Yes, it really is another
Vietnam, and just as in 1972, presidential elections will make no difference,
concludes Eric Walberg
Scarcely a word is heard about foreign affairs amid US election talk,
despite the many fires around the world that the US military is either
stoking or trying to douse -- depending on your point of view. Other
than Republican contender Ron Paul -- not a serious candidate for the
mainstream -- no one questions the plans for war on Iran, Israel’s continued
expansion in the Occupied Territories, or US plans to end the Iraq and
The problem is that decisions about these vital American policies are
not for mere presidents or presidential hopefuls to mull over. The one
principled decision that US President Barack Obama made, his first upon
coming to office, was to announce that he would close Guantanamo Bay
prison within a year. After all, he had voted against his predecessor’s
ill-fated invasion of Iraq, and it was on this basis that he was able
to energise an otherwise disillusioned Democratic base and surge past
the more acceptable white alternatives Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Obama’s record on foreign policy has been shocking in retrospect. His
call from Cairo for a new dispensation in the Middle East soon after
his vow to close Guantanamo, along with this vow, are now in history’s
dustbin. His enthusiastic embrace of the worst of Bush’s policies, from
drones, assassinations and mercenaries to Orwellian police-state security
are frightening proof of the helplessness of US politicians these days.
No better evidence that this paralysis will make the next four years
the most perilous in US history is found in the bloody news dripping
out of Afghanistan. NATO soldiers, Afghan soldiers and police, resistance
fighters, and, of course, women and children continue to be killed at
alarming rates, even as the Taliban open an office in Qatar (originally
denied by all parties). Peace negotiations came to a standstill last
year after the assassination of High Peace Council chief Burhanudin
Rabbani (Afghan president 1992-96) by a visitor posing as a peace messenger
from the Taliban.
A total of 560 NATO soldiers, most of them Americans, were killed in
Afghanistan in 2011, the second highest number in the 10-year war, down
from a high of 711 in 2010 after the start of Obama’s surge, still higher
than the 521 in 2009.
But according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “security-related
events” were up by 21 per cent in 2011 compared to 2010. By this he
meant attacks such as the car bombing of an International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF) convoy in Kabul last October which killed 17, the shooting
down of a helicopter in Wardak south of the capital last August in which
30 US troops perished, and the explosion that killed at least 80 people
in a shrine in Kabul on the Shia holy day of Ashura in early December.
Many ISAF deaths are at the hands of Afghan soldiers. The recent Abu
Ghraib-type scandal of US soldiers defiling Afghan dead merely ups this
Gung-ho military types like John Nagl, a retired lieutenant-colonel
who co-wrote the US army’s field manual on countering guerrilla warfare,
push counterinsurgency, where the occupiers “protect” the civilians
against violence from the rebels. This was the logic of the surge which
Obama grudgingly (who cares what he thinks anymore?) approved last year.
The counterinsurgency hurt the Taliban if only because the occupiers
killed thousands of them. It no doubt caused splintering of Taliban
forces, and contributed to the seemingly random violence. But it did
little to endear the occupiers to the native population, and, according
to a WikiLeak from former chairman of the US National Intelligence Council
Peter Lavoy, seems to have prompted a new, less benign strategy. “The
international community should put intense pressure on the Taliban to
bring out their more violent and ideologically radical tendencies,”
he argues, the logic being to prevent Afghans from giving up entirely
on their occupiers.
Nagl and the boys are not pleased by such candor. Aghast, he told the
Guardian: “It just goes completely against the ethos of the American
military not to take more risks in order to protect civilians. I find
it hard to believe elements of the US military would want to deliberately
put more risk on to civilians.”
But he does admit the Taliban are effectively being forced by the occupiers
to engage mostly in crude terrorism, stage one of Mao Zedong’s famous
three phases of revolutionary warfare (phase two is larger teams of
rebels taking on government forces, leading to full-blown conventional
war in phase three). Still, he sees no nefarious intrigue on the occupiers’
part. “The Taliban have been knocked down to phase one and you see what
you would expect to see, with the resulting risk of alienating the civilian
population. If we can get the civilian population on our side in the
south, in their heartlands, we can knock them back to phase zero,” enthuses
Eagle Scout Nagl.
Such clever reading of Maoist tactics cannot hide the fact that US plans
for Central Asia continue to stumble, stuck in the imperial groove.
Looming large is Pakistan’s remarkable closure of the US drone base
and its refusal to reopen supply routes after NATO killed 28 Pakistani
soldiers last month. But equally foreboding is tiny Kyrgyzstan’s President
Almazbek Atambayev’s quiet insistence that 2014 is the final final final
date for US control of the Manas airbase, a key transfer point for Western
troops and supplies to Afghanistan.
Just as Bush was boasting in 2008 of permanent US bases in Iraq, the
recent Strategic Partnership agreement with the Afghan government to
place permanent joint military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2024 is not
a serious proposition.
Nor is the latest magic bullet -- the Iron Man -- being forged in NATO
headquarters. The idea is to whip into shape an Afghan security force/
army and hand over nominal power by the end of 2014. But this force
will be predominantly northern Tajik-speaking Afghans who make up only
28 per cent of the population and form the backbone of the current government.
Less than 10 per cent of officers are Pashtun (vs 42 per cent of Afghans),
and in any case the army attrition rate is 30 per cent, not to mention
the infiltration rate of Taliban suicide martyrs.
Just as in 2012 in Iraq, we can expect some kind of handover in 2014
-- the US people and economy simply cannot bear much more, but it will
be to a chaotic police state, headed by the weak, discredited Hamid
Karzai, with a confusing mix of army, police and mercenaries, much like
the situation Afghanistan faced in 1993, at the end of the last US-Afghan
love-in, in the 1980s. By 1996 a violent civil war had brought the country
to a stand-still and the Taliban was the only way out. This scenario
is about to repeat itself.
The Taliban are not the Vietnamese, with a clear, proven economic system
and a powerful socialist sponsor able to help them heal. What post-2014
Afghanistan faces is less-than-friendly neighbours, including a very
troubled Pakistani, with little to contribute to a post-occupation reconstruction.
Perhaps the new Muslim Brotherhood governments in the Arab world will
extend a more sympathetic hand, paid for by Gulf oil sheikhs. The Afghans
have had quite enough of the kufars over the past three decades.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/
You can reach him at http://ericwalberg.com/ His Postmodern Imperialism:
Geopolitics and the Great Games is available at http://claritypress.com/Walberg.html