THE ROVING EYE Obama's Afghan Spaghetti Western
By Pepe Escobar
As the Barack Obama administration releases the details of its strategic review
of Afghanistan's "good war", an acronym-plagued global public opinion is
confronted with a semantic dilemma: what in the world is happening to George W
Bush's "global war on terror" (GWOT), then slyly rebranded by the Pentagon as
"The Long War" (TLW)?
It all started when a mid-level bureaucrat in the Obama administration's Office
of Management and Budget (OMB) sent an e-mail to the Pentagon stressing the
White House was finally axing GWOT and giving birth to the delightfully
Orwellian Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).
As it happens, no Taliban will be OCOed - at least for the
moment. The White House and the Pentagon still rely on GWOT. Pentagon press
secretary Geoff Morrell was adamant: "I've never received such a directive."
Asked by a reporter what nomenclature he would prefer, Morrell took no
prisoners: "Another way to refer to it would be, you know, a campaign against
extremists who wish to do us harm." So exit GWOT, enter CAEWWTDUH.
What's in a name?
There's still no evidence that the Obama administration's new strategy will be
all-out CAEWWTDUH. Or that the US-backed international conference on
Afghanistan in The Hague next Tuesday - which Iran has confirmed it will attend
- will go CAEWWTDUH. Or that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
summit in Brussels next Friday will re-evaluate all its CAEWWTDUH options.
It's widely accepted in acronym-infested US foreign policy circles that what's
happening in the Afghanistan-Pakistani theatre are in fact three overlapping
wars. But the Shakespearean doubt remains: are they CT or COIN?
Afghanistan itself is certainly privileged COIN (counter-insurgency) territory
- as per Bush's "main man", Central Command supremo General David "I'm always
positioning myself to 2012" Petraeus strategy. And so are the tribal areas, the
Pakistani North-West Frontier Province and now parts of the Punjab as far as
the offensive against the neo-Taliban Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah are
concerned. But there's also CT (counter-terrorism) going on in the tribal areas
focusing on a few dozen "historic" al-Qaeda, including lecturer-in-chief Ayman
al-Zawahiri and elusive icon Osama "dead or alive" bin Laden.
Strategically reviewed or not, what is de facto happening in the Afghan theater
of CAEWWTDUH during the Obama administration - courtesy of Petraeus, a "The
Long War" (TLW) General if there ever was one - is nothing but a remix of a
British Raj policy of buying off peace with Afghan tribes as a means to bide
time until a way is found to smash them to pieces. It didn't work for the Brits
and there's no evidence it will work for the Americans and NATO.
As for Taliban and neo-Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, it's irrelevant if
from now on they are designated as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)
targets or the principals in CAEWWTDUH. They don't fight acronyms; they fight
"Western invaders". So in the interests of neo-realism, let's examine how
CAEWWTDUH - or OCO, or plain old COIN - are faring when applied to a crucial
microcosm of the vast Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, the western Afghanistan
region around Herat.
Calling Sergio Leone
To sum it all up, the whole picture looks like nothing less than an Afghan
version of a Sergio Leone-directed, Ennio Morricone-scored The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly. Move over, Spaghetti Western, and call it a deadly Spaghetti
There are three military bases ("camps" in Pentagon terminology) in western
Afghanistan. One is American. The other one is Afghan (these two are basically
forts in the middle of nowhere, manned by no more than 100 soldiers). And the
most important - the regional command of NATO/International Security Assistant
Force (ISAF) troops - is Italian.
Only in the first two months of 2009, "hostile acts" against Westerners -
chiefly car bombs and improvised explosive devices - in this "Italian" zone
around Herat were up by 50%. General Paolo Serra commands a multinational force
of only 3,000 men (half of them Italian) who are charged to control an area the
size of northern Italy.
Only 600 of these - Italian and Spanish - are actually soldiers. Total forces
in the area number 10,000 men - including American and Afghan soldiers and
1,000 Afghan policemen. Everyone familiar with the war theater remembers that
during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad the Soviets had 10 times more men - with
subsequent well-known results.
The best roads in Afghanistan are in the Herat region - because of Iranian
investment; after all this used to be a very important satrapy of the Persian
empire. The border at Eslam Qal'eh is only a 40-minute drive from Herat. The
whole region is absolutely strategic for Iran. It straddles a New Silk Road.
Iran wants Central Asian trade and commerce - from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and
Turkmenistan - flowing to Iranian ports instead of Pakistani ports.
And then there's the all-encompassing Pipelineistan angle. Iran - as well as
Russia - has no interest whatsoever in seeing the construction of the
perennially troubled, US-backed, $7.6 billion
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline that would cross
western Afghanistan east of Herat and advance south through Taliban-controlled
territory towards Pakistani Balochistan province.
So no wonder the Iranian secret service is absolutely ubiquitous. And its best
ally in the region is none other than legendary anti-Soviet mujahid warlord
Ishmail Khan - with whom President Hamid Karzai in Kabul has been clashing
virtually non-stop since 2002.
For the Italians, the black - not olive - oil in the pizza is not Iran, but the
"Taliban", a true portmanteau word. In an ultra-remote base in Bala Murghah, a
village very close to the Turkmenistan border in what is now Taliban-controlled
territory, the Italians' security perimeter varies from a mere 500 meters to
1.5 kilometers. If they stay inside, they are protected by the village,
controlled by - who else - a former mujahid. If they venture outside, they are
at the mercy of the "lions" - a joke referring to the Colosseum days of the
Any "Taliban" foot soldier is worth $5 a day. Anybody can assemble a private
army. Anybody with good tribal connections can make the very profitable career
move from tribal chief to drug warlord.
And that brings us to Qulum Yahya Sia Shoon.
The Italians are virtually encircled. There's a very small base in Farah, in
the homonymous province, south of Herat. South of Farah, Taliban groups fleeing
American air power are encroaching. North of Herat the region is infested with
pro-Taliban smugglers. And in Guzara - halfway between Herat and the Iranian
border - is a new Western public enemy number one, the flamboyant Qulum Yahya
Sia Shoon, the former, anti-inflation mayor of Herat who, after losing a
political battle, did an about-face and became - what else? - a crime boss.
He's not with the Taliban - whom he used to fight - but he's not with the
doomed Karzai's people in Kabul either. He used to be an Ishmail Khan faithful
- until he turned against his master. So this means he's his own man, with his
own private agenda (and militia), who wants no interference from foreigners.
Virtually everyone in the region knows where he's hiding. But he always eludes
capture - a source of endless puzzlement for General Paolo Serra.
So in this enormous expanse, Westerners are confronted with vast no-government
zones; villages totally controlled by tribal clans; the web of the tribes
themselves; the various shura (tribal councils) composed by a web of
cross-marriages; a web of enemies; and chiefly local warlords enjoying very
good relations with the Taliban. This Mafia-style controlled territory with
Godfathers aplenty is not too dissimilar from Sicily or the region around
Naples controlled by the Camorra.
"Local economy" means opium and heroin produced in Helmand and Nimruz provinces
that have to go through Herat before crossing to Iran and Turkmenistan and then
to Europe. Hence a phenomenal cast of local characters including opium
smugglers, human traffickers, kidnappers, mercenaries working for the Taliban
and even a few, very fanatic, hardcore Sunni Islamists. Being "for" or
"against" Kabul under these circumstances is a mere detail. Pragmatism trumps
ideology. After all, the Afghan war in its various incarnations has been raging
for 30 years virtually non-stop. The pizza surge
What the Pentagon, with General David McKiernan, the overall commander of NATO,
ISAF and US troops on top, wants from NATO troops such as the Italians is less
prudence and more manly, gung-ho, trigger-happy action. This is the kind of
stuff from which people recoil in horror in European capitals - and even
classic Obama in next week's turbo-charm offensive in Europe won't be able to
change the parameters.
The debate in Italy, for instance, centers on a minimum of extra troops to be
sent to Afghanistan so the Pentagon shuts up. This "pizza surge" would mean a
maximum of 200 troops. It's also a matter of constrained budget. Rome spends
something like 1,000 euros (US$1,357) a minute for its 2,800 troops in
Afghanistan. The idea is to get maximum bang for the euro.
For starters, this means more "coaches". In NATO's world, one coach is worth 10
regular soldiers. So if you deploy 50 coaches (equipped with radios accessing
air strikes by four Tornado jet fighters and 13 Mangosta attack helicopters),
they count for 500 people in Brussels. And in a much more efficient set up -
with the Tornados based in Herat (and not in distant Mazar-i-Sharif), more
airpower (16 helicopters instead of 13) but with less flight hours each,
spending the same amount, and four advance bases instead of the current three.
It's painfully, obviously impossible to win local hearts and minds, curb drug
smuggling, invest in nation-building and fight a CAEWWTDUH or OCO under these
circumstances with such a set up. NATO is on a losing war - and the best
political minds in Brussels know it.
But the crucial problem remains; the Obama administration is just remixing the
Pentagon's operational priorities - same as with the acronym fiasco. For all
practical purposes, strategically reviewed or not, GWOT, TLW, CAEWWTDUH or OCO
goes on, with no end in sight, with the Persian Gulf as a secondary theater,
Afghanistan-Pakistan and Central Asia as the primary theater, and ideology
poisoning strategic vision.
This framework, inherited from Bush and his former vice president Dick Cheney,
is incompatible with what can be glimpsed from some of Obama's speeches and
actions, the lineaments of maybe a new, more equitable, American project. Yes
we can? Not yet. There will be blood - a lot more blood - in this Afghan