An informal horn skirmish broke out at noon Friday in downtown Lansing.
In one corner, war protesters, a familiar Friday sight since September 2001, carried homemade signs in front of the State Capitol.
Meanwhile, a block east, an unrelated group marched at a construction site, demanding that local builders hire local workers.
Many of the war protesters’ signs had “Afghanistan ” scrawled on them — a tough read for passing drivers. The labor signs, by contrast, were a uniform bright orange and easy to scan on the fly.
But it was no contest. The war protesters got a continuous salvo of friendly honks. The labor protesters got a sprinkling at best.
A curbside honk tally isn’t science — not even social science — but for that hour, conventional political wisdom seemed to falter. Foreign affairs trumped the economy. An apparently distant matter eclipsed a local one.
As America marks the eighth anniversary of military involvement in Afghanistan and the Obama administration mulls over a major troop surge, doubts and fears over the conflict are surging too. In an NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll released Sept. 24, 59 percent of Americans said they are feeling less confident the war will be successful and 51 percent said they would oppose sending more troops.
Sensing a sea change in public opinion, Lansing-area activists are ratcheting up their call for a freeze in troop levels or a pullout from what Obama has called a “war of necessity.”
Even the school groups that pass by the protesters on their way to the Capitol have changed their behavior, according to protester Charlie Nash. “At first they used to shepherd the kids away from us,” Nash said Friday. “Now they come right over, the older ones hold signs, and they take pictures.”
A Will and a way out
“We’ve reached a tipping point,” MSU English Professor Ken Harrow said. “The majority of the American people, for different reasons, don’t want to go on fighting in Afghanistan for another eight, or 80, years.”
Harrow specializes in African literature and Islam. He’s taught and researched in Africa on and off for decades, both as a Fulbright scholar and professor.
At 5 p.m. today, he plans to stand at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road, where the Greater Lansing Network Against War and Injustice, or GLNAWI, organized a vigil “to mark and mourn” the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.
Last Thursday, Harrow was nursing a cold while grading papers at his East Lansing home, but he rasped with gusto about the war.
Harrow knows President Obama is on the spot after getting an Aug. 30 report from the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who requested up to 40,000 more troops or the conflict “will likely result in failure.” There are 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, including an additional 21,000 troops Obama sent earlier this year.
“I’m concerned we don’t end up staying in Afghanistan for the rest of our children’s lives,” Harrow said.
Harrow said GLNAWI is calling for a freeze in current troop levels, a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces, multiparty regional talks, and civilian-led development aid.
On the first point, at least, the group has a powerful sympathizer in U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
“I do not believe we should commit to additional U.S. ground combat troops at this time,” Levin wrote Tuesday in response to questions from City Pulse. “The best chance of success is to strengthen the Afghan army and police so they can take responsibility for their country’s security.”
Instead of the reinforcements McChrystal requested, Levin wants to send “large numbers of additional trainers” to beef up the Afghan army and police.
“The public realizes there are important U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan,” Levin went on. “I believe they will support efforts to build Afghan forces to the point where they can secure their country. I do not believe they want to see commitment of more and more U.S. combat troops.”
Levin didn’t go this far, but from Lansing to Washington, McChrystal’s report has detonated a cluster bomb of comparisons to the war in Vietnam.
In a Sept. 26 column titled “Obama at the Precipice,” New York Times pundit Frank Rich urged the president’s staff to pick up historian Gordon M. Goldstein’s “must-read” book on Vietnam, “Lessons in Disaster.”
“The time for all Americans to catch up with this extraordinary cautionary tale is now,” Rich wrote.
Even conservative columnist George Will came out forcefully against the war in a Sept. 1 piece in The Washington Post, “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.”
Success in Afghanistan, Will wrote, would require “hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more.” That, he said, is “inconceivable.” Will also cited historian Max Hasting’s comparison of the weak and corrupt Hamid Karzai government to the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon 40 years ago.
Will lamented that “American valor” was being “squandered” on Afghanistan, but Lansing-area activist Ann Francis said she is more concerned about the effect of the war on the Afghan people.
“We have the formula,” Francis said. “The more bombs we drop, lots of innocent people will be killed, and the more violence is legitimized. We’ve seen over and over how it works.”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., struck the same note on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Sept. 28. “I’ve seen this movie before,” Kerry said, referring to Vietnam. “I remember what happened when the president of the United States and General Westmoreland kept on asking for more troops without questioning the underlying assumptions of the war.”
In his report to Obama, McChrystal wrote that more troops are needed to better protect the Afghan population and avoid “the perception that our resolve is uncertain.”
But Harrow is sure that the American military presence, with its attendant destruction and civilian casualties, is helping to radicalize the Afghan people and silence moderates there.
He drew on his experience in Egypt on the eve of the Iraq war. “There were moderate Islamists who told me that once the Americans went into Iraq they couldn’t speak openly,” he said. “That’s true of all the Muslim countries I know, and it’s obviously true of Afghanistan.”
Harrow doesn’t buy the argument that Americans are in Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons.
He said there are a dozen other coun tries where ongoing violence is much worse. “Take Somalia or East Congo, for example,” he said. “If you want to do a humanitarian invasion, to prevent killings, 6 million people died in the Congo since 1998. There was a coup d’etat in Honduras and an elected president was thrown out of office. Why don’t we have troops down there?”
Barbara Thibeault, a Lansing social worker and peace activist, suggested an answer.
“When all is said and done, this war is about a military and economic base in the Middle East,” she said. “It’s about using 9/11 to galvanize around a common enemy again.”
The view is common among Afghan war opponents, but Levin contrasted the American presence in Afghanistan with the “geopolitical” goals of two previous powers, Britain and the Soviet Union.
“Our goals are much different than those nations’,” Levin wrote to City Pulse. “We are there to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from violent extremists who have used Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us. Those differing goals explain the big difference in Afghan public perception of our efforts vs. the Soviet Union’s.”
Sending more troops, Levin said, would “put the spotlight on us and an increased Western footprint that feeds the al-Qaeda propaganda machine that falsely paints us as a dominating, occupying power.”
“So long as we continue to focus on building an Afghanistan with its own strong security forces, a transparent and accountable government and economic opportunity for its citizens, we will be able to leave Afghanistan in far better circumstances than foreign invaders of the past.”
Last Thursday, Francis was in on Turner Street in Old Town, holding one end of a tape measure. At the other end was her life partner, Nancy Lombardi. The couple got together that afternoon to help landscape the newly built Red Cedar Friends meetinghouse.
The Friends, of course, are also known as Quakers.
Francis knows that as a woman, and a lesbian, she wouldn’t fare well under a fundamentalist Taliban regime, but she is nevertheless steadfast in her opposition to military action in Afghanistan.
Kill an enemy, she said, and you make more. Her dread of eye-for-an-eye violence is more than pie-in-the-sky Quakerism. This Saturday, insurgents in the Nuristan province killed eight Americans. The report stated that locals were “more hospitable” to insurgents because of anger over the killing of local medical staff in an airstrike the week before.
In his report to Obama, McChrystal urged stronger efforts to avoid civilian casualties, but the problem isn’t going away. According to a United Nations report released in February 2009, civilian deaths in Afghanistan rose 40 percent from 2007 to 2008. Of 2,118 civilians killed, 828 were killed by U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces, most by airstrikes. So far in 2009, the civilian toll is running ahead of 2009, with over 1,500 civilian dead.
Last Thursday, Oct. 1, a provincial governor reported nine civilians, including six children, killed in a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan.
“We’re strengthening the hand of the Taliban right now,” MSU Professor Jack Smith said.
Smith, an education prof, loses few opportunities to teach, even when he’s standing in the median of Grand River Avenue. At today’s vigil in East Lansing, he plans to carry a curiously specific sign reading “Taliban don’t equal al-Qaeda.”
The sign will highlight what Smith feels to be the biggest mistake of American policy and perception in Afghanistan: equating the stateless terrorist cabal al-Qaeda with Afghanistan’s Taliban.
“That’s just dumb-headed,” Smith said. “Whatever remains of the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the bulk of our activity is trying to defeat the Taliban movement — and the Taliban has support of many Afghans.”
Smith knows that many Americans, President Obama included, are used to speaking of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in one breath.
“I expect to have conversations with people riding by,” he said.
He’ll get an interesting chat if Levin happens to ride by.
“The Taliban and al Qaeda remain deeply unpopular in Afghanistan,” Levin wrote to City Pulse. “Continued public support for our presence, even in a more supporting role, depends on the people of Afghanistan seeing the coalition as their protectors.”
Levin praised McChrystal for pressing coalition forces in Afghanistan to avoid civilian casualties. “His focus is less on pursuing insurgents than on protecting the population from the insurgents’ attacks,” Levin said. “The more successfully we focus on that goal, the stronger the support from the Afghan public will be.”
Harrow praised Levin for opposing a troop surge and speculated that the veteran Armed Services Committee chairman might have given the president some political cover to turn down McChrystal’s request.
“Obama picked that up and drew back from his more categorical statements that we’ll do whatever we need to do to win this war,” Harrow said.
“The peace movement has to keep the pressure up,” Francis said. “If Obama is a middle of the road guy, he has to have pressure from the progressive side, and so does Congress.”
“He’s going to figure he has us all in his pocket — nothing we can do,” Harrow said. “But people like us, like GLNAWI, aren’t willing to walk the walk with him anywhere he goes with this.”
The ladies’ auxiliary
As the war protesters milled at the corner of Capitol and Michigan avenues Friday, three women, among them Francis, found themselves lined up on the curb.
“This must be the ladies’ auxiliary,” Francis joked.
In spite of the Taliban’s repressive stance on women’s rights, these women were adamant in their call for a halt to the war.
Thibeault said it’s “disingenuous” to use oppression of Afghan women to justify war.
“War works against liberation,” Thibeault said. “It may sound sexist, but we have to admit that war for centuries has been the realm of men and that women are left to heal the wounds and clean up the mess.”
Many peace activists, women and men, agonize over the cultural practices of the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslim groups, but doubt the efficacy of direct Western interference.
As a specialist in African culture and Islam, Harrow watched with great interest when Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, framed a new family legal code in 2004. Human rights groups praised the code as a step forward for women’s rights there.
“Half a million women demonstrated against that law in the streets of Casablanca,” Harrow said. “The next day, half a million women demonstrated in favor of it.”
Again and again, Harrow has to explain to his students that the Islamic world isn’t monolithic. He uses the debate in Morocco as an example.
“Who decides how Muslim people will frame their own social values?” Harrow asked. “That was a Moroccan issue to decide.”
Harrow said the code might not have been passed if it were seen as imposed by the West. To him, the parallel with Afghanistan is clear. The phenomenon has already spawned a controversial catchphrase, coined by Indian-born philosopher and Columbia Professor Gayatri Spivak: “White men saving brown women from brown men.”
“I don’t think we ever, ever are going to change that culture with military force,” Lansing nurse and peace activist Margaret Kingsbury said. “In fact, if anything, I think it will increase the resistance and possibly help the Taliban recruit.”
Costs and benefits
Most arguments against any war begin with the costs, and the numbers in Afghanistan are spiking sharply into the red.
According to the Associated Press, there have been 836 U.S. and 472 coalition deaths in Afghanistan as of Sept. 30. July, August and September 2009 have been the bloodiest months in the war so far, with 51, 61 and 49 deaths, respectively.
The Center for Defense Information reported the cost of operations in Afghanistan at $140 billion in 2008 and $173 billion in 2009, up from $19.1 billion in 2006 and $36.8 billion in 2007.
“What really bugs me is, we have so many things on our plate right now,” Francis said. “The health care debate. There’s a direct connection between this and the budget falling apart in Lansing. This is where the money is going.”
But war money flows in two directions. On June 26, Levin announced that the National Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2010 would include over $13 billion in military money for Michigan, including construction projects, robotics, research and development, “advanced automotive,” procurement, and university research.
Under the bill, Lansingbased Demmer Corp. is among the beneficiaries of a mammoth $6.7 billion procurement for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, a crucial piece of equipment in Afghan counterinsurgency operations. Demmer will also share in $1.53 billion for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles.
Peckham Industries of Lansing makes components of a cold weather clothes for the Marines, budgeted at a $5 million. MSU’s engineering school, a longtime partner with the Army’s Warren-based military vehicle technology center, is slated to get $4 million to research composite materials for the military.
In Michigan, “khaki jobs” dwarf “green jobs” in economic importance. The one-year 2010 Military Authorization Bill doubles the $6.4 billion in total Michigan green job investment to date Gov. Jennifer Granholm touted in a May 27 radio address.
Levin’s announcement even sounded like a jobs bill, emphasizing “cutting-edge research that will help safeguard U.S. personnel” and produce “the next generation of fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles for military applications.”
No mention was made of the tasks these tanks, armored vehicles and safeguarded troops would carry out.
The business is welcome in recession-racked Michigan, but some in the Lansing peace community are reminded of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 speech warning against the influence of the “military-industrial complex.” In the speech, Eisenhower said, “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office in the federal government.”
“People are making lots of money off it,” Kingsbury said. “The military-industrial complex is real, and they’ve done a good job of convincing the public that if we don’t do something about this, we’re going to have another terrorist attack, and it’s because our military was weak.”
The honks at the corner of Michigan and Capitol avenues lasted about an hour.
As some of the protesters chatted or waved at passing motorists, one man stood placidly.
“Call me Joe the protester,” the man said, wryly referring to last fall’s everyman, Joe the Plumber.
The Lansing man has patiently stuck out the Friday noon protest since 2004, well before the Afghanistan debate ran to fever pitch.
One of the most striking things about McChrystal’s report is its burning sense of urgency. “Time matters,” he wrote in the report. “We must act now to reverse the negative trends and demonstrate progress.”
Joe, a retiree, lives on Joe time, patiently expecting good things.
“Five years ago, everybody seemed against us,” Joe said. “We got shoved and booed. Over time, it completely turned over.”
Like many peace activists, Joe drew fresh inspiration from “Three Cups of Tea,” the bestselling account of American nurse Greg Mortenson’s successful drive to build 50 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“That’s what I’d like to see,” he said. “I’d like to see books and schools. I know the Taliban has torn down schools, but over time, that only hurts them.”
Joe doesn’t expect to stop the war, but he seemed at peace with himself.
“It’s being consistent and faithful,” he said. “I transform, others transform and we can have a different kind of society.”