WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is the man with the plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidential in tone and delivery, quoting Harry S Truman and Dean Acheson, George Kennan and George Marshall – the greatest generation – Obama, in a major foreign policy speech in Washington on Tuesday, outlined what he calls his “new overarching strategy.”
He said he would “focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
To say that Obama’s plan – sketched earlier in an op-ed piece for The New York Times – is more realistic, thoughtful and sensible than that of rival Republican Senator John McCain’s “road to victory” in Iraq would be an understatement.
But … the devil in those (brave) details
Does Obama’s proposed redeployment in Iraq automatically translate into no US troops in Mesopotamia by the summer of 2010?
No. It translates into “a residual force to perform specific missions in Iraq: targeting any remnants of al-Qaeda; protecting our service members and diplomats; and training and supporting Iraq’s security forces, so long as the Iraqis make political progress.”
There are many problems with this proposition. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is just a component of the Islamic State of Iraq – an umbrella jihadi organization. Al-Qaeda has no more than 1,000 jihadis in total. Moderate Sunnis could get rid of them whenever they feel like it. Obama even admits “true success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future – a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al-Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not re-emerge.”
So if Iraqis are in charge of their own security, one doesn’t need US soldiers who, by the way, did not beat back al-Qaeda; US taxpayer’s money, distributed to the Sunni Awakening Councils to the tune of US$300 a month for each former guerrilla, did.
Obama also does not explain how many soldiers will be part of his US “residual force” in Iraq. Hundreds? Thousands? Without speaking Arabic, with no access to local intelligence, mistrusted by local populations, what exactly would they be doing stranded in the desert sands? And who will judge who is a terrorist and who’s not? The government in Baghdad or, once again, Washington?
Now for those lofty goals
US corporate media have given a blank check to McCain on foreign policy. McCain is a war hero masterfully playing the likable guy role and the media fall for it like babies. As for McCain’s policies, essentially they spell the “surge” in troops in Iraq is working, the war may go on for 100 years, we’re on the way to “victory,” and let’s bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.
Obama for his part recognizes that “in fact – as should have been apparent to President [George W. Bush] and Senator McCain – the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was.”
The problem is that, for Obama, the central front is Afghanistan. That’s when he runs into trouble – when he has to tackle the “broader strategic goals.”
Obama promised he would “send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions – with fewer restrictions – from NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies.”
Obama suggests tenuous hints of a mini-Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, already promised – and not delivered – by the Bush administration after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001: “That’s why I’ve proposed an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance each year, with meaningful safeguards to prevent corruption … We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narco-terrorism.”
But Obama essentially frames the US mission in Afghanistan as a fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The problem is, the US has not captured any major al-Qaeda operative in the area for a long time. And the historical al-Qaeda leadership is ensconced either in the Waziristans or in Chitral – Pakistani tribal areas, not Afghanistan.
So what purpose would serve Obama’s extra 10,000 US troops in search and destroy missions in eastern Afghanistan – bound to inflict inevitable, non-stop “collateral damage” to loads of Pashtun civilian peasants and villagers?
Even the Pentagon now openly admits it is fighting an asymmetrical war in Afghanistan against a motley crew of Taliban, disgruntled Pashtun tribal chiefs and warlords financed by US intelligence in the 1980s – from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the Haqqanis. This has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. It’s about fiercely independent Afghans refusing what they identify as foreign occupation – by the US and NATO. This is symmetrical to Sunnis and Shi’ites fighting foreign occupation in Iraq.
Obama is a big fan of NATO. He says. “We need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps, and to crack down on cross-border insurgents.”
Barnett Rubin of New York University, arguably the top US expert on Afghanistan, would tell Obama that the key to solve the “war on terror” is not Iraq. But it’s not Afghanistan either. It is Pakistan.
Obama seems to agree, when he says he’s “co-sponsoring a bill with Joe Biden and Richard Lugar to triple non-military aid to the Pakistani people and to sustain it for a decade, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
But Obama seems to ignore that Pakistan is a feudal society run by roughly 50 families where the only solid institution is the army – and the intelligence services. Even the Council on Foreign Relations, in a new report on the tribal areas along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, admits “the Pakistani government lacks the political, military or bureaucratic capacity to fix the tribal areas on its own.”
Obama for his part is unable to spell out how – with just a fistful of dollars – he’ll be able to “fix” tribal areas that have been living in fierce independence for centuries. Even assuming the money would reach the tribal areas, it is not certain it would erase the structural root of “terror” – social inequality in a rugged, impoverished land.
So Obama’s “broader strategic goals” include an unspecified “residual force” in Iraq and more combat brigades in Afghanistan. Is this so radically different from McCain? Obama in fact may have given away his true position in April, during General David Petraeus’ US Senate hearings. That’s when Obama, face to face, asked Petraeus, the head US military man in Iraq, a truly revealing question – ignored by US corporate media:
“When you have finite resources you have got to define your goals tightly and modestly … you don’t necessarily have to answer this, maybe this is a rhetorical question. If we are able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without US troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success? It’s obviously not perfect, there is still violence, there are still traces of al-Qaeda, Iran has influence more than we would like, but if we have the current status quo and yet our troops have been brought down to 30,000, would you consider that as success, would that meet our criteria or would that not be good enough and we have to devote even more resources to it?”
The current status quo in Iraq – and with at least 30,000 “residual” US troops. Withdrawal it isn’t. Is this “change we can believe in,” part of a new “overarching strategy” – or is this the same status quo as defined by half a century of continuous, many would say imperial, US foreign interference?
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge.