Obama's Gordian Knot
Gordius, King of Phrygia (in modern Turkey), once tied an intricate knot, named for him ever since. An oracle told Alexander the Great that whoever could untie it would master Asia. Alexander drew his sword and slashed the knot. He then conquered the lands between Persia and Afghanistan, pushing on as far as the Punjab. There his exhausted troops rebelled, and his retreat from Asia began. The oracle should have known that the mastery of Asia ultimately belongs to Asians.
President Barack Obama has promised a withdrawal of many or most American troops from Afghanistan in the months to come. He has not promised the departure of the enormous State Department and mercenary force of state-builders and democracy-creators and defenders already there. This, at least, is the plan -- a dangerous one that will fail because it ignores reality.
The Gordian Knot by which this American project is bound is the simultaneous conflict and collaboration of the United States and nuclear Pakistan, certain to end in a wounded American withdrawal, if only because Pakistan is situated in this particular place in Central Asia and the United States exists in a different world -- geographically, psychically, and morally.
The United States and Pakistan are formally allies. They are both at war in Afghanistan, the United States officially, to defeat (or come to a settlement that cannot be interpreted as a "defeat") the Taliban, radical Muslim nationalist and fundamentalist fighters, and members of the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Taliban are held responsible by Washington for collaboration with Al Qaeda (or what’s left of it) against America-in-Asia. At the same time, Washington is held responsible by the Taliban for invading and attempting to control their country, which they want to control themselves.
The United States and Pakistan are actually enemies with opposed national interests. The Pakistani army clandestinely supports the Taliban, and has done so for many years, so that Afghanistan can eventually be ruled by their clients. Pakistan's leaders look upon Afghanistan as furnishing strategic depth to their army in case of war with India -- their great enemy since the partition of British India in 1947. The United States, in recent years, has been cultivating close relations and nuclear cooperation with India.
The United States and Pakistan are even close to declaring their enmity. There have been repeated Pakistani attacks on U.S. troops, "incidents" considered to be retaliation for American drone attacks inside Pakistan. The drones have targeted individuals and assets thought to be linked to the Taliban or enemies of the CIA.
Civilians have also been killed. The American command says civilians killed in drone attacks are accidental victims. The target selection system for the drones reportedly functions on visual- and radio-surveillance of suspected sites, which identifies everyone connected with these sites, including innocents. The drones are reputed to be considerably less accurate and discriminating than advertised.
The Haqqani network, another target, once part of the Northern Alliance in the war against the Russians, is currently described by some Americans as a group of criminals exploited by Pakistani army intelligence. The Haqqani have been accused of responsibility for the September 13 assault on the U.S. embassy inside its fortified compound in Kabul. Last Sunday, there was also an attack, fatal to one victim, on Americans inside the CIA annex to the embassy, by "an Afghan employee" of the CIA.
What is all of this accomplishing for the American taxpayers who are paying millions to finance both Afghan and Pakistani governments, while supporting their own expeditionary force, plus the Afghan army, and part of the NATO force which is inconclusively warring with the Taliban? What American or Western interests are served in this Gordian entanglement of conflicting interests and useless casualties?
Obama has not dared to challenge the Pentagon because it holds him hostage politically due to his lack of military service. The military will not break off the war because they will not accept "defeat," and they are driven by a confused notion of America's need to dominate global energy resources for the future. Even a Republican president could find himself in Obama's position, for which Republican politician has served in combat?
I can only imagine a noble self-sacrifice by a president, to save his country and people. Who will seize Alexander's sword and slash the knot, ordering American troops, ships, spies, mercenaries, diplomats, aid workers and democracy promoters all home?
Since the cold war, the United States has stubbornly resisted the principle that people must be responsible for themselves. The Afghans must settle their own national destiny. Pakistan and India know their own interests and must be responsible for them. An American president is accountable to the American people.
(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Related: Read more of Commonweal's Afghanistan coverage here.
About the Author
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).