Burke’s Law XVII: Knitting the Afghan War Together


By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

Now it’s official: We’re sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. As I watched the President give his war speech last Tuesday night, I felt conflicted feelings about this quagmire bubble to the surface. We’ve been stuck in Afghanistan for eight years — eight years since we slammed into the training territory, if not the home country, of the monsters who destroyed our Twin Towers and part of our Pentagon and aimed squarely for our Capitol building. Along with the rest of the country, I was fully behind President Bush and his decision to hunt down Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and show no mercy. In October 2001, it was a defensive, decisive action. It seemed the fight would be over in a year. We would successfully blast al Qaeda to shreds and then get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

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Oh, dreamers, we. This plan, this yearlong in-and-out, might have worked — maybe it would have taken more than a year, maybe we would have needed our troops in southern Afghanistan’s mountains for a few years. It’s very tricky terrain that doesn’t treat outsiders well — just ask Russia. But all those possibilities, all those strategies were stopped cold when Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice decided to play God with our armed forces and collaborate in a lie about those mysterious weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the same WMD that, mysteriously, were never found.

For reasons we may never know (finishing what Daddy Bush didn’t finish?), this criminal gang of four decided to pick a fight with a sovereign nation simply because they knew no one would stop them, certainly not our cowardly Congress, then in Republican control. And here we are, eight years later, and we’re still in Iraq, watching as the Iraqi police and army are finally, finally starting acting as an independent force. Unfortunately, most of the “coalition of the willing” is long gone. Billions, if not trillions of unbudgeted war money has been spent or has otherwise simply vanished. Broke and exhausted, our troops are now about to start things all over again in Afghanistan.

Here is where I’m torn. I’m not a hawk and I don’t like military posturing — I think of birds that strut around, puffing out their chests to prove which one seems the biggest. I don’t like war in general, and call me picky but I particularly despise wars based on deceit and unresolved Daddy issues. Just to be even clearer, I don’t like putting our military in harm’s way based on falsified information forcefed to us by a draft-dodging vice president.

Just as a reminder: On Aug. 26, 2002, in an address to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice President Cheney said, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” As former CIA Director George Tenet later recalled, Cheney’s assertions went well beyond the assessments of his agency at the time. Referring to the same speech, another CIA official told journalist Ron Suskind, “Our reaction was, ‘Where is he getting this stuff from?’ So I’m skeptical when it comes to a president — any president — going before the cameras to announce a new military offensive. It slices right into my soul.

But I do know al Qaeda is as much of a threat to the U.S. as it was eight years ago. They have money, they have power and they have relative freedom on their home turf, in the mountains separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have the Taliban in case they feel like having a nice backyard terrorist barbeque. No, we cannot withdraw our troops and bring them home. At the same time, the status quo isn’t an option. As President Obama correctly stated, the problem is that this is a disorderly region, with numerous warlords beholden to no government, centralized or otherwise. The fact is that we’ve been at war with enemies we cannot always see or even define. Today’s Afghanistan is governed by centuries of a culture we don’t understand and by a religion we don’t understand that has been hijacked by fanatics we also don’t understand. Neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda existed prior to the exit of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, which, in a pique of folly, invaded the country in 1979. Their damage left 1.5 million Afghans dead, plus no functional government and widespread economic devastation. So Afghanistan was ripe for the emerging mujahideen warlords to take over. They recruited in refugee camps. They used the disaffection of their youth to spread messages of hate and religious fanaticism. They used the promise of taking back their country in order to gain power.

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Problem is, the U.S. has a bad habit of thinking that if every country could be like ours, with a central government, a citizenship loyal to that government and national pride, all cultural and socioeconomic issues can be conquered. In this case, though, we aren’t fighting a country; we’re not at war with Afghanistan. We’re fighting religious extremists and a nebulous, shadowy terrorist organization which spans innumerable countries, with members who easily slip in and out of border areas. There is no frontline. And yet there is.

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On Meet The Press last Sunday, when asked how we “win” in Afghanistan, Senator John McCain actually talked about “breaking” al Qaeda’s will. The entire interview is worth watching:

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Spoken like a true American soldier! We win! You lose! But oh, what a fool McCain is. His backward, nationalistic thinking has no place in 21st century warfare. McCain thinks if we can just “break” the will of al Qaeda by continuing to bomb and kill, he’d better study the history of that region. These are tough, resilient people who can wait us out. And they don’t care — perhaps that’s our biggest problem. Their will won’t be broken because Sen. McCain wants it to be.

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Still, we do need to work Afghanistan from the inside out. And Pakistan must continue to step up and fight the Taliban meaningfully, making some fundamental decisions about where their allegiances lie. They must acknowledge their odd love/hate relationship with the Taliban and turn it into more of a “get your clothes and leave my house” relationship.

In other words, this war cannot — and will not — end until the Afghan people and the people of Pakistan decide they don’t want to be terrorized or bullied any longer. Pakistan needs to wake up and realize that India isn’t their biggest problem.

The President says we will start withdrawing troops in 18 months. I think that’s wishful thinking, but I’m glad to have a president who can speak to the nation like adults, leaving rah-rah rhetoric at the door. Having an exit strategy is not going to help Al Qaeda, as the former vice president gleefully claims (I think he’d love another attack on U.S. soil just to say, “I told you so”), but will force the Afghans to take back control of their country.

And I’m grateful the Obama Administration spent more than two days figuring out the best war plan. I have a brother and a nephew who will be off to Afghanistan soon. My brother will command over 400 men and women and I want them to come home in one piece. My nephew will be deployed after studying at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, at which point he’ll be some kind of linguistic interpreter (he’s clearly much smarter than his aunt). Knowing there is some kind of an end date, knowing that our troops will not be deployed over and over again for all eternity, gives me comfort. Knowing have a president who understands we cannot have open-ended war also gives me great comfort.

If you’re interested in helping the children and citizens of Afghanistan, by the way, my friend Dina Azim and her family have created an organization called Hope of Mother to provide opportunities for Afghan people of all ages and ability to participate in the development of their nation, to give them the chance to build their homes by showing them how to do it instead of doing it for them. Check it out, and give if you can.

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Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.