Counterinsurgency is out. Drones, assassination teams, targeted killings and special forces are in. A New York Times report on May 27 described the “existential debate” going on inside the faculty at West Point, the national military academy. Counterinsurgency doctrine from Vietnam — and the Philippines “insurgency” of 1899-1902 — was refurbished by Gen. David Petraeus in the closing period of the Iraq War, and, combined with a sharp increase in troop strength (the “surge”), it was credited with ending the war there by confirming the Nouri al-Maliki Shiite government unsteadily in place.

After taking office as president, Barack Obama looked for a comparable success in Afghanistan. After consultations in Washington, and with Petraeus and the new commander of U.S. and Allied forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the president authorized a new “surge,” patterned on what seemed to have worked in Iraq. However, he added an important clause: The American troop reinforcement would be withdrawn in 18 months.

Hence his assurance to NATO officials in Chicago last week that U.S. (and NATO) combat forces are on their way out.

The president has made a realistic assessment of what by now seems obvious to nearly all. The Afghan war is not going to be “won” by the U.S. Obama’s decision is to “Vietnamize” it. This does not mean that the war against the Taliban will end. It possibly means that while foreign ground combat forces will be removed from Afghanistan, American air and special operations, characterized by a “light footprint,” would continue to take place (with or without Afghan government approval, or in disregard or defiance of the Afghan authorities). A war is not over until it is over.

There could be two wars or quasi-wars, one against the Taliban in Afghanistan and one against the radical Islamists in Pakistan and their supporters. This implies continued intimidation and material blackmail of the authorities in Islamabad, and presumably enlargement of the campaign of assassination by means of drone attacks, which is already going on in Afghanistan and in the tribal territories of Pakistan.

The administration’s goal has not changed. It continues to be American strategic domination of Central Asia, now to be accomplished by new forms of air, electronic and economic surveillance, persuasion and political control, as well as through targeted violence.

An important adviser to Obama since the beginning of this administration has been Bruce O. Riedel, for years a CIA officer concerned with the region. Soon after Obama took office, Riedel wrote in the Washington journal The National Interest that Pakistan, an advanced and politically sophisticated state possessing nuclear weapons (and the industrial and technological base making that possible) is a much greater threat to the United States and its interests in the region than Afghanistan — an isolated, backward state — has ever been, or could ever become.

Afghanistan is the doorway to nuclear Pakistan, which is presumed capable of rallying the world’s Sunnis. Its government is threatened by domestic extremists. According to Riedel (writing in 2009), under jihadist influence, it could mount an “almost unfathomable” threat, with “devastating consequences … literally felt around the globe.” What exactly this threat is, I do not know, nor do I believe in it — any more than I believe that Iran is somehow a global threat. But other people do believe these things and seem to have access to the White House.

There is in Washington foreign policy circles, and more important, in the Pentagon’s belief and emergent doctrine, a new conception of the American position in the world, which minimizes the importance of classical weapons and war, and also of the importance of allies and the limits of national sovereignty. As articulated in the Pentagon, it implies U.S. control of essential world resources, probably in competition with China, while simultaneously conducting a war against Islamic terrorism.

American strategic thinking has for eight decades developed in terms of global ideological or military conflict — against Nazis, against communism. With Samuel Huntington’s wrongheaded but perniciously influential statement that the next world war would take place between civilizations, we stepped into a new dimension. Osama bin Laden did his part in giving material form to this claim. Many Americans now believe that the United States is engaged in a global war of religion. This is apparent even in American local politics and in popular political discourse and demagogy. Such sentiments can be heard in Congress, in the Pentagon and, it would seem, in the White House.

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

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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