By Paul Murphy
THE HERALDED “change” from Bush’s foreign policy which Obama supposedly represents, is increasingly looking like a simple shift in geographical focus. The tactics used in Iraq – bribing past opponents and using a surge of military force – are to be employed in the coming months in Afghanistan. The justification is also largely similar to the rhetoric of Bush – a war against “terrorism” that knows no borders.
Obama has sought in his public statements to link Pakistan to Afghanistan in order to prepare American and world opinion for what will be an increasingly aggressive policy of attacks within Afghanistan and within the Pakistani border.
Obama has also won a certain amount of NATO backing for this escalation of his “war on terror”. He stated at a joint press conference with French President, Sarkozy: “This is not an American mission, this is a Nato mission, this is an international mission.”
The US is to send an extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan – on top of the 70,000 occupying troops which are already there. In addition, other leaders of NATO pledged to send 3,000 more troops on short-term assignments, with another 2,000 going to train the Afghan army. However, despite US appeals, the summit delivered no more long-term commitments of troops from other countries.
The US administration has been driven to this position because of the worsening situation on the ground for them. 2008 was the worst year for the US army in terms of casualties in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that they are viewed as a hostile occupying force by most Afghans. A crucial reason for this is the mounting civilian casualties, particularly from air strikes which the occupying forces have been forced to resort to in the absence of having control on the ground. According to their own estimates, 552 civilians were killed by NATO and US air strikes last year.
The control of the occupying forces is largely limited to urban centres, with occupying troops wary of straying outside of these centres, and insurgents controlling important parts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Occupying forces are increasingly fighting what has been termed the neo-Taliban – a new generation of Pakistani, Afghan, al-Qaeda and Kashmiri fighters. Their strategy is to attack high profile targets to spread chaos across Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
In a similar development to the establishment of “Awakening Councils” in Iraq (mostly ex- Sunni paramilitary forces now funded by central government), there have been suggestions of engagement with more “moderate” elements of the Taliban, to bring them into the “fold”. Michael Semple, the former deputy head of the EU mission to Kabul, was expelled from the country for making contacts with these forces, but claimed to have been doing it with Western authorisation.
The most significant new development in the US strategy is the focus on Pakistan, with Obama claiming that the Pakistani territories next to Afghanistan are “the most dangerous place in the world” for American people. He has been critical of the Pakistani government, declaring that it needs to demonstrate its commitment to rooting out extremism within its borders and insisting that action be taken when they are given intelligence about terrorist targets. This new policy is likely to further destabilise the broader region, particularly in Pakistan, as well as intensifying antagonisms with Russia and China.
Obama’s promised withdrawal of troops from Iraq is supposed to provide the political and military basis for this “surge” in Afghanistan. However, this withdrawal is quickly proving to be no more than a semantic sleight of hand. It is now clear that tens of thousands of soldiers will remain there beyond the promised date of mid-2010. The same brigades that have been occupying Iraq for six years are to remain and be re-named “advisory and assistance brigades” as opposed to “combat brigades”!
It is clear that US imperialism has only been given a cosmetic makeover by the Obama presidency. The fundamentals remain the same – thousands will be killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – all to defend US economic interests and demonstrate its power in the region.