Obama’s Middle East Policy trapped in Contradictions

Somebody needs to get it straight what the hell we’re going to do, without a doubt, come July.–”Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 29, 2010.

A year after President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo and pledged to take a more positive and even-handed approach to the Arab and Muslim worlds, his good intentions lie buried under a web of conflicting statements and actions. In Afghanistan he remains committed to remaining until the Taliban are defeated, a policy at cross purposes with his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011. He claims to favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but refuses to criticize Israel for prolonging the occupation and building more illegal settlements.

The contradictions at the heart of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan were evident at the American Embassy’s July 4 celebration in Kabul. On the day when Americans were celebrating their independence from British colonial rule, Gen. David H. Petraeus assumed his post as commander of an American occupation army whose presence is opposed by a majority of the Afghan people. Surrounded by red, white and blue banners, Petraeus seemed oblivious to any irony as he declared, "We must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and [coalition] forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people and that we are in this to win."

The new commander took over at the low point of a war that the U.S. is no closer to winning, and at a time when the resistance is steadily increasing–”facts confirmed by a WikiLeaks release on July 25 based on classified government documents compiled between 2004 and December 2009. The documents describe in detail a war effort hamstrung by lack of troops and resources, an incompetent Afghan government and army, and a Pakistani ally with ties to the Taliban. There is no evidence the situation is improving. More U.S. troops died in June than in any month since the war began. Despite the administration’s claim to be fighting on behalf of the Afghan people, Afghanistan remains after nine years of American occupation one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world.

In an effort to bolster the government of President Hamid Karzai, high-level diplomats from the U.N. and 70 donor countries met in Kabul on July 21 and agreed to channel 50 percent of their aid to the central government rather than to individual ministries or nongovernmental organizations, with the aim of enhancing the government’s authority. Karzai in turn promised to reduce corruption and assured the gathering that Afghan forces would be able to take charge of security by 2014–”promises he will have a hard time fulfilling.

Afghan officials and their relatives currently amass fortunes collecting bribes and skimming off foreign aid. It is no secret that at least $1 billion a year leaves the country in suitcases full of cash headed for Dubai and other banking centers. Corruption pervades every level of the Afghan economy. According to Nation investigator Adam Roston, Karzai’s cousins Ahmad and Rashid Popal own a security company that is part of a network of warlords that provides security for U.S. supply trucks. One of the warlords, Commander Ruhallah, told a congressional subcommittee that for each truck he pays $1,500 in bribes to "governors, police chiefs, and army generals" to guarantee their safe arrival. As Roston points out, these costs are borne by U.S. taxpayers.

The Pentagon’s efforts to train a reliable Afghan army have also run into obstacles. Some 90 percent of recruits are illiterate, and many show a noticeable reluctance to fight. Too often they join up for the pay, then sell their weapons to the insurgents and desert. In two incidents in July, Afghan soldiers turned on members of the allied forces they were accompanying and shot several of them to death.

Petraeus is attempting to solve the security problem by establishing local militias to fight the Taliban, a strategy similar to the one he used in Iraq, where the U.S. paid Sunni fighters to turn against al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other insurgents. But the vaunted success of the Awakening Councils has come into question as more and more of their members become the target of revenge killings and the Iraqi government fails to protect them or provide them with jobs. Karzai opposes setting up local militias for fear they will undermine his authority and lead to a return of the warlordism that plagued Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew.

In view of such realities, there is little chance Obama can begin withdrawing troops in 2011, as he has promised, and at the same time be sure that a government capable of defending itself will eventually be able to take over. Equally self-contradictory are U.S. policies regarding civilian casualties. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired for his rude comments about the Obama administration to a Rolling Stone reporter (such as calling Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, a "clown"), instructed troops not to call in air strikes if there was a chance of endangering civilians. Civilian casualties create popular resentment and increase the number of militants, but soldiers complained that McChrystal’s order prolonged battles and cost American lives.

At his Senate confirmation hearings Petraeus testified that preventing civilian deaths would remain a top priority. A few days later, however, he said protecting his troops was a "moral imperative" and assured soldiers that "in tough situations we must employ all assets to ensure your safety." There is an inherent contradiction involved in fighting a war while safeguarding the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. The difficulties involved were made clear three days after Petraeus assumed command, when a NATO helicopter called in by soldiers during a firefight mistakenly killed five Afghan soldiers. The next day artillery fire aimed at insurgents killed six Afghan civilians.

The Obama administration’s decision to increase the number of drone missile attacks against militants camped in the mountains bordering Afghanistan runs directly counter to the policy of sparing civilians. The drone attacks, combined with actions by the Pakistani army, so far have forced more than three million Pakistanis to flee their homes–”more than triple the number of refugees in the Republic of Congo.

It is not surprising that popular opposition to the war in Pakistan is growing, or that the government is seeking an accommodation with the powerful Haqqani clan, which once fought the Soviets and is now allied with the Taliban. Petraeus’ insistence that the Haqqanis and other Taliban leaders be listed as terrorists puts him at odds with both Karzai and the Pakistanis, who see reconciliation with the insurgents as the only way to end the war.

The U.S. originally went to war against the Taliban charging that it was sheltering al-Qaeda. CIA director Leon Panetta recently put the number of al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan at fewer than 100, however, so their diminished presence raises the question: why are 130,000 American troops still fighting in Afghanistan when the terrorist network responsible for 9/11 has evidently moved elsewhere?

At least part of the answer may lie in the Pentagon’s announcement in early June that Afghanistan is the potential source of $3 trillion worth of essential minerals, including gold, cobalt, copper and lithium. A Pentagon task force has been helping the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development, while a team from J.P. Morgan is in the country exploring investment opportunities. Afghanistan, which today is one of the poorest countries in the world, could someday be as great a source of corporate profits as the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The presence of U.S. troops would assure the investments were protected.

Although Obama claims to favor a political solution to the war, key members of his administration are in effect demanding unconditional surrender. Speaking on ABC’s "This Week," Panetta said there could be no reconciliation with the Taliban until they are "convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated." During her July visit to Pakistan Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she supported negotiations but only if insurgent groups first renounce violence, sever ties with al-Qaeda, and agree to abide by the Afghan constitution–”conditions the Taliban will not accept short of defeat.

Selig S. Harrison, a specialist on Afghanistan at the Center for International Policy, maintains that Karzai is eager to make peace with the Taliban and that, together with Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, he may be considering some sort of accommodation, such as allowing the Taliban continued control of their local strongholds. According to Harrison, Washington opposes these overtures. If so, the one certainty is that the war will continue until Congress responds to public opinion and demands that it stop. Meanwhile, every drone missile attack, every misfired artillery shell, makes more enemies of America.

Peace or Surrender?

Contradictions have paralyzed Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. He promised to act as an even-handed peace broker, yet hasn’t dared to defy a Congress dominated by supporters of Israel’s right-wing government. After Israel refused Obama’s demand that it halt settlement construction he quickly backtracked and has since been silent on the issue. When a U.N. human rights commission condemned Israeli war crimes in Gaza, the U.S. stood firmly by Israel at the U.N. Security Council.

On July 1, the day after Israel issued demolition orders against dozens of Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, spoke out, saying, "Settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homesites are illegal under international law, an obstacle to peace, and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."

The fact that Israel is violating international law did not prevent Obama from embracing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House five days later. "The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable," the president declared, and expressed faith that Netanyahu was committed to peace. Obama again urged the Palestinians to agree to direct talks with Israel, saying they would "create a climate" that would lead to a solution.

But in fact the "climate" Israel is creating will prevent any solution short of the Palestinians’ surrender. The indirect talks brokered this spring by Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell have only deepened differences between the two sides. The Palestinians want to discuss final borders and provisions guaranteeing mutual security. The Israelis refuse to discuss borders until the Palestinians agree to demilitarize completely, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and accept an Israeli buffer zone in the Jordan Valley.

The Israelis know these demands are unacceptable to the Palestinians, and undoubtedly intend them to prevent serious negotiations. Shortly before Netanyahu left for Washington his national security adviser, Uzi Arad, urged that Israel abandon peace negotiations altogether. "In trying to make peace," he said, "we are embracing an adversary who is conducting a very effective battle against us internationally… Maybe we should be less zealous to champion the Palestinians and more eager to defend our own ranks."

Obama’s faith in Netanyahu as peacemaker nevertheless remained intact even after the prime minister said the 10-month construction freeze would not be resumed. In fact, settlement construction during what Netanyahu promised was a 10-month freeze proceeded more rapidly than ever, since the government had hastily authorized thousands of new housing starts in the West Bank in anticipation of the freeze.

The Israeli army recently began driving hundreds of Palestinians from their homes in the Hebron hills and the Jordan Valley to make way for settlements. According to B’Tselem, Israeli settlements now claim jurisdiction over 42 percent of West Bank territory.

The expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem has escalated as well. A week after Netanyahu’s visit to Washington Israel announced that construction would begin on 52 new houses in Pisgat Zeev in East Jerusalem. In late June Mayor Nir Barkat announced plans to demolish 22 homes in Silwan, each housing large extended families, to make way for King David Gardens, a collection of upscale shops and apartments for Jews only. Lawyers for the Popular Committee for Silwan say the plans actually call for demolishing 88 homes, not 22.

Israel holds nearly 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, including increasing numbers of nonviolent activists arrested for "incitement." Yet despite popular pressure to do so, the government has refused to agree to Hamas’ demand for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Gilad Shalit, the young soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. The government finally did release four Hamas parliament members who had been held for four years as bargaining chips for Shalit. Although all were natives of Jerusalem they were ordered either to move to Gaza or the West Bank or be returned to prison.

On July 10 Israel began construction of a segment of its separation wall that will completely surround the West Bank village of Walajeh. The barrier will curve deeply into the West Bank in order to keep several Israeli settlements, including Har Gilo and the Gush Etzion bloc, on the Israeli side. In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled, with only the American judge abstaining, that the wall’s route through the West Bank created an illegal border, and ordered Israel to tear down the parts of it built on Palestinian territory. Israel rejected the order.

A house belonging to Omar Hajajla lies just outside the wall and consequently will be surrounded entirely by an electric fence. "My children need to cross four gates to get to school," Hajajla said. "It will be hell for my entire family." Like the other residents of Wallajeh, Hajajla is now cut off from his fields and the village is destined to die.

The suffering inflicted on the Palestinians is an integral part of Israeli policy, according to David Shulman, professor of Humanistic Studies at Hebrew University. In an article in the July 15 issue of the New York Review of Books Shulman writes that Israel’s government is dominated by right-wing extremists whose policies call for "the further entrenchment of the occupation, with the primary aim of absorbing more and more Palestinian land into Israel," and restricting the Palestinians to isolated enclaves. It is a process, he writes, "that we see advancing literally hour by hour and day by day in the West Bank."

Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery describes Israel’s government as an "Israeli version of fascism." That a president of the United States who is dedicated to the advancement of human rights should express unqualified support for such a government is the greatest contradiction of all.