Afghanistan: War Theatre of the Absurd

Photo from The Onion.

Photo from The Onion.

Just as we get the word that President Obama will probably decide to send more troops to Afghanistan—but not as many as the 40,000 requested by General Stanley McChrystal—I have seen three reports in recent days that point to the absurdity of such a step. Consider these headlines:

The first is a fine article by Karen De Young in The Washington Post (October 26, 2009), reporting on the agonizing decision of a young Foreign Service Officer and former Marine captain, Matthew Hoh, to resign his post as the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul Province, because, he said, “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.”

His observations on the ground led him to conclude that many Afghans are fighting the United States largely because our troops are seen as an occupying force intervening in what is essentially a civil war. And it is a civil war, not between our guys and the bad guys, but with every valley and village running its own war with shifting alliances and changing enemies. Many of these people are Pashtuns, the largest and traditionally dominant ethnic group. They will fight each other if left alone, but will unite to fight invaders like us.

These many local Pashtun insurgencies are, Hoh maintains, “fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.”

The second article is from the BBC website (October 28), reporting on new legislation that authorizes U.S. commanders in Afghanistan to do as their counterparts in Iraq have been doing: pay off the opposition to get them to stop fighting the Kabul government (and our troops). Now, paying off the opposition does seem to have calmed things down in parts of Iraq (recent Baghdad bombings notwithstanding), and thereby provided us with an opening to carry through with the agreement we made with the Iraqi government to get our troops out of there. Maybe it can work in Afghanistan too. But unless we use it, as in Iraq, as an opening to get out, we will have locked ourselves into a prolonged blackmail scheme. There is no way, in either country, that a stable and non-corrupt regime can be built on the foundation of blackmail.

This leads us to the third article, from The Onion (“America’s Finest News Source”), also from October 28. President Obama is quoted as saying, “We’ve spent a lot of time and money fostering the turmoil and despair necessary to make this a sustaining quagmire, and we’re not going to stop now. It won’t be easy, but with enough tactical errors on the ground, shortsighted political strategies, and continued ignorance of our vast cultural differences, we could have a horrific, full-fledged quagmire by 2012.”

General McChrystal is quoted as follows: “Some say the war in Afghanistan is already a quagmire, being as it’s gone on for eight years and the situation on the ground continues to rapidly deteriorate. But I know we can do better. There are still dozens of tribal allies to alienate, troop morale could sink even lower, to the point of mutiny, and by continuing to fire a bunch of missiles from unmanned predator drones we have the opportunity to scare the living shit out of every last civilian in the region.”

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Finally, Muhammad Qasim Fahim (President Karzai’s vice-presidential running mate) is quoted as thanking the Americans: “Not only have they created a lawless environment that has allowed us to capture 90 percent of the opium market, but their heroin habits have made a few of us very rich. I love the Americans and I hope they stay for many years. Many, many, many, many years.”

We know we have a problem when satire cuts so close.

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University

LA Progressive

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