Barack Obama calls the Iraq prime minister’s demand for an American troop withdrawal schedule “an enormous opportunity.” He is right, and it must be accepted. This is what the majority of the American public voted for, but didn’t get, from the midterm American election of 2006.

Instead, the Bush government gave Americans the surge. And for George W. Bush, the surge has spawned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand for a phased American withdrawal from Iraq. Bush expected the surge to produce victory, whatever that might mean, and the right to dictate the terms on which the United States would stay in Iraq, not leave.

Those terms were made known earlier this year: total American exemption from Iraqi law (meaning extraterritorial legal status), veto over Iraqi government decisions, control over Iraqi military and police operations, authority to arrest and imprison Iraqi citizens and foreigners, immunity for American contractors from Iraqi law, and control of Iraq’s airspace.

The surge did the opposite. It created the conditions for Maliki’s demand that the U.S. and its allies leave. Gen. David Petraeus built cement walls in cities to separate Sunnis from Shiites. This meant reciprocal ethnic cleansing in sensitive areas, to suppress conflict.

Petraeus paid Sunni tribal groups to fight foreigners — the self-named “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia” — and to keep order in their areas. He encouraged the Maliki government to impose its authority on the radical militia controlled by the young Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

This created the conditions in which rival power groups, as in Basra, provisionally settled the power issues at stake between them, which would have (and possibly will again) produce conflict when the occupation ends.

The surge segregated groups, imposed truces and made provisional arrangements to buy peace between factions. It thus created conditions in which the Iraqis want the occupation to end.

Some in Washington don’t want this because the Pentagon has built bases throughout Iraq it certainly does not want to give up; and in the Green Zone, the State Department, which is anxious to move in and run Iraq, has built the world’s biggest American embassy, complete with tennis courts, swimming pools, leaking roofs and flooding toilets, and a fast-food shopping mall with blast shelters just for Americans. Is all this to be sacrificed to an unwelcome Iraqi sovereignty?

No one knows; but it begins to look that way. According to The Washington Post, American and Iraqi officials have now abandoned negotiations on anything except a limited “bridge” document that would allow American presence and operations after the existing U.N. mandate runs out in December, leaving it to a new American president to take up the matter.

Barack Obama, if elected, would do well to go, leaving no U.S. forces behind that could pull Americans back into Iraq. Give the Iraq government what it wants and leave the disaster of the past six years totally on the account of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

However, Obama has announced his intention to commit himself to another disaster in the making. As president, he would dispatch reinforcements “to fight al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

During the campaign, he has repeatedly attacked George Bush for going to war against the wrong enemy, Iraq, in the guise of fighting al-Qaida. Now he will reinforce the fight against the Taliban in the guise of fighting al-Qaida. The Taliban is not al-Qaida, any more than the Iraqis were.

There is a civil war going on in Afghanistan. There may soon be a civil war in northern Pakistan. The Taliban is involved in both, and the United States has every interest in staying out of both.

In Afghanistan, Taliban members are not foreign invaders. They ruled the country before the United States sent B-52s to annihilate (if Hillary Clinton will permit me) their peasant army in 2001, as it resisted invasion by the rival Northern Force, backed by the United States.

They now want to rule Afghanistan once again. They are a radical religio-political sect, which arose in recent decades among largely uneducated tribesmen living in the historically ungovernable “tribal areas” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

They believe in a deeply obscurantist mixture of fundamentalist Islam and traditional tribal practice. They belong to the Pathan (or Pashtun) people, which means that they are kinsmen to more than 40 million other Pathans in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia, whom no one has conquered since Alexander the Great.

At various times the Taliban has been supported or manipulated by Pakistan military intelligence in connection with purely Pakistani or regional matters. The vast majority of Taliban members, other than those currently being bombed by the U.S. in Afghanistan or Pakistan, undoubtedly are totally ignorant even of the existence of the United States of America.

At one point in their tangled history, they afforded hospitality to their fellow-traditionalist Muslim, the Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden. That was their big mistake. The Bush administration made the bigger mistake of becoming entangled with them, for which the United States will eventually be sorry. Barack Obama should think again.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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