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21 August 2008 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL : US policy in the Middle East

Washington’s ‘good war’ goes wrong


The approaching November presidential election in the US has offered hope to many people, both in the US and around the world, for substantial change in Washington’s foreign and domestic policies. If the Democrats’ presidential candidate Barack Obama overcomes the US Republicans’ race-baiting fear campaign and wins, it will be the first time an African-American, or a member of any oppressed minority group in the US, becomes president.
Current President George W.Bush has the lowest approval rating ever for a US president and Obama (which, as Fox news has pointed out, sounds an awful lot like ‘Osama’) promises “change we can believe in”. He is tapping into the rising anger among the American people over the Iraq disaster, the rising price of oil and cost of living, growing unemployment and poverty, and a two-tier system that denies millions of citizens basic health care.
Bush’s parting gifts to the next US administration are the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Democrats have had the opportunity to stop funding the war in Iraq since they won a majority in the November 2006 Congressional elections and have chosen not to do so – for two reasons. The first is a cynical view that allowing Bush’s Iraq policies to proceed unhampered – but roundly criticised – will win the Democrats the election.
And while Obama himself voted against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he and the rest of the Democrat leadership share Bush’s goal of establishing a pliant, pro-US regime in Iraq backed up by a long-term US military presence in the region. There’s no sign of “change we can believe in” on unconditional support for Israel. The Democrats are also careful to distinguish between the ‘bad’ (unpopular) war in Iraq and the ‘good’ NATO war in Afghanistan and Obama has called for a redeployment of troops from Iraq to ‘surge’ into Afghanistan – and Pakistan if need be.

Afghan insurgency
The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief recently reported that 2,500 people have been killed in fighting so far this year in Afghanistan with at least 1,000 of them civilians. US air strikes have risen by 40 per cent this year and such strikes have repeatedly hit groups of civilians. In July an air strike in Helmland province killed 47 people at a wedding party.
Even the Afghan president installed by the occupation forces, Hamid Karzai, has been forced to protest, saying “the use of air force in the war against terrorism in the Afghan villages will have no result but causing civilian casualties”.
Nobody knows how many Afghans have been killed since 2001 but estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. There are now more than 60,000 US and NATO troops in the country. In the painfully predictable pattern of occupation, as the troop numbers have risen, they’ve provoked a rise in attacks, sparking the cycle of repression and resistance.
The Taliban-led resistance to the occupation has strengthened significantly since they were ousted from government by the 2001 invasion, and armed attacks on NATO forces have increased by ten times since then. It is a standing joke in Afghanistan that President Karzai is referred to as “the mayor of Kabul” as the national government is effectively confined to the capital.

Opposition grows
The number of roadside bomb attacks has increased fivefold since 2004, and as the attacks grow in number they also grow closer to Kabul. The past three months have been the deadliest so far for US forces, and more than 500 American troops have now been killed with almost 100 killed this year. On 18 August, 10 French troops from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were killed in fighting and 87 British troops have been killed since 2001.
A clear indication of the deepening popular opposition to the occupation was made after a 4 July air strike that killed 22 civilians, when local people joined a group of more than 100 insurgents the following week in an attack on a US base near the border with Pakistan that killed nine US soldiers and wounded 15 more. While the Taliban was despised and feared by the majority of Afghan people when the fundamentalist movement ruled in a backward and brutal social dictatorship, it has experienced a resurgence in popularity based on its effective armed resistance to the occupation.
Almost half the population live in extreme poverty, on less than US$2 a day, and the UN estimates that more than 50 per cent of the country’s GDP is now made up by the drugs trade with both pro and anti-government forces getting in on the action. Ninety per cent of the world’s heroin supply now comes from Afghanistan’s poppy fields and Karzai is notoriously ‘soft’ on the drug barons (which reportedly includes his brother as well as large numbers of corrupt officials).
Barack Obama’s solution to the problems in Afghanistan is to send in 10,000 more US troops. Republican candidate John McCain has also pledged to up troop levels. Bush’s solution so far has been to blame Pakistan for the rising insurgency. Both Democrats and Republicans reject the notion of negotiation with anti-occupation forces, let alone a withdrawal of troops.
There is bipartisan support for this war because it provides the US with the opportunity to lead Europe in a united NATO effort – and to permanently maintain a large military presence in the heart of Central Asia under the terms of a deal signed with the Afghan government in 2005, in a country that borders China, Iran and Pakistan, and is close to Russia.

Unstable ally
You wouldn’t know it from Bush’s press briefing responding to the resignation of Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf on 18 August in which he forgot Musharraf’s name (“General ... uh ... General um ....I know he’s a general”) but Pakistan has been the US’s key ally in its Middle Eastern wars. The use of Pakistan as a base for the war on Afghanistan and the frequent border clashes – in one of which NATO troops recently killed 11 Pakistani soldiers – helped fuel the popular rejection of Musharraf’s rule and efforts to impeach him that prompted his resignation.
The ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party will face massive pressure from the US to continue Musharaff’s unpopular policies. A more democratic Pakistani government that obliged the wishes of its people and withdrew support for the wars in the region is not a happy scenario for the US. Instability may provide space for the frontier militants to get stronger. Certainly the resignation will make Pakistan’s support less reliable in the immediate future.
And in Baghdad the call for a definite date for a US troop withdrawal from the government the occupation has helped install and prop up has grown from polite suggestions to an insistent demand. The US is negotiating a status of forces agreement with Iraq (in order to have a ‘legal’ basis for its occupation after a UN mandate expires at the end of this year) in which it is demanding the right to maintain a permanent military presence in the country and have immunity from prosecution for its troops. In a major policy reversal for Bush, the agreement will have to include firm dates for the withdrawal of forces in order to be acceptable to the Iraqi government, which fears it will lose out to anti-occupation political forces in upcoming provincial elections if it agrees to anything less.


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