The “strategic reviewers” of United States President Barack Obama’s “good war” in Afghanistan are almost finished. Even before the new policy is set in stone – in Badakshan’s famed lapis lazuli, maybe? – by Obama himself within the next few days (with sensitive covert aspects of course withheld from public opinion), its contours are raising many an eyebrow.
The new mix will likely feature an ongoing wild goose chase for “good Taliban”; an expanded Central Intelligence Agency-operated drone war (a George W Bush policy decision); assorted CIA and special forces cross-border attacks (also a Bush policy decision); more carrots for the Pentagon-friendly Pakistani army (and Inter-Services Intelligence); more US troops in Afghanistan (starting with the announced 17,000 who will hit Helmand province before summer); and more training for the Afghan army.
The CIA and Pentagon couldn’t be happier with their clean and safe – at least for the drones – remote-control war on the Pakistani tribal areas. But they want more. Bombing Pashtun weddings and decimating tribals in Waziristan is not that much fun anymore. Of all the national security adviser groups who are delivering their suggestions to the White House, two key reports want to (literally) go south. Their authors are Central Command chief General David “I’m always positioning myself to 2012” Petraeus, and White House Afghan expert Lieutenant General Douglas E Lute.
So welcome to a new (drone) hit series – “Burn, Balochistan, burn”.
It’s Quetta time
The new “strategic” Petraeus front is in and around Quetta, a teeming urban center and the capital of the vast, mostly deserted Pakistani province of Balochistan. Quetta now happens to be historic Taliban Central, harboring, among others, according to US intelligence, none other than The Shadow, Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself.
When the drones hit Balochistan a disaster movie will be in the making. Bombing remote Pashtun tribal area mud houses by remote control is one thing. Bombing a major Pakistani urban center – surrounded by over-crowded Afghan refugee camps – is a completely different story. It’s like the Russians bombing Phoenix or Sedona in Arizona.
Were that to happen, Senator John McCain would certainly not sit idly by. Not only Pakistani popular opinion (but not US puppet Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari) will – rightly – interpret it as the US declaring war on their country, the banned Balochistan Liberation Front, fueled by even more rage, will have a field day with it, and run rings around the Pakistani army.
Up to this projected escalation there were two major competing strategies calling for Obama’s attention.
What could be dubbed the “State Department scenario” boils down to no safe haven for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in exchange for the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) getting out. It involves Obama’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke hiring Professor Barnett Rubin of New York University and Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid as advisers. Rubin and Rashid are knowledgeable: they would never suggest anything as demented as missiles raining on Quetta.
The Pentagon strategy – so far – was basically an extended Petraeus’ counter-insurgency gambit: the hunt for the “good Taliban” – a Hindu Kush replay of “Sons of Iraq” with convenient help from the House of Saud, which is more than glad to shower with gold any Taliban commander who wouldn’t get cozy with al-Qaeda.
So now Petraeus has gone definitely schizo: while trying to locate these elusive “good Taliban”, why not extend toy targets among Pashtuns and Balochis?
None of these strategies seem to understand the obvious: for the Pashtuns who happen to be Taliban it’s not essentially about money (though Samsonites full of dollars help) or religion (strict application of Deobandi views): it’s first and foremost about getting rid of foreign occupation.
A graphic example is what the Taliban have already demanded in not-so-secret negotiations: total control of at least 10 Afghan provinces (most of the south and southeast); a fixed timetable for total withdrawal from Western troops; and the release of the thousands of prisoners now congesting Bagram airbase.
Standard Western ignorance – imperial arrogance rather – filters to details like the New York Times dubbing the tribal areas “unruly”. This is ridiculous. The tribal areas have been ruled for centuries by a very rigorous code – the Pashtunwali. Pashtuns are bound by honor to respect and abide by it.
The code requires any Afghan to defend the motherland (nowadays against what they see as US/NATO occupying troops). They have to grant asylum to any fugitive – irrespective of his creed or caste (that was the case with Osama bin Laden). Insult should be answered with insult. If you enter a Pashtun house with your armed patrol, disrobe their women or – worse still – bomb a wedding by remote control, you will suffer an extended family (and village) rage for eternity. And they will find any possible way to hurt you.
More on Western arrogance. For the New York Times, “fear remains within the American government that extending the raids would worsen tensions”. As if people shouldn’t be “tense” when their village is hit by missiles in the middle of the night. And then the Times notes “Pakistan complains that the strikes violate its sovereignty”. As if Pakistanis should shut up and be bombed quietly (as Zardari and the army, who control the failed – politically and economically – state of Pakistan actually do; after all they made a deal with Washington).
Somebody has to (but won’t ) tell Obama that a strong central government in Kabul capable of effectively overseeing all its provinces and porous borders is a mirage. It would imply decades of nation-building – from which Washington has fled like the plague. The Taliban can be – at the most – contained in areas of the south and southeast. As for NATO, it is not in the least interested in functioning as fodder for Petraeus’ counter-insurgency schemes. The least bad solution for Afghanistan remains China’s: a UN peacekeeping force, largely composed of Muslim soldiers.
Calling Jack Bauer
The bottom line is that the industrial-military complex always wins. The new Balochistan disaster movie, if Obama-approved, will mean a literally booming business for San Diego-based General Atomics, who manufactures the $4.5 million, snowmobile engine-powered drones flown via satellite from the West Coast. True, they tend to crash, but at least there’s no collateral damage.
The Pentagon insists that in more than 36 strikes, the Predator – and its meaner cousin the Reaper – remote-controlled action in the tribal areas has yielded so far nine dead among al-Qaeda’s Top 20. Not exactly outstanding value for money. And no word, or course, on collateral damage (or crashes) although the Pentagon insists there’s no hit if civilians are supposed to be around.
For Predators and Reapers flying 34 patrols a day in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and transmitting 16,000 hours of video a month, the focus now is on decimating the leadership of notorious neo-Taliban Baitullah Mehsud. As for the Taliban who fled to Karachi, some strategic reviewer sooner or later will suggest bombing them as well.
The US “won” the Vietnam war on film – via Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which felt like the war on ground level. Not “won”; “expiated” rather, via two Conradian characters, one representing the logical conclusion of the madness of the system (Colonel Kurtz) and the other representing a “correction” (Captain Willard) that was in the end meaningless.
The US has been winning the “war on terror” on TV – via the series 24, where hero, Jack Bauer, is basically a high-tech John Wayne. The more things change …
If only Obama could have Jack Bauer waterboard Mullah Omar, torture Osama on a rack and then hang them both by a chain in a deserted warehouse. In his absence, we all drone on.