Thursday, September 04, 2008
Obama, of course, has frequently emphasized the need to withdraw from Iraq in order to confront the Taliban and its supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
At approximately 3 AM this morning, US helicopters landed in a tiny village in South Waziristan, not far from the Afghanistan border. Troops emerged and opened fire on the villagers, killing at least 20 civilians according to North-West Frontier Province Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani. Governor Ghani condemned the attack as “cowardly” and urged the Pakistani military “to defend the sovereignty of the country” with a response to the attack.
And while neither NATO or American spokesmen would comment officially on the incident, CNN quotes a senior US official as having confirmed the operation, which was reportedly linked to recent attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. The New York Times quotes another official who was briefed on the incident predicting that this “is perhaps a stepping up of activity against militants in sanctuaries in the tribal areas” and that there is potential for further such moves. NATO missile and artillery strikes against targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas are not uncommon, but this is the first confirmed operation involving US ground troops in Pakistan.
Yesterday's attack is precisely the kind of action that will form the centerpiece of Obama policy, his incomprehensible distinctions between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, terrorists and insurgents aside. Isn't it rather odd that only McCain is characterized as ignorant about basic facts associated with the region, when Obama promiscuously conflates resistance to the US presence to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which he then, quite naturally, conflates as well. You would have thought that his anthropologist mother would have provided him with more nuanced methods of analysis beyond this sort of crude reductionism.
Instead of being distracted from the most pressing threats that we face, I will harness all elements of American power to overcome them. My first order as Commander in Chief will be to end the war in Iraq and refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and our broader security interests. Let me be clear--my plan would not abandon Iraq. It is in our strategic interest to maintain a residual force that will go after al-Qaeda, train Iraqi security forces and protect U.S. interests. But we must recognize that the central front in the war on terror is not in Iraq, and it never was. The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unacceptable that almost seven years after 9/11, those responsible for the attacks remain at large. If another attack on our homeland occurs, it will likely come from this same region where 9/11 was planned. Yet today we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan.
I will send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan and use this commitment to seek greater contributions--with fewer restrictions--from NATO allies. I will focus on training Afghan security forces and supporting an Afghan judiciary. I will once and for all dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The solution in Afghanistan is not just military--it is political and economic. That is why I would also increase our nonmilitary aid by $1 billion. These resources should fund projects at the local level to impact ordinary Afghans, including the development of alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. And we must demand better performance from the Afghan government through tough anticorruption safeguards on aid.
Finally, we need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps and to crack down on cross-border insurgents. We should condition some assistance to Pakistan on their action to take the fight to the terrorists within their borders. And if we have actionable intelligence about high-level al-Qaeda targets, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot.
In fact, the tendency to characterize resistance to the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan as instigated solely by a highly coordinated, hierarchically structured al-Qaeda and Taliban organization is rather dubious:
Accordingly, in some instances, participation in the Taliban is a gesture of nationalist, or even local and regional, resistance, while, in others, it is ideological in character. Or, to put it differently, participants in the resistance often bring their pre-existing motivations to the Taliban, frequently hostility to the US/NATO occupation and the subordinates through which it governs, instead of the Taliban imposing a coherent, ideological perspective upon them. It therefore resists the sort of simplification imposed by Obama, McCain and US foreign policy analysts, a Cold War projection dictated by the imperatives of our culture, the need to characterize conflicts in simple shades of black and white, good and evil, not theirs. The fragmentation of the resistance is its greatest strength, and one that makes it virtually impossible to overcome through the indiscriminate application of military force.
Analysts from the 40-nation, US-led coalition are realising that the insurgency is much more complicated than they had thought. Hundreds, if not thousands of groups are ranged into a complex and shifting pattern of alliances of interest. Groups fight the coalition, and contest each other's authority and influence. Their nature also varies enormously.
"It is probably better to talk about insurgencies than an insurgency," said one specialist with the United Nations in Kabul. "Some of these groups are just six guys and they hate the six guys from the next village."
Local people have long been aware of this. At a community level, the names of local Taliban commanders are well known and few are unaware of the complex local power struggles that led one minor warlord to fight while another stays neutral or sides with the government.
Degrees of ideological commitment differ. Interviews conducted through intermediaries with the Taliban reveal that older commanders, many of whom fought the Soviets, often see the current situation as the latest phase in a long and chaotic power struggle. But a younger generation is more influenced by the jihadi or takfiri hardline ideology closer to that of al-Qaida and see their struggle as part of a global war against the west.
Overlaying this web of allegiances, calculation of interest, and ideological and generational difference are lines of loyalty to men such as Hekmatyar in the north-east, the clan of veteran warlord Jalalauddin Haqqani in the east and to the core of the Taliban who seized power in 1996 and are now based in Pakistan.
Even the last are by no means united. Western and Afghan intelligence sources in Kabul describe feuds and disputes over strategy and ideology among the Taliban higher command. There are fierce arguments over the justification of suicide bombing or attacks on aid workers. One commander, interviewed indirectly, said he condemned killing Afghans. Another justified the deaths of "hypocrite collaborators".
Interestingly, both the 2004 and 2008 Democratic Party platforms promote an increased reliance upon the special operations forces that carried out yesterday's attack. The cross border incursions contemplated by Obama would invariably involve their use as well. Here, we encounter the romance associated with the Green Berets in the early stages of the Vietnam War, a sentimental belief that we can create a uniquely trained counterinsurgency force of a small number of people that can achieve great military and geopolitical successes without killing very many people. For awhile, RFK was seduced by it, until the facts on the ground in Southeast Asia disproved it.
Sadly, there is no elite constituency in this country (except, perhaps, in the Pentagon) for addressing Afghanistan and Pakistan through a policy of conscious deescalation. As Seamus Milne has observed, the consequences of a policy of continued escalation are dire, the spread of this violent conflict throughout the region. Pat Buchanan sees the peril as well:
Not surprisingly, being a nationalist, Buchanan neglects to mention that it will also lead to a dramatic increase in civilian casualties as well. Milne, however, has suggested a rational alternative:
"We have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in," says Barack Obama of the U.S. war in Iraq. Wise counsel.
But is Barack taking his own advice? For he pledges to shift two U.S. combat brigades, 10,000 troops, out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, raising American forces in that country from 33,000 to 43,000.
Why does Barack think a surge of 10,000 troops will succeed in winning a war in which we have failed to prevail after seven years of fighting? How many more troops is he prepared to commit? Is the Obama commitment open-ended?
For, without any visible strategy for victory, Barack is recommending the same course LBJ took after the death of JFK. Johnson bombed North Vietnam in 1964, landed Marines in 1965 and built U.S. forces from 16,000 advisers on Nov. 22, 1963, to 525,000 troops in January of 1969.
Gradual escalation, which is exactly what Barack is recommending.
Down this road lies the prospect of collective security that could reduce attacks upon Americans, and diminish, if not eliminate, the prospect of future Islamic fundamentalist violence within the US. Conversely, increased militarization increases the risk that we will experience such attacks in the near future.
The only way to end the war is the withdrawal of foreign troops as part of a political settlement negotiated with all the significant players in the country, including the Taliban, and guaranteed by the regional powers and neighbouring states. A large majority of Afghans say they back negotiations with the Taliban, even in western-conducted opinion polls. The Taliban themselves insist they will only talk once foreign troops have withdrawn. If that were the only obstacle, it could surely be choreographed as a parallel process. But given the scale of commitments made by the US and Nato, the fire of the Afghan war seems bound to spread further.