Sunday, September 12, 2010

The US, al-Qaeda, and Obama's Road to Ruin in Afghanistan

As Iraq steadily recedes to the lower tiers of America's collective consciousness (and the inner pages of the papers), the mess that is Afghanistan (where, as Asia Times columnist Pepe Escobar puts it, Mr. Obama is still being held hostage to George Bush's war - even if Obama is doing damn little to extricate himself, and the US) seems to be getting only worse.  Regardless of the US military's talking heads' predictable protests to the contrary, the Taliban and their affiliates have the momentum: they're getting stronger and more numerous, and the upcoming (and long-promised) big show in Kandahar has no real hope of being the decisive victory that the US desperately needs if Obama and Petraeus are to  be able to claim any real progress in the end-of-year policy review.   As the NY Times reports today, NGOs in Afghanistan are making it plain that overall security in Afghanistan is deteriorating:
Large parts of the country that were once completely safe, like most of the northern provinces, now have a substantial Taliban presence — even in areas where there are few Pashtuns, who previously were the Taliban’s only supporters. As NATO  forces poured in and shifted to the south to battle the Taliban in their stronghold, the Taliban responded with a surge of their own, greatly increasing their activities in the north and parts of the east. . . .

Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces.

The number of insurgent attacks has increased significantly; in August 2009, insurgents carried out 630 attacks. This August, they initiated at least 1,353, according to the Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office, an independent organization financed by Western governments and agencies to monitor safety for aid workers.
At the same time, in its relations and policies with Hamid Karzai's government, it's becoming more obvious by the day that the US is talking out of both sides of its mouth.  Hillary Clinton and her cohort insist that the US is adamant that Karzai eliminate corruption in his government; yet Karzai consistently continues to take actions that undermine anti-corruption investigations and prosecutions; fires ministers that try to take an anti-corruption stand; and constantly protects family members - including two of his own brothers - who are up to their neck in bribery, intimidation, you name it.  And a recent report by the WaPo's Greg Miller  -  a must-read on this score - illuminates the Catch-22 element in all of this.  The more the US works to expose corruption, the more political crises it creates for Karzai - who, regardless of the slime in which he's coated, remains the US's man in Afghanistan, one to whom the US clings doggedly even while he slips more and more out of our grasp  - - and into the embrace of the Taliban, with whom - he knows, as does virtually any other intellectually sentient being on the planet - he needs to do some kind of deal if he's to have any hope of saving himself from swinging from a lamp post when the US withdraws . . . which, he knows, it surely is going to do, if not sooner, then not much later.  And MEANWHILE, the same corrupt characters whom the US so desperately wants Karzai to shuck off (or, so its says) are on the payroll of the CIA (as reported by Dexter Filkins in the NY Times).  I mean, it's laughable, hilarious . . . except for the fact that more than 100,000 American military are laying it on the line over there, and thousands of Afghans have been caught up in this mess.

And it's largely a mess that we created - by "Boy George" W. Bush's decision to launch the fiasco that still is Iraq, rather than sticking with the Afghanistan "mission" effectively enough to perhaps reach some sort of accommodation with the Taliban while there was still a chance of that.  Too late now: the Taliban regrouped, morphing largely into an ethnic Pashtun resistance movement against the presence of US and NATO occupiers (and occupiers historically have never ever been welcome, or lasted long, in that region) and against the afore-mentioned corrupt Karzai government, itself a creature brought into being by the efforts of those occupiers, and then sustained by the occupiers' acquiescence in a ridiculously flawed election that kept Karzai in power.

And, by the way, if it isn't obvious by now: the US and its allies have no chance of  the Taliban; they didn't have a chance in 2001 (to defeat them militarily and force them out of Kabul was not the same as eliminating them), and - Petraeus/COIN or no Petraeus - they have absolutely no chance in 2010, or ever. 

No, the parallels with Vietnam (and, for that matter, the Soviet Union's disastrous 10-year adventure in Afghanistan) are not perfectly in synch - but they needn't be.  They're obvious enough, and plentiful enough - especially in how things turn out.  Communists did gain power in Vietnam after the US was forced out - but, the world as we knew it did not come to an end, and the wise men in D.C. discovered that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese who fought with them were mostly nationalists fighting against continued colonialism, not the self-appointed vanguard of a worldwide Communist take-over.  (Of course, if they had taken the time to read studies like Frances Fitzgerald's brilliant 1973 book, Fire in the Lake, they might have at least belatedly been enlightened.)  Now, of  course, Obama's stated purpose in "surging" US forces into Afghanistan (what we called "escalation" in the 1960s) is to eliminate the "threat" from al-Qaeda that the Taliban are still believed to represent.  . . .

Which makes Tony Karon's latest in Time (Nine Years After 9/11, Is Al-Qaeda's Threat Overrated?) so timely - and Pepe Escobar's essay is very worthwhile in this regard as well.  Escobar notes:
There are no more than 60 Arab al-Qaeda jihadis in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, along with a few Uzbeks, Chechens and Turks. And there are around 50 Arab al-Qaeda jihadis who have crossed the border to Afghanistan - more or less the same estimate expressed by US Central Intelligence Agency supremo Leon Panetta over two months ago.

So essentially Washington is spending tsunamis of cash to fight a bunch of Arab jihadi instructors. Worse; what the US/NATO are actually fighting is a remixed version of the anti-Soviet 1980s jihad - a liberation war against foreign invasion.

Karon notes about the al-Qaeda "threat":
 The only al-Qaeda "chapter" to gain any traction was the one that came into existence in Iraq in response to the U.S. invasion, and thrived while its presence was tolerated as a force multiplier by mainstream Sunni insurgents. But the group's ideology and propensity for vicious sectarian murder of Shi'ites turned the insurgents against them, and eventually the bulk of the insurgency turned on al-Qaeda, with many Sunni insurgents going onto the U.S. payroll under the rubric of the "Awakening" movement. (The uptick of al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq in recent months has coincided with the growing alienation of Sunnis, particularly in the "Awakening" movement, from the Shi'ite-led government. And a political solution to Iraq's political conflict will no doubt once again shut it out.)

A similar fate almost certainly awaits the movement in Afghanistan, where its erstwhile Taliban ally is fighting a nationalist campaign against foreign armies, which will inevitably end in a power-sharing political settlement. And even Taliban leaders have indicated they won't allow their territory to be used as a base to export terrorism.

If anything, hostility towards the U.S. in the Muslim world has actually escalated over the past nine years, because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Israel's conflicts with its neighbors. But al-Qaeda, ironically, remains on the margins. It's not inconceivable that bin Laden's men will get lucky again at some point in the future, but not even another major terror strike would change the basic calculus of al-Qaeda's demise.

All of which begs the question: If the alleged threat from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the reason why US troops are being killed and maimed in Afghanistan, yet there are likely no more than 100 al-Qaeda operatives in those countries (plus likely some others in the Central Asian formerly Soviet-controlled "stans"), then . . . what are we really trying achieve?  And can any real good come from it all?

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