by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 4, Rajab, 1433)
Before US President Barack Obama landed in Chicago to attend the NATO conference on Afghanistan (May 20–21)...
Before US President Barack Obama landed in Chicago to attend the NATO conference on Afghanistan (May 20–21), albeit to noisy protests from the anti-war and Occupy Wall Street movements, he already had two agreements tucked under his arm: a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed on April 13 by US commander, General John Allen and Afghan Defence Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak regarding night raids, and a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed by Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The MoU paved the way for the initialing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement on May 1.
Months before arriving in Chicago, Obama and other US officials had been proclaiming that they were winding down the mission in Afghanistan and that US troops would end combat role by 2014. If this is the case, what were the US and its NATO allies discussing in Chicago regarding Afghanistan? The answer is obvious for those that understand the Afghan situation and what Obama’s game plan is.
Obama faces re-election this year and American public opinion, as indeed opinion in other Western countries with troops in Afghanistan, has long soured on the war, realizing that it is unwinnable. They want the war to end, sooner rather than later. In fact, even if it were winnable, it would still be immoral and illegal but US and Western policy is not based on morality. The Chicago meeting that was planned months in advance was meant to chalk out a post-2014 strategy for Afghan-istan. Obama has repeatedly stressed — and he said so again in Kabul on May 1 where he landed stealthily under the cover of darkness and without prior announcement — that the US would not abandon Afghanistan once the military mission is over. Armed with the Strategic Partnership Agreement, Obama asked NATO allies to “stay the course” and not abandon Afghanistan at the eleventh hour.
What did he mean? The US has no intention of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Obama is engaged in a game of smoke and mirrors. At home he wants to create the impression that he is winding down the war. Even his gung-ho Republican opponents have realized the futility of the war and want out. Newt Gingrich, one of the most hawkish ideologues in the Republican crowd, has said that no more American lives should be wasted in Afghanistan. To understand what really drives US policy, one must look beyond the self-serving rhetoric.
The US did not invade Afghanistan because of al-Qaeda or to stop the Taliban from oppressing women. The latter was a post-facto rationalization for a failed mission in order to win brownie points at home. There is no al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan or indeed anywhere else in the world. Even senior American officials including CIA director, General David Petraeus, and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta have repeatedly confirmed this. Further, even with 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, the plight of Afghan women has not improved one bit, notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s periodic prattling, so what is the reason for staying on?
The real reason for the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was and remains access to the vast oil and gas reserves of Central Asia. To this must now be added the multi-trillion dollar mineral deposits in Afghanistan itself. The fancy sounding Strategic Partnership Agreement is basically meant to secure permanent military bases for US troops to ensure access to these riches.
There are, of course, geo-strategic reasons as well despite the surreal nature of a “strategic partnership” between the “sole” superpower and Afghanistan that is ranked almost at the bottom of the list of countries on the UN Human Development Index. US policy is driven by the compunctions of containing and encircling China, viewed as a rival to US hegemony in the world. The other is America’s longstanding enmity toward the Islamic Republic of Iran that Washington has failed to bring to heel even after 33 years of sabotage, war, sanctions and embargoes. Stationing US troops and equipment such as surveillance planes, missiles and other military hardware, would allow the US to exert pressure on Islamic Iran. An added bonus would be to keep Pakistan destabilized.
Details of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement have not been made public. This serves both Obama and Karzai well. Obama does not want to be tied down to the specific number of troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The figure of 20,000 has been mentioned. What will their role be? Again, Obama is coy but enough can be gleaned from official statements that the US will continue to provide political, economic and military support to Afghanistan. What shape the military support will take, apart from training the Afghan National Army (ANA) — akin to teaching fish how to swim — is unclear. Who is teaching the Taliban to fight and win?
As far as Karzai is concerned, he has not taken the Afghan people into confidence. Afghan public opinion is often dismissed as irrelevant because it has never been a consideration in any policy-making decision. The parliament that is supposed to represent the will of the people gave only grudging approval. Further, how will the Taliban react to this agreement? They are a major force in Afghanistan and they have the ability to disrupt even the most carefully crafted agreements. Also, on what authority is Karzai committing Afghanistan to allow the stationing of foreign troops until 2024? The presence of foreign troops is precisely the reason why there is an uprising that has now engulfed nearly 97% of the country.
Earlier this year, the Americans had made much of their contacts with the Taliban. Who exactly they were talking to was not clear but the Taliban said they were holding discussions to secure the release of some of their members from Guantanamo Bay. On March 15, they suspended talks both to protest the barbaric attack by Sergeant Robert Bales (and perhaps some of his accomplices) in killing 17 Afghan civilians and then setting their bodies on fire, as well as the Americans’ “erratic and vague” behavior, as one Taliban spokesman said.
Despite claims by US officials that they want a “political settlement,” the conditions they have set for the Taliban to meet are so out of touch with reality that they defy logic. For instance, the Americans insist that the Taliban must recognize the Afghan constitution, lay down their weapons and agree to a substantial US military presence until 2024. Also, the US has demanded that the Taliban cut off all links with al-Qaeda. This is the only point that makes sense simply because there is no al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan. In any case, it was the Americans who created the group and are now using it in places like Libya and Syria.
Why should the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution or lay down their arms when they are not losing? In fact, the Taliban believe, with good reason, that they are winning the war and that the Americans and their allies have no choice but to leave Afghanistan. This was confirmed in a leaked NATO report describing the Taliban’s upbeat mood. The intensification and sophistication of Taliban attacks even inside Kabul’s “green zone” make clear that they have the upper hand and call the shots. The plight of US and NATO troops has been made worse by Pakistan’s refusal to allow transit facilities to US containers. Transiting through Pakistan costs $7,000 per container; sending it through the northern route (Russia and then through Central Asia) costs $17,000. There are reports that US-NATO troops are short of some critical materials. If the Pakistani blockade continues, conditions for US-NATO troops will deteriorate further although recent pronoucements from Pakistan indicate this may be lifted soon.
The other dilemma facing foreign troops and trainers is the lack of trust between them and their Afghan wards. There have been numerous instances of Afghan soldiers attacking and killing American and other foreign troops. The situation has deteriorated so much that foreign officers lock themselves inside secure rooms in the defence or other ministry and do not come in contact with the people they are supposed to be training. What kind of training will they impart? Aware of these uncertain conditions, French and German governments have withdrawn their trainers and have also announced expediting their troop withdrawal before the stipulated deadline.
The election of Francois Hollande as the new president of France, booting out Nikolas Sarkozy on May 6, has made life more difficult for Obama. Hollande has said he would like all French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012. With crucial allies heading for the door, the US may be left alone to carry the Afghan bag. This is not an enviable position to be in but Obama has only himself to blame. When he was elected president at the end of 2008, he had the opportunity to make a clean break with the disastrous policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Instead, Obama adopted the Afghan war as his own. He must now bear the consequences.
Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars — some estimates put the cost at $1.2 trillion — the security situation in Afghanistan is even more precarious today than it was when US troops first invaded the country in October 2001. Hatred toward the US has escalated worldwide. Its favorite puppets in the Muslim East are being driven from power and the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have bankrupted the US. Given the American people’s opposition to the war — a recent ABC poll found 69% of Americans want the war to end — why is Obama continuing with a disastrous policy ignoring the wishes of the people on whose behalf he claims to govern? This is proof, if proof were ever needed, that US policies are not made to serve the interests of the people but instead that of the corporate elite who are the real masters of America. The corporate elite want wars so they can grab the resources of other peoples. Those that stand in their way must be attacked and killed. This is the reason why the US continues to have such a huge military budget that keeps climbing higher even while millions of Americans are out of work and millions more are homeless and without medical insurance.
According to World Bank estimates, 97% of Afghanistan’s economy is military related. The rest is presumably made up by opium cultivation and sale. Allegations of corruption against Karzai’s government may be true but they pale into insignificance compared with what American and Western crooks are siphoning off whether they are military contractors or other do-gooders. The $11 billion the US and NATO currently provide to train the Afghan army will not be sustainable after 2014. A number of NATO officials have stated that even the $4 billion needed to “train” the Afghan army after 2014 will not be available.
The best hope the US and its NATO allies have is to leave now while there is a chance. In a year’s time, this may not be available. True, once the foreigners are out, peace will not immediately return to Afghanistan. In typical Afghan tradition, different ethnic groups will slug it out until they are exhausted. They will then hold a grand jirga and apportion shares to each other so that life can resume where it was so rudely interrupted more than 34 years ago when the first communist coup occurred in Afghanistan in April 1978.