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Against the war in Afghanistan – and/or against NATO?

Reflections on strategic issues for the antimilitarist movement

In most NATO countries public opinion is either divided over, or in favour of, the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. Only in very few countries can NATO count on support for its war (see illustration 1). However, neither does this turn into a massive mobilisation against the war in Afghanistan, nor does it – for now – translate into opposition to the organisation fighting this war – NATO (see illustration 2). So are we successful? The troops are still in Afghanistan, so we surely must be doing something wrong.

A strategic framework

To look at this question I am using Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan1 as a framework. The plan includes two important aspects: a concept of eight stages of successful social movements, and of four roles of activists within these movements.

A social movement – if successful – moves from normal times (stage 1), through proving the failure of official institutions (stage 2) to ripening conditions (stage 3), which will lead to the take off of the movement (stage 4). It is probably fair to say that this is often the first time the movement is recognised as such by the general public, or the mass media. This is followed – often in parallel – by a perception of failure within the movement (stage 5), and the winning of majority public opinion (stage 6), which eventually might lead to success (stage 7), and a continuation and extension of the struggle (stage 8). In each stage the movement faces different challenges, and has different strategic, medium-term objectives which it needs to reach to advance.

The other aspect of the MAP are the four roles of activism. Any movement needs the right balance at the right time of all four roles – the rebel, the reformer, the citizen, and the social change agent.

However, it is important not to see the Movement Action Plan as a kind of recipe for movement success. It is a useful – albeit limited – model for understanding our movement, and for giving hints what might now be important, but it is not a recipe for success.

For any social movement – and for any analysis of a social movement – it is extremely important to be clear of the objective. As Bill Moyer points out, social movements are composed of many sub-goals and sub-movements, which are each in their own MAP stage.

As a WRI staff member and antimilitarist, my perspective here is the movement against NATO, and in this I see the war in Afghanistan as a major crime NATO is presently committing.2 However, let's have a look at both.

Where are we at: Afghanistan

NATO: troops out of Afganistan?: * NATO member with troops in Afghanistan **non-NATO country with troops in Afghanistan  Illustration 1: Troops out of Afghanistan: Are you in favour of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan? Source: Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2007-2010NATO: troops out of Afganistan?: * NATO member with troops in Afghanistan **non-NATO country with troops in Afghanistan Illustration 1: Troops out of Afghanistan: Are you in favour of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan? Source: Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 2007-2010

As mentioned in the introduction, the war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular in most NATO countries, and indeed globally. In most NATO countries more than 45% of the population are in favour of a withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan3, according to polls published by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a project shared by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth.4 Other polls for individual countries report much higher opposition to the war – for example, a Daily Telegraph/YouGov poll from August 2009 showed 62% opposition to the war in Britain.5

However, public mobilisation against the war is low – at least if we look at major actions or demonstrations. And in the past the war in Afghanistan has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, to which opposition was and is even higher.

Looking at the movement against the war in Afghanistan, it clearly has achieved at least phases 1–3 of the Movement Action Plan. The conditions for a movement are ripe for a long time: the problem has clearly been recognised, and public opinion is even more opposed to the war than could be expected. However, it is also fair to say that the movement has failed to use the conditions, to take it further. This for several reasons:

  • The Iraq-war might have taken up the energy of many activists, and led to burn-out and disempowerment. Consequently, there is a lack of “rebels” within the anti-Afghanistan war movement, which could launch nonviolent action campaigns to dramatise the problem. And without this crucial role, the movement is stuck.

  • A lack of an alternative vision for Afghanistan, which could add credibility to the demand for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and counter the propaganda that NATO is in Afghanistan to fight for women's rights. Such an alternative vision can only be developed in close co-operation with Afghan civil society and peace movement organisations, which exist, but are not being listened to (with few exceptions)6.

  • A failure to put the issue on the public agenda: the leaked CIA report quotes polls which indicate that few people see the war – although they might be opposed to it – as an important issue: “Only a fraction (0.1-1.3 percent) of French and German respondents identified 'Afghanistan' as the most urgent issue facing their nation in an open-ended question, [...]. These publics ranked 'stabilizing Afghanistan' as among the lowest priorities for US and European leaders.7 As Felix Kolb points out in his book “Protest and Opportunities”, a favourable public opinion might still be irrelevant if salience is low8. This means we as a movement are failing to show how the war affects all segments of society, but also that we can make a difference.

I see a need in two main areas:

  • local organising to root the movement against the war in all sectors of society, and to bring across an alternative perspective. As Bill Moyer would put it: the basic purpose of the movement in this stage is to educate, convert, and involve all segments of the population. And

  • nonviolent direct action campaigns, which used intelligently can help to keep the issue on the public agenda, reduce apathy, and counter the alternative strategies of our governments and NATO.

However, the public has somehow overtaken the movement, and quietly opposition to the war in Afghanistan has risen to levels which almost indicate a success of the movement. But as the movement did not build up its own strength, we are not able to capitalise on it, and to really push for withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the CIA put it in a leaked memorandum: governments can count on apathy, and therefore ignore public opinion. To make sure this remains so, the memorandum suggested ways to manipulate public opinion especially in Germany and France.9

Even in response to a mostly apathetic public opposition, but also to the military failure of NATO in Afghanistan, NATO and most governments involved are changing their strategy: dates for withdrawal from Afghanistan are set (we will see how realistic they are), and the building up of the Afghan army and police has been stepped up considerably. We can see a replay of the response to the opposition to the war in Iraq: parts of Afghanistan are handed over to Afghan security forces, which is presented to the public as a first step towards withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, neither has a withdrawal from Iraq really happened, nor can we take the dates being mentioned for withdrawal from Afghanistan serious.

For the movement to get into the next stage, there is a need to take opportunities. A movement take-off is often a response to something that happens – opportunities being taken. This could have been the bombing of the tankers in Kunduz for the German movement. In other countries there might have been other opportunities, which have not been taken.

But movements can also create the take-off themselves. An idea could be to organise major events on 8 October 2011, the tenth anniversary of the intervention in Afghanistan, which are slightly different. What about human chains instead of the usual demonstrations? In Britain for example from Brize Norton (the main transport hub to and from Afghanistan via High Wycombe (RAF Strike Command) and PJHQ Northwood to Whitehall (about 100km), thus linking important military bases and headquarters with the seat of government. Similar human chains in other European (and non-European) countries could create a global human chain of 1000km – a challenge, but a challenge which could lead to its own dynamic which could trigger the take-off of an anti-Afghanistan war movement.

For such an event to be successful – and more importantly, for a movement to be successful – it is important that the different groups and organisations within the movement work together, and accept their differences. Even though we – as war resisters – prefer nonviolent direct action, NVDA alone will not build a movement or end the war. The same applies to other “roles” within the movement: we need the reformers talking to the government, we need the rebels (that might be us), the involvement of citizens, and the organisers and social change agents. Only by working together and respecting the role each one of us has to play can we be successful.

Where are we at: NATO

Unfavourable views on NATO: Illustration 2: Unfavourable views on NATO and opposition to Afghanistan. Source: 27-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 17 June 2010Unfavourable views on NATO: Illustration 2: Unfavourable views on NATO and opposition to Afghanistan. Source: 27-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 17 June 2010

NATO is a completely different matter. Public opinion against NATO is still pretty low – 21% in the USA, 17% in Britain, around 30% in France, Germany, and Spain, and only 10% in Poland.10 The low figure for Poland is probably representative of many of the Eastern European new NATO countries, which see NATO much more as a guarantor of “freedom and democracy”.11

It is difficult to look at the movement against NATO on a European scale – differences between the countries are very significant. The following therefore cannot be more than a rough outline.

The official reason for NATO's existence is to provide stability and security for its member states. And NATO presents itself as a success story in this regard – despite its failure in Afghanistan. As a movement against NATO, it is therefore an important objective to show clearly that NATO as an institution is failing to provide security, that NATO is part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Renate Wanie of the German Werkstatt für gewaltfreie Aktion Baden (Workshop for Nonviolent Action Baden) wrote already in 2009 that “education about NATO's war policy and the myth of the defence alliance” has to be one of five important objectives of the peace movement after the NATO protests in Strasbourg in April 200912.

For us as war resisters with a focus on nonviolent direct action, there is a specific task at the present stage of the anti-NATO movement: “to create small, nonviolent demonstrations and campaigns that can serve as prototype models and a training ground for the take-off stages”.13 However, it is important that this does not happen in isolation from the rest of the movement, but serves to strengthen it.

Last years actions at the NATO summit in Strasbourg could have moved the movement forward, but an opportunity was lost due to the violence that overshadowed the entire protest.14 To prevent violence at protests – whether it is provoked by the police or committed by parts of the movements that believe in violence – is crucial for any social movement that wants to be successful, as violence leads to alienation, and ultimately harms the movement.

Nevertheless, we are making some progress, and the powers that are can feel it. As the Madeline Albright report “NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement” stresses, “NATO populations should be reminded that the alliance serves their interests through the security it provides”.15 This is a consequence of growing scepticism about the need and usefulness of NATO – something we need to build on.

Our role in the movements

As war resisters – as antimilitarists and pacifists – we have a specific role to play in the movements against the war in Afghanistan and against NATO. Although within WRI we have a variety of political perspectives and approaches, what unites us is a principled stand against war and militarism, and in favour of nonviolence. Both are crucial within both movements.

As pacifists, we will remain the minority in the anti-war movement. But our insights into the need for nonviolence, and our experience with nonviolent action, is highly important, as especially the events from the NATO summit in Strasbourg in April 2009 show.

In the coming years, we should continue to work with the national and international coalitions against the war in Afghanistan, and against NATO, and to push for more democratic forms of organising, and creative nonviolent action. As Bill Moyer puts it: “participatory democracy is a key means for resolving today's awesome societal problems and for establishing a just and sustainable world for everyone”.16 This requires empowered citizens, and our movements are the place where empowerment is to take place. But this requires much more democracy and grassroots organisation within our movements, and less hierarchical and “professional” anti-war organising.

Questions of war and peace are too important to leave them to NATO, or to governments and politicians. Let's do it!

Andreas Speck

September 2010


1Bill Moyer et al, Doing Democracy. The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, 2001. A brief description of the MAP can be found at

2On the relevance of Afghanistan for NATO see the article of Tobias Pflüger in this issue of The Broken Rifle

3Pew Global, Pew Global Attitudes Surveys (different issues) 2007-2010,

4See, accessed 9 September 2010

5The Daily Telegraph, Two thirds want British troops home from Afghanistan, 29 August 2009,, accessed 9 September 2010

6Ross Eventon, Transnational Institute: Afghan Voices and Our Victories, September 2010, unpublished, but a good read.

7CIA Red Cell, 11 March 2010

8Felix Kolb, Protest and Opportunities. The Political Outcomes of Social Movements. Frankfurt/New York 2007

9CIA Red Cell, Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission—Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough (C//NF), 11 March 2010, published by Wikileaks at, accessed 9 September 2010

10Pew Global, 27-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 17 June 2010,, accessed 9 September 2010.

11It is important to note that another survey – Transatlantic Trends, published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States – lists very different figures for some of the countries, with especially higher scepticism towards NATO in Eastern Europe. See, accessed 9 September 2010

12Renate Wanie, Pacefahne oder Hasskappe - wir müssen uns entscheiden! In: Friedensforum 3/2009,, accessed 15 September 2010

13Bill Moyer et al, Doing Democracy. The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, 2001. Page 53

14Andreas Speck: After Strasbourg: On dealing with violence in one's own ranks, 20 April 2009,, accessed 16 September 2010

15NATO: NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement. Analysis and Recommendations of the Group of Experts on a New Strategic Concept for NATO, 17 May 2010,, accessed 9 September 2010

16Bill Moyer et al, Doing Democracy. The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, 2001. Page 19