Saturday, December 12, 2009

Catching up: Afghanistan

This is something I've neglected for far too long, so bear with me. Let's start from the fact that, unlike some who are Shocked! Shocked, I tell you! that Barack "War is necessary for peace" Obama escalated in Afghanistan, I'm not: It's exactly what he said he would do.

Well, okay, not exactly. Rather more, in fact.

In July 2008, in a New York Times op-ed, he said he would deploy "at least two additional combat brigades" to Afghanistan. A brigade is about 3,000-5,000 soldiers, so candidate Obama was proposing to increase troop strength by 6,000 to 10,000.

In February, President Obama sent 17,000 and then another 4,000. And now it's 30,000 more. So by the time this escalation is completed sometime next year, and assuming there will be no more, Obama will have sent about 51,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan - somewhere between five and eight times what he said he would do and doubling the number of troops in country. Even allowing for the political weasel phrase "at least," that's a hell of a lot more than he proposed.

However, that doesn't change the fact that in that same July op-ed he promised to "accomplish the mission" in Afghanistan and "to finish the job," the latter of which phrases he used again on November 24 during his trip to India:
During a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today, President Obama addressed his upcoming announcement on his Afghanistan troops decision. ...

After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have either the resources or the strategy, to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job[, he said].
The day after the election, I wrote that
I strongly suspect that in a while a lot of people are going to be very disappointed in Barack Obama. While opponents will be surprised to discover he's not nearly as bad as they'd been lead to believe (Louis Farrakhan is not going to be heading up any cabinet department), supporters are going to be dismayed to discover that he's not nearly as good as they had lead themselves to believe, that the soaring rhetoric will not produce soaring policies and that there was far more hope in the words than there will be in the deeds.
Okay, I was wrong about the opponents' ability to recognize reality, but not about the supporters. But, as I said a couple of weeks before the election and I don't know how many times since,
Barack Obama is not a peace candidate. He's just a "I knew Iraq was a dumb idea" candidate. ... He's a reliable, accepts-the-common-wisdom, centrist who can be counted on to strive to continue the Pax Americana,
a judgment I think his Nobel prize acceptance speech confirmed: It eagerly embraced the mythology of the US having spent the "last six decades" spending "blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms" to "underwrite global security," "promote peace and prosperity," and "enable democracy to take hold," all for reasons completely unrelated to "impos[ing] our will" but only because "we seek a better future" for all the "children and grandchildren" of the world. It's as if Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Bay of Pigs, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Gulf of Sidra, Lebanon, "the former Yugoslavia," Libya, Iraq (twice) - I'm sure I'm forgetting some as well as leaving aside the "indirect" cases such as Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and East Timor - it's like they never happened.

Oh, and Afghanistan. Right. Afghanistan.

So getting back to that, while I'm distressed and disappointed at the decision to escalate - especially since there was just a brief, flickering, moment when it looked like the decision just might possibly go the other way, a brief moment when there was talk of pushback within the administration against the demands of the generals - I can't say I'm in any way surprised, much less shocked.

What it does mean, though, is that this is now Barack Obama's war. Whether you consider it his Iraq or his Vietnam, it is his war. And it's possible that it will frame and define his presidency, as Iraq did Bush's, as Vietnam did Johnson's. The parallels are chilling.

For one example, this a war in support of the government of Hamid Karzai - a bogus president, who retained his office in an "election" in which one-third of his votes were fake (and the Deputy Special Representative to the UN mission in Kabul was ordered by his superior to conceal evidence of fraud even from the Afghan election commission) and a "runoff" which never happened after his only opponent withdrew, claiming fraud made victory impossible. And, let it be noted, it was an election which the White House claimed would "significantly factor into their strategic review" about strategy and troop levels - but which apparently didn't.

A war in support of a government that even Nancy Pelosi calls an "unworthy partner" undeserving of increased support; one so rife, so rancid, with corruption that according to the annual Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, only Somalia is worse. A government so fragile that its president had to be inaugurated in a capital turned by authorities into
all but a ghost town, with police shutting down streets and ordering citizens to stay home.
A government with so little control outside Kabul that the Taliban has in nearly all provinces established a shadow government, one whose members
"are running the country now," said Khalid Pashtoon, a legislator from the southern province of Kandahar who has close ties to Karzai. "They're an important part of the chaos."
A shadow government that for all its cruelties and failings, people are turning to for solutions to their problems, preferring that to the corruption and ineptitude of the Karzai regime. A regime without the support of its own people.

It is a war not only supporting a corrupt government but using the wrong tactics to do so: Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October, Robert Grenier (former CIA station chief in Pakistan) and Dr. Marc Sageman (former member of the CIA's Afghan Task Force)
concurred that escalation would only further spread anti-American sentiment among Afghans and other Muslims, and that nonmilitary initiatives to contain Al Qaeda and foster civic development in Afghanistan would prove far more effective. ...

"'It's me and my brother against my cousin. But it's me and my cousin against a foreigner[,' Sageman said.] So if we send 40,000 Americans...that will coalesce every local rivalry; they will put their local rivalry aside to actually shoot the foreigners and then they'll resume their own internecine fight.... Sending troops with weapons just will unify everybody against those troops, unfortunately."
What's more, it's a war against the wrong "enemy" that will only advance the position of the real one:
Poverty and unemployment are overwhelmingly seen as the main reasons behind conflict in Afghanistan, according to a survey in that country.

British aid agency Oxfam - which questioned 704 Afghans - said seven out of 10 respondents blamed these factors.

Taliban violence was seen as less important than government weakness and corruption, according to the poll. ...

One in five said they had been tortured and one in 10 claimed to have been imprisoned at least once since 1979, when Soviet forces invaded.

Based on what those surveyed said:

• one in six Afghans are currently considering leaving the country

• three-quarters of Afghans have been forced to leave their homes since 1979 ...

"The people of Afghanistan have suffered 30 years of unrelenting horror," said Oxfam chief executive Barbara Stocking.

"In that time millions have been killed and millions more have fled their homes. Those who have committed the most terrible abuses have enjoyed impunity rather than faced justice. Afghan society has been devastated."
In fact, the supposed enemy, the one we're supposedly really concerned with, isn't even there: US military officials will concede privately that there are probably no more than about 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Which has produced echoes of both Iraq and Vietnam. On the Iraq side of that tally is the unavoidable fact, no matter how much the Obama crowd in and out of the White House dance and dodge, that this is a Bush doctrine war. It's declared intent, it's central purpose, what "finish the job" is supposed to mean, is to prevent a Taliban victory because, the argument goes, that would be followed by al-Qaeda forces returning to "safe havens" in Afghanistan from which they can "plot attacks against America." That is, bluntly and clearly, the whole idea is that it is a war not to defend against an existing threat but to prevent the emergence of a hypothetical future threat. That is the Bush doctrine! It is precisely the Bush doctrine! A doctrine now fully embraced by Barack Obama to justify his war.

Oh, a "hypothetical" threat, you ask? Even leaving aside the inconvenient fact that most of the planning for 9/11 was not done in Afghanistan but in Germany (which no one has proposed invading, as far as I know), yes. At that Foreign Relations Committee hearing, John Kerry
asked whether there is legitimate concern about "a new union [between Al Qaeda and] the Taliban."

Sageman didn't perceive such a threat.

"A Taliban return to power does not automatically mean an invitation to Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan," Sageman said. "The relationship between Al Qaeda and...[the] Taliban has always been strained."
Indeed, if the formula is "Taliban control yields free rein for al-Qaeda," why are there fewer than 100 in Afghanistan at a time when, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Taliban has secured a "dominant influence" in 11 provinces?

Despite all that, here we are. Or, rather, he we are again, prosecuting an unjustified war on behalf of the wrong friends in power, with the wrong tactics, against the wrong "enemy," a war more likely to kill innocents than enemies, more likely to turn people against us than to us, one guaranteed to bring bloodshed, hunger, and homelessness while all but equally guaranteed to find "victory" to be a chimera, not a conclusion.

And, as always seems to be the case, escalation is easy but the end is endless; it's all hard facts, dates, and timetables about getting in, about building up, about "more" - and all mushy vagueness and easily-spun platitudes about getting out as the candidate who demanded an exit strategy for Iraq becomes the president who evokes 9/11 and talks in bumper stickers about "evil in the world" and "finishing the job" in Afghanistan.

Despite what some chose to hear, it was clear from the beginning to anyone who actually paid attention that there was no "timetable" for withdrawal in Obama's grandiloquence or even for the start of one. Obama said in his announcement of the escalation that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home" - but later amended that to how it was actually all about "handing over responsibility to Afghan forces," which would
allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.
In other words, even assuming "our forces" referred to all 100,000 of them, not just the latest 30,000, "It depends." In case anyone didn't catch that, it was soon made abundantly clear:
Clarifying [Obama's] plan in testimony to a congressional committee, [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said a "full scale reevaluation of where we stand" would take place in December 2010.

The administration would then assess whether plans to begin transferring security responsibility to the Afghans in July 2011 remained on track.

July 2011, that is, was in Gates' words the "intent," the "plan," but "the president always has the freedom to adjust his decisions."

At the same hearings, Admiral Mullen said
that what would begin in July 2011 was a transfer of secured districts from US to Afghan government control. “The July 2011 date is a day we start transitioning - transferring responsibility and transitioning,” he said.
Combine that with something else Gates said:
As the transition gets underway, Gates suggested U.S. forces could begin to pull back from the frontlines as Afghan forces play a bigger role in certain districts and provinces, much as they did during the transition in Iraq.

He said the transfers would take place in the "most uncontested places" of Afghanistan first. Other areas of the country could remain locked in "extraordinarily heavy combat."

Asked whether the July 2011 start of the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans may not include immediately a withdrawal of U.S. forces, Gates said:

"That is correct. I think as we turn over more districts and more provinces to Afghan security control, much as we did with the provincial Iraqi control, that there will be a thinning of our forces and a gradual drawdown," he said.

What do you get from all that? You get a "clarification" of Obama's "intent" that turns it from a date for the beginning of a withdrawal into a "plan" for "the beginning of a process" that may not even involve the withdrawal of any troops from Afghanistan but only shifting them from certain provinces into other provinces where combat is heavier.

So there's always a timetable for a build-up - there's always a timetable for a build-up, the clarion call of "urgency," of "necessity" - but not for a withdrawal, not even for a drawdown, not even for a date to begin even a symbolic drawdown, only an "intent," an "it all depends," a - you'll pardon the expression - hope.

A "hope" while the blood keeps flowing, especially among, same as it ever was, the civilians: Over 30,000 killed by the war since 2001 and a yearly toll that has risen each of the last four years.

And for what? For what? Matthew Hoh, the former Foreign Service officer who worked in a province considered to be a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan but resigned as a protest over US policy in the country, argues that
many Afghans are fighting the Americans simply because troops there are taking sides in an internal "civil war,"
a fact infuriatingly, horrifyingly, foully, disgustingly, known to US officials.
Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports[, the Boston Globe revealed in October]. ...

“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,’’ said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.’’
They know that and still they just label it all "Taliban," in the same sort of conscious distortion - the same sort of lie - they used in calling every attack on US forces in Iraq the work of "al-Qaeda in Iraq."

In an interview in November, Hoh asserted that
"[t]he presence of our ground combat troops is not doing anything to defeat al-Qaida"
and the US should stop combat operations and seek "some kind of political reconciliation" because right now all those operations do is "prolong the conflict."

When he quit, Hoh insisted that "a lot" of people in the Obama administration agree with him. Apparently, sadly, tragically (especially for the people of Afghanistan), they are not among those who have Obama's ear.

Meanwhile, and finally for the moment, what about the other side of that tally I mentioned - what of Vietnam? What is the echo of Vietnam? It's one of the worst and one that becomes louder with each news cycle, no longer a rumble but a clanking, a clanging, pounding on the ears of anyone not deaf to Marx's famous line that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." A klaxon screech of expanding wars, of wars spilling beyond boundaries, of secret wars - in Cambodia. In Laos.

In Pakistan.

A secret war.

A deadly secret war.

A spreading secret war.

A growing secret war.

In Pakistan.

I think of Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, of the secret air war on Laos, of the secret bombing of Cambodia and the invasion to "clear out" the enemy's "privileged sanctuaries" - or, if you prefer, "safe havens." And I get very, very nervous.

Withdraw. Now.

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