I turned on the television Friday, March 27, 2009. It was tuned to C-SPAN. Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan was being televised. Listening only to the words of his introductory comments and ignoring the person who was speaking them, I could have been listening to George Bush. The same old catchphrases appeared: 9-11, terrorism, Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda, terrorism, 9-11. A few new words were added. Pakistan and diplomacy were two of them. Yet, the idea behind the supposedly new Obama plan was the same. Washington and its NATO cohorts will stay in Afghanistan until the world is safe from Al-Qaeda. Left unsaid by Obama, just like it was unsaid by George Bush, is the reality that foreign troops killing Afghans and Pakistanis has done very little to end the supposed threat from Al-Qaeda. The proof lies in the fact that foreign troops are still in Afghanistan under the impression that destroying Al-Qaeda is why they are there.
The idea that a stateless organization such as Al-Qaeda can be defeated by occupying those regions of the world where it is supposedly headquartered seems foolish. The idea that killing people who live in those regions will further the first idea is equally foolish, of questionable strategic sense, and morally wrong. The predominant argument given by George Bush when US forces attacked Afghanistan in 2001 was that the Taliban government provided a haven to Al-Qaeda. Therefore, the entire nation of Afghanistan and its people deserved whatever death Washington rained down on them. This simplistic logic never allowed for the fact that it was quite likely that many Afghans did not support the Taliban. Nor did it acknowledge the obvious question of how bombing villages and cities would cause the capture of the Al-Qaeda leadership. Furthermore, the plan to launch an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by belligerent foreign forces ignored the resentment such an action would bring.
Now, seven and a half years later, the occupying troops and Afghan people live with the results of Washington’s response. Occupying troops get killed regularly by villagers, Afghan policemen, Taliban forces, and Afghans aligned with other militias. Afghans face a daily struggle negotiating the ins and outs of life in an occupied country where any element of the armed forces around them–occupying troops, mercenaries, Taliban, members of the US-installed Afghan security forces, or criminals–can make their lives even more miserable. On top of this, the majority of Afghans live in impoverished conditions made worse by years of war. Given these conditions, it is no surprise that Afghan militias opposed to the occupiers are gaining ground. They provide security to ordinary Afghans while appealing to their desire to see the occupying troops leave. It’s not that Afghans necessarily accept the fundamentalist doctrines of these militias (Taliban and others) as much as it is that they share a common understanding as Afghans. A somewhat appropriate metaphor regarding Afghans’ support of these militias might be found in the situation vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza. Many Palestinians do not support Hamas’ religious agenda, but see them as the only political organization that shares their desire to end the Israeli domination of Palestine and is willing to fight for that end. Obviously, there are great differences between the two sets of circumstances, but I believe the analogy holds up in a very basic way.
Likewise, the people in the so-called tribal regions of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) resent the presence of foreign troops and unmanned rockets in their neighborhood. Consequently, they have opposed their presence, often with armed force. In addition, they have decided to align themselves with the Taliban and others in the region that oppose the foreign presence as well. Unlike Afghanistan, where the Karzai government in Kabul serves at the pleasure of Washington, the government in Islamabad has occasionally been more vocal than Mr. Karzai (who has expressed his own displeasure on occasion) in its opposition to the US forays across its border into the NWFP. This has not prevented Washington from launching its unmanned rockets into the region, but it may have prevented more helicopter and ground forays like the one in fall 2008. It remains safe to assume, however, that the Pakistani government will accede to Obama’s plans for the region and allow US forces to operate when and where they want to.
According to Obama, “Washington has a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Now, Al-Qaeda may or may not be planning to attack targets in the United States, like Mr. Obama claimed in his speech. The fact that this possibility continues to be used as justification for not only occupying Afghanistan, but for escalating the military operation there (and expanding it deeper into Pakistan), proves the fallacy of this strategy, if the true intent is what Obama says it is. No matter how much Mr. Obama and his advisors wish it to be otherwise, continuing the current strategy of occupation and escalation will not cause those Afghans opposed to the presence of US troops to end their opposition. Therefore, it is unlikely to cause the end of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, no matter how badly many of us wish that it would. The likelihood that Washington’s strategy will not accomplish the goals elucidated by Mr. Obama (and by George Bush in 2001) points to the possibility that those goals are not the true intention of Washington in the region. Could it be that the goals Mr. Obama explicitly denied (and I quote) — “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future” — are the true ones? Only then does his escalation of the battle there begin to make sense.