Indian Wells, Calif. — The statistic jumps off the page: 69 percent of veterans support a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) is part of Stand Together, the network of political groups allied with Charles Koch, and has generally focused on issues relating to the Department of Veterans Affairs in the past. But this year the group is ready to take a big step into the broader foreign-policy discussion with a campaign to bring U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to an end.
“The core group responsible for 9/11 has been either captured or killed, and yet this endless war continues to go on,” says Nate Anderson, executive director of CVA, during a presentation to wealthy Koch-network donors at the group’s winter meeting. “The fact that two-thirds of Afghanistan War veterans say this war isn’t worth fighting tells you everything you need to know about its futility.”
“We’ve reached an inflection point as a military and veteran community,” says Anderson — who serves in the U.S. Army National Guard as a warrant officer and Green Beret and has been deployed to Afghanistan, the Caribbean, South America, and the Middle East — in a subsequent interview. “We’ve now gone 18 years in this conflict and literally, a new generation, a generation not even born on 9/11, is fighting the war that started then. And from a societal and cultural standpoint, that’s a very jarring reality to comprehend.”
“The opportunity is particularly ripe right now,” says Will Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and himself an officer in the Naval Reserve and veteran of Afghanistan. “Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalizad is actively trying to find a path forward to end this conflict, for the United States at least. There’s a real opportunity to say, ‘You’re not alone, President Trump and Ambassador Khalizad, there are groups out there who would like to see us end this.’”
Like the Koch network’s push for criminal-justice reform, its efforts to end the Afghan war have required an unusual temporary alliance with a past foe. A video at the conference featured Dan Caldwell, CVA’s senior advisor and former executive director, talking about joining forces with Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, a progressive veterans organization. The two organizations once fought like cats and dogs over proposals to give veterans more options to go outside the VA system and seek treatment from private hospitals. In the video, Soltz, sitting next to Caldwell, declares, “We got our butts kicked on the VA, courtesy of [CVA].” But both veterans groups share a concern about lengthy wars and nation-building, and a sense that Congress has delegated far too much control over the use of military force to the executive branch.
Last week, CVA launched a new campaign under the slogan, “End Endless Wars.” It includes a $1.5 million television and digital ad buy “aimed at bringing our troops home from Afghanistan and setting the stage for leaders in Washington to reassess how our country handles its foreign policy.” You can see the ad here; in it, a variety of veterans speak to the camera, inveighing against the war in terms that are, understandably, often quite charged with emotion.
CVA has calibrated this campaign to maximize its impact in a high-stakes presidential-campaign year. “In states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, military families there have experienced devastating casualty rates from these wars,” Anderson says. “Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, these are also battleground states in the coming elections. You had better believe, candidates from both parties are going to listen to what these families have to say.”
A grim assessment of the effectiveness of U.S. efforts in the country, conducted by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction and commonly referred to as “the Afghanistan Papers,” was cited during the Koch meeting as vivid evidence that a bipartisan foreign-policy establishment has failed the country in fundamental ways.
“The difference between say, a Bill Kristol on the right and a Samantha Power or Anne-Marie Slaughter on the left, is not that great,” Ruger said. Americans have “been told a kind of story about America and what America needed to do, and the consequences of that [approach] aren’t matching with that story that was being told. . . . Nate and I both served in Afghanistan, and we knew a lot of this stuff was happening. One of the responses to the Afghanistan Papers that I’ve heard from a lot of veterans is, kind of, ‘Duh! We knew this!’”
A push to end the war led by veterans will probably be perceived significantly different than the left-wing anti-war movement that has existed since 9/11 — the Code Pink protesters, Michael Moore, Hollywood celebrities, etc. Polling, and the rapid decline in interest in the war after Barack Obama was elected, suggest that those folks were more opposed to George W. Bush than to the war itself, and CVA’s motives are not clearly so partisan. Ruger emphasizes that the group doesn’t even think of itself as “antiwar” or “anti-interventionist.” “It’s just not in our DNA. . . . We start from the foundation of realism, and realism about the nature of the world,” he says.
While the financial cost of the war isn’t the centerpiece of CVA’s argument, it is an element. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already put the U.S. government on the hook for $6.4 trillion in spending — about $5.4 trillion in Department of Defense, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security costs and an estimated $1 trillion that will be needed to meet the country’s obligations to American veterans of those wars in decades to come. The total cost of U.S. efforts in World War Two, adjusted for inflation, was $4.1 trillion.
That steep price tag, the human toll that has come with it, and the lack of progress or an endgame in Afghanistan make for a compelling case against the war’s continuation. But despite all of the emphasis on engaging veterans and military families, the seven-figure ad buy, and CVA’s meetings with members of Congress, it’s fair to wonder whether the success of the group’s effort will come down to persuading just one man: President Trump.
“We’ve been really encouraged by what candidate Trump said, and what President Trump has reaffirmed. He still needs to follow through on a lot of the things that he said, but we think his gut is in the right place there,” Anderson said. “We agree with his gut. [But] that foreign-policy establishment really has affected his ability to follow through on those gut feelings on Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq.”