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What McCain and Obama Just Don’t Get About Central Asia

Posted on Oct 7, 2008

By William Pfaff

There are only two real issues left in the foreign policy debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. One is how soon to withdraw from Iraq; and the other, what to do about what Obama thinks is the “real” war America should be fighting, in Afghanistan. Yet neither the Iraq nor the Afghanistan issue is within the power of any American president to resolve. He only thinks he can, and his advisers tell him he can and should. But the critical variables are outside his control, and certainly outside the control of American and NATO military forces.

What happens in Iraq will be determined by the decisions of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, and by his government’s relations with the members of the Sunni Awakening Movement, many of them former insurgents, who until now have been paid by the U.S. government to defend their own neighborhoods but are being transferred to government authority—whose Shiite leadership distrusts them. It will be decided by the Shiite religious leadership, and by the government of neighboring Iran.

Washington says the surge has won the Iraq war. For whom?

The new American president must decide whether to demand (or fight for?) permanent American bases in Iraq, as McCain wants, and the Maliki government, and Iran, and presumably the Shiite religious leadership, don’t want. Obama says he will close permanent bases within the 16-month withdrawal period he has announced. But then the Pentagon will ask, what was this war all about? What is the answer, to them, and to the allied dead, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and bereaved?

The second basic decision for a new president concerns Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaida and Pakistan. Stated in those terms, it sounds simple. It actually refers to the following separate conflicts:

The first is the U.S.-NATO war against a politico-religious movement composed of native Afghans—members of the main Afghan ethnic group, the Pathans—who want to take back control of their country from the unfortunately corrupt government to which the United States has awarded it.

Two American specialists, Nathaniel Fick and Vikram J. Singh of the Center for a New American Security, claim that the average Afghan pays out one-fifth of his income on the bribes necessary to make a living and get along, and that the Hamid Karzai government is widely perceived as having forfeited its legitimacy. Perhaps life would be worse yet under the Taliban. But surely that is for them to decide.

Next is an American effort to capture Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders, thought to be in Pakistan. But as bin Laden—if he is still alive, as some doubt—and his associates can at any moment pack their suitcases and move to anywhere they like, why is it necessary to fight a war over him at the cost of Afghan, Pakistani, American and allied lives in Afghanistan? This is madness.

The next conflict is between the new Pakistani government and a rising Islamist movement inside Pakistan itself, strong in the frontier Tribal Areas and increasingly influential in cities in the north of the country, sustained by its belief that Pakistan’s government has sold itself to the infidel Americans.

It has been reinforced by the increasing tension between American and Pakistani armies on the frontier, and by civilian casualties resulting from American attacks inside Pakistan. The Islamists are inspired by hatred for a Pakistan government now “fighting America’s war,” and allowing Americans to attack Pakistan.

The Pakistani army, the force until now holding the country together (with its nuclear weapons), has ties with the native Islamists and the Afghan Taliban; it is at the same time a vital instrument of central government authority; and it possesses its own professional and national loyalty to Pakistan’s integrity and autonomy.

It resists U.S. demands that it sweep up the Taliban and al-Qaida and hand them over, whatever the cost to Pakistani interests. (This tally of conflicts has not taken account of the small-scale war already developing between U.S. and Pakistani armies, and the intensifying civil struggle inside Pakistan against the religious traditionalists.)

Last week, a leaked diplomatic dispatch from the British ambassador in Kabul predicted that NATO will lose the war against the Taliban. A London Sunday newspaper reported that the British military commander in Afghanistan holds exactly the same opinion. Many Americans in Afghanistan express the same view.

Why is this so? The logic of this kind of war is that the more foreign troops that are sent to a country like Afghanistan, the more Afghan and Pakistani nationalist outrage and fury is generated, and the more support there is for the Taliban against the foreigners.

The new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, has already called for reinforcements for “a long and arduous counterinsurgency campaign that could last many more years”—and which, he says, ultimately can only have a political settlement.

Could someone, somehow, explain to Barack Obama and his people—the only ones in the presidential race who conceivably might listen—that this terrible entanglement of conflicts has nothing seriously to do with the basic national interests of the United States, which has never been harmed by the Taliban, and whose fundamental interests have nothing to do with who rules traditionally unconquerable mountain territories in Central Asia?

To persist in this war is simply, and appallingly, a blind continuation of the policy George W. Bush announced in 2001, as quoted by Bob Woodward in his book “Bush at War”: “to create chaos, to create a vacuum” in Afghanistan and to “export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.”

Must we continue under our next president?

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at


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By Folktruther, October 11, 2008 at 12:56 pm Link to this comment

That’s nice, Outraged: If my life matters, so does then every life.

And I couldn’t agree more that discarding our delusive indoctrination as Americans is a necessary preliminary to being fully human.

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By Outraged, October 8, 2008 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

Re: Folktruther

Your comment: “How bloody and horrifying this endgame scenario will be historically depends on how quickly the American people realize what is happening.

I agree.  We…as a people, need to let go of the trappings which bind us.  The fictitious philosophies of “what it means to be an American” and understand what it means to BE a human being.  If my life matters, so then does every life.  If we should so decide that the life of others doesn’t matter then also neither does our own…...  There is a breaking point (to borrow words), and we need to acknowledge that, to face it.(2min)

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By Folktruther, October 8, 2008 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

The major problem for Obiden is that the defeat of the US in Afghanistan is a defeat for the US as the leader of NATO, and this is a crucial defeat for the imperialism of the US power system.  Worse than Vietnam.  Obama doesn’t want to be saddled politically with this defeat.

On the other hand, the defeat of American power is a victory for the American people and the people of the world.  The US power system is a murderous and brutal power that is out of control of the American people.  It resorts to masss killing, torture and brutality because it cannot compete econincally in the world with its version of unregulated Free Enterpise.  It is currently increasing the likelihood of thermonuclear war.

This is illustrated by the recent attacks on nuclear powers by the Bushites to give McCain talking points in the election.  The attack of Russia by Georgia, the attack on Pakistan, and now the threat to ship massive quantities of arms and missles to Taiwan, all are meant to increase war tension for electoral purposes.

The utter cynicism of this use of war for short range political purposes is what happens when imperialism historically reaches the end of its tether.

A defeat of US power in Afghanistan would discredit its military imperialism but at the cost of decrreasing its legitimacy as a ruling power.  The same thing that happened to the Soviet Union.  So the neocons and neolibs of the ruling class, and their agents in the Dem-Gop parties,  will stall as long as they can, since the political insanity of their military adventures, intiated by the false flag 9/11-anthrax homicide,  have left them no good histoical alternatives.

This war may therefore drag out for more years unless the population is mobilized against the US power system, as Chalmers Johnson suggests.  But this cannot be limited to military change, but economic and political change as well.  No power system lasts forever and the traditional US power system has reached its historical end.  How bloody and horrifying this endgame scenario will be historically depends on how quickly the American people realize what is happening.

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By Outraged, October 7, 2008 at 11:07 pm Link to this comment

An interesting discussion with Chalmers Johnson @ Real News Network, a excerpt.

JAY: Talk about Obama. Do you see some signs in Obama’s foreign policy that give you some reason for optimism?

JOHNSON: No, I don’t. I mean, there’s [inaudible] the political system failed us in getting us into this trap, in getting us totally owned by the military-industrial complex and 16 secret intelligence agencies that are the personal praetorian guards of the president. That is to say, I don’t believe any president, when it really came push to shove, can stand up to the powerful influences of the military-industrial complex and the Central Intelligence Agency today. They are beyond normal workings of our government. We were warned by President Eisenhower. We didn’t pay attention. The warnings have come home to roost right now. The only thing that matters, though, I believe, in this area, is the quality and kind of advise, advisors, opinions, discussions that will be available to Obama. He, unfortunately, so far is not very encouraging. He’s taken a bunch of old Democratic hacks of the Madeleine Albright variety and seems to be putting them back together again. They didn’t do a very good job once before; it’s unlikely that they would do any better a job now…..

It continues:
JAY: So what you’re suggesting is the financial crunch is going to force the disassembling of the empire.

JOHNSON: Well, I could think of a lot of other things that might. I mean, very slowly you begin to think of those old Roman fears that a world of enemies is combining against us. There’s a lot of nations out there now that are on the move, that are beginning to think of ways to frustrate, to check and even checkmate the United States. We see it, probably, in Latin America, we see it in the growing restiveness over status of forces agreements on our bases, and things of this sort. But basically my wife needled me one day and said, “Can’t you come up with something more optimistic than war?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll come up with something more optimistic. Let’s try bankruptcy.”

JAY: There’s some studies to show that Hitler launched World War II more or less when he realized Germany was on the road to bankruptcy, and the only thing left was war to cover up the consequences of bankruptcy.

JOHNSON: Well, they did go bankrupt in 1923.

JAY: But I’m talking in ‘39-40. The German economy was at its weakest at the time he launched the war, because one of the motivations for the war being the lack of ability to provide consumer goods and services to the German people.

JOHNSON: Well, it’s an old classic of history to use war to cover up these hopeless domestic failures precisely is what is scary about the United States right now.

JAY: So I guess it’s up to us; it’s up to us and the people watching.

JOHNSON: And that’s why I like to be on a program like this. I don’t believe in wasting my time. But I’m sure this is not going to come out of the normal workings of the political system. It’s going to require the mobilization of the public to understand what they’re about to lose, and once they lose it they’ll never get it back.(10min)

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By Outraged, October 7, 2008 at 9:42 pm Link to this comment

Article quote: “Could someone, somehow, explain to Barack Obama and his people—the only ones in the presidential race who conceivably might listen—that this terrible entanglement of conflicts has nothing seriously to do with the basic national interests of the United States, which has never been harmed by the Taliban, and whose fundamental interests have nothing to do with who rules traditionally unconquerable mountain territories in Central Asia?”

I do not see any stoppage of the war in Afghanistan with either of the major party candidates.  Neither one has ever claimed as much and have surrounded themselves with hawks and/or hawkish advisors.  There ARE others in this presidential race, Barr, McKinney and Nader.

Nader on war crimes.(11 min)

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By dihey, October 7, 2008 at 8:01 pm Link to this comment

This is one of the better analyses on Central Asia that I’ve read in a long time, yet it does not recognize that setting fundamental foreign military and political paths is the constitutional prerogative of our congress. This dangerous blindness was again demonstrated by both candidates during their “debate” tonight. Both believe that they have powers which the constitution does not give them. Their drift towards a super-imperialist presidency is obviously continuing.
With regards to war and peace in Central Asia: do you feel at ease with either Obama or McCain as our next president? Given their saber-rattling on Afghanistan I do not.
Perhaps, in the end, it will be neither the people and governments of Iraq and Afghanistan that decide what will happen but the drift of the US economy. If you cannot afford a war then you cannot wage a war unless you are a reckless crazy.
I am appalled moreover that neither candidate seems to know where most of our crude oil comes from.
If you believe them it comes from our deadliest enemy, the country of Canada!

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