As we noted here the other day – drawing on a story in the Independent that the Times is just now catching up with – the Obama team is preparing to throw aside Hamid Karzai, the dapper if hapless Washington-picked Afghan president. The NYT uncritically – not to say hilariously – funnels the Obama line that Karzai is being sidelined "because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban."
This is pretty rich, even for Washington, where the comedy of hypocrisy never stops. Leaving aside the staggeringly vast corruption that is the meat and drink, the quintessence, the sine qua non, of the American government, when have our imperial overlords ever been troubled for even a single instant by the corruption – rampant or otherwise – of its various foreign clients? And what was the prime example of this Afghan corruption given by the Obama officials? Karzai's failure to arrest his own half-brother, a powerful local politician, for drug trafficking. Can you even imagine such a thing? A well-connected public official not being prosecuted by the national government for serious crimes? Such a thing could never happen in Washington, could it?
And given the long-running, apparently eternal, thoroughly bipartisan commitment to the ever-ineffectual but highly profitable "war on drugs," it seems a bit churlish -- not to say ignorant -- to blame Karzai for dirt-poor Afghan farmers resorting to such a rich cash crop. As for the gangsters who move the merchandise around the world -- it is the illegality of these substances that makes them so lucrative on the street; legalize them, regularize them, tax them, and they would lose nine-tenths of their allure for the criminal syndicates. But then, what would our civilized governments do without all those juicy, draconian "anti-drug" powers. (For more on all this -- and its connection to Afghanistan -- see "Gainspotting: Terror War Meets Drug War.")
In any case, the drug trade is "flourishing" in Afghanistan because the American-led "regime change" operation there removed a government that had practically eliminated the Afghan drug trade -- the Taliban -- and replaced with it a gaggle of drug-running warlords. Now Washington is shocked -- shocked! -- to find drug-running going on there. Comedy gold, I tell you.
But of course, Washington's displeasure with Karzai has nothing to do with the corruption of his government or the Afghan drug trade. It stems from two main concerns: first, Karzai's increasingly strident protests against the growing number of Afghan civilians being killed in American and NATO operations; and second, the need to find a scapegoat for "the resurgence of the Taliban." Preferably, this scapegoat will be some local stooge, a fall guy to divert attention from the fact that the main reason for this resurgence is Washington's witless, blunderbuss, blood-and-iron approach -- the very same approach that Obama and his anonymous tough-guy leakers are proposing to escalate. And what better fall guy than some loudmouth who keeps going on about how destructive and counterproductive the American approach is?
But do let's be fair to Team Obama, which, as we all know, is motivated solely by the most humane and progressive motives. The NYT story makes clear that if Karzai -- supposedly the independent president of a sovereign nation -- grovels sufficiently to his new masters in Washington, they might keep him on for a bit longer:
Mr. Holbrooke is preparing to travel to the region, and administration officials said he would ask more of Mr. Karzai, particularly on fighting corruption, aides said, as part of what they described as a “more for more” approach.
Mr. Karzai is facing re-election this year, and it is not clear whether Mr. Obama and his aides intend to support his candidacy. The administration will be watching, aides said, to see if Mr. Karzai responds to demands from the United States and its NATO allies.....
These demands include arresting not only his half-brother but various other Afghan officials -- many if not most of them the same warlords, druglords, crimelords and religious extremists brought to power by the Americans themselves.
Meanwhile, our tough new "progressive hawks" are going to downplay all that sissy-mary "development" stuff -- off-loading it onto the effete Europeans -- while they concentrate on killing them a whole shitload of gooks -- sorry, Talibans:
They said that the Obama administration...would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.
“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there “our greatest military challenge.”
Mr. Gates said last week that previous American goals for Afghanistan had been “too broad and too far into the future,” language that differed from Mr. Bush’s policies.
Yes, that's change we can believe in: being even more militaristic than George W. Bush! We look forward to some really, really positive results from this approach.
Then again, I guess we've got to do "whatever it takes" to win this thing -- because this the "good war," after all, isn't it? The war that all "serious" progressives were quick to say that they wholeheartedly supported, even while voicing their opposition to the invasion of Iraq -- which was "the wrong war at the wrong time." Indeed, their main complaint about the murderous berserking in Iraq was that it "took our eye off the ball" from the "central front in the War on Terror" in Afghanistan. This was the line consistently peddled by Obama (who never once declared, or even hinted, that the Iraq operation was an inherently criminal operation -- a horrendous moral abomination, a sickening mass atrocity -- and not just an inconvenient or ill-timed or badly-conducted endeavour). No, the Afghan War is the war "we had to fight," our progressive hawks all tell us, so we've got to see it through.
But is that true? Is it a war we "had to fight"? Even if one accepted as gospel the ever-shifting "official" versions of the origins of 9/11, was there perhaps another way, a road not taken? Scott Ritter, who knows a fair bit about Afghanistan and the higher machinations of Washington courtiers intent on war, thinks so. In a recent column -- describing an encounter in October 2001 with Obama's new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke -- Ritter outlines an approach that doubtless would have been far more effective:
Our fight, in any case, wasn’t against the people of Afghanistan. To a certain extent, it wasn’t even against the Taliban, since it was al-Qaida, not the Taliban, that had attacked us. Some, including leaders of the Bush administration, were making the case that the Taliban was directly implicated in the attacks since it had provided al-Qaida with a safe haven to plan the events of 9/11. It had yet to be proved that the Taliban was a witting host, however. As a student of the region, I believed that the United States would do well to use tribal concepts of honor to isolate and disenfranchise bin Laden and his Arab outsiders from their Taliban host. If the United States, working through the offices of the Pakistani intelligence services, could convince the Taliban that its hospitality had been abused by al-Qaida—in that the murder of innocents had been committed while under its protection—then Afghan tribal custom and honor and, even more important to the fundamentalist Taliban, Islamic law, dictated that the Taliban revoke the protections and privileges afforded bin Laden and al-Qaida.
I did not believe that the Taliban would impose justice itself, but rather could be convinced, through a combination of logic and economic incentive, to disperse al-Qaida and turn bin Laden and his senior leadership over to a third party, presumably an Islamic nation such as Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates. If a direct approach failed, then covert action, using proxy forces in Pakistan and Iran, would make contact with moderate elements of the Taliban, personified by its foreign minister, to remove the conservative Mullah Omar from power and achieve a more direct result against bin Laden and his cohorts. A new, moderate Taliban leadership would be more than capable of assembling the religious clerics necessary to convene a sharia, or Islamic, court, which would find the actions of al-Qaida to be violations of Islamic law. Also, a loya jirga, or tribal gathering, would revoke the protected status of “guest” enjoyed by bin Laden and his fellow terrorists. The least productive option America could pursue was that of direct military intervention, and I anticipated that the veteran diplomat [Holbrooke] would concur with that point of view.
In his suggestions for "covert action," Ritter here indulges in the usual American predilection for arranging the internal affairs of other countries to suit Washington's agenda. [Although it must be said that in the perverted moral scales of state action, a little proxy covert action would have been "better" than all-out war.] But for the most part, he is dead on. What's more, the Taliban -- under Mullah Omar -- was already prepared to do exactly what Ritter was proposing in October 2001. The Taliban made clear to Washington that they would turn bin Laden over to a third-party Islamic country -- if the United States would provide evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. And although Colin Powell famously declared at the time that he was compiling just such a dossier of evidence to prove al Qaeda's guilt "to the world," this dossier was never produced. In any event, Washington rejected the Taliban's offer out of hand. They did not want to "get" bin Laden. They did not want to pursue legal justice for the attacks on 9/11. They wanted to invade Afghanistan. And by god, that's just what they did.
As Ritter notes, this bloodthirsty exercise of power was fully embraced by Democratic paladins like Holbrooke:
What happened, however, was the exact opposite. The diplomat rejected out of hand any sort of diplomacy, arguing that there were only extremists within the ranks of the Taliban. There was, in his opinion, no such thing as a moderate Taliban, and as such the United States had no choice but to lump the Taliban and al-Qaida into a singular target set, and initiate direct military action designed to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. I responded by noting that it would not be an easy thing to separate the Taliban from Afghan society, since the Taliban was a product of Afghan society, and that any military action against the Taliban would only strengthen the bonds between it and al-Qaida, which was of course the last result the United States should be seeking. The diplomat rejected my argument as simplistic and unrealistic. He argued for a military solution, and, of course, that was the result the Bush administration delivered.
Ritter also notes rightly that the "expertise" offered by Holbrooke in the situation will be worthless at best, and dangerous at worst:
It is highly doubtful that Holbrooke will bring anything more to the table than cheerleading. President Obama’s stated intention to increase the size of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and to more forcefully assert U.S.-imposed “security” through continued military action in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan is a dangerous scheme, one Holbrooke will enthusiastically support. Reinforcing failure is never a sound solution. Take it from the veteran British military officers who have served in Afghanistan and now advise that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem. Listening to advice like that would go a long way toward developing stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan and neutralizing al-Qaida’s ability to organize and operate in those nations. The British recognize that the Taliban is not the problem, but rather part of the solution to what ails Afghanistan.
There will be no peace without a negotiated settlement that includes the Taliban. To accomplish this, leadership is required which recognizes the Taliban as a force of moderation, and not extremism. Holbrooke does not have a record which indicates he would be willing to consider direct negotiations with the Taliban. He tends to seek military solutions to difficult ethnic-based problems, and he is likely to argue for the deployment of even more U.S. troops to that war-ravaged nation. That would be a historic mistake.
Yes, but historic mistakes are what empires do; it's what empires are. So it's no surprise that the new managers of our empire -- who have avidly sought and freely embraced the cruel, inhuman machinery of military domination -- are careening headlong down another horrendous dead end. "Get some!"
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This story was published on January 28, 2009.