As the country gets ready to inaugurate President-Elect Barack Obama and say goodbye to the Bush years, a coalition of progressive bloggers are drawing attention the Afghanistan War. Obama has announced that he plans to send 30,000 troops to the country as part of an effort–albeit under a kinder rhetorical guise than Bush–to quash the persistent insurgency in the country.
For someone who has been involved in anti-war organizing since 9/11, it’s refreshing to see some critical attention placed on Afghanistan, especially when so many people on the left continue to see it as a “good war” that has noble aims, unlike Iraq which is seen as “Bush’s mistake” or some other variation.
A Look Back
However, it’s important for us to remember that Afghanistan is not a “good war” gone “bad,” but what has happened in Afghanistan since the October 2001 invasion was the predictable consequence of a flawed policy decision.
To be sure, much of the country supported the invasion of Afghanistan. However, there was a strong minority of people who were highly critical of the war. I’d argue that this group was a mix of folks from the 1960s left, the solidarity movements of the 1980s, the groups organizing against President Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy, and the anti-globalization movement that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which was at its peek around the time of September 11). In September and October of 2001, the Internet was still in its infancy as a progressive news source, but a wealth of pieces critical of the US invasion of Afghanistan were published on sites such as Alternet.org and Zmag.org.
Looking back on these articles, it’s striking how right many of them were. While a fair number included in their talking points the fact that the United States had no clear proof that Osama Bin Laden was behind the attacks (which was true at the time), many of the other points came to fruition. The war did become a lengthy occupation characterized by an unsuccessful counter-insurgency campaign, the war did not dramatically improve the lives of Afghanistan citizens (although some predicted humanitarian disasters did not come to fruition), and civilians bared the brunt of the assault both as direct casualties (a number which continues to grow) and as a result of the disruption of the country. At the same time, bombing Afghanistan failed to destroy either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and both have been able to attack the US and its allies in the years since the 2001 invasion. News out of the country continues to be dismal, with an almost constant stream of stories on civilians deaths by the Taliban and related insurgent groups or the US.
For those who are interested, links to some articles from September/Early October of 2001 critical of the invasion of Afghanistan appear at the end of this article.
Organizing Against the Invasion of Afghanistan
However, it wasn’t just written pieces that were being published–people did take to the streets to oppose the US invasion of Afghanistan. An antiwar group reported at the time:
“Before the bombs fell, 20,000 people in Washington D.C. and San Francisco each, as well as thousands in Los Angeles, rallied on September 29 under the slogan Act Now To Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER).
On October 7, the first day of the bombing, 10,000 New Yorkers marched from Union Square some 30 blocks to Times Square, stopping traffic and shouting “U.S. Hands Off Afghanistan!” Five thousand jammed San Francisco’s central cable car stop, and over the next 48 hours, thousands more collectively rallied again in New York, Buffalo, Washington, D.C., Boston, Princeton, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Denver, Boulder, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland, San Diego; and dozens of other cities, including students from American University, Princeton University, MIT, Harvard, Vassar College, the University of Michigan, Wesleyan University, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, Mission High School, and others.”
Protesting the Afghanistan War in Grand Rapids
Even here in Grand Rapids, a relatively conservative Midwestern town, there was visible opposition to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly after the attacks, a group formed out of the Institute for Global Education (IGE) to organize a “Peace Presence“–weekly vigils held outside the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building–to voice opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. Those vigils–albeit shifting in focus and location–have continued to this day.
Another group organized a “teach-in” to expose US policy in the region, emphasizing that if people were going to understand both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, they would need to understand the historical context of US foreign policy. The teach-in–dubbed “September 11th: Causes and Just Responses”–was well attended.
Out of the teach-in came a number of related organizing efforts. A group of activists put together a “reader” collecting a wealth of articles critical of the US response to the 9/11 attacks and plans to invade Afghanistan. The reader was distributed around town and filled important gaps left by the local media’s jingoistic coverage of war. Another group organized a public protest against the Afghanistan War. The protest featured a march from Veteran’s Park to the most watched local television station, WOOD TV 8, to highlight its role in supporting the war. Following the march, activists held a 24-hour vigil on the corner of Division and Fulton to draw attention to the war.
Limited Local Media Coverage of Dissent
Media coverage of such dissent was limited, both locally and nationally. the Grand Rapids Press ran one article in 2001 on protests against the invasion (“We don’t believe in bombing’ – Peace activists with roots in the Vietnam War protests know they are a vocal minority in opposing Afghanistan attacks,” October 30, 2001). Its decision to place the article on the front page generated a large number of calls and letters according to The Press (“Press’ coverage of war protesters draws readers’ ire”, November 4, 2001), prompting The Press to defend its decision:
“After the complaints, Andy [News Editor Andy Angelo] checked our A-1 pattern for October. No other photo could be described as a directly critical view of U.S policy. And 21 days out of 31, we ran page-dominant news photographs that would have to be characterized as supportive of the war effort or displays of patriotic emotion.”
Even in its defense of running a front page photo of a protestor, the Grand Rapids Press didn’t hesitate to admit that it had a heavy pro-military bias.
A study the period after the bombing started by the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) showed that the local media’s coverage of the Afghanistan War overwhelmingly relied on government and military sources.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
It’s impossible to say what organizing against the Afghanistan War would have looked like had it continued along at its late-2001 pace. Instead, the build-up for the invasion of Iraq started and much of the nascent anti-war movement turned its sights to stopping that invasion. A number of conclusions could be drawn about this decision–among them that much of the progressive left supported the Afghanistan War–but that’s a discussion for another day.
Rather, the important lesson to draw from the short-lived resistance to the Afghanistan War is that those protesting the war were basically right. The invasion of Afghanistan did not succeed in dismantling the Al-Qaeda network, it did not eradicate the Taliban, it has not led to stability in the country, and it has not helped improve the collective lot of the Afghan people. Instead, the war has become a long-term occupation that has no clear ends, no clear goal, and no clear victory.
As we consider how best to deal with the Afghanistan War and build the opposition necessary to end it, we’d do well to remember that those of us who opposed it from the start were right.