Washington’s Afghan Endgame

US President Barack Obama’s announced phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan prompted an immediate surge of articles and comments in the international media; analyses and even forecasts by experts; and estimates and calculations by the military. The assessments often directly contradict each other, even though their authors cite the same facts and present the same arguments and rationales.

I wonder, how did matters evolve and how they will develop in the future? Before that truly historic decision, some media outlets have warned that if militarist sentiments win out in the administration and Obama begins a new 10-year round of fighting to control Afghanistan’s mountains and plains, that would negate America’s victory in the Cold War and its claim to the role of world policeman. It would mean that the movers and shakers of the military-industrial complex have lured Obama into a trap, and all that remains for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to do is drive him into a corner. The struggle by America’s democratically elected president against US militarism—the Republic’s unofficial characteristic since the founding fathers’ time—will end with the White House capitulating. And the Democratic Party’s leaders will capitulate along with him—if it continues to limit itself to a few stock phrases over the zinc coffins that emerge weekly from Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the consequences will be just as dramatic if Obama gathers his resolve and announces that the United States will gradually withdraw its forces in the future. He can’t win no matter what he does. His domestic political opponents will raise a fuss: America’s first black president of America has led the country to defeat. But that is going to happen anyway. Countless Afghan tribal chiefs and Taliban warlords will have to expunge the “occupiers” from their calculations. Karzai will have to fulfill the promises he has been making for the last 8 years. Having lost its solidarity, the Taliban movement will be forced to enter into agreements and form coalitions, as it did before 2001. Terrible things will happen in many parts of the country; but, as in Iraq, once the West invaded they were inevitable sooner or later.

However, an American troop withdrawal will force Pakistan to once again assume the role of mediator and guarantor of stability in the region, albeit on new terms. The Pashtuns will lose interest in their al-Qaeda “guests;” and they, in turn, will lose the powerful leverage that anti-Americanism has given them and will be forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Balance will be restored to the region, something that has been impossible during the Western occupation. In short, peace and quiet will reign; and as said before, there will be peace throughout the world.

But the Rubicon has, after all, been crossed, and Obama has made his decision, although halfheartedly. The media says that Obama, at least since the beginning of the year, has been inclined to withdraw troops—after all, if he believed a surge would actually defeat the Taliban, it would have been simply criminal not to send reinforcements. Thus, his decision was the outcome of a contest between his viewpoint and the position of the American military-industrial complex, whose interest in continuing the war has a specific monetary basis: a billion dollars a day.

The British Guardian newspaper writes that as far as another “gesture of despair” is concerned—the idea of negotiating with the Taliban on the ground—the question immediately arises: what are you going to negotiate about with a tiger when it already has you down? Whether it will just bite you on an arm or a leg and leave the rest alone? The newspaper says that for empty-headedness this idea is comparable only with the argument that a troop withdrawal would be an act of betrayal to those who have already laid down their lives in Afghanistan.

The drama over a “decision” on Afghanistan is truly acquiring epic proportions. It is reminiscent of of the Delphic oracle’s answer to Croesus about whether to go to war with Persia. If you go, the oracle said, “you will destroy a mighty empire.” And that is what happened: only it was Croesus’s realm that was destroyed; or in our case, and in the future, it would be the United States.

The United States and Britain, according to some media outlets, need to “demilitarize” the war on terror. “They need no longer rely on grand armies, popinjay generals and crippling budgets; on bringing death, destruction and exile to hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the faint belief that this might stop a few bombs going off back home,” The Observer lectured the British military.”They would hand that job to the appropriate authorities; to the police and security services.” It is unlikely that anyone will agree with such a sensible conclusion.

The experts undoubtedly warn that the tactics of troop withdrawal must be carefully thought out. Only an idiot would say that it must be done “overnight,” writes none other than the recognized master of diplomacy, Henry Kissinger; but no less idiotic are attempts to tie the troop withdrawal to obviously unachievable goals—boosting the European contingent, creating a viable Afghan army or vanquishing corruption in Kabul, for example. Defeat must be represented as a victory, of course. The retreat must be concealed behind a smokescreen like the convening of a Loya Jirga, or a three-pronged formula: “send in reinforcements, bribe whomever we need to, and leave.” But it cannot be based on achieving impossible dreams, concludes the former Secretary of State.

Many American experts have finally recognized that the United States was doomed to defeat in this war even more so than in Iraq. Both ventures were messianic ideas by neocons who lost their heads and had their way with budgetary funds. Three million Iraqis—including almost the entire Christian community—have been forced to leave the country. The same thing is beginning to happen in Afghanistan, and after the United States and NATO withdraw, refugees will stream out of the country. Many more disasters are in store for this long-suffering nation, but only the departure of the invaders will guarantee that they will ever end. The invaders will leave when their pain is stronger than their pride. But how many American soldiers will have to return home in coffins before that point is reached?

At the same time, judging by White House hints that the administration intends to “bribe” ordinary Taliban, as it did in Iraq in 2007 when American money created armed Sunni formations out of former insurgents. It should be noted, however, that this tactic is failing even in Iraq. The local “councils” are already falling apart, especially in the “exemplary” Anbar province, where a series of large-scale terrorist attacks took place over the last few days. This past June was the bloodiest of the last 2 years in terms of American casualties.

Add to that the fact that in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban are particularly strong they face nothing like the Shiite or Iranian threat that exists in Iraq, and this cunning plan begins looking much less impressive. As Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Institution put it: “You cannot break an insurgency that strong with money. It’s not a mercenary force — it’s a very powerful movement.” In fact, according to the Pakistani authorities, the Taliban now virtually control as much as 70% of the country, and they are enjoying increasing support because of people’s resentment of the foreign occupation and the many thousands of civilian casualties caused by NATO actions.

Regarding the planned troop withdrawal, many are questioning the official goals of the war in Afghanistan, most of which have not been achieved; and arguments about the need for the war are collapsing one after the other. The objective of the intervention was to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but the job is only half done. Besides that, bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, which calls into question the validity of Washington’s thuggish attack on Afghanistan 10 years ago. Another widely publicized goal of the war was the defeat of al-Qaeda, but its leaders simply fled Afghanistan and set up new bases all the way from Pakistan to Iraq. It has been argued that the United States is fighting the war for democracy, women’s rights, development, and eradication of the opium trade—now it is obvious that all of that has become a farce and elicits only a smirk.

Incidentally, another far-fetched pretext for the occupation of Afghanistan has vanished like a phantom. It was initially said that the war was needed to prevent terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the streets of New York and Washington and in Europe’s capitals—but this argument shamelessly turns reality on its head. There was no danger of such attacks before 2001, and now captured terrorists and intelligence agencies alike say that the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is the main motivating factor for those who are now trying to organize them. Seeking to justify his high-level appointment, Britain’s newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff, General Richards, came up with something even more absurd: if NATO and US forces pull out of Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will take over Pakistan and seize its nuclear weapons.

In fact, exactly the opposite will happen. It is the Afghan war that is destabilizing Pakistan and fueling the Pashtun insurgency in that country. A different argument, one the military likes to make, is closest to the truth: the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan would undermine the reputation of NATO and the international community. Against the background of a strategic defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawal from these countries will clearly demonstrate that the United States and its allies are no longer able to impose their will by force on recalcitrant states, as they have been doing unchecked since the Cold War ended.

That is probably why American, British and other NATO soldiers will continue dying in Afghanistan, along with thousands of the country’s inhabitants, about whose deaths we rarely hear. An alternative would be not to “abandon Afghanistan to its fate,” as supporters of the occupation argue, but to withdraw forces based on negotiations and a political settlement involving the Taliban and regional powers, which should put an end to the war. That is what the majority of Afghans and Americans want. But as the Washington Post believes, for that to happen in the foreseeable future political pressure on the US government will have to increase, including, sadly, pressure due to the inevitable new losses of American soldiers.

The press recently drew attention to Arne Westad, a professor of history at the London School of Economics, who became one of the first to study Soviet archives and who drew analogies between the two conflicts. “I remember interviewing a member of the presidium of the Soviet foreign ministry, who dissented from the official line,” said the professor. “He warned [the Soviets] that they needed to examine the British experience in Afghanistan and was derided. He was told: it is not the same. It was a different army. But it is [the same].”

Westad is concerned about one problem: whereas the Russians began to demonstrate a more flexible military approach after 1983, NATO and US forces appear to be slower to adapt. The main thing is that no one wants to abandon the old obsession with establishing a “modern” state having a unified, strong center. However, Afghan society is a tribal society where power has traditionally been decided by mediation, qawms— overlapping local clan structures—and any attempts to impose a “modern” state system, from those that were tried in the 1970s by the autocratic President Mohammad Daud Khan right up to the present day, have only provoked conflicts. “It is the biggest problem,” he said. “It is like trying to fit a saddle on a cow.”

We might recall the conventional adage that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” and it is now sapping the resources and morale of the West. The question arises, how much longer will the United States and NATO be able to hold out in the region? History tells us that foreign forces have never yet succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan. The difficulty of its terrain combined with the abiding desire for independence inherent in its populace have invariably nullified all attempts to create a transparent central government.

Ten years after the American invasion directed against the Taliban regime (which was in power from 1996 to 2001) that was spurred by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the high hopes for the reconstruction of Afghanistan have collapsed. The West is becoming discouraged as the Taliban insurgents rally. It is aware of its failure and is therefore increasing its calls for dialogue and negotiations with the Taliban. Everyone, including the most die-hard figures in Washington and the Pentagon, have acknowledged that the solution must be political rather than military.

The argument that a deadline is necessary in order to force President Karzai to establish a central government runs counter to experience. The country’s transparent central administration is weakened both by Karzai’s intentions, however ambiguous they were, and by the structure of the society, which has for centuries been governed through personal connections. Demands to abolish a centuries-old model within a few months by an ally who openly discusses the possibility of a quick troop withdrawal may be impossible for any leader to meet.

Afghanistan is a nation, but it is not a state in the familiar sense of the term. The Afghan government’s authority likely extends only to Kabul and its suburbs, and it is not implemented uniformly throughout the country. A number of Western experts say it would apparently be possible to establish a confederation of semi-autonomous regions primarily along ethnic lines that interact with each other by means of confidential and open agreements. The US counterinsurgency strategy—no matter how creatively it is applied—cannot change these realities.

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has not yet begun, but it has already given rise to a large number of questions and problems—and very difficult ones at that, not only for Afghanistan itself and the region, but also for the United States and NATO’s European members. Could that be the reason for the high-level reshuffle at the Pentagon and the CIA, whose new leaders will now have to deal with these very complex and intricate problems? I don’t want to be spiteful, but I would like to remind Washington politicians of an old saying: you’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it. America’s inglorious 10-year saga in Afghanistan clearly confirms that simple truth.

Source: New Eastern Outlook

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