Doubling Down in Afghanistan

When President Barack Obama outlined his administration’s new plan for the Afghanistan war on March 27, Tom Engelhardt noted on that the new war strategy adds up to an “ambitious doubling down on just about every bet already made by Washington in these last years.”

“Almost every element of the new plan,” Engelhardt noted, seems “to involve the word ‘more’; that is, more U.S. troops, more U.S. diplomats, more civilian advisors, more American and NATO military advisors to train more Afghan troops and police, more base and outpost building, more opium-eradication operations, more aid, more money to the Pakistani military–and…all of that doesn’t even include the ‘covert war,’ fought mainly via unmanned aerial vehicles, along the Pakistani tribal borderlands,” which Obama has already expanded since he took office.

Obama may plan to do more spending, bombing and building in Afghanistan–and Pakistan, which is a decisive player in neighboring Afghanistan. But he has sharply narrowed the war’s objective–which now is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda.”

When George W. Bush used to speak of the threat that al-Qaeda posed to the U.S., he wanted to build the ideological framework for a “global war on terror” that signaled a new assertion of U.S. power worldwide. Obama’s rhetoric, in contrast, sounds more like a statement of the minimum conditions that the U.S. will accept before it pulls out of Afghanistan at some future date.

Of course, Obama isn’t considering a pullout until after he sees what happens in a much bigger fight. The current escalation, which includes 17,000 new troops and 4,000 trainers, will double the U.S. commitment of combat troops and cement the U.S. connection to an Afghan army which, at a projected size of 220,000 to 260,000 soldiers, would equal the size of France’s.

Nevertheless, in an appearance on 60 Minutes before the official announcement of the new policy, Obama acknowledged the need for an “exit strategy.” Then, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her way to the Netherlands for an international conference on Afghanistan, she confirmed weeks of rumors that the administration is abandoning the rhetorical framework of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”

The new rhetoric and the new war plan seem to mark the lowering of official estimates of U.S. power. The lowered expectations come from an awareness that the U.S. has been losing the war in Afghanistan to a rising insurgency, while its international clout has substantially diminished in the course of the decade–both because of political fallout from the “war on terror” and the growing rot in the U.S. economy revealed by the economic crisis.

The relative decline of U.S. power is especially important for a country like Afghanistan, whose fate has generally been determined by the jockeying of stronger outside powers.

The country was invented, after all, when Britain failed to conquer the region outright in the 19th century, and thus chose to establish it as a buffer state against the rival Russian empire to the north.

In the 1980s, Afghanistan became a Cold War battleground. The U.S. wore down a Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan by joining with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to shape an Afghan insurgency around a set of ruthless, religious-inspired warlords. The rise of the Taliban is the consequence of the social wreckage left behind by the great powers–and by the warlords, who finished the job of destroying the country after the great powers left in the early 1990s.

The special ambition of the Bush administration was on display when it used the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, as a pretext to invade and–as the last superpower standing–determine Afghanistan’s political future single-handedly.

The change in U.S. posture is starkly evident by comparing two United Nations conferences on Afghanistan–one that happened in Bonn in December 2001 as the U.S. was crushing the Taliban, and the one called by Hillary Clinton in The Hague this year.

In Bonn, the Bush administration told conference participants that Hamid Karzai, a handpicked U.S. puppet, would rule in Kabul under the direction of U.S. viceroy Zalmay Khalilzad, while warlords recycled from the anti-Soviet war would dominate in the countryside. The U.S. would write a new constitution, and the UN would put its blessing on an occupation force controlled by the U.S. through NATO.

Iran had supported the U.S. war effort against the Taliban, but victory in Afghanistan boosted U.S. confidence to the point that within weeks of the Bonn conference, Bush would declare that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were part of an “axis of evil.” The Afghan victory was to be a stepping-stone to future “regime changes,” especially in the oil-rich Middle East.

This spring’s UN conference in The Hague did bear one similarity to the Bonn conference–the U.S. announced its policy unilaterally before showing up to get it ratified. But after the one-day gathering, which drew participants from 80 countries, reporters strained to find any significant result. They seemed to settle on the message that Clinton intended from the beginning–that Iran was invited.

But the Hague conference was supposed to be more than a rubber stamp for U.S. policy. It was conceived as a step toward forming a “contact group,” including the Afghan government, its neighbors and the great powers.

This step represents a recognition that the U.S. can’t be the sole author of the political outcome in Afghanistan. It’s doubtful that the Hague conference was designed to produce any results beyond declarations by the “interested parties” of their opening bargaining positions in long-term negotiations over Afghanistan’s future.

The U.S. may try to bolster its bargaining power by making gains on the Afghan battlefield–and it may enter negotiations with combatants. But the Obama administration has signaled its understanding that its key partners for brokering a stable outcome are outside the country, not inside.

Unlike Bush, Obama is getting ready to make concessions to other players at the table, while trying to ensure that the U.S. still holds the strongest hand. At The Hague, for example, the U.S. promised to deal some regional contractors and suppliers, including Iranian ones, into some of the vastly expanded development projects that the U.S. plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the next five years, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Obama may have declared his minimum bargaining position–that whatever happens in the region, al-Qaeda must be neutralized. But he has not yet given up on some of the original, broader objectives of Bush’s 2001 invasion. He just hasn’t stated them.

The U.S. is indeed at war with al-Qaeda, a group that has repeatedly attacked U.S. civilians and military personnel since the early 1990s. But the fight against al-Qaeda always was, and still is, also a pretext for a couple bigger goals.

One was to establish the U.S. right to use military force to overthrow and install governments, and another was to establish a foothold in a strategic region where rivals Russia, Iran and China all have their eyes on the large untapped oil and gas reserves of Central Asia. These options–to replace troublesome regimes with compliant ones, and to establish strategic military placements–are two key “freedoms” that any U.S. administration will try to defend.

This is why the U.S. is sinking even more resources into Afghanistan and Pakistan–cementing military and civilian connections to establish the U.S. as these countries’ long-term patron.

If al-Qaeda was the only thing the administration was concerned with, it wouldn’t be hatching such elaborate plans for the region. But if the expanded war goes badly, the U.S. may be able to save face by dealing heavy blows against al-Qaeda and declaring “victory,” before it is forced to retreat from its role as an occupier.

In this light, we can see that Obama’s sharp rhetorical focus on destroying al-Qaeda allows him to keep concealing to the broader U.S. imperial aims in the region while declaring a minimal objective for victory in case that’s what he has to settle for.

There’s more, however, to Obama’s sharp focus on al-Qaeda–which dates back at least to his inaugural speech–than just a message about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The new rhetoric is calculated to mend some of the damage that Bush’s policies inflicted on the legitimacy of U.S. power around the world. When Bush announced a “war on terror” after September 11, he declared that “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” thereby creating an expansive and elastic list of “enemies” and stirring unease among current and potential collaborators with the U.S. This unease, along with an aggressive policy centered on building U.S. power in the Middle East–created widespread alienation in the Muslim world.

With his specific focus on al-Qaeda, Obama is trying to attract some friends by narrowing the list of enemies. In his January 26 interview with Al-Arabiya television, for example, and in his speech on the new Afghan policy, Obama was careful to point out that most of al-Qaeda’s victims have been Muslim.

The new approach has uses in war and diplomacy.

In war, singling out al-Qaeda could help split opposition to the U.S. This is an approach that the Bush administration had already begun to adopt, even if it didn’t shift its rhetoric. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. agreed to arm Sunni insurgents who had been fighting the U.S.–as long as they agreed to target al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Recently, U.S. and Iraqi government forces have begun to clash with some units of this “Sunni awakening” around Baghdad, a risk that was always built into a strategy of arming some U.S. opponents to fight others.

In the Afghan war, the pragmatic adaptations of the Bush administration are now becoming the doctrine–a shift that goes as far back as the 2007 counterinsurgency field manual co-authored by Gen. David Petraeus.

Following the Petraeus doctrine, Obama’s Afghan war will attempt to divide the “terrorists” from the “moderate” elements of the insurgency with promises of negotiations and offers of aid-backed jobs. In keeping with standard definitions, the “terrorists” will be those who keep fighting the foreign occupation of their country, while the “moderates” will be the ones who can be induced by the invaders to stop fighting.

Outside of war, there is a diplomatic purpose in narrowing the list of U.S. enemies to al-Qaeda and groups like it. The “hearts and minds” that the Obama administration cares most about winning don’t belong to ordinary people in Afghanistan or anywhere else. They belong to the middle classes and ruling classes of other countries, who might or might not be persuaded to go along with U.S. policies.

The years of the “war on terror” alienated these potential allies–again, especially in the Muslim world, but also in Africa and Latin America. At the same time, economic advances in Russia and China made them look increasingly attractive as partners and patrons, rather than the U.S.

The U.S. will have a hard time making up the economic ground it has lost to China, but scrapping the rhetoric of the “war on terror” seems like a cost-free way for Obama to remove a self-inflicted impediment in a propaganda war to win international influence.

Even if Obama’s new approach to foreign policy helps to rebuild the global stature of the U.S., the new plan for winning the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan still contains the basic flaws of all the previous plans.

In the first place, the plan is based on wishful thinking about why the resistance has grown. In an interview on PBS’s NewsHour, the chief architect of the Afghan-Pakistan policy review, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, revealed a twisted understanding about why Afghans have taken up arms:

The majority of people fighting for the Taliban are not fighting for [Taliban chief] Mullah Omar’s precepts. They’re fighting either because it’s a gun culture…or because they’ve been misguided to thinking we’re the latest round of foreign invaders, rather than coming in to liberate them from the Taliban.

We think that’s probably over 70 percent, according to polling. We have to find ways to give these people alternatives–jobs in the agricultural sector. Make them understand that they’ve been misled by Mullah Omar and his core leadership.

The only serious poll of Taliban fighters, however, conducted by the Toronto Globe and Mail last year, revealed that resistance fighters are not “misled” by Taliban propaganda, but took up arms because they had their own complaints against the occupiers.

Nearly one-third of those interviewed said that they had lost family members in U.S. air strikes, and half said they had lost family income because of U.S.-mandated poppy eradication. In a separate 2007 poll in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold in the south, one-quarter of respondents said they personally knew somebody who had given up a child into slavery because their family finances collapsed when their poppy crop was destroyed.

Obama’s new policy is bound to aggravate both of these grievances. Heavier fighting will lead to more civilian deaths, and the stepped-up program of poppy eradication will wipe out rural income. It is far-fetched to suppose that sending teams of Western agricultural experts, as the plan promises, could possibly replace the jobs now held in a $4 billion export industry that employs one out of seven Afghans.

The new policy is also still based on a mistaken idea that sanctuaries of militants in Pakistan are the reason that the resistance has been able to make gains against the U.S.-NATO occupiers.

The truth is just the reverse. The violence and arrogance of the U.S. war in Afghanistan–which has spilled over into Pakistan with robot plane attacks–has destabilized Pakistan by creating mass discontent among ethnic Pashtuns, a population that spans the border.

There is also a contradiction built into the new counterinsurgency plan. On the one hand, the plan recognizes that Afghan discontent has been stirred by the oppressive corruption of the Kabul regime and its warlord allies. But on the other hand, the plan to flood the countryside with development money in order to win allies for the occupation is itself a patronage scheme–a plan to systematize corruption by bribing local strongman into aligning with the occupiers.

No doubt, the scheme will be most popular among the petty warlords themselves. In the wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Afghanistan degenerated into a fragmented set of armed fiefdoms, ruled by unprincipled warlords who aligned themselves with whoever looked like a winner–first shifting to the Taliban in 1990s, then to the U.S. during the 2001-02 invasion.

Many have shifted back to the Taliban as the resistance made headway in the past two years. A flood of bribes labeled as “development aid” could win these warlords back to an alignment with the West, but renewed Western backing of such thugs–and rebranding them as “moderate” warlords–is not going to win over ordinary Afghans.

This contradiction within counterinsurgency doctrine is built into the nature of imperial occupation. Where the objective of the war is to establish a client state, imperial patronage must create a corrupt system that breeds discontent against both the occupiers and their puppet regime.

The best thing the occupiers have going for them is not their war plan, but the fact that nobody inside or outside of Afghanistan is in a position right now to force the occupiers out.

The resistance is centered in the south and east, where the majority have come to oppose the Western occupation. The Taliban still stand at the center of the armed resistance, although several different groups do exist. As Christian Science Monitor correspondent Anand Gopal pointed out in a recent interview with, the Taliban are limited in their ability to lead on a mass scale because of their religious narrowness–and especially because of their strong identification with a single ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Because of the political weaknesses of the resistance, the U.S. has time to fight a war of attrition. But because the U.S. war itself is bound to keep alienating ordinary Afghans, resistance forces can count on finding fresh recruits to keep fighting their own war of attrition against the occupiers.

Before Holbrooke took the job of special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he wrote in Foreign Affairs that the U.S. must be prepared to fight an Afghan war that runs at least as long as Vietnam–where the American war lasted 14 years. Did nobody in the Obama administration see the irony in hiring someone whose model for counterinsurgency is a prolonged war that the U.S. lost?

To be fair, however, it’s hard to see how anybody, at this late date, could come up with fresh ideas about how to run a successful colonial occupation.

David Whitehouse is a correspondent for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.