Obama’s Afghan Surge

Nearly thirty years after the Cold War exploded into full-scale conflict in Afghanistan, the incoming president, Barack Obama, is about to embark on yet another stage in America’s involvement in that country. In short hand, it is described as Obama’s ‘Afghan surge’. If a recent report in the New York Times is anything to go by, the ‘Afghan surge’ would be remarkably similar to the ‘surge’ of 2007 in Iraq under President George W Bush.[1]

The ‘Iraqi surge’ was an attempt to subdue the rapidly escalating cycle of violence in the capital, Baghdad, and Anbar Province covering much of western Iraq. The buildup involved the deployment of thirty thousand extra US troops as part of ‘The New Way Forward’ announced by Bush in January 2007. Barely six weeks before, the Washington Post had disclosed a US intelligence report admitting that ‘the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point’ that American and Iraqi troops ‘are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency’ in Anbar.[2] From village to provincial levels, nearly all government institutions had collapsed. Summarizing the assessment, one American military officer said, “We have been defeated politically –” and that’s where wars are won and lost.”

Today, the situation in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan is grim and reaches beyond the borders of Pakistan. Militants launch audacious attacks from their bases on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Events in recent months have demonstrated that Kabul, Islamabad, Delhi or Mumbai –” no major city in the region is safe. Violence in the countryside in Afghanistan and Pakistan goes on largely unnoticed, unless it involves foreign forces.

I referred to similarities between the ‘Iraqi surge’ and the ‘Afghan surge’ earlier. American and British media report that as many as thirty thousand extra troops are to be deployed on the Afghan front by summer 2009. According to the New York Times, preparations are underway ‘to arm local militias to help in the fight against a resurgent Taleban’ in Afghanistan. The government of Pakistan is unlikely to give its official consent to the arming of militias inside its territory. There are several reasons. Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Taleban are not a homogeneous group, but a loose network bound by a certain interpretation of Islam. The Taleban of Pakistan are firmly embedded in Pakistani society, where the culture of weapons is all pervasive.

Relations between Islamabad and Washington, and Islamabad and Delhi, have suffered a sharp deterioration. The perception is strong in the ruling establishment of Pakistan that America has switched its support to India. Three main factors are responsible for this change in US policy: Pakistan’s failure to contain the militant groups in its territory, the decision by the Bush administration after 9/11 to invest so heavily in General Pervez Musharraf, then military ruler of Pakistan, and America’s growing economic and military ties with India.

The shift in American policy towards India is likely to continue during the Obama presidency. It means a break in Washington’s strategic alliance with Islamabad going back to the 1950s as part of the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. One of America’s long-term aims now is to counter the growing power of China. But the military-political establishment of Pakistan will see it as encirclement of the country while the occupation forces remain in Afghanistan to the west and US ties grow with India to the east. There is also a perception in Pakistan that the country does rather better under military dictators as an ally of the United States than under a fledgling democracy.

What more does the ‘Afghan surge’ indicate beyond introducing as many as thirty thousand additional troops and recruiting militias to fight the Taleban? In the case of Iraq, most of the extra US soldiers were deployed in Baghdad with the stated aim of improving security in the capital. The tour of duty of several thousand troops already in Baghdad was extended. Many were deployed in Anbar Province, which had suffered some of the worst violence. A report by the Senlis Council think-tank in November 2007 estimated that more than half of Afghanistan had fallen back under Taleban control.

If anything, the situation worsened in 2008. Anti-government forces, enriched by the illicit profits from Afghanistan’s poppy harvest, set up de facto administration in large areas of the Pashtun belt in the south and the east. Insurgents penetrated the security ring around the capital, Kabul. Attacks on government and foreign targets were launched with increasing frequency –” the most audacious of them on the Indian embassy in July 2008.

As part of the ‘Afghan surge’, many of the additional US troops are likely to be deployed around the capital, Kabul, as they were in Baghdad in 2007. The need to protect the American and allied embassies, diplomats, Afghan ministries and officials is paramount. Offices of many non-governmental organizations are located in Kabul. It is vital to project Kabul’s image as a secure and stable seat of government –” image that has suffered as the situation has steadily worsened. The International (Green) Zone in Baghdad would serve as the model where occupation forces and Iraqi government are concentrated. Surrounded by blast-proof walls, barbed wire-fences and a few checkpoints to control entry, it is in effect a mini-city inside the Iraqi capital. In contrast, Kabul is a sprawling, chaotic town and fortification of a similar kind would be more difficult.

The other side of Obama’s ‘Afghan surge’ is to recruit local militias to fight the Taleban. As the New York Times says, this has raised fears that ‘the new armed groups could push the country into a deeper bloodletting’. Shi’a and other minorities are already concerned over the prospect of new Sunni militias roaming parts of Afghanistan, supposedly to fight the Taleban. Once again, the plan originates from Iraq. US officials say their decision to recruit a hundred thousand Sunni tribesmen, many of them ex-rebel fighters, under the umbrella of Awakening Councils was responsible for the ‘steep reduction’ in violence. The logic is that what worked in one country would also work in the other.

In truth, it is too early to claim success in Iraq. American casualties have declined after the handover of security to the Iraqis. But acts of bombing, shooting, abduction and extortion continue almost every day. Under American pressure, the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad took over the responsibility of paying salaries to the Awakening Council militias. But the government remains opposed to assimilating more than a small proportion of them into the regular armed forces. The Shi’a majority of Iraq, together with Iran, will view the Sunni militias as a proxy of Saudi Arabia. The militiamen see an uncertain future for themselves as the occupation forces draw down and Obama turns his attention to Afghanistan.

We have seen it all before. Following the 1978 Communist coup by a group of army officers in Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter ordered secret aid to the Mujahideen in that country. Encouraged by the American Central Intelligence Agency and its close ally, Pakistan, Mujahideen guerrillas increased pressure on the Communist regime. The Soviet leadership panicked. It invaded Afghanistan to maintain control of a country it regarded as within its sphere of influence. From 1980 on, President Ronald Reagan, Carter’s successor, armed and financed more than eighty thousand guerrillas to fight America’s proxy war against the Soviet Union.

For almost two decades, the ‘official version’ of history, promoted from Washington, had suggested that America’s military aid to the Mujahideen came after the Soviet invasion of a poor, helpless country. The truth was rather more complex. In 1996, the CIA’s former director, Robert Gates, revealed that the Carter administration had begun to look at ways of providing covert assistance to the anti-Communist forces soon after the 1978 coup in Afghanistan.[3] And in July 1979, nearly six months before the Soviets invaded, Carter issued a directive authorizing secret aid to the Mujahideen.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, spoke in public about the matter for the first time in 1998.[4] He confirmed that Carter did issue the order that started the secret aid program for the Mujahideen. Brzezinski also revealed that he told Carter the American action was ‘going to induce a Soviet military intervention’ in Afghanistan. Brzezinski described it as ‘an excellent idea’, because it had the effect of drawing the Soviet Union into ‘the Afghan trap’. On the day the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Brzezinski said, he wrote to the president that the United States now had ‘the opportunity to give the USSR its Vietnam War’.

In 1989, the Soviet occupation forces retreated from Afghanistan, just as the United States had done from Vietnam in 1975. The Soviet Union paid the ultimate price –” its own demise –” barely three years later. The Communist regime in Afghanistan collapsed a few months after the Soviet state had disintegrated, like the fall of America’s client regime in South Vietnam more than fifteen years before. The Mujahideen march into Kabul was greeted with delight in Washington. And the United States moved on to new priorities. They were to manage the disintegration of the Soviet state and its nuclear arsenal, to oversee the expansion of the free-market system abroad and to help its own economy.

Afghan factions had been supplied with weapons, money and copies of the Qur’an by President Reagan’s CIA chief, William Casey, in the 1980s.[5] In the ruins of war, they were left to fight it out in the 1990s. The civil war gave rise to the Taleban and Afghanistan became a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda. Now, after eight years of failed war in Afghanistan under the Bush presidency, comes the latest twist. President Obama’s ‘Afghan surge’ will not only involve extra American troops to defend Kabul and other strategic points; it will include the hiring and arming of pro-US local militias to fight the Taleban in the countryside. And, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, the CIA has begun to supply the sex-enhancing drug, Viagra, to Afghan chiefs to gain information about Taleban activities.[6]

In the Cold War, the CIA handed out money, weapons and copies of the Qur’an to Islamic groups to fight against Soviet communism. Twenty years on, the agency has added Viagra to its list of temptations to lure Afghans in the US war against fundamentalist Islam, which the Taleban and Al-Qaeda represent.

There is no limit to which an invader will stoop to conquer.


[1]. New York Times, December 23, 2008.

[2]. Washington Post, November 28, 2006.

[3]. Robert Gates, a career CIA officer, served as the agency’s Director between 1991 and 1993. See his memoirs, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pp 143-149. Gates became secretary of defense in the Bush administration in 2006. President Obama decided to keep him in the post.

[4]. Brzezinski interview, ‘The CIA’s Intervention in Afghanistan’ (Paris: Le Nouvel Observateur, January 15-21, 1998, English version posted on October 15, 2001 by the Centre for Research on Globalization, Shanty Bay, Canada, on www.globalresearch.ca).

[5]. See, for example, Chalmers Johnson, ‘Are We to Blame for Afghanistan?’ (History News Network, George Mason University, Virginia, November 22, 2004).
[6] Joby Warrick, ‘Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan’ (Washington Post, December 26, 2008, A01).