Forget the iPad; the ultimate icon of fetishized commodity is the drone. Israelis do it – and sell them like hot cakes. Mexicans do it – to patrol their side of the border. Brazilians wanna do it – to patrol the Rio favelas. Saudis wanna do it. Uzbeks wanna do it. Everybody’s singing: Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love (with the drone).
Furthermore, abandon all hope those who enter (the doors of misperception): Afghanistan is now officially just a lowly, troop-infested sideshow to the AfPak war. The real thing is an illegal drone war against Pakistan. Viva Richard Nixon. As much as Tricky Dick annexed Cambodia to the Vietnam War, the Barack Obama administration pulled a Nixon regarding Pakistan. And the great thing is that no one needs another WikiLeaks “dump” to know this. It’s out there in the open.
Tricky Dick’s tricks paved the way to Year Zero for the Khmer Rouge. Obama’s throw of the dice may be paving the way to a Year Zero for the Pashtun brotherhood. The 16-agency US intelligence establishment says the Afghan adventure is doomed. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is somewhat gloomy. But the surge-addicted White House – in a stark reminder of those George W Bush-era reports about Iraq – says it’s all swell (Taliban “momentum has been arrested in much of the country”). Pentagon supremo Robert Gates says Washington now controls more Afghan territory than a year ago; maybe in terms of Kabul shopping malls – and that’s already a stretch.
Taliban momentum, anyway, is just an afterthought. What matters for the White House is to smash (“significant progress”) al-Qaeda, allegedly holed up not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Take them Pakistani Talibs out from the air, with the CIA playing Ride of the Valkyries, just like in an orgiastic Facebook-friendly remix of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with all those US Marine tanks rolling along in Helmand province offering a cute counterpart. I love the smell of a burning Talib in the morning. Makes me think of … re-election.
But what about collateral damage? Tough guys of the “real men go to Tehran” type say this is for sissies (the New America Foundation says around a third of drone deaths are civilians, but that’s hugely underestimated, according to Pakistani sources.) Blowback, anyway, is guaranteed to last until the 22nd century.
Faster CIA, kill, kill
So it’s not the Pentagon but the CIA that is showering Death from Above over dirt-poor mud-hut villages in a country against which the US is not at war. Things may change – witness the frenzy to legally nail “terrorist” Julian Assange – but US law does not exactly condone mass assassination campaigns.
The CIA drone war is obviously secret and illegal. That can be fixed with the incoming chairman of the US House Armed Services Committee updating the congressional authorization for this extended war on al-Qaeda. As for Pashtuns collaborating with the CIA, they are technically Afghans, not Pakistanis, from different tribes; that will foster centuries of subsequent tribal trouble once the families of the dead ascertain who the snitches are.
Whatever the rhetoric emanating from Washington in 2011, the game will keep being duly played according to only one plot-advancing script; American Pentagonists visit Islamabad/Rawalpindi to warn the Pakistanis of Washington’s perennial “strategic impatience” with what they’re doing, while their military/intelligence establishment go live to spin they’re doing all they can, but also need to be watchful of Pakistan’s own interests.
In a nutshell: expect for 2011 an endless parade of Predators and Reapers firing barrages of missiles at the usual “suspected militants” in North Waziristan, Khyber or anywhere else in the tribal areas; and forget about Islamabad/Rawalpindi sending their army into North Waziristan to fight “al-Qaeda” or even the local tribes.
What this essentially means is that the nebula/myth conveniently branded “al-Qaeda” remains in the clear. There’s no way its few dozen invisible jihadis can be crushed by the CIA’s illegal air war, not to mention troops from Islamabad/Rawalpindi. And even supposing they were, the “franchises” would still be in business – as in AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula/Yemen.
Drone Eye for the Straight Guy
Who cares about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? The new hit in all things AfPak is Drone Eye for the Straight Guy. The next chief of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service – that is, the CIA’s new top spy – is John D Bennett, none other than the former head of a drone-infested CIA paramilitary wing. An Associated Press story even claimed that he directed the drones in Pakistan during the Bush era.
Even the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General “Hoss” Cartwright, has totally gone Drone Eye for the Straight Guy. As he sees it, COIN is now history; the hip thing to do is “counter-terrorism”, as in drone-saturated air war. Consider the drone war as Washington’s premier stimulus package to Central Asia.
Progress in over-stimulated Afghanistan, according to the Obama administration’s year-end report, is “frail and reversible”. This means in practice that for all the spin, missile-saturated Kandahar is not becoming Orange county anytime soon.
The Afghanistan plot won’t thicken; it will dilute in the usual diarrhea. Afghans will keep saying over and over again they are not exactly Taliban fans – but they hate the corrupt Hamid Karzai gang and Washington even more, for allowing their occupied country to be controlled by gangsters and warlords.
Washington will keep tweaking its losing “strategy” of smashing the Taliban with extreme firepower. The Taliban for their part have already fine-tuned their own strategy of “flee the south-go north”. All the roads in Afghanistan lead to Kabul; not by accident, all are intercepted or under Taliban attack. Karzai rule stops abruptly at the last rickety police station south of Kabul, on the road to Kandahar. It’s as if Kabul was enveloped by an eerie Titanic feeling – that pampered, gated-condo isolated neo-colonial coterie of generals, diplomats, non-governmental organizations and security contractors partying hard as in before the fall of Saigon.
But soon anyway a “new” narrative will be taking over – the snail-pace North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “drawdown” from 2011 to 2014. But does that mean the beginning of the endgame – no more war? Rather it’s back to the beginning, as in “abandon all hope those who enter (the doors of misperception)”. To (literally) thunderous applause by a coterie of neophyte neo-jihadi bombers, the Obama White House has explicitly emphasized “NATO’s enduring commitment beyond 2014”.
A key feature of this “enduring commitment” is that the Afghan army soldiers and cops NATO is training (supplemented by US private contractors of the Dyncorp/Blackwater mould) will need no less than US$6 billion a year, every year, till probably eternity, from the usually euphemistic “international donors”, key among them US taxpayers.
It’s a gas, gas, gas
And here’s where The Year of the Drone merges with what the late, great deconstructionist Jacques Lacan would qualify as “the unsayable”: the invisible, dangerous liaisons between the “war on terror” and the energy war, as in the topography of the war on terror matching all the key 21st-century sources of energy from the Middle East to Central Asia.
This implies a key Pipelineistan chapter – the never-ending saga of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which has been at the very core of the troubled Washington-Kabul marriage since the mid-1990s.
The TAPI inter-government agreement was finally signed in mid-December. Make no mistake; this is Washington in overdrive. The Washington-backed Asian Development Bank is to come up with the bulk of the $7.6 billion (and counting) financial package. The 2,000 kilometer-long TAPI – to be built by an international consortium – should snake through a very dodgy 735 kilometers of Afghanistan and 800 kilometers of Pakistan.
Hype apart, there’s no hard evidence that TAPI will “stabilize” Afghanistan or contribute to India and Pakistan trading kisses instead of insults. AfPak in this case are both transit countries. Most of the Afghan stretch will be underground – much as the US-supported BTC from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan, Turkey. In theory, local villages will be paid to guard the pipeline. But that still does not guarantee security to a steel serpent crossing western Afghanistan and then going east through Kandahar.
Once again in theory, TAPI is indeed a steel Silk Road between Central and South Asia. If TAPI is ever built – and that’s still a big “if” – certainly it will mark a monster crossover of Pipelineistan with the US Empire of Bases. Because none other than the Pentagon and NATO will provide the overall security. And that means the Atlanticist West forever embedded in AfPak. One can imagine what the Taliban on both sides – not to mention disgruntled Pashtuns in general – will make of that.
And even if TAPI is built, this still does not mean that its key competitor, the $7.3 billion Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, also known as the “peace pipeline”, has lost the battle – much to Washington’s horror. The Indians have said that much – they are now chasing insurance giants of the Lloyds variety. And Pakistan definitely wants both TAPI and IPI.
TAPI theoretically should be finished by 2014. Surprise! That’s exactly the deadline year (for now …) for American troops to exit Afghanistan. No one will be exiting anything. Finally, the whole AfPak imbroglio will be revealed for what it is; a Pipelineistan gambit.
Meanwhile, enjoy the Year of the Drone. And while we’re at it, here’s some breaking news. The 2011 Pentagon/NATO strategy for AfPak is already established: wait for the Taliban spring/summer offensive to see where they’re at. And then drone them to death. Call it Drone Eye for the Bad Guy.