By William Pfaff

The increasingly dangerous Afghanistan situation is worth analysis at two levels, that of the war itself, the ultimately doomed attempt by the United States to conquer the Taliban insurrection and impose a pro-American government, and the domestic political effect of Barack Obama's misguided decision to replace "Bush's war" in Iraq with "Obama's war" in Afghanistan.

The former rested on the fiction that Saddam Hussein threatened the United States and Israel with weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan intervention is being promoted by the yet more extravagant fantasy that America and the world are potentially threatened by Taliban-controlled Pakistani nuclear weapons.

The recent political focus has been on the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the man whose counterinsurgency policy he was supposed to be carrying out, Gen. David Petraeus, former chief of the U.S. Army's Central Command, and principal author of current American military doctrine on insurgent warfare.

This doctrine proposes defeating an insurgency by systematically clearing with regular troops a given area under insurgent domination, then establishing there, with the help of a "surge" of American civilian nation-builders, a new representative and responsive democratic political structure, while American troops, with local soldiers and police, move on to "take" another insurgent-held area so as to clear out the insurgents there.

This is classic anti-guerilla warfare, employed by the U.S. in the Philippines in 1899-1902, in Vietnam in the later 1960s and 1970s, and as part of the "Sunni Awakening" movement in Iraq. It is totally dependent upon the political context in which it functions, which is largely hostile today in Afghanistan. The current object of American attention is the area of Marja, which Gen. McChrystal promised to clear and hold -- bringing in a civilian "government in a box" to its welcoming inhabitants. Next was to be Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. But U.S. forces opened the Marja box, found it contained nothing, and because the area has not yet been satisfactorily cleared, the Taliban have re-infiltrated.

The commentator Ray McGovern, a longtime CIA officer become critic of America's contemporary wars, has suggested (in the online magazine Truthout, June 25) that Gen. McChrystal's seemingly foolhardy dalliance with a Rolling Stones left-wing journalist, leading to the general's dismissal, may have actually been a calculated method to abandon what he had come to judge a sinking American ship in Afghanistan.

President Obama's replacement of McChrystal with Gen. Petraeus astutely protected the president from Republican attack, but could also be seen, from the electoral perspective, as a double coup.

Both generals have in the past indicated presidential ambitions, and now McChrystal is disgraced and out, and if McChrystal's supposed pessimism about the military situation is accurate, Petraeus, who formulated the Afghanistan strategy, is the man who will sink with the ship.

There will be no general to challenge the president unless McChrystal (who is said to have voted for Obama in 2008), were to offer himself to the Republicans in 2012. A general on his way to success, stabbed in the back by leftist journalists, jettisoned by a liberal administration composed of those un-American aliens-who-govern-us, ready to surrender to terrorism, strikes me as a more promising Republican presidential candidate than Sarah Palin, never convincing as a national candidate, and by 2012 hopelessly shopworn.

Afghanistan's war now is out of America's political control, even as tens of thousands of U.S. troops arrive, and the mammoth bases that have become essential to U.S. military operations are being constructed. They will be there when the Obama-ordered "top-to-bottom" policy review takes place in December. By then a great deal can have happened, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai pursues a political settlement with certain Taliban and other warlords and ethnic leaders in his country, and what's left of the old Northern Alliance, and indirectly with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency that has always been involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As for al-Qaida, it is now a phantom which manifests its existence chiefly in Washington think tanks and editorial offices. Afghanistan and Pakistan will do what is best for them.

The ambition among the most important of those who actually live in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and are unwilling to see both countries torn apart by an American war machine historically conditioned to function at full blast with maximum destruction, is what the head of Pakistan's army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, calls a "grand national reconciliation" in Afghanistan (see the Paris daily Le Figaro, June 29). American troops, The New York Times tells us, are glad to see McChrystal gone because he relentlessly opposed indiscriminate use of airpower and artillery against peasant guerrillas, since blowing up the house and family of anyone who shoots at an American is much the safest way for infantry to advance, but does not make citizens friendly.

Higher military and political ranks in Washington remain obsessed with Afghanistan's strategic position and resources, and with the danger of Pakistan, with its own Taliban domestic threat, its nuclear weapons, and its huge and intensely nationalistic army which, by and large, hates and fears the United States. This could explode into a new war should the United States move into Pakistan territory in its quest to kill "violent extremists" and control nuclear weapons. Anatol Lieven's article on Pakistan, which he knows well, in the May-June issue of The National Interest magazine, is essential reading.

Barack Obama's "right war" points toward an even bigger disaster.

The only solution is for Obama to keep his promise to leave Afghanistan in 2011 -- at the latest.


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© William Pfaff

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