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Tom Engelhardt: The Great Afghan Bailout

March 30, 2009

Tom Engelhardt

Let’s start by stopping.

It’s time, as a start, to stop calling our expanding war in Central and South Asia “the Afghan War” or “the Afghanistan War.” If Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke doesn’t want to, why should we? Recently, in a BBC interview, he insisted that “the ‘number one problem’ in stabilizing Afghanistan was Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan, including tribal areas along the Afghan border and cities like Quetta” in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

And isn’t he right? After all, the U.S. seems to be in the process of trading in a limited war in a mountainous, poverty-stricken country of 27 million people for one in an advanced nation of 167 million, with a crumbling economy, rising extremism, advancing corruption, and a large military armed with nuclear weapons. Worse yet, the war in Pakistan seems to be expanding inexorably (and in tandem with American war planning) from the tribal borderlands ever closer to the heart of the country.

These days, Washington has even come up with a neologism for the change: “Af-Pak,” as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations. So, in the name of realism and accuracy, shouldn’t we retire “the Afghan War” and begin talking about the far more disturbing “Af-Pak War”?

And while we’re at it, maybe we should retire the word “surge” as well. Right now, as the Obama plan for that Af-Pak War is being “rolled out,” newspaper headlines have been surging when it comes to accepting the surge paradigm. Long before the administration’s “strategic review” of the war had even been completed, President Obama was reportedly persuaded by former Iraq surge commander, now CentCom commander, General David Petraeus to “surge” another 17,000 troops into Afghanistan, starting this May.

For the last two weeks, news has been filtering out of Washington of an accompanying civilian “surge” into Afghanistan (“Obama’s Afghanistan ‘surge’: diplomats, civilian specialists”). Oh, and then there’s to be that opium-eradication surge and a range of other so-called surges. As the headlines have had it: “1,400 Isle Marines to join Afghanistan surge,” “U.S. troop surge to aid Afghan police trainers,” “Seabees build to house surge,” “Afghan Plan Detailed As Iraq Surge ‘Lite,'” and so on.

It seems to matter little that even General Petraeus wonders whether the word should be applied. (“The commander of the U.S. Central Command said Friday that an Iraq-style surge cannot be a solution to the problems in Afghanistan.”) There are, however, other analogies that might better capture the scope and nature of the new strategic plan for the Af-Pak War. Think bailout. Think A.I.G.

The Costs of an Expanding War

In truth, what we’re about to watch should be considered nothing less than the Great Afghan (or Af-Pak) bailout.

On Friday morning, the president officially rolled out his long-awaited “comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a plan without a name. If there was little news in it, that was only because of the furious leaking of prospective parts of it over the previous weeks. So many trial balloons, so little time.

In a recent “60 Minutes” interview (though not in his Friday announcement), the president also emphasized the need for an “exit strategy” from the war. Similarly, American commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has been speaking of a possible “tipping point,” three to five years away, that might lead to “eventual departure.” Nonetheless, almost every element of the new plan — both those the president mentioned Friday and the no-less-crucial ones that didn’t receive a nod — seem to involve the word “more”; that is, more U.S. troops, more U.S. diplomats, more civilian advisors, more American and NATO military advisors to train more Afghan troops and police, more base and outpost building, more opium-eradication operations, more aid, more money to the Pakistani military — and strikingly large-scale as that may be, all of that doesn’t even include the “covert war,” fought mainly via unmanned aerial vehicles, along the Pakistani tribal borderlands, which is clearly going to intensify.

In the coming year, that CIA-run drone war, according to leaked reports, may be expanded from the tribal areas into Pakistan’s more heavily populated Baluchistan province where some of the Taliban leadership is supposedly holed up. In addition, so reports in British papers claim, the U.S. is seriously considering a soft coup-in-place against Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Disillusioned with the widespread corruption in, and inefficiency of, his government, the U.S. would create a new “chief executive” or prime ministerial post not in the Afghan constitution — and then install some reputedly less corrupt (and perhaps more malleable) figure. Karzai would supposedly be turned into a figurehead “father of the nation.” Envoy Holbrooke has officially denied that Washington is planning any such thing, while a spokesman for Karzai denounced the idea (both, of course, just feeding the flames of the Afghan rumor mill).

What this all adds up to is an ambitious doubling down on just about every bet already made by Washington in these last years — from the counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and the counter-terrorism war against al-Qaeda to the financial love/hate relationship with the Pakistani military and its intelligence services underway since at least the Nixon years of the early 1970s…

Read more at TOMDISPATCH.COM

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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