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Afghanistan, the Next US Quagmire?

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The United States is planning to send an additional 17,000 troops to one of the world's most battle-scarred nations - Afghanistan - long described as "a graveyard of empires".

First, it was the British Empire, and then the Soviet Union. So, will the United States be far behind?

"With his new order on Afghanistan, President (Barack) Obama has given substantial ground to what Martin Luther King Jr., in 1967 called 'the madness of militarism'", Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS.

"That madness should be opposed in 2009," said Solomon, author of 'War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.'

The proposed surge in U.S. troops will bring the total to 60,000, while the combined forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including troops from Germany, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, amount to over 32,000.

When in full strength, U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan could reach close to 100,000 by the end of this year.

Still, in a TV interview Tuesday, Obama said he was "absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban (insurgency), the spread extremism in that region solely through military means."

"If there is no military solution, why is the administration's first set of decisions to continue drone attacks and increase ground troops?" Marilyn B. Young, a professor of history at New York University, told IPS.

She said the uncertainty around Afghan policy seems to be spreading even while the Obama administration announces an increase in troops.

"This is one of the ways events seem to echo U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War," said Young, author of several publications, including 'Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past'.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report revealing that in 2008, there were 2,118 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, an increase of almost 40 percent over 2007.

Of these casualties, 55 percent of the overall death toll was attributed to anti-government forces, including the Taliban, and 39 percent to Afghan security and international military forces.

"This is of great concern to the United Nations," the report said, pointing out that "this disquieting pattern demands that the parties to the conflict take all necessary measures to avoid the killing of innocent civilians."

During his presidential campaign last year, Obama said the war in Iraq was a misguided war.

The United States, he said, needs to pull out of Iraq, and at the same time, bolster its troops in Afghanistan, primarily to prevent the militant Islamic fundamentalist Taliban from regaining power and also to eliminate safe havens for terrorists.

But most political analysts point out that Afghanistan may turn out to be a bigger military quagmire for U.S. forces than Iraq.

Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy said Obama's moves on Afghanistan have "the quality of a moth toward a flame."

In the short run, Obama is likely to be unharmed in domestic political terms. But the policy trajectory appears to be unsustainable in the medium-run, he added.

"Before the end of his first term, Obama is very likely to find himself in a vise, caught between a war in Afghanistan that cannot be won and a political quandary at home that significantly erodes the enthusiasm of his electoral base while fueling Republican momentum," Solomon argued.

Dr. Christine Fair, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation and a former political officer with UNAMA in Kabul, told IPS she is doubtful that more troops will secure Afghanistan.

"Perhaps several years ago more troops would have been welcomed. My fear is that more troops means more civilian losses and further erosion of good will and support for the international presence," Fair said.

"I would personally prefer a move from kinetics and towards using this increased capacity to help build Afghan capacity," she noted.

"I also think greater support from the international community for reconciliation is needed. Afghans need to own this process," said Fair, a former senior research associate with the Centre for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.N. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington.

However, she said, the international community has legitimate interests in remaining in some capacity to ensure that Afghanistan does not again emerge as a safe haven for al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.

Fair also co-authored (along with Seth Jones) a USIP report released early this week, titled 'Securing Afghanistan', which spelled out the reasons why international stabilisation efforts have not been successful in Afghanistan over the last seven years.

"Security issues in Afghanistan are extraordinarily complex, with multiple actors influencing the threat environment - among them, insurgent groups, criminal groups, local tribes, warlords, government officials and security forces," the report said.

Afghanistan also presents a multi-front conflict that includes distinct security challenges in the northern, central and southern parts of the country, the study declared.

In Afghanistan, Solomon argued, the U.S. president is proceeding down a path that can only be too steep and not steep enough.

The basic contradiction of his current position - asserting that the situation cannot be solved by military means yet taking action to try to solve the problem by military means - signifies that Obama is bargaining for short-term wiggle room at the expense of longer-term rationality, he added.

"In a very real sense, Obama is kicking a bloody can down the road, unable to think of any other way to confront circumstances that will grow worse with time in large measure because of his actions now," he said.

Even while disputing some thematic aspects of the "war on terrorism" at times, Obama is reinvesting his political capital - and re-dedicating the Pentagon's mission - on behalf of a U.S. war effort that is probably doomed to fail on its own terms, Solomon said.

"Reliance on violence is a chronic temptation for a commander-in-chief with the mighty U.S. military under its command. We've seen the results in Iraq - or, more precisely, the people of Iraq and many American soldiers have seen and suffered the results," he added.

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