Afghanistan Dangers for Obama presidency

Seumas Milne

The armed assault on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Lahore has been a brutal demonstration, if any more were needed, that the war on terror is devouring itself and the states that have been sucked into its slipstream. Pakistan is both victim and protagonist of the conflict in Afghanistan, its western and northern fringes devastated by a US-driven counter-insurgency campaign, its heartlands wracked by growing violence and poverty. The country shows every sign of slipping out of the control of its dysfunctional government — and even the military that has held it together for 60 years.

But the outrage also fits into a well-established pattern of attacks carried out in revenge for the army’s devastation of the tribal areas on the Afghan border, where thousands have been killed and up to half a million people forced to flee from the fighting with the Pakistani Taliban. Hostility to this onslaught has been inflamed by the recent revelation that US aerial drone attacks on supposed terrorist hideouts have in fact been launched from a base in Pakistan, with the secret connivance of president Asif Zardari, as well as across the border from Afghanistan.

Attempts to paint Pakistan’s convulsions as a conflict between moderates and extremists obscure the reality that elements of the Pakistani state are operating on both sides, whatever their nominal allegiance. Now that Pakistan faces its own blowback from the Afghan war and the Taliban it helped create, its military intelligence is trying to redirect its wayward offspring back to fight what are supposed to be Pakistan’s own US and British allies in Afghanistan on the other side of the border.

On the face of it, the situation could hardly be more bizarre. But it is only one byproduct of the systematically counterproductive nature of western policy across the wider region since 2001. After seven years of lawless invasion and occupation, the war on terror is everywhere in ruins.

The limits of US military power have been laid bare in Iraq; Iran has been transformed into the pre-eminent regional power; Hezbollah and Hamas have become the most important forces in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; a resurgent Taliban is leading an increasingly effective guerrilla war in Afghanistan; and far from terror networks, the US and its allies have spread them to Pakistan.

Barack Obama’s rise to power is a product of that record of failure: without his opposition to the Iraq war he would not be president. And since his inauguration, he has signalled potentially important shifts in US foreign policy, while ditching the rhetoric of the war on terror. Obama’s moves to open a dialogue with Syria and Iran, his apparent willingness to trade missile defence in eastern Europe for Russian support on Iran’s nuclear programme and his statement about “how the war in Iraq will end” all suggest real movement.

But although the belligerent language has gone, what is striking is the continuity, rather than the breach, with the main elements of George Bush’s war on terror. In the crucible of conflict in the Middle East, between Israel and the Palestinians, there is also little sign as yet of any substantive change in US policy: whether on lifting the continuing siege of Gaza or talking to the Palestinians’ elected representatives, let alone using US leverage to bring an end to illegal Israel colonisation of the West Bank or end its occupation.

However, it is in Afghanistan that the new US administration is on the point of compounding, rather than reversing, the failures of the war on terror. Obama has already committed himself to sending 17,000 more troops, an increase of almost 50 per cent, with the prospect of a similar number later in the year.

But there is not the remotest prospect that a “surge” of this scale — aimed at propping up a corrupt Afghan administration the US and its allies openly despise — can pacify the country or crush Taliban-led Pashtun resistance though it will surely boost the civilian death toll, running at more than 2,000 last year. It’s also not what Afghans or Americans want, according to opinion polls, and it will certainly increase the destabilisation of an already precarious Pakistan, which will be the sanctuary for even more Taliban fighters as they are harried by American occupation forces.

The grip of conservative Islamism on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is the legacy not just of George Bush,but decades of US meddling in the region, and its sponsorship of the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s in particular. What Obama has inherited from Bush’s war on terror is an arc of US and western-backed occupation from Palestine to Pakistan. If the administration’s current review of “Afpak” policy were to lead to the negotiations with the Taliban Obama has hinted at and a wind-down of the occupation, that would cut the ground from under Pakistan’s own insurgency. But if Afghanistan becomes Obama’s war, it risks poisoning his presidency — just as Vietnam did for Lyndon Johnson more than 40 years ago. —The Guardian