Afghanistan Is Obama’s Gordian Knot

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By William Pfaff

2011-09-28T055836Z_1463891316_GM1E79S131I01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

U.S. soldiers from Charlie Battery, 321st Field Artillery Regiment fire a 155MM M777 howitzer at a Taliban enemy position from Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bostic, in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan September 28, 2011.   

REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Useful advice can be found in the past. Gordius, King of Phrygia (in modern Turkey), tied an intricate knot, ever since called the Gordian knot. An oracle told Alexander the Great that whoever could untie it would master Asia.

Alexander drew his sword and slashed the knot. He then conquered the lands between Persia and Afghanistan, pushing on as far as the Punjab.

There his exhausted troops rebelled, and his retreat from Asia began.

The oracle should have known that the mastery of Asia ultimately belongs to Asians.

Barack Obama has promised a withdrawal of many or most American troops  from Afghanistan in the months to come. He has not promised the departure of the enormous State Department and mercenary force of state-builders and democracy-creators and defenders already there.

This, at least, is the plan—a bad and dangerous one that can be relied upon to fail because it refuses to face reality.

The Gordian knot by which this American project is bound is the simultaneous conflict and collaboration of the United States and nuclear Pakistan, certain to end in a wounded American withdrawal, if only because Pakistan lives, and has lived since antiquity, in this particular place in Central Asia, and the United States lives in a different world—geographically, psychically and morally—having arrived in Central Asia yesterday, and being destined to leave tomorrow.

The Gordian knot may be described as follows: The United States and Pakistan are formally allies. They are both at war in Afghanistan, the United States officially, to defeat (or come to a settlement that cannot be interpreted as a “defeat”) the Taliban, radical Muslim nationalist and fundamentalist fighters, and members of the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. The Taliban are held responsible by Washington for collaboration with al-Qaida (or what is left of it) against America-in-Asia. At the same time, Washington is held responsible by the Taliban for invading and attempting to control their country, which they want to control themselves.

The United States and Pakistan are actually enemies, with opposed national interests. The Pakistani army clandestinely supports the Taliban, and has done so for many years, so that Afghanistan can eventually be ruled by their clients. Pakistan’s leaders look upon Afghanistan as furnishing strategic depth to their army in case of war with India—their great enemy since the partition of British India in 1947. The United States, in recent years, has been cultivating close relations and nuclear cooperation with India.

The United States and Pakistan are even close to declaring their enmity. The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune reported as much on September 27. There have been repeated Pakistani attacks on U.S. troops, “incidents” considered to be retaliation for American drone attacks inside Pakistan. The drones have targeted individuals and assets thought to be linked to the Taliban or enemies of the CIA.

Civilians have also been killed. The American command says civilians killed in drone attacks are accidental victims. The target selection system for the drones reportedly functions on visual- and radio-surveillance of suspected sites, which identifies everyone connected with these sites, including innocents. The drones are reputed to be considerably less accurate and discriminating than advertised.
The Haqqani network, another target, once part of the Northern Alliance in the war against the Russians, is currently described by some Americans as a group of criminals exploited by Pakistani army intelligence. The Haqqani have been accused of responsibility for the September 13 assault on the U.S. Embassy inside its fortified compound in Kabul. Last Sunday, there was also an attack, fatal to one victim, on Americans inside the CIA annex to the Embassy, by “an Afghan employee” of the CIA.

What is all of this accomplishing for the American taxpayers who are paying millions to finance both Afghan and Pakistani governments, while supporting their own expeditionary force, plus the Afghan army, and part of the NATO force which is inconclusively warring with the Taliban?

What American or Western interests are served in this Gordian entanglement of conflicting interests and useless casualties?

Obama has not dared to challenge the Pentagon because it holds him hostage politically due to his lack of military service. The military will not break off the war because they will not accept “defeat,” and they are driven by a confused geo-strategic notion of America’s need to dominate global energy resources for the future. Even a Republican president could find himself in Obama’s position, for which Republican politician has served in combat?

I can only imagine a noble self-sacrifice by a president, to save his country and people. Who will seize Alexander’s sword and slash the knot, ordering American troops, ships, spies, mercenaries, diplomats, aid workers and democracy promoters all home?

The United States since the Cold War has stubbornly resisted the principle that people must be responsible for themselves. The Afghans must settle their own national destiny. Pakistan and India know their own interests and must be responsible for them. An American president is accountable to the American people.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

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Shadow War in Afghanistan

January 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse

2010-01-09T110013Z_1558274224_GM1E6191GAK01_RTRMADP_3_PAKISTAN-CIA-BOMBER

Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud (L) sits beside a man who is believed to be Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan, in this still image taken from video released January 9, 2010. A Pakistan television station showed on Saturday what it said was the suicide bomber double agent who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan sitting with the Pakistani Taliban leader, and reported he shared U.S. and Jordanian state secrets with militants.

REUTERS/Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan via Reuters TV

It was a Christmas and a New Year from hell for American intelligence, that US$75 billion labyrinth of at least 16 major agencies and a handful of minor ones. As the old year was preparing to be rung out, so were the US’s intelligence agencies, which managed not to connect every obvious clue to a (literally) seat-of-the-pants al-Qaeda operation. It hardly mattered that the underwear bomber’s case – except for the placement of the bomb material – almost exactly, even outrageously, replicated the infamous, and equally inept, “shoe bomber” plot of eight years ago.

That would have been bad enough, but the New Year brought worse. Army Major General Michael Flynn, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, released a report in which he labeled military intelligence in the war zone – but by implication US intelligence operatives generally – as “clueless”. They were, he wrote, “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers … Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the US intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.”

As if to prove the general’s point, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor with a penchant for writing inspirational essays on jihadi websites and an “unproven asset” for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), somehow entered a key agency forward operating base in Afghanistan unsearched, supposedly with information on al-Qaeda’s leadership so crucial that a high-level CIA team was assembled to hear it and Washington was alerted.

He proved to be either a double or a triple agent and killed seven CIA operatives, one of whom was the base chief, by detonating a suicide vest bomb, while wounding yet more, including the agency’s number-two operative in the country. The first suicide bomber to penetrate a US base in Afghanistan, he blew a hole in the CIA’s relatively small cadre of agents knowledgeable on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

It was an intelligence disaster splayed all over the headlines: “Taliban bomber wrecks CIA’s shadowy war”, “Killings Rock Afghan Strategy”, “Suicide bomber who attacked CIA post was trusted informant from Jordan”. It seemed to sum up the hapless nature of America’s intelligence operations, as the CIA, with all the latest technology and every imaginable resource on hand, including the latest in Hellfire missile-armed drone aircraft, was out-thought and out-maneuvered by low-tech enemies.

No one could say that the deaths and the blow to the American war effort weren’t well covered. There were major TV reports night after night and scores of news stories, many given front-page treatment. And yet lurking behind those deaths and the man who caused them lay a bigger American war story that went largely untold. It was a tale of a new-style battlefield that the American public knows remarkably little about, and which bears little relationship to the Afghan war as we imagine it or as our leaders generally discuss it.

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A man reads a copy of the day’s newspaper whose front page shows a photo of suspected suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi in Amman January 9, 2010.

REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

We don’t even have a language to describe it accurately. Think of it as a battlefield filled with muscled-up, militarized intelligence operatives, hired-gun contractors doing military duty, and privatized “native” guard forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style night-time “intelligence” raids, “surges” you didn’t know were happening, strings of military bases you had no idea were out there, and secretive international collaborations you were unaware the US was involved in. In Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story. There’s also a polyglot “army” representing the US that wears no uniforms and fights shape-shifting enemies to the death in a murderous war of multiple assassinations and civilian slaughter, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.

Black ops and black sites

Secrecy is a part of war. The surprise attack is only a surprise if secrecy is maintained. In wartime, crucial information must be kept from an enemy capable of using it. But what if, as in the US’s case, wartime never ends, while secrecy becomes endemic, as well as profitable and privitizable, and much of the information available to both sides on the US’s shadowy new battlefield is mainly being kept from the American people? The coverage of the suicide attack on forward operating base (FOB) Chapman offered a rare, very partial window into that strange war – but only if you were willing to read piles of news reports looking for tiny bits of information that could be pieced together.

We did just that and here’s what we found:

Let’s start with FOB Chapman, where the suicide bombing took place. An old Soviet base near the Pakistani border, it was renamed after a Green Beret who fought beside CIA agents and was the first American to die in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It sits in isolation near the town of Khost, just kilometers from the larger Camp Salerno, a forward operating base used mainly by US Special Operations troops.

Occupied by the CIA since 2001, Chapman is regularly described as “small” or “tiny” and, in one report, as having “a forbidding network of barriers, barbed wire and watchtowers”. Though a US State Department provisional reconstruction team has been stationed there (as well as personnel from the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture), and though it “was officially a camp for civilians involved in reconstruction”, FOB Chapman is “well-known locally as a CIA base” – an “open secret”, as another report put it.

The base is guarded by Afghan irregulars, sometimes referred to in news reports as “Afghan contractors”, about whom we know next to nothing. (“CIA officials on Thursday would not discuss what guard service they had at the base.”) Despite the recent suicide bombing, according to Julian Barnes and Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, a “program to hire Afghans to guard US forward operating bases would not be canceled. Under that program, which is beginning in eastern Afghanistan, Afghans will guard towers, patrol perimeter fences and man checkpoints.”

Also on FOB Chapman were employees of the private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), which has had a close relationship with the CIA in Afghanistan. We know this because of reports that two of the dead “CIA” agents were Xe operatives.

Someone else of interest was at FOB Chapman at that fateful meeting with the Jordanian doctor Balawi – Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a captain in the Jordanian intelligence service, the eighth person killed in the blast. It turns out that Balawi was an agent of the Jordanian intelligence, which held (and abused) torture suspects kidnapped and disappeared by the CIA in the years of George W Bush’s “global war on terror.”

The service reportedly continues to work closely with the agency and the captain was evidently running Balawi. That’s what we now know about the polyglot group at FOB Chapman on the front lines of the agency’s black-ops war against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the allied fighters of the Sirajuddin and Jalaluddin Haqqani network in nearby Pakistan. If there were other participants, they weren’t among the bodies.

The agency surges

And here’s something that’s far clearer in the wake of the bombing: among the US’s vast network of bases in Afghanistan, the CIA has its own designated bases – as, by the way, do US Special Operations forces, and according to a Nation reporter, Jeremy Scahill, even private contractor Xe. Without better reporting on the subject, it’s hard to get a picture of these bases, but Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal tells us that a typical CIA base houses no more than 15-20 agency operatives (which means that Balawi’s explosion killed or wounded more than half of the team on FOB Chapman).

And don’t imagine that we’re only talking about a base or two. In the single most substantive post-blast report on the CIA, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times wrote that the agency has “an archipelago of firebases in southern and eastern Afghanistan”, most built in the last year. An archipelago? Imagine that. And it’s also reported that even more of them are in the works.

With this goes another bit of information that the Wall Street Journal seems to have been the first to drop into its reports. While you’ve heard about President Barack Obama’s surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, you’ve undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journal’s reporters tell us that agency personnel will increase by 20-25% in the surge months. By the time the CIA is fully bulked up with all its agents, paramilitaries and private contractors in place, Afghanistan will represent, according to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest “stations” in agency history.

This, in turn, implies other surges. There will be a surge in base-building to house those agents, and a surge in “native” guards – at least until another suicide bomber hits a base thanks to Taliban supporters among them or one of them turns a weapon on the occupants of a base – and undoubtedly a surge in Blackwater-style mercenaries as well.

Keep in mind that the latest figure on private contractors suggests that 56,000 more of them will surge into Afghanistan in the next 18 months, far more than surging US troops, State Department employees and CIA operatives combined. And don’t forget the thousands of non-CIA “uniformed and civilian intelligence personnel serving with the Defense Department and joint interagency operations in the country”, who will undoubtedly surge as well.

Making war

The efforts of the CIA operatives at Chapman were reportedly focused on “collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks’ top leaders”, especially those in the Haqqani network in the North Waziristan tribal area just across the Pakistani border. They were evidently running “informants” into Pakistan to find targets for the agency’s ongoing drone assassination war.

These drone attacks in Pakistan have themselves been on an unparalleled surge course ever since Obama entered office; 44 to 50 (or more) have been launched in the past year, with civilian casualties running into the hundreds. Like local Pashtuns, the agency essentially doesn’t recognize a border. For them, the Afghan and Pakistani tribal borderlands are a single world.

In this way, as Paul Woodward of the website War in Context has pointed out, “Two groups of combatants, neither of whom wear uniforms, are slugging it out on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Each group has identified what it regards as high-value targets and each is using its own available means to hit these targets. The Taliban/al-Qaeda are using suicide bombers while the CIA is using Hellfire missiles.”

Since the devastating explosion at Chapman, statements of vengeance have been coming out of CIA mouths – of a kind that, when offered by the Taliban or al-Qaeda, we consider typical of a backward, “tribal” society. In any case, the secret war is evidently becoming a private and personal one. Balawi’s suicide attack essentially took out a major part of the agency’s targeting information system.

As one unnamed NATO official told the New York Times, “These were not people who wrote things down in the computer or in notebooks. It was all in their heads … [The CIA is] pulling in new people from all over the world, but how long will it take to rebuild the networks, to get up to speed? Lots of it is irrecoverable.” And the agency was already generally known to be “desperately short of personnel who speak the language or are knowledgeable about the region”. Nonetheless, drone attacks have suddenly escalated – at least five in the week since the suicide bombing, all evidently aimed at “an area believed to be a hideout for militants involved”. These sound like vengeance attacks and are likely to be particularly counterproductive.

To sum up, US intelligence agents, having lost out to enemy “intelligence agents”, even after being transformed into full-time assassins, are now locked in a mortal struggle with an enemy for whom assassination is also a crucial tactic, but whose operatives seem to have better informants and better information.

In this war, drones are not the agency’s only weapon. The CIA also seems to specialize in running highly controversial, kick-down-the-door “night raids” in conjunction with Afghan paramilitary forces. Such raids, when launched by US Special Operations forces, have led to highly publicized and heavily protested civilian casualties. Sometimes, according to reports, the CIA actually conducts them in conjunction with special ops forces.

In a recent American-led night raid in Kunar province, eight young students were, according to Afghan sources, detained, handcuffed and executed. The leadership of this raid has been attributed, euphemistically, to “other government agencies” (OGAs) or “non-military Americans”. These raids, whether successful in the limited sense or not, don’t fit comfortably with the Obama administration’s “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency strategy.

The militarization of the agency

As the identities of some of the fallen CIA operatives at Chapman became known, a pattern began to emerge. There was 37-year-old Harold Brown Jr, who formerly served in the army. There was Scott Roberson, a former Navy SEAL who did several tours of duty in Iraq, where he provided protection to officials considered at high risk. There was Jeremy Wise, 35, an ex-SEAL who left the military last year, signed up with Xe, and ended up working for the CIA. Similarly, 46-year-old Dane Paresi, a retired special forces master sergeant turned Xe hired gun, also died in the blast.

For years, American author and professor Chalmers Johnson, himself a former CIA consultant, has referred to the agency as “the president’s private army.” Today, that moniker seems truer than ever. While the civilian CIA has always had a paramilitary component, known as the Special Activities Division, the unit was generally relatively small and dormant. Instead, military personnel like the army’s special forces or indigenous troops carried out the majority of the CIA’s combat missions.

After the 9/11 attacks, however, George W Bush empowered the agency to hunt down, kidnap and assassinate suspected al-Qaeda operatives, and the CIA’s traditional specialties of spycraft and intelligence analysis took a distinct back seat to Special Activities Division operations, as its agents set up a global gulag of ghost prisons, conducted interrogations by torture, and then added those missile-armed drone and assassination programs.

The military backgrounds of the fallen CIA operatives cast a light on the way the world of “intelligence” is increasingly muscling up and becoming militarized. This past summer, when a former CIA official suggested the agency might be backing away from risky programs, a current official spit back from the shadows: “If anyone thinks the CIA has gotten risk-averse recently, go ask al-Qaeda and the Taliban … The agency’s still doing cutting-edge stuff in all kinds of dangerous places.”

At about the same time, reports were emerging that Blackwater/Xe was providing security, arming drones, and “perform[ing] some of the agency’s most important assignments” at secret bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also emerged that the CIA had paid contractors from Blackwater to take part in a covert assassination program in Afghanistan.

Add this all together and you have the grim face of “intelligence” at war in 2010 – a new micro-brew when it comes to Washington’s conflicts. Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war “in the shadows” (as they used to say in the Cold War). This is no longer “intelligence” as anyone imagines it, nor is it “military” as military was once defined, not when US operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way.

This is pure “lord of the flies” stuff – beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war. And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective. All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.

Talk about “counter-insurgency” as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and “protecting the people” plays no part in it. And this is only what can be gleaned from afar about a semi-secret war that is being poorly reported. Who knows what it costs when you include the US hired guns, the Afghan contractors, the bases, the drones and the rest of the personnel and infrastructure? Nor do we know what else, or who else, is involved, and what else is being done. Clearly, however, all those billions of “intelligence” dollars are going into the blackest of black holes.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books). His website is NickTurse.com.

(Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse.)

Cancer – The Deadly Legacy of the Invasion of Iraq

January 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, News Digest, Jalal Ghazi

Forget about oil, occupation, terrorism or even Al Qaeda. The real hazard for Iraqis these days is cancer. Cancer is spreading like wildfire in Iraq. Thousands of infants are being born with deformities. Doctors say they are struggling to cope with the rise of cancer and birth defects, especially in cities subjected to heavy American and British bombardment.

Here are a few examples. In Falluja, which was heavily bombarded by the US in 2004, as many as 25% of new- born infants have serious abnormalities, including congenital anomalies, brain tumors, and neural tube defects in the spinal cord.

The cancer rate in the province of Babil, south of Baghdad has risen from 500 diagnosed cases in 2004 to 9,082 in 2009 according to Al Jazeera English.

In Basra there were 1885 diagnosed cases of cancer in 2005. According to Dr. Jawad al Ali, director of the Oncology Center, the number increased to 2,302 in 2006 and 3,071 in 2007. Dr. Ali told Al Jazeera English that about 1,250-1,500 patients visit the Oncology Center every month now.

Not everyone is ready to draw a direct correlation between allied bombing of these areas and tumors, and the Pentagon has been skeptical of any attempts to link the two. But Iraqi doctors and some Western scholars say the massive quantities of depleted uranium used in U.S. and British bombs, and the sharp increase in cancer rates are not unconnected.

Dr Ahmad Hardan, who served as a special scientific adviser to the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Iraqi Ministry of Health, says that there is scientific evidence linking depleted uranium to cancer and birth defects. He told Al Jazeera English, “Children with congenital anomalies are subjected to karyotyping and chromosomal studies with complete genetic back-grounding and clinical assessment. Family and obstetrical histories are taken too. These international studies have produced ample evidence to show that depleted uranium has disastrous consequences.”

Iraqi doctors say cancer cases increased after both the 1991 war and the 2003 invasion.

Abdulhaq Al-Ani, author of “Uranium in Iraq” told Al Jazeera English that the incubation period for depleted uranium is five to six years, which is consistent with the spike in cancer rates in 1996-1997 and 2008-2009.

There are also similar patterns of birth defects among Iraqi and Afghan infants who were also born in areas that were subjected to depleted uranium bombardment.

Dr. Daud Miraki, director of the Afghan Depleted Uranium and Recovery Fund, told Al Jazeera English he found evidence of the effect of depleted uranium in infants in eastern and south- eastern Afghanistan. “Many children are born with no eyes, no limbs, or tumors protruding from their mouths and eyes,” said Dr. Miraki.

It’s not just Iraqis and Afghans. Babies born to American soldiers deployed in Iraq during the 1991 war are also showing similar defects. In 2000, Iraqi biologist Huda saleh Mahadi pointed out that the hands of deformed American infants were directly linked to their shoulders, a deformity seen in Iraqi infants.

Many US soldiers are now referring to Gulf War Syndrome #2 and alleging they have developed cancer because of exposure to depleted uranium in Iraq.

But soldiers can end their exposure to depleted uranium when their service in Iraq ends. Iraqi civilians have nowhere else to go. The water, soil and air in large areas of Iraq, including Baghdad, are contaminated with depleted uranium that has a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years.

Dr. Doug Rokke, former director of the U.S. Army’s Depleted Uranium Project during the first Gulf War, was in charge of a project of decontaminating American tanks. He told Al Jazeera English that “it took the U.S. Department of Defense in a multi-million dollar facility with trained physicists and engineers, three years to decontaminate the 24 tanks that I sent back to the U.S.”

And he added, “What can the average Iraqi do with thousands and thousands of trash and destroyed vehicles spread across the desert and other areas?”

According to Al Jazeera, the Pentagon used more than 300 tons of depleted uranium in 1991. In 2003, the United States used more than 1,000 tons.

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Gates: US Absolutely Not Leaving Afghanistan

October 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Spetalnick

2009-10-14T173345Z_514805076_GM1E5AF044W02_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan boy pushes his youngest brother on a wheelbarrow in a village in Charkh district, Logar province October 14, 2009.

REUTERS/Nikola Solic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Monday ruled out any consideration of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama’s sweeping strategy review of the increasingly unpopular war there.

“We are not leaving Afghanistan. This discussion is about next steps forward and the president has some momentous decisions to make,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a television program taped at George Washington University that will be aired by CNN on Tuesday.

Gates said the Afghan and Pakistani governments should not be “nervous” about the U.S. review as Obama prepared to brief congressional leaders and to convene his war council again this week on how to deal with the deteriorating security situation.

“I don’t think we have the option to leave,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. “That’s quite clear.”

Obama faces pivotal decisions in the coming weeks after the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, presented a dire assessment of the eight-year-old war effort.

Earlier, Gates urged military advisers to speak “candidly but privately” but defended McChrystal, who has been criticized for appearing to lobby in public for his position that more troops need to be sent to Afghanistan.

“Stan McChrystal is exactly the right person to be the commander in Afghanistan right now,” Gates said. “I have every confidence that, no matter what decision the president makes, Stan McChrystal will implement it as effectively as possible.”

The debate within the Obama administration is now over whether to send thousands more U.S. troops, as McChrystal has requested, or scale back the U.S. mission and focus on striking al Qaeda cells, an idea backed by Vice President Joe Biden.

‘Our Inability’

Gates suggested that the failure of the United States and its allies to put more troops into Afghanistan in earlier years — a period when former U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq — had given the Taliban an edge in Afghanistan.

“The reality is that because of our inability, and the inability, frankly, of our allies, (to put) enough troops into Afghanistan, the Taliban do have the momentum right now, it seems,” Gates said, although he declined to discuss what options Obama may be considering.

As the strategy debate in Washington gathered steam, Afghan election authorities began a recount on Monday in the disputed presidential election held in August.

Allegations of fraud in what Gates called the “flawed” election are among the reasons U.S. officials have cited for launching the review of policy toward Afghanistan.

With U.S. casualties on the rise, American public opinion has turned increasingly against what Obama’s aides once hailed as the “good war,” in contrast to the unpopular war in Iraq that occupied the focus of Bush.

There also have been increasing calls from the anti-war left and foreign policy critics for a U.S. pullout. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the White House on Monday, and a few were arrested when they chained themselves to the gates.

Seeking to shore up support, Obama invited senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers to the White House on Tuesday to discuss the future course of the war. He is due to meet his national security team on Wednesday and Friday.

The Obama administration already has almost doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year to 62,000 to contend with the worst violence since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban rulers in 2001. The U.S. invasion was launched in the weeks after the September 11 attacks carried out by al Qaeda, which had been given a haven in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

McChrystal has warned in a confidential assessment that the war effort would end in failure without additional troops and changes in strategy.

But signing off on the 30,000 to 40,000 troop increase that McChrystal is said to have requested would be politically risky for Obama due to unease within his own Democratic Party and fatigue among the American public after eight years of war in Afghanistan and six in Iraq.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered their worst losses in more than a year when fighters stormed remote outposts near the Pakistan border over the weekend. Eight American soldiers were killed on Saturday after tribal militia stormed two combat outposts in remote Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan.

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Reality Check for Obama in Afghanistan

February 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

He’s facing pressure to increase US troop levels there. Has Washington learned nothing from the Soviet experience?

Courtesy Walter Rodgers

 

2009-02-18T122025Z_01_POP09_RTRMDNP_3_AFGHANISTAN

between the U.S. troop commander in the area and local tribal leaders near Khas Kunar refugee camp, Kunar Province, eastern Afghanistan February 18, 2009.

REUTERS/Oleg Popov  

Oakton, Va. – History may not repeat itself, but all too often it recycles mistakes. In 1961, before the Vietnam War became full-fledged, former Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned President Kennedy not to fight a land war in Asia. Over the next 14 years, more than 58,000 Americans died as Washington ignored his advice and ramped up operations.

Today, the US is stuck in another land war in Asia: Afghanistan. The original mission was to capture Osama bin Laden, disable Al Qaeda, remove the Taliban, and keep the country from being a safe haven for terrorists. After seven years of fighting, hundreds of dead US soldiers and thousands more wounded, those objectives have not been met.

And now the US wants to double down, adding as many as 30,000 additional US troops there to get the job done.

Sharp lessons from the Soviets

It’s unfathomable that Washington learned so little from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which ended in an ignominious retreat followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later. The Soviets lost 15,000 soldiers.

In the brief honeymoon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, US and Russian intellectuals and officials met to analyze the Afghan war and concluded it would have required 750,000 to 1 million Soviet troops to subdue Afghanistan. But Moscow never deployed more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at any one time. The Soviets discovered they could win battles but never hold more than a few cities in a country the size of Texas.

The United States now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Even if President Obama agrees to double that amount, the effort will be wasted. Half a million US troops might not be enough. It wasn’t in Vietnam. Mr. Obama needs to recognize that hesitation to expand the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with will or cowardice and everything to do with wisdom.

The totalitarian Soviets lacked the political will to deploy three quarters of a million troops. Kremlin mossbacks knew even the docile Russian populace of the Communist era wouldn’t buy it. In 1979, when the ruling Politburo reluctantly decided to send in the troops, it was bitterly opposed by the chief of staff, Marshal of the Army Nikolai Ograkov. He flatly first told then-Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov and later party leader Leonid Brezhnev that a war in Afghanistan would be a huge mistake. So controversial was the decision to commit Russian forces that only a handful of senior members of the ruling Politburo participated. In the end, those elders chose to go in, primarily because they feared the US was trying to destabilize Afghanistan and sew it into the West’s patchwork encirclement of the Soviet Union.

It took nine years before Moscow concluded that its war in Afghanistan was a mistake. After the cold war, Russia declassified documents on Afghanistan and the West learned that on more than a dozen occasions between March of 1979 and the December invasion, Brezhnev refused to intervene despite destabilization of the Soviet Union’s southern border.

As a correspondent based in Moscow in the 1980s, I made several trips into Afghanistan with the Soviets. When I returned to Moscow, my Russian office manager asked me what it was like there. Waxing enthusiastic, I told her, “It was magnificent, straight out of Kipling and the 19th century.” Her blue Slavic eyes narrowed. “No, Walt, you are wrong. Afghanistan is the 14th century.”

After 9/11, when hordes of reporters traveled to this mystical, medieval land, the recommended reading was historical fiction of the late George MacDonald Fraser’s first “Flashman” volume on the Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842. The entire retreating British column of upwards of 16,000 men, women, and children – save for one survivor – was wiped out by the forefathers of those who drove the Soviets out 150 years later. Obama would be well advised to read “Flashman” and realize how little Afghanistan has changed.

It would be delusional to expect any American expeditionary force to liberate and enlighten Afghans, freeing women from resurgent Taliban. There’s an adage familiar to all who worked there: “There only two times an Afghan woman leaves her home: when she gets married and when she dies.” Afghanistan is a land polka-dotted in graveyards beyond counting. UNICEF says 20 percent of all Afghan children die before their fifth birthday. The entire US Army will not be able to convert greedy warlords to modernity.

Afghanistan is a feudal quilt of tribes. It’s disingenuous to call it a country. It is a failed state, perhaps best babysat by its regional neighbors: Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and India.

Their individual interests and goals in Afghanistan may differ, but none is eager to have a rejuvenated Al Qaeda caliphate led by loose cannons such as Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden, whom they cannot control. If three regional superpowers – India, China, and Russia – opt to sit on the sidelines in their own neighborhood, what logic is there for American intervention from an ocean and continent away?

Even as they request more troops, US generals have acknowledged that an Iraq-style “surge” won’t work. “Afghanistan is not Iraq,” said Gen. David McKiernan, who leads US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. General McKiernan, who led ground forces in Iraq in 2003, has described Afghanistan as “a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq.” Today, the Pentagon talks of achieving not victory or lasting democracy but merely progress against militants.

No good options left

There are no good options left after the Bush administration’s unnecessary war in Iraq. An increased American intervention in Afghanistan might have been more welcome six years ago. Now it is probably too late. Yet a total American withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave in its wake anarchy and bloodbath. An ugly Taliban triumph would ensue. The Taliban need to be contained, but not exclusively by the US, so Obama must persuade NATO and Afghanistan’s near neighbors to play a larger, perhaps dominant, role.

Pakistan can no longer labor under the ill usion that it can manipulate events from across the border. If the Pakistanis have learned anything since 9/11, it should be that Afghanistan’s growing destabilization increasingly threatens their own society. Imagine for a moment that the Obama administration were to announce a withdrawal from Afghanistan in six months. The regional powers who know their own neighborhood far better than Washington would quickly come up with a formula and the troops to stabilize the failed state. If there is no constituency among these neighbors to “fix” Afghanistan, then the US can no more go it alone than could the Russians.

The resurgent Taliban may be unstoppable. The Bush administration was warned of that four years ago but spent most of its resources instead in Iraq. Still, accommodation with the Taliban, who are brutal and medieval, is not the same as capitulation to bin Laden. Recall that in the late 1990s, the Taliban was initially reluctant to have an Arab-led Islamist jihad waged from Afghanistan. The past seven years of US bombing and war in the countryside have sharply reminded the Taliban that they were better off without bin Laden as a guest. The Sudanese were persuaded of that more than a decade ago.

The idea of creating a secular national army in Afghanistan to fend off the20Taliban is not only tardy but smacks of the usual American mind-set of throwing money and advisers at a problem. The Afghan tribes speak Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, and Turkmen with some Baluchi, Pashai, and Nuristani thrown in for good measure. Which language is the Afghan Army going to fight in?

The real challenge to a new Afghan Army, however, is that it is not aflame with the Islamic cohesiveness that fires the Taliban. Until it is, it will be little more than a collection of uninspired, unmotivated militiamen more interested in collecting a monthly American paycheck than in creating a unified nation out of the ashes of 30 years of war.

It is still not clear what Obama thinks other than that, unlike George W. Bush, he says Afghanistan is more central to the war on terror than Iraq. On that he is correct. Washington and Kabul just agreed to a strategic review of the war. Whatever option Obama chooses, he must not risk the same mistake the Soviets made in underestimating the energized power of the Islamic faith. An enlarged American footprint in Afghanistan runs the risk of repeating Russia’s fatal miscalculations. War, like politics, is the art of the possible.

Obama must remember that it is intolerable in the eyes of Muslims to be subjugated and occupied by non-Muslims, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. Western military occupation didn’t work for the Crusaders in the Levant, for Napoleon in Egypt, or for the British in Iraq. Obama needs to be mindful of this as he decides whether to expand a war in southwest Asia, a historic graveyard of empires.

• Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN.