What cost conquest?

August 22, 2009

Rethink AfghanistanDirected by Robert GreenwaldDVD for sale in October, visit www.rethinkafghanistan.com

Australia has 1550 soldiers in Afghanistan. It is likely to send more. Why? US director Robert Greenwald's latest film, Rethink Afghanistan, does not say why. Instead it asks, why indeed?

With the fast-paced editing that has become Greenwald's trademark — no shot seems to last more than 15 seconds — Rethink Afghanistan tackles aspects of the war in 10-minute segments.

Greenwald split the film into YouTube-sized chunks so people could get to see it online as soon as each segment was finished. As he told the New York Times, no distributor "moves at the speed of YouTube".

The first 10-minute segment looks at how effective US president Barack Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan may be.

It is pointed out that half a million Soviet soldiers could not bring the country under control and Afghanistan is known as "the graveyard of empires".

Dying To Win author Robert Pape tells the camera: "You need a ratio of something like one combat soldier for every 40 people in the country and what that equates to in Afghanistan is well over 250,000 Western combat forces."

After Obama's latest surge of 21,000 US soldiers, supposedly to enforce security during the August 20 election, the number of US soldiers in the country has almost doubled, to about 50,000.

The second segment looks at how Pakistan is involved in the war. Simple graphics show how nuclear-armed India, through its involvement as a US ally, has its nuclear-armed foe, Pakistan, surrounded in a pincer movement.

Overthrow author Stephen Kinzer tells the camera: "Right now Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world. Therefore it should be engraved on the minds of every American diplomat everywhere in the world: Do nothing that will further destabilise Pakistan."

It seems we're sitting on a nuclear time bomb.

A poll published on August 18 showed most Americans have already turned against the war. But ending the conflict may not come down to morals, motives or misgivings. It may come down only to money. That is the subject of Rethink Afghanistan's third segment — the cost of war.

Linda J. Bilmes, co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War, says the Afghanistan war will be far more costly than that in Iraq. "In Afghanistan you have a country which is mostly rural, which is mostly mountainous, which is not desert."
CNN pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr says: "It now costs about $775,000 a year to put a soldier or a marine into the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. That's about three times as expensive as any war the US has ever had."

Then there's the human cost. George W. Bush and Tony Blair wheeled out their wives to trumpet a victory for women when the Taliban were supposedly crushed by the US invasion after 9/11. But Rethink Afghanistan paints a different picture.

The Wall Street Journal's Afghanistan correspondent, Anand Ghopal, tells the camera: "Many women say they wish the Taliban were back in power, because although they were also imprisoned in their houses then [as they still are now], they were at least kept safe from bombs and house raids. Most civilian casualties are women."

Civilian casualties are the subject of Rethink Afghanistan's fifth segment. Greenwald cut his teeth directing Hollywood stars in films with a social conscience (Martin Sheen in Shattered Spirits, about alcoholism; Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed, about wife-battering). He is at his most emotive when telling the stories of individuals. Here, he goes into a refugee camp in Kabul, whose mud huts and shabby tents are home to more than 235,000 Afghans.

A distraught farmer, who has been bombed off his land, points at his toddler standing shoeless in the cold, grey mud and says: "What can I do? There is no food I can put in her mouth. I have nothing. For God's sake I am poor; otherwise I wouldn't give her for one million. I know nobody wants to sell their daughter, but I have to."

We learn that the child later died.

As Rethink Afghanistan unfolds on the web — segment six was released on August 18 — we may learn more about the motives for the war.

In the meantime, the theories have varied. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who features in the film, says in his book Taliban that Afghanistan is the ultimate strategic prize: it is a way to get oil and gas from the former Soviet states north of Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea, without having to go through Iran.

Adam Curtis, in his film The Power of Nightmares, says because politicians have realised they can no longer sell idealistic dreams, they instead sell the idea that they are protecting voters from nightmares. Afghanistan, with its supposed threat of terrorists, fits that bill.

Noam Chomsky has pointed out that the US spends about the same on defence as the rest of the world put together. When recently asked about the war in Afghanistan, he said: "It's like the old joke — if you have a hammer, everything you see is a nail."

[Green Left Weekly will host preview screenings of Rethink Afghanistan (See the online activist calendar for details). Admission is free, but those donating $5 or more will receive a DVD featuring Robert Greenwald's movies Iraq For Sale, Wal-Mart and Outfoxed, while stocks last.]

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