If it was Bush-Cheney who led us into misbegotten wars in oil country, it's my deepest wish that women will lead us out. I'd like to mark International Women's Day, Women's History Month, and recent debate in the House of Representatives regarding HR 248 (A Resolution to End the War in Afghanistan) by highlighting the ways we women know the cost of war, in intimate and everyday ways. And I am convinced that we can end these wars, and not only that, we have the growing political will, the know-how, and the collective might to bring about peace.
The text of HR 248 as introduced by Congressman Dennis Kucinich:
the President, pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, to remove the
U.S. Armed Forces from Afghanistan:
(1) by no later than 30 days after this resolution is adopted; or
(2) if the President determines that it is not safe to remove them by such date, by no later than December 31, 2010, or such earlier date that the President determines that they can be safely removed.
Six Congresswomen in the House of Representatives were its co-sponsors:
- Loretta Sanchez (D, CA-47), most senior female member of the House Armed Services Committee;
- Tammy Baldwin (D, WI-2);
- Yvette Clark (D?, NY-11);
- Barbara Lee (D, CA-9);
- Chellie Pingree (D, ME-1);
- Lynn Woolsey (D, CA-8)
In addition, these Congresswomen voted yes on HR 248:
- Judy Chu (D, CA-32);
- Donna Edwards (D, MD-4);
- Sheila Jackson Lee (D, TX-18);
- Carolyn Maloney (D, NY-14);
- Grace Napolitano (D, CA-38);
- Laura RIchardson (D, CA-37);
- Linda Sanchez (D, CA-39);
- Janice Schakowsky (D, IL-9);
- Jackie Speier (D, CA-12);
- Nydia Velzquez (D, NY-12);
- Maxine Waters (D, CA-35);
- Diane Watson (D, CA-33);
It may not seem like much, but that's 18 women out of 76 in the House, counting both parties (14 are Republican, 62 are Democrats). It's 18 women out of the 65 Congressional representatives who voted yes on HR 248, almost a third of all yes votes on HR 248. It's certainly a greater number than the one woman who was the lone dissenter in those bleak days directly after September 11, 2001: Congresswoman Barbara Lee. On the verge of the Authorization to Use Military Force in Afghanistan vote in the House, she urged us that "as we act, we not become the evil we deplore."
In the face of abuses committed in all of our names at Abu Ghraib, it's clear we as a nation, led by the then commander-in-chief, veered dangerously into deplorable territory.
The Cost of War At Home
When I wrote my laundry list of 10 Things I Wish The Obama Administration Would Do to Fundamentally Improve the Economy, perhaps the biggest unspoken thing on the list was to end the war in Afghanistan as quickly and safely as possible.
After seven long years, we're on the verge of drawing down troops from Iraq. By August 2010, our combat mission there will end, with no troops left by December 2011.
Yet we've already seen how the July 2011 anticipated draw down date from Afghanistan has been tempered and qualified. Understandably, conditions change in unpredictable ways. But eight long years of bad faith have taught me to be wary of "mission creep." While I believe that President Obama operates in good faith, I'm not ready to cede my watchfulness to our president's discretion. I'm worried that we may establish permanent bases in Pakistan or Afghanistan, a region with a volatile past and in the case of Pakistan, nuclear weapons. I'm uneasy at the idea that we're actually fighting on three fronts now. Periodically from the right there's mention of suspected terrorist activity in Yemen or Syria. Will those be cited as reasons to engage on new fronts? Where does this end?
I listened closely to candidate Obama when he outlined his plans for escalation of military action along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. None of this is a surprise to me now that he's president. I've always known that on this and Wall Street, my positions differ widely from the president's. I knew at some point I'd need to stand apart from this admirable and able statesman I worked hard to elect, and emphatically argue against him.
We can't afford a fuzzy idea of what stability and security looks like, or goals that keep moving. If we can remove our troops prior to the July 2011 target date set by President Obama, as recently Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated we may have the opportunity to, then we should do so. Because while Bush-Cheney put the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on their credit card, in a case of unfortunate timing for President Obama, the bill's now come due.
What are those costs?
Once home, the deaths don't stop. Once returned, our veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars show disturbing, record rates of suicide. Young women who are veterans have the highest rates of suicide of all.
Once home, the wounds take a very long time to heal. Military spouses and families are often stretched past the breaking point when their spouses return, both as a consequence of reintegration into civilian life after too many re-deployments, and then because wounds of the physical as well as sometimes mental kind take time to heal. These are terrible burdens to carry; steep prices to pay.
War undermines the rule of law. Our Constitution has suffered. Militarism infects our foreign policy--as the debate over the juridisction of the trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed reveals, we can no longer distinguish between a criminal act and an act of war: the distinction's lost to political polarization and posturing. As Jane Mayer argued in the New Yorker recently,
For all the tough rhetoric of the Bush Administration, it prosecuted many more terror suspects as criminals than as enemy combatants. According to statistics compiled by New York University’s Center on Law and Security, since 2001 the criminal courts have convicted some hundred and fifty suspects on terrorism charges. Only three detainees—all of whom were apprehended abroad—were convicted in military commissions at Guantánamo. The makeshift military-commission system set up by Bush to handle terrorism cases has never tried a murder case, let alone one as complex, or notorious, as that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who will face the death penalty for the murder of nearly three thousand people.
I was at first heartened to hear that the Obama administration Department of Justice would treat those who planned and carried out 9/11 as criminals in federal court. Now it's a source of annoyance for me that the White House has overruled the Department of Justice and decided that military tribunals are appropriate to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed--what happened to principle? Why is Senator Lindsey Graham holding the closing of Guantanamo political hostage?
Our 'roid-rage legacy of the Bush-Cheney years makes terrorists out of criminals, so war appears to be the inevitable and only solution against stateless, ideologically-motivated enemies; on the domestic front we criminalize our domestic population so incarceration's seen as the main solution to social ills. We've tried this approach for more than 8 years now, and it's not working. I had hoped that with an Obama administration, we could scale back the war hysteria and affirm simple rule of law. I had hoped we could dial back the "Patriot Act." So far, this doesn't appear to be the case.
War undergirds our need for "security theatre"--but do these measures really make us safer? Even more disturbing--is conventional warfare itself a kind of "security theatre"? When the underwear bomber was apprehended trying to blow up a plane over the Christmas holidays just a few months ago, it highlighted the holes in our intelligence-gathering and national security terrorism prevention systems. The incident made clear a central conundrum of the "Global War on Terror," as Bush termed it: if the best practices for securing our safety are obscure algorithms that track suspicious financial transactions, or near-invisible but nevertheless effective monitoring of terrorist activity on websites and message boards, how does a government demonstrate its effectiveness? What can it point to to say it's doing something to protect its citizens? It may very well be that extremists harboring ancient resentments and relying on 20th century tactics can threaten our 21st century lives, but when the important work of prevention and detection may involve high tech methods of surveillance and culling old-fashioned information from face-to-face encounters in out of the way places, does that mean our government needs to have overt displays of aggression in order to demonstrate that it's "on the job"? To put it simply, we can create increasingly sophisticated body scanning machines to use at airports, but how do we scan what's really dangerous--the hate that lives in the heart and mind of someone determined to cause mass destruction?
War starves the domestic agenda. In our communities, this deficit-financed war has ravaged state and local budgets. In my home state of California, I see college students enraged by 32% public university tuition hikes, because an increase that high might as well be a deadbolt on the dream of finishing college. It may even be a back-door economic draft--when, pushed by lack of money, people enlist and serve in the hopes that the G.I. bill can pay for the rest of college.
When I go to the National Priorities Project and enter my zip code in the Cost of War counter, I see that in my Congressional District, one proposed ballistic missile in the FY2010 defense budget could have paid for 320 elementary school teachers for one year, plus numerous grants to college students and school arts and music programs.
These are all programs that we "lucky" upper-middle class parents support in our third jobs as non-profit fundraisers for our kid's schools, after working a full day and also parenting. What do parents in poorer communities do?
As parent of a kid who attends public school, who recently voted along with others in my community for a parcel tax to make up a $5 million shortfall in our tiny school district's budget, who last year saw our treasured and much-loved teachers pink-slipped in June of 2009 before they could be hired on to teach later that fall--I have to tell you, the cost of war hits me in the gut.
We've spent upwards of $970,062,000,000 since 2001 on two wars, over $258,698,000,000 on Afghanistan alone--and what do we have to show for it?
Mind you, I don't begrudge humanitarian and social-infrastructure aid programs to people in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's the bombing and killing civilians first I have a problem with.
The Cost of War Overseas
War inevitably hurts civilians. It's a fantasy to think otherwise. What double message do we send when we maim and kill on one hand, then provide aid on the other?
War disproportionately harms women, and their children if they have any. At the recent Afghanistan: The London Conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gathered with representatives from 70 other nations and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to map out a concrete plan for stabilizing Afghanistan's fledgling post-war civil society. Among the goals set at the conference was a "civilian surge" to match the military surge in which allied civilians provide Afghan civilians with training in governance, policing, agriculture, and other necessary services, with the full integration of Afghan women into every level of culture. To do this, Secretary Clinton specifically mentioned the creation of a Women's Action Plan (details here):
It includes initiatives focused on women's security, women's leadership in the public and private sector; women's access to judicial institutions, education, and health services; women's ability to take advantage of economic opportunities, especially in the agricultural sector. This is a comprehensive, forward-looking agenda that stands in stark contrast to al-Qaida's recently announced agenda for Afghanistan's women, attempting to send female suicide bombers to the West.
While the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan takes an absolute position that there should be no western occupation of Afghanistan, as well as no Taliban as the local government, the hateful fact remains that we are there at the moment. RAWA are not the only ones who wish the last 9 years could be undone so that, had we listened to Congresswoman Lee, we were never there to sow bombs and destruction in the first place; together America and Afghanistan have reaped much death and sorrow.
I respect RAWA deeply; I think we should listen to the women of Afghanistan as they know their country best and are most familiar with the intransigence of local patriarchy--the child brides forced to marry much older men, legalized marital rape; acid thrown at girls and women on their way to school by religious extremists, or the grinding poverty in rural Afghanistan that combines with local custom and lack of infrastructure to deprive the majority of girls and women literacy and the opportunity to earn their own livelihoods. Women in Afghanistan know the extent of their own countrymen's corruption and religious and other factionalisms that have thwarted progress from within. All of these age-old problems flourish in the current atmosphere of lawlessness that war creates.
I have to concede that every argument for why we have no business being there is also partially an argument for why we can't simply leave things as they are: this is the "We broke it, now we have to buy it" argument. As a woman, as a feminist, I can't help but be committed to the freedom and equality of women around the planet, women in Afghanistan especially so. But by no means do I believe it's right to introduce feminism at the end of a gun barrel. I think we can all see how hollow and false George W. Bush's words are now--he was hardly the savior of Afghan women from the Taliban, as he claimed in 2002:
The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school.
Today women are free, and are part of Afghanistan's new government. And we welcome the new minister of women's affairs, Dr. Sima Samar.
George W. Bush, feminist liberator. I think not. It's time feminists took this tired trope back from the conservatives who've held it hostage, and gave it real meaning again.
Women in Afghanistan have repeatedly voiced the need for protection under the law in the recognition that they are vulnerable to the Taliban, Karzai's government, and warlords. This testimony by Rachel Reid to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a clear outline of what our goals must be before we leave Afghanistan, generated by women there themselves:
- Prioritizing women's inclusion at every stage of planning for reintegration and reconciliation.
- Prioritizing women's inclusion in decision making bodies.
- Ensuring that women who participate in decision making bodies and the peace jirga are representative of women civil society activists (ideally they should be nominated by the Afghan Women's Network and Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission).
- Ensuring that those who broker deals do so in a transparent and inclusive way.
- Ensuring that the government of Afghanistan offers guarantees of women's constitutional rights, including basic freedoms such as access to education, right to work, access to health, access to justice, freedom of speech and freedom of movement.
- Ensuring that a proportion of the financial incentives to communities to support reintegration should be used to support women's empowerment and development.
- Ensuring that mechanisms are in place to protect the rights of women and girls in reintegration and reconciliation plans through rigorous monitoring and mechanisms of redress.
- Devoting a significant proportion of international donor assistance (including funds going through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund) to women's needs in the areas of reconstruction, rule of law, and access to formal justice.
Here's the risk for President Obama: the longer he pursues bin Laden into whatever crevice of remote Pakistan or Afghanistan where he's hidden, the greater the stakes we have in remaking Afghan society. The chances are poor that we'll succeed where other nations failed. The terrible fact remains: we are there now, we've been there for nearly a decade. And so as we urge the president to stop bombing and hasten the rate of withdrawal from Afghanistan, we should also speed up efforts to help stabilize that country before we leave. However, this is the problem pointed out by RAWA and others inside Afghanistan--
War feeds corruption. How can we guarantee that the aid we send reaches the people--women, children--who are most in need? Warlords get richer from siphoning off aid meant for others; civil war is good for business.
War fattens profiteers. If ever something needed to be small enough to drown in a bathtub, it's the military industrial complex. We could start by de-funding Blackwater. Now known as Xe, in the hopes that if we couldn't pronounce it, we wouldn't say bad things about it, this "military subcontractor" (i.e., paid mercenary army) follows in the footsteps of previous fleecers of taxpayer money known as KBR and Halliburton. Remember those unsupervised, unaccounted-for billions of dollars?
The least we can do is starve those profiteers. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-9) has introduced a bill called the Stop Outsourcing Security Act (HR 4640). Her partner in the Senate is Bernie Sanders (I, VT). It's currently in committee.
The SOS Act would end federal funding of mercenaries and give Congress oversight to review contracts more than $5 million to non-U.S. military service providers. Among the bill's 22 findings:
Not to mention drunken, lewd hazing with taxpayer money at the U.S Embassy in Kabul, or at least 4 separate incidences where Blackwater employees or ex-employees shot and killed civilians (here, here, here, and here).
I don't have answers for some of the trickier questions having to do with nation-building and aid to a country that never asked for us to go there, which we've essentially occupied and destroyed much of for the past 9 years. But this I know: I'd rather my taxes went to schools, health care, and getting our own economy back on its feet. We have to live fully and freely and to our utmost potential even if terrorists are likely to strike again.
Stop Outsourcing Security is a start: I don't pay taxes so some mercenary in Kabul can buy hookers. And I'm willing to bet that's not why you pay taxes either.
Let's end this war too. The cost is too high. It's stealing our collective futures, and abuses by hired guns tarnish the reputation of our military and cheapen what our country stands for.