[Marxism] Juan Cole on Obama

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 23 06:43:43 MDT 2008


Obama is saying the wrong things about Afghanistan
He hit the right notes during his swing through Iraq, but his plans for 
that other war could mean trouble.

By Juan Cole

Jul. 23, 2008 | Barack Obama's Afghanistan and Iraq policies are mirror 
images of each other. Obama wants to send 10,000 extra U.S. troops to 
Afghanistan, but wants to withdraw all American soldiers and Marines 
from Iraq on a short timetable. In contrast to the kid gloves with which 
he treated the Iraqi government, Obama repeated his threat to hit at 
al-Qaida in neighboring Pakistan unilaterally, drawing howls of outrage 
from Islamabad.

But Obama's pledge to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan will not be easy 
to fulfill. While coalition troop deaths have declined significantly in 
Iraq, NATO casualties in Afghanistan are way up. By shifting emphasis 
from Iraq to Afghanistan, would a President Obama be jumping from the 
frying pan into the fire?

During the Baghdad stop of his ongoing overseas tour, the convergence 
between the worldview of the presumptive Democratic nominee and that of 
his Iraqi hosts provided some embarrassing moments for the Bush 
administration. Obama and his traveling companions, Senate colleagues 
Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., issued a statement Tuesday 
after a day of consultations with Iraqi politicians and U.S. military 
commanders, affirming the need to respect Iraqi aspirations for a 
"timeline, with a clear date, for the redeployment of American combat 
forces." By then, in an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel, Iraqi 
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had already expressed support for Obama's 
proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months of his 
inauguration next January.

Although al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, attempted to soothe 
ruffled GOP feathers by suggesting the Der Spiegel interview was 
mistranslated, al-Dabbagh came clean while Obama was in Baghdad on 
Monday. He confirmed that the Iraqi government hoped U.S. troops would 
be withdrawn within two years. Obama was thus able, in his joint 
statement with Reed and Hagel, to cite Iraqi attitudes for his own 
stance: "The prime minister ... stated his hope that U.S. combat forces 
could be out of Iraq in 2010."

In general, Obama's policies toward Iraq synchronize neatly with the 
aspirations of the Shiite-dominated elected Iraqi government, with an 
affirmation of the need to gain the consent of the Iraqis for any 
status-of-forces agreement with the U.S., and with a far greater 
emphasis on addressing the humanitarian crisis provoked by the U.S. 
invasion. On leaving al-Maliki's office, Obama was able to call his 
consultations with the prime minister "very constructive."

By comparison, Obama's criticisms of Bush administration policy toward 
Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his determination to make those countries 
the centerpiece of his foreign policy, are more problematic. Obama's 
determination to put down the tribal insurgencies in northwestern 
Pakistan and in southern Afghanistan reveals basic contradictions in his 
announced policies. His plans certainly have the potential to ruffle 
Afghan and Pakistani feathers, and have already done so in Pakistan.

On July 13, Obama criticized Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on CNN, 
saying, "I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker 
and helped organize Afghanistan and [the] government, the judiciary, 
police forces, in ways that would give people confidence." Although the 
remark had the potential to make for awkward moments between Karzai and 
Obama during their meeting Sunday, it was welcomed by the independent 
Afghan press, which applauded the senator for bucking the 
"self-centered" policies of Bush and his knee-jerk support of Karzai.

After Obama met with Karzai, reporters asked his aide, Humayun 
Hamidzada, if the criticism had come up. He tried to put the best face 
on issue, saying the Afghan government did not see the comment as 
critical, but as a fair observation, since it had in fact been tied down 
fighting terrorism.

Less forgiving were the politicians in Pakistan, who reacted angrily to 
Obama's comments on unilaterally attacking targets inside that country. 
The Democratic presidential hopeful told CBS on Sunday, "What I've said 
is that if we had actionable intelligence against high-value al-Qaida 
targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those 
targets, that we should." He added that he would put pressure on 
Islamabad to move aggressively against terrorist training camps in the 
country's northwestern tribal areas.

Pakistan, a country of 165 million people, is composed of six major 
ethnic groups, one of them the Pashtuns of the northwest. The Pakistani 
Taliban are largely drawn from this group. The more settled Pashtun 
population is centered in the North-West Frontier province, with its 
capital at Peshawar. Between the NWFP and Afghanistan are badlands 
administered rather as Native American reservations are in the U.S., 
called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with a population of 
some 3 million. These areas abut Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan, also 
a multiethnic society, but one in which Pashtuns are a plurality.

The tribal Pashtuns of the FATA no man's land, a third of which is 
classified as "inaccessible" by the Pakistani government, have sometimes 
given shelter to al-Qaida or Afghan Taliban militants. Some of the 
Pashtun tribesmen themselves have turned militant, and have been 
responsible for suicide bombings at police checkpoints inside Pakistan. 
They are also accused of attacking targets across the border in 
Afghanistan and of giving refuge to Afghan Taliban who conduct 
cross-border raids.

The governor of the North-West Frontier province, Owais Ghani, 
immediately spoke out against Obama, saying that the senator's remarks 
had the effect of undermining the new civilian government elected last 
February. Ghani warned that a U.S. incursion into the northwestern 
tribal areas would have "disastrous" consequences for the globe.

The governor underlined that a "war on terrorism" policy depended on 
popular support for it, and that such support was being leeched away by 
U.S. strikes on the Pakistan side of the border and by statements such 
as Obama's. A recent American attack mistakenly killed Pakistani troops 
who had been sent to fight the Pakistani Taliban at American insistence. 
The Pakistani public was furious. Ghani complained, "Candidate Obama 
gave these statements; I come out openly and say such statements 
undermine support, don't do it."

The NWFP governor is responsible for Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts 
in his province and in the neighboring tribal regions. He is well 
thought of in Pakistan because of his successes in Baluchistan province, 
which he governed for five years prior to January of this year, where he 
combined political negotiations with militants and targeted military 
action when he felt it necessary. He firmly subordinated the military 
strategy to civilian politics and negotiations. That is, Ghani is a 
politician with long experience in dealing with tribal insurgencies.

Obama's aggressive stance, on the other hand, could be 
counterproductive. The Illinois senator had praised the Pakistani 
elections of last February, issuing a statement the next day saying, 
"Yesterday, a moderate majority of the Pakistani people made their 
voices heard, and chose a new direction." He criticized the Bush 
administration, saying U.S. interests would be better served by 
"advancing the interests of the Pakistani people, not just Pakistan's 

Yet the parties elected in February in Pakistan are precisely the ones 
demanding negotiations with the tribes and militants of the northwest, 
rather than frontal military assaults. Indeed, it is the Bush 
administration that has pushed for military strikes in the FATA areas. 
Obama will have to decide whether he wants to risk undermining the 
elected government and perhaps increasing the power of the military by 
continuing to insist loudly and publicly on unilateral U.S. attacks on 
Pakistani territory.

Nor is it at all clear that sending more U.S. troops to southern 
Afghanistan can resolve the problem of the resurgence of the Taliban 
there. American and NATO search-and-destroy missions alienate the local 
population and fuel, rather than quench, the insurgency. Resentment over 
U.S. airstrikes on innocent civilians and wedding parties is growing. 
Brazen attacks on U.S. forward bases and on institutions such as the 
prison in the southern city of Kandahar are becoming more frequent. To 
be sure, Obama advocates combining counterinsurgency military operations 
with development aid and attention to resolving the problem of poppy 
cultivation. (Afghan poppies are turned into heroin for the European 
market, and the profits have fueled some of the Taliban's resurgence.) 
Stepped-up military action, however, is still the central component of 
his plan.

Before he jumps into Afghanistan with both feet, Obama would be well 
advised to consult with another group of officers. They are the veterans 
of the Russian campaign in Afghanistan. Russian officers caution that 
Afghans cannot be conquered, as the Soviets attempted to do in the 1980s 
with nearly twice as many troops as NATO and the U.S. now have in the 
country, and with three times the number of Afghan troops as Karzai can 
deploy. Afghanistan never fell to the British or Russian empires at the 
height of the age of colonialism. Conquering the tribal forces of a 
vast, rugged, thinly populated country proved beyond their powers. It 
may also well prove beyond the powers even of the energetic and 
charismatic Obama. In Iraq, he is listening to what the Iraqis want. In 
Pakistan, he is simply dictating policy in a somewhat bellicose fashion, 
and ignoring the wishes of those moderate parties whose election he 
lauded last February.

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