Tuesday, November 29, 2005

We Had to Do Something

Some of my anti-war friends argue that the American people were solidly behind the troops, and behind the president, for the invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban in 2001. But, they say, Iraq squandered all that unity to no purpose.

But I think we'd be at roughly the same point now in domestic politics, with or without the Iraq invasion. The anti-war movement starts slowly, but grinds away relentlessly. If Iraq had not given it the fodder it has fed on, media coverage of Afghanistan would have sufficed. And the erosion of support would have been accomplished, even if Saddam still sat in Baghdad cursing America, and his son still squatted in his rape-palaces on the Euphrates.

But I'll leave the "to no purpose" part aside for now.

It is true that popular American opposition to an attack in Afghanistan was much lower (10 or 12 percent), at the outset, than popular opposition to the attack on Saddam's Iraq, which stood at about 27 percent right before the war.

However, people worldwide were as against a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as they were an attack on Saddam. Gallup International surveyed 37 countries in late September 2001 and found support for a U.S. attack on the country harboring the 9/11 terrorists only in the U.S., Israel, and India. Thumping majorities registered against the Afghanistan campaign in the United Kingdom (75%), France (67%), Panama (80%), Mexico (94%) and so on. One of the crucial contributors to the erosion of support for the Iraq war -- international opinion/squandering the good will of the world -- was in place before the first boots hit the desert from Kuwait.

Other key contributors would have fallen in place nicely. The outcry over Guantanamo mainly involves fighters captured in Afghanistan. The dismay over prisoner abuses in Iraq actually overshadows worse reports of abuse that have filtered out from Afghanistan. Substitute "Bagram" for "Abu Ghraib" and you can run the same headlines. The miscalled "insurgents" who flocked to Iraq from across the Muslim world after the U.S. invasion would have found their way as easily to Afghanistan.

With just a little time, the initial 12 percent-to-27 percent gap easily would have been overcome.

Here's an early dose of the poison, which was ready to circulate before anyone dreamed of a U.S. overthrow of Saddam. I clipped this editorial column from the San Francisco "Chronicle" of Oct. 17, 2001 -- little more than a month after Sept. 11, and when the Afghanistan campaign had just begun.

AS LONG AS WE STILL HAVE IT, I'm going to make the most of the First Amendment: What we are doing in, above, and to Afghanistan is short-sighted, counterproductive and immoral. That I am among a mere 6 or 10 percent of Americans (depending on the poll) who feel this way hurts my heart.

The amount of nonthink, or flat-out denial, that is required to support Operation Enduring Freedom is painful to contemplate. Sending thousands of kids -- "our brave men and women in uniform" -- to risk their lives for it is unbearable.

We Americans have never been known for critical thought and analysis. Context and historical perspective rank low on our national priorities list, somewhere below foreign language skills but above gas conservation. Add to that our deliberate myopia and chronic impatience, and you have the U.S. military trashing big chunks of Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-I-Sharif in pursuit of a cave-dwelling, mass murderer and his worldwide band of suicidal disciples.

Damn the advice from seasoned experts on terrorism and the Middle East; full speed ahead with the cruise missiles.

After all, we had to do something.

That phrase. It has been uttered so many times since Sept. 11, I expect to see it printed on our currency any day now. People who call themselves pacifists, people who admit that they are uneasy with the destruction we are raining down on Afghanistan -- people who can't see how this frenzy of B-1's is actually going to get Osama bin Laden -- offer up the phrase as if it were a bona fide moral escape clause: We had to do something.

Lord, yes. We'd waited more than three weeks before we started dropping bombs. Such restraint. Why don't we at least cut the b.s., and own up to exactly what it is we are doing?

First, does the phrase "collateral damage" sound familiar? When Persian Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh used it to describe the 168 children and adults he murdered in the Oklahoma City bombing, we took it as proof of his evilness, as the justification that we needed to execute him.

What is it proof of when U.S. generals use it to describe the Afghan civilians that our bombs already have killed? How about the untold numbers who will die from hunger or disease on their way to refugee camps that can't take them?

Likely, because McVeigh shocked us with the term, "collateral damage" seems to have given way to a new euphemism. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it last week:

"There is no question but that when one is engaged militarily that there are going to be unintended loss of life." Lest anyone think him cold, Rumsfeld added, "And there's no question but that I and anyone involved regrets the unintended loss of life."

When U.S. civilians are killed, it's a travesty. When the dead are from someplace else -- especially a backward, poverty-stricken country such as Afghanistan -- it's regrettable.

Second, let's be honest about the blowback, the truly lethal, political time bombs that we plant with every payload among millions of mainstream Muslims in the Middle East and Asia. George W. Bush can insist that "the United States is a friend to Islam." How many regrettable losses of life do reasonable Muslims tolerate before they begin to doubt our friendship?

Without a doubt, after Sept. 11, we did have to do something, something that takes time, deep and true coalition-building and patient cunning. Instead, we've chosen to play into a mass murderer's hands and prove that our reverence for human life starts diminishing at America's borders.

Start from there. Leaven that into the American media every day. Repeat the application for four years. See if you don't end up with the current ugliness PLUS Saddam still laughing. It doesn't mean the abuses and the mistakes of the Afghan war are justified or excusable. But stop telling me everything would have been cool with these anti-war patriots if we'd just stopped short of Iraq.

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