It’s been 8-years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, rousting Taliban notables like Mullah Mohamed Omar, losing Osama Bin Laden’s trail in the caves of Tora Bora, rounding up suspected terrorists, jihadists, enemy and civilian combatants, and introducing Americans to the vast geo-political vocabulary of the post-9/11 world: the Northern Alliance, Alliance of the Willing, Triangle of Death, Green Zone, Balad and Bagram, Anbar and Kandahar, Swat Valley, Peshawar, waterboarding, Gitmo, FISA courts, Patriot Act and Homeland Security.
Eight-years-ago, George W. Bush had not yet completed the first-year of his first term. Barack Obama still served in the Illinois Senate. And Tim Walz wouldn’t be elected to Congress for another 5 years.
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Given the time elapsed, 96-months, the onset of war-on-terror fatigue should come as no surprise. Americans’ support for fighting in Afghanistan has sunk below 50-percent just as the Obama Administration debates war strategy, coincidentally informing the public that for 8-years the war – which has cost the lives of nearly 900-U.S. troops and fast approaches a $230-billion price tag – has been “under resourced” for most of that time, largely because the Bush Administration chose to invade Iraq in 2003 at a distracting cost of 4,350 U.S. troops and a whopping $919-billion.
What’s really surprising is that Americans are willing, at this belated date, to talk-about and listen-to the new Afghanistan strategy being debated by elected officials. But that’s what some-130 people did when 1st District Congressman Tim Walz called a town hall meeting Friday afternoon at Winona State University.
Walz, who along with a contingent of Congressional colleagues met with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Thursday, outlined the current state of the war in a 20-minute presentation. Then he turned the microphone over to southeast Minnesota residents, more than a dozen with prepared statements, questions and ideas, a few of them students, at least one professor, several veterans and a number of speakers old enough to remember the uproar over Vietnam and the Draft.
There were no signs, armbands, acts of civil disobedience, no protestors, no counter-protestors, just an almost disarmingly respectful tone compared to the strident, often heated health care reform town hall debates last summer. But the content of the discussion was by no means tepid. Eight-years of war was discussed. Tone is hard to characterize when no one is shouting, but there was an immeasurable hush that comes with resignation. The scale of the large, dark auditorium added
Twice, anti-war statements drew applause, the only applause, and there were many who spoke with varying levels of frustration and disgust about Afghanistan, Iraq, Bush, billions and civilians of war collateral.
Four-or-five speakers expressed support for the military, the war on terror, security at home and the need to commit more treasure and troops to the fight in Afghanistan.
At the end of a long-machination on the high-cost and historical futility of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a middle-aged speaker concluded that the only solution would be to negotiate peace with the Taliban, withdraw combat forces and deal with problems at home.
A WSU student who called himself a College Republican calmly rebutted, “If we lose in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we won’t be talking about health care. We’ll be talking about nuclear holocaust.”
Reasonable disagreement pretty much defined the 90-minute exercise facilitated by Walz, a retired Command Sergeant Major who never balks at articulating his support for the military. Confronted more than once by comparisons to Viet Nam, Walz downplayed Imperialist similarities. Rather, he used a phrase Senator John McCain often used when he ran for President in 2008, “existential threat,” to describe the reason for spending 8-years in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda continues to threaten our way of life, our very existence, Walz reminded the audience more than once.
Walz has not made a decision regarding General Stanley McChrystal’s proposed counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan. President Obama of course will ultimately make the decision, conceivably raising the number of U.S. forces there to 110,000 and extending “clear, hold and build” operations for another 3-to-5-years. Members of Congress like Walz will have to decide whether or not to support the President’s decision by voting to fund the mission.
Assuming that Obama will not simply deny General McChrystal’s request for an additional 40,000 troops, Walz’s functional decision is made. When U.S. troops are “down-range,” as Walz puts it, in harm’s way, he is resolute: he will not hesitate to vote to fund the operations, the troops, troop rotation and support programs for active-duty military, veterans and their families.
But at the town hall, it became clear that Walz is wrestling with a bigger question, predicate to a much more philosophical decision. Just like President Obama, the Joint Chiefs, members of Congress from both parties, Walz is wrestling with the precise nature of the existential terrorist threat to America and relative security of U.S. combat forces deployed to eliminate that threat.
The decision for Tim Walz is not about supporting or resourcing the troops, because he has clearly said he will do that. It is about the existential threat. The question he was asking for counsel in answering was this: What should we do, now, in Afghanistan?
Walz, who speaks quickly and always with intense, intelligent conviction, can come off as hawkish, a mind made up about the moral efficacy of military force.
Like Army Reservist David Obray, the WSU senior who introduced the congressman, National Guard veteran Walz joined the military right out of high school. He was named Nebraska Citizen Soldier of the Year back in the 1980s. Obray, a 23-year-old specialist in the Army Reserve, won the all-Army Soldier of the Year competition in 2008.
It’s worth reporting, I think, that before handing the mike to Walz, Spec. Obray read a poem that’s been making the email attachment rounds since 9/11. The paean is called,It’s the Soldier and goes like this: “It’s the soldier, not the reporter / Who has given us freedom of the press,” and so on. It’s not the poets, it’s not the campus organizers, it’s not the lawyers, etc.. It’s the soldiers who give you freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to demonstrate, receive a fair trial and burn the flag the soldiers fight for.
Reflecting back on hearing that inane poem, it occurs to me that the young soldier chosen to open the town hall meeting flipped the safety off and fired a salvo right into that crowd, an insult to pacifists and activists, aid workers, teachers aids, preachers and artists, everyone and anyone who participates, unarmed, in the notion of liberal democracy. Nobody fired back. But on the logarithmic scale of talking about a war against an existential threat that flies airplanes into skyscrapers, Specialist Obrey’s decision to exercise freedom of expression by repeating empty words gave the auditorium, for just a moment, the feel of a flea circus.
Walz took the mike from the young soldier and remind the audience that America’s rights and freedoms come with the responsibility to defend them. “Warriors,” as Walz refers to members of the Armed Forces, bleed and die to defend a way of life that’s been threatened, even gravely wounded, by an existential threat.
Walz appeared genuinely conflicted on the Afghanistan issue, trapped between the rock of existential threats and the hard-place of his constituents’ collective-often-conflicting judgment about continuing the war.
“The real prize lay in Pakistan,” he told the audience early on, preempting numerous statements to come, pro-war-and-con, about al Qaeda terrorists hunkered-down in the forbidding, mountainous tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, about Pakistan’s unstable government and military, about it’s nuclear arsenal and predisposition to go to war with India, the region’s other nuclear power.
“There are less than 100 active al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he confided, meaning that al Qaeda, a far greater existential threat than the Taliban, continues to plan and launch terrorist operations from across the border in Pakistan, beyond the reach of U.S. ground troops.
“The Afghan people believe the Taliban will regain control,” he said, adding, “Ninety-nine-percent despise the Taliban.”
When a WSU student-journalist asked him what had he learned on his August trip to the war zone that he did not already know, Walz stammered a bit. “That at the end of the day,” he said, “that common humanity, a roof over your head, the work our soldiers, our government has done has provided that [in Afghanistan]. At the end of the day, these people [in Afghanistan] have great faith in us, in this mission.”
As the speaker queue began to dwindle, Walz shared with the audience that someone had recently asked him if he was afraid of history, specifically the history of imperial adventures in the forbidding land, Alexander the Great, the British, the Soviets, now the Americans. “I’m not sure of existential threat [from Afghanistan]. I think al Qaeda [in Pakistan] wants to do that. This is an agonizing decision,” he said. “And I’m telling you, I have not made a decision.”
Eight-years later in Afghanistan, the enemy that was routed in 2001-2002 is regaining lost ground. Just last week, Taliban fighters breached the perimeter of a remote U.S. outpost, killing 8-Americans. A few days later, commanders ordered the base to be abandoned. The Taliban promptly declared victory.
In the meeting Thursday with Robert Gates, Walz said the Defense Secretary posed a What-If question. “What if we leave [Afghanistan]?” Walz looked into the audience. “Al Qaeda will say it not only beat the Soviets, but it beat us and beat the whole western world.” He told the crowd, “We need to define what winning is.”
The second-term Congressman from Mankato ended the meeting by assuring town hall participants, “If my thinking is not evolving on this issue, I am not representing you.” Then, he again reminded everyone of the sacrifice made by members of the military, which reminded me of something he had said quite eloquently at the start: “Now is the time to debate this,” he challenged the crowd. “We’re asking young people to fight and die. Tell them why.”