Debating Drones: Convenient Killing?

Last week I was on The News Hour debating the question of drone weapons.

Drone technology is spreading rapidly. As many as 50 countries are developing or purchasing these systems, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran. Even non-state actors are involved. Hezbollah reportedly has deployed an Iranian-designed drone. Iran is developing a new drone warcraft with a range of more than 600 miles. These systems are used mostly for surveillance, but it is not difficult to equip the aircraft with missiles and bombs.

Recently in Massachusetts, a man was arrested for plotting to place explosives on a drone aircraft and fly it into the Pentagon or the Capitol building. Private contractors are getting into the business as well. We now have companies offering drones-for-hire.

What kind of a future are we creating for our children? We face the prospect of a world in which every nation will have drone warfare capability, in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning.

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Watch my interview on PBS Newshour:

Afghanistan’s Funding Failure

The government of Afghanistan and its armed forces are almost totally dependent on outside funding and could not survive without massive outside financial support from the United States and other donors. This was confirmed in a revealing report issued last week from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report was released quietly, but it should have aroused an uproar of debate. It casts further doubt on the viability of U.S. strategy in the region. It also exposes the fecklessness of supposed budget hawks in Congress who block the flow of a few billion dollars for disaster relief here at home while ignoring the flood of tens of billions into the sink hole of failed policy in Afghanistan.

The numbers. Over the past five years the United States and other donors have funded 90 percent of the Kabul government’s budget. Total spending by the Afghan government in 2010 was $14.3 billion. Domestic revenues for the government that year were just $1.66 billion.

The GAO report notes laconically, “Customs duties and taxes such as income and property taxes provided the largest share of domestic revenues. However, domestic revenues funded only about 9 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated total public expenditures.”

Talk about deficit spending! Not to worry, though, Kabul has a permanent bailout fund, courtesy of Western taxpayers.

The United States and its allies are the paymasters of Kabul. The U.S. funds 62 percent of the total Afghan government budget and an estimated 90 percent of the costs of maintaining Kabul’s large security forces. The Afghan army and national police currently number nearly 300,000, and have expanded greatly in recent years at Washington’s insistence. The Obama administration has proposed expanding these forces even further, but has no suggestion for how such a force can be maintained without U.S. funding.

The toll. The Kabul regime is in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of the West. It is utterly incapable of being able to stand on its own. No government can be considered legitimate or sustainable if it is so completely dependent on outside funding.

Keep in mind that Kabul’s doleful financial condition comes after ten years of effort, and amidst claims of success for U.S. policy. After a decade of supposed nation building and the vast human and material sacrifice that has been poured into the country, the Kabul regime is able to fund only about 10 percent of its own budget.

In December dozens of nations will gather in Bonn to mark the 10th anniversary of the formation of the Kabul government. What have they wrought after all these years? How much longer and at what cost will Western taxpayers be expected to foot the bill?

Time to Face the Facts in Afghanistan

General David Rodriguez, recent commander of international forces in Afghanistan, claims in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that American troops have achieved “indisputable gains everywhere we have focused our efforts.”  There are clear signs, the General writes, that U.S. and Afghan forces have
“regained the initiative” and that the current counterinsurgency strategy is working.

Contrast that Panglossian assessment with the report from Kabul two days ago of the most direct and sustained insurgent attack on the U.S. embassy in 10 years of war, and the news a few days before of a truck bomb attack in Wardak that wounded 77 U.S. troops (the largest number of injuries in a single day since the war began), and the shooting down in early August of a Chinook helicopter that killed 8 Afghan and 30 U.S. troops (the largest single day loss of American life in the war).

Insurgent forces are stronger than ever. They control much of the Afghan countryside and benefit from a vast network of support in neighboring Pakistan. The government of Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt in the world and is incapable of providing the viable political alternative that is necessary for counterinsurgency success.

Blinded by their false optimism, Rodriguez and other U.S. commanders plan to continue fighting the war for years to come. President Obama has started a necessary drawdown of troops, but there is no recognition of the need for a fundamental change of direction.

Here are the outlines of an alternative peacebuilding strategy:

  • Pledge to withdraw all foreign troops if insurgents cooperate in suppressing Al Qaida and respect basic political rights for the Afghan people.
  • Begin immediate direct negotiations with the insurgents for a ceasefire and a political power sharing arrangement within Afghanistan.
  • Negotiate a diplomatic compact among neighboring states to stabilize the region, and deploy a Muslim-led interim peacekeeping force under UN authority to protect civilians.
  • Maintain large-scale economic assistance to help the people of Afghanistan rebuild from decades of war.

It is long past time to end the delusions and face facts. The war cannot be won and must be ended as soon as possible.

Reflections on the 10th anniversary

I’ve been invited to The Hague this week by the International Center on Counter-Terrorism for the presentation “Reflecting on the Effects of Counter-Terrorism Measures since 9/11: A Civil Society Perspective.” My talk focuses on the erosion of political freedom and human rights in many parts of the world resulting from repressive counter-terrorism measures.

It feels strange to be here in Europe during such a traumatic week in the U.S. The constant commemorations are reminding us of that terrifying time, what we were doing when the planes hit, how we responded to the horror of so many lives lost.

In that time of foreboding ten years ago, many of us felt a double fear—from the menacing threat of al Qaida’s murderous attacks, but also from the risk of an overly militarized reaction from the U.S. government. Our fears were sharpened soon after the attacks when President Bush declared a ‘global war on terror.’

During that time of fear I worked with friends in the religious community, Reverends Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, to help craft a statement appealing for “sober restraint” and warning against indiscriminate retaliation that would cause more loss of innocent life. The proper response to the criminal attacks of al Qaida, the statement argued, is not war, but vigorous international police efforts to apprehend perpetrators and prevent future attacks. “Let us deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image,” the declaration read. It was eventually signed by more than 4,000 people and published in The New York Times on November 19, 2001.

Ten years later that message remains relevant and necessary. The ill-fated military occupation of Iraq is finally coming to an end, but American troops continue to fight and die in Afghanistan, and U.S. forces are launching a dozen or more drone bombing strikes and commando raids every day in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries.  Civilian deaths in Afghanistan are at their highest level since the UN began reporting such figures, and many are dying under our bombs in Pakistan as well. More innocent lives are lost, and more seeds of revenge and future armed conflict are sown.

When will we learn that war is not the answer? That policies of civilian law enforcement and conflict transformation offer a better strategy for preventing violent extremism?

Henry Kissinger against war?

President Obama will announce soon the beginning of US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. This is a crucial turning point for American foreign policy. Many of us are urging the President to make a substantial reduction as part of a coherent transition strategy to enhance security in the region.

Even Henry Kissinger is now discussing the need for military exit. In a June 7 article in the Washington Post , Kissinger outlines a strategy for negotiating the “withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces.” He proposes setting a deadline to reach a “residual force” level within 18 to 24 months.  It seems that members of the imperial elite now recognize the need to end the war.

It’s weird to find myself agreeing with Henry the K after all these years. I had the same feeling a few years ago when Kissinger joined George Shultz and other senior statesmen in advocating a world without nuclear weapons. Actually, it’s not that I’m agreeing with him but rather that he is coming around to support positions many of us have advocated.

Kissinger writes that a negotiated agreement in Afghanistan needs an “enforcement mechanism.” I have a related but different idea: the deployment of an interim Muslim-led security force under UN authority.  The mission of the proposed force would be to protect civilians and enforce the ceasefire provisions of a negotiated settlement. It would prevent a security vacuum as foreign troops depart and provide political and security assurances within Afghanistan and among neighboring states.

Details about this concept and other elements of a peace strategy for Afghanistan are contained in my new book Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan, available from Amazon.

I hope Kissinger gets a copy as well.

Congress (almost) votes to end the war

This week the House of Representatives came very close to voting for an end to the Afghanistan War. The McGovern-Jones amendment to the Defense Authorization Act calling for “an accelerated transition” out of Afghanistan fell just 11 votes short of passage. The final vote was 204-215. Twenty-six Republicans joined all but eight Democrats in voting for the bill.

The McGovern-Jones amendment has become the litmus test for gauging Congressional opposition to the war. Last year the amendment received 162 votes. This year’s tally of 204 represents a 42 vote increase, in a House of Representatives now dominated by Republicans. This sends a strong political message to the White House that the war must end. Congress is finally catching up to the wishes of the American people, who according to the polls overwhelmingly want the war in Afghanistan to be over.

The pressure will now increase for the President to announce a substantial draw down when he makes his promised decision to begin military withdrawals in July.

To read why and how the war must be ended in a responsible manner, see my just published book Ending Obama’s War.

Afghan Women Speak on Capitol Hill

Last week, I testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress as one of five witnesses in a hearing on women in Afghanistan. The session was chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), with 4 other members of Congress participating: Susan Davis (D-CA), James McDermott (D-WA), Joseph Pitts (R-PA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). It took place in the grand Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building.

The participation of five members of Congress and the presence of a substantial public audience were significant. The copies of our Afghan Women Speak report were snapped up quickly, with requests for more. I gave Congresswoman Schakowsky my last copy.

At the witness table I was paired with Marzia Basel, founder and former head of the Afghan Women¹s Judges Association. Our statements revealed contrasting views. She pleaded for maintaining the international military presence to protect women and guard against the Taliban taking over. She spoke favorably of permanent U.S. military bases.  My focus was on the need for military disengagement. I urged a negotiated political and security agreement within Afghanistan, the introduction of a Muslim-led interim security force under UN authority, support for constitutional guarantees of gender equality, the participation of women in the peace process, and increased funding for political, social and economic opportunity. Continue reading “Afghan Women Speak on Capitol Hill”

Bin Laden’s gone; now let’s end the war

The killing of Osama bin Laden brings partial closure to the long war against Al Qaeda. It is a credit to the police, intelligence and military Special Forces professionals who carried out the job, and to President Obama for maintaining persistent focus on eliminating the threat from Al Qaeda.

This is an occasion for many Americans to celebrate but it is also a time for reflection about the war in Afghanistan, and the necessity of bringing it to a close.

Last year CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged what many analysts already know, that Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has dwindled to insignificance. In June 2010 Panetta told ABC News that the total number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is “relatively small. At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.”

In the wake of Panetta’s revelation some asked why it is necessary to maintain 100,000 U.S. troops, with tens of thousands of additional soldiers from other countries, to wage war against fewer than 100 fighters. In fact this is not a war against Al Qaeda but against the Taliban. Continuing the war is not necessary or helpful to the essential task of preventing global terrorist attacks. Continue reading “Bin Laden’s gone; now let’s end the war”

To help Afghan women, end the war!

Our new Kroc Institute report, Afghan Women Speak, has sparked considerable interest. You can view it here.

During the recent release event at the UN Church Center in New York, the discussion focused on how to end the war in a responsible manner that protects the precarious progress women have made since 2001. The deteriorating security situation has jeopardized women’s gains. As Nicholas Kristof wrote recently in the New York Times, “Let’s not fool ourselves that we are doing favors for Afghan women by pursuing an unsustainable war.” Let’s increase the amount of economic aide and reduce the portion of bombs and bullets.

Continue reading “To help Afghan women, end the war!”

When War Trumps Reason

Reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars is giving me a headache.  The problem is not Woodward’s writing and reporting, which are first class as usual, but rather the story of Obama’s fall 2009 strategy review itself. His account shows a president who is deeply skeptical of military solutions. “I want an exit strategy,” the president insisted to his advisers. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how … we can reduce our military footprint.” Also expressing skepticism about the war were Vice President Joe Biden; Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke; the White House ‘war czar’ and senior adviser for Afghanistan, General Douglas Lute; and U.S. ambassador and former commanding general in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Yet Obama decided to send 30,000 additional troops. Having relied primarily on military advice, the president received only military options. The thrust of the discussion was not whether to send troops but how many and how fast. A sad reflection on the power of the Pentagon to shape presidential decision making and the way in which war imperatives can trump rational decision making.

I’m completing a new book, Ending Obama’s War, which outlines a plan for responsible military disengagement. Look for it early next year from Paradigm Publishers.