THE ROVING EYE Obama's brave (new?) world
By Pepe Escobar
WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is the man
with the plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidential in tone and delivery,
quoting Harry S Truman and Dean Acheson, George Kennan and George Marshall -
the greatest generation - Obama, in a major foreign policy speech in Washington
on Tuesday, outlined what he calls his "new overarching strategy".
He said he would "focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America
safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaeda
and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and
rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to
meet the challenges of the 21st century".
To say that Obama's plan - sketched earlier in an op-ed piece for The New York
Times - is more realistic, thoughtful and sensible than that of rival
Republican Senator John McCain's "road to victory" in Iraq would be an
But ... the devil in those (brave) details
Does Obama's proposed redeployment in Iraq automatically translate into no US
troops in Mesopotamia by the summer of 2010?
No. It translates into "a residual force to perform specific missions in Iraq:
targeting any remnants of al-Qaeda; protecting our service members and
diplomats; and training and supporting Iraq's security forces, so long as the
Iraqis make political progress."
There are many problems with this proposition. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is just a
component of the Islamic State of Iraq - an umbrella jihadi organization.
Al-Qaeda has no more than 1,000 jihadis in total. Moderate Sunnis could get rid
of them whenever they feel like it. Obama even admits "true success will take
place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its
future - a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the
al-Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not re-emerge."
So if Iraqis are in charge of their own security, one doesn't need US soldiers
who, by the way, did not beat back al-Qaeda; US taxpayer's money, distributed
to the Sunni Awakening Councils to the tune of US$300 a month for each former
Obama also does not explain how many soldiers will be part of his US "residual
force" in Iraq. Hundreds? Thousands? Without speaking Arabic, with no access to
local intelligence, mistrusted by local populations, what exactly would they be
doing stranded in the desert sands? And who will judge who is a terrorist and
who's not? The government in Baghdad or, once again, Washington?
Now for those lofty goals
US corporate media have given a blank check to McCain on foreign policy. McCain
is a war hero masterfully playing the likable guy role and the media fall for
it like babies. As for McCain's policies, essentially they spell the "surge" in
troops in Iraq is working, the war may go on for 100 years, we're on the way to
"victory", and let's bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.
Obama for his part recognizes that "in fact - as should have been apparent to
President [George W Bush] and Senator McCain - the central front in the war on
terror is not Iraq, and it never was."
The problem is that, for Obama, the central front is Afghanistan. That's when
he runs into trouble - when he has to tackle the "broader strategic goals".
Obama promised he would "send at least two additional combat brigades to
Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions - with fewer
restrictions - from NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies".
Obama suggests tenuous hints of a mini-Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, already
promised - and not delivered - by the Bush administration after the fall of the
Taliban in late 2001: "That's why I've proposed an additional $1 billion in
non-military assistance each year, with meaningful safeguards to prevent
corruption ... We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narco-terrorism."
But Obama essentially frames the US mission in Afghanistan as a fight against
al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The problem is, the US has not captured any major
al-Qaeda operative in the area for a long time. And the historical al-Qaeda
leadership is ensconced either in the Waziristans or in Chitral - Pakistani
tribal areas, not Afghanistan.
So what purpose would serve Obama's extra 10,000 US troops in search and
destroy missions in eastern Afghanistan - bound to inflict inevitable, non-stop
"collateral damage" to loads of Pashtun civilian peasants and villagers?
Even the Pentagon now openly admits it is fighting an asymmetrical war in
Afghanistan against a motley crew of Taliban, disgruntled Pashtun tribal chiefs
and warlords financed by US intelligence in the 1980s - from Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar to the Haqqanis. This has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. It's about
fiercely independent Afghans refusing what they identify as foreign occupation
- by the US and NATO. This is symmetrical to Sunnis and Shi'ites fighting
foreign occupation in Iraq.
Obama is a big fan of NATO. He says. "We need a stronger and sustained
partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to
take out terrorist camps, and to crack down on cross-border insurgents."
Barnett Rubin of New York University, arguably the top US expert on
Afghanistan, would tell Obama that the key to solve the "war on terror" is not
Iraq. But it's not Afghanistan either. It is Pakistan.
Obama seems to agree, when he says he's "co-sponsoring a bill with Joe Biden
and Richard Lugar to triple non-military aid to the Pakistani people and to
sustain it for a decade, while ensuring that the military assistance we do
provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda".
But Obama seems to ignore that Pakistan is a feudal society run by roughly 50
families where the only solid institution is the army - and the intelligence
services. Even the Council on Foreign Relations, in a new report on the tribal
areas along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, admits "the Pakistani government
lacks the political, military or bureaucratic capacity to fix the tribal areas
on its own".
Obama for his part is unable to spell out how - with just a fistful of dollars
- he'll be able to "fix" tribal areas that have been living in fierce
independence for centuries. Even assuming the money would reach the tribal
areas, it is not certain it would erase the structural root of "terror" -
social inequality in a rugged, impoverished land.
So Obama's "broader strategic goals" include an unspecified "residual force" in
Iraq and more combat brigades in Afghanistan. Is this so radically different
from McCain? Obama in fact may have given away his true position in April,
during General David Petraeus' US Senate hearings. That's when Obama, face to
face, asked Petraeus, the head US military man in Iraq, a truly revealing
question - ignored by US corporate media:
"When you have finite resources you have got to define your goals tightly and
modestly ... you don't necessarily have to answer this, maybe this is a
rhetorical question. If we are able to have the status quo in Iraq right now
without US troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success? It's
obviously not perfect, there is still violence, there are still traces of
al-Qaeda, Iran has influence more than we would like, but if we have the
current status quo and yet our troops have been brought down to 30,000, would
you consider that as success, would that meet our criteria or would that not be
good enough and we have to devote even more resources to it?"
The current status quo in Iraq - and with at least 30,000 "residual" US troops.
Withdrawal it isn't. Is this "change we can believe in", part of a new
"overarching strategy" - or is this the same status quo as defined by half a
century of continuous, many would say imperial, US foreign interference?