Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Intolerable US Arrogance

May 22, 2012 at 10:31 am | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations | Leave a comment
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By what arrogance does NATO invite a head of state to a meeting and then have the head of state of the host nation refuse the visiting dignitary a one-on-one meeting even as his rival is granted an audience and then expect the snubbed leader to obsequiously accede to all demands even as drone aircraft murders the leader’s citizens and even troops with impunity? Yet, this is what President Barack Obama did to Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari who was summoned to the NATO conclave in Chicago at the very last minute. When it became apparent that a mere invitation was not going to make him cave in, he was refused a meeting with the US President who nevertheless met with the Zardari’s rival, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai thus humiliating Zardari. When aides scrambled to get the two presidents to “accidentally bump” into each other at the meeting, Obama pointedly told a press conference that that was their only exchange.

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Last November, a strike by a US drone aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The United States has refused to apologize for the murders even though it has acknowledged that its drone aircraft was responsible for the deaths. Consider the situation. The US needs Pakistan as an ally–granted that it is a cantankerous and difficult one. Surely, the best way to further alienate its citizens is to indiscriminately kill them by drone planes controlled from bases deep inside the US. The victims have little warning of their impending death–and the controllers of the planes do not put themselves in harm’s way at all. This is blood sport for them without risk–and when innocent civilians or Pakistani soldiers, the very ones the US depends on to stop al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, are killed, President Obama refuses to apologize!

Given rising anger in Pakistan, the government shut down two key supply routes for the NATO troops in Afghanistan, forcing the North Atlantic alliance to use more circuitous routes through Central Asia and Russia. Again, snubbing President Zardari, the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, lauded the help and support of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–pointedly ignoring Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan has demanded a 20-times hike of the transit fee for trucks–for $250 to $5000. But this could have been negotiated if an apology was forthcoming.

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Without the supply routes from Pakistan, the withdrawal of equipment brought into Afghanistan for more than a decade will be immensely complicated and the chances of lethal weaponry falling into the hands of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militant groups increases geometrically. It would be another nail in the coffin of the US-NATO failure in Afghanistan. After more than 10 years of war, it is unlikely that the Karzai government will survive even for the three years the Soviet supported regime survived before being toppled–and it was toppled not because the insurgents’ military successes but because Moscow stopped deliveries of arms, fuel, and other supplies. As Juan Garriges writes for the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, the likelihood of a civil war after NATO leaves is steadily increasing.

As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, unlike the Soviets, NATO is not negotiating with the Taliban but is pursuing a garrison strategy that is virtually guaranteed to fail:

Increasing numbers of Afghan troops will sit in bases and go out on patrols instead of US and British ones, but this is nothing more than “Nato with an Afghan face”. Locals see these Afghan troops as occupiers just like the US and British. Less than 4% of the Afghan National Army are southern Pashtuns. Most are Tajiks and Uzbeks who speak a different language and don’t know the area. But if you recruit more southerners in a hurry, you just feed the Taliban’s latest tactic: join the Afghan army and police, get trained by the Americans and British, then shoot them in the camp or mess hall.

In these conditions, to continue to snub Zardari and refuse to apologize for the killing of the soldiers–perhaps for domestic electoral purposes as Obama’s likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, will certainly exploit it–is almost to ensure that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) will increase its interference in Afghanistan especially since there is little love lost between the Karzai administration and the Pakistani military and political establishment.

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Finally, in NATO’s haste to cover its failure there is nary a word on the condition of Afghan women–sure to regress to the state they were in at the time of the 2001 invasion! The US-led invasion may have temporarily ousted the Taliban from Kabul and eventually killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, but it has also devastated Afghanistan, killed tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Afghans and thousands of Pakistanis, further destabilized Pakistan, fuelled the spread of al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists to Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, and east Africa, and expended trillions of dollars when the world-economy is mired in a crisis like no other since the Great Depression, and to the loss of thousands of American lives as well. Constitutional liberties have been suspended and torture has been reintroduced as a matter of state policy. The man who campaigned to change all this has done nothing at all!

End of the Gaddafi Regime and the New Quagmire in Libya

August 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, Uncategorized, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year regime is to be celebrated as much as the way in which it was brought about must be condemned. A bunch of regime turncoats, Western agents like the rebels’ “field commander” Khalifa Hifter, and assorted others organized protests against the regime in Benghazi some six months ago in the wake of the fall of autocrats in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. When Gaddafi counter-attacked, under prodding from France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron, the United Nations sanctioned NATO to use its air power to “protect civilians” and imposed an arms embargo on Libya. As Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian, from then mission creep set in–from establishing a ‘no-fly zone’ over Benghazi, the NATO mission turned into a bombing campaign against Tripoli. NATO leaders quickly claimed that Gaddafi had to go–from protecting civilians, regime change became the new goal and even the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi was contemplated.

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Shamefully this came about because five members of the UN Security Council–Russia, China, Germany, Brazil, and India–abstained from the resolution 1973 sanctioning intervention, there was no sustained protests across the world against the massive aerial bombardment of Libya for five months by NATO forces. Emboldened by this global quiescence, the fall of the Gaddafi regime was accomplished by NATO’s Operation Siren at the break of the Ramadhan fast last Saturday. As Pepe Escobar writes:

With “Siren”, NATO came out all guns (literally) blazing; Apache gunships firing nonstop and jets bombing everything in sight. NATO supervised the landing of hundreds of troops from Misrata on the coast east of Tripoli while a NATO warship distributed heavy weapons.

On Sunday alone there may have been 1,300 civilian deaths in Tripoli, and at least 5,000 wounded. The Ministry of Health announced that hospitals were overflowing. Anyone who by that time believed relentless NATO bombing had anything to do with R2P and United Nations Resolution 1973 was living in an intensive care unit.

NATO preceded “Siren” with massive bombing of Zawiya – the key oil-refining city 50 kilometers west of Tripoli. That cut off Tripoli’s fuel supply lines. According to NATO itself, at least half of Libya’s armed forces were “degraded” – Pentagon/NATO speak for killed or seriously wounded. That means tens of thousands of dead people. That also explains the mysterious disappearance of the 65,000 soldiers in charge of defending Tripoli. And it largely explains why the Gaddafi regime, in power for 42 years, then crumbled in roughly 24 hours.

NATO’s Siren call – after 20,000 sorties, and more than 7,500 strikes against ground targets – was only made possible by a crucial decision by the Barack Obama administration in early July, enabling, as reported by The Washington Post, “the sharing of more sensitive materials with NATO, including imagery and signals intercepts that could be provided to British and French special operations troops on the ground in addition to pilots in the air”.

Only this massive NATO assault can explain the dramatic fall of Tripoli. But the fall of the Gaddafi regime poses several problems.

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First, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the fall of the autocrat has also destroyed the institutional props of the regime. Unlike in Egypt, there is no army to step into the breach. While this could mean better prospects for the establishment of a genuine democracy, it is more than counterbalanced by the widespread dispersal of arms among a divided people. Gaddafi had nurtured tribal rivalries as a means to ensure his own survival and these rivalries had already erupted among the rebels when its top military commander General Abdul Fattah Younes was killed by his own troops on July 28. Fierce armed rivalry between tribes and other groups may ensue prompting further international intervention.

Second, five months of unchecked bombing has destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and especially its oil industry. Before the civil war, Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day but this has now dropped to about 50,000 barrels a day. Javier Blas reports in the Financial Times that under the most benign scenario, it woulds take until 2013 or well beyond for Libya to return to its pre-civil war levels of production.

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But any such estimates do not account for the enormity of the destruction visited on Libya by NATO bombings–of the highways, bridges, hospitals, homes, essential services, utilities destroyed. Some of us remember all too well the Neocons saying that Iraq’s oil wealth will pay for the war and reconstruction–and look where that got the Iraqis. No aid to Libya can be expected from a Washington held captive to the ‘small government’ policies of the Tea Party acolytes or from a Eurozone dealing with sovereign debt of its weaker members. Like other states of the global South, Libya will be left in a quagmire as NATO seeks other locations to intervene and destroy with nary a whimper from the ’emerging powers’ of Brazil, India, China, or South Africa!

Oil, Civil War, and the Politics of Intervention

March 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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Reports of four British Special Air Service (SAS) troops being captured 30 kilometers from Benghazi is ominous especially since the rebels they were ostensibly sent to help had no inkling that these troops were being parachuted into the areas they control. The refusal of the Gaddafi regime to crumble in the face of widespread protests–unlike the regimes in Tunisia to its west and Egypt to its east–has meant that the struggle for power in that oil-rich desert state had flared into a full-blown civil war.

While it is much too early to predict how the civil war will pan out, it has provided a wedge for US and European leaders to speculate openly about intervening in Libya. That Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman called to arm the rebels comes as no surprise, it is troubling that President Barack Obama has refused to take the options of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ and military intervention off the table, especially after his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, injected a rare bit of sanity when he told cadets at West Point:

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”


Ostensibly, the case for intervention is couched in humanitarian terms and cloaked under the UN doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” It is easy to dismiss the humanitarian justifications as Seumas Milne has shown:

“When more than 300 people were killed by Hosni Mubarak’s security forces in a couple of weeks, Washington initially called for “restraint on both sides”. In Iraq, 50,000 US occupation troops protect a government which last Friday [25 Feb 2011] killed 29 peaceful demonstrators demanding reform. In Bahrain, home of the US fifth fleet, the regime has been shooting and gassing protesters with British-supplied equipment for weeks.”

The ‘prime directive’ if you will of the UN doctrine of “responsibility to protect” is that intervention does no harm–and on these grounds, any intervention in Libya would fail spectacularly! Even some opponents of the Libyan regime have warned against foreign intervention. Certain Russian and Chinese vetoes ensure that there will be no UN Security Council sanction for intervention and that any intervention will be under NATO auspices–or by the US, the UK and some of their allies acting on their own initiative.

If there is intervention, it is almost certain that it will have to be followed by an occupation–the opposition is disparate and only united against the regime; it is clear that the regime has some significant support–otherwise it would not have been able to mount an offensive. Since both factions will have access to weapons, an occupation to pacify the country would have to follow.

Moreover, for all the talk of Libyan government forces launching murderous assaults against its citizens, the Libyan military has been largely ineffective. Opposition forces already are reported to control some 80 percent of Libya’s oil supplies. Government planes have been unable to bomb targets–leading to speculation that the sympathies of pilots are with the rebels though it is at least equally plausible that it is because they are poorly trained.

Aljazeera English that the strength of the Libyan military is overly exaggerated. Years of sanctions and poor maintenance has meant that much of its military hardware are obsolescent or unusable and it estimates that the regime has only about 10-12 thousand well-trained and well-armed troops.

The very weakness of the Libyan forces makes threats of foreign intervention ominous. If US, British or NATO forces can intervene on a pretext, they can establish bases in Libya as they can install another kleptocratic regime–once such bases are established, they take a life of their own and are rarely dismantled as shown by the history of post-Second World War US bases.

Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and that as world demand for petroleum surges insatiably, there is a greater urgency to control sources of supply. However, Michael Klare has documented that every effort by the UK and the US to control supplies has led to disaster–stretching from the coup d’etat that London and Washington engineered to depose the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, to the fall of the Shah in 1979, and to the two invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. To site bases that could be used for war against another Arab country would be anathema to the protestors.

Advocates of foreign intervention, as Milne also notes,

“seem brazenly untroubled by the fact that throughout the Arab world, foreign intervention, occupation and support for dictatorship is regarded as central to the problems of the region. Inextricably tied up with the demand for democratic freedoms is a profound desire for independence and self-determination.”

Riots across North Africa and the Persian Gulf for once is not about imperialism or Israel–but about food and employment, for democracy and dignity, and against corruption and nepotism. Here too Libya is noteworthy in that it has the best Human Development Index among all African states. Here it is a case of the young and the middle class demanding an end to autocracy more than the bread-and-butter struggles that animated the Egyptian revolts and these rebels are not going to tolerate the establishment of another pro-Western kleptocracy.

Puppets Turning Against Puppet Masters

November 18, 2010 at 10:35 am | Posted in International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the failure of President Obama to wrest any meaningful concessions from the major economies at the G-20 summit in Seoul underlined the incoherence of US economic policy–with many economists admitting that a weaker US dollar would not increase employment–Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s sharp criticism of US military policies underline the incoherence of its occupation of Afghanistan.

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As the almost decade-long occupation has failed to pacify the insurgency which is, in fact gathering such steam that NATO forces are transporting Taliban leaders to Kabul to meet with the Karzai regime to negotiate a cease-fire, the US commander in Afghanistan escalated night-time raids to about 200 a month–more than 6 times the level 18 months ago. Whereas US Special Operations forces were carrying out an average of 5 raids a night as recently as last July, in the three months before November 11, they were conducting an average of 17 raids a night leading to the death or capture of 368 ‘insurgent leaders’ and the death of 968 ‘other insurgents’ and the capture of an additional 2,477 according to NATO sources. ”Many Afghans see the raids as a flagrant, even humiliating symbol of American power,” some New York Times correspondents reported, “especially when women and children are rousted in the middle of the night.”

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Finally, last Saturday, in an interview with the Washington Post, President Karzai sharply criticized the massive increase in night-time raids and said that US and NATO failure to respect the sanctity of Afghan homes was fuelling the insurgency. Karzai turning against his US patrons is ironic since he was parachuted into the Afghan presidency precisely because he was seen as a complaint figure. And indeed, in his first appearance as the Afghan Interim President before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we sat like a minor provincial satrap while the Senators sat on an elevated platform and quizzed him as one would an errant schoolboy

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But as the occupation continues, for his own survival he recognizes that he has to assert some autonomy from the incoherent military policies of the Occupation forces. Though he holds office only at the pleasure of the United States–his recent “electoral” win was questionable and in any case the Afghan armed forces are no match for the insurgents–he knows that the US cannot forsake him as they have no other ‘leader’ in the wings to take over. Thus, last April when he was pressured by the US to reform his administration, he even brazenly threatened to “join” the Taliban!

What is perhaps more surprising, given Karzai’s earlier protests against US policies, is that General Petreus could only respond by registering his “astonishment and disappointment” at Karzai’s pointed criticism. What is astonishing about noting that the killing of civilians, the rousing of women and children in the dead of the night, the violation of the sanctity of private homes is a humiliating reminder of the powerlessness of the Afghans, and that continued humiliations fuels the insurgency?

Appearing before the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles who served two terms as ambassador to Afghanistan, said that army commanders who told their superiors that the military strategy was not working were told to make their reports more optimistic and that the Afghan government was much less popular in the country’s south than the Taliban who were seen as ”a fairer, more predictable alternative than a corrupt and predatory government.”

Afghanistan is not merely a military quagmire from which a face-saving exit is now almost impossible, but it is also turning to be a bottomless money pit. One recent audit found that between 2007 and 2009, the Pentagon, the US Agency for International Development, and the US State department gave $18 billion to some 7000 contractors and that they cannot account for much of this money or to whom it was given! Other reports show that police stations, hospitals, schools and other buildings that were to have been constructed were so badly built that they are unusable. Louis Berger, a New Jersey construction firm, was assessed a fine of $69.3 million in fines for overbilling the government for things like a music system in its Washington DC offices for money that were to have been for reconstruction in Afghanistan!

From the Indispensable Nation to a Very Dispensable One

October 18, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Posted in Political Economy | 9 Comments
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How has it come to this–US-led NATO forces promising safe conduct to the Taliban to negotiate a pact with the puppet government in Kabul to put a face-saving gloss over the inevitable US defeat? Less than two decades ago, the United States had seemed to be the pivot of world politics, the only superpower in the tectonic shifts that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. No state could challenge its power–and when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq dared to invade Kuwait, for the first time since the Korean War, the United States was able to send its forces to battle under the UN flag.

After the swift and brutal victory over Iraq, the Clinton Administration set about setting the rules of world trade, free trade reigned triumphant over the air waves, and when Serbia tried to prevent the secession of Kosovo, US-led NATO forces quickly enabled the rebel province to break free of Belgrade without suffering a single US military casualty. US supremacy over the air was so dominant that the Iraqi and Serbian combat planes did not even attempt to take to the air. The normal calculus of war, Perry Anderson announced, had been suspended.

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After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States quickly mobilized its forces for an assault on Afghanistan. No other military force could have so quickly attacked a country that it did not border. Though the US did not invoke the collective defense clause of the NATO treaty, member states offered their assistance–an offer the US accepted only after the Taliban government had been run out of power, preferring troops only from its Anglophone allies for the invasion itself.

The quick dispersal of the Taliban government emboldened the Bush Administration to train its guns on Iraq once again. This time, key members of the Security Council–Russia, China, France, and Germany–were unwilling to confer legitimacy to a clearly illegal invasion. Massive street marches across the world signaled popular opposition to an invasion of Iraq. Yet once the invasion began, President Chirac allowed US warplanes to fly freely across French airspace and Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer hoped for a speedy collapse of the Iraqi ‘resistance.’

As US forces occupied Iraq, Gregg Easterbrook declared the arms race over. “The extent of American military superiority,” he crowed, “has become almost impossible to overstate. The United States sent five of its nine supercarrier battle groups to the region for the Iraq assault. A tenth Nimitz-class supercarrier is under construction. No other nation possesses so much as one supercarrier, let alone nine battle groups ringed by cruisers and guarded by nuclear submarines.”

“Any attempt to build a fleet that threatens the Pentagon’s would be pointless,” he claimed, “because if another nation fielded a threatening vessel, American attack submarines would simply sink it in the first five minutes of any conflict. (The new Seawolf-class nuclear-powered submarine is essentially the futuristic supersub of ”The Hunt for Red October” made real.) Knowing this, all other nations have conceded the seas to the United States, a reason American forces can sail anywhere without interference. The naval arms race — a principal aspect of great-power politics for centuries — is over.”

With such military assets, the United States could act arbitrarily, violating international law with impunity but this time the tables were quickly turned against the mightiest power in history. Massive resistance on the ground with improvised explosives clearly established the vulnerable underbelly of US power. Small organized resistance groups and suicide bombers were able to inflict unacceptable casualties on the US led forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, US General David Petreus sought eventually to cut their losses by incorporating some 100,000 members of the resistance from the Sunni minority into a revamped Iraqi army. However, once the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki invited the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to join the government, the Sunni fighters began to desert with the weapons to the al-Qaeda.

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Just as the situation in Iraq is unravelling, so is the situation in Afghanistan, prompting the invitation to the Taliban for talks with the Kabul government. What is particularly striking about the defeat staring the United States in the face in Afghanistan and Iraq is that these are very different from Vietnam. In Vietnam, the national liberation movement was supported by the USSR and China, and enjoyed the support from majority of the world’s governments. The resistance movements in Afghanistan and Iraq have no support, Afghanistan has been in a state of constant war practically since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1978. No sooner that Iraq concluded its disastrous 10-year war with Iran, its attempts to conquer Kuwait led to defeat in the First Gulf War. Between the end of the First Gulf War and the US invasion in 2003, American and British airplanes dropped more bombs on Iraq than had been dropped in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. And yet, these insurgencies have triumphed over the mightiest military force in history–nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers simply cannot stack up against unconventional forces.

Rather than confronting these serious and potentially fatal problems, the commentariat in the United States contends itself with meaningless debates on the advisability of burning the Koran or building a mosque in Manhattan.

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