Barack Obama’s decision to send a further 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, coupled with a (conditional) commitment to begin withdrawing troops in 18 months’ time (a political concession to Democrats and an increasingly war-weary American public) has been described as a “gamble”. That puts it charitably.
The US’s strategy for Afghanistan — a massive overall increase of NATO forces, including an extra 500 British troops — has some of the elements of the 2007 military “surge” in Iraq. That was about damping down conflict long enough allow the building up of the local army and police and the bodging together of a political settlement.
The Iraq surge ended with something like what the US ruling class wanted. In fact, before the “surge” started, a section of the Sunni “resistance” had become war-weary, discontented with Al Qaida, and willing to ally with the USA in the hope that the US would act as arbiter for them against the Shia majority. The different sectarian militias fought each other to a standstill. None could win outright. They subsided.
At any rate, since late 2007 there has been increased stability in Iraq — at the cost, for the people of Iraq, of authoritarian government, corruption, and continuing lower-level sectarian violence.
In late 2008, the US had to retreat on its demands for a deal which would have made the US military an effective parallel government in Iraq for the indefinite future, and sign the text under which it had to withdraw its troops from Iraq’s cities in June this year.
The US ruling class is not happy with Iraq’s course today. But at least it offers the US some prospect of extricating itself, over time (US is due to withdraw in August 2011), without catastrophe. By now, the US asks for no more than that in Afghanistan. Can’t it get it through the “surge”? Not likely!
Why not? The central reason is that the Taliban can withdraw to Pakistan, or maybe other parts of Afghanistan, whenever the US tries to “secure” an area in the southern, Taliban-dominated, part of Afghanistan. Then, unless the US can develop workable Afghan central administration willing to collaborate with the US and stand up against the Taliban — it has been trying to do that for eight years, and failed — the US only has two options in each area. It can stay and try to impose US military rule on the local population, stirring up resentment, and tying down vast numbers of troops indefinitely. Or it can withdraw and see the Taliban return.
• The troop increase, coming so soon after August’s fraudulent presidential vote, will only further undermine the shabby political structures set up in the wake of the 2001 invasion.
• Obama says he wants to avoid the high civilian casualties from US bombing which have pushed so many people in Afghanistan into supporting or tolerating the Taliban (of course, the Taliban are hated and feared too). How? The US will now have about as many troops in Afghanistan as the USSR deployed during its brutal 10 year occupation. How can the USA, with arguably even less solid Afghan allies than the USSR had, succeed without heavy bombing, sure to bring civilian casualties?
• The insurgents in Afghanistan are not just Taliban or jihadist “hardliners” but also power brokers in Afghan’s tribal society — people in the Pashtun population. It is a Taliban-tribal nexus which is organising the conflict, not al-Qaida, and not a patchwork of competing militias. The USA does not have the option of playing off one “resistance” militia against another which it had in Iraq.
All that must call into question the US-UK’s goal of a negotiated deal with “moderate” Taliban. Saudi-brokered talks with the Taliban and Karzai officials had stalled. Even “moderate” Taliban are more likely just to wait until the US gets so war-weary that it has to leave.
• The US reportedly intends to go round central government, by giving money direct to local provincial political leaders. There is talk of merging local militias into the regular army. Both plans will strengthen warlord rule and boost powers rival to the central government. That might make sense in the short-term. In the long run it contradicts the US’s strategy of building up a strong central state capable of holding Kabul against the prospect of Taliban takeover.
• The US does not have a reliable ally in Karzai as head of central government. His government is corrupt from top to bottom. The US says so itself. But the US has no alternative.
• The “war in Afghanistan” against the Taliban in the south and east of the country now extends into vast territory over the border into Pakistan. The Pakistani government is weak, and its military another unreliable ally for the US. As long as Pakistan’s regional conflict with India remains important, and as long as the Islamist elements in the military dominate, Pakistan’s campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the border regions will not be as decisive as the US wants it to be.
The signs are that Obama has, in spite of his stated intentions and probably his wishes, committed the US and its allies to a long and protracted war in Afghanistan and increasing pressure to become further embroiled in a military campaign in Pakistan. According to the Guardian, in the last two years over four and a half thousand Afghan people (“civilians”) have been killed by both sides. That death toll will continue to rise.
An escalation of the war is, of course, what the Taliban want. The prospect of an intensified Taliban-led insurgency, and NATO response, is terrifying and not just in Afghanistan. The daily suicide bombings in Pakistan’s cities will continue.
Our job is to hope and work for the strengthening of any democratic, critical political culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan — solidarity with women’s groups, for instance, and solidarity with trade unionists and socialists in Pakistan. We do not put any trust in a bodged-together US-UK-NATO surge. To paraphrase General David Petraeus, the US is now in a situation where it will have to “kill and capture its way out of an insurgency”. The US-UK-NATO forces should withdraw.