Revolution #190, January 31, 2010

Obama and the War in Afghanistan... One Year Later: Where Are Students?

In January 2009, Barack Obama took office amidst an unprecedented outpouring of optimism: He was the nation’s first Black president, and he had promised “hope” and “change” after eight nightmarish years of the Bush regime. At the time, the viewpoint put forward by the Revolutionary Communist Party—that Obama’s presidency would not represent “the change we need” but rather a new face on the same old system—was generally greeted with jeers, sneers, and plugged ears.

Fast-forward to December 2009, less than a year later. There Obama is at West Point, repeatedly invoking 9/11 as he announces he will send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. With this surge, Obama is now tripling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office, from 31,000 to 101,000. And, in just one year, he increased troop levels in Afghanistan by more than twice as much as George W. Bush did during his entire eight-year presidency.

Following Obama’s escalation of the war, Revolution set out to investigate how college students are reacting to this development. In the history of this country, students have been on the front lines of resistance against the crimes of their government. This resistance has been a particularly potent force in instances where it has fused with the uncorked fury of those most viciously oppressed, as happened in the 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, the sustained struggle against white supremacy and vicious national oppression and for Black power was a tremendous inspiration to—and combined powerfully with—the student movements of that time, including the student movement against the Vietnam War.

It is not without this historical precedent in mind that many radical and revolutionary-minded people today have found themselves asking, in an era where our government openly launches murderous wars of aggression, tortures, and spies: “Where are all the students?” Obama’s recent escalation of the Afghanistan War is an instance in which this question has once again posed itself very sharply.

Early last month, in the hope of shedding further light on the political landscape of this country’s colleges and universities, Revolution interviewed students on two campuses in New York City; the student body of the first campus is predominantly white and middle class, while students at the second college are mainly people of color from lower-middle-class and proletarian backgrounds. For the purposes of avoiding confusion on the part of our readers, we will refer to these schools in the order in which we visited them: The predominantly white school will be campus 1, while the school whose student body is mainly students of color will be campus 2. Between the two schools, we spoke to a total of 14 students. While this is not nearly a large enough sample to make definitive statements about the political terrain of college campuses in the United States, it does provide a glimpse into that terrain and some of the contradictions, necessity, and potential contained therein.

A Rocky, Winding Landscape

At the beginning of our conversation with Taso, a freshman at campus 1, he expressed dismay at Obama’s pronouncement that the U.S. would begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

“The thing I don’t understand,” Taso said, “is why he hasn’t withdrawn yet. I mean, yeah he wants to make sure there’s a stable government and everything, but honestly we shouldn’t be there.”

The very next question Revolution posed to Taso, asked mainly to solicit clarification and elaboration, was whether he considered the U.S. war in Afghanistan to be just; whether he thought the U.S. should be in Afghanistan.

“I think that we should be there,” Taso said. “But we’re not taking the right way of solving the problem. We’re solving it in a completely wrong manner.”

In the space of roughly one minute, Taso had gone from opposing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to essentially supporting it. This exchange captures as well as any the extremely contradictory nature of students’ reactions to Obama’s escalation of the war.

On campus 1, three of the nine students we spoke to expressed some variation of the argument that the U.S. military should never have gone into Afghanistan to begin with, but since it did invade, it must now remain there to enforce “stability.” Another indicator of this contradictory thinking was the fact that three out of the nine students we spoke to expressed that they felt more positively about the war under Obama than they did about that same war under Bush.

Within the significant complexity of students’ responses, however, some notable themes did emerge.

Uneasiness... But Also Unevenness

It was striking that among the 14 students we spoke to, not one expressed enthusiastic, unwavering, unqualified support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the escalation of that war.

To differing degrees and for varying reasons, students expressed some level of discontent with the war itself and/or with Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

On campus 2, students generally expressed their opposition to the war in clear moral terms.

“I don’t agree with it,” said Ryan, a second-year psychology student. “At the end of the day, there is no need for bloodshed. War never justifies the means. I can speak for a couple of my peers in saying the war is really unjust.”

• Angela, an African-American/Panamanian-American math major at campus 2, agreed. “No, I don’t feel it’s a just war at all,” Angela said. “Now that we have Obama in—‘the saint’—we’re blinded.”

On campus 1, by contrast, students’ positions on the war were more contradictory, often wavering quickly between support and opposition. Here is a brief account of some of the conversations we had there.

• A senior, who preferred not to give her name, initially voiced doubts about Obama’s troop surge on the grounds that it was not founded on a solid strategy and diverted money and resources away from where they were needed. However, this argument did not seem to stem solely from an American way of thinking. “We can’t even spend 30 cents on zinc pills to provide to an African country,” the student said, “but we’re spending billions of dollars to stay in Afghanistan. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

A bit later in the conversation, we put forward the viewpoint of Revolution newspaper—that the war in Afghanistan is a war for empire motivated by a U.S. desire to control not only land and resources but also the region as a whole. We asked the student for her reaction.

“I agree with that,” she interjected. A moment later, she added: “I think that if we’re looking at it idealistically, we do have a reason to be in Afghanistan, because we were attacked, but in terms of whether it’s just in terms of our colonial sort of behavior, no I don’t think that’s just in that way.”

So then, we posed a simple question to the student: “If it were up to you, would the U.S. have troops in Afghanistan tomorrow morning? If the three options are keeping the troop levels before the escalation, escalating like Obama’s doing, or taking the troops out?”

“If the decision were up to me,” she replied, “I would just stabilize it, leave it where it is, and just finish it. I would not add more troops. I would not do any of that.”

Despite her unease with the “colonial” mindset of the U.S., this student did not seem to view a complete and immediate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as an option.

• George, a freshman, articulated a similar mixture of conflicting sentiments. When we asked him if he thought the U.S. should be in Afghanistan, his response was firm. “Absolutely not,” George said. “It’s a war about resources. It has no moral value whatsoever. And we’re just wasting our time.”

“I do agree we shouldn’t be there to begin with,” George said, “But since we are there right now, it’s good that he [Obama]’s thinking about the future and about withdrawing. And 2011 is pretty soon, so I think that’s a good idea.”

But George’s feeling that the war has “no moral value whatsoever” was not accompanied by a sense of anger at commander-in-chief Obama for extending this war. In fact, George acknowledged he viewed the war in Afghanistan differently under Obama than he did under Bush.

“Being [as] I just registered as a Democrat and I was never very fond of Bush and his policies, I was kind of hopeless under his regime and thought that the war would never end,” George said. “I’m not exactly sure what Obama will do, but I think he’s giving the people some sort of hope.”

• Layla, a sophomore whose parents are from Iran, told us:

“I think if anything good can be done, it’s worth it. And this whole Gandhi and ‘the countries can do it for themselves’ crap should be done with...They’re not strictly there to help them...In theory, I’m not against it. But in practice, it’s probably not going to do anything good for Afghanistan.”

We put forward the view of Revolution newspaper that the Afghanistan War is an imperialist war.

“I don’t think it matters whether they’re imperialists is what I’m saying,” Layla responded. “I think the Americans could go wherever they want, and if they improve the conditions for the working person then I’d be ok with it.”

But isn’t the nature of imperialism, by definition, to exploit and murder—rather than to “help”?

“That’s true,” Layla said. “That’s true. That’s why it’s tricky. I don’t think it’s as black and white as it’s being painted. I don’t think it has to be bad; I think in most cases it is.”

• Evelyn and Mira, two politics students, had been closely following the news about Obama’s troop surge and had a lot to say—to us, and to one another—as they sought to sort out their perspectives on the war.

“I actually feel really conflicted about sending 30,000 more troops,” Evelyn said.

Evelyn went on to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as “highly dangerous,” and implied that perhaps the U.S. military was needed there. But she also suggested the war was diverting money from needed social programs in the U.S.

Mira was more clearly unsettled by the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

“I’m pretty ideologically opposed to militarism in general,” Mira began, before adding, “I mean, obviously I’m not a foreign [policy] expert, so I can’t say with certainty or with conviction that it’s a bad idea foreign-policy wise.”

“But just in terms of my own conviction,” Mira continued, “I don’t support sending troops and certainly not sending any more troops to the region when I feel like if troops were the answer, the conflict would not still be to the extent that it is.”

Evelyn and Mira went back and forth on the related questions of whether the U.S. had a “responsibility” to stay in Afghanistan in order to “rebuild” the nation, and what the actual role of the U.S. military is.

“An invasion of a country is an absolutely inappropriate response to terror,” Mira said, “and in fact is counter-productive in that the sentiment and hostility that drives terror is fully encouraged by the enormous suffering inflicted on civilians when you carry out an invasion against a country when you’re looking for a non-state actor.”

Evelyn responded by citing the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai (the alleged perpetrators were Pakistani) in repeating her argument that the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is highly volatile.

“I’m not disagreeing with you that it’s really easy to umbrella-ize a people and it becomes a conflict not only directed towards one group of actors, but towards an entire population and the entire population suffers as a result,” Evelyn said. “But still it’s a region that really deserves international attention and concern.”

“I agree certainly that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” Mira said. “But my feeling is that because that problem involves non-state actors, the response should be one that does not target an entire state and certainly not the civilian population. And I think you [Evelyn] also mentioned before that part of the reason you see for going into Afghanistan is to implement democracy in the region. And I just don’t see that as the role of the military or what the role of the military ought to be, actually.”

However, Mira’s sentiments of opposition to the Afghanistan War did not translate into the demand that the U.S. leave Afghanistan.

“I don’t necessarily believe that the government should be acting the way that I wish that they would act,” Mira said, “because I understand that my role as a citizen is different from the role of state actors in terms of the decisions that they have to make as agents of the state. So I guess what I’m trying to say through that is that I don’t believe that it is necessarily my role to stop the escalation or to get the government to change its policy, especially because I think there’s a feeling on the part of people who are involved in those decisions that military issues should be decided by people in the military and the commander-in-chief.”

(Editors’ note: This concludes Part 1 of this article about students’ reactions to the escalation of the Afghanistan War. In this section, we have aimed to give a sense of why we endeavored to explore the mood on campuses as well as some of the contradictions and unevenness we encountered in doing so. In Part 2 of this piece, we will explore this unevenness in much greater depth, by highlighting some noteworthy themes that stood out in our conversations, analyzing the implications of what students told us, and illuminating the contradictions all this poses in terms of our work as revolutionary communists—and the potential to transform those contradictions through struggle.)

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