Juan Cole: Obama's Domino Theory, Ann Jones: Wars Come Home
Obama's Domino Theory
Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the public and fell back on
Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy theories.
By Juan Cole
March 31, 2009 "Salon" -- President Barack Obama may or may not be doing the
right thing in Afghanistan, but the rationale he gave for it on Friday is
almost certainly wrong. Obama has presented us with a 21st century version
of the domino theory. The U.S. is not, contrary to what the president said,
mainly fighting "al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. In blaming everything on
al-Qaida, Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the public and
fell back on Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy theories.
Obama realizes that after seven years, Afghanistan war fatigue has begun to
set in with the American people. Some 51 percent of Americans now oppose the
Afghanistan war, and 64 percent of Democrats do. The president is therefore
escalating in the teeth of substantial domestic opposition, especially from
his own party, as voters worry about spending billions more dollars abroad
while the U.S. economy is in serious trouble.
He acknowledged that we deserve a "straightforward answer" as to why the
U.S. and NATO are still fighting there. "So let me be clear," he said,
"Al-Qaida and its allies -- the terrorists who planned and supported the
9/11 attacks -- are in Pakistan and Afghanistan." But his characterization
of what is going on now in Afghanistan, almost eight years after 9/11, was
simply not true, and was, indeed, positively misleading. "And if the Afghan
government falls to the Taliban," he said, "or allows al-Qaida to go
unchallenged -- that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to
kill as many of our people as they possibly can."
Obama described the same sort of domino effect that Washington elites used
to ascribe to international communism. In the updated, al-Qaida version, the
Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might
again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United
States. He even managed to add an analog to Cambodia to the scenario,
saying, "The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of
its neighbor, Pakistan," and warned, "Make no mistake: Al-Qaida and its
extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."
This latter-day domino theory of al-Qaida takeovers in South Asia is just as
implausible as its earlier iteration in Southeast Asia (ask Thailand or the
Philippines). Most of the allegations are not true or are vastly
exaggerated. There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan
proper. What is being called the "Taliban" is mostly not Taliban at all (in
the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being
branded "Taliban" only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of
Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58
percent of Afghans say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to
their country, but almost no one expects it to happen. Moreover, with regard
to Pakistan, there is no danger of militants based in the remote Federally
Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) taking over that country or "killing" it.
The Kabul government is not on the verge of falling to the Taliban. The
Afghan government has 80,000 troops, who benefit from close U.S. air
support, and the total number of Taliban fighters in the Pashtun provinces
is estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. Kabul is in danger of losing control of
some villages in the provinces to dissident Pashtun warlords styled
"Taliban," though it is not clear why the new Afghan army could not expel
them if they did so. A smaller, poorly equipped Northern Alliance army
defeated 60,000 Taliban with U.S. air support in 2001. And there is no
prospect of "al-Qaida" reestablishing bases in Afghanistan from which it
could attack the United States. If al-Qaida did come back to Afghanistan, it
could simply be bombed and would be attacked by the new Afghan army.
While the emergence of "Pakistani Taliban" in the Federally Administered
Tribal Areas is a blow to Pakistan's security, they have just been defeated
in one of the seven major tribal agencies, Bajaur, by a concerted and
months-long campaign of the highly professional and well-equipped Pakistani
army. United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replied last summer to
the idea that al-Qaida is regrouping in Pakistan and forms a new and vital
threat to the West: "Actually, I don't agree with that assessment, because
when al-Qaida was in Afghanistan, they had the partnership of a government.
They had ready access to international communications, ready access to
travel, and so on. Their circumstances in the FATA (Federally Administered
Tribal Areas) and on the Pakistani side of the border are much more
primitive. And it's much more difficult for them to move around, much more
difficult for them to communicate."
As for a threat to Pakistan, the FATA areas are smaller than Connecticut,
with a total population of a little over 3 million, while Pakistan itself is
bigger than Texas, with a population more than half that of the entire
United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen cannot take over Pakistan,
nor can they "kill" it. The Pakistani public just forced a military dictator
out of office and forced the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which
oversees secular law. Over three-quarters of Pakistanis said in a poll last
summer that they had an unfavorable view of the Taliban, and a recent poll
found that 90 percent of them worried about terrorism. To be sure,
Pakistanis are on the whole highly opposed to the U.S. military presence in
the region, and most outside the tribal areas object to U.S. Predator drone
strikes on Pakistani territory. The danger is that the U.S. strikes may make
the radicals seem victims of Western imperialism and so sympathetic to the
Obama's dark vision of the overthrow of the Afghanistan government by
al-Qaida-linked Taliban or the "killing" of Pakistan by small tribal groups
differs little from the equally apocalyptic and implausible warnings issued
by John McCain and Dick Cheney about an "al-Qaida" victory in Iraq.
Ominously, the president's views are contradicted by those of his own
secretary of defense. Pashtun tribes in northwestern Pakistan and southern
Afghanistan have a long history of dissidence, feuding and rebellion, which
is now being branded Talibanism and configured as a dire menace to the
Western way of life. Obama has added yet another domino theory to the
history of Washington's justifications for massive military interventions in
Asia. When a policymaker gets the rationale for action wrong, he is at
particular risk of falling into mission creep and stubborn commitment to a
doomed and unnecessary enterprise.
Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University
of Michigan. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.
© 2009 Salon.com
Tomgram: Ann Jones, Wars Abroad Continue at Home
March 31, 2009
Whether it's $900 billion, more than one trillion dollars, or even, in the
long run, several trillion dollars, the spiraling costs of George Bush's
wars -- one of which is now in the grim process of becoming "Obama's War" --
are indisputable. It's hardly less disputable that those wars to "protect"
America from "global terror" have contributed significantly to the country's
economic meltdown, that the harder we pursued (and continue to pursue) those
wars abroad, the less safe the underpinnings of our world became. Thought of
another way, that famous line of the cartoon character Pogo, "We have met
the enemy and he is us," couldn't be more apt.
It's no less indisputable that the costs of these wars have been borne,
above and beyond the norm, by those sent to fight them. Recently, Mark
Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna of Salon.com wrote a powerful series about
the startling rise in suicides in the U.S. Army, tracing, in part, what
happens when soldiers are repeatedly sent back to war zones, often already
suffering from war's invisible wounds.
Some costs of war are, however, far harder to notice, no less tote up,
though no less real for that. Ann Jones is a TomDispatch regular, as well as
the author of Kabul in Winter (a beautifully written reminder of just how
long America's war in Afghanistan has been going on) and of Women Who Kill,
a contemporary classic to be reissued this fall by the Feminist Press. (That
invaluable press, by the way, issued in two volumes the vivid, on-the-spot
writings of the Baghdad blogger Riverbend, who, among millions of Iraqi
refugees fleeing abroad, has not been heard from since October 27, 2007.)
The following essay on war and women has been adapted from Jones's new
introduction to that book.
Who said "women and children first"? I don't know about sinking ships, but
when it comes to sinking societies at least, that phrase, as Jones makes
clear, counts for little.
Death on the Home Front
Women in the Crosshairs
By Ann Jones
Wake up, America. The boys are coming home, and they're not the boys who
On New Year's Day, the New York Times welcomed the advent of 2009 by
reporting that, since returning from Iraq, nine members of the Fort Carson,
Colorado, Fourth Brigade Combat team had been charged with homicide. Five of
the murders they were responsible for took place in 2008 when, in addition,
"charges of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault" at the base rose
sharply. Some of the murder victims were chosen at random; four were fellow
soldiers -- all men. Three were wives or girlfriends.
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