WILL Barack Obama experience a twinge of guilt tomorrow when he steps up to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, less than 10 days after he effectively claimed ownership of the war in Afghanistan?
We are unlikely to find out until the presidential memoirs are written at some point in the future, but it will be disappointing if the contradiction between escalating a war and being hailed as a man of peace escapes him altogether.
Although the decision announced last week at the West Point military academy ought to have caused little surprise, it nonetheless spawned a great deal of disappointment at various levels.
There are those who were hoping – admittedly against the odds – that the Obama administration would be sufficiently imaginative to articulate a vision that constituted a break of some sort with the default belligerence that has characterised American foreign policy for far too long.
Others were counting on at least a partial rejection of General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops to confirm their prejudices about the inherent un-Americanness of George W’s successors. The more honest among them now feel obliged to admit that Barack may not be quite the alien impostor they suspected him of being.
But this ideological tendency includes those whose suspicions have not been alleviated: they wonder aloud why Obama brought up the issue of a deadline instead of committing himself to an open-ended deployment until an unequivocal triumph has been achieved.
Notwithstanding the utter absurdity of that proposition (it’s easy to forget, after all, that even when Bush green-lighted the Iraq surge a couple of years ago, he confessed that the concept of victory ain’t what it used to be), leading Obama aides lost little time in allaying the fear that the vague July 2011 deadline for commencing a drawdown that the president had mentioned was a line in the sand.
What’s more, even the 30,000 figure he cited, possibly in a half-hearted effort to pretend that the Pentagon’s wish list had marginally been circumscribed, wasn’t definitive. Auxiliary forces would push that up by a few thousand, according to inherited Defence Secretary Robert Gates, possibly to 35,000. And Nato allies are expected to provide the remaining 5000.
Representatives of the ineffably corrupt (by American accounts) and thoroughly discredited Karzai regime were reportedly disconsolate over the prospect of the projected American withdrawal in 18 months, but perhaps the oddest reaction came from Islamabad, encapsulating concerns not just about a possible pullout but also about the surge.
Pakistan has not officially objected to a reported increase in the frequency as well as the area of operations of attacks by US drones. The CIA’s Predators are apparently only half the story: according to an investigative report by Jeremy Scahill in the American weekly The Nation, the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), headed until last year by McChrystal, runs a separate program of unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and targeted assassinations, with the assistance of operatives associated with the firm formerly known as Blackwater.
Spokesmen for Islamabad have, however, noted that the increase in US troop numbers in Afghanistan is likely to multiply Pakistan’s problems by driving more Taliban across the border. An accelerated pullout a couple of years hence, meanwhile, would be a tantamount to a repetition of the American reaction following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years ago.
Distressingly, the latter viewpoint is echoed among sections of the purportedly progressive intelligentsia. The primary responsibility for creating the present mess belongs to the US, so it is duty-bound to clear it up, runs this line of thinking. This is ludicrous. It is often incumbent upon murderers to pay for their crimes – through prolonged or indefinite loss of liberty, or by relinquishing their lives. But how often are they asked to undo what they have done?
Yes, there is the Islamic concept of blood money, of absolution that’s restricted to the well-off. It could be argued that it’s reasonable to demand recompense from the US in the shape of indefinite intervention, given that there is no other way of exacting a price for its transgressions.
But such a demand can only be based on a refusal to recognize the invariable consequences of such intervention. The problem with the US role in Afghanistan in the 1980s was not so much the eventual loss of interest as the initial decision to intervene, primarily as a means of wounding the Soviet Union. This is by no means to suggest that Moscow’s military role in Afghanistan was anything other than indefensible, but one ought not to forget the part Washington played in instigating it, as Zbigniew Brzenzinski eventually confessed.
It has been asked why the Pakistani military should feel obliged to alienate the Taliban if they are going to be in charge of Kabul a few years hence. Would it be too much to suggest that the recent terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore provide sufficient cause? If the army continues to hedge its bets, Pakistan would anyhow appear to be something of a lost cause in the medium term – and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, possibly, for the conspiracy theorists who see an Indian, American and/or Israeli hand in every deplorable development.
There are no easy solutions to the Af-Pak conundrum, but the Obama administration’s strategy may well be one of the least desirable options.
Chances are the US president’s Nobel speech won’t be half as appalling as his West Point presentation, in which he regurgitated all the traditional excrement: “We have not sought world domination … We do not seek to occupy other nations … We will not claim another nation’s resources…” All such nonsense merely reinforces the impression of imperialist impulses combined with denialism.
The latest manifestation of Obama’s Af-Pak policy does not contradict his campaign promises, but it can hardly be construed as a message of hope. As long as the surge-on general remains oblivious to the hazards of war, his administration is bound to be viewed as symbolic of continuity rather than change. And unworthy of aspirational accolades for furthering the cause of peace.
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