The problems faced by Barack Obama’s administration in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq owe much to George W Bush’s catastrophic legacy.
(This article was first published on 14 May 2009 in OpenDemocracy)
Barack Obama approaches the end of his fourth month in power with the full impact of the legacy of the George W Bush administration across the middle east and south Asia only now becoming clear. The dispute over the publication of over forty photos of maltreated prisoners of the United States held in an earlier period of the post-2001 “war on terror” – in which the president appears to have acceded to the wishes of the army – is but a small index of how inescapable and toxic is this legacy.
More widely, events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are conspiring to present Washington with a stack of renewed problems. An upsurge of violence in Iraq reflects three ominous trends. First, the paramilitary transit route from Syria into Iraq is (after a lull of several months) operating again – bringing in young men from across the region, many of them willing to be “martyr-bombers” (see Karen de Young, “Terrorist Traffic Via Syria Again Inching Up”, Washington Post, 11 May 2009).
Second, the process of releasing most of the 30,000 alleged insurgents held without trial in US detention camps is now underway. There is insufficient evidence to try the great majority in Iraqi courts; and while there have been various training programmes, Iraqi sources claim that many of the freed men have already turned to violence (see “Hope for the best when they go free”, Economist, 7 May 2009). But even if the consequences are uncertain, letting go most of the detainees is a necessary part of the United States’s military drawdown.
Third, the fate of most of the 100,000 or so members of the Sahwa (the Sunni “awakening movement”) who collaborated with US forces in facing down al-Qaida and other radical groups is in question. Their payments by US forces have stopped; their expectation of being given jobs in the Iraqi government’s security forces or elsewhere in the civil service has in most cases not been fulfilled. Furthermore, there are repeated claims that many are actually being targeted by the Iraqi security forces, now drawn mainly from Shi’a communities or are Kurds. The result, inevitably, is the beginning of a renewed insurgency (see Dahr Jamail, “Laying the Groundwork for Violence”, Truthout, 7 May 2009).
The Obama administration still aims to withdraw most of the United States combat-troops by 2011, but it is also clear that the US intends to have a major political role in Iraq for many years to come. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Baghdad on 10 May and promised “intense political involvement” (see Anthony Shadid & Nada Bakri, “Pelosi, in Surprise Visit to Baghdad, Promises ‘Intense’ U.S. Political Role”, Washington Post, 11 May 2009).
Such long-term involvement is inevitable given the overarching importance of the Persian Gulf region and its oil reserves; Iraq alone has nearly four times the reserves of the entire United States including Alaska. True, the Obama administration recognises this vulnerability and – recognising both the import-dependency and climate-change factors – is intent on weaning the United States off its oil addiction. But if ending this addiction may well downgrade the significance of the Persian Gulf, it will be far from easy to accomplish.
An early step is the carbon-emissions control legislation that will be going to Congress in the coming weeks. This is aimed at limiting climate change, but will also have an inevitable impact on the oil industry; little wonder that the reaction of the oil companies has been massive. They and other energy interests are determined to curb the plans and have increased the lobbying budget on Capitol Hill by 50% – to $44.5 million – in the first three months of 2009 (see Suzanne Goldenberg, “Barack Obama’s key climate bill hit by $45m PR campaign”, Guardian, 13 May 2009).
Two forms of warfare
If Iraq is a major problem, then the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a great deal worse. This is revealed in the sacking – after only one year in post – of the commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, General David D McKiernan, on 11 May 2009. This abrupt decision is indicative of the deep unease in Washington over the deteriorating security situation on both sides of the border. His replacement, Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, is a counter-terrorism specialist with considerable experience in Iraq; since the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflicts are much more a matter of large-scale insurgencies than “terrorism”, it remains to be seen how far his expertise will match the US’s predicament.
The difference is key: counterinsurgency operations try to combine political, economic and military elements, whereas counter-terrorism is much more about targeting the leadership of paramilitary groups rather than undercutting the support for the groups. General McChrystal may well adopt the latter approach, though this would entail a departure from his previous experience (see Gareth Porter, “US choice hardly McChrystal clear”, Asia Times, 13 May 2009). This could include an increase in leadership targeting, with all the risks that entails: the air-strike in western Farah province on 5 May that is reported to have killed as many as 123 people is another example of the “collateral damage” that serves as a Taliban recruiting-agent (see “Pakistan: sources of turmoil”, 28 April 2009).
An indication of the level of insecurity is the surge in US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, now moving towards 80,000 – with the possibility of many more to come. The conditions across the border in Pakistan are even more serious. Pakistan’s army responded to strong pressure from Washington by launching on 26 April 2009 a major operation in Swat and other districts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as well as parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The level of force the army has used – including extensive use of strike-aircraft, helicopter-gunships and artillery – is extraordinary. As many as 700 militants may have been killed in a matter of days, with many of the Taliban elements caught by surprise by the sheer intensity of the firepower (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban on the run in Swat”, Asia Times, 11 May 2009). Many civilians have also lost their lives, and in a major crisis of internal displacement hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes as villages are flattened by the bombardments.
The character of the operation is predictable in that the Pakistani army is essentially organised on the premise of protecting the country from India through large-scale conventional military operations. This is a very long way from counterinsurgency; and while the Taliban may retreat, they will surely regroup with even greater support (see Antonio Giustozzi, “The neo-Taliban: a year on”, 11 December 2008).
In their propaganda counter-offensive, the Taliban – and al-Qaida – are bound to highlight the fact that Pakistan’s military recruits its soldiers mainly from the Punjab, and can readily be seen by Pashtuns (who compose the vast majority of Taliban supporters) as part of a Pakistani/American army of occupation (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Al-Qaeda seizes on Taliban’s problem”, Asia Times, 7 May 2009).
Indeed, one of the main aims of al-Qaida propaganda has been the project of convincing Taliban paramilitaries – in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike – that they are part of a global war for Islam. In this sense the “fusion” of ethnic, military and ideological issues in the current conflict could benefit both the “Pashtun nationalist” and the “universalist jihadi” elements of the militant opposition to the United States-Pakistan efforts.
A poisoned cup
In any event, the Pakistani army is not capable – even if its officer corps thought it desirable – of conducting successful counterinsurgency operations. It is very likely that the current bombardment is more a matter of keeping Washington off Islamabad’s back than really seeking to subdue the Taliban. But whatever the “real” motivation, the longer-term consequence will be much greater resistance to the Pakistani state.
The Pakistani army’s offensive in Swat appears to have been accompanied by a greater closeness to the American ally. But the news that for the first time, the US has furnished Islamabad with surveillance information gathered from pilotless drones – only days after General David H Petraeus announced a review of the use of drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the extensive civilian casualties they have caused – is more than outweighed by the deeper and longer-term problems in the relationship (see “Drone wars”, 16 April 2009).
If and when the Barack Obama administration realises this, its outlook will become even more uncomfortable. Even now, there may be a recognition in its inner circles that this war cannot be won. If that is the case, McChrystal’s appointment might make a strange kind of sense – in an unwinnable war, there is logic in trying to kill as many of the enemy’s leaders as possible in order to maintain some degree of control, whatever the civilian casualties.
Much of the attention of Barack Obama’s first four-year term will be on domestic issues. But the difficulties his administration faces in the middle east and south Asia will continue to force themselves onto the president’s agenda. As with the kerfuffle over whether to release photos of detainees, the legacy of the George W Bush administration lies at the root of Obama’s most urgent foreign-policy predicament. In time, some aides in and around the White House may come to feel that this was a presidential election it might have been better to lose.