At the end of June 2009, General Jim Jones, the U.S. National Security Advisor at the time, traveled to Afghanistan to evaluate the situation on the ground on behalf of Barack Obama. The new president had just approved an additional 21,000 troops on top of the 47,000 American and 30,000 NATO troops that had battled the Taliban in Afghanistan since October 2001.
In an attempt to beef up his national security credentials as he criticized George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq war during the 2008 campaign, Obama advocated for “the necessary war” as he dubbed the largely forgotten conflict in Afghanistan.
Thus, Obama was willing to quickly fulfill his promise to take on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. He thought that by approving the troop build up he would be done with the issue, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his military commanders were promising they could “turn this around” with additional troops.
As soon as Gen. Jones was on the ground at Bagram Airbase meeting with the American commanders he was shocked to learn of the deteriorating security situation in the country and the military setbacks. But upon hearing the field commanders’ urgent request to doubling the number of troops that had just been added, he indicated that after all those additional troops, if there were more requests for forces the president would have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment,” in reference to the acronym WTF.
In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward, the associate editor of the Washington Post, reported a detailed account of the administration’s 2009 six-month debate over U.S. Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. What’s remarkable is how the fear of the Al-Qaeda’s returning to its pre-9/11 safe havens in Afghanistan had dominated the debate and driven the policy.
During these endless National Security Council (NSC) meetings, U.S. intelligence agencies established early on that Al-Qaeda had “a tenuous foothold in Afghanistan,” perhaps “20 to 100 people at the most.” In addition, according to Peter Lavoy, the NSC intelligence point man, the total number of Taliban -the poorly armed but determined fighters- was estimated at no more than 25,000.
By the end of this process Obama felt trapped, but still chose a policy of sending another 33,000 American soldiers within six months for a total American commitment of over 100,000 soldiers, roughly the same number that the Soviet Union maintained in Afghanistan during the 1980s with little success. Despite the colossal economic difficulties facing the country, the administration and Congress approved the troop escalation with an annual bill that exceeds $113 billion, another huge sum to be added to the growing national debt that has more than doubled since 9/11, from $6 to $14 trillion.
How did it all begin?
Shortly after 9/11 Bush declared, largely with the support of the military-industrial-congressional-corporate media complex, that the U.S. was at war with all Islamic groups across the globe that disagreed with American foreign policy, even if they had never attacked the U.S. or considered it an enemy. This so-called “global war on terror” has thus needlessly transformed in the American psyche countless number of Muslim groups and political activists into the “enemies” camp. Not only was Al-Qaeda now considered the archenemy of the U.S, but overnight almost all Muslim political groups, even those who fight for self-determination and empowerment through nonviolent means, were suddenly added to the target list or were treated as suspects.
Woodward’s account of the U.S. Afghan internal policy debate exposed the fault lines that have existed in U.S. policy in the region for over a decade. He portrayed the discussions as ones that were marked by the classic tension between the DOD and its military brass on the one hand, and the civilian leadership led by the White House on the other. In essence, the military commanders wanted to be given an open-ended commitment to “defeat” the Taliban, while the civilians wanted to “degrade” the capacity of the Taliban to prevent it from overtaking the corrupt Karzai government in Kabul.
The logic by the hardliners (the DOD brass plus Hillary Clinton) went like this: “A victory for the Taliban counted as victory for Al-Qaeda.” The nascent Obama administration was indeed becoming hostage to Bush’s declaration that the U.S. was at war against all extremists groups in the “war on terror.” Lavoy successfully argued before Obama, “Were the Taliban perceived to be winning in Afghanistan, that would be a boost to militants worldwide.”
Furthermore, during the 2009 NSC meetings Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who later became the Afghanistan field commander, grew frustrated with the arguments advanced by Vice President Joe Biden and other civilian advisors that distinguished between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In a meeting in October 2009 he lamented,“We’re just parsing this distinction between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda too much.”
To him they were all extremists that should be defeated. Never mind that the Taliban never attacked the U.S. before its invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Nor in ten years since have the Afghan Taliban ever attacked any U.S. troops, let alone civilians, outside the borders of their own country, which they considered illegally occupied by the U.S.
Meanwhile, the While House coordinator for the Af-Pak policy, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute commented on the final military plan to reverse the momentum of the Taliban on the ground, “We’re screwed. We’re not going to demonstrate progress this year.” Yet at the end of the review process, the president gave the military what it wanted but under the condition that it must start the withdrawal process by July 2011.
Despite the dozens of meetings in the review process, it’s remarkable that the whole premise of the U.S. escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was not challenged or probed. The U.S. has committed tens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of billions of dollars, and uncalculated risks of alienating peoples, countries, and regions based on a faulty premise.
Since the early days regional experts warned against the broad brush approach of the Bush administration which led to the catastrophic Iraq war, the loss of civil rights of many in the country, the deterioration of the economy, and the high tension that exists between the West and the Muslim world.
Georgetown University Professor John Esposito and Gallup conducted numerous polls across the Muslim World, which revealed that Muslims across the globe unequivocally reject Al-Qaeda’s ideology and means, though they sympathize with the legitimate struggles of many Muslims battling injustice and dictators.
Perhaps a major part of the problem was the inability or unwillingness of the U.S. government to distinguish between Al-Qaeda networks and others who have legitimate grievances but do not employ its indiscriminate killings, illegal means, or twisted rhetoric. But the recent death of Osama Bin Laden might present a real opportunity for a paradigm shift and course change.
The view from the region
After 9/11, the overwhelming majority of people in the Muslim World condemned the atrocities and demonstrated rare but genuine sympathy to the U.S. Muslims identified with the U.S. despite its abhorrent policies in the region, especially its unconditional support of Israel’s occupation and expansionist policies, and its backing of numerous dictators and authoritarian regimes, sometimes lasting more than five decades.
The U.S. demand to apprehend the perpetrators of the 9/11 tragic events were also widely supported. The attacks were deemed as criminal and terrorist acts that deserved punishment. But once the U.S. treated the incident as a war that engulfed many nations that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, much of that sympathy dissipated.
Many felt that a real opportunity was missed to establish a genuine dialogue between the West and the Muslim World and to address mutual grievances and concerns. The U.S. as the sole superpower had the political, economic, diplomatic, and legal means to lead such a dialogue when the world was in its corner. But its political leadership chose a military path of revenge and retribution that emphasized sheer power, a total disregard for Muslim civilian lives, and disrespect of Muslim culture. This was demonstrated not only openly in Iraq, but also clandestinely in over forty Muslim countries, consequently alienating the overwhelming majority of Muslims.
The Muslim rejection of Al-Qaeda’s ideology and anger against its tactics were slowly overtaken by the rejection of the U.S. global war on terror and its devastating tactics that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold suffering across the Muslim World. A vicious cycle was thus created. The more U.S. policy wreaked havoc and devastated the region, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, or other countries, the angrier (and more anti-American) people became.
Similarly, the more anti-American sentiments were displayed in the streets and the media, the more entrenched American policy makers and officials became in Bush’s rigid dichotomy of “you are with us or against us.”
When Bush spoke briefly and superficially about his freedom and democracy agenda after he failed to produce WMDs in Iraq–his primary justification for the illegal war–his statements were dismissed as he was perceived as supporting all the dictators in the region, from Egypt’s Mubarak to Pakistan’s Musharraf. Once Hamas, one of the Islamist groups on his target list, won the legislative elections in 2006, he completely abandoned that agenda and exposed his fraudulent rhetoric.
During his presidential campaign, Obama was critical of the militaristic approach of Bush’s policies toward the Muslim World. Within six months of his inauguration he gave two speeches in two Muslim countries. In Cairo he admitted succinctly before tens of millions, “We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world.” He raised much hope when he declared that he came “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” a relationship that is “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
But Obama’s words turned out to be just that, rhetoric. As he escalated drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, hundreds of innocent civilians were killed and dismissed as collateral damage. He even distanced himself from his predecessor’s talk of freedom, democracy, and human rights in favor of realpolitik and pragmatism. Failure to close Guantanamo was just one example. But as his Middle East policy faltered when he backed down twice in the standoff with Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, he appeared to the Muslim public as an empty suit. As far as they were concerned, he was no longer relevant to their struggles.
Meanwhile the tension in Arab societies was reaching new heights. People were fed up with the leaders who have been ruling them through repression and corruption. Suddenly a boiling point was reached and the Arab spring erupted, first in Tunisia, followed by Egypt, then spreading throughout the Middle East, especially in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria.
The success of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt through non-violent massive popular protests, have undoubtedly demonstrated the power of the people in taking their destiny in their own hands. If Al-Qaeda charted a tactic against Arab autocrats that polarized their societies and actually helped the dictators justify their brutal tactics, here was a new course of action that not only united the people of all ideologies and stripes but also produced impressive results with relatively low casualties when compared to violent confrontations as the situation in Iraq amply illustrated.
When Obama ordered the assassination of Osama, he was indeed fulfilling a campaign promise, which he made to the American people. But with the sense of happiness and relief expressed by Obama and many other American officials that “justice was done” in seeking revenge, many moral values may have been sacrificed in the process as 5/1/11 replaced 9/11 in the American psyche.
Setting aside the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by the Navy Seals, the U.S. appeared to have violated several other moral and international norms. The U.S. has admitted to killing an unarmed person as well as an unarmed woman and a child- all considered war crimes in international law. The U.S. could indeed have taken the moral high ground had it apprehended and tried Bin Laden as any other person accused of perpetrating a gross criminal act.
Amid the Arab spring uprisings Bin Laden’s popularity was at its lowest ebb in the Arab street. But the amount of lies advanced by the official story of the administration was astonishing and unnecessary (see Cockburn’s Volcano of Lies,) especially the one regarding the reason his body was thrown in the sea. It was received in the region with utter disgust and revulsion, as well as condemned by Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority.
The official story was that no country had accepted to receive his body so it was dumped in the Arabian Sea after conducting “Muslim ritual burial rites.” But two days after the incident Denis McDonough, the deputy National Security Advisor, told Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC, “The disposition of the remains – that was an issue that was debated and decided unanimously before the operation was undertaken.”
The notion of American exceptionalism, where America applies one standard to itself, and totally another to the rest of the world (except Israel of course), is unquestionably detested by the rest of the world. Noam Chomsky recently observed “how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed Bin Laden’s.”
After the euphoria of Bin Laden’s assassination subsides, President Obama has an historic opportunity to fulfill his Cairo promise and “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” This relationship should indeed be based on mutual interests and mutual respect as the president asserted. Undoubtedly, the notion that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are a threat to the U.S. – albeit diminishing- is true, but it needs to be put into perspective.
Since 9/11 the U.S. military and national security agencies in the U.S. have been mobilized to pursue a phantom enemy, vastly inflated in Western imagination so much so that every Muslim activist or religiously observant is transformed and looked at as a potential terrorist or a threat.
In a moment of candor Gen. Jones admitted such worldview to Woodward when he said that this perceived war was “certainly a clash of civilizations. It’s a clash of religions. It’s a clash of almost concepts of how to live.” He added, “the conflict is that deep. So I think if we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, you will be fighting in more places.”
This analysis at the highest levels of American decision-makers, especially in light of the waning effect of Al-Qaeda and the rise ? and success- of nonviolent people power, must undergo massive re-evaluation. Once the threats of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are correctly assessed then the American escalation and associated heavy cost would become unwarranted. The relationship that Obama called for, rooted in mutual interests and mutual respect, cannot be established by the barrel of the gun or advanced by the missile of the drone.
If the Obama administration does not take advantage of this moment in history and implement a paradigm shift by mobilizing its finite resources to support the aspirations of the people expressed in the Arab spring revolutions, then a real moment of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, not only in Afghanistan but beyond, may be around the corner.
Esam Al-Amin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org