The Poisoned Pill of Obama’s War

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

The Editors

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION looked into the abyss of endless war in Afghanistan, considered all its options, pondered the consequences — and jumped. This is a war without honor, or purpose, or hope.

To sell the 30,000-troop “surge” to the increasingly skeptical American public, the government has deployed its diplomatic and military corps, along with the rhetorical powers of Barack Obama himself. The stories they tell aren’t fully consistent — like, is the administration’s time frame for ending the “surge” a commitment, a target or a politically motivated wish? — but the main point is clear enough.

President Obama has swallowed the poisoned pill of George W. Bush’s Afghanistan war, and here’s the thanks he gets: The right wing says Obama is playing to lose by sending too few troops and by setting a July 2011 date for beginning a “drawdown” of troop levels. “He never used the word ‘victory,’” sneered Rush Limbaugh in expressing his contempt for the president’s West Point speech. Similar sentiments are voiced by Republican congressional leaders. Whatever thin support they give president Obama’s troop increase will be a cynical maneuver, intended — to borrow V.I. Lenin’s phrase — “the way a rope supports a hanging man.”

For right-wing ideologues, having president Obama fight the war they began is not a bad deal. They’d prefer to hold power — which they lost, because their ruinous misadventure in Iraq and the financial meltdown brought on by their economic policies so completely discredited them — but they still have the war they want, and now they can attack Obama when he “loses” it. And make no mistake, this war will be “lost.”

Let’s look at the main claims and arguments put forward by the administration in support of the war and the decision to escalate it.

• The war is necessary: Withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces would bring the Taliban back to power and make Afghanistan a base for jihadi terrorists.

• The escalation is temporary: By July 2011 the population centers can be secured, Afghan security forces will be trained and built up, and U.S. troop levels can begin coming down.

• Other countries are stepping up: European states are sending up to 7000 additional soldiers. Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan pushes NATO partners to share the burden and responsibility.

• The Afghan government can be pressured to reform: U.S. aid will be targeted to ministries that are efficiently run and clean of corruption.

• Pakistan is key: The higher U.S./NATO troop levels will make it possible to seal the Afghan-Pakistan border, and pressure the government and military in Pakistan to seriously pursue the war against the “Pakistani Taliban” forces that supply and intermingle with the Afghan insurgency.

The Road to Disaster

All these arguments are posed in language that makes them sound like balanced, responsible, statesmanlike formulations of policy and strategy. They attempt to reassure the public that sober considerations of “United States global leadership” and above all “American values” are in play, in contrast to the ideologically driven overreach and criminal excesses (torture, lying and so on) of the Bush regime.

The reality is that the whole thing is a bloody mess, almost as divorced from reality as the neocon fantasies. The truth about massive Afghan civilian casualties is carefully hidden; the most important facts about the regimes, the region and the insurgencies are twisted for public consumption; the costs are mostly deferred or disguised, especially the hideous toll on the bodies and the emotional lives of the troops and their families.

There is a kind of logic to the war — a logic that paves the road to disaster, flowing from the first premise that withdrawal from Afghanistan now cannot be contemplated. This was the “policy option” that even the liberal media excluded from “serious” consideration. But on a realistic examination of the above-listed arguments for the war, withdrawal now is the only decent option to cut the deadly tangle — and the only alternative to sacrificing the hopes for a progressive Obama presidency on the altar of the war machine.

1. A “war of necessity” to block the Taliban and al-Qaeda? The Taliban are a primarily Pashtun-based insurgency — although basically initiated and heavily backed by Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI).

It is already clear that this war will end, whenever it does, not with the Taliban’s destruction but with their negotiated incorporation into Afghan politics. That’s a brutal prospect for Afghan women’s rights — but not worse than what they suffer today under warlord rule, civil war and occupation. And as almost everyone now understands, the “al-Qaeda” phenomenon is no longer based in Afghanistan or under one leadership, but fragmented and widely dispersed.

2. A “temporary” escalation? The U.S. military will be engaged in Afghanistan for closer to 20 years than 20 months. A few thousand NATO troops don’t change the fact that it’s the United States’ war. Its continuing presence will generate Afghan popular anger and dependence at the same time, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of the “necessity” of occupation. The more U.S. troops come, the more ordinary Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, are pushed into the Taliban camp.

3. Government “reform” and “building up Afghan security forces”? The Karzai regime’s ultimate conclusion from the election debacle must be that “fraud succeeds.” If the regime cannot survive without U.S./NATO support, neither can the U.S. strategy survive without it. Cosmetic reform may occur to soothe American public opinion, but Afghans will not be fooled. As for the Afghan “security buildup,” not only does General McChrystal admit that the goals are unrealistic, but the unacknowledged reality is that the Afghan police and military will be thoroughly riddled with informers for the insurgency — precisely because the latter is rooted in the population in spite of the Taliban’s brutality and murderous legacy.

4. “Pakistan is key”? Yes, it is, but the real consequences of the war for Pakistan are quite the opposite of what liberal war advocates like John Kerry tell us. As Adaner Usmani’s article in this issue of Against the Current makes clear, the fundamental threat to democracy and human rights there comes not from “the Pakistan Taliban” but from the Pakistani military, which is being pushed by the United States to escalate its own internal war. U.S. “pressure” enables the military in Pakistan to usurp civilian rule and destroys democratic safeguards of human rights.

Usmani’s analysis in fact highlights the fundamental lesson of the U.S./NATO war: It doesn’t “contain” a problem inside Afghanistan, but spreads like a cancer through the region and beyond. The Obama administration’s promise to pursue Middle East peace was dead even before he jetted to Oslo to pick up the Nobel Prize.

The Obama administration tragically jumped into the abyss. The antiwar resistance is being reborn — as it must, and quickly, to become a powerful mass movement before the war drags us all down.

ATC 144, January-February 2010