As well as being a professor at York U. Laxer is a long time Canadian leftist activist. He used to be a leading member of the now defunct Waffle group within the NDP. Other parts of this series are available at rabble.ca
Afghanistan: The U.S. is losing the wider war
>by James Laxer
May 15, 2007
(Mission of Folly: Part eight) For the United States, Afghanistan is the sideshow. Iraq is the main event. The staying power of the United States in Afghanistan will largely be determined by what happens in Iraq. If Americans — élites and the people alike — decide that Iraq is a lost cause, they will soon decide the same thing about Afghanistan. An American troop withdrawal from Iraq will be quickly be followed by a withdrawal from Afghanistan. When Canadians consider the future of their Afghan mission, they need to keep an eye on Iraq. What happens there will determine the geo-strategic outlook for Afghanistan.
While the Harper government prefers that Canadians not think about Iraq and Afghanistan in the same breath, the reality is that even though the Afghan mission operates under NATO command and UN auspices, the American invasion was its starting point. Should the Americans decide to leave, the rest of the West will not stay long.
Quite apart from the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration is engaged in a strategic struggle to establish hegemony in the vital region of the Persian Gulf (home to 60 per cent of the world's proven petroleum reserves) as well as in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. This whole region is now the scene of a wider war being conducted on a number of fronts.
America's ally Israel is embroiled in conflict with elements of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank, and fought a brief war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The United States and the members of the “coalition of the willing” are fighting in Iraq in a mission that is increasingly being depicted as a disaster by American and British intelligence, as well as by highly placed military officials in Washington and London.
The United States is determined to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. An American aerial assault on Iran's nuclear facilities could be the next phase in an even wider war. Conflict is raging in Afghanistan, especially in the regions of the country that border on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the American missions in this region of the world are being subjected to increasing scrutiny in élite circles, as well as among the American people at large.
Four years after the invasion of the country by the “coalition of the willing,” Iraq has descended into civil war. The execution of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006 cast into clear relief the divisions within the country. In Shiite and Kurdish districts of Iraq, celebrants took to the streets, firing guns in the air and cheering the death of the former tyrant. In the Sunni heartland, where Saddam was buried, hundreds came out to mourn him, vowing revenge for the hanging of their leader.
The American occupiers have been reduced almost to the level of spectators as sectarian violence drives Iraq toward balkanization. Political elders, Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, were called in as co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group to seek a graceful way out of Iraq for the Bush administration. Disillusioned with the war and the broader foreign policy vision of the administration, American voters punished the Republicans when they handed control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats in the elections of November 2006.
In December 2006, the Baker-Hamilton Report (Report of the Iraq Study Group), and Defense Secretary Designate Robert Gates in testimony before Congress, declared what had been unthinkable in Republican circles — -that the U.S. is not winning the war in Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Report, not only advocated a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sometime in 2008, but called for negotiations with Syria and Iran, leading states that sponsor terror according to Bush administration orthodoxy.
While releasing his report, James Baker, a patrician elder statesman from the Bush Sr. administration, reminded the media that it had been American policy to talk to foes during the more than four decades of the Cold War.
The Baker-Hamilton Report was a clear signal that an important rift has opened up within the American political establishment, not only about the Iraq War, but about the approach of the United States to global issues. On one side of the debate is the Bush administration, committed to the neo-conservative conception of the American global mission. On the other side are the so-called “realists,” the Bush-Hamilton Report, a statement of their views.
The neo-conservative school of American foreign policy has promoted a radicalization of America's global stance. Not satisfied with the status quo in which America is the strongest power, the neo-conservatives have set out to increase the global supremacy of the United States. At the centre of their global mission has been the struggle in the Middle East and Central Asia.
During the halcyon days of the Bush administration in the aftermath of September 11, the use of military power was seen as the crucial way to transform societies with regimes hostile to Washington. War could be used as the means for creating democratic, liberal societies in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Along with the drive to export an American-style version of liberty to other countries, the Bush administration proclaimed its determination to ensure that the United States remain the world's dominant military power, able to face down challenges from friendly and hostile regimes alike.
By the end of 2006, the Bush administration's policies were in tatters in the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in relationships with many countries around the world and in the rising crisis caused by America's inability to finance its military operations and keep its fiscal house in order.
In Iraq, both the political and military strategies of the administration were exposed as completely threadbare. Far from being received as liberators in the country, the American occupiers provoked, not only a massive and growing resistance to their presence, but a deep internecine conflict among the elements that made up Iraqi society. Sunnis and Shiites were at each other's throats and the city of Baghdad where both elements were present was reduced to a warren of warring neighbourhoods, with local militias defending their own turf, and the central authority unable to establish any semblance of law and order.
Thousands of people, who had the means to do so, were fleeing the city every week. The American planners of the invasion had utterly failed to predict the kind of calamity that would descend on the society as a consequence of their overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Contributing to the chaos in Iraq was the American military doctrine, espoused by the U.S. Department of Defence under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and other neo-conservative stalwarts had used Iraq as a proving ground for their doctrine of warfare. Ignoring the advice and warnings of Pentagon generals that Iraq could only be pacified with a much larger American and allied occupation force, Rumsfeld had insisted that a force of about 140,000 American troops could get the job done.
For the first few months, things appeared to go well for the Americans in Iraq. By the end of 2003 and certainly by the end of 2004, however, the writing was on the wall for the Rumsfeld strategy. The American occupying force was too small. The generals were right and Rumsfeld was wrong.
And it was not a mistake that could easily be corrected. The U.S. Army had been reshaped according to the Rumsfeld doctrine. Changing it would require a long period of reorganization and vastly increased military expenditures. In the meantime, Iraq had passed the point of no return. A much larger occupying force, which might have been effective against the insurgency and the descent into sectarian violence two or three years earlier, could no longer do the job by the end of 2006. The horses had long since escaped from the barn.
With the tenets of the Bush administration in disarray, the door was open to the alternative doctrines of the Realist School. James Baker, from the first Bush administration, is famed for his genteel manner. Beneath his smiling exterior, however, there is not a sentimental bone in his body. He is interested in the global power of the United States and making the world safe for American enterprise. He will consort with the devil to realize these ambitions.
In the Baker-Hamilton Report, establishing democracy in Iraq has been discarded as a major objective. What these elders want is pacification in the Persian Gulf. If they have to sup with unpleasant people to achieve that, no problem. James Baker is prepared to treat with the governments of Iran and Syria, not because he likes them, but because they exercise power in the region. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, could be his motto.
The realists aspire to making deals where necessary. Their goal is to maintain a global, and in the Middle East, regional order, in which American geopolitical and business interests, are paramount. To achieve their objectives, the realists are not inclined to make outsize sacrifices on behalf of Israel, as the neo-conservatives have been prepared to do. James Baker and the realists are quite content with the regime in Saudi Arabia, medieval though it prefers to remain.
The realist outlook on Iraq is bound to spread to the lesser conflict in Afghanistan as well. An important wrinkle in the Afghanistan conflict, one that has been kept as much as possible from Canadian eyes, is the pro-Taliban stance taken by much if not most of the Pakistani state apparatus. The Bakerites, and other realists, are bound to show as little interest in democracy and women's rights in Afghanistan as they have in Iraq.
In sharp contrast to the good versus evil simplicities we have been sold on Afghanistan, the Pakistanis, for tribal, regional and geo-political reasons are certain to go on backing Pashtun and other southern Afghan groupings, whatever their ideology. And the apparatchiks of the Pakistan state, as little interested in democracy and women's rights as Baker's friends in Saudi Arabia, are never going to do more than genuflect in the direction of George W. Bush's War on Terror.
Should it come time for the U.S. realists to make peace in Afghanistan, they will happily help cobble together a new regime, comprising elements of the Taliban, the old Northern Alliance and assorted drug dealers and war lords. And it will all be done without a thought for Stephen Harper, Christie Blatchford and the editorial writers of the National Post. How long Hamid Karzai will survive as head of government in this situation is hard to say. But it is pretty certain that the ideals of democracy, the rule of law, rights for non-Muslims, and school for females, will receive short shrift.
The struggle for power between the neo-conservatives and the realists is by no means over. The Bush administration, while on the defensive, continues to have warlike ambitions in the Middle East and Central Asia. The neo-conservatives in Washington and the Israeli government have been keeping a wary eye on Iran as a potential threat in the region, a threat that could be countered by an aerial assault on the country. The pretext for such an assault would be the refusal of the Iranian government to give up plans to develop a nuclear program, allegedly for the purpose of generating nuclear power.
The Bush administration and nuclear-armed Israel (the best estimate is that Israel possesses about 200 nuclear missiles) claim that Iran is determined to produce nuclear weapons. This would make the country a greater regional power and would make it much more difficult for the United States to deter by threatening a military attack.
For the neo-conservatives, who see their power draining away, the prospect of an air war against Iran's nuclear facilities and its military-industrial complexes is a tempting one. Thwarted in Iraq and Afghanistan in lengthy ground wars, which have become highly unpopular with the American people, the prospect of an air war in which U.S. power can be displayed to maximum effect is seen by some as a way to propel the Americans to victory in the larger regional struggle.
On January 7, 2007, the Sunday Times of London reported that Israeli pilots have been training to carry out a pinpoint attack on three Iranian targets in which it is believed that nuclear facilities and uranium enrichment sites are housed. The Sunday Times said that Israeli planes have flown to Gibraltar to practice for the 3,000 kilometre return flight to Iran, possibly by way of Turkey. The story included speculation from unnamed Israeli military sources that to destroy facilities housed many metres underground, the Israelis could use low yield nuclear weapons.
Spokespersons for the Israeli government responded tartly that they don't comment on articles in the Sunday Times. The Sunday Times story ran just over a week before Dr. Mohammad Al Baradi, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency visited Paris and warned in a television interview that Iran could be in a position to produce a nuclear weapon within three years.
Meanwhile in Washington, leading Democratic Senators John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Joseph Biden of Delaware have been warning Americans that the Bush administration is preparing public opinion for an attack on Iran at a time when the U.S. does not the possess the military resources for such an attack, does not have the support of its allies and does not have the backing of Congress.
In the aftermath of the November 2006 Congressional elections and the report of the Iraq Study Group, the Bush administration decided on its course in Iraq for the next few months. In an address to the American people on January 10, 2007, President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. will send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, a reinforcement whose purpose is to try to halt the descent into chaos, particularly in Baghdad. The mission of the troops is to go into Baghdad's toughest neighbourhoods.
Holding out hope that yet more force can do the job, Bush said that in the past “there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have” and that this time “we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.” Although the tone was far less vainglorious than in previous speeches on the war, Bush held out the hope that “victory will bring something new in the Arab world — a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.”
The real emphasis in the speech was not on remaking the Middle East, but in bloodying the noses of the insurgents and strengthening the Iraqi government so that the United States could hand over the security job to the Iraqis.
The new Bush strategy falls between two stools. To neo-conservatives, those who remain committed to the idea of persevering to achieve victory in Iraq, the additional troops are not enough. They wanted 50,000 or more reinforcements to crush the insurgency. And they wanted a commitment that the troops would stay until victory is achieved.
At the other end of the political spectrum are those who want a firm commitment that American troops will begin coming home soon. Americans have been migrating toward this position on the war for some time. Most Americans are no longer in a mood to be aroused by stirring words about liberating the Iraqis. They want out of this conflict as soon as this can be managed.
Not enough of a reinforcement to please the neo-cons and not a clear enough commitment to pull out of Iraq to please the majority of Americans: that is the awkward position in which the President now finds himself.
It is not as though the world has never witnessed anything like this in the past. What is happening is very similar to the American stance in Vietnam in the last two years before the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front seized Saigon in 1975. When Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, his mandate was ambiguous — he pledged to get Americans out of a war they had come to detest, while still promising to win it. In office, Nixon tried to achieve victory by broadening the conflict into Cambodia and Laos.
All this was for naught. The Nixon White House came to the view — with an important input from the great realist of the day, Henry Kissinger — that the U.S. had to make a deal with North Vietnam to allow it to withdraw from the war, and further that it had to make an opening to China, to further divide the Communist superpowers, the Soviet Union and China, against each other.
On the road to the deal with North Vietnam, which was achieved in 1973, the emphasis from Washington was to bring about the “Vietnamization” of the war. The idea of Vietnamization was that U.S. units would progressively withdraw from their fighting role and that South Vietnamese units would take their place. The U.S. role would increasingly be to train the South Vietnamese forces. Following elections in South Vietnam, the question was whether the regime there could stand without being powerfully supported by tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers.
In the end, of course, South Vietnam collapsed, and the American presence in the country came to an end. The American defeat in the war did not, however, lead to a collapse of the U.S. position in Asia as many had forecast. The dominoes, as the countries in the region had been called, did not follow Vietnam into the Communist camp.
Instead, something quite unforeseen a few years earlier, transpired. The Nixon administration made its historic opening to China, with the President visiting Beijing. Having insisted in the past that the Communist world was a single juggernaut that must be resisted as such, a Republican administration faced reality and took advantage of the chasm of mistrust that had grown up between Beijing and Moscow. The new strategy was to balance off the two Communist giants by drawing closer to each in different ways.
The new approach bore fruit for the Americans. It played an important part in increasing the pressure on the Soviet Union and its empire that contributed to the demise of this superpower, a decade and a half after the U.S. withdrew in disarray from the American embassy in Saigon in 1975. Moreover, the opening to China played a key role in pushing the world's largest country down the road to a vast economic opening to capitalism and the West. Over the longer term, the Americans were helping create their next imperial challenger, but that is another story.
As for Vietnam, the victorious Communist forces soon found themselves in a shooting war against the hostile Chinese on their northern border. The Vietnamese had won an unimaginable victory against an immense foe, but Vietnam remained a poor and devastated country. It would not be too many years before the government in Hanoi wanted to throw the door open to foreign investment, including American investment.
The American soldiers who had fought to halt the spread of Communism and to help construct a democratic South Vietnam came home. They never were awarded a ticker tape parade in New York. But eventually the Americans who died in the war that never should have been fought were remembered in the most poignant of the monuments in Washington, the wall where the names of the thousands who perished were recorded.
Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq should not be interpreted as determination on the part of Washington to fight through to final victory. Indeed, Bush hinted at that in his speech when he said that “victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.”
In the pithy language of stock-market analysts, Bush's new strategy may turn out to be a “dead cat bounce.” (This refers to a brief market rally that occurs after the market crashes, to be followed by a further decline.) George W. Bush, who never wanted the Iraq mission to be compared to Vietnam, is now following faithfully in the footsteps of Richard Nixon. Nixon escalated the war in South-East Asia to prepare the conditions for U.S. withdrawal. Bush is now doing the same thing in Iraq.
Perhaps this is a nod to his historical legacy. He would like to leave the White House before the whole rotten structure that he has created in Iraq comes crashing down. Then when someone ghost writes his memoirs, Bush can claim that he did not cut and run. He can leave that sorry chapter to his successor.
What is abundantly clear now is that the United States is no longer committed to winning the fight in Iraq. What is at issue now is the withdrawal strategy. All the talk about building a democracy in Iraq has been so much hot air. Soon no one but historians will pay any attention to it.
Bush's policy of sending reinforcements to Iraq amounts to a rejection of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. It also flies in the face of the message American voters sent when they handed both houses of Congress to the Democrats in the elections in November 2006.
The Bush White House, however, has lost much of its freedom to set U.S. policy. The Iraq reinforcement has had to be couched in terms of the goal of bringing American troops home. That being the case, what we are witnessing is the beginning of the American “end game” in the Iraq conflict. The chances of the current Iraq government surviving into even the middle term future are remote. As the Americans prepare to leave, the country may disintegrate into its constituent parts.
If that were to occur, the paramount American and western interest in the country would be to maintain their potential hold on Iraqi petroleum. The Americans could well end up pulling their forces out of Iraq and setting up a very large and permanent presence in Kuwait from which they can oversee the petroleum reserves of the Persian Gulf Region. That could be the course of political realism as the neo-conservative fantasies about remaking the Middle East in the American image evaporate.
Baker and Hamilton and the other members of the study group, have not lost the battle to reset American Middle East policy. Their views are in the ascendancy with the American political élites and the American people. The realists, for their part, have watched the Bush administration lead the U.S. down the path to disaster in the two wars it has launched. They have no appetite for a further war against Iran, seeing this as potentially leading to an even greater disaster. They prefer a tough set of negotiations with Teheran and Damascus and a deal that will ensure the paramount position of the United States in the region.
The present period in the U.S. should be seen as an interregnum. The age of neo-conservative control of policy making has ended. But it is not fully clear what will come next.
The early jockeying for position among presidential hopefuls for 2008 in both the Republican and Democratic camps is taking shape around the Iraq question. The debate has two focal points. The first concerns the positions taken by potential candidates in the vote in the U.S. Senate in October 2002 authorizing President Bush to use force if necessary to strip Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. The second is the position taken by would-be presidential candidates on the Bush plan to send reinforcements to Iraq.
The U.S. Senate vote in October 2002 was later used by the Bush administration as authorization for its March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The vote has already played a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of heavyweight U.S. senators. John Kerry, for instance, voted for the resolution, declaring his support for the proposition that it could become necessary to use force to strip the Iraqi dictator of his weapons of mass destruction. After the invasion, when it was revealed that Iraq had possessed no weapons of mass destruction, Kerry denounced Bush for having misled the country. He repudiated his 2002 vote in the Senate.
That change of position was used with effect by Republicans during the 2004 presidential campaign to portray the Democratic standard bearer as a flip-flop artist. Two other Democratic senators with presidential aspirations for 2008, who also voted for the 2002 resolution, are John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Edwards has since repudiated his 2002 vote and is playing a leading role in denouncing Bush's strategy in Iraq. More cautious has been Clinton who has not so far repudiated her Senate vote, merely noting that if Americans knew then what they later learned, there would have been no such vote.
On the Republican side, John McCain, who wants his party's 2008 nomination, voted for the 2002 resolution and stands staunchly behind that vote.
On the second focal issue, the response to Bush's decision to send reinforcements, there is also jockeying for position among the presidential hopefuls. In mid January 2007, Hillary Clinton flew to Baghdad where she met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. While she had previously said she did not back the reinforcement plan, she remained vague about where she stood, saying she would have more to say later.
Clinton's unwillingness to distance herself more sharply from the war and the administration has already led many Democrats to become disillusioned with her as a presidential candidate. Polls show that only one in four Americans now support Bush on the Iraq War. If Clinton's position remains cautious on the war, that is not the case for other Democrats, such as Edwards, who will clearly try to use the issue to win their party's presidential nomination.
Among Republicans, McCain has defined himself as the hawk's hawk. I remember hearing him speak at an outdoor rally in Rochester, New York, in March 2000 during the campaign for his party's nomination. A Vietnam veteran, McCain declared that what he had learned from that conflict was that the United States should never go to war again without the willingness to do everything necessary to prevail. He has stuck to that position ever since.
While he backs Bush on the war, he believes the U.S. should have sent a much larger number of additional troops. For McCain, the position he has staked out on the war, could well determine his fate in the run for the Republican nomination. For hard-core Republicans, who regard McCain as soft on social issues, his staunch support of the war has won him friends. The problem for him is that the country as a whole is negative about the war, and that includes some high profile Republicans.
Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, also a Vietnam veteran, has long since become a critic of Bush's handling of the war. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who is making a run for the Republican nomination, is trying to set himself up as an alternative to McCain among conservatives. He has repudiated the Bush administration's decision to send additional troops to Iraq. While traveling in Iraq in January 2007, Brownback said that he does not believe that sending more troops is the answer. “Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution,” he said.
Following meetings with the Iraqi prime minister, the Kansas Senator said he does not believe that the United States should increase its involvement in Iraq until Sunnis and Shiites stop “shooting at each other.” While Brownback has supported the war in the past, he has begun moving away from administration positions. He has called for the division of Iraq into autonomous Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions within a loosely configured federation. He declared that he generally supported the approach of the Iraq Study Group. The staunchly conservative Brownback could end up as the realist candidate for the Republican nomination against McCain the hawk.
The American position on the Iraq War is shifting rapidly with those supporting George W. Bush becoming ever weaker and more defensive. When the debate shifts to Afghanistan, the same dynamics will be at work.
James Laxer is a Professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto. This is part of a much longer work which will run regularly in rabble.ca.