Obama escalates two wars

IssueApril 2009
News by Gabriel Carlyle

US president Barack Obama came to power promising both to talk to his enemies and to “finish the job” in Afghanistan (a phrase he used while visiting Kabul in July 2008). We are now seeing how these contradictory pledges are shaping US policy: “talking to enemies” has been revealed to be little more than propaganda; “finishing off the enemy” – through military escalation – is the core policy. The escalation is not only in Afghanistan, but across the border into Pakistan, and not only in the north-western tribal areas, but deeper into Pakistan.

The spin started with an interview in the New York Times on 7 March, in which Obama’s remarks were described as “a shift in official US attitudes” towards the Taliban.

Obama said: “Part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of al-Qaida in Iraq”; and that there might be “some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region”.

However US military authorities have officially endorsed the possibility of talks between the Afghan government and “moderate members” of the Taliban as far back as December 2003.

Moreover, according to the Guardian, Obama’s latest overture “is not thought to involve a comprehensive peace negotiation with the Taliban leadership [which appears to be what most ordinary Afghans want – see below] but rather a chance to explore opportunities at the local level to encourage insurgents to move to the government’s side.”

This is consistent with earlier reports (see PN 2504) that: “A classified White House review of strategy sa[id] that American negotiators should participate in talks between the Afghan central government and junior and mid-level Taliban commanders… while excluding their leaders”. The aim was not to negotiate an end to the war, but to “strengthen the central government in southern provinces where it has become nearly powerless”.

Escalation in Pakistan

The Obama administration has expanded its war in Pakistan to include targeting the Pakistani Taliban – in particular, with missile strikes against training camps run by one Baitullah Mehsud on 14 and 16 February.

The timing of the attacks suggested they may have been an attempt to derail the peace deal between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat district of the North West Frontier province, a deal which the US staunchly opposes.

Taking military action to undermine peace negotiations would be consistent with past US behaviour. In any event, a “permanent” peace deal has now been agreed in Swat (instituting a version of sharia law) and the Guardian reports that three rival Pakistani Taliban groups, including Mehsud’s, have formed a united front against US-led forces in Afghanistan “in a move likely to intensify the insurgency just as thousands of extra US soldiers begin pouring into the country as part of Barack Obama’s surge plan”

Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, had called on the Pakistani militants to stop fighting at home in order to join the battle to “liberate Afghanistan from the occupation forces”.

According to the New York Times, “More than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists are secretly working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas, American military officials said.”

These are said to be mostly US army special forces soldiers training Pakistani army and paramilitary troops, providing them with intelligence and advising them on combat tactics.

Intelligence from the CIA and other sources has enabled a new Pakistani commando unit within the Frontier Corps paramilitary force to kill or capture as many as 60 militants in the past seven months, including at least five high-ranking commanders, a senior Pakistani military official said.

A lot of pain

According to the Telegraph, the US “is planning to escalate bombing raids in Pakistan’s tribal areas in tandem with efforts to force moderate elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table.” “There will be talks but the Taliban are going to experience a lot of pain first, on both sides of the border,” a senior western diplomat told the paper.

According to the New York Times, “President Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding the American covert war in Pakistan far beyond the unruly tribal areas to strike at a different center of Taliban power in Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are orchestrating attacks into southern Afghanistan.”

According to senior administration officials, two of the high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been forwarded to the White House in recent weeks have called for broadening the target area to include a major insurgent sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta.

The Red Cross has recently expressed its “fears that the Afghan population will bear the brunt of [Obama’s] announced escalation, and that consequences for many will be dire in the extreme”.

Whack, then talk?

Writing in The Times, Rory Stewart – executive chairman of the Kabul based charity, The Turquoise Mountain Foundation – claimed that: “the surge is an attempt to whack the Taliban round the head because they will not negotiate unless they are hurting.”

However, according to Christina Lamb (writing in the Sunday Times): “The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has [already] given his approval for talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan and has allowed his representatives to attend Saudi-sponsored peace negotiations.”

“Mullah Omar has given the green light to talks,” said one of the mediators, Abdullah Anas, a former friend of Osama bin Laden who used to fight in Afghanistan but now lives in London. According to Lamb: “Among the main sticking points [in the secret talks] is the Taliban’s insistence that foreign troops must leave.”

“They have to start from somewhere,” Qayum Karzai (the president’s brother, who has represented him at the talks) explained. “I find them quite realistic. The Taliban realise that war will not achieve their ideological and political aims.”

People demand real talks

In contrast to Obama’s plans to use “talks” to try to split the Taliban (see PN 2491 for background), 64% of Afghans want their government to “negotiate a settlement with Afghan Taliban”, according to a recent BBC poll (see last issue).

Similarly, 66% of Britons believe that Britain and the US should be “willing to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to achieve a peace deal”, according to a YouGov/Sunday Times poll in mid-March.

Former Taliban envoy Abdul Hakim Mujahid, involved in the national reconciliation process at the request of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, believes that there may be “big problems” for the current Saudi-led peace effort “if the Americans carry out this big offensive in the wrong way.”