When peace means war

May 8, 2009

Lee Sustar looks at the U.S. war drive taking shape in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

WHILE BARACK Obama stage-managed a Washington meeting with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss regional peace, the U.S. was escalating the war in both countries--and civilian deaths and a mass refugee crisis were the result.

As Obama met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai May 7, mourners in Afghanistan had barely buried an estimated 120 people killed the day before--the latest in a series of killings of civilians in that country by U.S. and NATO occupation forces.

And by the time Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari arrived in Washington, an estimated 200,000 people had fled the Swat Valley after the U.S. pressured the Pakistani military into breaking a cease-fire with elements of the Taliban. Government officials in Pakistan fear the total number of refugees from Swat could reach 500,000--in addition to an estimated 500,000 Pakistanis who have already fled other war-torn areas near the border with Afghanistan.

The suffering of the Swat refugees is directly due to U.S. policy, which pressured Pakistan to overturn a three-month truce with the Taliban. The government blames the breakdown of the truce on the Taliban for its attempt to seize the town of Buner, but the Pakistani military was already on the offensive (and the U.S. had been carrying out periodic air strikes on Pakistani territory using Predator drones).

President Barack Obama with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai
President Barack Obama with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Pete Souza)

Bad as the situation has been, it's likely to get worse. U.S officials have rebranded the occupation of Afghanistan, which dates from the "war on terror" begun in 2001, as the "Af-Pak" war--a regional campaign to crush the Taliban, whose resistance is an obstacle to U.S. domination.

OVERSEEING THE policy is special envoy Richard Holbrooke, the egomaniac veteran diplomat who used U.S.- and NATO-backed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to broker the 1995 Balkans peace deal. He's out to do the same thing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, pushing a divide-and-conquer strategy that involves trying to buy off "good" Taliban elements, while waging an all-out war to crush the rest.

Holbrooke's intervention has led directly to heightened conflict on both sides of the border.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. is casting doubts on whether Karzai should run again for president, crippling his already minimal ability to act as a broker among Afghanistan's warlords. To prop himself up, Karzai chose as his running mate Mohammad Fahim, a warlord notorious for human rights abuses and reputedly a big player in the opium trade. Karzai's weakness, in turn, has encouraged the Taliban to resist the planned escalation of 25,000 U.S. troops.

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In Pakistan, Holbrooke has decided to bypass Zardari, a weak and corrupt politician, by publicly opening a channel of communication with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has close connections with Islamist political parties in areas where the Taliban and its allies are strong. Here, too, the aim is to deepen the turmoil in Pakistani politics, where a mass democracy movement recently forced Zardari to reinstate Supreme Court justices ousted by the previous military ruler, Pervez Musharraf.

To justify the increasingly aggressive U.S. intervention in Pakistani politics, the Obama administration raises the specter of a Taliban takeover of the Pakistani state and nuclear-armed jihad. But this is extremely unlikely, given that the Taliban is primarily based among the Pashtun people who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The real difficulty for the U.S. is that the Pakistani state is ambivalent about fighting the Taliban, because of deep connections between Islamist militants and the Pakistani armed forces and security services that date from the 1980s.

Back then, U.S.- and Pakistani-backed Afghani resistance groups, along with money and volunteers like Osama bin Laden, fought a successful war against the former USSR's occupation that ended in 1989. In a bid to end the turmoil and civil war that followed, Pakistan backed the Taliban's seizure of power.

In 2001, the U.S. turned the September 11 attacks into an opportunity to seize control of Afghanistan, a strategic crossroads between Central and South Asia and a pressure point for both Russia and China.

Since then, Afghanistan has been dominated by corrupt and brutal warlords, which allowed the once unpopular Taliban to make a military and political comeback. Ironically, the Taliban, which all but eradicated the cultivation of opium poppies in the 1990s, can now tap the opium trade for income. But U.S.-backed warlords are even more involved in the drug trade.

Further complicating matters for the U.S. is the Pakistani military. Assigned by Washington the role of guarantor of stability in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military has been unable or unwilling to deliver. And if Pakistan's armed forces are reluctant to do Obama's bidding, it's not only because of its long-term interests in Afghanistan, but because Pakistan's generals are wary of the growing economic and military ties between the U.S. and Pakistan's historic rival, India.

OBAMA'S SOLUTION to this crisis is the "Afghanistan surge," a troop buildup modeled on the last phase of George W. Bush's policy in Iraq, where the Pentagon quieted much of the insurgency by putting it on the U.S. payroll and granting it local political power.

In Iraq, that plan is fraying badly because of the unwillingness of the central government to come to terms with its former enemies. In Afghanistan, such an effort is even more problematic, given the Taliban's ethnic and social roots. But Washington will pursue this aim anyway, as journalist Pepe Escobar writes:

What matters for the Pentagon is that the minute any sectarian outfit or bandit gang decides to collude with the Pentagon, it's not "Taliban" anymore; it magically morphs into a "Concerned Local Citizens" outfit. By the same token, any form of resistance to foreign interference or Predator hell from above bombing is inevitably branded "Taliban."

So far, Afghanistan's image as the "good" war fought in response to 9/11 has given Obama sufficient political cover for a troop buildup. Obama claims that the escalation is about "making sure that al-Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland, and U.S. interests and our allies" or "project violence against" U.S. citizens.

Obama added more recently: "We want to respect [Pakistan's] sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear-armed militant state."

But more than a few U.S. foreign policy experts dismiss the notion that today's weak and scattered al-Qaeda can muster a serious threat against the U.S., and reject the idea that the Taliban has any agenda beyond taking power in its home region. That raises the question of just what the Afghanistan war is really about. John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University and author of a book critical of what he calls the "terrorism industry," wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs:

If Obama's national security justification for his war in Afghanistan comes to seem as spurious as Bush's national security justification for his war in Iraq, he, like Bush, will increasingly have only the humanitarian argument to fall back on. And that is likely to be a weak reed.

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