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The Pressure of an Expanding War

The early moves of the Obama administration—combined with the momentum of the situation it inherited—have resulted in the expansion of the Af-Pak War in at least six areas.

| Thu May 21, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

This week, Helene Cooper reported on the front page of the New York Times that Khalilzad would be that man. He "could assume a powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government under a plan he is discussing with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, according to senior American and Afghan officials." He would then be "the chief executive officer of Afghanistan."

Cooper's report is filled with official denials that these negotiations involve Washington in any way. Yet if they succeed, an American citizen, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. as well as to Kabul, would end up functionally atop the Karzai government just as the Obama administration is eagerly pursuing a stepped-up war against the Taliban.

Why officials in Washington imagine that Afghans might actually accept such a figure is the mystery of the moment. It's best to think of this plan as the kinder, gentler, soft-power version of the Kennedy administration's 1963 decision to sign off on the coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnamese autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem. Then, too, top Washington officials were distressed that a puppet who seemed to be losing support was, like Karzai, also acting in an increasingly independent manner when it came to playing his appointed role in an American drama. That assassination, by the way, only increased instability in South Vietnam, leading to a succession of weak military regimes and paving the way for a further unraveling there. This American expansion of the war would likely have similar consequences.

5. Expanding War in Pakistan: Meanwhile, in Pakistan itself, mayhem has ensued, again in significant part thanks to Washington, whose disastrous Afghan war and escalating drone attacks have helped to destabilize the Pashtun regions of the country. Now, the Pakistani military—pushed and threatened by Washington (with the loss of military aid, among other things)—has smashed full force into the districts of Buner and Swat, which had, in recent months, been largely taken over by the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas we call "the Pakistani Taliban."

It's been a massive show of force by a military configured for smash-mouth war with India, not urban or village warfare with lightly armed guerrillas. The Pakistani military has loosed its jets, helicopter gunships, and artillery on the region (even as the CIA drone strikes continue), killing unknown numbers of civilians and, far more significantly, causing a massive exodus of the local population. In some areas, well more than half the population has fled Taliban depredations and indiscriminate fire from the military. Those that remain in besieged towns and cities, often without electricity, with the dead in the streets, and fast disappearing supplies of food, are clearly in trouble.

With nearly 1.5 million Pakistanis turned into refugees just since the latest offensive began, U.N. officials are suggesting that this could be the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Talk about the destabilization of a country.

In the long run, this may only increase the anger of Pashtuns in the tribal areas of Pakistan at both the Americans and the Pakistani military and government. The rise of Pashtun nationalism and a fight for an "Islamic Pashtunistan" would prove a dangerous development indeed. This latest offensive is what Washington thought it wanted, but undoubtedly the old saw, "Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true," applies. Already a panicky Washington is planning to rush $110 million in refugee assistance to the country.

6. Expanding Civilian Death Toll and Blowback: As Taliban attacks in Afghanistan rise and that loose guerrilla force (more like a coalition of various Islamist, tribal, warlord, and criminal groups) spreads into new areas, the American air war in Afghanistan continues to take a heavy toll on Afghan civilians, while manufacturing ever more enemies as well as deep resentment and protest in that country. The latest such incident, possibly the worst since the Taliban was defeated in 2001, involves the deaths of up to 147 Afghans in the Bala Baluk district of Farah Province, according to accounts that have come out of the villages attacked. Up to 95 of the dead were under 18, one Afghan lawmaker involved in investigating the incident claims, and up to 65 of them women or girls. These deaths came after Americans were called into an escalating fight between the Taliban and Afghan police and military units, and in turn, called in devastating air strikes by two U.S. jets and a B-1 bomber (which, villagers claim, hit them after the Taliban fighters had left).

Despite American pledges to own up to and apologize more quickly for civilian deaths, the post-carnage events followed a predictable stonewalling pattern, including a begrudging step-by-step retreat in the face of independent claims and reports. The Americans first denied that anything much had happened; then claimed that they had killed mainly Taliban "militants"; then that the Taliban had themselves used grenades to kill most of the civilians (a charge later partially withdrawn as "thinly sourced"); and finally, that the numbers of Afghan dead were "extremely over-exaggerated," and that the urge for payment from the Afghan government might be partially responsible.

An investigation, as always, was launched that never seems to end, while the Americans wait for the story to fade from view. As of this moment, while still awaiting the results of a "very exhaustive" investigation, American spokesmen nonetheless claim that only 20-30 civilians died along with up to 65 Taliban insurgents. In these years, however, the record tells us that, when weighing the stories offered by surviving villagers and those of American officials, believe the villagers. Put more bluntly, in such situations, we lie, they die.

Two things make this "incident" at Bala Baluk more striking. First of all, according to Jerome Starkey of the British Independent, another Rumsfeld creation, the U.S. Marines Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC), the Marines' version of JSOC, was centrally involved, as it had been in two other major civilian slaughters, one near Jalalabad in 2007 (committed by a MarSOC unit that dubbed itself "Taskforce Violence"), the second in 2008 at the village of Azizabad in Herat Province. McChrystal's appointment, reports Starkey, has "prompted speculation that [similar] commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle to beat the Taliban."

Second, back in Washington, National Security Advisor James Jones and head of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, fretting about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and faced with President Karzai's repeated pleas to cease air attacks on Afghan villages, nonetheless refused to consider the possibility. Both, in fact, used the same image. As Jones told ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "Well, I think he understands that... we have to have the full complement of... our offensive military power when we need it... We can't fight with one hand tied behind our back..."

In a world in which the U.S. is the military equivalent of the multi-armed Hindu god Shiva, this is one of the truly strange, if long-lasting, American images. It was, for instance, used by President George H. W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War. "No hands," he said, "are going to be tied behind backs. This is not a Vietnam."

Forgetting the levels of firepower loosed in Vietnam, the image itself is abidingly odd. After all, in everyday speech, the challenge "I could beat you with one hand tied behind my back" is a bravado offer of voluntary restraint and an implicit admission that fighting any other way would make one a bully. So hidden in the image, both when the elder Bush used it and today, is a most un-American acceptance of the United States as a bully nation, about to be restrained by no one, least of all itself.

Apologize or stonewall, one thing remains certain: the air war will continue and so civilians will continue to die. The idea that the U.S. might actually be better off with one "hand" tied behind its back is now so alien to us as to be beyond serious consideration.

The Pressure of an Expanding War

President Obama has opted for a down-and-dirty war strategy in search of some at least minimalist form of success. For this, McChrystal is the poster boy. Former Afghan commander General McKiernan believed that, "as a NATO commander, my mandate stops at the [Afghan] border. So unless there is a clear case of self-protection to fire across the border, we don't consider any operations across the border in the tribal areas."

That the "responsibilities" of U.S. generals fighting the Afghan War "ended at the border with Pakistan," Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt of the Times report, is now considered part of an "old mind-set." McChrystal represents those "fresh eyes" that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked about in the press conference announcing the general's appointment. As Mazzetti and Schmitt point out, "Among [McChrystal's] last projects as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command was to better coordinate Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency efforts on both sides of the porous border."

For those old enough to remember, we've been here before. Administrations that start down a path of expansion in such a war find themselves strangely locked in—psychically, if nothing else—if things don't work out as expected and the situation continues to deteriorate. In Vietnam, the result was escalation without end. President Obama and his foreign policy team now seem locked into an expanding war. Despite the fact that the application of force has not only failed for years, but actually fed that expansion, they also seem to be locked into a policy of applying ever greater force, with the goal of, as the Post's Ignatius puts it, cracking the "Taliban coalition" and bringing elements of it to the bargaining table.

So keep an eye out for whatever goes wrong, as it most certainly will, and then for the pressures on Washington to respond with further expansions of what is already "Obama's war." With McChrystal in charge in Afghanistan, for instance, it seems reasonable to assume that the urge to sanction new special forces raids into Pakistan will grow. After all, frustration in Washington is already building, for however much the Pakistani military may be taking on the Taliban in Swat or Buner, don't expect its military or civilian leaders to be terribly interested in what happens near the Afghan border.

As Tony Karon of the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog puts the matter: "The current military campaign is designed to enforce a limit on the Taliban's reach within Pakistan, confining it to the movement's heartland." And that heartland is the Afghan border region. For one thing, the Pakistani military (and the country's intelligence services, which essentially brought the Taliban into being long ago) are focused on India. They want a Pashtun ally across the border, Taliban or otherwise, where they fear the Indians are making inroads.

So the frustration of a war in which the enemy has no borders and we do is bound to rise along with the fighting, long predicted to intensify this year. We now have a more aggressive "team" in place. Soon enough, if the fighting in the Afghan south and along the Pakistani border doesn't go as planned, pressure for the president to send in those other 10,000 troops General McKiernan asked for may rise as well, as could pressure to apply more air power, more drone power, more of almost anything. And yet, as former CIA station chief in Kabul, Graham Fuller, wrote recently, in the region "crises have only grown worse under the U.S. military footprint."

And what if, as the war continues its slow arc of expansion, the "Washington coalition" is the one that cracks first? What then?

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.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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