Friday, May 18, 2012

Phyllis Bennis explains why withdrawing NATO from Afghanistan makes sense

Phyllis Bennis, the author of Endingthe US War in Afghanistan A Primer, made some thought provoking points about Afghanistan. I saw Bennis make a presentation about ten years ago and I remember at least one point she made. I consider her a serious intellectual.

Bennis, and other panelists, noted the United States can and should end its participation in the war shortly by removing U.S. military forces. The Obama administration recently negotiated a deal that has a faux military withdrawal in 2014, but leaves an occupation force with power to go after anyone it chooses until 2024.

Bennis said the correct metaphor is not Colin Powell's Pottery Barn image (which conveniently justifies perpetual occupation), but the metaphor of a bull in a china shop. Get the bull (the U.S. military) out of the china shop (Afghanistan) and then pay for the damage caused.

Bennis explained the U.S. military does not provide the services Afghanistan needs. She expressed that Pentagon people have trouble wrapping their minds around this limitation. Bennis was once invited to the Pentagon and explained a small scale program to train women in midwifery. The Pentagon official said that the Pentagon couldn't do many small social service programs. Bennis said, “That's the point.”

Bennis also demolished the argument that the NATO occupation protects women. She noted multiple social indicators for women when Afghanistan is either last in the world or second to last (bad weather in Niger has caused a spike in deaths during childbirth). If things still suck for women twelve years into the occupation, it's clear the objective of the occupation is not improving the lives of women.

Another piece of information Bennis used effectively was President Barack Obama's recent visit to Afghanistan. It was conducted in secret. And when it was announced he'd be to Kabul, there were three bombings that day. The occupation can't deliver security in the capital. The situation is so bad, Obama can't visit and make a rah-rah speech.

Bennis also argued that prolonging the NATO occupation will probably increase the likelihood of a civil war after NATO leaves and increase the level of violence. Bennis explained that prior to NATO invading, Afghanistan's model of government had strong leadership at the local and regional level and a weak central government. (I've heard other speakers refer to these strong local leaders as “warlords”.)

This worked reasonably well for Afghanistan. After NATO invaded, the Bush administration was keen on imposing a national democracy with a strong central government that would get money and arms and would be “democratic”. What I learned at an earlier presentation by a couple of Afghanistan experts was that the new form of government empowered a criminal class of gangsters. Where the “warlords” were firmly connected to people and geography and had a tradition of reciprocal loyalty, the new democratically elected gangsters were firmly connected to arms, money and militias. They did not have strong loyalty to the people.

Bennis' point, I think, was that the longer NATO is in place, the harder it is to go back to a system that works for Afghanistan. And the aspiration of consolidating power under a corrupt but pliant strongman is not going to work in Afghanistan for cultural, geographic and infrastructure reasons.

While I'm a fan of Bennis, I found her comment about Occupy Wall Street a bit condescending. She talked about teaching OWS to include criticisms of U.S. military policy in all messaging with the media. I re-read the early statement of OWS and it's true it doesn't mention Afghanistan or Iraq. But... well, go read the statement and see what you think.

1 comment:

  1. Phyllis Bennis had a good point I forgot to include in the blog entry.

    When the subject of a truth and reconciliation commission came up she observed that South Africa ended Apartheid before the truth and reconciliation commissions happened. She pointed out that before there could be a truth commission for Afghanistan NATO had to leave.