Afghanistan: Obama’s "good war" gone bad

What exactly is the US doing in Afghanistan? And why is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance that was created to defend Europe against Soviet attack involved in the war-ravaged country? Which coast of the Atlantic Ocean is landlocked Afghanistan situated on anyway? Beyond vacuous rhetoric –” ‘fighting terror’, ‘liberating Afghan women’ and ‘rebuilding Afghanistan’ in addition to that favourite catch-all phrase of ‘spreading democracy’, no American official seems to have a clue about why US troops are in Afghanistan. Canadians and Europeans can at least offer the lame excuse that they are there because they cannot afford to antagonise the US.

The Western-imposed democratic façade in Afghanistan finally crumbled on November 1 when the upstart challenger to President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah announced amid tears that he was withdrawing from the second round of polls scheduled for November 7. Abdullah had no chance of unseating the incumbent –” few doubted Karzai would not retain power –” but it also left much egg on the collective face of the Americans and their allies. Many of them sneaked into Kabul to participate in Karzai’s November 19 inauguration as president for a second term.

For months Western officials had berated Karzai as corrupt, incompetent and in bed with the warlords; all these are true but they apply equally to the Americans. After all, the Americans have co-opted Tajik and Uzbek warlords to do their dirty work. Of the $39 billion spent in Afghanistan since 2001 on “development” projects, hardly 10 percent has gone to the Afghans directly. The rest has been pilfered by foreigners operating as non-governmental organizations, contractors and other sundry outfits. Stung by criticism of corruption and cronyism, Karzai hit back saying that foreigners were responsible for much of the corruption. The US has also co-opted former Taliban and now $1.3 billion have been approved to win over (buy off) more of them. If that is all the Americans can show after eight years of brutal war, they have a lot more nasty surprises coming.

As US President Barack Obama grappled with the question of sending more troops to Afghanistan, he faced enormous pressure from the military and rightwing groups to accede to the request of General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan. Few believe Obama will be able to resist such pressure. If he does not agree to more troops as demanded by his generals, he would in all likelihood be killed (at Crescent press time, a formal announcement had not been made). Obama has walked into a trap of his own making. By declaring the Afghan war as the “good war”, he is now stuck with it. Soon after being sworn in as president, he could have done what French President Charles De Gaulle did in 1958. While the Frenchman campaigned on a platform of continuing the war in Algeria, as soon as he was elected, De Gaulle announced he would withdraw French troops. By acting as a statesman rather than a demagogue, De Gaulle saved France from an ignominious defeat. American generals seem hell bent on repeating all the mistakes of history again and again. As De Gaulle famously said the Americans are capable of every imaginable stupidity, and even those that are not imaginable.

As a black man, Obama not only faces great pressure from within but also racism in a country that has never grown out of its hate-filled past. Rhetoric alone will not be able to rescue him. His close advisors are divided on what to do in Afghanistan. Despite weeks of discussions in the White House, a clear course of action has not been agreed upon. While Defence Secretary Robert Gates has backed McChrystal’s demand for 40,000 additional troops, General (retired) Karl Eikenberry, US ambassador to Kabul who was until two years ago the top US commander in the country, opposes such deployment. Vice President Joe Biden has also made his opposition known and has said no more than 10,000 troops should be sent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also opposed to a large troop deployment. Obama has been further confused by people like Zbigniew Brzezinski who in a Rand-sponsored discussion on Afghanistan on October 29 spelled out what Washington must not do:

  • Withdrawal is “not in the range of policy options.”
  • The US must not repeat the Soviet experience in going it alone, but rather must “use all our leverage” to make NATO’s commitment stick.
  • The US should not neglect the need to include “Islamic” groups in the coalition.

Why, according to the sage of American foreign policy, was withdrawal “not in the range of policy options”? Brzezinski insisted the US ought to be more actively engaged in promoting a north-south pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. So it is about pipelines and access to Central Asian oil and gas after all and not about bringing democracy to the tribal society Afghanistan or liberating Afghan women, fairy tales spun to fool their largely ignorant public. True, Brzezinski advanced the argument that India needed access to the resources of Central Asia but since when has the US been in the business of promoting Indian interests unless there is a hidden agenda behind it: propping India against the emerging giant, China? Pilgrimage by Western politicians to India and bowing down in Hindu temples clearly point toward the new policy of appeasing India, both to use it against China and gain access to its growing middleclass with plenty of cash to spare.

The contours of the new US Afghan policy are beginning to emerge. It is based on sending an additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops. Further, the plan is to redeploy all foreign troops, totalling some 140,000 altogether, in the cities, abandoning the countryside to the Taliban. The hope is that this will help stabilise the cities to facilitate development so that people are convinced the presence of foreign troops is beneficial to them. Obama has made it clear to his advisor that the endgame of this exercise should be an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Has he seen the writing on the wall and is willing to face reality?

At present 70 percent of Afghans believe poverty is driving the conflict; 48 percent blame government corruption while only 36 percent blame the Taliban. These figures are based on a study, The Cost of War, published on November 17 by Oxfam, the Afghan Civil Society Forum, the Afghan Peace and Democracy Act and five other humanitarian organizations. The groups spent several months travelling through 14 of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces to collect data. Had they been able to visit the other provinces, the results would have been even more shocking.

Top American officials have also privately urged Pakistani military officials to facilitate meetings with the Taliban. This was first broached by Richard Holbrooke as early as last August. During her visit to Pakistan in October, Hillary Clinton also had a long meeting with the Pakistani Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq pervez Kayani. Among the topics discussed was Pakistan’s help in arranging a meeting with the Taliban. This is something the Pakistanis have long urged, realizing that it is impossible to defeat the Afghans. They simply will not accept the presence of foreign troops on their soil.

The US surge option for Afghanistan is based on the premise that enough Afghan troops and police would be trained to take over security responsibilities to facilitate US withdrawal. This is a false hope. The Afghans do not need the Americans or anyone else to teach them how to fight. All they want is to get all foreigners out of their country. The Afghans know how to sort their problems out. The assertion that withdrawal of US or foreign troops will lead to a civil war in Afghanistan is false. There is already a civil war going on in Afghanistan. It is fuelled by the presence of foreign troops. Their withdrawal will enable the Afghans to sit together to hammer out their differences as they have done for centuries.

The Americans and their allies should abandon the white man’s burden of civilizing the rest of the world. The Afghans would be far better off left to their own devices that have worked well for them since long before America even existed. The sooner the Yankees go home the better for all concerned, not least the long-suffering people of Afghanistan that will complete 30 years of direct foreign invasion and occupation this month.