Two events last week underlined the fact that Barack Obama is not kidding when he says he intends to escalate the war in Afghanistan.
The first was mainly symbolic. Obama reneged on his earlier promise to publish photos of US soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees. According to the White House, the U-turn was motivated solely by concern for the safety of US troops. But apparently it followed pressure from senior figures in the military.
The episode reinforced the impression left by Obama’s hesitations over whether or not to prosecute ex-officials who, under George Bush, had written memoranda authorising the torture of suspected terrorists.
Obama is under pressure from the people who elected him, who want an end to the global state of exception proclaimed by Bush after 9/11. But he needs the national security apparatus that served Bush to continue fighting the US’s imperial wars.
So, before releasing the torture memoranda, Obama went to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, to reassure the assembled spooks that they were still loved and wanted.
The second event showed the direction Obama is heading in Afghanistan. On Monday of last week US defence secretary Robert Gates announced he was sacking General David McKiernan, the US commander in Afghanistan, after only 11 months in the job. Asked if McKiernan’s career was over, Gates brutally replied, “Probably.”
McKiernan is being replaced by Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal used to head the Joint Special Operations Command, a section of the US military that received additional resources and clout while Donald Rumsfeld ran the Pentagon for Bush.
General David Petraeus is almost certainly behind this reshuffle. The architect of the “surge” in Iraq in 2007-8, he is now chief of US Central Command, which sprawls imperially from the Horn of Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan.
Obama has ordered a surge in Afghanistan. The US has 45,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is expected to rise to 68,000 later this year.
The alternative strategy now being put in place is explained by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. To understand Petraeus’s basic approach, try to imagine a horizontal line that charts the level of militancy of insurgent groups.
On the left are the hard-core “irreconcilables” who could never be co-opted by the US. But as you move right along the line, the groups become more pliable and join the “reconcilable” camp.
In Iraq Petraeus transformed hard-core insurgents into members of tribal militias on the US payroll. The remaining fanatics became targets for Special Forces “capture or kill” operations, which were overseen by McChrystal. It was a hard and soft strategy – using firepower to clear an area, and then gentler counter-insurgency tools to hold it and build through economic development.
Petraeus’s plan in Afghanistan is to hit the enemy very hard this year with the additional 21,000 troops Obama has approved – and then see if the Taliban coalition begins to crack.
Much greater violence is ahead initially, as the US attacks Taliban sanctuaries in the south. But if the strategy succeeds, the “chameleon insurgents”, as Petraeus calls them, will begin to peel away.
As so often with the counter-insurgency strategies of imperial powers, this leaves out politics. Also writing in the Washington Post, Celeste Dean, who worked in the Pentagon under Bush, points out the crucial role the decision of different political forces to stop fighting “and start deal-making” played in bringing limited stability to Iraq.
I doubt the Taliban will be interested in doing this. Their influence has been spreading and they have the confidence born of the historical memory of past victories, not just of their radical Islamist ideology. As Ignatius puts it, Obama is marching his presidency into the “graveyard of empires”.