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Cleverly, the Washington establishment seeks to reorder events so that it can take credit for things it did not do and pass on the blame for things it did do. President Barack Obama not only wants to share the Arab Spring’s glory but, with the Group of Eight (G8) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), wants to help shape its aftermath. On the other hand, Obama seeks to avert his eyes from the mess of Afghanistan and pay less heed to the desperate rants from President Hamid Karzai about the manufactured futility of his country. Election season has opened in the United States. Democracy in the Arab lands is a far better slogan than the fetid memories of ongoing wars that have until now cost the U.S. exchequer $7.6 trillion (according to the National Priorities Project). Words such as extraordinary rendition, drone attacks, and Guantanamo detract from Obama’s self-image as the hope-maker. Others such as Tahrir Square and youth protest burnish Obama and the Washington establishment. They put them on the right side of history.
To make sense of the tumult in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the Washington establishment has made for the safe harbour of analogies. Obama applauded the transformation in the region in his May 19 speech at the State Department and then announced a $2 billion aid package to revive the region’s stalled economies. The parallel Obama drew was instructive: the new Enterprise Funds will be “modelled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall”. After the G8 meetings in France, Obama travelled to Poland on May 28 to underline the analogy. Obama applauded the Polish leadership for sending a delegation to Tunisia to share their experiences in the transition to democracy. “You have to institutionalise this transformation,” he said, “and that is a hard process.”
The Washington establishment has sought out an analogy that revises two moments of contemporary history. It seeks to show that the U.S. was always in favour of the transitions in North Africa, a fact belied by the caution of the U.S. government during the major demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, right to the very last, when Obama sent his envoy, Frank Wisner Jr, to move his friend President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to a more accommodative standpoint. Furthermore, the analogy suggests that the post-Communist transformation of Eastern Europe was helped by the U.S. assistance and that it has benefited the people of the region. In fact, U.S. intellectuals and officials oversaw what the historian Marshall Goldman called the “piratisation” of Eastern Europe, with the economist Jeffrey Sachs in the lead in Poland. Unemployment rates in Eastern Europe hover just above 10 per cent, with no social safety net (the bare minimum provided by their older regimes). Right-wing populism in the East grows amidst Ostalgie (nostalgia for the older regimes). It is not a recipe for the Arab lands.
The Arab Spring took place devoid of U.S. encouragement, as, in many ways, the Eastern European “Autumn of Nations” of 1989 took place by its own logic (as has been clarified in the new work of Mary Elise Sarotte and Constantine Pleshakov). Attempts in the U.S. press to take credit for the Spring by pointing the finger at Facebook or the handbook by the philosopher Gene Sharp are overblown. It would be a surprise to the workers of the Suez Canal or the cadre of the Muslim Brotherhood or even the students of Cairo’s universities that they were unwitting pawns of someone else’s dreams. Unwilling to allow their revolution to remain in the hands of the caretaker military, the people of Egypt returned to Tahrir Square on May 27 to push for more reforms and to guarantee that the elections will take place at year’s end. Fear that the regime that consolidates after the military might once more return to Mubarak ways is commonplace. This is an Egyptian Revolution. It does not seek permission from elsewhere.
As the newly energised political forces in Egypt and Tunisia organise the political space available to them, in the shadows the IMF, the G8 and commercial bankers are making their own plans. On May 27, the IMF reported that on the basis of its current information “the external financing needs of the region’s oil importers [Tunisia and Egypt, largely] are projected to exceed $160 billion during 2011-13”. This is perilous news, given that Egypt and Tunisia are already grievously in debt and have no plan to restart their stalled economies. Three days later, the IMF pledged to lend $3 billion to Egypt, and the G8 promised $20 billion from the various international agencies (much to the chagrin of the newly re-elected Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who wanted no such disbursement). If you add in the U.S. promise, the total government assistance amounts to $25 billion. Such figures are a tease, but sufficient as a down payment to ensure that the U.S. and the G8 have a place at Egypt’s decision-making table.
For the G8 leaders, the IMF staff prepared a crucial report titled “Economic Transformation in MENA: Delivering on the Promise of Shared Prosperity”. The report offered the typical bromides on democracy and then went into the real task. “Overcoming high unemployment will require a substantial increase in the pace of economic growth,” the staff wrote. With the massive debt that Egypt carries, an accelerated growth rate is not going to be easy to manage. It will require additional investment, improved productivity and improved infrastructure. This is a tall order. Hastily, the IMF report came to the point: “The key role will have to be played by the private sector, including by attracting foreign direct investment. Thus, government policies should support an enabling environment in which the private sector flourishes.” If the IMF and the G8 have their way, the Arab Spring, like the Eastern European Autumn of Nations, will flounder in the winter of economic discontent, as the profits rush to the “private sector” (monopoly firms that do not fly the Egyptian flag, or any flag, for that matter). The congenitally unimaginative IMF is preparing Egypt to be the next decade’s Greece.
The ‘good war’
America’s own wars provide little comfort for the Washington establishment. The worst of them all is the “good war”, the conflict in Afghanistan. Few expected that the death of Osama bin Laden would make any difference. The Taliban remains a force both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. The CIA-XE drone attacks continue on both sides of the border, and as it is to be expected, civilian casualties multiply. The United Nations and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report of March 9 told a grim tale. Over the past four years, 8,832 civilians have been killed; the numbers increase with each year. In 2010, the deaths totalled 2,777. It was cold comfort that three-quarters of them were attributed to the Taliban (many to the use of suicide bombers, who typically kill civilians). Georgette Gagnon, who runs the U.N. human rights office in Kabul, urged all parties “to do far more in 2011 to comply with their legal responsibilities to protect civilians”. This is as it should be although the mode of war (suicide bombings, aerial bombardment) makes such a noble sentiment outside the realm of possibility.
In mid-April, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Pakistan weighed in with its own report for the year. The numbers are chilling. The total civilian deaths in 2010 amounted to 2,542 (deaths by the military’s hand are, to be expected, uncounted). Once more, the killings by suicide bombings are very high (1,041). “U.S. drone strikes were responsible for 957 extra-legal killings,” the HRC noted. The monthly average of deaths in 2009 was about 140, whereas in 2010 it rose to 290. That is stark. The 2011 number will probably include the death of bin Laden. There remains the controversial matter of whether Mullah Omar has also been killed in a separate raid. Already, for 2011 at least three journalists (Saleem Shahzad, Nasrullah Khan Afridi, and Wali Khan Babar) in Pakistan have been killed in the escalating conflict that involves the jehadis and the military; the assassination of Baloch professor Saba Dashtiyari adds another person to the statistic.
Over the past two years, President Karzai’s plaintive frustration has increased. The Taliban is unwilling to forgo suicide attacks since it is its main means to dealing with the asymmetry of force. This is a tragedy. It means that until the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) occupation ends, suicide bombings will continue. For that reason, Karzai rightly expresses the bulk of his frustration at the U.S. and its NATO partners. Each “mistaken” drone attack only alienates people further from Kabul and adds fuel to the Taliban’s insurgency. That insurgency in turn will continue to use suicide bombings to pressure the U.S. and NATO but in the meantime kill innocent Afghans. This is the context for what appears to be Karzai’s emotional collapse.
After each incident, Karzai gives the U.S. an ultimatum and then disappears into remorse. On May 28, a U.S. strike in Helmand province killed 14 civilians (two women, 12 children). In the week before that, in Khost and Takhar, five civilians were killed. In Nangarhar, in early May, an Afghan police officer and his young niece were killed. All of these were during night raids. In Kunar, two spectacular errors resulted in the death of 65 civilians (in February) and nine boys (March). In March, on another night raid, this time in Karz, a village in Kandahar, the troops killed Karzai’s cousin Yar Mohammed.
Karzai has attended many of the burials for these civilians. After his cousin was killed in mid-March, Karzai pleaded with the U.S. and its allies: “With great honour and with great respect, and humbly rather than with arrogance, I request that NATO and America stop these operations on our soil. This war is not on our soil. If this war is against terror, then this war is not here, terror is not here.” Standing beside Karzai was General David Rodriguez, the No.2 U.S. general in the field. The Washington establishment, if given a moment to catch its breath, would probably concur. The main offshoots of Al Qaeda are no longer based in Afghanistan. With the death of bin Laden six weeks later, the main raison d’etre for the Afghan campaign ended. “Our demand is that this war should be stopped,” Karzai said at his cousin’s funeral. “This is the voice of Afghanistan.”
After the late May civilian deaths, Karzai went further. “From this moment, air strikes on the house of people are not allowed,” he said at a press conference. For Karzai, the U.S. and its allies had morphed into occupiers. “History is a witness to how Afghanistan deals with occupiers,” he said with more sadness than anger. Threats from Karzai are met with timetables from Obama. In July he will announce a new withdrawal plan, but as his outgoing defence chief Robert Gates warned, there is no real timetable for the departure of the troops. They are going to be in the country for years to come, now not simply with the objective to stabilise Afghanistan but to ensure Pakistan’s allegiance as well. Islamabad is as restive but, like Karzai, has little room to manoeuvre. They rely upon the Washington establishment for their treasury and, so, for their orders. Their rhetoric is of the quality of a tantrum.
Like an exhausted parent, Obama turns his back on his own failed children and seeks to applaud and take credit for the successes of others. If this makes the U.S. feel better about its foreign policy disasters over the past decade, and so wins Obama a second term in 2012, then Islamabad and Kabul will have to go along. The Arab joy will not be allowed to spread past the Gulf of Oman, not least to unburden the sorrows of Afghanistan, and increasingly of Pakistan.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this piece originally ran in Frontline.