Dec 4th 2009

Obama, Progressives and Afghanistan

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on
Like many Progressives, I disagreed with President Obama's decision to increase the number of American troops deployed to Afghanistan. But Progressives must not lose sight of the fact, that though we may disagree with this particular decision, President Obama shares a progressive vision of American foreign policy - including Afghanistan -- that differs fundamentally from that of his Neo-Con predecessor.

At its core, President Obama's Tuesday night speech elaborated his plan to end the American military presence in Afghanistan. His chosen path may not end that presence as quickly as many Progressives would prefer, but he was very clear that America will not conduct an open-ended occupation of Afghanistan, and he set a firm deadline to begin American withdrawal.
Barack Obama understands that Western occupation of a Muslim country ultimately feeds extremism, rather than defeating it. And he understands - as he said in his speech - that our relationship with Afghanistan must ultimately be as a partner, not as a patron. Barack Obama opposes pre-emptive war and the unilateralism that earned George Bush the enmity of people everywhere.

Let us remember that if Barack Obama had been President eight years ago, he would have managed our engagement in Afghanistan completely differently from George Bush - and he would have never invaded Iraq.

While some Progressives may not fully appreciate the fundamental difference between Barack Obama's approach to the world and that of Bush and Cheney, there is no question that the Neo-Con crowd understands it clearly. Dick Cheney's attacks on the President are not simply partisan politics. His criticism of Obama's withdrawal deadline is emblematic of a fundamental disagreement in world view.

The President rejected the original McChrystal proposal for a gradual buildup of American forces over the next 18 months that was premised on a large American presence over a number of years. He also rejected a long-term nation-building mission in Afghanistan, focused heavily on the central government there. Instead he chose to bulk up American forces over the next six months, set an 18-month timeline to begin the disengagement of our military, and provide sharp incentives for the Afghan government to put its house in order - and develop their security forces - immediately.

I do not personally agree that increasing the American military footprint in Afghanistan will promote stability or help us contain al Qaeda. Like many Progressives, I am increasingly convinced that our military presence there fuels the conflict by generating nationalist opposition to Western presence -- and actually destabilizes the country.

But I consider the President's decision to increase short-term troop levels to be a tactical disagreement - not a disagreement concerning goals or strategic vision. The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating. Personally, I believe that by the end of his first term, President Obama will have completely withdrawn American forces from Iraq and that most combat forces will be gone from Afghanistan as well.

And I can state with certainty that this President will not have launched some other military adventure or begun a new interventionist initiative because he does not believe that is the way to create a safe, prosperous and peaceful world.

We will have a very different world in 2012 with Barack Obama as President than we would have had under the leadership of George Bush or John McCain.

We must also remember that the Bush Administration's eight-year mismanagement of the struggle in Afghanistan - and diversion of resources to the War in Iraq -- left President Obama no truly good options there.
America had a brief window of opportunity after the fall of the Taliban to mobilize the world to provide the economic, political support that could make a real change in Afghanistan -and then to withdraw our military presence as soon as possible. Unfortunately that did not happen and now our nine-year military presence there has caused more and more ordinary Afghans to think of us as occupiers to be expelled, rather than as partners in building their country. This problem is particularly acute in rural Afghanistan, which has never really considered itself subject to central government control - and where the tradition of fighting foreign occupiers goes back millennia.

But let's not pretend that our military disengagement from Afghanistan will be simple. Quite apart from its impact on Pakistan, the tribal areas and al Qaeda, let's remember that the former Taliban government brutally suppressed much of the population - and in particular women. Today in Afghanistan one-fourth of the women still wear burqas with tiny screens that allow only a partial view of the world. If the Taliban were to return to power, all women would once again be required to wear the burqa - and none would receive education.

As we disengage militarily, we have an obligation to do the best we can to leave behind a government that can protect women from oppression, and provides hope for long-term economic development.

As an ardent opponent of the War in Iraq - and before that the Viet Nam War -- I certainly understand the passion of Progressives who oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. But whatever the disappointment in the President's decision, it must not be allowed to overwhelm the enormous stake Progressives have in Barack Obama's success.

I read an article yesterday by a prominent Progressive that said it was now time for him to scrape off the Obama bumper sticker. Wrong.

The Obama presidency presents an unprecedented historic window for progressive change. Our ability to succeed rests heavily on Barack Obama's success as President. Just as importantly, his success and ours depend on the mobilization of Progressives across America to organize for change. If we don't organize to win, the other side will successfully organize to stop us.
No one said change would be easy. Health care reform, re-regulating the financial sector, immigration reform, creating a clean energy economy -- all require the political defeat of powerful, entrenched political and economic interests. For anyone who thought Barack Obama could snap his fingers and make change, think again. Progressives are engaged in a protracted, multi-year political and economic struggle. But the big difference is that with Barack Obama as President and a Democratic Congress, we are on the offensive and no longer in a defensive crouch.
We might not agree with every decision. We might fundamentally disagree with some. But we cannot lose sight that we are part of an historic progressive movement for change whose success requires that Barack Obama be successful as well.

Robert Creamer's recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on

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