Revolution #191, February 7, 2010
Obama and the War in Afghanistan... One Year Later: Where Are Students?
Editors' Note: This is Part 2 of "Obama and the War in Afghanistan… One Year Later: Where Are Students?" Part 1 appeared in Revolution #190.
In Part 1, we explained why we explored how students were reacting to Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan. We will continue in this article, and speak to some of the assumptions underlying those comments, and suggest some of the challenges, necessity, and potential this poses for revolutionary communists in this political moment.
America: A Force for Good?!
We ended Part 1 with the comments of Mira, a student who expressed opposition to the Afghanistan war and to "militarism" in general, but then added:
"I don't necessarily believe that the government should be acting the way that I wish that they would act, 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."
Let's examine this statement, since it reflects something well beyond simply Mira's personal beliefs. Let's look at the assumption underlying this comment…
In order to argue that decisions about America and its role in the world are best left to the U.S. government and military, one must accept (consciously or otherwise) a basic underlying assumption: That even if the U.S. does "some bad things" in the world, it is ultimately—and in an overall, basic sense—a force for good. Without accepting that premise, it makes no sense to argue that the future of the Afghanistan war and America's role in the world should be left up to U.S. politicians and generals.
And the argument that America is (at least mainly) a force for good in the world in turn reflects a lack of understanding about what the U.S. actually does around the world and why it does it.
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has made the succinct yet profound observation that: "The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism."
At campus 1, when we asked students why they thought the U.S. is in Afghanistan, they generally gave some variation of one (or both) of the following answers:
1) The U.S. is in Afghanistan to bring "stability" and "democracy" to the country.
Even in instances where students viewed this mission as misguided, unnecessary, or unrealistic, they still believed it is indeed the mission the U.S. is pursuing. And, even if students acknowledged to some degree that "fostering democracy" is not what the U.S. is actually doing presently in Afghanistan, they seemed to hold out hope the U.S. military is capable of playing this role in the future.
A conversation with Sophie, a sophomore, concentrated these sentiments.
"My personal feeling is that from the beginning, I thought that it wasn't really our position to make sure that democracy is stable in Afghanistan, but that's kind of the angle that Bush went on," Sophie said. "So, I don't think that it's particularly our job as Americans to make sure that the whole world is democratic, even though that's kind of our historical position that we take with all the wars that we go into, especially in Vietnam and the Cold War and stuff like that—the Cuban missile crisis."
A short time later, we voiced Revolution newspaper's analysis.
"I completely agree with that," Sophie answered. "In the other cases, and in other wars that we've entered, we really have imperialist intentions but we kind of cover it up with this whole idea that we're bringing democracy to the world and we're enlightening the world. And I think that in the first place we shouldn't have ever been there."
But then Sophie repeated: "I think to pull out without establishing democracy would probably make it all for nothing."
2) The U.S. is in Afghanistan to fight terror.
Students who gave this answer either said that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan because of the 9/11 attacks, and/or they said that the U.S. was in Afghanistan for the purpose of fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban and fighting terrorists.
This narrative too is premised—again, perhaps not consciously—on the belief that the U.S. military are the "good guys" in the world who are fighting to eradicate the "bad guys."
To argue the U.S. is a force fighting terror, you must argue that it is not inflicting terror, or at least not with the level of intent, or to the extent, as the force it is fighting.
In actuality, the history of the U.S. in the Middle East is one of repeatedly and systematically inflicting unspeakable levels of terror on innocent people in the pursuit of empire, on a scale unmatched by any other force in the world.
Let's look at just a few examples of what the U.S. is actually doing in Afghanistan. Consider this excerpt from an article by New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall.
"Cellphone images seen by this reporter show at least 11 dead children, some apparently with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque. Ten days after the airstrikes, villagers dug up the last victim from the rubble, a baby just a few months old. Their shock and grief is still palpable." (www.nytimes.com/2008/09/08/world/asia/08afghan.html)
Does that sound like "fighting terror"? Or inflicting it?
Oh, but that airstrike was when Bush was still in office. Now we have Obama. Which has led repeatedly to scenes like this one:
"Villagers brought truckloads of bodies, most of them women and children, to the provincial capital… Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, the former top official in the district of Bala Baluk, told AP by phone he saw dozens of bodies when he visited the village of Gerani. ‘These houses that were full of children and women and elders were bombed by planes. People are digging through rubble with shovels and hands.' Qadderdan said the civilian casualties were ‘worse than Azizabad.'" (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/06/100-feared-dead-afghanistan-raids)
Does that sound like "fighting terror"? Or inflicting it?
And what about Bagram Airfield, the infamous U.S. prison and torture chamber in Afghanistan? One year into Obama's presidency, the U.S. is still holding at least hundreds of detainees at Bagram in secrecy, without charges or trial. (www.aclu.org/national-security/bagram-foia)
Does that sound like "fighting terror"? or inflicting it?
The examples given of U.S. conduct in Afghanistan go hand in hand with the actions of the U.S. military more broadly in the Middle East—with the middle-of-the-night home raids, in which U.S. troops kick in doors and drag innocent people away at gunpoint in front of their children; and the use of unmanned drones, controlled remotely by pilots sitting in the United States, to blow away people in Pakistan.
While the U.S. rulers continue to argue that they are motivated by the "fight against terror," their actions tell a different, and horrifyingly immoral story. And, we would point out that clinging to an idea that the U.S. is in Afghanistan to "fight terror" can easily lead to arguing that the Afghanistan war was wrong initially, but is necessary currently, in order to bring "stability" to the country and the region.
This is precisely the argument made by Daniel, a Ph.D. student. Daniel said that as a principle he is generally opposed to war, and that he also opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in particular, because he considered it to be "sort of done hastily, decided by emotion."
However, Daniel defended Obama's latest troop surge.
"I didn't agree initially with the war," Daniel said. "But the fact that U.S. and NATO forces are currently there—because of that, escalation is a necessary evil. Because the current strategy isn't working and unilateral withdrawal would lead to far worse repercussions."
What "far worse repercussions"?
"Greater instability in the region," Daniel answered.
At campus 2, there was generally more suspicion, if not a full understanding, of U.S. motives and objectives in the Middle East.
"My opinion is it's all smoke and mirrors," Ryan said. "It's really over oil. There's billions of dollars in revenue if the U.S. is able to control Middle Eastern oil."
"I think it's a territorial thing," said Angela, an African-American/Panamanian woman. "It's the same as Panama. The same as Puerto Rico. The same as Cuba."
Later in the conversation, when we articulated Revolution newspaper's analysis, Angela responded: "America is just a bully… The only countries they are not going to be able to bully is the European countries. They gonna try to take over the quote ‘third world' countries… They gonna continue on and on until there is nothing left to conquer."
Clearly, the quest for control of oil and territory are key elements of why the U.S. is in Afghanistan, but this is not the essence of the matter: The U.S. seeks oil and land not as ends in themselves, but as the means to furthering and expanding an empire and an economic system of capitalism-imperialism. Similarly, while there was a sense at campus 2 that the U.S. is not a benevolent force bringing democracy to the lands it occupies, there was not a fundamental understanding of why the U.S. military bullies and terrorizes people around the world; that is, not just because it can, but because the system of imperialism that it is enforcing depends on it.
Differing and Conflicting Views on Obama
Returning to a point we made at the beginning of this piece, it was after all Obama who formulated and announced the recent escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Given that so many youth in this country believed Obama's presidency would bring a dramatic change in how the U.S. related to the rest of the world, it was natural to wonder to what degree the troop surge had altered this perception.
Students' responses to this question varied from one interview to the next, and sometimes within the same interview.
At campus 1, some students were willing to make excuses for Obama they acknowledged they would not make for Bush; nearly half said they felt differently about the Afghanistan war with Obama at the helm.
Other students, however, expressed feelings of frustration, disillusionment, or disappointment with Obama's escalation of the war and said it had negatively impacted their view of him.
"I'm not happy with that [the surge], and I don't think he's doing anything very much different than what Bush is doing in a lot of different areas," said a senior at campus 1 who preferred not to give her name.
On the other hand, Mira acknowledged she was making excuses, "I realize this is silly, because I have no basis for it other than my feelings about them as people and as politicians," she said. "But I feel like if Bush had made the same decision, I may not be saying ‘Oh, maybe they are making the right decision and I just don't have all the information that the government has.'''
But, Mira continued, "I think this decision makes me rethink my image of Obama and what type of politician he is compared to what I imagined he was. And I think that's something the whole country is going through now and with health care—we're kind of comparing the real Obama to the idealized Obama that we kind of wanted him to be."
Interestingly, at campus 2, there was less ambivalence about Obama: people were pissed, and felt Obama had betrayed them.
"I supported him," Ryan said. "But it's making me wonder who exactly did I vote for? He was preaching change. It's been a year, and there hasn't been any change."
"I think it was trickery," Angela said. "I think that him trying to come into office, people are so attached to him being an African-American president that we're—it's like blinders—we're not focused on the things we really need to be focused on. So the fact that he's sending out the 30,000 troops, we're not really concentrating on the fact that he contradicted himself. We're more like ‘oh, we have Obama now.' You know, Bush, the devil, is gone."
Pessimism, Paralysis, Passivity
So far, we have tried to provide a sense of the complexity and unevenness within students' thinking about the Afghanistan war, and about the role the U.S. plays in the world.
However, there was one theme that was repeatedly expressed at both campuses:
When we asked students what their role is in resisting the war, students overwhelmingly indicated that they did not see themselves playing this role.
Several said they didn't feel they were adequately informed about, or directly affected by, the war to the degree to make it a major concern on their minds.
When we asked Ryan, the student on campus 2 who described the Afghanistan war as "an unjust war from the beginning," what it would take to get him involved in protests against the war, he replied:
"Say, if a relative, or my brother or my cousin was sent away, then I would be more wanting to protest. But for right now, I'll just take a back seat to protest against the war."
Daniel, the Ph.D. student we interviewed at campus 1, came at this question another way:
"I don't think domestic constituencies should really have any say in whether/when these wars should end," Daniel said bluntly.
"Certain decisions should be in the hands of specialists," Daniel said. "The U.S. people have a responsibility for when wars begin, but once they start, you have to delegate power to elected officials and to the military."
Several other conversations, especially at campus 2, suggested a key factor in students' reluctance to resist the war in Afghanistan was a feeling that our society as a whole would not have their backs if they stepped out.
"It will take a lot [to stop the war]," Howard said. "I guess, going back to all the marches and protests you've ever seen—anti-government, antiwar—they always end up wrong. They always seem to be categorized as just radicals. You understand what I'm saying? They want to express their thoughts so much it seems irrational to some. So to become active in a protest would be difficult for me."
For others, skepticism about the viability of resistance was informed by a sense that we are simply not living in an era of mass protest, critical thinking, and upsurge; some students contrasted the political climate of today with that of the 1960s.
"We would all have to come together as a nation to go against it," Aliqua said. "And until that happens, people don't have the strength, or if they do have the strength, they're too busy in their own lifestyle. It's not like back then when we all came together in certain situations."
"You mean ‘back then' as in the 1960s?" we asked.
"Yeah," she said. "In the '60s we really went against a lot of stuff. Now-a-days it's not like that anymore. A lot of people are afraid."
In our discussion with Angela, we described to her how students in the 1960s held teach-ins against the war.
"Like Mario?" she asked.
"Yes, like Mario Savio," we replied. "Like debates on the Vietnam War."
"We don't have that now," she replied. "That's not something you'll see on the campus."
But one might have said the same thing at the beginning of the 1960s…
"It Is What It Is… And It Can Be Transformed—Through Struggle"
Following the National Guard's massacre of students at Kent State and Jackson State universities, President Richard Nixon charged a commission including a police chief, a former Governor, and several academics with the task of looking into the situation on U.S. campuses; in the fall of 1970, the commission came back with its report.
In one passage, the report contrasted the political climate at the beginning and end of the 1960s:
"When the decade began the vast majority of American students were either apolitical or dedicated to working peacefully for change within the existing system. As it ends, increasing numbers of students accept a radical analysis of American society and despair of the possibilities for peaceful social change."
Moral of the story? Shit changes.
That doesn't mean the current political terrain is destined to change for the better. Thinking that will just lead to another deadly form of paralysis. Change of some kind is inevitable; people, circumstances, and societies do not stand still, but are rather in constant motion. The questions still to be determined are when and how this change will occur, and what kind of change it will be.
These are among the very questions Bob Avakian tackles in great depth in his new talk, "Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution." Summarizing this talk's extensive analysis of the key questions, challenges, contradictions, and necessity confronting revolutionaries is well beyond the scope of this article. But there are a few points Avakian makes in the talk that seem especially important to emphasize in concluding this article.
The first is Avakian's formulation—building on something said by a leading comrade in the RCP: "It is what it is…and it can be transformed—through struggle."
Elaborating on this point, Avakian says:
"What is being emphasized in this formulation is the materialist approach of proceeding from the objective conditions that we have to work with—and work on and transform—and that there is, within those same objective conditions, the material basis—not a certainty, not some supernatural process or force, but an actual objective material basis—which makes possible repolarization for revolution."
Very directly related to that point is another that Avakian makes a bit further on in the talk:
"The point has been stressed that unevenness is in fact the basis on which change occurs and that the basis for change which this unevenness provides can be a tremendous strength for rising and revolutionary forces."
Applying these points to the current political climate on campuses—and within that, the particularity of students' reactions to Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war—we can see that the tremendous unevenness and contradiction in how students' current perceptions also hold within it the potential for radical and even revolutionary change in those perceptions. Although our interviews showed a tremendous lack of clarity about why the U.S is really in Afghanistan and what it is really doing there, and although they revealed a significant accommodation to a criminal, unjust war, there was also an unmistakable sense of unease, opposition (if not yet mainly active opposition) and restlessness with Obama's troop surge and with the war in Afghanistan overall.
Furthermore, the following are objective facts: Wars for empire are not only criminal but completely unnecessary; they are not in the interests of the overwhelming majority of humanity; they persist only because of the global capitalist-imperialist system that is in place; and they accordingly can be ended only through a revolution to get rid of that system.
This analysis does not correspond to how people spontaneously understand the war in Afghanistan, but it does correspond to reality; the more that revolutionary forces get out in society—including, critically, on campuses—and expose this reality, the greater the potential that exists for winning students and the masses more broadly away from acquiescence with the crimes of their government.
In short, our interviews with students reflected unmistakable grappling—even if sometimes subconscious and beneath the surface—with questions that, ultimately, only revolution and communism can answer.
The basic task before revolutionary communists in relation to the Afghanistan war—and Obama's escalation of that war—is to expose it as the horrific product of an intolerable and outmoded imperialist system that can and must be done away with through revolution, and to bring forward powerful resistance to that war that is grounded in this understanding… and that is based on the need to re-polarize society as part of building for that revolution.
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