Monday, December 20, 2010

So what is going on with Af-Pak? A review of a week's coverage of the Afghan war

Anyone reading the news about Afghanistan last week would be forgiven for being confused. In the course of a few days readers were submerged with a series of contradictory headlines. On December 14, we were told that “Intelligence Reports Offer Dim View of Afghan War.” The following day, another article reported that “For Red Cross, Aid Conditions Hit New Low in Afghanistan.” This left us ill-prepared for the December 16 announcement by Barack Obama that his strategy in Afghanistan is “on track.” So what exactly is going on there? Three conflicting narratives – from US intelligence agencies, NGOs on the ground and the US military, respectively - are competing for the public’s attention. Whose narrative should we trust?

Losing “hearts and minds”

The picture painted by NGOs on the ground is not pretty. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) gave a news conference this week to “express deep concern that Afghanistan security had deteriorated to its worst point since the overthrow of the Taliban nine years ago.” This is particularly significant given that the ICRC usually avoids the public eye and rarely voices its concerns so openly. But it chose to break its usual reserve to report that the number of Afghan civilians killed or forced to leave their home has steadily increased “against the backdrop of a proliferation of armed actors.” Reading between the lines, some might see a thinly veiled reference to the 30,000 troop surge ordered by Obama when he took office.

While civilian casualties have risen, relief workers have also been victims of worsening violence. At least 100 workers have been killed so far this year, the worst tally since the war started. This has prompted a sharp reexamination of the US strategy to win “hearts and minds,” which NGOs accuse of militarizing humanitarian aid. The US counterinsurgency strategy is based on associating development aid to the military push, which is illustrated by the “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs) staffed by both troops and civilians. Most of the time, these civilians turn out to be contractors from profit-making private development companies. Not surprisingly, they have often been targeted by insurgents as being part of the conflict. Eighty aid contractors employed by USAID were killed this year. While NATO officials argue that the insurgents don’t distinguish between aid workers, NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have managed to operate relatively safely by not becoming associated with any program strengthening the government. As one member of MSF points out, “the government is just one of many warring parties.”

Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Pakistan

The US counterinsurgency strategy is failing and more civilians are being killed than ever. But for US intelligence agencies, the biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the US military presence, of course. It’s Pakistan. Two reports released this week – one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan – argue that there can be no success in Afghanistan unless Pakistan agrees to hunt down insurgents operating from safe havens across the border. The reports lament Pakistan’s lack of cooperation with the US even when it’s accepting $2 billion in so-called “aid” money (most of it goes to the Pakistani military).

Pakistani citizens, whose opinion is rarely considered worth hearing, would beg to disagree with the assertion that the Pakistani government doesn’t take US interests to heart. Diplomatic cables recently published by Wikileaks reveal – or rather, confirm - the degree of corruption within the Pakistani government and the ease with which it acquiesces to US demands. In 2008, for example, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani told American Ambassador Anne Paterson that he “didn’t care” if drone strikes were launched against his country as long as the “right people” were targeted. “We’ll protest in the National Assembly,” Gilani added cynically, “and then ignore it.” As Pakistani writer Tariq Ali puts it: “The WikiLeaks confirm what we already know about Af-Pak. Pakistan is a US satrapy: its military and political leaders constitute a venal elite happy to kill and maim its people at the behest of a foreign power.” Researchers at the New America Foundation estimate that between 1,283 and 1,971 people have been killed since drone strikes started 6 years ago.

Incidentally, more than 100 drone strikes were reported during this year alone, up from 53 last year. Apparently this is still not enough for the CIA, which has been running this not-so-covert war since the Bush era. No doubt these recent intelligence reports are aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to step up US war efforts in Pakistan.

The Al Qaeda red herring

Not that Obama needs any pressuring, really. Pakistan was right at the center of his speech on the Afghanistan review. While the review was more optimistic about the situation in Afghanistan than the intelligence reports, it also targeted Pakistan as being critical to achieving anything close to success. The Obama administration is planning to step up attacks against insurgents in the tribal areas, which means more strikes using Predator and Reaper drones. The old Al-Qaeda bogeyman has been brought out of the closet to justify what is slowly becoming a full-fledged war on Pakistan. "Today, al-Qaeda's senior leadership in the border region is under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago” says Obama. This means, of course, that strikes have to be intensified to preserve the momentum.

Let me get this straight. About a year ago it was reported that Al Qaeda had a grand total of 300 members in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This year there has already been 100 drone strikes, which killed more than 1,200 people. Almost every time the establishment media, dutifully relaying official statements, identified the dead as “militants” or “suspected militants.” And still we are to believe that more strikes are needed to completely defeat Al Qaeda. Next we’ll learn that it has found a way to clone its members.

Who to believe?

So which of these 3 narratives sound more convincing? The difference between the US intelligence agencies’ position and that of their military counterpart shouldn’t be overstated. Although one is slightly more optimistic than the other, ultimately they both advocate for the same thing: intensification of the war on Pakistan. We are told that there’s a “dispute” between the military and intelligence agencies (see this NY Times article) and a debate within the Obama administration, but in reality they’re just two sides of the same coin.

The problem in Afghanistan is not Pakistan. The problem is that the US is following the path of every colonial power before it. The occupation and counterinsurgency are creating a major backlash among the population, who’s getting tired of being “liberated” after 9 years of war. This is something that neither the military nor the intelligence agencies can acknowledge, of course. Instead they’re hoping that pointing their fingers at Pakistan long enough and screaming “Al Qaeda! Al Qaeda!” at the top of their lungs will create enough distraction so that people forget to look at what’s really going on in Afghanistan. But are we seriously supposed to believe that the solution to Afghanistan’s woes is to increase strikes on Pakistan, a country that recently experienced a natural catastrophe worse than the Asian tsunami of 2004, the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, and the recent earthquake in Haiti combined, and that is already incredibly volatile?

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