Afghanistan riots over Koran Burning
Just when the war in Afghanistan threatened to become America’s silent war, one destined for the back pages or in the business section of our newspapers, violence erupted spilling the war out onto the front pages again, stimulated by new events; the news of Americans burning the Koran spread like a virulent contagion throughout the country and, at least for now, seems to pose a threat to American safety as well as the future of our war effort. It should bother everyone to see how our relationship with the Afghans can turn on a dime because there is no underlying set of mutual goals–only mutual distrust. Suddenly the horrific accounts of bombings, daring raids, roadside explosions and effective, deadly attacks by the Taliban, have given way to massive civil demonstrations and violence from Afghans, the very people we thought were on our side. The violent eruptions over the Koran burning demonstrates that our problems in Afghanistan are not just with the Taliban. In reality, they never were just about the Taliban or, for that matter, neither were they at one time just about Al Qaeda. Raw nerves exist throughout the country and increasingly, we hear about killings of American and NATO soldiers by Afghan soldiers and employees working inside the government. Just yesterday we learned that two American officers were killed in Kabul inside the Interior Ministry building, protected by heavy security. Many feel that it is no longer safe for Americans to be working alongside Afghans because of this danger. The recent officer killings were apparently committed by a worker employed within the Ministry (though he was not captured at the time of this writing) and reflects the growing tension between those we are attempting to bring into the government and military in hopes of entrusting them to sustain a functional civil society, even though it’s an American version of what we think they should have, as we pointedly emphasize why Afghans should raise the rent on properties owned by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But, no matter how hard we try, how much money we put into the country, we cannot achieve a sufficient level of security such that the country can put itself back together again. In that sense it’s an eery duplication of what we achieved in Iraq. Just call Afghanistan Iraq II. The major difference between the two is the difference between oil in the ground and a pipeline above ground.
The tension between American/NATO forces and Afghans has sharply escalated as a result of the Koran burnings, and the recent image of American soldiers urinating on the dead body of a resistance fighter has added to the outrage demonstrated in the streets. To Muslims, these acts fit the image they have of Americans and their presence in Afghanistan. Most Americans do not understand how much we are hated in that part of the world and when Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld formulated the word “islamofacism” to describe radicals in the region, it was very clear to Afghans that they were referring to all Muslims, not just a few radicals. We ignore the polls that tell us that we are viewed more as a threat to Afghan society, rather than an ally. Even President Karzi, the leader we installed, can’t make up his mind about us and we are desperately seeking a solution to this war that involves a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
In Eric Margolis’ book “American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World,” published in 2008, he attempts to provide the American public with a view of what people in the Middle East think of Americans and why we find conflicts in that region so difficult to resolve. We don’t have a problem starting a war in this region, usually associated with quick military victories and what seems like a triumphant victory. But then the problems begin. Margolis’ message is especially relevant as he has traveled all over the region, reporting and following in the footsteps of his mother who also was a journalist in the Middle East. Afghans understand that they will be there long after we leave and they also clearly understand that our motives are never pure, but always involve a financial benefit that serves our own interests. Our intrusion into Afghanistan and the problems that we are having in that region reflect the poorest public relations effort ever perpetrated from one country onto another. Before Muslims understood what we were really like, at the close of WWII, we were viewed as honest, hard-working Americans who lived up to the demands of their noble constitution. At one time, Muslims viewed us as a model for their own future. It did not take long however for them to understand that what we offered was merely a different form of hegemonic control. Afghans believe for example that the American motivation for invading their country was so that we could be dealing with a more compliant partner than the Taliban to allow the construction of a major pipeline through the region to distribute natural gas from the Caspian Sea and avoid the distribution system of the Russians. This deal was set to go through, but, in 1998 American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed by Al Qaeda, operating within Afghanistan, as Osama bin Laden had moved there from Sudan in 1996. The course of history changed that day.
Three years later, when 9/11 hit us, Al Qaeda probably had about 300 members and Afghans did not believe that the United States would declare war on so few people–but there were many Afghans who understood that the U.S. declared war on Afghanistan (an unofficial war of the type we have conducted ever since the close of WW II) to control the country and its future destiny with a pipeline. If this is a war that’s winding down, it’s winding down for us, not for the Taliban. They’re not going anyplace. If the “Long war” characterizes any side, it is that of the Taliban, not the Americans. We are war-wary and exhausted and no longer certain of our objectives in Afghanistan. Nation building? Counterinsurgency? Pacification? At one time or another these names have all appeared within our lexicon for the Afghan war, but like any buzz word they have all run their course, including the generalmania period of Patraeus and McChrystal. We no longer have a moniker for the war in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t mean our efforts are any less deadly to Afghanistans. The Taliban just have to wait until we leave, after which they know that the puppet government we have established will not offer significant resistance in our absence and Karzi himself would like to conclude a peace treaty with the Taliban before we leave. In the meantime, it’s the Taliban consider it their responsibility to extract as much pain and suffering from the U.S. Army troops as they have suffered underneath the boot of those same soldiers. As for accurate reporting about the war, you cannot trust the mild or even rosy reports of embedded journalists, which includes just about everyone, because their vision of the situation is that which the military insists they see. As an embedded journalist you see what the military wants you to see, their eyes are your eyes and, at least in Iraq, there were far too many examples of Congressman giving a televised tour of their visit to illustrate how safe it was, dressed in a full body armor suit, surrounded by sharp shooters lined up along the roofs of the aligning buildings. John McCain went to Iraq under such circumstances to announce that it looked like we were finally winning the war because of the “surge.” The far more dangerous non-embedded journalists are the ones we should seek out and, as I have noted previously, reports that come back from journalists like Jeremy Scahill (see below) do not suggest we are making significant progress in the war–quite the opposite. In the meantime we put lots of our efforts into destabilizing Pakistan, a much larger country than Afghanistan and one that comes with its own supply of nukes. In two more years, Obama has promised to end the war in Afghanistan. When General Patraeus was in charge, he promised, like GW Bush, to give us a new version of the “Long War.” Under his leadership, we went from the “shock and awe” policies of the Bush administration, courtesy of Donald Rumsfeld, with a heavy emphasis on technology, to the counter insurgency strategy and the “surge injections” of more troops. It is doubtful that this worked in Iraq when Patraeus tried it in 2006, but there is little question that the Afghanistan surge did not work and Patraeus is no longer running that war, but instead came home to run the CIA. No one is defending the surge in Afghanistan and our own estimate of the war is that it’s a “stalemate.”
In case you haven’t heard, the “Long War” is over–it died of natural causes and shear exhaustion. The Afghan war we are fighting now uses Special Forces and missile firing drones to take out suspected terrorists in an ever-increasing arch of countries in Africa. The new model for conducting the war in Afghanistan is based on the way in which we killed bin Laden last year. Should the Republicans mention the Middle East in this year’s Presidential election, they will mention Iran and avoid talking about Afghanistan, because Obama already killed bin Laden. The Republicans will be far more comfortable blaming the rising cost of gasoline on Obama (despite the fact that during Obama’s three years America’s production of oil has increased, not decreased), numb to the fact that their own rhetoric against Iran may have already contributed to the rising cost of oil.
If you want to read reports on the Afghan war from a non-embedded reporter, you need to seek out journalists such as Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley. These two reporters went to Afghanistan last year, arranged their own schedule and visits without military escort or a travel guide. Very few reporters take such risks. They reported last year that our military actions in Afghanistan were destroying our objective because we were killing too many Afghans and the opposition to our presence was building. We don’t hear about these events because they are carried out by Special Forces that conduct night-time raids and often kill whole families indiscriminately in retaliation for a nearby roadside bomb that went off in the neighborhood. In the Vietnam war we were outraged by the disaster of My Lai, but the way operations are carried out by Special Forces in Afghanistan, we just don’t hear about them, primarily because they are not written up. You cannot claim access through the Freedom of Information Act if nothing about the raid was written down. And, we don’t hear too much about drone strikes which are also becoming a new component of the way we conduct our wars. Despite our poor history in fighting and winning wars in the Middle East in the last decade, we will hear this year about how the Obama administration should be bombing Iran to prevent them from getting a nuclear capability, despite the fact that there’s no evidence they have one. This year the Republicans running for the Presidency have added incompetency to the list of their afflictions including the absence of any world view of politics or diplomacy.
It appears that Americans want to forget our war in Afghanistan and we are still in search of what or how a victory in that region of the world will be defined, no matter how it ends for the United States. At the moment, the war in Afghanistan seems like it will end like the war in Iraq: we will find some delusional way to declare a victory and leave the country in shambles, but perhaps we will have added a pipeline to the landscape of Afghanistan and recruited enough people to guard it. And of course we never mention how we have devastated the culture of Iraq and put some of its archeological sites under asphalt to make room for our war machine. Andrew Bacevich, writing in TomDispatch has recently characterized the history of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we prepare to engage terrorists on an expanded map, with new bases for drones without every asking why or what it is we plan to get out of it and whether it can be done that way under our constitution. The new war plan under the Obama administration is one in which the war will become a silent war, made by executive decisions over life and death of not just terrorists, but anyone the President feels is a threat to the United States. If America should suddenly lose her status as a superpower, I am convinced that the American public will be the last to find out about it. Since GW Bush, we have heightened the authority of our President to make life and death decisions over people we refer to as terrorists, including U.S. Citizens. This is too much authority to put into the hands of a single President. Now more than ever, we need to have Congress take back their abandoned authority, the one spelled out in the constitution–that only congress has the right to declare war and congress should review the military budget periodically–we have far to many black budget items in the military budget and far too little authority over defense spending.
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