In his school-boyish Oval Office �Mission accomplished!�
speech 31 August, United States President Barack Obama heaped faint praise on
Bush�s invasion of Iraq, averring that no one could doubt Bush�s support for
the troops, love of his country and commitment to its security when he wrote
this most �remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq.�
True, it was written at a �huge price� to the US (apparently it was provided
free of charge for the fortunate Iraqis).
He vaguely talked of �a transition to Afghan responsibility,�
vowing to stick to his promise to begin withdrawal of troops next year,
reiterating the Obama Doctrine: �American influence around the world is not a
function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power --
including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America�s
example -- to secure our interests.� The fact that, as a senator, he opposed
Petraeus, the mastermind behind the surge in Iraq in 2007 and the one Obama is
now staking his presidency on in Afghanistan, was not raised.
The lack of fighter jet and battleship for his �Mission
accomplished!� sound bite was just as symbolic as was Bush�s flight suit
hubris. Obama is looking more and more like a White House caretaker, a prisoner
of the Pentagon, if, in fact, he ever had any policy freedom in the first
place. Hillary famously cracked, �Whatever Stanley [McChrystal] wants, give it
to him.� Now, with the unceremonious dumping of McChrystal, Dave will most
certainly get what he wants, and an early exit from Afghanistan is not on his
checklist. On the contrary, he now wants to surge the surge with an extra 2,000
troops. So what are Obama/Petraeus�s real options?
There is little to differentiate McChrystal and Petraeus
apart from the latter�s pomposity. He oversaw the preparation of the
Army-Marine Corps�s counterinsurgency field manual and its application in Iraq,
and will try to smoke out the �enemy� just as did his predecessor. Obama droned
on, so to speak, about Al-Qaeda (counterterrorism in Washington-speak), but
made clear the current surge was really to stem the Taliban hordes
(counterinsurgency or COIN in Washington-speak). Counterterrorism elements �are
absolutely part of a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign,�
Petraeus told wired.com, meaning he, like Obama, still confuses Taliban and
terrorism, or rather tries to confuse anyone bothering to listen.
McChrystal�s unpopular (among GIs) order for troops to stop
killing civilians at random will continue: �You cannot kill or capture your way
out of a substantial insurgency.� He has sort of endorsed Karzai�s attempt to �win
Afghan hearts and minds� through the new High Peace Council which would lead to
�reintegration of reconcilable elements of the insurgency,. This has been tried now for two years without any success. It looks like a repeat of the Iraqi
Sunni Awakening movement of 2005, which paid former Sunni resistance fighters
as ad hoc militias, which had nothing to do with Petraeus, being a spontaneous
development by local sheikhs. Whether it was successful is still debatable.
Trying to apply this to Afghanistan is a pipe dream in any
case, where hostile mountains, warlords and a decentralised state were and are
the norm, unlike pre-2003 Iraq. Apart from the dubious surge theory, there is
nothing that Petraeus adds to the equation, nothing to suggest he will have any
chance of budging the Taliban from their bottom line: the unconditional exit of
all foreign troops and evacuation of all bases. None of this remotely reflects
the so-called Obama Doctrine of diplomacy vs military solutions to
international problems, talking vs killing, but hopes for Obama long ago dried
up. His tired Oval Office spiel neither surprised nor disappointed. It induced
The man in control, Petraeus, is himself in need of an
awakening. Someone should tell him his surge, COIN and whatnot are too late:
the Taliban are already the de facto government. NGOs seriously working in
Afghanistan have known this for quite a while. The tragic deaths of 10
International Assistance Mission (IAM) staff recently in Badakshan province was
a direct result of forgetting this important political fact. At 44, IAM is the
longest serving NGO in Afghanistan, and has successfully manoeuvred the various
royal, republican, communist, Islamist regimes for over four decades by
scrupulously avoiding any identification with local government and occupation
forces, acknowledging whichever side is in power, and sticking to its relief
work. But NATO abandoned the area in July just as new aid workers were
arriving, and this time the new volunteers got caught in the transition. Says
IAM director Dirk Frans sadly, �They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.�
The case was all the more poignant as there has been
increasing cooperation with the Taliban and fewer targeted killings of aid
workers as a result of NGOs reaching out to the Taliban and respecting their
right to govern. Mullah Omar even wrote a letter of approval for one aid group.
�The chain of command is more coherent in 2010 than 2004,� says Michiel Hofman,
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) rep in Afghanistan. MSF has access to
Taliban-controlled areas so long as its employees wear clearly marked vests
with the group�s insignia, front and back, to differentiate them from the
UNICEF and the World Health Organisation work with both the
Taliban and Karzai officials to provide polio vaccinations, once condemned by
clerics as a conspiracy to poison or sterilise Muslim children. Volunteers
carry a precious letter of approval from Mullah Omar. Red Cross spokesman Bijan
Famoudi told April Rabkin at npr.org that Red Cross workers coordinate
with the Taliban almost daily concerning their movements and can reach Taliban
leaders within hours if there is a problem.
The Taliban are not the ogre they are made out to be by the
Western media. They respect genuine international aid workers, unlike foreign
fighters from Chechnya, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, who have a �reputation
much tougher when it comes to foreigners,� notes Hofman. But then the MSF
honcho could say the same of the other foreign fighters, the occupiers, who in
a desperate bid to use such workers as human shields, have increasingly
insisted on NGO cooperation as part of their effort to �win hearts and minds.�
The US and German military have put conditions on grants to aid organisations,
requiring them to work with the occupiers. Caritas refused a chunk of $12.9m
worth of aid because it would have been part of the German army�s
Karzai, too, tries to pressure NGOs. In April, he had
Italian and Afghan employees of the Italian aid organisation, Emergency, which
ran a hospital in Helmand, charged with �terrorist activities,� including
plotting to assassinate the governor. The charges were nonsense, a case of sour
grapes, as the group successfully negotiated the release of a foreign
journalist, no thanks to Karzai et al.
The US has three choices at this point: the easy one is to
just pull out and leave the Taliban to disarm the Western-created warlord
militias and to work with the less odious members of the Karzai regime to
create a viable regime in a peaceful, if very poor and devastated country.
There are genuine NGOs on the ground now that can help coordinate a
non-imperialist international aid effort. Yes, some heads will roll, but the
sooner the process gets underway, the fewer deaths there will be all round.
This is what Pakistan and Saudi Arabia want, leaving them in the driver�s seat.
Its second option is to let the regional governments take
over in stabilizing the current regime. This, however, would require a
revolution in US thinking: mend fences between it and Iran. Iran is eager and
willing to do just this and has been since it provided the US with valuable
assistance in routing the Taliban after 9/11. Iran supports the Karzai regime,
which is dominated by the Persian-speaking Tajiks, and strongly opposes making
any deals with the Taliban. In a meeting in New Delhi in August, Iran�s Deputy
Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Fathollahi said, �Empowering the military forces
of Afghanistan and also the police of Afghanistan are points on which countries
of the region should help, and Iran voices its readiness to help in this regard.
. . . We don�t have any doubt in the capability of the government of
Sounds like Petraeus/Obama, right? The US plans to spend
$11.6 billion next year and another $25b by 2015 precisely to create an Afghan
army and policy force to support Karzai. Iran has offered to help do this. It
holds the fate of this US endgame in its hands. The advantage of this option is
that peace would break out in the region without US occupation of Afghanistan
and subversion of Iran, and the US would still have quite a bit of influence in
post-pullout Afghanistan. Both India and Russia would be solid supporters of
such a scenario and the latter would ensure the support of the �stans� on
Afghanistan�s northern borders. Pakistan and the Saudis would have no choice
but to tag along.
Its third option is a lame compromise between the above.
Council for Foreign Relations President Richard Haass suggests partitioning
Afghanistan, handing over Pashtun areas to the Taliban and arming the other
ethnic groups to defend themselves. Syed Saleem Shahzad reports in Asia
Times that the US is finally talking to the Taliban commanders, including
Sirajuddin Haqqani, mediated by Pakistan and the Saudis, offering to cede
control of the south to the Taliban while keeping control of the north. This is
a recipe for unending civil war too horrible to contemplate.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at ericwalberg.com.