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July, 2009


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Obama's War: Spinning Out of Control
By Sandy LeonVest

Despite the revamped rhetoric and shinier spin, Obama's war in Pakistan and Afghanistan is just as destructive as that of his predecessor's in Iraq - and we're not out of Iraq yet.
On June 16, the US House of Representatives voted to approve another $106 billion dollars for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and-at least by association-Pakistan. The vote was a decisive one, with a paltry 30 out of 256 Democrats voting against the funding.

_Yet the reasons for-and the goals of-President Obama's military offensive in the region grow increasingly murky as his administration, while publicly disowning some of the most obnoxious post-911 language employed by the Bush administration, continues to apply essentially the same strategies and political tactics. While Obama may not talk about "the global war on terror" or "staying the course in Iraq," facts on the ground in Afghanistan speak volumes about his foreign policy ideology.

_US military presence there will more than double to 68,000 troops by the end of 2009, according to Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy, who recently told a Congressional panel that the surge in American troops in Afghanistan is part of an "unprecedented interagency effort" to implement President Barack Obama's counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An exercise in futility__
General David McKiernan, fired by the Obama administration back in May, has described the war as "stalemated, at best" in the southern part of Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest. And as summer gets underway, political observers in Washington, report a growing and palpable discomfort with the war. Despite the recent vote, a number of prominent members of Congress-including some Democrats-are increasingly questioning whether Afghanistan is a lost cause.

_Among them, Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis), who has on numerous occasions expressed his fear that adding US troops in southern Afghanistan would only expand the trouble in Pakistan. And Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat charged with coordinating the administration's policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been unconvincing as to how a military victory there can be accomplished. Holbrooke made news last spring when he announced that, "an additional amount of American troops, particularly if they are successful, could end up creating a pressure in Pakistan, which would add to the instability."

_At a Senate hearing in May, Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), painted a grim picture of the war, saying he was stunned by the lack of progress in Afghanistan, which he called a "black hole" with no bottom. "It is just breathtaking, the amount of money, the American lives we've spent there, and you have a government that has control maybe to the outskirts of the capital," Risch said.

Humanitarian Agencies Overwhelmed _
_Still another obstacle to 'progress' in Afghanistan is the utter failure of first the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration, to overcome-or even mitigate-the seemingly endless suffering of civilians there. The list of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows longer with each passing day, as does the number of 'displacements.'

_This spring, Reuters reported that the UN refugee agency was "pitching tents and building toilets" for an estimated 2 million Pakistanis "uprooted by an offensive against the Taliban." By summer, the estimate was approaching 3 million. And the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that the Pakistan military offensive against pro-Taliban militia in the country's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has produced "a massive humanitarian crisis."

_"More than one-and-a-half million people have fled their homes during the past month-the largest number of people to have been displaced by violence since the Rwandan genocide of 1994," the UNHCR reported in May.

_In Pakistan, "some 1.45 million people have registered with the NWFP social welfare department since May 2 as Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs," wrote Vilani Peiris at

_"The numbers of displaced from these three areas of Malakand division, combined with others from the NFWP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, now total over a million," Samina Ahmed reported in a special to the Global Post. "Without assistance," continued Ahmed, "the Islamist groups will fill the gap, hoping to radicalize the disaffected, particularly the youth. There is some evidence this is already happening."

_The ever-expanding list of civilian casualties and displacements is, according to AP's Robert Burns, "a problem that has undercut Afghan public support for the US mission and assisted the Taliban in promoting the notion that the Afghanistan government is a US puppet."

_UN officials are warning that they expect the number of refugees to continue to rise, with a probable spike in September when the US military 'surge' will be at full throttle.

Growing Civilian Death Toll Erodes Support for war

_The military objective in Afghanistan, according to US officials, "is to clear territory of militant influence so it can be held by US and Afghan security forces, allowing for humanitarian and development aid..."

_But the reality stands in stark contrast to this stated goal. In June, Reuters reported that "insurgent attacks have already soared nearly 60 percent in the first five months of 2009, as thousands of additional US troops arrived in southern and eastern Afghanistan. That was on top of about a 25 percent jump in violence for the same period a year earlier." And military officials including Army General David Petraeus, responsible for military strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, warn that violence will increase this summer as new operations get into full swing

_Also in June, the general chosen by President Obama to take over US and NATO forces in Afghanistan warned that the war could be lost unless civilian casualties were reduced. Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal told a congressional hearing that civilian deaths from coalition operations risked "inflaming public anger" and undermining military advances on the battlefield.

_But, as congressional representatives are well aware, public anger is already inflamed. And that anger is growing-both in the war zone itself and here in the US-along with reports of an increase in privately funded US armies and a seemingly endless number of civilian casualties in the South-Central Asian region.

_These developments have caused the already-tense relationship between the Kabul government (which justifiably worries about handing propaganda victories to the Taliban) and US and Western officials to further deteriorate. President Hamid Karzai made headlines in May when he angrily demanded an end to US air strikes after one of the deadliest incidents of the war in Bala Buluk killed an estimated 140 civilians.

Spinning Out of Control
_Since 2001 the Bush administration and its allies in Kabul have attempted to spin the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as one that is against Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, most of which are finding safe havens in Pakistan. That spin has been the public face of US policy for nearly a decade, although it is disputed by those who travel and work there, many of whom insist that such a spin hides as much as it reveals.

_With little independent reporting coming out of the Southern Afghanistan region, it has been all but impossible to learn anything that falls outside of the official American/NATO talking points.

_There are, however, exceptions to that rule. Journalist Sarah Chayes, who has spent time in the country both as a reporter and a social worker, worked as a correspondent for National Public Radio from 1997 to 2002. She issued a stark assessment of the situation from the region where the insurgency is most extreme in a piece she wrote for The Boston Review called Days of Lies and Roses: Selling Out Afghanistan.

_"Our first error," writes Chayes, "was to subordinate every other concern to a cowboys-and-Indians-style hunt for al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership-a hunt that has thus far proved singularly fruitless. We collected a posse of former anti-Soviet commanders who had been repudiated by the Afghan population for their rapacious and bloody-minded behavior after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 ... We installed these thugs in positions of local power, bolstered them with the priceless weight of our partnership-made unmistakable to ordinary folk by the uniforms we issued to their militiamen, the guns we armed them with, and the bricks of cash we delivered to their homes and offices."

_Chayes concludes: "It is precisely this decision to ignore good governance and cultivate criminality that has led to the disastrous security conditions in the Afghan south. The independent-minded Afghans relinquish sovereignty to a state apparatus reluctantly, and only for as long as the state can either cow them or be seen to be acting in their practical interests. The current Afghan government is doing neither. The only obvious alternative-or beneficiary of a protest vote-is the Taliban."

_In an extensive piece in the New Left Review called Afghanistan: Mirage of a Good War, Pakistani author, journalist and film-maker Tariq Ali writes, "All the evidence suggests that the brutality of the occupying forces has been one of the main sources of recruits for the Taliban ... There is widespread fury among Afghans at the number of civilian casualties, many of them children. There have been numerous incidents of rape and rough treatment of women ... as well as indiscriminate bombing of villages and house-to-house searchs search-and-arrest missions."

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