Crowd Packs Morse Pond School Auditorium For Rep. Delahunt’s Forum On Afghanistan
By: Elise R. Hugus
The sun was shining, the flowers were in bloom, and Afghanistan could not have been further from most residents’ minds this weekend.
But that country’s fate was the subject of an intense debate on Sunday afternoon, as more than 200 people packed the Morse Pond School auditorium to hear a range of perspectives on the nearly nine-year-old war.
Moderating the discussion was US Representative William D. Delahunt (D), who local anti-war activists hope will vote against a $33 billion supplemental war funding bill, which the House of Representatives is expected to consider by mid-month.
“We, as citizens, are here to say we want an end to the war,” said Diane C. Turco, a Harwich resident who participated in a sit-in at Rep. Delahunt’s office in December. Though Ms. Turco and several other Cape activists were arrested at the time, their action prompted the congressman to hold a public forum to discuss continued US involvement in Afghanistan.
Ms. Turco said that Rep. Delahunt’s retirement this November should “free him up to vote with his conscience” in the upcoming House vote, which would fund the escalation of US troops in Afghanistan.
Despite the urging of Cape Codders for Peace and Justice, Rep. Delahunt said he would not announce which way he would vote.
Instead, he highlighted his voting record as founder of Iraq Watch, in which he supported bills to stop funding the war in Iraq, and calling for an exit strategy in Afghanistan.
Panelist David Swanson, founder of Defundwar.org, lauded the congressman for his October 2003 vote against a bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and called on him to apply the same logic to his vote on the current war supplemental.
“You do not exit a war by escalating it,” Mr. Swanson said, noting that 68,000 troops are now in Afghanistan, as well as 121,000 “contractors or mercenaries.”
“The fact that the escalation has, predictably, already begun cannot be treated as a fait accompli, unless we’re going to tell the American public that we were all played for a bunch of fools,” he said.
American presence in Afghanistan is not unlike the 10-year Soviet occupation, Mr. Swanson said, and continued killing of civilians only compounds decades of war and poverty in the country. “You cannot win an occupation. You can only end it,” he said.
However, panelist Thomas Barfield countered that instability in the region makes Afghanistan vulnerable to a resurgence of the Taliban, which could allow al-Qaeda to return to the country if the US military pulled out too soon.
“When the world abandons a place like Afghanistan, the warlords take over. This is where the US has responsibilities and no easy answers,” said Dr. Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies.
Highlighting the “profoundly disturbing” corruption and electoral fraud practiced by Afghan president Hamid Kharzai, Rep. Delahunt asked the panel if it is possible to fight an insurgency without the support of “a credible partner” on the ground. For the first time during the discussion, the panelists agreed: the answer is “no.”
Another point of consensus among panelists was that reliance on military force is a flawed approach—for both Afghanis and Americans.
By this summer, the US will have spent $1 trillion on the Afghan war,” said Christopher C. Hellman, of the Northampton-based National Priorities Project. With the $33 billion supplemental, the cost of the war will amount to $160 billion in 2010, the first time spending in Afghanistan will exceed spending for the war in Iraq, he said.
“You don’t make decisions about wars based on the cruelty of dollar figures. There are other cruelties that are more important,” Mr. Hellman said. “But the cost of this war has a direct impact on the economy of this state, and this community.”
Massachusetts taxpayers have contributed $8.4 billion to the Afghan war, according to figures compiled by the National Priorities Project. “That would pay for university tuition at UMass for the next 25 years,” Mr. Hellman said.
For Dr. Barfield, who has studied Afghanistan for the past 30 years, the United States has a chance to help the war-torn society, but it is not prioritizing reconstruction projects.
“One of the great failures of our policy in Afghanistan is that we haven’t improved the quality of life,” said Dr. Barfield. “After a long period of suffering, the Afghans want normalcy and peace. We need to focus on creating a stable life for ordinary people. That is the way out of Afghanistan.”
In his statement, Mr. Swanson offered a way for the US to gracefully exit Afghanistan. “For much less money than the occupation requires, the United States could provide assistance to Afghans, restoring their environment and agriculture, which is precisely what the current US ambassador to Afghanistan advised the president to do,” he said.
Joseph Wippl, a retired officer with the Central Intelligence Agency and the director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, said that the US military is “overextended” in its battle against global terrorism. “I have to look at this from the perspective of our long-term interests and how much we can impose ourselves on Afghanistan,” he said. “Covert action can be used effectively for a millionth of what [we spend] now.”
As Rep. Delahunt opened the floor to questions, two activists approached the stage, holding signs and shouting, “end the war.” Members of the audience called on them to sit down so that they could speak. “You’re the Tea Party of the left,” someone called out.
Police escorted the two men, Paul Rifkin of Cotuit, and C. Michael Risch of Falmouth from the building, but did not make any arrests.
Prior to the beginning of the forum, Mr. Rifkin said that he wanted to show his commitment to ending the war by getting arrested, because he had “nothing left to say.” But other members of the audience had plenty to say, questioning Rep. Delahunt and the panelists on everything from corporate influence on war votes, to the connection between US military presence and oil pipelines running through Afghanistan.
Brewster resident Lee Roscoe said that the $1 trillion spent on the war could have been better spent on “good works” back home, rather than “killing people and engendering hatred” overseas. “The final question is, ‘qui bono? Who benefits?’ Is the money simply to send troops to benefit the military industrial complex?” she asked.
Marybeth Verani, a resident of Cotuit, questioned the “moral authority” of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, “given the history of this country’s support with money, guns, and training of Islamic extremists” during the 1978 muhajadeen insurgency against the Soviet Union.
Dr. Barfield responded that the US effort is currently trying to “reconcile the past by bringing ongoing stability to Afghanistan, and doing what we should have done 20 years ago.”
“You’re correct. We created the problem,” he said. “But you cannot base policies on morality.”
Eric S. Ericson, a resident of Falmouth and a former member of the Peace Corps, asked if that program might present a better image of America overseas. Rep. Delahunt responded that any country with Peace Corps volunteers also requires the security to protect them.
However, Mr. Hellman said that the US should not rely on the military to deliver humanitarian assistance—whether in Afghanistan, or Indonesia or Haiti during recent disaster relief efforts. “We need to create logistic capability in an entity that doesn’t wear a uniform,” he said.
Ms. Turco urged Rep. Delahunt to consider the wishes of his most vocal constituents when making his vote later this month. “This would be a great moment for you to take some leadership. You don’t have many votes left,” she said, as the audience applauded. “Security is having a home, health care, food, and a job. We need to start working on negotiations, diplomacy, and development, rather than killing as a national policy.”
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