Let's start by stopping.
It's time, as a start, to stop calling our expanding war in Central and South
Asia "the Afghan War" or "the Afghanistan War." If Obama's special representative
to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke doesn't want to, why should we?
Recently, in a BBC
interview, he insisted that "the 'number one problem' in stabilizing Afghanistan
was Taliban sanctuaries in western Pakistan, including tribal areas along the
Afghan border and cities like Quetta" in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
And isn't he right? After all, the U.S. seems to be in the process of trading
in a limited war in a mountainous, poverty-stricken country of 27 million
people for one in an advanced nation of 167 million, with a crumbling economy,
rising extremism, advancing corruption, and a large military armed with nuclear
weapons. Worse yet, the war in Pakistan seems to be expanding inexorably (and
in tandem with American
war planning) from the tribal borderlands ever closer to the heart of the
These days, Washington has even come
up with a neologism for the change: "Af-Pak," as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan
theater of operations. So, in the name of realism and accuracy, shouldn't we
retire "the Afghan War" and begin talking about the far more disturbing "Af-Pak
And while we're at it, maybe we should retire the word "surge" as well. Right
now, as the Obama plan for that Af-Pak War is being "rolled out," newspaper
headlines have been surging when it comes to accepting the surge paradigm.
Long before the administration's "strategic review" of the war had even been
completed, President Obama was reportedly
persuaded by former Iraq surge commander, now CENTCOM commander Gen. David
Petraeus to "surge" another 17,000 troops into Afghanistan, starting this May.
For the last two weeks, news has been filtering out of Washington of an accompanying
"surge" into Afghanistan ("Obama's
Afghanistan 'surge': diplomats, civilian specialists"). Oh, and then there's
to be that opium-eradication surge and a range of other so-called surges. As
the headlines have had it: "1,400
Isle Marines to join Afghanistan surge," "U.S.
troop surge to aid Afghan police trainers," "Seabees
build to house surge," "Afghan
Plan Detailed As Iraq Surge 'Lite,'" and so on.
It seems to matter little that even Gen. Petraeus wonders
whether the word should be applied. ("The commander of the U.S. Central Command
said Friday that an Iraq-style surge cannot be a solution to the problems in
Afghanistan.") There are, however, other analogies that might better capture
the scope and nature of the new strategic plan for the Af-Pak War. Think bailout.
The Costs of an Expanding War
In truth, what we're about to watch should be considered nothing less than
the Great Afghan (or Af-Pak) bailout.
On Friday morning, the president officially
rolled out his long-awaited "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan
and Pakistan," a plan without
a name. If there was little news in it, that was only because of the furious
leaking of prospective parts of it over the previous weeks. So many trial balloons,
so little time.
In a recent 60 Minutes interview (though not in his Friday announcement),
the president also emphasized
the need for an "exit strategy" from the war. Similarly, American commander
in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, has been
speaking of a possible "tipping point," three to five years away, that
might lead to "eventual departure." Nonetheless, almost every element of the
new plan – both those the president mentioned Friday and the no-less-crucial
ones that didn't receive a nod – seem to involve the word "more"; that is,
U.S. troops, more U.S. diplomats, more civilian advisers, more American
and NATO military advisers to train more
Afghan troops and police, more base- and outpost-building, more opium-eradication
operations, more aid, more money to the Pakistani military – and strikingly
large-scale as that may be, all of that doesn't even include the "covert war,"
fought mainly via unmanned aerial vehicles, along the Pakistani tribal borderlands,
which is clearly going
In the coming year, that CIA-run drone war, according to leaked reports,
expanded from the tribal areas into Pakistan's more heavily populated Baluchistan
province where some of the Taliban leadership is supposedly holed up. In addition,
so reports in British papers claim, the U.S. is seriously considering a soft
coup-in-place against Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Disillusioned with the
widespread corruption in, and inefficiency of, his government, the U.S. would
create a new "chief executive" or prime ministerial post not in the Afghan
constitution – and then install
some reputedly less corrupt (and perhaps more malleable) figure. Karzai would
supposedly be turned
into a figurehead "father of the nation." Envoy Holbrooke has officially
that Washington is planning any such thing, while a spokesman for Karzai denounced
the idea (both, of course, just feeding the flames of the Afghan rumor mill).
What this all adds up to is an ambitious doubling down on just about every
bet already made by Washington in these last years – from the counterinsurgency
war against the Taliban and the counter-terrorism war against al-Qaeda to the
relationship with the Pakistani military and its intelligence services underway
since at least the Nixon years of the early 1970s. (Many of the flattering
things now being said by U.S. officials about Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff
General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, for instance, were also
said about the now fallen autocrat Pervez Musharraf when he held the same
Despite that mention of the need for an exit strategy and a presidential assurance
that both the Afghan and Pakistani governments will be held to Iraqi-style
"benchmarks" of accountability in the period to come, Obama's is clearly a
jump-in-with-both-feet strategy and, not surprisingly, is sure to involve a
massive infusion of new funds. Unlike with A.I.G., where the financial inputs
of the U.S. government are at least announced, we don't even have a ballpark
figure for how much is actually involved right now, but it's bound to be staggering.
Just supporting those 17,000 new American troops already ordered into Afghanistan,
many destined to be dispatched to still-to-be-built bases and outposts in the
embattled southern and eastern parts of the country for which all materials
must be trucked in, will certainly cost billions.
Recently, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus dug
up some of the construction and transportation costs associated with the
war in Afghanistan and found that, as an employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
comes in second only to the Afghan government in that job-desperate country.
The Corps is spending about $4 billion this year alone on road-building activities
and has slated up to $6 billion for more of the same in 2010; it has, according
to Pincus, already spent $2 billion constructing facilities for the expanding
Afghan army and police forces and has another $1.2 billion set aside for more
such facilities this year. It is also likely to spend between $400 million
and $1.4 billion on as
many as six new bases, assorted outposts, and associated air fields American
troops will be sent to in the south.
Throw in hardship pay, supplies, housing, and whatever else for the hundreds
of diplomats and advisers in that promised "civilian surge"; add in the $1.5
billion a year the president promised in economic aid to Pakistan over the
next five years, a tripling
of such aid (as urged
by Vice President Biden when he was still a senator); add in unknown amounts
of aid to the Pakistani and Afghan militaries. Tote it up, and you've just
scratched the surface of Washington's coming investment in the Af-Pak War.
(And lest you imagine that these costs might, at least, be offset by savings
from Obama's plan to draw down American forces in Iraq, think again. A recent
study by the Government Accountability Office suggests
that "Iraq-related expenditures" will actually increase "during the withdrawal
and for several years after its completion.")
Put all this together and you can see why the tactical word "surge" hardly
covers what's about to happen. The administration's "new" strategy and its
"new" thinking – including its urge to peel off less committed Taliban supporters
and reach out for help to regional powers – should really be re-imagined as
but another massive attempted bailout, this time of an Afghan project, now
almost 40 years old, that in foreign policy terms is indeed our A.I.G.
As Obama's economic team overseeing the various financial bailouts is made
up of figures long cozy
with Wall Street, so his foreign policy team is made up of figures deeply entrenched
in Washington's national security state – former Clintonistas (including the
penultimate Clinton herself), military figures like National Security Adviser
Gen. James Jones, and that refugee from the H.W. Bush era, Defense Secretary
Robert Gates. They are classic custodians of empire. Like the
economic team, they represent the ancien régime.
They've now done their "stress tests," which, in the world of foreign policy,
are called "strategic reviews." They recognize that unexpected forces are pressing
in on them. They grasp that the American global system, as it existed since
the truncated American century began, is in danger. They're ready to bite the
bullet and bail it out. Their goal is to save what they care about in ways
that they know.
Unfortunately, the end result is likely to be that, as with A.I.G., we, the
American people, could end up "owning" 80 percent of the Af-Pak project without
ever "nationalizing" it – without ever, that is, being in actual control. In
fact, if things go as badly as they could in the Af-Pak War, A.I.G. might end
up looking like a good deal by comparison.
The foreign policy team is no more likely to exhibit genuinely outside-the-box
thinking than the
team of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers has been. Their clear and desperate
urge is to operate in the known zone, the one in which the U.S. is always imagined
to be part of the solution to any problem on the planet, never part of the
In foreign policy (as in economic policy), it took the Bush team less than
eight years to steer the ship of state into the shallows where it ran disastrously
aground. And yet, in response, after months of "strategic review," this team
of inside-the-Beltway realists has come up with a combination of Af-Pak War
moves that are almost blindingly expectable.
In the end, this sort of thinking is likely to leave the Obama administration
hostage to its own projects as well as unprepared for the onrush of the unexpected
and unknown, whose arrival may be the only thing that can be predicted with
assurance right now. Whether as custodians of the imperial economy or the imperial
frontier, Obama's people are lashed to the past, to Wall Street and the national
security state. They are ill-prepared to take the necessary full measure of
If you really want a "benchmark" for measuring how our world has been shifting
on its axis, consider that we have all lived to see a Chinese premier appear
at what was, in essence, an international news conference and seriously upbraid
Washington for its handling of the global economy. That might have been surprising
in itself. Far more startling was the response of Washington. A year ago, the
place would have been up in arms. This time around, from White House Press
Gibbs ("There's no safer investment in the world than in the United States")
to the president
himself ("Not just the Chinese government, but every investor can have
absolute confidence in the soundness of investments in the United States"),
Washington's response was to mollify and reassure.
Face it, we've entered a new universe. The "homeland" is in turmoil, the planetary
frontiers are aboil. Change – even change we don't want to believe in – is
in the air.
In the end, as with the Obama economic team, so the foreign policy team may
be pushed in new directions sooner than anyone imagines and, willy-nilly, into
some genuinely new thinking about a collapsing world. But not now. Not yet.
Like our present financial bailouts, like that extra $30
billion that went into A.I.G. recently, the new Obama plan is superannuated
on arrival. It represents graveyard thinking.
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt