On August 4th, the day of President Obama's 49th birthday, a group of nine Chicago residents met in a small cafe to discuss what they referred to as "the Afghanistan problem."
"This war that's been going on for nine years, we all feel frustrated by it," said David Summerhays during his brief opening remarks.
Listen below to an audio version of this report:
Summerhays started the group little more than a month ago using the website Meetup.com. He was prompted by the release of Robert Greenwald's film "Rethink Afghanistan." The film's website urged viewers to start groups to discuss the war, and Summerhays says that he waited for a few days to see if a local chapter would be formed. When it wasn't, he started one himself. "If I have to sit in the coffee shop alone, I'll do that," he explained. He was encouraged when seven others attended the first meeting in July.
The August 4th meeting focused on plans to organizing screenings of Greenwald's film for audiences around the city, as well as the need to reach out to other progressive groups throughout Chicago, such as Moveon.org, True Majority, Democracy for America, and the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism.
Afterwards, I spoke with Summerhays and two other attendees, John Kurinsky and Brian Bean. Both Kurinsky and Bean said that they were members of the International Socialist Organization, and described themselves as being to the left politically of most of the group's members.
The Obama administration has justified the continuation and escalation of the Arghanistan conflict by describing it as a war of necessity prompted by the 9/11 attacks, as well as emphasizing the need for U.S. forces to defend human rights and fight the spread of Islamic radicalism in the region, something Obama has referred to as "a cancer."
It is a familiar argument, but one that differs markedly from the narrative outlined by those interviewed. "It's clear to many of the people like us, moving left on this issue, that what's really driving this war is advancing American imperial interests in the Middle East," Kurinsky explained. "The United States, in order to be in a position to challenge what it sees as [its rivals] needs to have a geo-strategic advantage in the Middle East, and this means having bases in places like Iraq [and] Afghanistan."
"I think a lot of us at the last meeting reached something like a consensus about American imperialism being what's behind this," he continued. "And the administration is just spinning its legs trying to come up with justifications for this thing."
"Since the invasion and the occupation started, the Taliban has just become stronger and stronger and stronger," Kurinsky said, referencing evidence presented in Greenwald's film. "We've legitimized its image because we're killing children, we're bombing people's houses, we're ramping up these feuds between different tribal leaders depending on whether they serve our security interests or not. People join the Taliban because their brother or their sister or their father or their son gets killed by an American bomb."
Brian Bean agreed. "There's equivocation between Al Qaeda and the Taliban," he said. Bean was unconvinced not just by the administration's national security arguments but by its morality-based appeals as well. "For example, [the administrations says] very often that this is to make more rights for the Afghan woman, but Karzai puts in a law that is as repressive, if not more repressive, than under the Taliban."
Asked what course of action they thought the United States should pursue, Summerhays called for a de-escalation. "I don't think we're solving any problems over there."
"If the troops are out, there's some legitimacy to the idea that this will destabalize things in the short term," Kurinsky added. "So the question that everyone asks is, well, what next? I think war reparations is a really important thing that would have to happen."
"But I think it's also important that no one really knows what the solution is, and there has to be a discussion about that, and that discussion can't be monopolized by the Democrats and the Republicans," he continued. "And I think that one voice that's been missing from the discussion that needs to be in it is the voice of actual Afghani people." While Kursinky, Bean, and Summerhays don't identify with the Democratic party, they all voted for Obama. "I voted for him for historical reasons," Bean said. "There [was] a lot of real energy, and that's a beneficial thing. But I think that there's been a lot of dissatisfaction since then."
"I first became a person interested in politics through participation in Obama's campaign," added Kursinky. "I voted for him with some knowledge of his position on Afghanistan, and I bought his arguments on it, that this was a good war to some extent because I was just really into whatever Obama said. I went out and I did the canvassing thing for a really long time, and afterwards I started moving left, and I saw him moving right, and then I decided, you know, I'm not with the Democrats any more."
"They're are alot of people who are against this war," Summerhays said. "The goal of our group was to get people together and connect dots. There are people alot of people who are against the Afghan war who don't know each other."
"Every day I meet people who are in a similar situation to myself," Kurinsky said. "I think there are enough people that are in that situation that there's a real possibility for a movement forming. People are moving left, and they're are a lot of us."