Obama’s Afghan Surge

Deepak Tripathi

Nearly thirty years after the Cold War exploded into full-scale conflict in Afghanistan, the incoming president, Barack Obama, is about to embark on yet another stage in America’s involvement in that country. In short hand, it is described as Obama’s ‘Afghan surge’. If a recent report in the New York Times is anything to go by, the ‘Afghan surge’ would be remarkably similar to the ‘surge’ of 2007 in Iraq under President George W Bush.[1]

The ‘Iraqi surge’ was an attempt to subdue the rapidly escalating cycle of violence in the capital, Baghdad, and Anbar Province covering much of western Iraq. The buildup involved the deployment of thirty thousand extra US troops as part of ‘The New Way Forward’ announced by Bush in January 2007. Barely six weeks before, the Washington Post had disclosed a US intelligence report admitting that ‘the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point’ that American and Iraqi troops ‘are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency’ in Anbar.[2] From village to provincial levels, nearly all government institutions had collapsed. Summarizing the assessment, one American military officer said, “We have been defeated politically – and that’s where wars are won and lost.”  

Today, the situation in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan is grim and reaches beyond the borders of Pakistan. Militants launch audacious attacks from their bases on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Events in recent months have demonstrated that Kabul, Islamabad, Delhi or Mumbai – no major city in the region is safe. Violence in the countryside in Afghanistan and Pakistan goes on largely unnoticed, unless it involves foreign forces.

I referred to similarities between the ‘Iraqi surge’ and the ‘Afghan surge’ earlier. American and British media report that as many as thirty thousand extra troops are to be deployed on the Afghan front by summer 2009. According to the New York Times, preparations are underway ‘to arm local militias to help in the fight against a resurgent Taleban’ in Afghanistan. The government of Pakistan is unlikely to give its official consent to the arming of militias inside its territory. There are several reasons. Contrary to popular belief  in the West, the Taleban are not a homogeneous group, but a loose network bound by a certain interpretation of Islam. The Taleban of Pakistan are firmly embedded in Pakistani society, where the culture of weapons is all pervasive.  

Relations between Islamabad and Washington, and Islamabad and Delhi, have suffered a sharp deterioration. The perception is strong in the ruling establishment of Pakistan that America has switched its support to India. Three main factors are responsible for this change in US policy: Pakistan’s failure to contain the militant groups in its territory, the decision by the Bush administration after 9/11 to invest so heavily in General Pervez Musharraf, then military ruler of Pakistan, and America’s growing economic and military ties with India.

The shift in American policy towards India is likely to continue during the Obama presidency. It means a break in Washington’s strategic alliance with Islamabad going back to the 1950s as part of the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. One of America’s long-term aims now is to counter the growing power of China. But the military-political establishment of Pakistan will see it as encirclement of the country while the occupation forces remain in Afghanistan to the west and US ties grow with India to the east. There is also a perception in Pakistan that the country does rather better under military dictators as an ally of the United States than under a fledgling democracy.

What more does the ‘Afghan surge’ indicate beyond introducing as many as thirty thousand additional troops and recruiting militias to fight the Taleban? In the case of Iraq, most of the extra US soldiers were deployed in Baghdad with the stated aim of improving security in the capital. The tour of duty of several thousand troops already in Baghdad was extended. Many were deployed in Anbar Province, which had suffered some of the worst violence. A report by the Senlis Council think-tank in November 2007 estimated that more than half of Afghanistan had fallen back under Taleban control.

If anything, the situation worsened in 2008. Anti-government forces, enriched by the illicit profits from Afghanistan’s poppy harvest, set up de facto administration in large areas of the Pashtun belt in the south and the east. Insurgents penetrated the security ring around the capital, Kabul. Attacks on government and foreign targets were launched with increasing frequency – the most audacious of them on the Indian embassy in July 2008.

As part of the ‘Afghan surge’, many of the additional US troops are likely to be deployed around the capital, Kabul, as they were in Baghdad in 2007. The need to protect the American and allied embassies, diplomats, Afghan ministries and officials is paramount. Offices of many non-governmental organizations are located in Kabul. It is vital to project Kabul’s image as a secure and stable seat of government – image that has suffered as the situation has steadily worsened. The International (Green) Zone in Baghdad would serve as the model where occupation forces and Iraqi government are concentrated. Surrounded by blast-proof walls, barbed wire-fences and a few checkpoints to control entry, it is in effect a mini-city inside the Iraqi capital. In contrast, Kabul is a sprawling, chaotic town and fortification of a similar kind would be more difficult.

The other side of Obama’s ‘Afghan surge’ is to recruit local militias to fight the Taleban. As the New York Times says, this has raised fears that ‘the new armed groups could push the country into a deeper bloodletting’. Shi’a and other minorities are already concerned over the prospect of new Sunni militias roaming parts of Afghanistan, supposedly to fight the Taleban. Once again, the plan originates from Iraq. US officials say their decision to recruit a hundred thousand Sunni tribesmen, many of them ex-rebel fighters, under the umbrella of Awakening Councils was responsible for the ‘steep reduction’ in violence. The logic is that what worked in one country would also work in the other.

In truth, it is too early to claim success in Iraq. American casualties have declined after the handover of security to the Iraqis. But acts of bombing, shooting, abduction and extortion continue almost every day. Under American pressure, the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad took over the responsibility of paying salaries to the Awakening Council militias. But the government remains opposed to assimilating more than a small proportion of them into the regular armed forces. The Shi’a majority of Iraq, together with Iran, will view the Sunni militias as a proxy of Saudi Arabia. The militiamen see an uncertain future for themselves as the occupation forces draw down and Obama turns his attention to Afghanistan. 

We have seen it all before. Following the 1978 Communist coup by a group of army officers in Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter ordered secret aid to the Mujahideen in that country. Encouraged by the American Central Intelligence Agency and its close ally, Pakistan, Mujahideen guerrillas increased pressure on the Communist regime. The Soviet leadership panicked. It invaded Afghanistan to maintain control of a country it regarded as within its sphere of influence. From 1980 on, President Ronald Reagan, Carter’s successor, armed and financed more than eighty thousand guerrillas to fight America’s proxy war against the Soviet Union.

For almost two decades, the ‘official version’ of history, promoted from Washington, had suggested that America’s military aid to the Mujahideen came after the Soviet invasion of a poor, helpless country. The truth was rather more complex. In 1996, the CIA’s former director, Robert Gates, revealed that the Carter administration had begun to look at ways of providing covert assistance to the anti-Communist forces soon after the 1978 coup in Afghanistan.[3] And in July 1979, nearly six months before the Soviets invaded, Carter issued a directive authorizing secret aid to the Mujahideen.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, spoke in public about the matter for the first time in 1998.[4] He confirmed that Carter did issue the order that started the secret aid program for the Mujahideen. Brzezinski also revealed that he told Carter the American action was ‘going to induce a Soviet military intervention’ in Afghanistan. Brzezinski described it as ‘an excellent idea’, because it had the effect of drawing the Soviet Union into ‘the Afghan trap’. On the day the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Brzezinski said, he wrote to the president that the United States now had ‘the opportunity to give the USSR its Vietnam War’.

In 1989, the Soviet occupation forces retreated from Afghanistan, just as the United States had done from Vietnam in 1975. The Soviet Union paid the ultimate price – its own demise – barely three years later. The Communist regime in Afghanistan collapsed a few months after the Soviet state had disintegrated, like the fall of America’s client regime in South Vietnam more than fifteen years before. The Mujahideen march into Kabul was greeted with delight in Washington. And the United States moved on to new priorities. They were to manage the disintegration of the Soviet state and its nuclear arsenal, to oversee the expansion of the free-market system abroad and to help its own economy.

Afghan factions had been supplied with weapons, money and copies of the Qur’an by President Reagan’s CIA chief, William Casey, in the 1980s.[5] In the ruins of war, they were left to fight it out in the 1990s. The civil war gave rise to the Taleban and Afghanistan became a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda. Now, after eight years of failed war in Afghanistan under the Bush presidency, comes the latest twist. President Obama’s ‘Afghan surge’ will not only involve extra American troops to defend Kabul and other strategic points; it will include the hiring and arming of pro-US local militias to fight the Taleban in the countryside. And, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, the CIA has begun to supply the sex-enhancing drug, Viagra, to Afghan chiefs to gain information about Taleban activities.[6]

In the Cold War, the CIA handed out money, weapons and copies of the Qur’an to Islamic groups to fight against Soviet communism. Twenty years on, the agency has added Viagra to its list of temptations to lure Afghans in the US war against fundamentalist Islam, which the Taleban and Al-Qaeda represent.

 The above article originally appeared in the Media Monitors Network on December 28, 2008.

[1] New York Times, December 23, 2008.

[2] Washington Post, November 28, 2006. 

[3] Robert Gates, a career CIA officer, served as the agency’s Director between 1991 and 1993. See his memoirs, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pp 143-149. Gates became secretary of defense in the Bush administration in 2006. President Obama decided to keep him in the post.  

[4] Brzezinski interview, ‘The CIA’s Intervention in Afghanistan’ (Paris: Le Nouvel Observateur, January 15-21, 1998, English version posted on October 15, 2001 by the Centre for Research on Globalization, Shanty Bay, Canada, on www.globalresearch.ca).    

[5] See, for example, Chalmers Johnson, ‘Are We to Blame for Afghanistan?’ (History News Network, George Mason University, Virginia, November 22, 2004).

[6] Joby Warrick, ‘Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan’ (Washington Post, December 26, 2008, A01).


India’s neoliberal elite

Deepak Tripathi

Tragedy and trauma magnify a nation’s awareness or lack thereof. The events surrounding the Mumbai carnage have revealed certain aspects of India’s collective psyche that provide food for thought and perhaps a lesson to learn.

The country had already suffered a wave of mindless bombings and targeted attacks on Muslim and Christian minorities recently. That the killings in Mumbai by Muslim gunmen, whose victims included dozens of fellow Muslims, did not lead to further retribution was an achievement. So weary was the country of the possibility of another disastrous turn of events.   

On Indian television channels, though, there was plenty of heat and theater in debates. Voices of reason appeared to drown in high-pitched rhetoric from a handful of guests – socialites and self-styled commentators. They were in competition for space with politicians, academics and journalists of the more established ranks. Ex-model, now socialite and author, Shobha De, described as India’s answer to Jackie Collins, known for her erotic novels, lambasted politicians for ‘failures’ that led to the bloodbath. “Enough is enough,” she screamed. India’s leading English news channel, NDTV, responded by naming an entire episode ‘Enough is Enough’. Participants had a field day attacking the government and politicians in general. Those who begged that the fiery rhetoric be toned down had little chance of succeeding until the heat was exhausted.

There were loud calls to teach Pakistan a lesson. The Mumbai attack was described as ‘India’s 9/11’. Participants demanded that India launch military raids inside Pakistan to destroy militant bases – rather like America using pilotless aircraft that regularly kill many more innocent civilians than militants. Simi Garewal, a movie actress in the 1960s and 1970s, later to host her own talk show, was not going to be left behind. Look at how America retaliated after September 11, 2001, she argued, and no one has dared to harm it since. Even more grotesque was praise for Israel’s behavior from a guest.

A recent discussion program on ‘Hindu terror’ turned to the possibility of Hindu fundamentalism affecting some in the Indian armed forces. The issue was how the military can remain unaffected by a phenomenon that exists in the wider society. When a US-educated academic of Indian descent tried to speak, he was abruptly told by a participant that there would not be a word said against the army.

As I have said before, these comments came from a small group of India’s neoliberal elite – smart, well-spoken and aggressive. These neoliberals undoubtedly love their country. But their worldview is as misinformed as their remedies are perilous. They boast of India’s military might, but fail to understand that Pakistan, like India, also has nuclear weapons. Before both countries became nuclear powers, India’s bigger armed forces meant the balance of power was in its favor. However, with nuclear deterrence, Pakistan is now equal to India. A basic knowledge of the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ would be enough to counter the foolish proposition of war on Pakistan.

Equally careless and dangerous were claims about the American retaliation against Afghanistan and the illegal invasion of Iraq, which, it was said, had prevented further attacks on the United States. Such claims are little more than regurgitated rhetoric of George W Bush to begin with. The facts tell a very different story. Terrorist attacks on US mainland are neither frequent, nor have they always originated from outside. Before September 11, 2001, the previous attack by external forces on American mainland was the car bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Two years later, a homegrown American bomber, Timothy McVeigh, devastated a large government building in Oklahoma City, killing about 170 people and wounding more than 850 others.

The 9/11 attacks came six years after the Oklahoma City bombing by McVeigh and one hopes nothing like it happens again. Meanwhile, five thousand American soldiers have died and tens of thousands have been injured and traumatized in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis have perished. Millions have been made homeless and displaced. Many have been abducted, tortured and thrown into notorious prisons like Guantanamo. The hatred for the Bush administration is widespread. From the Palestinian Territories through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan, India and elsewhere – the overall balance sheet of George W Bush is deeply in the red, even without considering the world economic slump.

Heaping praise on Israel’s conduct from the television studios of Bombay and Delhi has no relation with realities in the Middle East. Despite its huge military superiority and brutal tactics, Israel has failed to tame the Palestinian rebellion. One-and-a-half million Palestinians in Gaza, two-thirds of them registered with the United Nations as refugees, live in desperate conditions, under an Israeli blockade. A growing number of Israelis are alarmed at their government’s tactics and the deteriorating situation all around their country.

Israel’s military superiority is maintained by more than three billion dollars of American money every year. The nuclear weapons which Israel first developed in the late 1960s may have deterred its Arab enemies in the 1973 war and afterwards. Today, Israel faces a different threat. It comes from the mass of alienated humanity encircling Israel that nuclear weapons cannot counter. A country of Israel’s size, in the midst of Arab neighbors, cannot use weapons of mass destruction without grave consequences for itself.

All of which tells us that members of the relatively small westernized, but ill-informed, neoliberal elite of India would benefit from the reserve of morality and wisdom the country has accumulated over its long history. The lesson to learn is that thoughtless talk, without consideration for the consequences, is dangerous.

The above commentary appeared in Online Journal on December 18 and on ZNet on December 20, 2008.

Obama’s Foreign Crises

Deepak Tripathi

The carnage in Mumbai by young, well trained gunmen is the latest chapter in the world’s most complex web of problems today. Not only is it bound to have new consequences, it also throws up fresh challenges for all concerned, not least for America’s President-elect, Barak Obama.

When a bloodbath in India’s main commercial center is played out on television screens across the world, people who have witnessed events in New York and Washington, London and Madrid, Islamabad and Bali immediately connect with a rapidly escalating phenomenon. India is no stranger to terror. Still, it has suffered a huge shock. The Indian economy, already caught up in a global recession, is bound to feel the impact. Tourism and investor confidence may suffer, at least in the short term. The political fallout may go beyond the resignation of the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. The country faces a general election in May 2009. The governing coalition led by the Congress Party is under heavy criticism from the Hindu nationalists, as well as the population in general.

We have seen instances of backlash against Muslims in the United States and Europe after 9/11. The Indian authorities will be mindful of this possibility in their own country. Violence against India’s Muslim and Christian minorities has been on the increase recently. The authorities have come under criticism for failure to protect them, too. Fortunately, Islam has deep roots in India and the 150 million or so Indian Muslims were all born and brought up in a secular country. This does not, however, guarantee harmony between India’s diverse communities. Opposition among Muslims against Indian rule in Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan, has been a serious problem for the central government. Harsh measures by India’s security forces to suppress the militancy fuel the popular discontent even more.

As investigations continue into the massacre, there are accusations and counter-accusations within the governing coalition and between the opposition and the government. Relations between India and Pakistan have plunged following claims that the gunmen may have come by sea from Pakistan and belonged to a group based there. The attackers had AK-47 assault rifles that are manufactured in abundance on the western frontier of Pakistan, where Taleban and Al-Qaeda have sanctuaries and training camps. The sustained ruthlessness and cold-blooded determination of the gunmen to kill until the end was a product of a hardened, well-trained frame of mind.

The president-elect of the United states, Barack Obama, had made the economy his number one priority upon taking office on January 20, 2009. With the recent events in India, he faces another big challenge. Claims of improvement in Iraq are no longer enough to reduce America’s engagement in the Middle East, to concentrate on the Afghan theater and rebuilding the US economy.

The truth is that the web of crises spans from Palestine through Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India and further east. The combination of extreme remedies applied as part of the ‘war on terror’ and neglect of the real issue in the Middle East – the Palestinian crisis – by the outgoing Bush administration has added fuel to the fire. The mistakes have alienated many decent ordinary people. The same old condemnations of ‘uncivilized terrorists’ and perfunctory support for their victims seem increasingly meaningless.

A strong sense of alienation, humiliation and injustice pervades the Middle East and South Asia. When the situation is so volatile, local crises feed each other until they become a catastrophe. The chain of events in recent years illustrates the way in which many problems have become one. One-and-a-half million Palestinians remain cut off in the Gaza Strip, virtually imprisoned without sufficient food, fuel and medicine. More than a million of them are registered as refugees with the United Nations. They rely on humanitarian assistance that cannot be distributed as it should. The blockade of Gaza may be aimed at breaking the will of its people to support Hamas, which won the parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority in 2006. But the embargo has had the opposite effect. The conditions in the territory are increasingly desperate and desperate people resort to desperate things. Underground tunnels have been dug in to Egypt to secure access to essential goods. The humanitarian situation demands urgent and extraordinary measures to prevent the one-and-a-half million residents of the territory reaching the point where desperation is beyond containment.

The Palestinian problem is central to the wider crisis in West and South Asia. Its solution requires historic efforts involving America and Russia, as well as regional powers including Syria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and China. Obama has repeatedly offered friendship and support to Israel – a political necessity for any successful American politician. The time has come to exercise a restraining influence on the Israelis. The president-elect says he is willing to negotiate with Iran – a country which has a nuclear program. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States already conducts discreet negotiations with the Taleban. Israel does the same with Syria. In the light of these overtures, the refusal to hold talks with Hamas does not make sense.

The rest comes after the Palestinian problem. Following prolonged negotiations, the timetable for America’s military withdrawal from Iraq is set. It is to be completed by the end of 2011, provided unforeseen events do not frustrate the plan. For the success in stabilizing both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s cooperation is essential. But the more hawkish the US administration becomes, the less chance there is of securing that vital support. At the same time, cooperation of Syria, another big player in the Middle East, is essential for progress in Lebanon and elsewhere.

The crisis across the triangle that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and India has both distinct and common aspects. The Taleban are an indigenous tribal movement across the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and cannot be eliminated. But it is possible to influence them if conditions are right in both countries and Washington shows willingness to listen to regional experts. America has been heavily involved in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for almost three decades. It played a role in the war. Now it needs to play a part in their reconstruction and stabilization, in the interests of all. Last but not least is Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain in 1947. The prospects of a resolution to this intractable problem could improve with democratic reforms in Pakistan and with America’s engagement with Pakistan’s civilian political establishment instead of military. Reforms are also needed on the Indian side of Kashmir, where a combination of political failures and heavy-handed military tactics over many years has fuelled popular disaffection and strengthened the militants.

The above article appeared in CounterPunch on 1 December 2008.