR interned the Japanese and Truman used A-bombs against civilians twice, and also started the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It’s all about the money. The richest 1 percent gives money to both parties.”
And despite the promises Obama has made to withdraw the extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan within a year and a half, Doxie warned that the U.S. commitment there is likely to last far longer than that. “General McChrystal has said that if everything in Afghanistan goes exactly right, the way he wants it to, we have a minimum of 10 more years there — on top of the nine years we’ve already been there. And of course it won’t go exactly according to plan. It never does.”
Echoing a point made by some of the speakers in the movie that al-Qaeda no longer has, seeks or needs a permanent base in Afghanistan, Field added, “And the enemy is no longer even there.”