Afghanistan: The End Game?

This article was published at History News Network (George Mason University) on June 26, 2011.

When the president of the United States makes a long-awaited statement about matters of war and peace, it is an important moment. President Barack Obama’s announcement on June 22 that he plans to bring 33000 American troops home from Afghanistan in the next fifteen months is another milestone in a long war that is reminiscent of the 1980s, and the Soviet experience in that country at great cost. In February 1986, barely a year after coming to power, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described Afghanistan as a “bleeding wound” – a legacy of the preceding Kremlin leadership that took the fateful decision to invade that country in December 1979. In Obama’s words, “we have learned anew the profound cost of war.” Nearly 4500 Americans have paid with their lives in Iraq, some 1500 in Afghanistan, and a trillion dollars have been spent on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.

It is beyond doubt that policymakers of the first Bush administration (2001–2005), full of hubris and fascination with the “long war,” overstretched the United States. Those errors and the costs they incurred have sapped the will and resources of America and its allies. The full-blown crisis that struck the United States economy, with dire consequences for others, had much to do with America’s long war, even though the banks can hardly escape their share of responsibility for the economic system’s failure. According to the defense and intelligence consultancy STRATFOR, supplying a single gallon of petrol in Afghanistan costs an average of 400 dollars to the U.S. military and sustaining one soldier around a million dollars. With less than eighteen months to go before the November 2012 election, Obama’s primary concern must be the American economy, which shows little sign of improvement.

Obama’s announcement is not without significance, but nor should its significance be exaggerated. His record on the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, trial by military tribunals, torture and extrajudicial killings, drone attacks and other matters of civil liberties inside and outside the United States is mixed. In light of that record, his mind could change anytime between now and November 2012. For those who admired and supported the old-style Soviet regime, Mikhail Gorbachev is an anathema, because his name will forever be associated with the demise of the Soviet state. Gorbachev’s supporters inside the ex-Soviet Union cannot be more than a tiny number. Obama, the leader of the other colossus, still fights for his political career and eventual legacy. However, by now it is clear that President Obama’s actions are not determined by high principles and consistency. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, staked everything to make the Soviet Union a liberal, open and reformed society.

President Obama’s announcement of his drawdown plan between now and summer 2012 is driven by pressing economic needs, as well as political expediency. The total of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan was around 140000 strong at the beginning of June 2011. Even if the withdrawal was completed as planned, the remaining American forces would be around 68000, about the same as before Obama’s “surge,” and foreign troops in excess of 100000 strong. President Obama’s reelection campaign has just got underway. A formidable coalition has emerged in the U.S. Congress advocating a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, encouraged by opinion polls showing strong support to bring the war to an end.

However, these forces are confronted by the ever powerful military-industrial complex and the Pentagon hierarchy that feel threatened by significant reductions in what they do. Their opposition to Obama’s plan is hardly surprising, nor is it likely that the pressure on the president would cease during this timetable and beyond.

The supreme irony with Obama’s surge is that 2010 was still the bloodiest year on the Afghanistan-Pakistan front and the level of violence shows no sign of abating. A decade of war and the costs thereof seem to have caused a breach between America’s military lobby and at least some of the political establishment. The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces has strengthened President Obama’s “war credentials.” The president can now talk about peace. Only a few days ago, President Karzai of Afghanistan and the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, probably for different reasons, spoke of talks with the Taliban.

What Washington says London often repeats. Consistent with that pattern, the British Foreign Secretary William Haig proclaimed that his government was also talking with the Taliban. The mainstream media in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, ever hungry for their 24-hour news operations, portrayed those statements as a “disclosure.” The truth about direct and indirect contacts with the Taliban is that there is nothing new in them. The biggest problem for the United States remains persuading the Taliban to stop fighting, possibly accept a role of some sort, and let American military bases with thousands of “non-combatant” troops stay in Afghanistan. Is it possible? That is a million dollar question. 

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Ayman Al-Zawahiri the New Al Qaeda Leader

I was asked in a recent interview with Chuck Mertz (June 4, 2011) about reports in the United States that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen of Yemeni descent and thought to be living in Yemen, is the new al Qaeda leader after the killing of Osama bin Laden. I thought the speculation was somewhat off the mark and I said the two men were very different. In al-Awlaki, some in the American media were dealing with a simplistic image they thought they were familiar with.

Today, the BBC reports, quoting an Islamist website, that the successor to bin Laden is his deputy and mentor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. In any case, Anwar al-Awlaki is too new, too young at just 40, to be accepted in such a position. Al-Zawahiri, a veteran of the Afghan war in the 1980s against the Soviet Union with a history going well before, and seen as bin Laden’s deputy for years, would make more sense. Al-Zawahiri is thought to be living somewhere in Pakistan, probably in the Northwestern tribal region. But after bin Laden’s discovery near Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in a military garrison town, the exact whereabouts of any al Qaeda or Afghan Taliban leader cannot be predicted with certainty.

On US policy in the Middle East

A conversation with Kourosh Ziabari, Veterans Today, June 6, 2011

Kourosh Ziabari: Do you consider the chained, continuous revolutions in the Arab world a result of pan-Arabist, nationalistic sentiments of the peoples of region who rose up? Well, the dictatorial regimes of the region have been ruling for so many decades, but the people in these countries revolted against them quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Has the economic factor been the main contributor to the emergence of Middle East revolutions? Was it all about paying a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi that turned violent and became a set of revolutions?

Deepak Tripathi: You have raised an important question. The answer is somewhat complex. Of course, from Libya to Bahrain there are similarities on the surface: repressive regimes, closed societies, ruling cliques imposing their will on the masses. Then there is the Orientalist syndrome in the West that Edward Said depicted so brilliantly in his book “Orientalism.” It is the tendency to lump all Muslims and other people in the East into one basket, and seeing them as exotic, but inferior, people who must be educated in western ways, and exploited. This is where lies the basic mistake, and it has proved disastrous.

The recent uprisings across the Arab world display two different currents. The bigger picture is that of people rising against pro-United States dictators, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain. On the other hand, we see Libya and Syria, which are not pro-US. Many in the populations of these countries are fed up and can take no more. They want to breath fresh air. Now, in an ideal world the people of each country should be allowed to choose their own destiny without outside interference, but that is not the case in the real world. Western interference is a major cause of resentment in many countries in the region.

Having said this, I believe each popular uprising has its roots in local conditions and causes. In Egypt, it was a people’s revolution, of men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian. They succeeded in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak and his party, but the future is by no means certain; the United States, with allies, continues its interference. America has considerable power because of the huge aid it gives to the Egyptian military every year. So we will have to see what transpires in Egypt. Tunisia, which started all this, is the same – how do long-oppressed people ensure that the system changes to their liking, not just a few faces? In other places, too, things are far from certain. In Bahrain, where the pro-US Sunni ruling family, representing one-third of the population at most, is engaged in the brutal suppression of Shi‘a majority – nearly two-thirds of the population. In Bahrain, it is oil that drives Western policy of support for the ruling family; in Libya, too, oil drives policy, but there Britain, France and Italy, and to lesser extent the Obama administration in the United States, are supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces, because Gaddafi is too independent, too unpredictable. InSyria, oil is not a factor – perhaps one of the reasons why the Western response has so far been limited to condemnations and warnings. And the Yemeni president is America’s surrogate; Yemen is vital for the security of Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest ally after Israel and the most reliable oil supplier.

The last part of your question concerns the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, street vendor who set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt police. Bouazizi certainly touched million and millions of people right across the region, because they could easily identify with his harassment and humiliation.

KZ: As you may admit, Bahrain has one of the blackest human rights records in the Persian Gulf region. Its longstanding tradition of suppressing the Shiites, persecuting the bloggers and journalists, incarcerating and torturing the political activists attest to the fact that despite being a close ally of the United States, Bahrain is not a democratic country based on American-championed values. Why does the United States support such a repressive regime? Does the United States consider Bahrain a proxy to confront the hegemony of Iran in the region?

DT: Countering Iran is certainly the major factor behind US support for Bahrain, and explains the muted references from Washington to the brutality of Bahraini security forces – and let’s not forget many are foreign soldiers – and more recently Saudi forces who have entered the Emirate. The tactics used against peaceful demonstrators in Bahrainin recent weeks and months are some of the worst kind. How many countries are there in which hospitals are raided by security police and doctors treating wounded people are threatened?

As you know, Bahrain is a member of the Gulf cooperation Council, dominated by Saudi Arabia, and is there to prevent Iranian and Shiite influence spreading in the region. Bahrainis also the base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is so important for America’s strategy in the Gulf and the Middle East at large.

KZ: Do you agree with a military intervention in Libya? We already know that the Gaddafi regime, before the authorization of no-fly zone over Libya by the Security Council, had massacred scores of unarmed and innocent civilians in air-strikes on different cities of the country. Is a NATO-led military expedition necessary to preclude the killing of civilians? What’s your prediction for the future of the civil war which is taking place in Libya?

DT: The Gaddafi regime, no doubt, has been repressive over the last forty years, and I am very critical of its human rights record. It is Britain, France, Italy and the United States that have been swinging like a large pendulum: vehemently opposed to Gaddafi for decades, then friends with Gaddafi, and now enemies again.

I have several misgivings about the NATO military operation inLibya. My first and most serious objection is that NATO has gone far beyond the remit approved in the UN Security Council 1973, which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, excluding foreign occupation forces on any part of the territory of Libya. Legal scholars have pointed out that “all necessary measures” means starting with peaceful means to resolve what seems to be a tribal civil war between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. In this respect, Libya is quite different from Egypt, where tens of millions of people from all sections of society rebelled against the Mubarak regime. Second, NATO military planes are now hitting government targets far from opposition-controlled areas. Tripoli and Gaddafi’s own compound have been bombed. This was not envisaged in the Security Council Resolution 1973. Regime change was not part of it. I think these are serious violations of the UN authorization. Third, NATO aircraft are now operating as if they were the air force of the anti-Gaddafi forces; British, French and Italian ‘military advisers’ have been deployed in Libya; and there is talk of sending troops. This is taking sides, and goes beyond protecting civilians. Worst of all, we now have confirmed reports that NATO planes are bombing and killing people on their own side, the anti-Gaddafi side; collateral damage in Western euphemism. Fourth, and this is very serious, the West is being highly selective in picking on an oil-rich country for military action, while its friends, Bahrain and Yemen, willfully repress their populations. I fear we will see a long war in Libya.

KZ: Many political commentators believe that whoever assumes power in Egypt following the establishment of new constitution and formation of new government will be less friendly to Israel than the regime of Hosni Mubarak was. The same analysts believe that the new government in Egypt will be necessarily less hostile to Iran compared with the Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Do you agree with them? What’s your take on that?

DT: The climate in the Middle East has undergone a dramatic change following the Egyptian Revolution. Its effects go far beyond Egypt’s borders, and these effects will be long term. The people of Egypt and beyond yearn for democracy, human rights and dignity, but they are not going to be blind supporters of American policy. There will be all kinds of pressures, warnings, threats against the Egyptian military from the West that would like to indirectly control the peoples of the region. I hope that the military does not give in to these American-Israeli tactics. I believe that the ‘new Egypt’ – if it is allowed to choose its future path – will lead to a new climate that will mean better relations with Iran, Palestinians, and will be a force for good overall.

KZ: Answering to a question regarding the recent air-strikes on Libya, the White House spokesman Jay Carney said that it is not a U.S. policy to bring about regime change in Libya. It’s already clear to the international community that Gaddafi is a merciless terrorist. He massacred more than 6,500 citizens during the first three weeks of civil war in Libya. Why don’t the United States and its allies want to take action to change the regime of Gaddafi while they did the same with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan in a situation that they didn’t have any compelling excuse to do so? Is it all about American and European interests in Libya’s oil sector which is guaranteed by the Gaddafi regime?

DT: I have elaborated on the lack of consistency in Western policy, and the real factors behind Western and allied actions showing blatant disregard for universal human rights. Their actions amount to double standards wherever it suits them. They are not about democracy and human rights at all. Look at the reign of terror and torture under the ‘war on terror’ that President George W Bush waged, and that President Obama continues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

KZ:Saudi Arabia was among the Arab countries which was somewhat encompassed by the wave of 2010-2011 protests of the Middle East and North Africa; however, it seems that strangulation and oppression, implicitly endorsed by the United States, is so intense that the people don’t have enough backbone and courage to rise up against the government and demand fundamental changes and reformations in the political structure of their country. Will the United States, as the most strategic partner of Saudi Arabia, allow the implementation of sociopolitical reforms in the structure the Saudi government? Will the sporadic movements of the Saudi people bear fruit?

DT: Saudi Arabia is a closed society, in many ways that theSoviet Union was before 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. It took just six years for the Soviet state to collapse after the USSR began to open up. Communication and free movement are very difficult, if not impossible for the ordinary citizen, in such societies; and news of unrest does not readily reach the world. We know that Saudi citizens nevertheless do find ways to express their opposition, but they are crushed with brute force. Remember, Saudi Arabia’s security forces are among the best equipped in the Middle East, supplied by the Americans. They use these means to coerce their population. Despite all this, social discontent simmers under the surface. Failure to open up Saudi society and give the people their basic rights could have serious consequences.

KZ: Do you agree with the idea that the Middle East revolutions, specially the popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, will be of Iran’s interests? Does the destabilization of U.S.-backed Arab regimes in the region empower Iran politically, strategically?

DT: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I subscribe, a revolution in the political context is “forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Uprising is an “act of resistance or rebellion” to achieve that end. It is important not to confuse the meaning of the two terms. In the late twentieth century, what happened in 1979 in Iran was a revolution; and between 1989 and 1991 there were revolutions in what was then the Soviet bloc. In the new century in recent months, Egypth as had a revolution, in the sense that a dictator and his ruling party that had a monopoly over power, have fallen. What replaces it is not certain yet. We will have to see until after the elections at least.

Bahrain,Yemen, Jordan, Syria, perhaps Libya, are all experiencing rebellions of one kind or another. How it all ends in each case – we will have to wait and see. As of now, the ruling structures in these countries are shaking; they may be collapsing; but they are still there. Equally important, what impact does it all have on the Palestinian struggle will have to be seen.

In the wider geopolitical context, these events do indicate that the United States is losing its grip over the region. In fact, America had been losing its grip for some years. It is just that the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and America’s militaristic foreign policy may have given the opposite appearance to those who fail to look beyond the immediate.

If the people of each country can decide how their country should be run, it would be a good thing. I find the idea that a big power far and away can dictate to others anywhere most objectionable. And I don’t see the events in West Asia as a victory for one country or another. The tide of history is going in its own inevitable direction, popular movements are making huge waves and contributing to that tide of history. The final outcome is not yet certain, so the struggle will need to go on.

KZ: What will be the implications of the Middle East revolutions for the Israeli regime? Will Israel suffer from the change of government in Egypt and the fundamental political reforms which are going to happen in Jordan?

DT: I have alluded to these matters in my previous replies. I will summarize my answer here.  What is happening in the Middle East at present is going to limit Israel’s scope for arbitrary conduct. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypth as been a huge setback to Israel, because frankly Mubarak was acting like an American and Israeli surrogate to continue the occupation of Palestinian territories, and in the broader interests of Western policy in the Middle East. In Jordan, as elsewhere, change looks inevitable, though I hesitate to predict what form it will take. I think it is never a good idea to underestimate the big players’ capacity for manipulation and deceit. In a sense, the West learned the lesson very quickly in Egypt, where it was slow to act during the anti-Mubarak protests. Eventually it dumped Mubarak when it realized he was a too big a liability to carry, and then picked Libya and Syria to reestablish its pro-democracy credentials. The West, in the guise of NATO, has switched to a pro-democracy posture by siding with the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya and with the opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But that makes Western policy in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemeneven more inconsistent, if not hypocritical.

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