'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, September 15, 2008

Another Preview of Obama Foreign Policy: Pakistani Troops Fire on US Forces 

antiwar.com maintains that local media within Pakistan is reporting that Pakistani troops fired upon US helicopters engaged in an unauthorized incursion into South Waziristan. Who needs to elect Barack Obama president when the current administration is implementing his policy in the tribal regions of Pakistan?

With Obama having opened the door to unilateral US military action in Pakistan against al-Qaeda, the Bush administration is typically pressing the concept to maximum advantage, exploiting the confusion on the ground, the inability to distinguish between al-Qaeda, the Taliban and local tribal resistance to the US military presence in this region, as well as domestic confusion about the nature of the occupation of Afghanistan. Would Obama, if elected President, rescind Bush's recently reported executive order authorizing US Special Forces operations in Pakistan? It doesn't sound likely, does it? Perhaps, if I can find the time, I will e-mail the campaign and ask about it. Not surprisingly, NATO is declining to participate.

If you are old enough, you have the disquieting feeling that you've seen this movie, before, or, at least, something very much like it. In 1969 and 1970, during the Vietnam War, President Nixon authorized, first, the carpet bombing of eastern Cambodia in an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese forces that used that sparsely populated area adjacent to South Vietnam as a sanctuary, and then, when that failed, ordered a full scale invasion. Of course, one cannot compare the relatively limited US military operations in Pakistan with an invasion of Cambodia that required thousands of American and South Vietnamese troops, but it is not commonly known that US intervention in Cambodia started with the types of military action that we now see in Pakistan.

For example, the carpet bombing of Cambodia and subsequent invasion was preceded by an extensive bombing campaign and special forces operations that commenced in 1965:

Thanks to the Air Force database, we now know that the U.S. bombardment started three-and-a-half years earlier, in 1965, under the Johnson administration. What happened in 1969 was not the start of bombings in Cambodia but the escalation into carpetbombing. From 1965 to 1968, 2,565 sorties took place over Cambodia, with 214 tons of bombs dropped. These early strikes were likely designed to support the nearly 2,000 secret ground incursions conducted by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces during that period. B-52s -- long range bombers capable of carrying very heavy loads -- were not deployed, whether out of concern for Cambodian lives or the country's neutrality, or because carpet bombing was believed to be of limited strategic value.

The failure of the bombing campaign initiated by LBJ presented Nixon with a stark choice: accept the unfavorable contours of a negotiated settlement of the war, or escalate with the use of ground forces. As already mentioned, we know the decision that he made, and the people that were killed within Cambodia, and even within the US, at Kent State, because of it. Even the ideologically friendly wikipedia entry concludes with this evaluation of the consequences:

The Cambodian people, whose fate was the most dramatically effected by the results of the incursion, were basically ignored by all but a few historians listed below. The incursion, about which the Cambodian government was not even informed until it was under way, heated up what was basically a low-key civil war and irrevocably widened the boundaries of the conflict. The withdrawal of U.S. forces, after only a 30-day campaign "left a void so great that neither the Cambodian nor the South Vietnamese armies were able to fill it."

Lon Nol's forces would then have to contend with not only PAVN and the NLF, but with an ever-growing indigenous insurgency, which was now fully supported by Hanoi and its armed forces. The Nixon administration, callous of the weakness of the Cambodian regime and its military, pushed its new ally into a conflict that it had no possibility of winning. Cambodia (like neighboring Laos) would be sacrificed for the withdrawal of the Americans and the future existence of the Republic of Vietnam. Millions of Cambodians would pay the ultimate price as a result of those decisions.

Let's repeat that: Cambodia (like neighboring Laos) would be sacrificed for the withdrawal of the Americans and the future existence of the Republic of Vietnam. It is hard to read this sentence in the current context of Afghanistan and Pakistan without feeling a distinct chill. If the airstrikes and special forces raids fail, what will the next President do? Pull back? Or, like Nixon, escalate with more ground forces? Momentum would clearly be with the escalation option, given that no one has politically prepared the American public for a pragmatic reduction in the US presence in those countries.

In this instance, US leadership is much more ambitious, even if it is increasingly aware of the deterioration of conditions under the Afghan occupation. Unlike in Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, the US is not trying to find a way to put a positive face upon a major defeat, but, rather, still considers an unconditional victory essential. Pat Buchanan has properly observed that an incremental increase in the number of US forces in neighboring Afghanistan, as proposed by Obama, can only lead to an escalation imposed by adverse external events. Likewise, it is also hard to imagine any other outcome in neighboring Pakistan.

At this point, at such an early stage of intervention (but, is it really that early, how many raids and airstrikes have conducted in Pakistan since 2001?), there is only a succession of troubling questions. Is a bipartisan consensus being formed, based upon the grotesquely cynical belief that, through the expansion of the conflict, both Pakistan and Afghanistan can be refashioned in a way more favorable to US interests? With the liberals and conservatives, walking on two legs to form a coalition to ensure its implementation? Liberals would, of course, perform their usual role, promoting a more purportedly surgical intervention, a magical one, if you will, that will kill fewer people, while the conservatives, ever the realists, acknowledge the force required, evidencing a willingness to see it through to the end, no matter how bloody. If so, we need to remind the proponents that Pakistan, unlike Cambodia in the 1970s, has a nuclear weapons arsenal.

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