"Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency." Those were President Obama’s confident words as he announced a major US troop surge into Afghanistan earlier this week.
The US may have entered Afghanistan to clean out what was believed to be the key haven for the international terrorist network known as al Qaeda. But in the intervening eight years, America’s main opponents in the deserts and towns of Afghanistan have been the young men of rural Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmand and so many other areas fighting not for global jihad but for independence from foreign interference. There are key differences between the war in Afghanistan and that in Vietnam — but a lack of a broad-based popular insurgency is not one of them.
Just as his predecessor George W Bush finally chose to shift from nation-building to exit strategy in Iraq, so too has Obama, who has promised to begin bringing American troops home from Afghanistan by around July 2011. Essentially, Obama’s prescriptions for Afghanistan augur more of the same. Although the US military chief in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, had requested 40,000 more soldiers, the Obama Administration’s approval of 30,000 troops — with NATO allies expected to provide a further 5000 — signals broad ongoing approval for the Pentagon’s approach to the problem.
This suggests that the US believes the only way out of Afghanistan is via a major escalation in military operations. The decision was taken in spite of the enormous financial challenge it will present to an ailing American economy still spiralling into debt. According to US government estimates, each one of the new soldiers will cost US$1 million per year — or a staggering US$30 billion in total. The US already spends US$3.6 billion per month in Afghanistan.
For the first time, US planners have hinted that they intend to leave the country. It remains unclear, however, whether this is a genuine pledge or merely an attempt to placate voters in the US and allied countries who are increasingly opposed to sending their soldiers to fight and die in a distant, alien land.
Media speculation about the significance of Obama’s Afghan troop surge announcement this week has been intense but, in spite of the huge sums of money and lives involved, there is little to suggest a major shift in policy — rather, it looks a lot like an escalation of America’s military power. This is not limited to Afghanistan.
People in neighbouring Pakistan have understandably reacted to the US troop surge with trepidation. There are very real fears that the surge will lead to increased violence along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The CIA is eager to push drone strikes into Balochistan, a larger and even more remote and restive region of Pakistan than the tribal areas where most Taliban militants are based. An extension of drone strikes to Balochistan, already highly unpopular among Pakistanis, would heavily destabilise the already troubled South Asian nation.
Although Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to be based in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, and many rank and file Afghan Taliban use the north of the province as a place to prepare for and rest from attacks inside Afghanistan, Balochistan has not hitherto been a frontline in this conflict. Extending drone strikes into the area will undoubtedly push Taliban forces deeper into Pakistan, inviting more strikes and further destabilising a country already struggling to fight a complex war within its territory.
It doesn’t help that most Pakistanis are extremely hostile to the United States and remain sceptical about the need to combat Islamist extremism within their borders. Conservative military, religious and political elements within Pakistan will find much to fuel anti-American sentiment in such a situation.
No awareness of this hostility was conveyed in Obama’s speech announcing the troop surge. In fact, the President’s rhetoric was so heavily larded with familiar mythologies that, if taken at face value, one could easily have imagined that the eight destructive years of American unilateralism were just a bad dream.
For example, the President reiterated the claim that the US is driven not by the imperial urge for conquest but instead by the impulse to spread freedom and democracy. The US, he added, has no interest in occupying Afghanistan. All the while, in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the US continues to construct massive military bases and diplomatic enclaves that suggest it intends to have a permanent presence in both countries.
The rhetoric of nation building in the Middle East has been unceremoniously dropped in favour of the development of a viable security state. But even this new goal is implausible.
In order that foreign troops may leave Afghanistan by 2011, the ill-equipped and undisciplined Afghan National Army will have to be transformed into an effective fighting force within 18 months. This will be a very difficult task — one rendered perhaps impossible by the fact that the army is heavily dominated by ethnic Tajiks with whom the Pashtun populations of the south have a fierce rivalry. Even if more Pashtuns and members of Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups are recruited into the Army, it will take significant time and resources to turn them into a force that can provide security to the country.
It is a sobering and depressing picture. There are no easy solutions. But escalating an unwinnable war is the worst option of all.
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