NATO To Endorse U.S. Escalation Despite Rising Public Opposition
NATO countries are poised to add 7,000 soldiers to the US escalation of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, providing a cover of multilateralism for the Obama administration and the NATO commander, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The NATO decision is expected to be ratified January 28 at a conference called by the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Karzai administration, and the United Nations Afghan Mission [UNAM].
To assuage European public opinion, McChrystal is describing the troop surge for the first time as a step towards negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban. [Financial Times, Jan. 25]
The London paper trumpets that "the prospect that an eight year war could end with some Taliban leaders in power represents a remarkable turnaround" in US and NATO policy.
While NATO actually escalates its troop commitment, the London conference is billed as a display of the "soft power" that will stabilize Afghanistan.
One of the conference sponsors, the discredited Afghan president Hamid Karzai, will ask the conference for a one-billion dollar commitment to lure Taliban fighters onto the Kabul regime's payroll, a replica of the payments to 99,000 Sunni insurgents during the Iraq surge of 2007-8.
Afghanistan and Iraq are not identical conflicts, however. Iraq's Sunnis were a 20 percent minority fighting a majority Shi'a government and army which the US installed in power. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are powerful among the 45 percent Pashtun population, and cannot be defeated by Karzai's dysfunctional government or the northern Hazara, Tajik or Uzbek minorities. The situation resembles an ethnic-based stalemate, which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged this week in saying the Taliban are woven into the "political fabric" of Afghanistan. [New York Times, Jan. 24]
One reason for the dovish hints is that European and Canadian public opinion is strongly against the escalation. In Germany 71 percent are opposed, and in the UK 56 percent. In France, 82 percent are against increased troop commitments. Canada is committed to withdraw troops in 2011, and pressure is building for other NATO nations to follow.
The escalation since Obama took office is causing increased US and NATO casualties, a toll that is sure to increase rapidly as more troops arrive. So far in January, 25 Americans and 12 Europeans and Canadians have died, compared to 24 Americans and 9 Europeans and Canadians during the same month last year. The ten percent spike shows that the Afghan "fighting season" is becoming year-around rather than concentrated in the summer months.
Twenty-five deaths may seem a small number in the so-called war on terror, but the toll accumulates. The American dead in the war so far number 972, and will pass the 1,000 mark in the coming weeks. At that rate, an additional 1,000 Americans will die before the Obama administration's planned date for beginning withdrawals, in summer 2011. The numbers of American wounded leaped to 350 per month last summer. The cumulative European and Canadian death number is 617, doubling in a single year.
The cost of the eight-year war so far is $250 billion, and roughly one million dollars per US soldier. It will become another trillion-dollar war by the end of Obama's second term. Along the way, the budget costs are likely to capsize Obama's domestic agenda and intensify inflationary pressures.
In keeping with the new tone of the escalation, the UK's Gordon Brown describes the London plan as "fully-aligning military and civilian resources behind an Afghan-led political strategy", an echo of McChrystal's recent strategic plan. Brown promises that Afghan troops will begin replacing NATO units as early as this year. But beneath the rhetoric, Brown is pledging 500 additional British troops, bringing the numbers up to 9,500.
The London-based Stop the War Coalition is calling for mass protests in London this week, at both the conference and Friday's so-called Chilcott inquiry, an official investigation of the deceptions British and American officials employed in launching the Iraq War. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to testify Friday. Protests in several other European capitals are being organized as well.
Germany is particularly conflicted because both constitution and custom forbid the deployment of troops in war zones for aggressive purposes. Yet a German commander ordered the September 4, 2009 air-strike which killed some 142 Afghan civilians. The civilian deaths were denied at first, then acknowledged, then defended, resulting in the German official's resignation and widespread German debate. This week the Angela Merkel government is expected to send 500 more German troops, raising the total to 5,000. Germany will define its role as training another 30,000 Afghan police and soldiers, doubling its current commitment.
The Karzai government recently raised alarms by predicting that NATO will remain in Afghanistan until 2024, to train and protect the still-weak Afghan security forces.
The current "talk about talks" runs counter to the neo-conservative espousal of the Long War doctrine, but there is no reason to believe that peace is at hand. Instead, the Obama-Pentagon plan is for brutal combat, including an emphasis on drones and special operations, for 18-24 months in the belief that the Taliban can be pounded into accepting an American-imposed peace settlement and permit Karzai's Afghan army time to grow into an effective force.
The sides are far apart. The Taliban, the Karzai government, some Europeans and the peace movement all agree that the US and NATO must set a deadline for ultimate withdrawal of their forces, to be replaced by non-aligned peacekeeping troops. Further, negotiations must include the Taliban leadership, particularly Mullah Omar, who currently are headquartered in the Pakistan state of Baluchistan, over the Afghan border. They demand a lifting of the so-called black list, a UN list of 144 Taliban leaders who are defined as criminals and barred from travel. Until the blacklist is suspended, no direct talks will be possible. Peace advocates also demand that 750 detainees be granted due process to avoid another Guantanamo. [NYT, Jan. 25, 2010] As an incentive towards peace, the Taliban has implied in recent statements that they may separate themselves from any Al Qaeda agenda in exchange for a power-sharing role in the future Afghanistan.
The US and many in NATO, on the other hand, refuse so far to set a deadline for withdrawal, although Obama has announced a timeline to begin withdrawing. Nor will they negotiate with the Taliban leadership, viewing Omar as an ally of Al Qaeda. The US has demanded that Pakistan "eliminate" Omar and the Taliban leadership in Baluchistan, or permit the US to launch a military assault there. Recent statements by Gates and other US officials insist that the Taliban is linked irrevocably to Al Qaeda. Any US offer to negotiate at present is aimed at lower-echelon Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's villages. Although the US has promised to identify the 750 detainees, any semblance of the rule of law is at best a work in progress in occupied Afghanistan. [NYT, Jan. 25, 2010]
The present quagmire is likely to be a sea of blood through 2011, reaching a crisis point when Obama is scheduled to begin the withdrawal of US troops. The Europeans and Canadians will be packed and ready to go by that point, and likely to linger no later. But the Pentagon, and the domestic hawks, could be predicting catastrophe if the US departs, leaving Obama and the Democrats to choose between a deeper stalemate or the politics of strategic disengagement as the 2012 elections approach.
Research for this article was contributed by Emily Walker, Peace and Justice Resource Center.