Whoever Wins US Election, Policy in “War on Terror” Unlikely to Change

Both the Democratic and Republican US presidential candidates have stated their intention to increase the military presence in Afghanistan should they win the election to become the country’s next Executive. As a recent article in the Washington Post observed, “The well-advertised differences between John McCain and Barack Obama on the war in Iraq may obscure a consequential similarity between their hawkish views on the use of American military force in other places.”

“Both agree,” the Post said, “on a course of action in Afghanistan that could lead to a long-term commitment of American soldiers without a clear statement of how long they might remain or what conditions would lead to their withdrawal.”

In addition, “Neither candidate has spoken explicitly about how American and NATO forces would get out of Afghanistan.”1

During the presidential debates, Senator Obama insisted that the US had a right to bomb Pakistan if it had intelligence on the whereabouts of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, while declining to explicitly state that he would not use military force against the country under other circumstances, thus leaving open the possibility that he might well continue the policy of the Bush administration, which has been to wage airstrikes and even put boots on the ground despite strong protests from both the Pakistani government and its people.

McCain disagreed with Obama’s position. He, like Obama, declined to say whether he would shift policy away from that implemented by the Bush administration, but added that he wasn’t going to “announce” positively that he would attack Pakistan. He had no real objection to doing so, it was just that he would rather it be a surprise than to “telescope” his intentions by answering in the affirmative that, yes, he too would bomb the country. And that was the only discernible difference between their positions.

U.S. allies and political analysts, meanwhile, have increasingly come to view the use of force in the region as not being a solution by itself, with some going so far as to recognize it as part of the problem. This has long been recognized — indeed, the consequences that have come to pass were predicted well in advance — by a large number of critics of US foreign policy whose views are marginalized by the corporate media, but only recently has begun find its way into the mainstream political discussion.

While both Obama and McCain have announced their intention to increase the troop presence, with McCain saying that an Iraq-style “surge” is “going to have to be employed in Afghanistan,” the US commander General David D. McKiernan has emphasized that such a policy would not end the conflict.

The so-called “surge” of troop numbers in Iraq has widely been credited with the decrease in violence there; a claim trumpeted by McCain and parroted by Obama. But the fact is that there were numerous other factors that led to progress in that regard, which occurred not because of but in spite of the “surge”.

The sectarian violence wound down after reaching its peak as the process of ethnically cleansing neighborhoods in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities became finalized. In Baghdad, walls were constructed around Shiite and Sunni communities to separate them where people of both Islamic faiths once lived peaceably as friends and neighbors.

Some Sunni groups also began turning against organizations such as Al Qaeda in Iraq that were responsible for terrorist attacks against civilians, which served to inflame the ethnic tensions. This movement of Sunni groups once engaged in armed resistance against the US military occupation shifting their focus to fighting terrorist elements, including other Sunni groups, led to many even becoming allied with US forces. These groups came to be known as “Awakening Councils” or “Sons of Iraq”, and this shift was largely responsible for helping to bring about the decrease in violence.

Other contributing factors included the decision by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his Mehdi Army to stand down and the withdrawal of foreign occupying forces from the south. As both the British commanding officer and US General David Petraeus noted, the violence in Basra plummeted as a result of the British withdrawal from the city.

And, of course, most Iraqis themselves point to the continuing US presence in Iraq as the principle causal factor in the violence.2

While both candidates announced their intention to implement a “surge”-type increase of forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McKiernen, while agreeing that he wanted more troops, said, “Afghanistan is not Iraq…. I don’t want the military to be engaging the tribes” in Afghanistan. “It wouldn’t take much to go back to a civil war,” he added, saying that engaging tribes there was necessary, but that it was the Afghan government itself that should be responsible for doing it.3

Early this month, a leaked diplomatic cable revealed that the British envoy to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, had said that “The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust.”

“The presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he observed, before going on to opine that the collapse of the Afghan government and its replacement with “an acceptable dictator” would be preferable.4, October 3, 2008.

While the British ambassador’s alternative proposal was worthy of the criticism it received, it no less negated the validity of his statement that US policy was part of the problem.

Right about the same time the leaked diplomatic cable was reported, for instance, Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said there would be no “decisive military victory” and that the current strategy was “doomed to fail”.

“We’re not going to win this war,” he said. “It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

To do that, he said, “We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations. If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.”5

In response, the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rejected the notion that the US and its allies would not “win” the war, saying there was “no reason to be defeatist”. Like the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, he suggested that “We continue to see the need for additional forces in Afghanistan.”

Yet his position differed from the candidates’ in that he also agreed with the British commander that peace negotiations with the Taliban were a “key long-term solution.” McCain has rejected the very notion of engaging in diplomacy with “enemies” of the United States. Obama, on the other hand, has expressed a willingness to sit down and talk in general terms, but has not specified that he would do so in the case of the Taliban.

“Part of the solution is strengthening the Afghan security forces,” Gates added. “Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government.”6

The British high commissioner in Islamabad, Pakistan, said that Carleton-Smith’s views were not new and echoed Gates, saying, “We are prepared to talk to good Taliban, who renounce violence and lay down their arms.”7

The Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir N. Kabulov, was once Moscow’s top KGB agent in Kabul, serving there during the Soviet military occupation of the country. “They’ve already repeated all of our mistakes,” he said of the US government and its policy in the region. “Now, they’re making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright.”

“One of our mistakes,” he suggested, “was staying, instead of leaving.”

“We abused human rights,” he acknowledged, “including the use of aggressive bombardment. Now, it’s the same, absolutely the same.” Criticizing the notion that increasing the military presence could solve the problem, he said, “The more foreign troops you have roaming the country, the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked.”8

US Army Colonel Christopher D. Kolenda, who served as a task force commander in Afghanistan, has also criticized the policy set by Washington. Writing in the Weekly Standard, he said, “Simply killing militants is not enough.”

“While building up the central government is important,” he wrote, “that effort will be in vain without a complementary effort to build systems and institutions at the local level, which can eventually be connected to the national government.”

While also favoring an increase in “international security forces”, he argued that these forces “must concentrate on protecting the population” and “reduce the friction associated with the presence of foreign forces” by working “with local leaders to promote security in villages and on roads” and “promote local solutions to local problems”.

A focus on international assistance to build Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy is needed “to develop durable systems relevant to everyday life” in order to “mitigate the real risk of a return to the warlordism that racked the country after the Soviet war.”

The same focus on helping to rebuild the country and empower tribal leaders at the local level should also be implemented in neighboring Pakistan, Kolenda argued.9

Just last week, two more British experts on counterterrorism spoke out against the US policy. Former director general of Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence agency suggested the US should “stop using the phrase ‘war on terror.’” She described the US response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 “a huge overreaction”, saying that its “war on terror” had “got us off on the wrong foot because it made people think terrorism was something you could deal with by force of arms primarily.”

Ken Macdonald, a top prosecutor for England and Wales who has overseen terrorism trials rejected “the Guantanamo model” applied by the US, in which detainees in the “war on terror” are denied their rights. “Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model,” he said. “You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats. Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them.”10

The Afghan government itself, under President Hamid Karzai, has also taken a more conciliatory approach. A month ago, he told reporters, “A few days ago I called upon their [the Taliban’s] leader, Mullah Omar, and said, ‘My brother, my dear, come back to your homeland, come and work for the peace and good of your people and stop killing your brothers.”11

Talks have reportedly taken place between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban, with Saudi Arabia acting as intermediary, though both parties have denied this.12 The denials may be technically accurate. The Reuters news agency reported that the talks were held in Saudi Arabia between “a group of pro-government Afghan officials and former Taliban officials.”13

The Taliban have said that they will not accept talks unless occupying forces leave the country. Karzai acknowledged, however, that he had asked the Saudi king to use his influence to help bring peace to Afghanistan. Prior to 9/11, Saudi Arabia was the Taliban’s second most important benefactor after Pakistan, and one of only three countries to officially recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Afghan political and tribal leaders also met this week with their Pakistani counterparts to discuss how to bring an end to the ongoing conflict in both their countries. Former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Ayaz Wazir criticized any approach that rejected the logic of entering negotiations. “If you say you will talk only if they lay down arms then what’s the point in talking?” he asked. “The trouble is, they are not laying down their arms and you have to talk to them to convince them to lay down arms.”14

The US-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan has increasingly come under criticism for the deaths of civilians, such as an August 22 attack against the village of Azizabad in Herat Province. Afghan officials and United Nations investigators said the evidence pointed to the deaths of 90 or more civilians, mostly women and children. The Department of Defense first denied the claim, stating that as many as 30 militants had been killed, acknowledging the deaths of only five to seven civilians. Later, when images taken by villagers’ cell phones emerged showing the bodies of dozens of victims laying where they had been gathered on the floor of a building that served as the local mosque, the Pentagon was forced to change its estimate, but still only acknowledged 30 civilian deaths – the very minimum it could claim and still maintain even the least amount of credibility since that was about the number whose corpses were shown in the cell phone images.15

Another attack earlier this month in Helmand Province killed 25 to 30 civilians, most of whom were women and children, according to Afghan accounts.16 Another recent attack that resulted in the deaths of nine Afghan Army soldiers was called a case of “mistaken identify”.17

Some Afghan soldiers and police have grown so disillusioned with the increasing numbers of civilian deaths and ineffectiveness of the government to establish law and order that they have begun to defect to join the Taliban, seeking to expel the U.S. forces from their country. “Our soil is occupied by Americans and I want them to leave this country,” said Sulieman Ameri, who just a month before had served with police forces. “That is my only goal.” 16 other men that had been under his leadership joined him in switching sides to fight the occupying forces.

Another new recruit, Fida Mohammed, told Al Jazeera, “When Russia came it was only one country. Today we have 24 foreign infidel countries on our soil. All our men and women should come and join the jihad.”

The defectors had received training from the US or by the private military contractor Blackwater, and some still held certificates showing their completion of the training.18

Another who has turned against the occupying forces is the former mayor of Heart province, Ghullam Yahya Akbari, who says he now has bases training fighters. He’s grown so disillusioned with the Afghan government the foreign occupation that he says he’d also turn against the Taliban if they were to engage in talks with Karzai. “I do not believe that Mullah Omar [the Taliban leader] would do that, but if they sit with the Afghan government and negotiate then for us they will be like all the other members of the government and we’ll continue our jihad,” he said.19

Similarly, locals in Logar Province, have grown frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the Afghan government to establish law and end the thievery of bandits. “So people turned to the Taliban,” explained Abdel Qabir, a local resident. “They may not provide jobs, but at least they share the same culture and brought security.” The Taliban have rid the area of crime and established their own government with police chiefs, judges, and education committees.20

And it’s not just the outlying provinces. Crime has gotten so rampant in the capital of Kabul itself, and the perception of corruption within the government so great, the Washington Post reported last month, that “It is making some Afghans nostalgic for the low-crime days before 2001, when the Taliban ruled most of the country.”

Nader Nadery, an official at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told the Post, “The government is weak, and it has an enormously high level of tolerance for crime, abuse and corruption. If you have power and money, you don’t have to account for your actions. Instead of rule of law, there is a state of impunity, which is one of the factors contributing to the growth of the Taliban.”

Another Afghan, Mohammed Hussain, who had recently been attacked while driving a passenger bus, said, “In the Taliban time, the roads were totally safe. You could drive anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day. Now, you take your life in your hands every time you leave on a trip.”21

Many critics of the US “war on terror”, though marginalized by the government and media, opposed the US actions in Afghanistan from the beginning and predicted in advance the consequences that have now led to criticism from an increasing number of analysts and government and military officials even within the political mainstream.

After 9/11, the Taliban said it would negotiate the handing over of Osama bin Laden if the US would share the evidence it claimed it had that he was responsible for the attacks. The Bush administration rejected diplomacy, however, and preferred to use military force. Critics argued that war would only bring more violence and more innocent deaths; and, indeed, more Afghan civilians were estimated to have been killed during the first several months of the U.S. campaign than had been killed in the attacks on 9/11. And, of course, the US never did capture Osama bin Laden.

Terrorist leaders have been captured, but not through the use of military force. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 plot, was arrested by Pakistani intelligence and handed over to the US.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, regarded early in the investigation into 9/11 as the money-man behind the plot and infamous for his alleged role in the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, was similarly arrested by Pakistani police.

It was not military action, but police work, that resulted in the capture of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef in Pakistan in 1995. Yousef was one of the planners of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a mastermind of the foiled Bojinka plot to hijack airliners and fly them into targets including the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, Barnett R. Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation and renowned Pakistani expert on the region Ahmed Rashid explain in the current issue how, “The crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan are beyond the point where more troops will help.”

They note that U.S. military action in Afghanistan served to push the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership into Pakistan, which has been increasingly destabilized as a result. “For years,” they acknowledge, “critics of U.S. and NATO strategies have been warning that the region was headed in this direction.”

They criticize the Bush administration’s “Cross-border attacks into Pakistan”, which they state “will not provide security”, but serve rather only to further stir up the region and threaten to spread the conflict “even to other continents — as on 9/11 — or lead to the collapse of a nuclear-armed state” (referring to Pakistan). U.S. reliance on air strikes, they observe, “cause civilian casualties that recruit fighters and supporters to the insurgency.”

So patently counter-productive and “irrational” has been the US policy in the region that “Many Afghans believe that Washington secretly supports the Taliban as a way to keep a war going to justify a troop presence that is actually aimed at securing the energy resources of Central Asia and countering China.”

Moreover, “the concept of ‘pressuring’ Pakistan is flawed”, they argue, because “No state can be successfully pressured into acts it considers suicidal.” The Pakistani people and their government view the US “war on terror” as being opposed to their own interests and serving only to generate further militancy and terrorism within their own borders.

“U.S. diplomacy has been paralyzed by the rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’” that “thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogeneous ‘terrorist’ enemy. Only a political and diplomatic initiative that distinguishes political opponents of the United States — including violent ones — from global terrorists such as al Qaeda can reduce the threat faced by the Afghan and Pakistani states and secure the rest of the international community from the international terrorist groups based there.”

Furthermore, to make negotiations possible between the Afghan government and the Taliban, “the United States would have to alter its detention policy. Senior officials of the Afghan government say that at least through 2004 they repeatedly received overtures from senior Taliban leaders but that they could never guarantee that these leaders would not be captured by US forces and detained at Guantanamo Bay or the U.S. air force base at Bagram, in Afghanistan.”

In conclusion, they write that “The goal of the next US president must be to put aside the past, Washington’s keenness for ‘victory’ as the solution to all problems, and the United States’ reluctance to involve competitors, opponents, or enemies in diplomacy.”

But to date, neither candidate for president has expressed their recognition of these facts on the ground in the region, and there is little indication that US policy in the “war on terror” is likely to be significantly altered from its present course under either a McCain or an Obama administration.

  1. Robert G. Kaiser, “Iraq Aside, Nominees Have Like Views on Use of Force,Washington Post, October 27, 2008; Page A04. []
  2. Karen DeYoung, “All Iraqi Groups Blame U.S. Invasion for Discord, Study Shows,” Washington Post, December 19, 2007; Page A14. []
  3. Ann Scott Tyson, “Commander in Afghanistan Wants More Troops,” Washington Post, October 2, 2008; Page A19. []
  4. Elaine Sciolino, “Afghan ‘Dictator’ Proposed in Leaked Cable,” New York Times []
  5. Christina Lamb, “War on Taliban cannot be won, says army chief,” Sunday Times, October 5, 2008. []
  6. “Gates rejects defeatism in Afghanistan”, The News (Pakistan), October 8, 2008; Richard Halloran, “US teeters on the edge of swamp of uncertainty in Afghanistan,” Taipei Times, October 14, 2008. []
  7. Muhammad Saleh Zaafir, “US, UK agree on settlement with Taliban: British HC,” The News (Pakistan), October 1, 2008; “US, UK agree on settlement with Taliban,” Press TV (Iran), October 11, 2008. []
  8. John F. Burns, “An Old Afghanistan Hand Offers Lessons of the Past,” New York Times, October 19, 2008. []
  9. Christopher D. Kolenda, “How to Win in Afghanistan: It’s time to adjust the strategy,” Weekly Standard, October 13, 2008; Volume 014, Issue 05. []
  10. Raymond Bonner, “2 British Antiterror Experts Say U.S. Takes Wrong Path,” New York Times, October 21, 2008. []
  11. Taliban chief offers safe exist to allied forces: Karzai seeks Saudi help for talks with Mullah Omar,” Daily Times (Pakistan), October 1, 2008. []
  12. Nic Robertson, “Source: Saudi hosts Afghan peace talks with Taliban reps,” CNN, October 5, 2008. []
  13. Pakistani and Afghan Elders to Meet to Ponder Violence,” Reuters, October 26, 2008. []
  14. Reuters, October 26, 2008. []
  15. Eric Schmitt, “30 Civilians Died in Afghan Raid, U.S. Inquiry Finds,” New York Times, October 7, 2008. []
  16. John F. Burns, “Afghans’ Toll Shakes Generals,” New York Times, October 18, 2008. []
  17. Abdul Waheed Wafa and Carlotta Gall, “‘Mistaken Identity’ Cited in 9 Afghan Deaths,” New York Times, October 22, 2008. []
  18. Defections hit Afghan forces”, Al Jazeera, October 15, 2008. []
  19. Afghan mayor turns Taliban leader,” Al Jazeera, October 17, 2008. []
  20. Anand Gopal, “Some Afghans live under Taliban rule — and prefer it,” Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 2008. []
  21. Pamela Constable, “As Crime Increases in Kabul, So Does Nostalgia for Taliban,” Washington Post, September 25, 2008; Page A13. []

Jeremy R. Hammond is the editor of Foreign Policy Journal, a website providing news, analysis, and opinion from outside the standard framework provided by government officials and the corporate media. He was among the recipients of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and is the author of The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination. You can contact him at: jeremy@foreignpolicyjournal.com. Read other articles by Jeremy, or visit Jeremy's website.

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  1. John Hatch said on October 30th, 2008 at 3:55pm #

    Good article. Same old story- set up a corrupt and bogus government and pretend it’s a democracy. Bomb with abandon, and don’t worry about killing civilians, just lie when you do. Incarcerate anyone you like, including children, or the relatives of ‘wanted’ people. Use torture all you want, while spewing platitudes about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Don’t rebuild anything, and make sure most of the money for non-rebuilding goes to corrupt cronies. Wonder why you’re not ‘winning’ and why you are so despised by civilized nations.