People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 50

December 13, 2009

Afghanistan: Obama�s Imperial Overstretch


Yohannan Chemarapally


THIS year�s Nobel Peace Prize nominee Barack Obama has chosen the path of war. In a speech on December 1, he announced a sharp escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The candidate who was elected on a non-war, non-racist platform has been overnight transformed into a �war president� in the mould of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. President Obama chose the American military academy at West Point to announce the dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan. In a nationally televised speech, Obama said that 30,000 additional troops will be deployed in Afghanistan in the next six months.  


The American president in his speech said that the goal was �to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future�. The president barely mentioned the Taliban in his speech. The focus was on the Al Qaeda though American intelligence officials themselves have said that there are less than 100 al Qaeeda fighters still left in Afghanistan. The central message in his speech was that the Americans are occupying Afghanistan to protect the �homeland� and not ordinary Afghans from terrorism.


The president said that the troop surge was for �a vital national interest�, adding that attacks against the US �are being planned as I speak�. Obama�s language is becoming strikingly similar to that of President Bush. Hawks like Senator John McCain was among the first to welcome the troop escalation ordered by Obama in Afghanistan. The president had initially wavered on the Pentagon�s request for a dramatic surge. Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan had asked for 40, 000 additional troops and had aggressively lobbied for the troop surge.



Obama�s initial reluctance to get bogged down further in the Afghan quagmire was obvious in the months preceding his speech. But he also wanted to be on the right side of the powerful US security establishment. The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates along with valuable help from the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton persuaded the president to finally go along with McChrystal�s plan for a military surge to secure �the vital parts� (the main population centres) of Afghanistan. It is however clear that the president, as was evident from his speech still does not view the Taliban in its entirety as a natural enemy of the US. He suggested in his speech that the defeat of the Taliban was not necessary for US security.


President Obama also announced that American forces will start �transferring out� of Afghanistan and a �transit to Afghan responsibility� will take place. �After 18 months, our troops will start returning home�, he said. His military point man in Afghanistan, Gen McChrystal, was however quick to assure the jittery Afghan government that the US is not considering a precipitate military withdrawal. Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton also made statements implying that the US government is committed to a long term military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. �The July 2011 date is a day we start transitioning, not leaving�, told Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to the US Congress. The US president in his speech had said that the struggle against �violent extremism will not be finished quickly and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan�. Obama like Bush is now talking about endless wars.


Obama has also given the green signal for the dispatch of large numbers of �contractors� (read mercenaries) to Afghanistan to help the US army wage a bloody �Falluja� like counter-insurgency against the Afghan resistance. It is estimated that there are already more than 100,000 �contractors� in Afghanistan fighting along side the occupation forces. Following the president�s announcement, American and NATO forces have launched a massive attack on the Taliban stronghold of Nov Zad valley in the Helmand province.


The Pakistani establishment is alarmed at the American troop surge and the talk about American withdrawal from Afghanistan. They fear that the Taliban fighters will cross into their territory with the American forces snapping at their heels. Pakistani officials have already protested against the increasing number of American drone attacks in the tribal areas. Islamabad is also upset with reports that the US army is all set to start a bombing campaign in Balochistan against suspected hideouts of militants.

The New York Times has reported that President Obama has authorised the expansion of the war into Pakistan as well.  The paper reported that the CIA has got a commitment from the White House for expanded operations, including drone strikes in Balochistan. The president had suggested in his speech that the al Qaeda gets support from sections of the Pakistani establishment. �There have been those in Pakistan who have argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight and that Pakistan is better off doing little, or seeking accommodation with those who use violence�, he said. 


The Indian government is also wary about the Obama administration�s blueprint for the region but for different reasons. Though the government is happy that Obama did not mention �India� even once in his speech, the repeated references to Pakistan as an indispensable ally in the fight against terrorism have not gone down too well. It is well known that the Obama administration sees a link between Kashmir and the Afghan war. Obama�s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrook, has been trying unsuccessfully for some time to get India and Pakistan talking on the Kashmir issue.


The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said in the first week of December that al Qaeda will try and provoke an India-Pakistan war by using pro-Kashmiri groups like the Lashkar-i-Taiba. He said the aim of the group was to destabilise Pakistan and gain control of its nuclear arsenal. Admiral Mullen told the US Senate that Pakistan-India relationship was critical in the regional security context. He said that while President Obama�s strategy focussed greatly on Afghanistan and Pakistan, it covered the entire South Asian region. 


New Delhi has expended a lot of diplomatic energy and finances into Afghanistan. A comeback for the Taliban will also not be good news for India. New Delhi has been a consistent backer of the Northern Alliance which had fought the Taliban when it was in power. President Obama in his speech described Pakistan as a friend and ally and that the success in Afghanistan �is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan�. Interestingly, the president in his speech tried to portray the American occupation of Afghanistan as a benign act unlike earlier foreign interventions. He specifically mentioned the Soviet intervention, describing it as an �occupation�. Moscow had dispatched its troops to prop up a progressive government that was trying to modernise a feudal country. It was American intervention through their Pakistani and Saudi proxies that led to the rise of Islamic extremism in the region and its consequent global spread.


Significantly, President Obama also said in his speech that he supports the efforts of the Afghan government to start talking �to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens�. This is the line Islamabad has been urging Washington to adopt for a long time. New Delhi on the other hand is insisting that there are no �good or bad Taliban� and that they should be militarily defeated. The Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, who was in Delhi in the third week of November, also said that the Taliban have to be defeated. At the same time, he said that the Iranian government was against the Obama administration�s military surge in Afghanistan. He said that Afghans could resolve their problems among themselves once all foreign troops left their country. New Delhi, on the other hand, seems to be favourably disposed to the indefinite stay of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.   


The eight year war in Afghanistan has now lasted longer than world war two. More than a million Afghans have lost their lives. The American casualties have been the highest since Obama took office. After the announcement of the military surge, it is estimated that the US government will have to spend $100 billion a year on Afghanistan alone. The president has not bothered to explain how he hopes to finance the surge in the midst of a recession. A casualty of the Afghan war could be his ambitious domestic agenda which includes health reforms. Already, domestic critics have been comparing Obama�s decision to escalate in Afghanistan with President Lyndon B. Johnson�s to do likewise in Vietnam in the mid-sixties. The horrendous consequences of the Vietnam War left more than a million dead and left Johnson a politically shattered man. Johnson knew that the Vietnam was unwinnable but tried to stave off the inevitable by escalating the war. Obama and his advisers are also no doubt aware that a military solution is not possible in Afghanistan.