Anyone expecting a less hawkish approach from Obama to the occupation of Afghanistan will be sadly disappointed.His very first military act—three days after his inauguration—was to authorise a strike on houses inside of Pakistan by an unmanned Predator drone. This strike killed at least 23 people, including three children, and came in spite of a public plea from the Pakistan government for a reconsideration of the policy.
Winning in Afghanistan is a central priority of Obama’s administration. The new president has already approved the deployment of an extra 17,000 troops originally bound for Iraq and is considering the request of military chiefs for 13,000 more.
But the hope of “winning” is an illusion. The US is rapidly losing control of Afghanistan.
Acknowledging the problems for the US, Obama said the extra troops were “necessary to stabilise a deteriorating situation”.
Officially the administration is undertaking a review of strategy in Afghanistan. But as Obama’s decision to send more troops shows, ending the occupation is not one of the options. Obama has retained Robert Gates—the engineer of Bush’s “surge” in Iraq—as his defence secretary and promised to implement the troop surge during his election campaign. Obama has already lowered US goal in Afghanistan. He doesn’t talk of “nation building” like his predecessor, but of “keeping America safe”.
US support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai could be on the line as Obama looks to deal directly with local powerbrokers. The fortnightly video conference Karzai enjoyed with George Bush has been cancelled, while Hillary Clinton has criticised Afghanistan under his rule as a “narco state”.
There is no doubt Karzai is corrupt and unpopular, but his criticism of US air strikes that kill civilians, and his call to negotiate with the Taliban haven’t endeared him to White House officials.
Opposition to the occupation has already grown rapidly among the Afghan population, fueled by the failure to deliver economic development and by rising civilian causalities from US air strikes. Civilian deaths rose by 40 per cent last year, with 2118 people killed—the highest since the war began.
The number of coalition troops killed in Afghanistan has risen from 12 in 2001 to 294 in 2008. According to a UN map, almost half the country is now “extremely risky”—a classification that did not exist on the map three years earlier. The stakes are high and Afghanistan could well turn into Obama’s Vietnam.
Another big problem for Obama is Pakistan. The newly elected but unstable government there supports the US’s “war on terror”. Much of Pakistan’s population, however, who shares religious, historical and cultural ties with Afghanistan, is sympathetic to the insurgency. The more the US carries out unilateral strikes into Pakistan—killing civilians in the process—the more precarious the position of the government becomes. The instability in Afghanistan could well engulf the nuclear armed Pakistan.
While Obama uses the same old “war on terror” rhetoric to justify the war, behind this is a continued commitment to maintaining US global hegemony. A decisive win in Afghanistan would send a clear message to the world that the US is still the number one superpower, in spite of its failure in Iraq.
One indication of the US’s flagging influence in the region was the recent decision by Kyrgyzstan to close down a US air base there. Pentagon officials see it as an example of Russia’s meddling. The closure of this base will force the US to become more reliant on supply lines through the already treacherous Pakistan border region.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan, already thinks a decisive military victory is impossible and is arguing for the US to negotiate with the Taliban.
White House officials, however, are not listening. Instead they’ve been touring European capitals trying to get their reluctant NATO allies to carry more of the burden there.
Australia has already increased its commitment in Afghanistan following the downsizing of its commitment in Iraq. Rudd, like Obama, sees Afghanistan as the main game. No new request has yet been made for more Australian troops but Rudd has left the door wide open, committing Australia “for a long haul”. Anti-war activists in Australia need to start preparing now to build opposition. We too need to be prepared for a long haul.
By Mark Gillespie