"Good War" Blues: Obama's Plan for Escalation in the 'Stans

This week's border incident -- in which a U.S. attack killed at least 10 Pakistani soldiers -- has refocused attention on Barack Obama's long-standing promise to take the War on Terror to Pakistan; or as he puts it, getting "on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan." In other words, Obama wants to expand the "good war" in Afghanistan by withdrawing "all combat troops" from Iraq (while leaving behind an unspecified number there to "fight al Qaeda" -- how non-combat troops are supposed to fight anybody is not clear; perhaps the gay-bashing, right-wing preachers Obama is now courting can explain this metaphysical mystery) and moving them to Afghanistan...and Pakistan. You would think this latter strategy might provoke at least a ripple of concern among progressives, but everyone seems to think it's hunky-dory -- as long as it's not Bush who is suggesting it.

But to be fair, one nationally recognized progressive leader has condemned such a move in forthright terms, describing it as:

a misguided invasion of a Muslim country that sparks new insurgencies, ties down our military, busts our budgets, increases the pool of terrorist recruits, alienates America, gives democracy a bad name, and prompts the American people to question our engagement in the world.

Yes, that junior senator from Illinois certainly knows a thing or two about --- oh, sorry. That was Obama's analysis of the stupidity of Bush's invasion of Iraq -- from the very same speech in which he calls for taking the Terror War to the "battlefield in Pakistan." Yet every accurate insight he offered about Iraq applies to Pakistan -- except for one key element: a move against Pakistan would be "a misguided invasion of a Muslim country" with a nuclear arsenal. It's not just some two-bit punching bag like the toothless, broken-backed regimes of Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega, where the two George Bushes tried to prove their non-existent machismo by shooting ducks in a barrel -- or rather, slaughtering civilians by proxy. And it would be just about the worst place imaginable (outside of Iran, perhaps) for Obama to prove how rough and tough he is, how worthy to wear the imperial laurels of the "commander-in-chief."

He has already pulled out the ultimate casus belli, the holy of holies of the Terror War, to justify any action against Pakistan:

...let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again...There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard.

So even a misguided, insurgency-sparking, budget-busting, terrorist-increasing, America-alienating, democracy-tarnishing strike on a Muslim country with nuclear weapons would be in order if it helps out Obama's planned "surge" in the "good war." But how "good" is the war in Afghanistan? How necessary and productive has this conflict -- which has now run longer than World War II -- been in achieving its ostensible aims? Tariq Ali provides a detailed analysis of both the historical context and the present situation in a new piece well worth reading in full. Below are some excerpts:

(Continued after the jump)

From Afghanistan: Mirage of the Good War, by Tariq Ali:

The number of Afghan civilians killed has exceeded many tens of times over the 2,746 who died in Manhattan. Unemployment is around 60 per cent and maternal, infant and child mortality levels are now among the highest in the world. Opium harvests have soared, and the ‘Neo-Taliban’ is growing stronger year by year. By common consent, Karzai’s government does not even control its own capital, let alone provide an example of ‘good governance’. Reconstruction funds vanish into cronies’ pockets or go to pay short-contract Western consultants. Police are predators rather than protectors. The social crisis is deepening...

True, there was a sense of relief in Kabul when the Taliban’s Wahhabite Emirate was overthrown. Though rape and heroin production had been curtailed under their rule, warlords kept at bay and order largely restored in a country that had been racked by foreign and civil wars since 1979, the end result had been a ruthless social dictatorship with a level of control over the everyday lives of ordinary people that made the clerical regime in Iran appear an island of enlightenment. The Taliban government fell without a serious struggle...What many Afghans now expected from a successor government was a similar level of order, minus the repression and social restrictions, and a freeing of the country’s spirit. What they were instead presented with was a melancholy spectacle that blasted all their hopes....

Washington assigned the task of assembling a new government to Zalmay Khalilzad, its Afghan-American pro-consul in Kabul [who is now evidently planning to run for the presidency himself]....Aware that the US could not run the country without the Northern Alliance and its backers in Teheran and Moscow, Khalilzad toned down the emancipatory rhetoric and concentrated on the serious business of occupation. The coalition he constructed resembled a blind octopus, with mainly Tajik limbs and Karzai as its unseeing eye. The Afghan president comes from the Durrani tribe of Pashtuns from Kandahar...Young Karzai [had] backed the mujaheddin against Russia and later supported the Taliban, though he turned down their offer to become Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the UN, preferring to relocate and work for Unocal. Here he backed up Khalilzad, who was then representing CentGas in their bid to construct a pipeline that would take gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India...

Karzai’s habit of parachuting his relatives and protégés into provincial governor or police chief jobs has driven many local communities into alliance with the Taliban, as the main anti-government force....Nor is it any secret that Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, has now become one of the richest drug barons in the country...

In sum: even in the estimate of the West’s own specialists and institutions, ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan has been flawed in its very conception. It has so far produced a puppet president dependent for his survival on foreign mercenaries, a corrupt and abusive police force, a ‘non-functioning’ judiciary, a thriving criminal layer and a deepening social and economic crisis. It beggars belief to argue that ‘more of this’ will be the answer to Afghanistan’s problems...

The argument that more NATO troops are the solution is equally unsustainable. All the evidence suggests that the brutality of the occupying forces has been one of the main sources of recruits for the Taliban. American air power, lovingly referred to as ‘Big Daddy’ by frightened US soldiers on unwelcome terrain, is far from paternal when it comes to targeting Pashtun villages. There is widespread fury among Afghans at the number of civilian casualties, many of them children....To this could be added the deaths by torture at the US-run Bagram prison and the resuscitation of a Soviet-era security law under which detainees are being sentenced to 20-year jail terms on the basis of summary allegations by US military authorities...

The re-emergence of the Taliban cannot therefore simply be blamed on Islamabad’s failure to police the border, or cut ‘command and control’ links, as the Americans claim. While the ISI played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to power in 1996 and in the retreat of 2001, they no longer have the same degree of control over a more diffuse and widespread movement, for which the occupation itself has been the main recruiting sergeant. It is a traditional colonial ploy to blame ‘outsiders’ for internal problems: Karzai specializes in this approach. If anything, the destabilization functions in the other direction: the war in Afghanistan has created a critical situation in two Pakistani frontier provinces....

It need hardly be added that the bombardment and occupation of Afghanistan has been a disastrous—and predictable—failure in capturing the perpetrators of 9.11. This could only have been the result of effective police work; not of international war and military occupation. Everything that has happened in Afghanistan since 2001—not to mention Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon—has had the opposite effect, as the West’s own intelligence reports have repeatedly confirmed. According to the official 9.11 Commission report, Mullah Omar’s initial response to Washington’s demands that Osama Bin Laden be handed over and al-Qaeda deprived of a safe haven was ‘not negative’; he himself had opposed any al-Qaeda attack on us targets. But while the Mullah was playing for time, the White House closed down negotiations. It required a swift war of revenge. Afghanistan had been denominated the first port of call in the ‘global war on terror’, with Iraq already the Administration’s main target. The shock-and-awe six-week aerial onslaught that followed was merely a drumroll for the forthcoming intervention in Iraq, with no military rationale in Afghanistan. Predictably, it only gave al-Qaeda leaders the chance to vanish into the hills. To portray the invasion as a ‘war of self-defence’ for NATO makes a mockery of international law, which was perverted to twist a flukishly successful attack by a tiny, terrorist Arab groupuscule into an excuse for an open-ended American military thrust into the Middle East and Central Eurasia.

Ali concludes with the observation that the main rationale for continuing the "good war" in its present form is "saving face" for the Western alliance -- and, of course, securing a strategic location to "project dominance" over the inexorable rise of China and India to world-power status:

Herein lie the reasons for the near-unanimity among Western opinion-makers that the occupation must not only continue but expand—‘many billions over many years’. They are to be sought not in the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, but in Washington and Brussels. As the Economist summarizes, ‘Defeat would be a body blow not only to the Afghans, but’—and more importantly, of course—‘to the NATO alliance’. As ever, geopolitics prevails over Afghan interests in the calculus of the big powers. The basing agreement signed by the US with its appointee in Kabul in May 2005 gives the Pentagon the right to maintain a massive military presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity, potentially including nuclear missiles.

More strategically, Afghanistan has become a central theatre for reconstituting, and extending, the West’s power-political grip on the world order. It provides, first, an opportunity for the US to shrug off problems in persuading its allies to play a broader role in Iraq. As Obama and Clinton have stressed, America and its allies ‘have greater unity of purpose in Afghanistan. The ultimate outcome of NATO's effort to stabilize Afghanistan and us leadership of that effort may well affect the cohesiveness of the alliance and Washington’s ability to shape NATO's future.’ [26] Beyond this, it is the rise of China that has prompted NATO strategists to propose a vastly expanded role for the Western military alliance. [As] a recent essay in NATO Review suggests....the only way to protect the international system the West has built...is to ‘re-energize’ the transatlantic relationship: ‘There can be no systemic security without Asian security, and there will be no Asian security without a strong role for the West therein.’

In other words, the "good war" -- with its attendant death, destruction and corruption -- will keep grinding on, and on, and on. And not to bring democracy and personal freedom to Afghanistan (which it hasn't); and not to "fight terrorism" (it has only increased it), or bring "stability to a volatile region" (it has only destabilized it further) -- but simply because those pitiful little Asians can't be trusted to order their own affairs "without a strong role for the West therein."

It is clear that what Obama is offering for the region is "more of this" -- much more. And here I must agree with him -- on one point at least: such a strategy certainly prompts this American person "to question our engagement in the world."