Binoy Kampmark: The charge of the 30,000

Published: Fri 4 Dec 2009 02:28 PM
The charge of the 30,000

US President Obama outlines his strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan at West Point.
White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/1/09.
President Obama’s decision to deploy a further 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan looks like, on the surface, a chance to people more cemeteries. Politically, it has the effect of reaching out across the spectrum of political attitudes, hoping to, as one Pakistan paper put it, ‘please everybody’. He pacifies the chicken hawks in the Republican aisles screeching for blood and glory. He satisfies, albeit briefly, those wishing to see the mess of the Bush administration sorted and ordered. The Afghan people have become an onerous ‘duty’ to the American conscience, something which always sounds dangerous. Much harm is often done when such duties are assumed by one nation to another.
Obama has suggested the deployment of these troops in a manner that is almost surgical. The action is like a scalpel to the brain, a quick incision, and then, rapid exit. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made it clear that the administration did not intend to commit to an ‘open-ended “nation-building” exercise.’ The initial deployment will take the numbers of U.S. forces past 100,000. First withdrawals will start taking place in mid-2011. The Europeans will be hoping to patch together additional forces to supplement the American deployment, though they will only be able to muster 5,000 more.
The objects of the plan, announced at West Point, New York: to weaken al Qaeda forces through denying them a ‘safe haven’; to neuter the Taliban and its means to overthrow the central government, and ‘strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.’ Pakistan will be helped and stabilized, being seen by Washington as the ‘epicenter of violent extremism’. Civilian initiatives in a cooperative strategy with Afghan authorities (a ‘surge’ of sorts), the improvements to education, agriculture and the economy, are part of the package.
In a sense, the deployment shows that those fighting for a more robotic deployment – the use of more Predator drones instead of personnel – have lost, at least when it comes to the Afghan campaign. Those backing General Stanley McChrystal’s call for more soldiers have won the day. Robotic warfare can’t hold community centers and stifle insurgencies in themselves. But the question remains whether the Afghans are getting peacemakers or war breeders.
A nepotistic, centralized power in Kabul means little to the tribal, diffuse entity we call Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai’s regime has done wonders to show its credentials for being overthrown, and the Taliban, for all its viciousness, are taking advantage of it. To expend such resources on such a self-destructive creation has proven enormously wasteful.
The international reaction to Obama’s announcement has been mixed. Isn’t the very presence of foreign troops a vast problem in the first place? Some Afghans, such as Sayed Abdullah, an Afghan government employee in Kabul, just want the cash. Currency will have greater effect than guns (VOA, Dec 2). Some Italians were unconvinced – Il Sole-24 Ore (Dec 3) was skeptical of the exit date, calling it a ‘trampoline’ for Obama’s next electoral assault. Turkish opinion, at least according to Melih Asik of the Milliyet website (3 Dec), is opposed to expending more blood. ‘Have we not lost enough martyrs to PKK terrorism? Did we start the war in Afghanistan?’
Officials in the Obama administration have hemmed off the Jihadist threat, localizing and confining it to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In doing so, they are setting up an old straw argument – that the instigators of the September 11 attacks took refuge and conducted operations in Afghanistan, making it essential that the entire region be ‘pacified’. Afghanistan can’t afford to be left as a security vacuum.
In truth, global terrorism exists, but very much like a franchise. To conduct an assault on it in this manner is like waging war on a food chain – futile, oblivious to the distinct localities of the market, and relevant cultural considerations. Even those in his own party, such as Senator Carl Levin, are unconvinced that this operation will really convince the Afghans to mount their own defense. Might Obama have read his Montesquieu? ‘Certain kinds of foolishness are such that a greater foolishness could be better.’
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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