Drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan: Recognition of Futility or Retreat From the Coming Storm?
DOHA, Qatar — Located between the sea of sand that is Saudi Arabia and Iran, where Central Asia begins, Qatar is a coastal appendage of the former and faces the latter across the Persian Gulf. Bahrain — home port of the U.S. 5th Fleet — is its close neighbor on the Gulf, and Qatar itself hosts advanced elements of U.S. Central Command, responsible for American operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The miniscule state of Qatar is at the nexus of America’s collision with titanic national military and political failure.
No one yet in Washington seems fully to appreciate or acknowledge the failure, but failure it is, the culmination of a series of events that inexorably will lead to America’s departure from the most foolhardy political and military adventure in the history of the nation.
The adventure began as the original Cold War cooled, a nearly bloodless political great-power confrontation with Soviet Russia by the Eisenhower administration in the mid-1950s. A real war was substituted with a new ideology. American analysts identified communist China and what they perceived as “Asian Communism,” a movement to align the ex-colonial states of Asia into a unified anti-Western bloc, as America’s new global threat.
In 1954, Washington assumed responsibility from France for supporting the independent remnants of France’s Indochinese colonies, undergoing anti-imperialist rebellions essentially nationalist in nature, but which Washington saw as Chinese-controlled aggression.
Under President Eisenhower, and subsequently the Kennedy administration, the United States began what eventually became a nearly two-decade American war supporting the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam, as well as intervening in Cambodia and Laos. It was defeated, or compelled to withdraw, from all three countries.
Another stage in Washington’s post-1945 global policy began. A new enemy was needed. This was conveniently supplied by American theorists with the ideological and historical theory of a radicalism arising among Muslims, implausibly described as capable of becoming a global movement that would establish a successor to the great Islamic caliphates of the Middle Ages, bent on launching an overdue riposte to the Crusades.
The origin of this movement was seen in the conflict between Arabs and the new state of Israel, created in 1948 under the auspices of the United Nations. This appeared to be confirmed by the New York and Washington attacks carried out by the al-Qaida movement in 2001. (The motive was not in fact support for Palestinians but opposition to American military bases in Saudi Arabia.)
This provoked the American invasions of Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was located at the time, and in 2003 Iraq, falsely accused by the domestic promoters of American war against the Arabs of sponsoring al-Qaida, and of possessing weapons of mass destruction with which the Iraqis intended to attack Israel, the United States and America’s European allies.
This fiction was believed by a sufficient number of credulous or manipulated Americans to justify the nine-year war on Iraq that supposedly has just ended — leaving Iraq a divided, strife-ridden and wrecked nation; as well as a renewed war in Afghanistan, again by America and its NATO allies. The invasion in 2001 destroyed its existing Taliban government. The renewal was to impose an American client regime, which the resurgent Taliban movement is now, with considerable success, endeavoring to overthrow.
The last week’s mass demonstrations of hatred for the American presence in Afghanistan, again provoked by an affront by U.S. soldiers to Afghan religious sensibilities, have now created a situation in which The New York Times reports “growing concern, even at the highest levels of the Obama administration and Pentagon, about the challenges of pulling off a troop withdrawal … that hinges on the close monitoring and training of army and police forces.”
Such is the theory upon which eventual American and NATO retreat is currently envisaged, meant to occur in 2014. No one today can seriously expect this orderly withdrawal, meant to leave behind permanent U.S. bases and an American-advised Afghan government with at least semi-democratic structures. At best there will be departure on negotiated terms with the insurgents, as soon as possible, and possibly with Pakistan and India, leaving the Taliban in effective, or potential, control of the country, and allowing a Western withdrawal which does not end with helicopters snatching scrambling NATO commanders from the roofs of American installations.
As in Iraq, only tragedy will be left behind. Current reports say there are some half-million civilian refugees in the country, not to speak of the deaths and the wounded, the result of what once again was intended by Washington to be a democracy-building exercise, and another step enlarging Washington’s dreamed-of U.S. global security network.
As for Iraq, last week withdrawal was ordered for half the State Department and security personnel already transported to that country and installed in the unfinished corridors and offices of what for years has been proclaimed the “Largest U.S. Embassy in the world — bigger than the Vatican City!” They were scheduled to take over supervision of Iraqi democracy, but the troops meant to accompany them were refused by the Iraqi government, which would not give them legal immunity from crimes committed in the country.
Last week’s withdrawal was not explained. It is possible that the futility of this political undertaking has at last been grasped by the State Department and administration leadership, and what was from the start a preposterous undertaking has been abandoned.
The other possible explanation is that the U.S. now believes an Israeli attack on Iran imminent, expects a savage Iranian retaliation against Americans in the region, and so is withdrawing them to spare them the concluding folly in nearly 60 years of American global leadership.
Qatar will be left intact, one hopes, to make new friends, resume its natural gas exports and cultivate the tourist trade.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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