TWILIGHT IN AFGHANISTAN
The catastrophic Iraq experience might have proven valuable if it had led to a rejection of the hegemonic policies embraced by a delusional Washington foreign policy establishment. Unfortunately, no end to reliance on war as the essential tool of American statecraft is in sight.
Soldiers being removed from Iraq are going to Kabul. The Afghan war, which is now entering its eighth year, is curiously viewed by many in the elite as a "good" war opposed to the bad war in Iraq but, in spite of a NATO-led effort to pacify the country, the conflict has grown in intensity and morphed into a strange amalgam that is a bit like Iraq and a bit like Vietnam.
Like Vietnam, where Washington legitimately feared communist expansion, Afghanistan was a war initiated in response to a vital national interest, to destroy a state sponsor of a terrorist group that had inflicted terrible damage on the US homeland. But both wars soon developed raisons d’etre that had nothing to do with America’s security. As in Iraq, Afghanistan became an exercise in democracy promotion which failed to impose a western model of government on a society that operates in tribal terms.
Like Vietnam, Kabul’s unpopular and corrupt politicians have become the chief beneficiaries of US aid while the frustrated population embraces ever more extreme forms of resistance. As occurred in Iraq with the insurgency and in Vietnam with the Viet Cong, a large proportion of the Afghan population, more than one quarter, now supports armed attacks against the US and its allies.
In retrospect, the US should have eschewed the regime change option for Afghanistan and accepted the Taliban offer to turn over Osama bin Laden, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty and, at the time, intervening militarily seemed the right thing to do.
Currently, the United States argues that it must stay in Afghanistan to save it from reverting to Taliban control and again becoming a terrorism supporting state, possibly inviting Osama bin Laden back from his refuge in nearby Waziristan. But the assumption that the Taliban, who are much more internally than externally focused, would welcome the complications resulting from bin Laden’s embrace is quite likely erroneous as it would invite a devastating US response.
To be sure, no one would want to return to the Taliban’s brutal governance of Afghanistan, but many Afghans are now nostalgic at the relative security that prevailed under their rule. Ultimately, it is up to the Afghans to decide who will rule them and how and it is not up to Washington to make that call as long as terrorists are not using the country as a base to attack the United States.
The British and French have already decided that Afghanistan cannot be a victory in any conventional military sense and there are reports that both United States intelligence and the Pentagon have come to the same conclusion. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated that the United States cannot kill its way to victory in Afghanistan, indicating somewhat obliquely that he does not believe any surge in troop levels will provide a long-term solution. Washington is losing its war in Afghanistan and US forces will eventually leave the country.
The only question is, will it be soon or will it be later. Meanwhile, the proxies appointed by Washington to rule are feeling the strain of trying to placate a hostile populace while at the same time keeping the occupiers happy. In late November, Afghan President Hamid Karzai angrily denounced the development of a parallel carpetbagger government to be run by the United States and NATO.
He demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers, noting that his countrymen no longer understand what the fighting is all about, particularly as they hear of wedding parties and school outings being blasted by the helicopters and warplanes of their ostensible allies.
Karzai asked rhetorically how the insurgency can keep getting stronger when most of the world is united in an attempt to defeat it, and he reiterated his intention to negotiate with the Taliban leaders to bring peace. For Afghanistan the United States will almost certainly be eventually viewed as just one more in a long series of invaders, all of whom were eventually defeated and left the country.
That the Afghans are demanding a timetable for Washington to leave is remarkable, and it speaks to the declining role and possible irrelevance of the United States to what is happening. Apart from shoring up the unpopular and corrupt Karzai regime out of fear that it would be replaced by something worse, Washington is no longer the essential nation in a region that it had set out to dominate by force of arms over seven years ago. In a regional context, the blundering occupation and a failed reconstruction in Afghanistan have empowered only Iran.
So what does the turn of events in Afghanistan mean vis-à-vis President Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Wanting to draw down in Iraq and increase troop strength in Afghanistan, Obama is embracing one failed policy and transferring it somewhere else in hopes that it will succeed. Obama is only a "peace" candidate in relative terms, having committed himself to negotiating before he bombs.
He has agreed to double troop levels in Afghanistan and is non-committal on even larger increases. He has even adopted the absurd Bush Administration jargon, referring to Afghanistan as the "central front in the war on terror." He has continued drone attacks into Pakistan and has even out-Republicaned the Republicans in his pledge to use US troops to aggressively pursue terrorists inside nuclear-armed Pakistan, an act of war that would further destabilize that unhappy land.
One has to hope that Obama, an intelligent man who appears to have a conscience, will quickly discover that Washington no longer has the resources to intervene by force when and where it chooses. The United States might find itself compelled to bring home the regiments and aircraft carriers as the burden of empire becomes insupportable.
Afghanistan wants the United States to leave, but on its own timetable enabling the Karzai regime to survive. Perhaps it would be appropriate to move that timetable up in America’s own national interest and leave now.
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