It has been called Barack Obama’s “LBJ” moment, where a progressive president is dragged into escalating an unpopular war in the hope that a quick success could rescue the US’s reputation around the world.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, who assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1962, was praised by many progressives for his support for civil rights legislation. But his failure in Vietnam eventually destroyed his presidency.
Now Obama is following suit. After months of “deliberation”, the US president has unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan that he hopes will halt the occupation’s defeat. And “defeat” is a word much used by the top military brass. The war, which has dragged on for eight years, has become a bloody quagmire for foreign troops. The insurgency is growing stronger, better organised and more deadly.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US commander, put it this way: “Certainly from that standpoint we are not winning, and in an insurgency you are either winning or you are losing. And if we are not winning, we are losing, which is why I said that, because of the trend in this insurgency.”
Mullen admits that “progress” is painfully slow. Huge operations involving thousands of troops have found themselves chasing ghosts. Insurgents melt away when confronted by offensives on their strongholds, only to strike back later with deadly roadside bombs.
The US ruling class has been deeply divided on how to rescue the occupation. The language is beginning to change. Rather than “victory”, General Stanley McChrystal, commander in Afghanistan, talks of the need to “disrupt” or “degrade” the insurgency. The plan endorsed by Obama involves shipping over another 30,000 troops which, along with some 6,800 troops from 36 countries, will lift the total foreign force to about 140,000. One indication of the depth of panic in the US military is the plan for new soldiers to be deployed during Afghanistan’s harsh winter – a mammoth logistical operation estimated to cost some $30 billion.
The second part of the strategy is to rebuild the Afghan state and win the allegiance of a population that has come to resent the occupation. This goal is further away than ever. Obama carefully cushioned his announcement with the pledge that all US troops could begin returning home in July 2011. The end of the war was in sight, he promised.
But this deadline began to slip away within hours of Obama’s announcement. A White House aide admitted that the July 2011 deadline marked a “transition”, not the end of the war. This “transition” will involve handing over large parts of the country to the Afghan army. In a further clarification the “transition” itself was said to be conditional on “circumstances on the ground”.
Therein lies the rub. The deadline is far too short for any real shift in the direction of the war and falls foul of what Afghan president Hamid Karzai terms “simple economics”. Whereas Iraq can turn on the oil taps to fund the rapid expansion of its military, Afghanistan has few resources to call on and remains at the mercy of Western aid.
Then there is Pakistan, a key US ally in the region. The Pakistani army launched a massive push in tribal areas as part of the “AfPak strategy” first endorsed by Obama when he took office. Since Pakistan launched its offensive last year, its military juggernaut has driven deeper into the tribal districts that are considered a haven for insurgents. Yet this offensive has become part of a “circular war”. Now it admits that there are sporadic clashes in the Swat valley, a Taliban stronghold “made safe” in the first phase of this operation.
The Pakistani offensive is ultimately doomed, not only by the huge resentment is it causing, but also because the second, and key, element of the AfPak strategy was for a similar push by Western forces along Pakistan’s northern border. But McChrystal has called a retreat of foreign forces from the countryside to the cities.
Where once Afghan militants found relative safety in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Pakistani militants are said to be flooding into southern Afghanistan. Pakistan is now paying a hefty price for its part of the plan. A deadly wave of bombings has brought the war to Pakistani cities, while the harsh military reprisals are sowing seeds for years of resentment.
The danger in Obama’s plan is that the latest deployments mark not “the beginning of the end” but an incremental escalation of the war. Obama already deployed some 30,000 troops in the first months of his term. Now he will be sending a further 30,000. US generals are already saying these will not be enough.
Obama faces a tough dilemma. The US ruling class is desperate for an effective “exit strategy” but fears the consequences of being seen to have been defeated. At stake for Johnson in Vietnam was US global dominance. Lose Vietnam, Johnson said, and the US would face the “domino effect” where the countries neighbouring Vietnam would be swept by a red tide of “communism”.
The stakes in Afghanistan are higher. During Johnson’s era the US was the predominant global economic power. The US today is much weaker. Bush launched the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq to reassert US power following 9/11. However, both occupations have exposed the limits of US global might.
Like Johnson, Obama is being dragged into an unwinnable war. The conflict will now move from the countryside into the cities. This leaves the prospect of peace more remote than ever. The only guarantee that emerges out of Obama’s new strategy is that ordinary Afghans will pay the price.
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