War and Peace
NPS prof urges more Afghan involvement; protestors say no.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Professor Thomas Johnson gets hate mail for his outspoken criticism of the Afghan war. But the Naval Postgraduate School professor is no peacenik – he’s a member of General Stanley McChrystal’s so-called academic “red cell,” who fears the United States is losing the war, and isn’t afraid to talk about it. “I’m very concerned that we have made too many mistakes. We have been in the country longer than we were in World War II, and we’re still debating the desired outcome.”
Johnson looks every bit the college professor in khakis, green sweater vest, and a jacket with leather patches on the elbows, but photos in his office show a different Johnson – a young man with dark hair, a turban and traditional white tunic hamming it up, rifle in hand, with a Pakistani tribal elder. The rifle is just a prop, but the photo betrays Johnson’s romance with Afghanistan, and his attachment to the country.
Johnson runs NPS’ Community and Conflict Studies program from a small office on the third floor of Glasgow Hall on campus, far from the chaos of a war zone. CCS has played an increasingly important role in outlining strategies, as the Obama administration has changed the channel from Iraq to Afghanistan. As a frequent adviser to U.S. military and political leaders, Johnson is enmeshed in a debate that is intensifying this week, as the nation marks the eighth anniversary of the Afghanistan war.
On one side: McChrystal, Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who’s called for a major troop surge in the country, arguing for an all-out counter-insurgency campaign aimed at beating the Taliban in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. On the other: Vice-President Joe Biden, who argues against nation-building and in favor of a scaled-back fighting force to target terrorists, using Afghanistan as a base of operations.
For Johnson, the right approach lies slightly outside the lines of the debate. National security is not at stake in the country, he argues, because the Taliban is not a threat to the United States. While acknowledging that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could once again become a terrorist haven, he contends the real issue is keeping our promise to rebuild a nation destroyed by 30 years of war.
However, Americans are growing impatient with the Afghanistan conflict. As the President mulls his options, a recent ABC/Washington Post Poll shows 51 percent of Americans no longer feel it’s worth fighting.
Last Friday, several dozen Monterey County peace activists lined Del Monte Avenue urging honks of support for a quick end to eight years in Afghanistan. David Henderson, a protest leader (and also an NPS professor) noted that “the horns to middle finger (ratio) runs 9 to 1” – not a scientific poll, to be sure, but perhaps an indication of local sentiment.
Spogmay Sharifcad, a 36-year-old Monterey mom who is originally from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, brought her 4 – and 5-year-old sons to the protest. “There is no life, no security. [U.S. forces] can’t control corruption – why not?” she demands.
Johnson quickly concedes that the U.S. military has made monumental mistakes – bombings that have unintentionally killed women and children, support of the Karzai regime, a government so corrupt that it has lost its legitimacy with the Afghan people, and billions in U.S. government aid that has been siphoned off by unscrupulous officials or misspent, never reaching the villages where it has been promised.
But Johnson points to an island of success in a sea of blunders: The village of Deh-i-Bagh in Kandahar province, an area of traditional Taliban strength where a village rebuilding program by the Canadian Army under Johnson’s tutelage is so popular that that tribal elders wrote an open letter asking the Taliban no to sabotage it – and they haven’t.
But, many have had enough. Juanita Alvarez, who lost a nephew in Afghanistan, stopped by the protest not to hold a sign, but to share her feeling says that the conflict is unwinnable. “There are so many tunnels and places to hide, she says. “It scares the living daylights out of me.”