How the War in Afghanistan undermines Obama’s other Goals

As Israel’s chokehold on Gaza remained unrelenting, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was at a standstill, the Obama administration was focused on “Strike of the Sword,” an offensive operation in late July that sent 4,000 U.S. Marines into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

Officials predict the operation will continue for months, possibly longer, and cause many more American casualties. The expansion of a war involving two Muslim countries will also be costly to President Barack Obama’s efforts to mend American relations with the Muslim world.

A phrase from the past suggests the recent thinking behind U.S. military policy in the region. In February 1968 the Associated Press quoted an American commander in Vietnam, Lt. Col. James Dare, as saying of the city of Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Military spokesmen said 85 percent of Ben Tre was leveled in order to save it from the Viet Cong and prevent more American casualties.

That policy was especially evident during the Bush administration. Washington’s efforts to save the world from al-Qaeda left a wake of misery and destruction in Iraq and is now wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and dangerously destabilizing Pakistan. As in Ben Tre, the civilians in all three countries are paying a heavy price. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal assumed command of allied forces in Afghanistan this summer he ordered troops to refrain from calling in air strikes in situations where civilians might be harmed. But Rear Adm. Gregory Smith immediately qualified the order, saying that if U.S. soldiers’ lives are in danger, “They’ll have to address the problem as best they can, either with ground forces or close air support.”

The offensive in southern Afghanistan is therefore fraught with contradictions. Military officials say the plan calls for small clusters of Marines to stay in the towns they capture, and provide aid to the population. “Essentially what they are trying to do is create and sustain a productive presence in Helmand Province, including both combat power and civil-engagement capabilities,” a senior military officer said. “It is not simply about killing the enemy, but about protecting the population and improving their lives.”

In other words, just as they were in Vietnam, young soldiers trained to fight and kill are being assigned to capture villages by force, then win over the hearts and minds of the inhabitants, most of whom will regard the Americans as foreign invaders. Even those who oppose the Taliban and are willing to cooperate with the Americans will wonder what will happen to them once the Americans leave and the Taliban return.

What makes the job even more daunting is that in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, the enemy is often indistinguishable from the local population, and a soldier trained to have a hair-trigger reaction in the face of danger is not likely to risk his own life and the lives of his buddies by holding fire. In a village near Kandahar on July 16 at least five civilians were killed and 13 badly wounded when U.S. troops were attacked by small arms fire and called in aircraft. A wounded farmer said he and his family were shot at by a helicopter when they heard noise and ran into their garden. “There are not any Taliban in our village,” he said.

A report released on July 13 by the Afghanistan Analysts Network warned that “a deepening sense of occupation and undercurrents of anti-Westernism” were increasing the Taliban’s appeal. Abdal Qadir Noorzai of the Afghan Human Rights Commission agreed, saying, “Now there are more people siding with the Taliban than with the government.” For soldiers trying to win hearts and minds this creates a major problem. Someone whose son or brother is fighting with the Taliban will not be won over by troops that are trying to kill him.

The government of President Hamid Karzai is also an obstacle to U.S. efforts. In addition to its pervasive corruption, it has been unable to come up with a reliable security force capable of taking over an area from the Americans once they leave. Such forces are critical in establishing contact with citizens, according to the army. “We can’t read these people,” an officer said. “We’re different. They’re not going to tell us the truth. We’ll never get to build and transition unless we have the Afghans.”

Karzai’s challenger in the country’s Aug. 20 election is Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister who promised to work seriously for reconciliation with the Taliban. As Dr. Abdullah gained popularity with this pledge, some villagers began taking negotiations with the Taliban into their own hands. Elders in Badghis Province in northern Afghanistan arranged a truce with the Taliban in late July that allowed elections to be held and government redevelopment projects to proceed.

Karzai, who also promised to seek reconciliation with the Taliban, sought to strengthen his chances in the election by allying himself with two discredited warlords. He named as his vice presidential running mate Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who was suspected of printing millions of dollars worth of Afghan currency for himself in 2002, and he brought back as army chief of staff Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was suspended a year ago for threatening a political rival at gunpoint.

Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll earlier in the war and worked closely with U.S. Special Forces, is notorious for the mass killing of prisoners. During the 2001 invasion Dostum’s soldiers jammed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners into shipping containers, where they died of suffocation and thirst.

The treatment of prisoners has been a continuing problem in Afghanistan, and one that creates considerable hostility to America. Inmates at the crowded U.S.-run Bagram prison still have virtually no access to lawyers, and many are held in cages. The fate of the more than 15,000 detainees in Afghan prisons is even worse. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Afghans are arbitrarily detained by police, prosecutors, judges and detention center officials with alarming regularity.” The overcrowded prisons are breeding places for Taliban recruits, and the battle for Helmand Province is certain to add to their number.

The negative effects of the war on President Obama’s efforts to dispel anti-American hostility in the region are also increasingly evident in Pakistan. The Pakistani government issued a briefing on July 21 saying, “The surge in Afghanistan will further reinforce the perception of a foreign occupation of Afghanistan. It will result in more civilian casualties; further alienate the local population. Thus more local resistance to foreign troops.”

A poll released in July by found that although 75 percent of the respondents were opposed to the Taliban, 59 percent said they shared al-Qaeda’s attitudes toward the United States. Anti-American hostility has become so pervasive in Pakistan that food, water and tents provided by the Pentagon to refugee camps cannot be labeled as American, and Pakistani officials warned of an “extremely negative” reaction if Americans appeared in the camps. The camps hold only a small portion of the 2.5 million Pakistanis made homeless by the fighting.

Obama will incur the most lasting damage to his credibility in the Middle East if he appears to weaken his commitment to justice for the Palestinians. But grappling with a deepening and increasingly hopeless military involvement in Afghanistan, and a sick economy and an obstreperous Congress at home, is bound to reduce his energy and political capital. He needs both in dealing with Israel.

Dealing With Israel

The fact that Israeli leaders are aware of Obama’s distractions is evident in their defiant refusal to halt settlement expansion or resume peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. With a wink to his right-wing supporters, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced last June that he would support “two states for two peoples,” but only on condition that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” relinquish the right of refugees to return, agree to “defensible borders” for Israel, and accept a totally demilitarized state with no control over its air space.

Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, pointed out that there was no Palestinian leader willing to deliver on these demands or make the compromises necessary for peace–”as defined by the Israelis. “We do not seem to have a partner now,” Meridor said, repeating almost word for word a statement used by past Israeli leaders to avoid negotiations.

Netanyahu further challenged Obama by insisting on Israel’s right to expand Jewish settlements. Construction of 2,000 units in the West Bank is proceeding and the government is going ahead with a housing development for Jews in East Jerusalem. Right-wing settlers who constitute a powerful minority continue to press for more. While U.S. national security adviser James L. Jones and Middle East adviser Dennis Ross were in Jeru­ salem in late July, thousands of Israeli extremists, many of them armed, took over a dozen Palestinian-owned hilltops near Ramallah and proceeded to build make­ shift huts. They said their purpose was to send the Americans a message. “We are rebuilding the land of Israel,” said one rabbi, who referred to Obama as “that Arab they call a president.”

When the State Department expressed concern that the East Jerusalem project would interfere with peace efforts, the prime minister stood firm.”I would like to re-emphasize,” Netanyahu said, “that united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged.”

Jerusalem is crucially important to Palestinians as the center of Palestinian cultural, economic, and religious life for centuries until Israel captured it in 1967 and illegally annexed it. Since then the government has systematically reduced the Palestinian population by leveling neighborhoods, refusing to grant building permits to Palestinian property owners, and surrounding Palestinian areas with walls and Jewish settlements. On Aug. 2, only days after a series of high-level U.S. officials visited Jerusalem to urge a settlement freeze, Israeli police forcibly ousted 55 Palestinians from their homes in the Arab sector of the city. A group of Jewish nationalists immediately moved into the apartments, which had been built by the U.N. for Palestinian refugees in the early 1950s.

When Netanyahu took office in January he said his aim was to de-emphasize efforts to reach a final settlement and instead move to improve life for the Palestinians. In keeping with this intention he has removed all the checkpoints between Jenin and Hebron and handed over partial control of Palestinian cities to American-trained Palestinian security forces. The Israeli army will continue to operate throughout the West Bank but end its nightly raids in Ramallah, Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Jericho. They will enter these cities “only in case of urgent security need,” Israeli officials said.

Conditions on the West Bank have in some ways improved. A front-page article by Ethan Bonner in the July 17 New York Times was headed “Security and Economic Revival Raise Hopes in the West Bank.” The article featured a picture of stylishly dressed young women entering a new movie theater in Nablus, and noted that the International Monetary Fund had predicted a 7 percent growth rate for the economy in 2009.

Nevertheless, Bonner reported, earth mounds, bypass roads, and other barriers continue to hinder commerce, along with other limits on Palestinian business. “I fail to see any indications that Israel wants to help the Palestinian economy,” said Abdel-Malik al-Jaber, vice president of Patel, a cell phone company that al-Jaber says Israel won’t allow to compete with Israeli companies.

The Times report was unintentionally disturbing in its account of U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces, which now number several thousand men. The aim of American and European officials, Bonner wrote, is “Taking young Palestinian men out of the ancestral grip of their villages and tribal clans and training them abroad, turning them into soldiers loyal to units and commanders.” He cited the fact that, during Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter, “Palestinian police officers kept the West Bank calm.”

Shifting the loyalty of young Palestinians from their traditional communities to paramilitary units financed and trained by Israel’s closest ally seems certain to further cement Israel’s control of the West Bank. In an article in the UAE’s The National, British journalist and West Bank resident Jonathan Cook writes that what is developing in the West Bank is “a culture of absolute control and absolute Palestinian dependency, enforced by proxy Palestinian rulers acting as a mini dictatorship.”

According to Cook, Israel envisions Palestinian statehood as a collection of local fiefdoms run by Fatah and controlled by Palestinian security forces. He accuses Abbas of collaborating in this effort and points out that Palestinian prisons are filling not only with suspected Hamas supporters but also with those who oppose Fatah. “The ground is being carefully tended by Israel to create a brutal client state,” Cook concludes.

Gaza’s Agony

Meanwhile there has been no end to the agony of one and a half million Gazans as Israel ­ drives home the message that Palestinians must choose between subservience to Israel and starvation. Israel delivered this message loud and clear last December and January with the destructive rampage called Operation Cast Lead, and continues to do so by allowing nothing but a minimum amount of food and medicine to enter Gaza. Israeli officials said in late July that a small amount of cement would be allowed in to build a flour mill.

Israel’s claim that it sought to minimize risk to civilians during its offensive was refuted by two reports in late July. A study for Human Rights Watch by former Pentagon weapons specialist Marc Garlasco cited several examples of such attacks, including one on a shelter where several families had taken refuge, and another aimed at a rooftop where six children were playing. Similar accusations were contained in testimony from 26 Israeli soldiers collected by the veterans’ organization Breaking the Silence. The soldiers said the military had used Palestinians as human shields, fired white phosphorus shells into civilian areas, demolished buildings unnecessarily, vandalized homes, and used “insane” amounts of firepower. Their orders were, “If you’re not sure, kill.”

President Obama’s speech in Cairo last June won friends in the Muslim world by reaching out to Arabs and other Muslims and doing so convincingly. They will now wait to see if he will use American power not to conduct wars but to help solve problems and resolve conflict. He could start by seeing to it that the people of Gaza are able to rebuild their homes and their schools, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan no longer live in fear of warplanes and bombs. Only then will the promise of Cairo be fulfilled.