If This Becomes Obama's War, It Will Poison His Presidency

The armed assault on Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore has been a
brutal demonstration, if any more were needed, that the war on terror
is devouring itself and the states that have been sucked into its
slipstream. Pakistan is both victim and protagonist of the conflict in Afghanistan,
its western and northern fringes devastated by a US-driven
counter-insurgency campaign, its heartlands wracked by growing violence
and deepening poverty. The country now shows every sign of slipping out
of the control of its dysfunctional civilian government - and even the
military that has held it together for 60 years.

Presumably, that
was part of the intended message of the group that carried out
Tuesday's terror spectacle. But the outrage also fits into a
well-established pattern of attacks carried out in revenge for the
army's devastation of the tribal areas on the Afghan border, where
thousands have been killed and up to half a million people forced to
flee from the fighting with the Pakistani Taliban. Hostility to this
onslaught has been inflamed by the recent revelation that US aerial
drone attacks on supposed terrorist hideouts have in fact been launched
from a base in Pakistan itself, with the secret connivance of president
Asif Zardari, as well as across the border from occupied Afghanistan.

to paint Pakistan's convulsions as a conflict between moderates and
extremists obscure the reality that elements of the Pakistani state are
operating on both sides, whatever their nominal allegiance. Now that
Pakistan faces its own blowback from the Afghan war and the Taliban it
helped create, its military intelligence is trying to redirect its
wayward offspring back to fight what are supposed to be Pakistan's own
US and British allies in Afghanistan on the other side of the border.
The Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar's call on his Pakistani followers
this week to stop attacks on the Pakistani army and join the battle to
"liberate Afghanistan from occupation forces" reflects that pressure.

the face of it, the situation could hardly be more bizarre. But it is
only one byproduct of the systematically counterproductive nature of
western policy across the wider region since 2001. After seven years of
lawless invasion and occupation, the war on terror is everywhere in
ruins. The limits of American military power have been laid bare in the
killing fields of Iraq; Iran has been transformed into the pre-eminent
regional power; Hezbollah and Hamas have become the most important
forces in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories; a resurgent Taliban
is leading an increasingly effective guerrilla war in Afghanistan; and
far from crushing terror networks, the US and its allies have spread
them to Pakistan.

Barack Obama's rise to power is a product of
that record of failure: without his opposition to the Iraq war he would
not be president. And since his inauguration, he has signalled
potentially important shifts in US foreign policy,
while ditching the rhetoric of the war on terror. Obama's moves to open
a dialogue with Syria and Iran, his apparent willingness to trade
missile defence in eastern Europe for Russian support on Iran's nuclear
programme and his statement about "how the war in Iraq will end" all
suggest real movement.

But although the belligerent language has
gone, what is striking is the continuity, rather than the breach, with
the main elements of George Bush's war on terror. Obama's timetable for
withdrawal of troops from Iraq mirrors last November's status of forces
agreement between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government,
including in his stated "intention" to pull out all troops by the end
of 2011. And, as after last year's deal, that was quickly qualified by
the continuity US defence secretary, Robert Gates, who said he would
like to see a "modest" US military presence stay on thereafter - if the
Iraqi government requested it, of course.

Mercifully, Obama's
announcement that the occupation of Iraq would continue for at least
three more years was accompanied by none of the attempts to whitewash
the war offered by Britain's Lieutenant-General John Cooper, who told
the Guardian that UK troops would leave Iraq this year "in a better
position" - after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and
four million made refugees. But in the crucible of conflict in the
Middle East, between Israel and the Palestinians, there is also little
sign as yet of any substantive change in US policy: whether on lifting
the continuing siege of Gaza or talking to the Palestinians' elected
representatives, let alone using US leverage to bring an end to illegal
Israel colonisation of the West Bank or end its occupation.

it is in Afghanistan that the new US administration is on the point of
compounding, rather than reversing, the failures of the war on terror.
Obama has already committed himself to sending 17,000 more US troops,
an increase of almost 50%, with the prospect of a similar number again
later in the year. He did at least promise escalation in his election
campaign, which is more than can be said for British ministers when
they despatched thousands of extra troops to Helmand in 2006.

there is not the remotest prospect that a "surge" of this scale - aimed
at propping up a corrupt Afghan administration the US and its allies
openly despise - can pacify the country or crush Taliban-led Pashtun
resistance - though it will surely boost the civilian death toll,
running at more than 2,000 last year. It's also not what Afghans or
Americans want, according to opinion polls, and it will certainly
increase the destabilisation of an already precarious Pakistan, which
will be the sanctuary for even more Taliban fighters as they are
harried by American occupation forces.

The grip of conservative
Islamism on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is the legacy
not just of George Bush, of course, but decades of US meddling in the
region, and its sponsorship of the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s
in particular. What Obama has inherited from Bush's war on terror is an
arc of US and western-backed occupation from Palestine to Pakistan. If
the administ-ration's current review of "Afpak" policy were to lead to
the negotiations with the Taliban Obama has hinted at and a wind-down
of the occupation, that would cut the ground from under Pakistan's own
insurgency. But if Afghanistan becomes Obama's war, it risks poisoning
his presidency - just as Vietnam did for Lyndon Johnson more than 40
years ago.

© 2023 The Guardian