Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bucharest summit in review

Veteran British journalist Patrick Seale is one of the world's leading Middle East correspondents. He writes in Beirut's Al-Hayat on the heels of NATO's Bucharest summit:

NATO needs an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan
Patrick Seale - Al-Hayat - April 4, 2008

... At their summit meeting in Bucharest this week, NATO heads of state have discussed how to boost the Alliance's war effort in Afghanistan. They should instead have debated how to reach a peace settlement with the insurgents -- and how to get out.

NATO has evidently got itself into a colossal muddle in Afghanistan. Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. It is far from clear why the Alliance is fighting there at all, and what it is seeking to achieve. Talk of 'victory' is a dangerous illusion.

In 2003, there were 20,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. By 2007, this number had trebled to 60,000 - and is shortly to increase further with the arrival of another 3,200 U.S. Marines and a further 1,000 French soldiers (as President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to the anger and dismay of the Socialist opposition. That he chose to make this pledge in the British Parliament, during his recent state visit to Britain, rather than in the French National Assembly has not helped his cause.)

Has this vast increase in troop levels brought added security to the country? ... Alas, quite the contrary.

... As Westerners are often targeted [by insurgent attacks], they live in fear, restrict their movements and therefore cannot help much with reconstruction and development. ...

A leading French expert on Afghanistan, Professor Gilles Dorronsoro, believes that NATO's key blunder has been the attempt to impose a Western model of modernization on Afghanistan, where it is inevitably seen as a foreign import. The goals of democracy, of a market economy and of gender equality may be embraced by a small elite in Kabul, but are rejected in much of the countryside, where they face incomprehension and hostility.

President Hamid Karzai's state is a fiction. It controls only 30 per cent of the territory - the rest is in the hands of warlords or insurgents - and has only a tenuous grip on the economy.

In Afghanistan, fundamentalist Islam is a form of nationalism. The two are indistinguishable. The West may seek to demonize the Taliban as medieval barbarians, alien to Afghan society. The truth, however, would seem to be that they are very much a home-bred product. Although originally almost exclusively Pashtun, the insurgency has now spread beyond the Pashtun areas, pointing to the Taliban's growing support.

In 2006-7, there was a notable change of sentiment in Afghanistan. The idea took hold that NATO and the Americans were losing the war. This alone should have persuaded the heads of state gathered in Bucharest this week that it was time to bring this thankless neo-colonial military adventure to a close. ...

[NATO/US airstrikes] have inevitably caused the death of hundreds of Afghan civilians and much material 'collateral damage.' Breaking into homes, ignoring local customs and showing disrespect for ordinary Afghans has also created immense anger. The result has been to bring large segments of the population over to the Taliban side. As in Iraq, far from pacifying the country, U.S. strategy has created an enemy bent on revenge.

There is much talk in Washington these days of taking the war to the Taliban in the tribal areas of West Pakistan. Already, U.S. air strikes pay no attention to the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is as if the frontier had ceased to exist. Even Barack Obama, the leading Democratic presidential candidate and a stern critic of the Iraq war, has spoken of 'cleaning out' Pakistan's tribal areas.

This is dangerous talk. Pakistan is seething with angry opposition to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan and, more generally, to U.S. President George W Bush's 'War on terror'. Some experts believe that a large-scale Western ground incursion into Pakistan's tribal areas could split the Pakistan army, bring down President Musharraf, and put an end to any security cooperation with the West.

On a visit to Islamabad in late March, John Negroponte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, was surprised to hear that the leaders of Pakistan's new coalition government - former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari (the late Benazir Bhutto's husband) - want talks with the Taliban rather than military strikes. ... (link)
The Toronto Star's Mitch Potter is NOT one of the world's leading Middle East correspondents. He too writes on the aftermath of Bucharest:
NATO leaders lower Afghanistan expectations
By Mitch Potter - Toronto Star

BUCHAREST, April 6 ... Reading between the lines leaves little doubt that the bedraggled mission in Afghanistan is coming to the conclusion that lowering its lofty goalposts is the only way out.

French analyst Etienne de Durand – who just returned from a research mission in Afghanistan, where he spoke to Canadian, American, British and French commanders – puts it this way: "We lower the needs and raise the means. We close that gap. That is what the Bucharest summit was all about."

Explains de Durand, who is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the French Institute for International Relations: "From the beginning, there has been a huge gap between the ambitious objectives for Afghanistan and the means that the world provided to deal with the reality.

"But the truth is, we are not going to create a model democracy in the Hindu Kush. That is a myth and absolutely let us dispel it. ...

Estimates vary, but Afghan military manpower is a bit more than halfway toward NATO's goal of 80,000 trained troops by 2010. ... (link)
Potter might have cited the estimates he mentions to give readers a more realistic picture. One of the more authoritative estimates is that offered by ISAF's commanding general, the American Dan "Bomber" McNeill. In a September interview with Der Spiegel he relayed estimates that the Afghan National Army consists of just 22,000 soldiers (link). (For a heavy dose of criticism of Potter, see this revealing exchange between Potter and ZNet's Justin Podur.)

Potter's deferral to power is of course regular fare for readers of our national press, as CP reporter Murray Brewster illustrates:
Stephen Harper, the new face of Canada's war in Afghanistan
Murray Brewster

OTTAWA, April 6 (CP) - Somewhere along the way Stephen Harper realized that the war in Afghanistan wasn't about us, it was about them - them being the Afghans. ...

"What we've actually found is: when you argue our self interest, that's actually less appealing to Canadian public opinion than the argument that we are actually concretely helping the Afghan people with their lives," [Harper] told a panel discussion of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an American policy group, in Bucharest.

It was a surprisingly candid admission for a prime minister with a hawkish reputation.

Some on the Conservative benches would argue that's the message they've been trying to get across all along. But the fact that they'd been hopelessly inarticulate about it was one of the main findings of the advisory commission headed by former Liberal minister John Manley.

It didn't help that former defence minister Gordon O'Connor once told an Edmonton audience that our presence in Afghanistan was about retribution for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
If Brewster were more critical - or more knowledgeable - he could have pointed out that revenge is not a legal justification for the use of force. Since the aftermath of the Second World War, it has been illegal under international law to mount armed attacks for purposes of retribution. Brewster evidently has no problem with the fact that our former Defense Minister was apparently motivated by criminal intentions.
... Insiders recount how, a few weeks ago when six female Afghan MPs visited Ottawa and sat in the public gallery of the House of Commons, Harper turned to Industry Minister Jim Prentice and gestured to the visitors.

"If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, the Taliban will return and they'll face execution," he said. (link)
Here, Brewster's lack of critical faculty prevents him from making an obvious and timely observation: that female Afghan MP Malalai Joya has herself received death threats from fellow Afghan MPs whom we are effectively supporting. A competent and critical journalist might have made the connection and not simply repeated the government's feeble scare tactic.

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