American Afflictions – Afghanistan, Iraq and a Growing Culture of Violence

A little more than a year after Barack Obama succeeded George W Bush as president, United States military hardware and troops are transferring to the Afghan theater in yet another attempt to control the insurgency. Despite the ‘surge’ that General Stanley McChrystal asked for and President Obama approved after weeks of reflection, militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border continue to defy American power. High-profile military operations against the Taliban in Helmand, and more recently in Kandahar, illustrate both abilities and limitations of a superpower. This is not new. The Soviet occupation forces went through a similar experience during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Like the Soviets, the Americans are increasingly finding that it is possible to wrest control of specific areas, but only as long as their troops are in occupation of those areas. As they move on for other operations, the insurgents make a come back.

There are similarities between the recent American surge approved by President Obama and the increase in the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan after Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR in 1985. Early on, Gorbachev had decided to bring his troops home following a costly war in Afghanistan. But he also ordered reinforcements similar in size to the American surge now. Ostensibly, it was to give the Soviet armed forces one last chance to win the Afghan war, but more realistically because before a planned withdrawal, the Soviet Union needed to reinforce. Troops being withdrawn have to partially disarm. The heavy equipment to be transported cannot be operational at the same time. Soldiers moving out carry light arms for self-defense, not heavy lethal weapons for attack. At the same time, the surge of more mobile units is intended to warn the enemy of more trouble coming.

President Obama has already announced that American troops will begin to leave Afghanistan by the middle of 2011. My recent visit to South Asia reinforced this impression. Obama is smart enough to know history and its lessons. He has disappointed many of his liberal supporters who had expected much more from him. But there is not much doubt that he would like to withdraw from Afghanistan. Re-election in 2012 would depend on it to a considerable degree, along with the economy. The wreckage of military ventures abroad and economic collapse at home left by the preceding administration must be prominent on Obama’s mind. What Obama will achieve is by no means certain. But there are lessons to be learned from the past.

The presidency of George W Bush was rooted in a manifesto we know as the Project for the New American Century. The project was born in reaction to the Clinton presidency in the post-Cold War decade of the 1990s. The alliance of neoconservatives and the Christian Right provided George W Bush with core support. Above all, the Bush presidency will be remembered for America’s foreign military ventures in the shape of three wars: the Afghan war, the Iraq war, and a third war, borderless and timeless – the ‘global war on terror’.

The events of 9/11 posed an unprecedented security challenge. The most important questions in Washington at the time should have been: Where to start and where to stop? What should be the scale and proportion of America’s response? However, such considerations were absent as the talk of a ‘long war’ or ‘generational war’ illustrated, certainly in the first term of President Bush.

The record of great powers fighting long or generational wars against insurgents is not good. The United States learned this in Vietnam. The Soviet Union did so in Afghanistan. A long war suits insurgent forces deeply embedded in the locale and culture of the theater. They enjoy considerable support in the battleground. Denial of this reality is often fatal. A United States president has numerous issues to deal with. But the overwhelming weight of events of the last decade leads to the conclusion that the Bush presidency was all about war. The foreign ventures he embarked on within months of inauguration eclipsed everything else during his presidency. It is therefore appropriate to evaluate the Bush presidency’s legacy in terms of the ‘war on terrorism’.

The objective of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was regime change. There has been a long debate about the true objective of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: weapons of mass destruction or regime change. Time and events seem to have settled that debate. It was claimed that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons that could be activated within 45 minutes. Such weapons were not found. A lot more about the considerations and deliberations between Washington and London, and in each capital, has come to light. We know more about the private communication between President Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run up to the Iraq invasion – communication that other significant figures who should have been made aware of did not know. And we have learned from Tony Blair that even with knowledge of there being no weapons of mass destruction, he would have employed other arguments to remove Saddam Hussein.

Much has been said about mistakes being made in Afghanistan and, more specifically, Iraq. The biggest error of judgment was that two very different countries were given the same treatment of military power. In doing do, the intervenors appeared to act with vengeance more than a planned strategy. Otherwise, why would Afghanistan – an utterly failed state – be subjected to sustained destructive air power and left without a serious attempt at rebuilding for so long. And the primary intervenor moved on to Iraq to dismantle a well-organized state structure, after the dictator had been overthrown. By treating Afghanistan and Iraq in the same way, the intervenors did the opposite of what was needed in each country.

To view al Qaeda and the various nationalist movements in the Arab world as one ‘enemy’ in the ‘war on terror’ was an historic miscalculation. The determination under the Bush presidency to crush nationalism in the Muslim world exacted a high price from the West. But countries in the region paid, and continue to pay, a price even greater. Al Qaeda’s terrorist violence has been answered by the terror of American military power. Differing agendas of regional powers became fused with America’s aims in the ‘war on terror’. The impact was huge across the region, producing anger, resentment and outright rebellion in the wider populace.

In a country without national infrastructure, or where infrastructure is destroyed, there will be certain consequences. The essence of the state’s role is maintaining order. It does so by means of coercion, taxation and distribution. In a country such as Afghanistan, self, family, clan, tribe and ethnic group acquire much greater significance. In a failed or weak state, other agencies – a village elder, tribal chief or warlord – replace the state. They command popular following, because they make things happen.

In Iraq, two early decisions by the American administrator Paul Bremer after the 2003 invasion triggered a multi-layered conflict. By Order Number 1 of May 16, Bremer dissolved the Ba’ath Party. In an article in Le Monde diplomatique, the British academic Toby Dodge described the Iraqi population a month after the arrival of the US forces as dominated by a Hobbesian nightmare. Dodge estimated that between 20000 and 120000 senior and middle-ranking Iraqi officials lost their jobs in the civil service purge alone. They would have constituted the very force capable of restoring order amid chaos and violence. Dodge wrote that 17 of Baghdad’s 23 ministries were completely gutted, stripped of all portable items like computers, furniture and fittings – all within three weeks. There were not enough American troops to stop it.

Bremer’s Order Number 2 dismantled the most important state institutions and subordinates such as government ministries, Iraqi military and paramilitary organizations, the National Assembly, courts and emergency forces. To be prepared with alternatives to take over the functions of these organizations was essential in a country of 30 million people. Bremer’s two edicts left a vacuum that was rapidly filled by new violent players.

I want to offer a brief explanation of the nature of the other conflict – Afghan war – since the 1970s. It also applies to an extent to Iraq. Afghanistan has striking parallels with other conflicts in Palestine, Yemen and elsewhere. These conflicts can be seen in four separate yet overlapping, often simultaneous stages. This is how.

Stage 1: internal conflict. In Afghanistan, internal conflict is a fact of history. For simplicity, let’s begin from the ‘decade of liberalism and modernization’ in the 1960s. The conflict escalated after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 – and again after the 1978 coup by young Soviet-oriented military officers, who feared that President Daud was taking the country too close to the United States.

Stage 2: increase in great power involvement. External intervention fuels the unrest, and upsets the balance of forces locally. This, in turn, attracts more external forces, until they begin to dictate the scale and course of events. But their unacceptability among local players, and active resistance by local groups, hinder the creation and functioning of institutions.

Stage 3: state disintegration. In Afghanistan, the death of the state was slow, taking more than two decades. In Iraq, too, considering the effects of sanctions and isolation, we are talking about more than a decade. After Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the final blow came relatively quickly.

Stage 4: foreign indifference and rise of extremism. I have in mind the decade of the 1990s and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Soviet state had been defeated and had disintegrated. For the United States, exhausted and occupied with the urgency to manage the wreckage of the Soviet Union, most importantly its nuclear arsenal, Afghanistan was simply not a priority.

There is a general lesson to be learned. A prolonged war leads to fatigue and indifference among external intervenors. A culture of violence matures. Expectations on all sides are altered and violence becomes a way of life. Actors left behind acquire a habit of using coercion. And citizens come to expect solutions to be found through violence. That few intervening powers grasp this lesson is a tragedy.

We have at present a mix of the McChrystal plan of military surge and counterinsurgency and President Obama’s wish to start drawing down the combat forces in mid-2011. His wish is driven by the 2012 presidential election in America. And it is dependent upon recruitment, training and ultimately guaranteed discipline of a 300000-strong Afghan national force.

However, history shows that integrity in the Afghan armed forces is difficult to achieve. Tribal realities among Pashtun officers and rank-and-file soldiers – and distrust for Pashtuns among non-Pashtuns – cannot be wished away. It would require a generation to transform the culture of the armed forces and the country even if the United States and allies had the will. In the absence of that will, I have some fears. They are –

1. As soon as President Obama begins to draw down the combat forces in mid-2011, altering the balance of power, or that prospect is near, dramatic shifts of loyalties will occur in the Afghan armed forces. This has happened before and could happen again.

2. The Karzai government cannot survive if the military disintegrates along tribal and ethnic lines. The Afghan armed forces and police lack cohesion already.

3. Afghanistan has weapons in abundance. Guns poured into the country, with the best possible intention of equipping the military, would fall into the wrong hands. And I am not even talking about increased activity by Pakistan’s ISI and other regional players.

All these are ingredients of a state of nature again.

The answer is a long-term regional project, led but not dictated by the United States, involving Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and India; and a deliberate policy of demilitarization, however difficult and painful. Internally, a type of tribal democracy, certainly outside Kabul and other main cities, is what is realistic to hope for.

But the current state of America’s relations with China, Iran and Russia does not favor such a prospect. Tensions have grown with Pakistan and Turkey. And I know there is uncertainty, if not outright unhappiness, over the Obama administration’s policies elsewhere in the region. This makes cooperation much more difficult. The current strategy in Afghanistan lays too much emphasis on military tactics. And it does not appreciate nearly enough how objectionable, how provocative, foreign military presence is to Afghans. The sentiment goes beyond the Taliban.

Ref: Counterpunch

Deepak Tripathi is the author of two forthcoming books – Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Potomac, 2010). His works can be found on http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: DandATripathi@gmail.com.

Yeswecanistan – The Peace Candidate Myth

All the crying from the left about how Obama “the peace candidate” has now become “a war president” … Whatever are they talking about?

Here’s what I wrote in this report in August 2008, during the election campaign: We find Obama threatening, several times, to attack Iran if they don’t do what the United States wants them to do nuclear-wise; threatening more than once to attack Pakistan if their anti-terrorist policies are not tough enough or if there would be a regime change in the nuclear-armed country not to his liking; calling for a large increase in US troops and tougher policies for Afghanistan; wholly and unequivocally embracing Israel as if it were the 51st state. Why should anyone be surprised at Obama’s foreign policy in the White House? He has not even banned torture, contrary to what his supporters would fervently have us believe.

If further evidence were needed, we have the November 28 report in the Washington Post: “Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban.” This is but the latest example of the continuance of torture under the new administration. But the shortcomings of Barack Obama and the naiveté of his fans is not the important issue.

The important issue is the continuation and escalation of the American war in Afghanistan, based on the myth that the individuals we label “Taliban” are indistinguishable from those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, whom we usually label “al Qaeda”. “I am convinced,” the president said in his speech at the United States Military Academy (West Point) on December 1, “that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” Obama used one form or another of the word “extremist” eleven times in his half-hour talk. Young, impressionable minds must be carefully taught; a future generation of military leaders who will command America’s never-ending wars must have no doubts that the bad guys are “extremists”, that “extremists” are by definition bad guys, that “extremists” are beyond the pale and do not act from human, rational motivation like we do, that we — quintessential non-extremists, peace-loving moderates — are the good guys, forced into one war after another against our will. Sending robotic death machines flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan to drop powerful bombs on the top of wedding parties, funerals, and homes is of course not extremist behavior for human beings. And the bad guys attacked the US “from here”, Afghanistan. That’s why the United States is “there”, Afghanistan. But in fact the 9-11 attack was planned in Germany, Spain and the United States as much as in Afghanistan.

It could have been planned in a single small room in Panama City, Taiwan, or Bucharest. What is needed to plot to buy airline tickets and take flying lessons in the United States? And the attack was carried out entirely in the United States. But Barack Obama has to maintain the fiction that Afghanistan was, and is, vital and indispensable to any attack on the United States, past or future. That gives him the right to occupy the country and kill the citizens as he sees fit. Robert Baer, former CIA officer with long involvement in that part of the world has noted: “The people that want their country liberated from the West have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. They simply want us gone because we’re foreigners, and they’re rallying behind the Taliban because the Taliban are experienced, effective fighters.” The pretenses extend further. US leaders have fed the public a certain image of the insurgents (all labeled together under the name “Taliban”) and of the conflict to cover the true imperialistic motivation behind the war. The predominant image at the headlines/TV news level and beyond is that of the Taliban as an implacable and monolithic “enemy” which must be militarily defeated at all costs for America’s security, with a negotiated settlement or compromise not being an option.

However, consider the following which have been reported at various times during the past two years about the actual behavior of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan vis-à-vis the Taliban, which can raise questions about Obama’s latest escalation: The US military in Afghanistan has long been considering paying Taliban fighters who renounce violence against the government in Kabul, as the United States has done with Iraqi insurgents. President Obama has floated the idea of negotiating with moderate elements of the Taliban. US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, said last month that the United States would support any role Saudi Arabia chose to pursue in trying to engage Taliban officials. Canadian troops are reaching out to the Taliban in various ways. A top European Union official and a United Nations staff member were ordered by the Kabul government to leave the country after allegations that they had met Taliban insurgents without the administration’s knowledge. And two senior diplomats for the United Nations were expelled from the country, accused by the Afghan government of unauthorized dealings with insurgents. However, the Afghanistan government itself has had a series of secret talks with “moderate Taliban” since 2003 and President Hamid Karzai has called for peace talks with Taliban leader Mohammed Omar. Organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as the United Nations have become increasingly open about their contacts with the Taliban leadership and other insurgent groups.

Gestures of openness are common practice among some of Washington’s allies in Afghanistan, notably the Dutch, who make negotiating with the Taliban an explicit part of their military policy. The German government is officially against negotiations, but some members of the governing coalition have suggested Berlin host talks with the Taliban. MI-6, Britain’s external security service, has held secret talks with the Taliban up to half a dozen times. At the local level, the British cut a deal, appointing a former Taliban leader as a district chief in Helmand province in exchange for security guarantees. Senior British officers involved with the Afghan mission have confirmed that direct contact with the Taliban has led to insurgents changing sides as well as rivals in the Taliban movement providing intelligence which has led to leaders being killed or captured. British authorities hold that there are distinct differences between different “tiers” of the Taliban and that it is essential to try to separate the doctrinaire extremists from others who are fighting for money or because they resent the presence of foreign forces in their country. British contacts with the Taliban have occurred despite British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly ruling out such talks; on one occasion he told the House of Commons: “We will not enter into any negotiations with these people.” For months there have been repeated reports of “good Taliban” forces being airlifted by Western helicopters from one part of Afghanistan to another to protect them from Afghan or Pakistani military forces. At an October 11 news conference in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai himself claimed that “some unidentified helicopters dropped armed men in the northern provinces at night.” On November 2, IslamOnline.net (Qatar) reported: “The emboldened Taliban movement in Afghanistan turned down an American offer of power-sharing in exchange for accepting the presence of foreign troops, Afghan government sources confirmed. ‘US negotiators had offered the Taliban leadership through Mullah Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil (former Taliban foreign minister) that if they accept the presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan, they would be given the governorship of six provinces in the south and northeast …

America wants eight army and air force bases in different parts of Afghanistan in order to tackle the possible regrouping of [the] Al-Qaeda network,’ a senior Afghan Foreign Ministry official told IslamOnline.net.” There has been no confirmation of this from American officials, but the New York Times on October 28 listed six provinces that were being considered to receive priority protection from the US military, five which are amongst the eight mentioned in the IslamOnline report as being planned for US military bases, although no mention is made in the Times of the above-mentioned offer. The next day, Asia Times reported: “The United States has withdrawn its troops from its four key bases in Nuristan [or Nooristan], on the border with Pakistan, leaving the northeastern province as a safe haven for the Taliban-led insurgency to orchestrate its regional battles.” Nuristan, where earlier in the month eight US soldiers were killed and three Apache helicopters hit by hostile fire, is one of the six provinces offered to the Taliban as reported in the IslamOnline.net story. The part about al-Qaeda is ambiguous and questionable, not only because the term has long been loosely used as a catch-all for any group or individual in opposition to US foreign policy in this part of the world, but also because the president’s own national security adviser, former Marine Gen. James Jones, stated in early October: “I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling. The al-Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” Shortly after Jones’s remarks, we could read in the Wall Street Journal: “Hunted by U.S. drones, beset by money problems and finding it tougher to lure young Arabs to the bleak mountains of Pakistan, al-Qaida is seeing its role shrink there and in Afghanistan, according to intelligence reports and Pakistan and U.S. officials. … For Arab youths who are al-Qaida’s primary recruits, ‘it’s not romantic to be cold and hungry and hiding,’ said a senior U.S. official in South Asia.” From all of the above is it not reasonable to conclude that the United States is willing and able to live with the Taliban, as repulsive as their social philosophy is? Perhaps even a Taliban state which would go across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has been talked about in some quarters. What then is Washington fighting for? What moves the president of the United States to sacrifice so much American blood and treasure? In past years, US leaders have spoken of bringing democracy to Afghanistan, liberating Afghan women, or modernizing a backward country. President Obama made no mention of any of these previous supposed vital goals in his December 1 speech. He spoke only of the attacks of September 11, al Qaeda, the Taliban, terrorists, extremists, and such, symbols guaranteed to fire up an American audience.

Yet, the president himself declared at one point: “Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border.” Ah yes, the terrorist danger … always, everywhere, forever, particularly when it seems the weakest. How many of the West Point cadets, how many Americans, give thought to the fact that Afghanistan is surrounded by the immense oil reserves of the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea regions? Or that Afghanistan is ideally situated for oil and gas pipelines to serve much of Europe and south Asia, lines that can deliberately bypass non-allies of the empire, Iran and Russia? If only the Taliban will not attack the lines. “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan, so it can become a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south …”, said Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in 2007. Afghanistan would also serve as the home of American military bases, the better to watch and pressure next-door Iran and the rest of Eurasia. And NATO … struggling to find a raison d’être since the end of the Cold War. If the alliance is forced to pull out of Afghanistan without clear accomplishments after eight years will its future be even more in doubt? So, for the present at least, the American War on Terror in Afghanistan continues and regularly and routinely creates new anti-American terrorists, as it has done in Iraq. This is not in dispute even at the Pentagon or the CIA. God Bless America. William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Rogue State: a guide to the World’s Only Super Power. and West-Bloc Dissident: a Cold War Political Memoir.

*Ref: counterpunch

He can be reached at: BBlum6@aol.com