Operation Khanjar or “Strike of the Sword” in Helmand province is the first major operation under President Obama’s strategy to “stabilize” Afghanistan as he adds 21,000 more U.S. troops. Marine spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier explains with no apparent sense of irony that the operation aims to show “the Afghan people that when we come in we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions. We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy, we want to protect them from the enemy,” he adds.
The fact is, the Taliban so expeditiously toppled in 2001 were able to gradually reestablish their own institutions at the local level in much of the country where they are not necessarily seen as the enemy and where foreign soldiers are likely viewed at minimum with suspicion. “The US has totally lost control of all the east,” says Gilles Dorronsoro, a specialist on Afghanistan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, adding that the Taliban already control the majority of the population in the south. President Hamid Karzai is often referred to as “the mayor of Kabul” while the west and north are run by Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara warlords of the Northern Alliance.
U.S. military officers, frustrated with lack of success, suggest that the war cannot be won by military means alone but by economic development and political reform. But the dirty little secret here is that to overthrow the Taliban the U.S. relied on those Northern Alliance warlords who had ripped the country apart during their era of misrule which lasted from the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in 1993 to the establishment of the Taliban regime in 1996. They don’t want political or social reform and their idea of economic development is opium and human trafficking. Karzai for his part has been obliged to wheel and deal with them and his own brother has been implicated in the narcotics trade. The Obama administration is not happy with him and would prefer another candidate win the upcoming presidential election but it looks as though Karzai may have it sewn up.
The economic development the generals talk about, including gas pipeline construction, requires stability. (Helmand is one of the provinces through which the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is scheduled to run). But Afghanistan, like Iraq, was destabilized precisely by a U.S. attack and occupation in the first place. More ominously, Pakistan been destabilized by the invasion of the next-door country.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told Congress last month that successes against the Taliban in Afghanistan “may only push them deeper into Pakistan,” admitting, “we may end up further destabilizing Pakistan without providing substantial lasting improvements in Afghanistan.”
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, replying to a question from a reporter in Pakistan about a new influx of refugees from Afghanistan as a result of the surge of 21,000 new troops in that country, declared in early June: “I don’t want to be alarmist here, but I’m predicting some massive influx. There are concerns that there may be some spillover as there was in the past.” That these comments are made almost cavalierly in passing should cause alarm.
All that the “Coalition” campaign against the Afghan Taliban has accomplished in eight years, aside from reviving the Afghan opium trade, is to generate a second Taliban in Pakistan, knock off balance the world’s second most populous Muslim country, divert the Pakistani Army from the border with India as the U.S. consolidates its alliance with the emerging South Asian “superpower,” kill over 2000 Pakistani soldiers and 7000 Pakistani militants and produce over two million Pakistani refugees.
It has not destroyed al-Qaeda, which was a loose-knit anomalous outfit to begin with and has (apparently) merely found new hosts across the border. The real al-Qaeda operatives are laughing at the U.S. effort in “Af-Pak” which simply boosts their case that the U.S. is waging war on Islam, especially the most simple and devout. The Osama bin Ladens and Ayman al-Zawahiris are far more sophisticated than the illiterate Mullah Omars and Baitullah Mehsuds; theirs is a global vision of a worldwide caliphate, while the latter are Sunni fundamentalist Pashtun nationalists more interested in imposing traditional norms locally than changing the world or confronting the U.S. globally.
The former know how to use both the latter and to provoke the U.S. leaders to achieve their general open-ended objective: to exacerbate the conflict between the U.S. and Muslims everywhere. In retrospect, whether as a result of brilliant planning or mere happenstance, the results of the 9-11 attacks can hardly have been more advantageous from the al-Qaeda point of view.
Bin Laden plotted 9-11 from Afghanistan, trusting that the Pashtunwali code of hospitality to guests would involve his hosts in the attack and make them targets of U.S. retaliation. This worked fine; Afghanistan was bombed, the Talibs toppled but still the strongest political force in the country, capable of regrouping and tying down the foreign occupying forces. Karzai has offered for many months to negotiate with Mullah Omar, who dismisses such gestures as admissions of weakness.
A critical mass of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders was able to flee into Pakistan, enjoy hospitality and protection, and build local organization even as outrage at U.S. drone attacks bolstered such organizing efforts. There are now some 2000 Tehreek-e- Taliban fighters in South Waziristan alone, and a smaller force was able to take over the Swat Valley. It is as though the U.S. delivered Osama a new friend, Baitullah Mehsuh, on a golden platter.
It is as though pathologically anti-Muslim people in the State Department were imagining possible scenarios of inflicting pain on Muslim societies and cooperating with bin Laden in involving the U.S. in an ongoing Crusade. They opted for this one: provoke the Pashtuns, a nation of 40 million straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, in one of the most backward, devoutly Muslim, and least governed regions of the planet—in other words, where conditions entirely favor local tribesmen and jihadis of all types while disadvantaging state forces and foreign troops. (The Pakistani Army has been badly bloodied, the Afghan National Army remains largely a concept.)
Retired CIA analyst Bruce O. Riedel, who chaired a special interagency committee to develop President Obama’s policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Council on Foreign Relations last month:
“In Pakistan, we face a growing coalescence of jihadist militant groups, not just in the tribal areas, but in the Punjab and in the major cities including Karachi. This is threatening the very survival of the Pakistani state as we have known it. It is not inevitable and it is not imminent, but there is a real possibility of a jihadist state emerging in Pakistan sometime in the future. And that has to be one of the worst nightmares American foreign policy could have to deal with.”
More and more frequently, in increasingly shrill tones, State Department and Pentagon officials have acknowledged “the existential threat” to Pakistan of “the continuing advances” of the Taliban in the country. But they act as though it were someone else’s fault.
In fact Washington can only blame itself. By sending off young men and women, brainwashed with the view that they are in Afghanistan to protect people from “enemies” and to help build “institutions” that the Afghans couldn’t build if left to their own devices; by imposing its simplistic buttheaded categories on the real world and failing to distinguish between simple ideologues and terrorists; by routinely bombing civilians; it has not only mired itself in another Vietnam (which was indeed the Soviets’ Vietnam) but provoked the possible Talibanization of a key ally of 173 million people.
It is hard to see the logic in this, even from a neocon point of view. If the objective is to create a jihadist state with nuclear weapons, which Israel would immediately define as its main “existential threat” and likely attack with its own nukes, thus provoking World War III, then the plan is perhaps on schedule. But I don’t think that’s Obama’s intention. The fact that Holbrooke is apparently pursuing negotiations with some rebel leaders; that Obama is wavering on further troop increases; and that Gen. David McKiernan was removed from his position as top commander suggest that policy is in flux and that there is division in the leadership about how to proceed in Afghanistan.
This “largest military operation since the fall of 2001” is perhaps a test to see whether current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy can diminish the Taliban’s strength in Helmand. So far the militants are avoiding combat and simply disappearing among the masses. According to AP:
Haji Akhtar Mohammad, from Gereshk village now living in Helmand’s capital of Lashkar Gah, said the U.S.-led force will not have community support in the region weary of any foreign interference.
“It is difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is civilians,” Mohammad said. “They all have the same face, same beard and same turban,” he said. “It is very difficult to defeat them.”
Let us say they are not defeated, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, by current strategies—a likely bet. They may either maintain their local-regional focus or be won over increasingly to an al-Qaeda global jihadist agenda. None of this is happening in a vacuum. Most Pashtun peasants may be illiterate but they will hear about what is happening on the West Bank and in Gaza in the coming months, and they will hear about it if/when Israel or the U.S. attacks Iran. These larger matters may affect their perception of the foreign troops in their midst.
Capt. Bill Pelletier, who wants the people of Helmand to see him not as an enemy but someone protecting them from the enemy, someone who wants to help them build their institutions, may not be thinking about this broader picture. Few U.S. military officers understand why there is massive hatred for the U.S. government and military in the world and their training does not encourage critical thinking about this question. “…when we come in we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions.” The confusion there about what’s “theirs” and “ours” helps explain the indignation and hatred, and the failure in Afghanistan to date, and bodes an inglorious outlook for Operation Strike of the Sword.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org