Potholes, Petroleum, Pashtuns: Afghanistan as a Local Issue

Potholes, Petroleum, Pashtuns: Afghanistan as a Local Issue

Yes, all politics is indeed local — at the same time it is national and international. The interconnections are more numerous and important these days.

This is true for the major regional problem besetting us today. The bluefin tuna and other large fish that normally spawn in Gulf of Mexico waters probably will not show up this year off the New England coast. Another industry and region wrecked. And if the gushing oil gets into the Gulf loop and heads up the Atlantic coastline, it could drastically affect the ocean all the way to Europe, potentially killing millions, with the world’s climate altered in even more extreme ways.

Or even closer to home: I drive around my city and there are few major street pavings, rather short-term fixes; getting big potholes repaired used to be easy, but no more. No money. Cities are cutting police officers, fire stations are being closed, hundreds of public-school teachers laid off, county and state and city offices are shuttered on certain days, state parks and libraries are being closed, schools are deleting arts and sports programs, college aid money is scarce, levees and bridges are not maintained and strengthened, and on and on. In many ways, we’re resembling a third-world country.

Always $$ for Unnecessary Wars

Meanwhile, as the infrastructure and social services continue to collapse at home, and as the economic depression becomes the new normal, more than one trillion dollars has been spent on two unwinnable wars abroad. Wars that serve as recruiting tools for nationalist and jihadi extremists that will (unless we bring U.S. troops home) get those forces sucked further into the South Asia/ Middle East quicksand. Wars that will guarantee only more U.S. failure, more humiliation, more citizen anger.

Obama sacks his commanding general for Afghanistan and appoints an even more hard-nosed general to take his place. Petraeus will be the third military commander to try to win what can’t be won in Afghanistan. Apparently, it never dawns on Obama to maybe wonder why all these generals (and those of the Brits and Soviets before them) can’t bring home a victory: BECAUSE. THE. POLICY. IS. WRONG!

The Obama administration maintains that its goal is to deny a safe haven to Al Qaida in Afghanistan, which presumably would occur again if the Taliban were to take over the country. But even if one were to dismiss the logic behind that policy — does this mean America has to occupy and bomb Yemen and Somalia and countless other nations if Al- Qaida members are found in those countries? — the American campaign in Afghanistan is FUBAR to the max.

Trying to alter Afghan society within a few years, using an occupier’s threats and imperial blandishments to create a pro-Western democracy after several thousand years of built-in tribal and clan rule, is all too reminiscent of colonial arrogance and ignorance. (The U.S. can’t even figure out how to deal intelligently with the all-important Pashtuns, for example.) Such neo-colonialist strategies didn’t work then and won’t work now.

Yes, the American people might be easily led into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through lies or patriotic fervor, but they pretty quickly sus out rotten policy and aren’t willing to keep shelling out billions, trillions, and the blood of their sons and daughters for wars where there is no vital American interest involved, nothing that can be called a “victory,” and in the Long Depression where that money is needed at home. Moreover, millions, maybe billions, of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars indirectly wind up in the coffers of the Taliban: protection money to keep the supply convoys from being attacked on Afghanistan’s narrow roads.

Whose Survival Is at Risk?

And behind the chaos and confusion, President Obama keeps sending out double-headed messages. First he claims that the war in Afghanistan is absolutely vital to America’s security, but he’s only going to send another 30,000 troops and have them start coming home next year. That’s politics speaking. If he truly believed Afghanistan is a required, necessary war that we absolutely must wage to protect our vital national interests, he would dispatch a half-million U.S. troops there. But he knows the history of such foolhardiness in Vietnam and what the Brits and Soviets sufferred earlier in Afghanistan, and he doesn’t want to wind up in the same untenable place. So he sends 30,000 as a gesture and a hope. It’s not quite using young men and women as “cannon fodder,” but it’s close.

As a result, it’s becoming clear to an increasing number of citizens that while this is not a necessary war for America’s survival, maybe Obama feels it necessary for his second-term survival. To protect himself from the predictable Republican attack-line — that somehow the Democratic president is “weak on national defense” and “not protecting the troops” — Obama swallowed whole the CheneyBush policy he inherited. Rather than find a face-saving way out of the war, he went macho and doubled-down on it.

Obama has indicated that he’s aware that the best he can hope for in Afghanistan is an endless stalemated war — but providing enough time, he hopes, to defeat the Taliban while building up local democratic institutions and a strong police force. Thus the other half of his policy: to start exiting with honor (notably, months before the 2012 election) after giving the Petraeus/McChrystal surge a good go. And so more and more American troops are thrown down the rathole in search of an illusory hope that victory of some sort is possible. It isn’t, especially (as was true in Vietnam decades before) when American’s corrupt allies have not been able to earn the trust and support of their own people. As has happened so many times in American history, U.S. leaders are placing their bet on the wrong native leaders who, with U.S. help, brutalize and exploit the local citizenry, with the result that “the enemy” is provided a clearer shot to power.

Because of the likely departure of U.S. troops from current war zones in the foreseeable future — whether it’s mid-2011 or, because of the “situation on the ground,” somewhat later — the various native factions and leaders are engaged in a mad jockeying for position and alliances: Even Karzai is leaning toward an accomodation with the Taliban and likely Iran and Pakistan as well. Turkey (which is bombing the Kurds in northern Iraq) is exploring an arrangement with Iran and Syria. The Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq are as deep and intractable as ever, with Iran in the mix somewhere.

Would the World End?

Let’s look at the neo-cons’ worst-case scenario: If the U.S. were to send the bulk of its combat forces home (while leaving huge new embassies and a whole lot of residual troops at its hardened bases under “lease” arrangements with the local governments), would the world end? If Iran and Syria and Turkey were more active players in the region, would America be without influence? If Russia and China were to make alliances with Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan to partner with those countries to help extract the oil and gas and minerals in their lands, would this mean the U.S. would feel required to go to war against Russia and China to keep those natural resources from falling into the hands of the “bad guys”?

Even if some of those scenarios were to come about, the United States — by virtue of its size, economy, resources and military strength — would still be a pre-eminent force in the region and in the world. Note the “a,” not “the.” That change from the definite article to the indefinite is something Americans will have to get used to. The U.S. has gone from the last superpower left standing after the Cold War to a nation unsure how to use its enormous powers in a fast-changing geopolitical world.

History is, among other things, a record of who’s up and who’s down at various periods. No powerful empire remains intact and strong forever — not Rome, not the “Thousand-Year Reich” (which lasted 12 years), not Great Britain, not the Soviet Union, not the United States of America. For a wide variety of reasons — its military spread much too thin, native rebellions, climate change, new technologies, etc. — power shifts occur. In our time, we are witnessing the growing rise of nations like China, India, Brazil, perhaps Russia again, Iran and so on. The U.S., which looked safe and secure after the breakup of the Soviet Empire, is already locked in trade and military and political and culture battles with these rising countries.

The U.S., during the Know-Nothing CheneyBush eight-year reign, lost momentum in scientific research and technological development, while its industrial base was shipped overseas. It is possible that America’s leadership in innovation and engineering and scientific know- how can bring the country back again to its pre-eminent position in those areas, but in many ways other, less hidebound nations have moved ahead of the U.S. For example, consider the development of solar power in Germany and wind energy in Denmark.

Finding the Right Solutions

Talk about hidebound. The U.S. remains dedicated to military solutions in an era when traditional ways of dealing with recalcitrant locals (bombing them, imprisoning them, torturing them) simply don’t, and can’t, bring victory. All such military misadventures do is to highlight the muscle-bound nature of large nations in the face of asymmetrical opposition. The U.S. simply has not been willing to admit that its usual way of bullying and beating down opponents are ineffectual, expensive, endless, and that political and economic solutions are the only ones in the long run that bear any chance of success. (Today, Vietnam is a growing trading partner with the U.S.)

U.S. administrations can change generals in Afghanistan every year or two and still be tied down there forever. The policy has to change. There are hints that Obama knows this, but, for political reasons, is unable or unwilling to make the hard decision to do so. So the unwinnable war in Afghanistan goes on and on and on, taking down with it Americans’ sense of themselves as a moral, intelligent nation.

Something’s got to change, and ordinary American citizens — thinking globally while acting locally — have got to be the agents of that change if our leaders are to follow.

Copyright 2010, by Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, was a writer/ editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: [email protected]