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Protesters Denounce Obama's Troop "Surge" in Afghanistan


More than 100 people gathered in front of Burlington's City Hall Saturday to protest President Barack Obama's planned troop "surge" in Afghanistan.

Braving bitter winds and temperatures in the twenties, the protesters listened to a wide range of speakers, from University of Vermont students new to the anti-war movement to some of its stalwart members.

The protest is one of several being held across the nation. Several people were unable to trek to Washington, DC for a rally, so they opted for Burlington. That was the case for Peter Bartlett (pictured left), of St. Albans.

Earlier this month, President Obama announced he was adding 30,000 troops to the war effort in Afghanistan. The United States invaded Afghanistan shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in an effort to track down Osama bin Laden and other Al Quaeda leaders.

The Vermont National Guard is part of that surge, and is in the midst of its largest troop deployment since World War II. It will send 1500 soldiers off to prepare for battle in the next several weeks. About 350 soldiers shipped out yesterday.

The protest, which was spearheaded by local activist Jonathan Leavitt, was sponsored by a variety of groups.

"This is the start of rebuilding the anti-war movement in Burlington," Leavitt told the crowd. "Just as Obama is calling for a surge in Afghanistan, we need a surge in the anti-war movement to bring our troops home."

Leavitt also told the hundred-plus gathered that they needed to send a message to Vermont's congressional delegation that they should do all they can to block funding for the troop surge.

"We need to hold our congressional delegation responsible for the votes they take," said Leavitt.

After Obama's speech earlier this month, Vermont's congressional trio — Sens. Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernie Sanders (I) along with Rep. Peter Welch (D) — mostly expressed concern about spending billions of dollars to fight a war in Afghanistan without much, if any, support from other nations. They also fretted about being stuck in a quagmire. None called for an immediate withdrawal of troops, and none have said if they would vote against funding the surge.

However, Welch has said he supports a proposal in the House to create a "war tax" to fund the ongoing war in Afghanistan as a way to ensure needed money isn't taken from the federal treasury to assuage the effects of the recession.

Ellen David Friedman, of Vermont Labor Against the War, told the crowd that winning over the same-old anti-war protesters wasn't enough this time around.

"We need to to have some very difficult conversations with regular citizens about this surge," said David Friedman. That means conversations in the workplaces and organizations that are losing soldiers to the war effort.

David Ross, a Vietnam veteran and a member of Green Mountain Veterans for Peace, told the crowd that the United States military will no more win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people than it did the Vietnamese.

"I know what it's like to put a friend in a body bag," he told the crowd, "and that's what your brothers and sisters are doing right now over in Afghanistan. So, let's get the anti-war movement geared up and get our troops the hell out of Afghanistan."

Several speakers took issue with Obama's campaign buzzwords of "hope" and  "change" when comparing it to his planned troop surge in Afghanistan. However, at least one speaker made note that Obama's plans for Afghanistan are consistent with his campaign rhetoric.

"He told us during the campaign that he thought the war in Afghanistan was a just war," said Joseph Gainza, of Vermont Action for Peace. "A lot of us hoped it was just political rhetoric; something he needed to say in order to protect his right flank because he was on record as opposed to the Iraq War."

That hope was short-lived. Gainza warned, as did other speakers, that if the war is allowed to escalate in Afghanistan that it will likely expand more forcefully into neighboring Pakistan.

According to the protest organizers, 30 percent of all U.S. casualties in the eight-year war in Afghanistan have occurred during the 11 months of Obama's presidency. The cost of this war, with the new escalation, will be about $100 billion a year, or $2 billion every week, or more than $11 million every hour.

The protest was organized, in part, by the Peace and Justice Center, Vermont Labor Against the War, UVM Students Against War, UVM Students Stand Up, and the International Socialist Organization.