Monday, July 21, 2008

Afghanistan: Right War or No, It's Still War

In comparison to the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan represents the lesser of two evils in the minds of many. Faced with pulling out of the unpopular Iraq, American leaders and the public are left with a search for a place to send American forces that doesn't include home, and have settled on Afghanistan, painting it as the "right war." On the surface, the phrase seems direct enough. The perpetrators of the WTC attacks reside along its borders, not in oil-rich Iraq. That reality, though, has succeeded in wiping from the national discourse the fact that "right" or not, Americans and Afghanis are still dying in ever-increasing numbers while NATO and American forces achieve absolutely nothing strategically.

Terrorism, like Communism before it, presents the ruling class with an easy target, a blanket phraseology which can easily be transferred from one enemy to the next in order to stoke the militaristic fires that burn just below the surface of any true American patriot. What American leaders then and now have failed to do, however, is to provide any tangible method to deal with the root causes of either. Whether it's mistaking any liberal, nationalist movement in Latin America as the manifestation of a Moscow-directed assault on America or interpreting every attempt to secure profits from natural resources for their home countries as terrorism in the Middle East, the US is quick to paint each as a form of extremism that must be met with force.

Never is it considered that peasants in Guatemala should be more than slaves for American merchants or that Iraqi oil money should help rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure destroyed by the US invasion. To do so would be to broach the unmentionable. Yet even those who oppose the scenario of a dictatorial US presence on the world stage on the face of it have no problem supporting interventions abroad, so long as they're the "right" wars.

It is this framing that has allowed supporters of Obama's foreign policy to look past the reality of what he is calling for in Afghanistan: the maintenance of the status quo ante, consisting of mounting death tolls for Afghani civilians and NATO forces alike, as well as supporting the militaristic goals of the Pakistani government vis-a-vis India, all the while accomplishing nothing of tangible scale.

As I've said before, the issue of Pakistan is not a minor one. What Obama is implicitly suggesting with his pledge for more troops is not that he's sending more troops to Afghanistan, but that he will cease to observe the territorial claims of Pakistan. The only way for NATO and the US to fight the Taliban/al Qaeda stronghold in the region is to launch cross-border attacks into Pakistan, which, far from calming the situation, will only bring more variables into the equation and stoke more nationalist opposition among the Pakistani public, 64 percent of which already view the US as Pakistan's biggest threat.

As Secretary of Defense Gates stated last week, "we cannot kill or capture our way to victory." For all his shiny rhetoric, Obama still embodies the century-old American tradition of carrying a "big stick." If a century of coups and regime change have taught us anything, its that resentment doesn't die with titular heads of state or leaders of individual factions. If there is one thing that Americans excel at on the world stage, it's slow learning.

Obama gets a pass for his opposition to the unpopular Iraq occupation, but also because Americans are still conditioned to think that world is dying for a leader in the US. Afghanis or Pakistanis don't want the US to be a leader any more than Americans want Canadians dictating the facets of a good healthcare system to them. Despite his opposition to the Iraq debacle, Obama still embodies this fallacy, still clings to the cookie-cutter vision Americans hold of the rest of the word, one in which a homogeneous set of principles and traits can simply be superimposed over any population with a good degree of accuracy.

It is precisely the American practice of failing to understand even the basic principles of what populations in lands US citizens can't find on a map desire or need. For most, it's the desire for the US to stop trying to help them. Iraqis are less than enthused about the Americans showing the oil ministry how to funnel oil money westward, Pakistanis seem just fine with the residents of the FATA if polls are any indication, and Afghans would love to be able to attend a wedding without NATO ordinance raining down on them.

The logical conclusion of Obama's Afghanistan policy is centered on Islamabad more than Kabul, which means that it's even more far-reaching than the Bush policy. Even if he hasn't expressed it explicitly, Obama is calling for an end to deferring to Pakistani sovereignty in the FATA region. He is declaring in clear, even if unstated, terms to the Musharraf government that if it doesn't pursue the Taliban, the US has no qualms about stepping in. What he is proposing is more of the same, more "you're either with us or against us." Far from a return to a state of US foreign policy that hasn't existed since the late 19th Century, Obama has declared that US interventionism is alive and well, with a slight toning down in Iraq. (He plans to keep plenty of troops there, which might be an issue if any American journalist cared to inquire.)

Where Obama differs from McCain is in his ability to tie different foreign policy arenas together. Where McCain exhibits a sometimes bumbling failure to grasp the interconnectedness of US policy abroad (the issues page of his website doesn't even have a foreign policy section, just Iraq), Obama is adept at dressing the status quo up in a shinier package. The American voter has thus far been codified, but the rest of the world has always held a more accurate assessment of US foreign policy than Americans themselves.


Surge II: Afghanistan, July 15
Obama Would Keep Lawless Contractors in Iraq, March 3
Foreign Policy Redux, June 25

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