[Marxism] Juan Cole on Obama
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
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be withdrawn within two years.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
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
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
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
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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