The increasingly dangerous Afghanistan situation is worth analysis at two levels: that of the war itself—the ultimately doomed attempt by the United States to conquer the Taliban insurrection and impose a pro-American government—and that of the political effect of Barack Obama’s misguided decision to replace “Bush’s war” in Iraq with his own war in Afghanistan.

The invasion of Iraq rested on the fiction that Saddam Hussein threatened the United States and Israel with weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan intervention is being promoted by the yet more extravagant fantasy that America and the world are potentially threatened by Taliban-controlled Pakistani nuclear weapons.

The recent political focus has been on the replacement of General Stanley McChrystal with the man whose counter-insurgency policy he was supposed to be carrying out, General David Petraeus, former chief of the U.S. Army’s Central Command and principal architect of the American military’s current counterinsurgency strategy. This strategy involves clearing an area controlled by insurgents with regular troops and then establishing, with the help of a “surge” of American civilian nation-builders, a responsive democratic political structure, while American troops, with local soldiers and police, move on to clear another area. This is classic anti-guerilla warfare, employed by U.S. forces in the Philippines in 1899-1902, in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, and as part of the “Sunni Awakening” movement in Iraq. It is totally dependent on the local political environment, which is largely hostile in Afghanistan.

The current object of American attention is the area of Marja, which Gen. McChrystal promised to clear and hold—delivering a civilian “government in a box” to its welcoming inhabitants. Next was to be Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city. But the box intended for Marja was opened and found to contain nothing: Marja has not yet been satisfactorily cleared, and the Taliban have reinfiltrated.

The commentator Ray McGovern, a longtime CIA officer who has become a leading critic of America’s current wars, has suggested that Gen. McChrystal’s seemingly foolhardy dalliance with a journalist writing for Rolling Stone, which led to the general’s dismissal, may actually have been a well-calculated effort to jump a sinking American ship in Afghanistan. President Obama’s replacement of McChrystal with Gen. Petraeus astutely protected the president from Republican attack, but it could also be seen as a shrewd move to neutralize possible challengers. Both generals have in the past hinted at presidential ambitions. Now McChrystal is disgraced, and if the ship in Afghanistan is indeed sinking, Petraeus will go down with it. There will be no general to challenge the president unless McChrystal, who is said to have voted for Obama in 2008, were to offer himself to the Republicans in 2012. A general on his way to success, stabbed in the back by lefty journalists, jettisoned by a liberal administration composed of those “un-American aliens-who-govern-us,” strikes me as a more promising Republican presidential candidate than Sarah Palin, who has never really been convincing as a national candidate—and will be hopelessly shopworn by 2012.

The war in Afghanistan is now out of America’s political control, even as tens of thousands of U.S. troops arrive there and new mammoth bases are constructed. Everything is supposed to be ready when the “top-to-bottom” policy review the president has ordered takes place in December. Much may have happened by then. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to be pursuing a political settlement with some elements of the Taliban, ethnic leaders, local warlords, and what’s left of the old Northern Alliance. He is also working indirectly with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has always been involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As for al Qaeda, it is now a phantom that manifests its existence chiefly in Washington think-tanks and editorial offices. Afghanistan and Pakistan will do what is best for them. The ambition among the most important of those who actually live in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and are unwilling to see both countries torn apart by an American war machine historically conditioned to function at full blast with maximum destruction—is what the head of Pakistan’s army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, calls a “grand national reconciliation” in Afghanistan.

The New York Times tells us that American troops are glad to see McChrystal gone because he relentlessly opposed the indiscriminate use of airpower and artillery against peasant guerrillas. The soldiers know that blowing up the house of anyone who shoots at an American is much the safest way for infantry to advance, but the general knew that didn’t make Afghan citizens friendly to the military’s overall project.

Higher military and political ranks in Washington remain obsessed with Afghanistan’s strategic position and resources. But they also see the danger of Pakistan, with its own Taliban domestic threat, its nuclear weapons, and its huge and intensely nationalistic army, which, by and large, hates and fears the United States. A new war could explode if the United States moves into Pakistan’s territory in its quest to kill “violent extremists” and control nuclear weapons. Barack Obama’s “right war” points toward an even bigger disaster. The only solution is for him to keep his promise to leave Afghanistan in 2011—at the latest.

© 2010 by Tribune Media Services International

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).

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