Friday, September 26, 2008

While you were watching your money disappear...

As the Bush administration taps US taxpayers to keep refilling the vessels of the Danaides, largely with the connivance of congressional Democrats, something on the periphery of mainstream political vision is troubling. A frontier of the war on terror is expanding. Every day, it seems, there is a new report of an attack by US troops inside Pakistan. Then there are increasingly regular reports of engagements between said US troops and the Pakistani army, who are nominally US allies. One reads that Bush has authorised strikes in Pakistan without seeking the consent of the Pakistani government. Then said strikes take place, followed by astonished denunciations from the Pakistani government. Look, the government says, we are your friends: we are killing the evil-doers, and being killed by them. They say they've killed 1,000 'militants' in one operation alone. No matter: the US Secretary of Defense knows that the US can't expect Pakistani support for the strikes, but says they will carry on regardless.

Why, you might ask, would the United States persist in operations that clearly destabilise Pakistan and undermine the effectiveness of its government? Let there be no doubt that this is what is happening. The International Republican Institute (IRI) takes, as you might expect, a great interest in Pakistan. It's a strategically vital zone for preserving US hegemony in southern and central Asia. Their regular polls [pdf] show great dissatisfaction among Pakistanis both about the general direction of the country under administrations that are to a large extent subordinated to US interests, and overwhelming opposition to the 'war on terror'. Only 1% of Pakistanis regard 'Al Qaeda' as a serious threat, though the majority consider religious extremism of various kinds to be problematic. They much prefer negotiations and dialogue to military strategy adopted by the state. And I daresay the bombing of the Marriott hotel reinforced the widespread doubts that military operations can cope with the problem. Some reports suggest that Pakistan's future as a country is being put at risk.

However, one thing that the Bush administration and Obama's campaign agree on is the need for a renewed focus on winning the war in Afghanistan. That is to put it somewhat coyly: there is no immediate prospect of winning the war, and the chances of winning it in the distant future are vanishing. It would be nice to get a better insight into official thinking on this, but the National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, reportedly "grim", is being kept classified. Avery significant report coming out of Afghanistan suggests the US client-state is isolated, and that the 'Taliban' - rather, a constellation of military rebels with limited coherence - is advancing on the capital. NATO forces are reportedly stuck in "stalemate". Taliban leaders boast, probably with some justice, that their success owes itself to being rooted in and supported by much of the civilian population. Previous reports by the pro-war Senlis Council have suggested that the level of support for the insurgency in southern Afghanistan is woefully underestimated by the occupiers. Nonetheless, a consensus in the US political class has clearly emerged: Iraq is less important, strategically, than Afghanistan. A managed 'withdrawal' from Iraq, leaving behind permanent bases protected by a status of forces agreement (in which the comprador elite may well have to pay the US for its 'protection') will enable a greater commitment to Afghanistan. The UK has already committed to sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan, having started the withdrawal from Iraq. Global allies of the US are being pressed to escalate their military role, while the US has engaged in a terrifying amplification of its bombing campaignss. Major General Charles Dunlap Jr. of the US air force has argued that the bombing raids should be intensified further, regardless of the impact on Afghanistan's civilian population, and that probably reflects the mainstream in US military thinking - it certainly reflects the conduct.

And so, expanding the war into areas of Pakistan where the 'Taliban' and sympathetic forces operate in and retreat to, knowing that the widower president could not conceivably approve of such actions if he wanted to avoid being assassinated, is a logical further step. "Logical," that is to say, from within the twisted purview of terror warriors. As Paul Rogers points out, even if Islamabad tacitly acquiesces with Zardari theatrically shaking his fist for public consumption, US military attacks inside Pakistan are likely to raise opposition both among the Pakistani public as a whole, and - crucially - in the army. It is insanity, plainly, and raises the prospect of an escalating engagement that becomes a war to subdue much of Pakistan. Those who want to "stay the course" vaunt the prospect of prolonged 'civil war' in Afghanistan, of rising politico-religious extremism, of regional states moving in to defend their interests, and of the country becoming a "narco-state" which incubates threats to global security. What staying the course actually means is prolonged, intensifying and spreading civil war, probably stimulating what are for the moment quietest, conservative bazaari layers into military insurgency, and a ramping up of the opium trade that at the moment funds US allies in Afghanistan more than it funds the 'Taliban'. As for threats to global security (to the extent that this term is not used as a synonym for the security of US geo-economic interests), one could hardly imagine a worse prospect than the breakdown of a nuclear state and an expanding civil war that interplays with deadly regional dynamics. Nor does one fancy the entirely probable escalation in the conflict in Kashmir with a further radicalisation of India's own 'war on terror', and potentially renewed hostilities between India and Pakistan. And, incidentally, as the recent crisis in Georgia has demonstrated, America's struggle for supremacy in the region produces the danger of major inter-imperial rivalry and a revivified global arms race. One could go on: it's just that while the financial system is tanking, the 'war on terror' is going to strange and dangerous new places that may well cost more than $700bn.