The Endless War : America, Afghanistan, and the War on Terrorism
By Eddie J. Girdner
(Book Review Essay: Published in Mainstream, September 10, 2011)
Ahmed Rashid, Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. New York: Viking, 2008. Maps, Glossary of Terms, Notes, Bibliography, Index.
America has now been in Afghanistan for ten years. Again America has triumphed. Again, America has failed. Again countries have been saved. Again countries have been destroyed. Again, people have been freed. Again, people have been crushed, and maimed, and killed. Again, America has produced heroes. Again, hundreds of young lives have been wasted. Again, there have been great losses. Again, there have been great gains. The foe has been defeated. The foe has triumphed. President Barack Obama has brought change. President Obama has brought more of the same. The solution is crystal clear and no one has a clue of how to solve the riddle of Pushtun nationalism, the Taliban, the warlords, al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and so on and on. The surge has worked, the surge has failed. The solution to a ten-year war fought with more than 100,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars and billions in contracts to private companies is now said to be “political.” The US is the richest country in the world. The US is bankrupt with a national debt of fourteen and a half trillion dollars. America has fought the “war on terrorism” and mainly terrorized itself and the world. America is losing the war.
Capitalism has made America rich. Capitalism has destroyed America. Capitalism has made the people poor. Capitalism has made the banks, the financiers and the Defense contractors filthy rich. America takes the lead in “providing global security.” The US is the most dangerous country in the world, endangering the security of everyone everywhere else. America shows the countries of the world how to run their economies. The American economy is falling into collapse at home. America is the country that every other country wants to be. America is the country that no other country wants to be. America is the best model. America is the worst model. But one thing is clear. The old Cold War world was a pretty good world compared to the world we live in now.
Oh, of course, the US was raising hell in Vietnam and lots of other places during the Cold War, but then, that’s what empires are supposed to do. The madness of almost 60,000 US military deaths. Still, the Cold War era was a time when the world was moving in a positive direction. There were progressive revolutions for the US to worry about. Progress was being made in terms of human freedom, not because of America and the West, but in spite of America and the West. America and Western Europe, of course, were united and dedicated to stopping progress, but still progress toward human freedom was made here and there. And there was not so much danger of getting blown up in so many possible places. Most people would take that world to the one we have now. There were nuclear weapons, but they were not being used. Today Predator drones terrorize the world every single day.
After the l980s, it was a more reactionary world. Revolutions
ceased for thirty years or so. Now, perhaps, one can see progress in the Arab world. But the direction of change there is mixed and uncertain as in all revolutionary change.
The US did not care how much damage was done to human freedom during the Cold War, of course. The objective was to make the world safe for American and European capital. It was similar with the European Union project. The glorious European Union, with their Brussels Commissars, and their Central Commission, and their grand monetary union, now crumbling. The fundamental purpose was to expand and unify the market for European and American corporations. Another banker scheme, in fact, from the founding banker himself, Jean Monnet. They put Robert Schuman’s statue in front of the Berlaymont, of course, as the institution’s father, but it was Monnet who was the chief banker who ran the railroad in early years. French foreign minister, Shuman, was just the front man.
In South Asia, and particularly the Middle East, the US supported the most reactionary elements, lacking a concern for the damage they did to society and human freedom. In South Asia Pakistan was a client state, while India was too close to the Soviet Union. The Middle East was to remain a feudal “stable” backwater, as long as necessary to get the oil.
America keeps the world on the right track. America drives the world crazy.
Neoliberalism has wreaked economic and social havoc in the US and Western Europe and in emerging markets which have followed the dogma. Today, state guided capitalism, which is not supposed to work, according to the textbooks, is shifting global economic power to East Asia, as the sun sets on the Western world. When capitalism is threatened, harsh measures are clamped upon the working class. We see it all over. It is a tough market for the people, but something must be done for the bankers. Stress tests for the banks, but there are no stress tests for the people who cannot pay their bills.
Historically, the European empires and later the Americans, launched imperialistic drives to control the world, until these empires collapsed. They invented modern state violence in this enterprise. The glorious weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were indeed glorious, as long as they were killing the little people that didn’t matter. Had to shove them out of the way to make way for progress. Today the American empire is dying a slow death. And their people are not even aware of it, for the most part.
To a great extent the grotesque US national debt of fourteen and a half trillion dollars is a measure of how much the common American people have been robbed by corporate America. Robbery, embezzlement, by every trick in the book that they could invent. There are at least two ways to rob a bank. From the outside and from the inside. The financial class keeps robbing them from the inside and then sticking the people, the taxpayers, with the bill. Well, they keep paying it, that is, if they have a job. And that is getting a lot more rare. Every nine out of every ten dollars of so-called defense spending goes directly into the profits of Wall Street firms. Most of it is being borrowed from the Chinese to put on the American tax-payers credit card. Every dime of the so-called “war on terrorism” has been borrowed, greatly enriching corporate America. Most Americans have never been terrorized by al-Qaeda. It’s a different story when the banks take their house and then charge them for the money that the bankers “lost.”
It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. It’s sure not for the people. If that’s democracy, I’m Elvis Presley. The US now borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends, most of it from the Chinese. From five to ten billion dollars a day goes to “defense contractors.” With defense like that, who needs enemies? The people are stuck with a bill of ten billion dollars a month to keep 100,000 US soldiers and 100,000 private contractors in Afghanistan. More than 1600 US soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Officially 450 billion dollars spent directly on the war in Afghanistan. What for? The US admits there are not more than 50 to 75 al-Qaeda members in the entire country. They are stuck for the bill on the war on terrorism to the tune of 3.7 trillion dollars (or more) so far, plus another one trillion for interest, so, bringing the bill to something like 5.4 trillion dollars. The US has promised Afghanistan another five billion for construction aid. This is good money, indeed, for the military contractors, the bankers and financial community. The senators and representatives in Washington are bought, except for an honest renegade few, who give up the fight after some time. It is a rotten system. It stinks. It is a stinking sewer that smells to the farthest capitals of the world. And it is shameful to present such a system to the world as the best model of “democracy.” It has to be said again and again and again till it gets through the thick skulls of all the farmers scratching their heads out in the cretin hinterlands of America. Actually they know more than it seems, but they keep drenching their brains in the poison that spews from Fox TV and all the propagandistic corporate owned radio stations across America. Maybe they will wake up, but today seem to be going in the wrong direction with the Tea Party.
Even while the American domestic economy has been devastated by capitalist greed, one can say a massive poverty creation enterprise since the l970s, as the working classes have been crushed and officially unemployment is over nine percent (unofficially more), corporate profits remain high and firms are flush with cash. The American empire requires putting down all resistance not only at home, but abroad. It is necessary to control global resources and maintain the empire. The empire of roughly 1000 American military bases around the world to control the entire globe.
How many had to die in this enterprise? About 6000 American soldiers are dead in the so-called war on terrorism. Rather, to be more precise, the war for oil and pipelines and power. Wars have bankrupted the American nation, wedded to the system of privatizing war production and now fighting public unions to further rob the working classes, a deep exploitation. As well as killing a portion of them in war. Continuous lies about making the world free and safe for democracy. The western countries fear democracy at home even more than they fear democracy abroad, except perhaps where there is oil or something else the empire needs badly. The empire cannot be sustained in the face of people’s democracy.
After World War II, Europe and the US constructed a world where de facto power would be in their hands. The world would be kept safe for capitalism by ensuring that governments were “liberal”, that is open to the control of capital. The Middle East would continue to be under dictatorships. But “nation building” would be assisted in “developing areas.” Many programs were pushed over the years. The primary goal was to prevent revolution, counterinsurgency, and keep nations in the pro-Western orbit. Theoretically, they were to develop and become more like the West.
But if they did not, then the West would lose its power. So it must have just been cover, eyewash, for control. The most successful countries have been in East Asia, those that went in for state capitalism, the developmentalist state, including China. After a period of socialism under Chairman Mao, China went for state capitalist under Deng Xiaoping. But for most of the world, as Stiglitz has pointed out, it was a no-go on that and they fell into debt and austerity programs of the IMF.
It was bad enough to prevent peoples in the developing world to pursue revolution and democracy on their own terms. But in South Asia, that is Pakistan and Afghanistan, through their mechanizations against the Soviets, they helped the Taliban come to power. When it was a fact, the US decided to work with them on the major Western interest in the area, the pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan and possibly to India.
After 9/11, again, the US was not as concerned as the public expected about the Taliban. Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz, the Neoconservative wolf pack had their eyes on the big prize, Iraq and its oil. But first the strike was launched to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, the first bombs launched in early October 2001. Arrangements were made for Hamid Karzai to be installed in Kabul. Now after ten years and squandering more than five trillion dollars (the eventual cost) and thousands of lives, what does the US and these countries have to show for it? Several countries devastated, and a few people made fabulously rich. The hope for the pipeline is still in the cards.
Now it is pretty much accepted in Washington that the Taliban is likely to return to power in Kabul. But maybe they will be nicer guys this time. Is that what all those dollars and dead soldiers was about, softening these guys up? Maybe, it is suggested, they will even allow a few girls to go to school and learn to read and write. They are really getting with the program, now. Don’t kid your self. Nancy Reagan down there in Texas is not agonizing over the reading skills of the girls on Kandahar regardless of how much pretense she put on while First Lady. It was all such a shameful farce. Now watch the corporate honchos again go after the pipeline, if they can. How much blood are they willing to spill for that? As much as it takes, I suppose.
Now domestic politics militates that there must be a winding down to the American deployment. Americans do not like long wars. They can put up with a lot of short ones, but they must be over before too long. Six months is fine. Kickin’ Ass. Oh yes! Kickin’ ass and takin’ names. But these ten year wars start to get on their nerves. What the hell is going on over there! “We got to get those boys back home.” Even if it is in a box.
It’s a shame. What a country, what educational systems, what high speed rail systems, what energy efficiency systems, what a paradise of a country that five trillion dollars could have done if spent for their own country! Nope. It has to go into the coffers of the corporations, capitalist accumulation. Europe, Japan, Russia, Turkey, all over the world can build high speed rail, but America fights its imperial wars, wastes its young men and women, and watches its decrepit highway system and bridges crumble at home. And then sings the praises of the “free market” and capitalism. That is not good for a man’s stomach! It doesn’t do much for the other organs either.
Now it is state and nation building that Ahmed Rashid argues in his book that is needed in Afghanistan and on which he blames Europe and the US of failing to carry out. State building, for Rashid is “the opportunity for countries to rebuild their infrastructure such as the army, police, civil service, and judiciary, which would provide security and services to its citizens.” (p. lii) For Rashid, “nation building involves aid and support to civil society to rebuild the shattered economy, provide livelihoods, create social and political structures, and introduce democracy.” Democratization is about “creating institutions of tolerance and shared responsibility among rulers and citizens alike.” (p. liii)
Ahmed Rashid has bitter criticism for the neoconservatives and this is one of the strengths of the book. There is certainly something to be said for Rashid’s concept of “nation building” from a bourgeois point of view. However, it might be just as well to admit that what has been known as “nation-building” in the West is merely putting in place the necessary institutions to allow the state and society to expand markets and exploitation under a capitalist regime and nowadays be pushed toward neoliberalism, a ramped up version of capitalist accumulation, welfare for capital and the “free market” for the people. No one ever talked about building a socialist state as a form of nation-building. A state for the proletariat and the people, rather than for a ruling class based upon a capitalist-based middle class.
The Bush neoconservatives, of course, wanted power and control. They didn’t need to assist a nation to become a part of the global economic system. Either it would get with the program, or the hell with it. If it went so far as to oppose the empire, it would be summarily crushed. The US would punish its enemies, those states which defied the empire. There was no idea of even the pretense of charity and nation building.
Ahmed Rashid’s earlier book, Taliban: The Story of The Afghan Warlords (2000), received wide attention after the attacks of 9/11, mainly because the world knew little about the Taliban and states largely ignored them as they rose to power.
For Rashid, the aim would have been to move from feudal trappings to something more modern and in tune with the capitalist global world order. Rashid has no problem with such a vision. Its par for the course. His objection to the neoconservatives is that they were not interested in any such project. In Afghanistan, the tyrant of ignorant feudalism, and the Taliban primitives, primitive to a professional degree, socially and economically, could not be stopped.
It is well to consider this rise of political Islam. The Western world and the US especially have done the world no favor in crushing the progressive left. What would one expect? For years after World War II, massive resources were used, both at home and abroad, to crush workers movements, democratic movements, humanism, restraints on wild-west Texas capitalism. It was never thought to discourage anything on the right. So with the left globally crushed, then what one is likely to get is religious fundamentalism. In the case of Afghanistan, it is even worse, with Zbigniew Brzezinski playing his clever trick on the Russians to give them their own Vietnam in Afghanistan. The US intentionally created the Taliban, supporting the regime of General Zia ul-Haq. A policy of giving control to Pakistan under the Pakistan military. A mistake which not only produced the blowback of 9/11 in America but the blowback now being experienced by Pakistan.
Are Americans aware that this is why their sons and daughters are dying in Afghanistan? It is actually a shameful situation.
In Descent Into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid deserves high credit for putting the events of the last ten years into perspective, up to 2008. The book is highly informative about the region and the dynamics of the political situation. It is surely one of the best books to read for background.
Rashid was well aware that the US effort was going to fail and he has blistering criticism for the way the Bush Administration approached the war. However, from my perspective, I doubt that anything could have saved the situation. It was doomed from the beginning like all the other invasions of the area in history.
The book has four parts. The first part, “9/11 and War,” deals with the US reaction and the attack. The neoconservatives were primarily interested in overthrowing the Taliban Government. The second part, “The Politics of The Post-9/11 World,” deals with the warlords and the strategy of Pakistan led by President Pervez Musharraf. Part three is about “The Failure of Nation Building.” Rashid shows how the belated effort by the Bush Administration failed and explores Pakistan’s role in the resurgence of the Taliban. Musharraf continued to pursue his dualistic and deceptive game in dealing with demands from Washington and the West. Finally, “Descent Into Chaos,” shows how things continued to fall apart. Today after more than two years of the war under President Barack Obama, things have continued in the same downhill direction, in spite of bright hope and optimism for the press and from the US military.
In this book, Ahmed Rashid guides the reader through the complete unfolding of the Afghanistan story from 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban to its revival during 2008. He suggests that 9/11 was the result of the failure of the west to deal with the conditions of poverty, lack of development, and nation building, and US policy in general over decades of neglect. He correctly blames the West for neglecting political repression in the Middle East. The people need to be lifted out of poverty, he notes. He argues that there was hope in the region for a commitment from the West immediately after 9/11. (p. xxxviii) But at the same time, people feared an attack upon the region to take revenge for the attacks in the US. But he says that the US assault on the region failed and has now made things worse. The US could not contain al Qaeda. The US promised to transform Afghanistan, but failed. Now the state is in a state of collapse. After billions of dollars and 45,000 Western troops up to 2008, the Taliban had already made a dramatic come back. We have to add that with perhaps three times that number of troops in Afghanistan today, the same trend has continued.
Ahmed argues that the West did not take advantage of the opportunity they had after 9/11. The West watched Pakistan under the military regime of President Pervez Musharraf undergo an “equally bloody meltdown.” (p. xxxviii) Democracy continued to be crushed. In 2007, Musharraf cracked down by arresting hundreds of lawyers and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. At the same time, the US supported dictatorships in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The US faced a situation where the Pakistan Intelligence Service (ISI) sponsored Islamic extremism in its “double dealing” with the United States and Europe.
But instead of embracing the democratic desires of the Pakistan people, the US embraced Musharraf, further alienating the population. So the people’s hatred for the US, festering for long years, increased. Some ninety percent of the now thirteen billion dollars in aid to Pakistan since 9/11 went to the Pakistan military. Rashid points out that this undermines people’s understanding of democracy, secular education, modernization, and civil society. Such US policy helped the extremists.
The Bush neoconservatives were not interested in South and Central Asia, where US resources could have made a considerable difference. Rather, they focused upon invading Iraq. This was their real prize. In fact, we know that Bush and Cheney wanted to invade Iraq, even before going for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bin Laden, just slipped away into Pakistan, like several hundred Pakistani Taliban as the US cooperated with the demands of Musharraf. For the Bush Administration, “arrogance and ignorance were in abundant supply…” (p. xliii) Both Pakistan and Afghanistan “became an incubator for al-Qaeda.” But George Bush said US troops should not be used for nation-building but to fight and win in wars. Rashid believes that this focus on the so-called “War on Terrorism” was a “chronic mistake.” (p. xlvii) Perceptive observations that should be obvious today.
I remember when it dawned upon me what we were up against. It was a few days after 9/11. I was reading a story in a Turkish newspaper, on a train to Southeastern Anatolia. The US approach was truly awesome, shocking, devastating, and demoralizing. The US was out to launch a war against the whole world, it seemed, any country that did not line up lock step with US commands, US perceived national interests. And it was a lashing out with terrific force against the attacks of 9/11. Those attacks, horrible to be sure, but in fact pin pricks compared to the devastation that the US had wreaked around the world in its own state terrorism, Korea, Vietnam, many other instances of state terrorism. It was more than a cold war, for sure, because the US now had many more enemies. This was very serious stuff, for sure. As far into the future as one could see, war, war, and more war, never another day in our lives when the US would not be at war, somewhere, and against an imaginary enemy, “terrorism.” This was the perfect formula for dictatorial fascism, to whatever degree the regime wished to clamp it upon the country and the world. It was clear to me that we were all screwed and screwed royally and there was absolutely nothing that we could do about it. At least I was not in the belly of the beast.
Who could then be surprised when the US Government ignored international law and used torture, a certain way to ensure more terrorism. The US set up Camp Xray in Guantanimo and secret prisons around the world. It was a beautiful place and the beer was good when I was there in the US Navy in l975. We know the story of the rogue state agenda all too well, but do Americans understand the importance of it?
It was the epitome of ignorance and brutality but I knew the world was in for it. For sure.
In July 1982, I walked across the Wagah border from India to Pakistan. In Punjab University in Lahore, the Jamiat-i-Islami student group was becoming stronger, threatening the social freedom of secular students on campus. I was disturbed by what students told me. I also remember being impressed at the focus in the local press in Pakistan on Saudi Arabia. I felt at the time that it did not bode well for the future of the country. At the Khyber pass, there was a mass of trucks, evidence of the US funding of the Mujahadeen and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar against the Russians. There was a program of Izlamization under dictator, General Zia ul-Haq.
In August of 1988, driving through Oklahoma, I turned on the radio and heard that Zia had been killed along with the American Ambassador in a plane crash.
Ahmed Rashid argues that the US was never very much concerned with nation building in developing countries, just replacing one dictator with another during the cold war. (p. lii) Societies remained poor and the neoconservatives were only concerned with regime change. He believes that this failure of nation building was why new insurgencies could occur in Iraq and Afghanistan after the US attacks on these countries. These countries needed “boots on the ground” and the US needed to engage in “winning hearts and minds.” Somehow, this argument reminds me of Vietnam, but I am afraid that it is not really convincing.
Rashid argues that the Bush neoconservatives were particularly incompetent, compared with other US administrations. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) wanted to help, he says, but were pushed aside when the CIA and the Pentagon came in. The warlords should have been disarmed, not empowered, as the Bush Administrations did in their “warlord strategy.” The international peacekeeping forces should have been deployed outside of Kabul and Pakistan should not have been allowed to give refuge to the fleeing Taliban. The US should have developed agriculture, prevented poppy cultivation, and linked development to Pakistan and Central Asia. For Afghanistan, this would have meant about 50 billion dollars over ten years. Not a lot, considering the cost of war. But Rashid complains that Washington ignored every item on his checklist. The Bush strategy “reeked of overt imperialism.” (p. lv) Bush was the “global cowboy.”
Rashid correctly sees the cause of terrorism as past American policy, the root causes stemming from growing poverty, repression, and a sense of injustice from US backed governments. This boosted anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism. Bush, on the other hand, kept parroting stupid phrases about them hating Americans because “they hate our freedoms, hate our freedom of religion, hate our freedom of speech, hate our freedom to vote and assemble, and hate our freedom to disagree with each other.” (p. lv) And “Bush did more to keep Americans blind to world affairs than any American leader in recent history.” (p. lvi) One can certainly say “Amen” to this, but Bush didn’t really have to work very hard at it, given the knowledge of the average American about South Asia and the Middle East.
So Bush policies made it more difficult to fight the extremists. In Pakistan, people hated Musharraf and the US more than al Qaeda. US policy made things much more difficult in South Asia and Central Asia and shattered US credibility. Unfortunately, the situation continues right to the present day. Historians will chalk up Bush’s policies as a historic failure.
I agree with Ahmed Rashid on most of this. However, I find much of his argument about nation building unconvincing. It would have certainly been a better approach than war, if terrorism could have been avoided. But I am not convinced that state and nation building could have worked to prevent the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It cannot be proven one way or another, of course. I think that the US occupation would have been seen as imperialism, in any event. And I think that would be a correct view. After all, it is not just that the Bush policy “reeked of imperialism.” The US is an imperialistic nation. The US is an empire and has been for many decades. The US state has always acted in their perceived historical interests. Why would the US want Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the Central Asian states to be democratic? The type of democracy that they could tolerate would be one that was under the control of businessmen and capital linked to US capital. Since that was not in the cards to emerge in the region with growing Islamic fundamentalism, democracy would have been disastrous for the US, just as it would be today in the Middle East, to the extent that it emerges. The US wants the region, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, to be under its control, and democracy is just a word that is flung around from time to time for window dressing.
Most people in these states have been manipulated by the US, and let us admit it, they have been terrorized by US bombing and so on. The US comes and bombs and destroys their country and then asks them for their hearts and minds. That’s great! It is not surprising that they are not in the mood to let the US come in and run their country, “nation build,” and show them how to do things the American way, which the Americans think is best. The people have been fooled by the west too many times and are getting a little tired of it, as Robert Fisk keeps pointing out in referring to the historical record. They would like for the West to get out of their way and let them have some freedom. Perhaps Ahmed Rashid was a little to close to the American policy makers to really look at the situation realistically.
If I can be permitted a digression here, sometimes the people who join these assistance organizations have the best intentions. However, when one boils down the thrust of the situation, one finds that it is really at root, ethnocentric and arrogant and amounts to furthering imperialism. To give one example, many Americans joined the American Peace Corps in the l960s. It is certainly true that one of the motivations was to avoid being drafted into the US military and being sent to Vietnam. Better to make friends than meet people and kill them because the state says they are an enemy. I was one of those who joined and went to India. There were 23 guys in the group sent to villages in Punjab. We all hated the war in Vietnam. We were anti-US in that sense. I would say that most of us came to love India. We were not chauvinistic, but basically pure in our motives. We genuinely wanted to help others. Some people in India thought we were working for the CIA. As far as I know it was not true. Certainly not in my case. I am sure that many did help others to some extent. But I still would argue that the whole notion of the Peace Corps was insulting to India. Most of us were not experts in the field in which we were to work. Yet, it was assumed that being Americans, we did not need to be experts to help Indians. I think that this was terribly ethnocentric. What people in Punjab really needed was money, capital, that is, not our “help.” I am truly grateful that India and the Indians put up with my ignorance and let me learn greatly from India, much more than Indians ever learned from me.
It was great for me, even though I believe that it did not much help Indians. At some point, I realized that the Peace Corps program was terribly arrogant. I always thought that President John Kennedy and Peace Corps Director, Sargeant Shriver, as well as others in the organization thought that it would help to head off communism in some countries around the globe. I thought that it would only be fair if one Indian Peace Corps volunteer was sent from India to American for every American volunteer sent to India. After all, has America been a peaceful nation in history? Well, nevertheless, it was a hell of a lot better than war. So I am glad the program was there, despite the above considerations. Many aid programs are misguided in a similar way and imperialistic, even more so. I cannot say that they do no good, but people do like to do things for themselves their own way.
It would be difficult to argue with Ahmed Rashid’s assessment that “Bush’s historical legacy will be one of failure.” (p. lviii) As the American phase of the struggle reaches a watershed in the summer of 2011, and the US starts to wake up and smell the coffee and pull out, the situation spirals into decline for the West and for those who saw nation-building as the way to go. Obama got his own war, but he too has failed.
I must confess, that I always found it incomprehensible that Obama saw the Iraq invasion and occupation as so negative and believed that Afghanistan was a noble enterprise. He was bound and determined to have his own war. His own failure. Perhaps every US President deserves his own failed war. When they hit the oval office (some say offal orifice) something seems to get into their brains to make them suddenly believe in war.
Ahmed Rashid does a terrific job in unraveling the complex story of Afghanistan, the dialectic of history. The short period covered here makes a contribution but may not be that significant in the long stream of time. The West could not and cannot let Afghanistan be Afghanistan. Outsiders have attempted to impose rule and their own order on the country throughout history. In modern times, the British, Russians, Americans and now the Pakistanis. The Pushtun-based Taliban is a diversion from culture and history. But it was with the help of the US and Saudi money that laid the conditions to bring them to power in Afghanistan. Were these not a series of efforts of nation-building. Why couldn’t the world let the historical dialectic work itself out in Afghanistan? Every nation should, perhaps, be left to its own version of nation-building.
Well, where are we today? Obama presented himself as an anti-war candidate for Iraq, but believed that the war in Afghanistan was for a noble purpose. Obama is an educated man, but apparently weak on his history of Afghanistan. Another typical hubristic American impulse: just go in and clear up the situation and be done with it. Get the job done and get back home. A “surge,” and now a withdrawing of that surge. A weasel word, if there ever was one. No American wants to hear the real truth, an escalation of the war. Escalations cost lives and money. Surges are a magic bullet, to fix a problem and General David Petraeus never lets us forget how successful they are. Petraeus spun the Iraq “surge” as a success just before the 2008 presidential election. Now he is spinning the Afghanistan surge as Obama prepares for elections next year. As he prepares to leave Afghanistan, Petraeus told the New York Times that insurgent attacks are down in May and June 2011 and that the Taliban militants have been “degraded somewhat.” In fact, the opposite is true. From 175 attacks in 2006, the number rose to 181 in 2007, to 448 in 2008, and to 622 in 2009. The latest figures show 1430 attacks in 2011 and 1462 civilians killed from January to June. Fifteen percent more civilian lives are being lost this year. Another American technical tweaking. It’s a public relations campaign. Violence is highest in the ten years of the war according to the United Nations. Now Petraeus is headed for the CIA, to take over as chief. It has been suggested that he may run for President.
Now that the 2012 presidential election is coming up next year and the American people have had enough of this war, the longest in US history, Obama is withdrawing the 33,000 troops in the surge. After they are withdrawn, some 68,000 American troops will remain. The timetable is fuzzy, but Obama talks of bringing the rest home by sometime in 2014.
We read that some 30,000 US forces have been in Helmand and Kandahar provinces from last year, but now with the exit of General Petraeus, as the Commander in Afghanistan, the focus will shift from the South to the East, with even more special forces commandos, intelligence, surveillance, and air power on the Pakistan border. This means using Predator drones in the area where the Haqqani Network is operating. These operatives are linked to al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba. This is the projection as US Marine Lt. General John Allen takes over the command on July 18. The number of US and other western forces being killed and injured is rising. Some 65 international troops died last month and 20 people died in an attack on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel in July.
The New York Times reports that the Pakistan military continues to support the Taliban and a broad range of militant groups who are who are fighting against India and US forces in Afghanistan. The groups include Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-e-Taiba and Hizbal Mujahadeen. The US has supported a system based upon mullahs and retired generals for years, giving billions of dollars of US aid to the Pakistan military.
Now the Canadians and increasingly Europeans are giving up and going home. It is said that the classical counterinsurgency doctrine of “clear, hold, and build” has not worked. The Taliban insurgents have come back. It is similar in Pakistan. When the Pakistan Frontier Corps Paramilitaries target the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) [Taliban Movement of Pakistan] they move and later come back.
In fact, Obama’s surge seems to have only made things worse. US operations have failed to break the momentum of the Taliban. Numbers of killed and wounded US troops have increased in the last year. Now the people want peace and the US Obama Administration has come around to acknowledging that a political deal must be made with the Taliban.
In late June, Obama gave a speech on Afghanistan. He claimed the surge was successful, of course, but this is not really true as is clear from any days glance at stories in the press reported from Afghanistan. On July 12, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated in Kandahar. On July 17, Can Mohammad Khan, a close advisor of President Karzai and the former Governor of Uruzgan Province in Southern Afghanistan was assassinated in Kabul. Along with Khan, Hashim Watanwal, a member of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament was killed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for these killings. In the first six months of 2011, 191 Afghan officials and politicians have been killed.
Now clearly the US is on its way to winding down its longest war in history. Even the Right-wing in the US has now had enough, realizing that the war is counter productive to US global hegemony and does nothing to stop terrorism.
In Afghanistan, now, as before, it seems to be a choice between the Taliban and the warlords. The US warlord strategy did not get rid of the Taliban. Al-Qaeda seems to have mostly moved to Pakistan, but can be anywhere today. Perhaps the US missed the boat after 9/11 by not going after the criminals who pulled off the deal, rather than the Taliban, who, in any event, largely escaped into Pakistan. The story is all there in so many places, but there is much pretense and a failure to come clean as to what has happened and is happening. It appears that the Taliban and the ISI will largely have their way. The people would like peace. If the Taliban is a terrible choice and produces a backward feudal regime, which is likely, let the Americans acknowledge that they spent billions of dollars promoting the Taliban against the Russians and in so doing, changed the face of Afghanistan. Much of the blame can surely be laid to the Americans and “Big Zig’s” clever joke on the Soviets.
Pepe Escobar, a correspondent for the Asia Times, has pointed out that the reason the war will go on is the dream of the Trans-Afghan Pipeline (TAP). The drawdown of US soldiers can be replaced quickly with “private contractors,” that is mercenaries. The problems are that peace is needed in Afghanistan for the ten billion dollar project, and Pakistan will certainly continue its strategic policy of controlling Afghanistan for strategic depth against India. It is not just the Taliban but rising Pushtun nationalism that is a problem for both the US and Pakistan. The Pushtun want the foreign forces out of their country. After ten years and more than five trillion dollars spent on the war on terrorism, what has changed? America is broke and the empire is on the way downhill.
The War on Terrorism is but an extension of the Cold War, the American Empire’s quest for global full spectrum dominance. It will continue in various forms and guises, and ideological covers, as long as there is an American Empire.
Ahmed Rashid has written a highly informative and detailed record of this period of Afghanistan history. His two books are excellent sources for scholars of the region. His criticism of the Bush Neoconservative era is blistering but perceptive. President Obama meant well, but will ultimately fail, which, it seems, should have been clear from the beginning.
July 18, 2011
Eddie J. Girdner, Professor
Izmir University, Izmir, Turkey