UNTIL as recently as a year ago, the conflict in Iraq was being portrayed by the primary aggressor as a well-intentioned intervention gone wrong, while Afghanistan was supposed to be the good war. This year the narrative has changed. As Afghanistan’s pear shape has become progressively more pronounced, Iraq has suddenly become the success story.
Pakistan should not be surprised at being lumped with more than its fair share of blame for the Afghan mess: blaming its victims’ neighbours is an old American ploy. Cambodia was bombed in the 1970s ostensibly as a means of destroying the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s supply routes. This strategy ultimately led to the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge. Iran has frequently been cited as an offender in Iraq, while its role in restraining Shia militants remains officially unacknowledged. Who knows where this entanglement, with its nuclear component, will lead to?
The porousness of Pakistan’s long frontier with Afghanistan could hardly have come as a surprise to the Americans, given that they exploited this facility to the hilt while fuelling and funding the anti-Soviet insurgency through the 1980s. The bands of armed Islamists in the country’s northwest pose a bigger threat to Pakistan’s wellbeing than they do to any American interests. If the threat of Talibanization in Pakistan has multiplied manifold in the wake of the western military intervention in Afghanistan, it hardly makes sense to deny some sort of a cause-and-effect relationship between the two developments.
Based on the supposed success of last year’s surge in Iraq, whereby the ranks of the occupying forces were swelled by 30,000 troops, influential voices in the US have been advocating a similar plan for Afghanistan. Fortunately, saner voices are also being heard, not least from within the military establishment. For instance, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the British commander in Helmand, was quoted on Sunday as saying: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.” He also broached the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban, a track that is reportedly already being pursued.
Many in the US would dismiss such talk as defeatist. They would probably be surprised to find that General David Petraeus and his successor as the US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, have been speaking in somewhat similar terms, describing the gains in that country as “fragile and reversible” - a far cry from the premature triumphalism of Republican presidential candidate John McCain and the contention of his alarmingly unsophisticated running mate, Sarah Palin, that “victory in Iraq is wholly in sight”. “This is not the sort of struggle,” Petraeus pointed out last month, “where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade.”
In comparison with the bloodiest phase of the war, the level of violence has, on the face of it, decreased sharply in many parts of Iraq. This is a welcome development, albeit within the context of a completely gratuitous war. However, as Petraeus must be aware, the extent to which this can be attributed to the increase in troop numbers is questionable. It is likely to be related more directly to the so-called Awakening movement, whereby Iraqi Sunnis turned away in large numbers from Al Qaeda in Iraq, recognizing it as a purely destructive force, and via their tribal leaders established contact with US forces, which decided to put them on their payroll.
For $300 a month, former insurgents have been helping to maintain security in designated regions. The Shia-dominated government of Nuri Al Maliki wasn’t thrilled by this turn of events, but from this month it has begun taking responsibility for the Sunni fighters under American supervision. Given the encrustation of sectarian divisions amid the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq, it is not hard to see why such a gain should be seen as fragile and reversible. But it had little to do with the surge. Meanwhile, the fiery young cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s decision to remodel his Mahdi Army along the lines of Hezbollah, with greater emphasis on its social and political role, also contributed crucially to the reduction in violence.
The short-term consequences of these multiple factors have been something of a boon for McCain, an early advocate for the surge - who also happens to believe that the Vietnam War would have turned out differently had the aggressor nation poured in a lot more troops and had its bombs killed a lot more people. This is a dangerous line of thinking: taken to its logical conclusion, it could well lead to the ultimate abomination of nuclear weapons being used against an indefatigable foe.
What has actually helped McCain is not the surge per se, which hasn’t substantially changed public opinion about the war, but the fact that Iraq has receded from media headlines. Even his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, who opposed the war from the outset, has not been talking much about Iraq. This is probably a mistake. Although most Americans are focused for the time being on their economic woes, Obama ought to be a great deal more forceful in advancing his argument about the sheer stupidity of the occupation.
There is a plethora of corroborating evidence, given the host of books about the inner workings of the Bush presidency that have steadily been appearing in its final year. They range from General Ricardo Sanchez’s Wiser in Battle and Bob Woodward’s The War Within, both of which feature vignettes demonstrating George W’s wilder streak (“Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out!), to Ron Suskind’s thoughtful The Way of the World, which contains evidence that well before the assault on Iraq, the Bush and Blair administrations had more or less incontrovertible proof that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction or even WMD programmes.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding the suicide bombings in Baghdad on Eid-ul-Fitr, in some parts of the city families emerged to celebrate, The Washington Post reported last week. “A few women,” it said, “even went out in public in knee-length skirts or without headscarves, just as they did in the days when the government of Saddam Hussein maintained a largely secular society. With the rise of religious parties and militias in recent years, most women now cover their hair and wear long robes or skirts.”
If that’s the price of “liberation”, it’s hard to see how it can be distinguished from a defeat, at least for the women of Iraq.