Friday, December 11, 2009


President Barack Obama has missed two sterling opportunities to wind down the ugly Afghan morass he inherited from George W. Bush.

First, Obama could have hit the pause button on the war when he first took office. A thorough evaluation should have been done at that time. 

Second, during all the heavy duty strategy meetings over Afghanistan this November,  the new president could have announced a cease-fire in the war or sharp reduction of military operations, then called for genuine peace talks under Saudi aegis with Taliban and its nationalist allies.

Instead of a sensible pause, Obama’s made the tragic decision last week to enlarge and prolong the eight-year war in Afghanistan.      

The ugly, messy conflict Obama inherited from George W. Bush now fully belongs to the “peace president” and his unhappy party. 

President Obama faced a choice between guns – $1 trillion for the next decade of warfare in Afghanistan – or butter – his $1 trillion national health plan. 

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate chose guns. 

What Obama should really have been concerned with was Osama bin Laden’s vow to first bleed the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, then break America’s domination of the Muslim world by luring it into a final battle in Pakistan, a nation of 175 million, 90% of whom see the United States as their country’s primary enemy. 

The president also heard alarms from his field commanders and CIA that Taliban and its allies were taking control of much of Afghanistan and threatening the big cities. As US Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned, the mighty US even faced defeat at the hands of lightly armed mountain tribesmen – the same humiliating fate that befell the Soviet Union and led to the collapse of its empire.

So, as expected, Obama will rush 30,000 new troops into the Afghan quagmire, and arm-twist reluctant NATO allies to contribute 10,000 more mostly token forces.       

Obama, with his eye on the Afghan War’s growing unpopularity among Americans, confusingly promised some of the 105,000 US garrison there will begin withdrawing in 2011.  But Obama’s aides almost immediately began backtracking on this pledge, which made no military sense at all. 

Senator John McCain and fellow Republican hawks had a field day shredding Obama’s foolish proposal.

Many Afghans, however, listened and concluded that the US, like the Soviets, would one day decamp. Those Afghans working for the US will quickly begin hedging their bets by making discreet side deals with Taliban, as I saw them do with the mujahidin during the Soviet era.         

The president insisted his objective remains destroying al-Qaida. But al-Qaida hardly exists in Afghanistan. Only a handful remain in Pakistan, likely no more than a dozen men.

President Obama’s insincerity on this issue is very disturbing, undermining his reputation for veracity and clear thinking.

There is also concern that when Obama targets al-Qaida, his real target may be Pakistan. Pakistanis sourly joke that the US long ago killed Osama bin Laden and is keeping his spectral image alive to justify occupying Afghanistan.

Obama’s new military plan mirrors the Bush administration’s Iraq `surge’ that candidate Obama sharply criticized. US Marines may even go and crush rebellious Kandahar the way Iraq’s Fallujah was laid waste.    

The Soviets also tried the same surge tactic in the mid 1980’s during their Afghan occupation.  When that failed, Moscow decided to pull back its over-extended 160,000 troops to defend Afghanistan’s major cities and main roads from Afghan “terrorists.” 

That strategy also failed miserably, as did a similar effort by the French in the Red River Delta during the first Indochina War. Now the US is trying the same thing.  

Anyone who understands Afghanistan’s deep complexities knows that Obama’s surge won’t win the eight year war. Afghanistan’s 15-million strong Pashtun tribal majority will continue to resist western occupation. Waging colonial wars of pacification against resident populations has proven futile time after time.
At best, it will be an exercise in managing a failed policy.   

Americans are turning against the war.  Congress is fretting over its mounting costs: US $300 billion for 2009 in a $1.4 trillion deficit year. This war is being waged on money borrowed from China. 

Some Democrats are rightly calling for a special war tax on all Americans rather than continuing to conceal the war’s huge expenses on the national credit card. 

It costs US $1 million to keep each American soldier in Afghanistan. Renting Pakistan’s assistance will cost $3 billion per year (overt and black payments combined). Thousands of US troops will remain stuck in Iraq where the underground Ba’ath Party is showing signs of life. 

President Obama vowed at West Point to fight al-Qaida (read: anti-American groups) in Africa and Asia.   No wonder many angry, betrayed Democrats are calling him “George Bush’s third term.”

The most positive interpretation of President Obama’s
“surge” is that it is a face-saving exercise to cover America’s retreat from the Afghan morass.  

The key to US strategy is cobbling together a large Afghan army and police led by the US military – the modern version of the British Raj’s native troops under white officers. The Soviets also tried to build a 260,000-man Afghan Communist army, but failed. The US will be no more successful because its Afghan forces are mostly minority Tajik and Uzbek who are hated by the majority Pashtun. This was also the case during the Soviet occupation.

Efforts will be made to sanitize the corrupt Karzai government and its mafia-like warlords. This, too, will fail. But Obama’s hope is that he can declare victory by 2011. This would allow substantial US troop reductions before the next mid-term and presidential elections – if all goes well.

But things are not going well in Pakistan, without whose cooperation, bases, and supply routes the US cannot wage war in Afghanistan. The US-backed Pakistani government of Asif Ali Zardari is awash with corruption charges, condemned by the public as a puppet regime, and may soon be ousted by Pakistan’s military. 

Most Pakistanis support Taliban, see US occupation of Afghanistan as driven by lust for oil and gas, and increasingly fear the US intends to tear their unstable nation apart in order to seize its nuclear arsenal.   

CIA-funded assassination teams have joined Predator drones in killing Pakistanis judged hostile to US interests. Increasing numbers of Pakistanis believe their nation is actually under US occupation.

Obama’s advisors have convinced him an early US withdrawal from Afghanistan will provoke chaos in Pakistan. They don’t understand that it is the US-led war in Afghanistan that is destabilizing Pakistan and creating ever more anti-western extremism. Forcing Pakistan to adopt policies inimical to its national interests that are detested by its public risk producing an Iranian-style revolution or coup by nationalist officers.

The longer US forces wage war in Afghanistan, the more the conflict will spread into Pakistan, where 15% of its people, and 20% or more of its military and intelligence service  are Pashtuns who sympathize with their beleaguered fellow Taliban Pashtuns in Afghanistan. 

A grimmer view is that Obama has fallen under the influence of conservative military-financial interests, and Washington’s rabid neocons who seek permanent war against the Muslim world.  

This week, Gen. James Jones, the president’s national security advisor, asserted, "We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times." In short, the American Raj will continue to dominate Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama’s “surge” may only expand, intensify, and prolong the Afghan conflict. It may also ruin the presidency of a man so many Americans looked to as a savior and inspiration.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2009

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