Fighting the War -- and Irrelevance

In September 2009, when Barack Obama announced he was debating the merits of increasing the United States' human commitment to an unpopular war, there were no riots. The police did not square off with masked protesters, fire tear gas into streets swarming with people, or herd malcontents into protest pens. The war's opponents were nowhere to be found.

But after the die was cast, when the president announced on Dec. 1, 2009, that he was committing 30,000 additional troops to the Afghanistan War, his critics hit the streets. The next day, hastily prepared protests took place across the country, and a large "Emergency Anti-Escalation Rally" was held at the Capitol. Another major rally, to be held in D.C. on March 20, 2010, was quickly announced.

There has been a movement in opposition to the war in Afghanistan as long as there has been a war in Afghanistan. It began on the fringe and remained there for years, in part because internal power struggles and the radical political agenda of some of the movement's most prominent groups limited its appeal. When the movement finally began to grow, it did so in tandem with opposition to the Iraq War. With that conflict winding down, the anti-war movement is suffering. The recession has displaced the war as the publics' major concern, and fair-weather allies have left for positions working in concert with the administration.

Despite these setbacks, the movement's leaders are feeling newly emboldened. Claims they made about the Afghanistan War in 2001 -- that invasion would be costly in human life and national prestige, that it would fail because of Afghanistan's geographic and cultural characteristics -- have been legitimized with time. The movement's task now is legitimizing itself. Its leaders hope to do so by employing new organizing tactics, making political claims that incorporate economic concerns, and shifting the focus of their pressure tactics from the Oval Office to the House in advance of midterm elections.

"If you look at polling, opposition to the war has just literally increased over time. Around 2007 the majority of respondents wanted the war to end. Public opinion has caught up with the movement," says Fabio Rojas, a sociologist at Indiana University who has been studying the anti-war movement. "The question now is whether the movement can exploit it."

On Sept. 16, 2001, when only 15 percent of Americans opposed a military response to the September 11 attacks, protesters marched in the streets of several U.S. cities and demanded that President Bush rule out the possibility of war. In the weeks after September 11 the anti-war movement's level of activity was impressive given its brief gestation, and there was every indication it could flourish into a political force with significant traction. Peace activists founded two anti-war organizations -- Act Now To Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), and United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) -- within weeks of the attacks.

Its auspicious start not withstanding, building the anti-war movement was never going to be simple. "In the Bush years, if you were an activist,  you were struggling to hold old ground you had gained 40 years ago -- you looked around and saw that the war was what Bush was most vulnerable on so you protested the war," says Michael McPhearson, co-chair of UFPJ. Discontent with the Bush administration in general, and the Iraq War in specific, translated into a movement so massive it required large administrative structures and budgets, forcing existing anti-war groups to expand and take on more responsibilities and financial obligations.

The swollen dimensions of the movement, previously its greatest asset, became a serious liability when the country's most famous Iraq War opponent was elected commander in chief. The hubris engendered by huge demonstrations, and the cost of running large organizations, took a toll. Allies realized they could make headway with the new administration and refocused their organizing on their core issues. And rank-and-file members of the movement, many of whom had volunteered with Obama's campaign, were inclined to work within the administration, or at least in concert with it.

Then there was the economy. Since the recession became headline news in the winter of 2008 there has been an almost perfect negative correlation between public concern about the war and concern for basic survival. "People are very preoccupied by survival issues on the domestic front. When people are asked what the greatest problem facing the country is, Afghanistan ranks at the bottom," says Jerry Gordon, a member of the coordinating committee of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations.

This confluence of events weakened the anti-war movement to such an extent that protests held on the eighth anniversary of the war's start -- a date that came the week after a series of insurgent attacks killed nine U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan -- were just barely larger than those held in the first weeks after the war began. "Leading organizations have shrunk or disbanded," Rojas says. "They aren't in much of a position to push anything because they're in a period of transition."

The recession, Obama's weakest point, is the movement's strongest. The most important anti-war groups have changed their rhetoric to blame the depth of the economic crisis on military expenditures. And they are trying to replace the broad network of support they enjoyed during the Bush years by making alliances with organizations whose main issue is domestic. "The economic crisis is not abating," says Michael Eisenscher, national coordinator of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). "One of the things we contribute to the anti-war movement is that we don't talk about the war in isolation of the economy. We think that is an essential ingredient to any anti-war strategy."

Anti-war groups have shifted their focus and begun pressuring Congress instead of the White House. Fourteen days after Obama announced his plan for troop increases in Afghanistan, Congress passed an appropriations bill that included $128 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That amount won't cover the troop increase, which is expected to cost $30 billion to $40 billion per year. An additional appropriations bill will likely be delivered to Congress by March, and fighting its passage is the anti-war movement's next goal. Some additional soldiers have already been deployed to Afghanistan, and the administration would prefer to deploy the remainder ahead of congressional debate so the House feels pressure to fund troops that are already overseas. Anti-war groups and supportive members of Congress are trying to have the measure debated earlier so fighting it will not be interpreted as a lack of support for the troops.

"UFPJ has historically been more about mobilizing street protests," says Gael Murphy, the director of UFPJ's legislative work group. "But people think marches don't work, politicians don't listen, and with the election and the change in Congress we picked up the congressional work more strenuously."

The anti-war movement's tactical shift is not without risk. Media tend to report the anti-war movement as a series of manifestations, and as a result the public tends to perceive it that way. Leaders of the four major anti-war organizations interviewed for this article reported their groups were involved in behind-the-scenes organizing ahead of Obama's escalation announcement, including congressional lobbying, small protests, mailings, and anti-recruitment organizing -- and expressed frustration that none of that work had been recognized by the press.

By moving away from protests, the repertoire the public and media most associate with it, the anti-war movement is taking a big gamble. But if it successfully combines attention-grabbing street antics with congressional lobbying efforts and new claims that relate the war to the recession, the movement just might be able to bring itself out of the cold and make good on its early promise.

McPhearson, however, is cautious about predicting victory. "I don't really see how we can end it immediately because the machine is on a roll now," he says. "Wars end, unfortunately, because of death. Either people lose their will, or they lose their lives."

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