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Whoever Wins U.S. Election, Policy in ‘War on Terror’ Unlikely to Change

Both the Democratic and Republican U.S. presidential candidates have stated their intention to increase the military presence in Afghanistan should they win the election to become the country’s next Executive. As a recent article in the Washington Post observed, “The well-advertised differences between John McCain and Barack Obama on the war in Iraq may obscure a consequential similarity between their hawkish views on the use of American military force in other places.”

“Both agree,” the Post said, “on a course of action in Afghanistan that could lead to a long-term commitment of American soldiers without a clear statement of how long they might remain or what conditions would lead to their withdrawal.”

In addition, “Neither candidate has spoken explicitly about how American and NATO forces would get out of Afghanistan.” [1]

During the presidential debates, Senator Obama insisted that the U.S. had a right to bomb Pakistan if it had intelligence on the whereabouts of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, while declining to explicitly state that he would not use military force against the country under other circumstances, thus leaving open the possibility that he might well continue the policy of the Bush administration, which has been to wage airstrikes and even put boots on the ground despite strong protests from both the Pakistani government and its people.

McCain disagreed with Obama’s position. He, like Obama, declined to say whether he would shift policy away from that implemented by the Bush administration, but added that he wasn’t going to “announce” positively that he would attack Pakistan. He had no real objection to doing so, it was just that he would rather it be a surprise than to “telescope” his intentions by answering in the affirmative that, yes, he too would bomb the country. And that was the only discernable difference between their positions.

U.S. allies and political analysts, meanwhile, have increasingly come to view the use of force in the region as not being a solution by itself, with some going so far as to recognize it as part of the problem. This has long been recognized – indeed, the consequences that have come to pass were predicted well in advance – by a large number of critics of U.S. foreign policy whose views are marginalized by the corporate media, but only recently has begun find its way into the mainstream political discussion.

While both Obama and McCain have announced their intention to increase the troop presence, with McCain saying that an Iraq-style “surge” is “going to have to be employed in Afghanistan”, the U.S. commander General David D. McKiernan has emphasized that such a policy would not end the conflict.

The so-called “surge” of troop numbers in Iraq has widely been credited with the decrease in violence there; a claim trumpeted by McCain and parroted by Obama. But the fact is that there were numerous other factors that led to progress in that regard, which occurred not because of but in spite of the “surge”.

The sectarian violence wound down after reaching its peak as the process of ethnically cleansing neighborhoods in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities became finalized. In Baghdad, walls were constructed around Shiite and Sunni communities to separate them where people of both Islamic faiths once lived peaceably as friends and neighbors.

Some Sunni groups also began turning against organizations such as Al Qaeda in Iraq that were responsible for terrorist attacks against civilians, which served to inflame the ethnic tensions. This movement of Sunni groups once engaged in armed resistance against the U.S. military occupation shifting their focus to fighting terrorist elements, including other Sunni groups, led to many even becoming allied with U.S. forces. These groups came to be known as “Awakening Councils” or “Sons of Iraq”, and this shift was largely responsible for helping to bring about the decrease in violence.

Other contributing factors included the decision by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his Mehdi Army to stand down and the withdrawal of foreign occupying forces from the south. As both the British commanding officer and U.S. General David Petraeus noted, the violence in Basra plummeted as a result of the British withdrawal from the city.

And, of course, most Iraqis themselves point to the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq as the principle causal factor in the violence.[2]

While both candidates announced their intention to implement a “surge”-type increase of forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McKiernen, while agreeing that he wanted more troops, said, “Afghanistan is not Iraq…. I don’t want the military to be engaging the tribes” in Afghanistan. “It wouldn’t take much to go back to a civil war,” he added, saying that engaging tribes there was necessary, but that it was the Afghan government itself that should be responsible for doing it.[3]

Early this month, a leaked diplomatic cable revealed that the British envoy to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, had said that “The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust.”

“The presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he observed, before going on to opine that the collapse of the Afghan government and its replacement with “an acceptable dictator” would be preferable.[4]

While the British ambassador’s alternative proposal was worthy of the criticism it received, it no less negated the validity of his statement that U.S. policy was part of the problem.

Right about the same time the leaked diplomatic cable was reported, for instance, Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said there would be no “decisive military victory” and that the current strategy was “doomed to fail”.

“We’re not going to win this war,” he said. “It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

To do that, he said, “We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations. If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.”[5]

In response, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rejected the notion that the U.S. and its allies would not “win” the war, saying there was “no reason to be defeatist”. Like the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, he suggested that “We continue to see the need for additional forces in Afghanistan.”

Yet his position differed from the candidates’ in that he also agreed with the British commander that peace negotiations with the Taliban were a “key long-term solution.” McCain has rejected the very notion of engaging in diplomacy with “enemies” of the United States. Obama, on the other hand, has expressed a willingness to sit down and talk in general terms, but has not specified that he would do so in the case of the Taliban.


About the Author

Jeremy R. Hammond

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Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is on the contemporary U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.