1. George W. Bush’s wars, now Obama’s wars, our wars, have been and continue to be dishonestly-reasoned, lackwitted missions. The war that now absorbs the Pentagon’s love of a contest, its will to strategize, deploy, deny, destroy, “win,” is of course the one in Afghanistan. The bastard of the Cold War and 9/1l, what else could this war be but crazed and deformed? Beating up on the Taliban so as to get back at al Qaeda, who were once useful to us as guerilla fighters against the Russians and their unacceptable ism, communism, and then, in blow back, got in our face with their extremism, their terrorism, tearing up US soldiers’ far-from-home bodies—does that make any sense? None at all, but it’s the idea that ruled in the fall, 2009, White House deliberations on Afghanistan war strategy (those of Obama, his cabinet and aides, and the Pentagon brass)—sessions which Bob Woodward traces with dull prose and plodding fidelity in Obama’s Wars (Simon and Schuster, 2010).

Too bad Obama didn’t heed General Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, and Derek Harvey, General Petraeus’s intelligence adviser—good heads. Instead, he flew with the hawks in the Pentagon (chiefly, Admiral Mullen and Generals McChrystal and Petraeus) and on his cabinet (Robert Gates and Hilary Clinton). Though a pragmatist and at times a reed in the winds of politics, Obama likes a fight.

According to the consensus recorded and reiterated and reiterated again in Woodward’s book, the United States’ “goal in Afghanistan is to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government.” (I quote from President Obama’s “Final Orders for Afghanistan Pakistan Strategy.”) But, unless “safe haven” is a possibility exclusive to Afghanistan, we find two goals, here, not one.  Down with al Qaeda,  one; down with the Taliban, two. The confusion and conflation of the two targets points to a lack of intellectual honesty.

Most Washington heads are in denial of the definitional and operative gap between the Taliban and al Qaeda. They are pressed to put forward an imperative reason for staying on in a war we can’t win because—because, imperialistically, we are already in it. We have been in it for so long, in fact, that our rhetoric about it is brain dead.

So, then, here is the reason to “defeat”—no, even the apologists for the war agreed, “you can’t defeat the Taliban” (224). The reason to “deny” the Taliban is somehow to deny al Qaeda. That’s it. That’s all. That’s the height of the reasoning about the mission.  It is nothing more than a shoddy rationalization for (1) continuing to kick ass in Afghanistan and (2) saving face. To withdraw now would give boasting rights to the enemy and would let them know what they already know—that we don’t know what we’re doing.

Jihadists, dangerous and different people whom we cannot control, historically backward, freakishly puritanical, the Taliban should not have a nation of their own in the “modern” world—that is the unarticulated, unadmitted, unexamined provocation for trying to make them eat their own country’s dirt. They don’t like us! They don’t even respect us! They don’t fear us! So we adopt a SWAT-team approach, a “strategy” that, supported by a somehow privileged access to what God wants of us (unbelievably tiny specks in the totally crazy universe though all nations are), is on the way to becoming our ever-accelerating serial occupation. Obama: “Extremism will be a long struggle” (307). Robert Gates in today’s New York Times (Dec. 3):  “as I look ahead . . . I don’t see the world getting to be a safer . . . place . . . where our troops are necessarily under less stress.”

Washington’s muddleheaded stick-to-itiveness about fighting in Afghanistan is fed, in part, by a default umbrage over the Taliban’s hospitality to al Qaeda when the Taliban still enjoyed unchecked power in Afghanistan. The consequent mortification, the insult and injury, cannot be borne. The Taliban are thus opposed as proxies. They must almost be the same as al Qaeda, brothers, shells in the same mortar—that is the self-indulgent supposition. Whatever truth this impression may contain, the evidence is thin. Our outrage fattens it up. Obama to his speechwriter: “We need to tell the story of how we got up to where we are today. I want to make the point that [Afghanistan] is the epicenter of violent extremism.” “Epicenter”: the earthquake is centered there. (Once a center, always a center.) In one of the staggeringly repetitious strategy review sessions—whose topic was how many more troops to send to Afghanistan and with precisely what goals and when to start drawdown (Obama insisted on being lucid about the mission, an admirable intention, but failed at its core), the defense secretary, Gates, noted that Afghanistan carries a unique symbolism for the jihadist movement: “This was where the jihad was born” (202)—another instance of fixation on the start. Political PTSS, pure and simple.

In the Security Room sessions it was acknowledged that there are “very few al Qaeda in Afghanistan” (227). Yes, but mightn’t they come back? Of course, but what of that? They have found and will continue to find other places to infest; they are not in the least dependent on Afghanistan. Nor on Pakistan. At one of the strategy sessions, Peter Lavoy, the Pakistani expert in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that, “were the Taliban perceived to be winning in Afghanistan, that would be a boost to militants worldwide” (203). But al Qaeda hardly needs that particular boost. It is now operating on a “one man, one bomb” plan. Which means that it (and its copycats) can pop up anywhere. Portland, Oregon, for instance.

The strategists in Washington almost strained themselves in the effort not to acknowledge this fact, which would have been to undress the mission. Obama even conceded that “the cancer is [now] in Pakistan. The reason we’re doing the target, train and transfer in Afghanistan is so the cancer doesn’t spread there” (302)—that is, return home. Preventive warfare. Just-in-case warfare. Compounding his corrupt reasoning, Obama then plays (and just this once, as if it weren’t a prime consideration) the nuke card: “Afghanistan is a means to accomplish our top mission, which is to kill al Qaeda and secure Pakistan’s nukes” (328).

If Pakistan has “the cancer,” i.e., extremism, then Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the “means to accomplish our top mission.” But a bullying take-over of Pakistan is, for the moment, unthinkable, so we must twist our heads back around to Afghanistan, no, swivel them between Afghanistan and Pakistan, no, don’t stare at Pakistan that way, the Pakistanis won’t like it.

Alas, Pakistan has proved to be a notoriously difficult, skittish, resentful, and treacherous ally, a contradictory mishmash of its own “national security” interests. It both opposes and abets the Taliban—co-operates with our interests, and flouts them. Madness. When Hilary Clinton asked the corrupt, manipulative Afghanistan president, Karzai, if the Pakistani ISI “could pick up Mullah Omar [the Afghan Taliban leader operating from the Pakistani city of Quetta] if they wanted,” his answer was to pluck a chocolate chip cookie from a plate: yes, like that (355). According to Lavoy, Pakistanis, worst luck, would “prefer a Taliban government to a broad-based multiethnic government [in Afghanistan]. As long as they think the Taliban can come back, they will not break with the Taliban.” And in a leaked memo reported today two days ago The New York Times, our ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, said: “there is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support for these groups [i.e., lethal groups attacking American and Afghan soldiers], which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India.” Situation stalemate.

When he entered into office, President Obama said: “we had two wars taking place. So once you’re in, what you’re trying to do is impose clarity on the chaos” (376). He thus conceived of the problem as an after-the-fact intellectual task, which meant nothing more than “what should be our priorities?” and “how contain the Taliban and get out of Afghanistan fast?” and not “why are we still meddling in Afghanistan as if it were our country to shape and to win or lose?” or “what justifies the cost (the lives, the billions of dollars) of trying to save ourselves from a merely hypothetical Afghan realm of safe havens?”

The Security Room sessions entertained the idea that “a completely destabilized Afghanistan would sooner or later destabilize Pakistan” (192). But the US presence in both countries is itself already critically destabilizing them. Meanwhile, our presence in infamously corrupt Afghanistan is itself the “corrupting force,” according to Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “All the contractors for development projects pay the Taliban for protection and use of the roads”—I quote Woodward’s paraphrase—“so American and coalition dollars help finance the Taliban. And with more development, . . . the Taliban would make more money.”

We send our soldiers to that.


2.  Dedicated only to being a tireless researcher and dogged interviewer in Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward ventures few opinions of his own. In sharp contrast, Tariq Ali’s little book The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (Verso, 2010) is barbed and brilliant with Ali’s opinions.

Thomas Donilon, the deputy national security adviser, told Woodward, in the latter’s words, that “Obama had perhaps underestimated the extent to which he had inherited George W. Bush’s presidency—the apparatus, personnel and mind-set of war making” (Woodward, 281). Ali’s thesis is that, despite and because of his “vacuous ‘Yes, we can,’” Obama is Bush Two is Clinton is Bush One (Ali, 38). Same ties to predatory capitalism. Same investment in the imperial juggernaut. (Yes, Obama shepherded in the health care reform bill, but it is “bungled and toothless” [ix].)

Obama’s presidency has been distinguished largely by the way it has continued on the course established by his recent predecessors. . . . Obama is little more than the Empire’s most inventive apparition of itself. The fact that even this is unacceptable to the most extreme defenders of the imperial project can be seen or heard most nights on Fox television and right-wing radio, where these venues’ shallow, coarse and swaggering rabble regularly present Obama as a “socialist” who is soft on Islam [and] not sufficiently pro-Israel, . . . an out-of-control radical. If only. None of the right-wing hysteria bears any relation to reality. (33)

In the “War Abroad” pages of The Obama Syndrome, to stay within the gravitational field of Obama’s Wars, Ali writes: “From Palestine through Iraq to Iran, Obama has acted as just another steward of the American empire” (56). Woodward, now more than ever an establishment hack, wouldn’t express so undeceived a thought. Nor would any of the Washington heads he quotes. You are not even reminded in Obama’s Wars that Karzai, like so many other foreign political failures, is our own responsibility (“Karzai had been selected to lead Afghanistan after the Taliban regine fell in late 2001,” Woodward mumbles, in cotton mouthed grammar). Ali, on the other hand, pronounces the US-and-European-installed puppet government in Afghanistan a “bogus construct [that] never had the slightest legitimacy in the country, lacking even a modicum of the narrow but dedicated base the Taliban had enjoyed” (58).

Whereas Woodward’s book exposes Washington as a mess of mostly compromised, turf-jealous minds—and this despite Woodward’s own lack of keenness—Ali’s is a demonstration of uncompromising intelligence. And not only his; Ali cites utterly telling commentaries from others, such as this one by Matthew Hoh, “a former Marine captain who served as a political officer in Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan and resigned in September 2009”:

The Pashtun insurgency . . . is fed by [what the Pashtun people perceive to be] a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies . . . In both the East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul . . . If honest our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to . . . invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. (59)

No one in the White House and the Pentagon, in Woodward’s account of the hashings out of a strategy in Afghanistan, said anything so historically honed and humanly sensitive and politically “honest” as these words from Hoh, who resigned as a political officer in Afghanistan just as our government was planning to beef up its military establishment (part brute will to subdue, part automaton, part righteous mission) and bully blindly forward in that alien country.

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