President Barack Obama’s single most important foreign policy decision during 2009 has been his recent backdown over requiring Israel to abandon the building of settlements in the occupied territories. Beforehand, this was to be a precondition for peace talks. This capitulation to the Israelis has blown the credibility that Obama had built up so carefully in the Arab world, torpedoed the Fatah wing of the Palestinian leadership that the US has been supporting, and made it virtually impossible for the Iranians to accept the deal being brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over their nuclear programme. Such failure will in turn, embolden the Israelis to take military action against Iran.
In next month’s New York Review of Books, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley summarise the current mess in this fashion:
……Obama is only the latest in a string of American presidents who have shown few limits to the harm they can inflict on those Palestinians they purport to strengthen. By twice twisting Abbas’s arm, first to attend a meeting with Netanyahu and then to withdraw the Goldstone report [ on human rights abuses during the recent Israel offensive in Gaza] the administration unwittingly hurt him more in the space of two weeks than its predecessor had done in as many terms. The US hope was to tame Netanyahu, empower Abbas, motivate peace advocates, curtail extremists, and energize negotiations. So far, it has accomplished the precise opposite.
In the short term, this unraveling has now placed a large question mark over the elections in Palestine, due in January. At best, these will only be possible in the West Bank, and – given the damage Obama has done to Abbas – perhaps not even there. Yet of all the consequences, the worst is likely to prove to have been the impact on the Iran deal. What the IAEA was proposing was that Iran should agree to have the processing of the nuclear material ( for its valid nuclear energy needs) carried out in other countries.
Iran has always resented the double standard involved: that Israel can develop nuclear weapons and flout the world’s anti-proliferation measures with impunity, while Iran is being threatened with war if it goes down the same path. To have Obama now publicly abandon any pressure on Israel to deal in good faith with the Palestinians would have made the hardliners in Teheran more likely to baulk at allowing their sovereignty to be abridged in the fashion proposed. Especially now the IAEA has investigated the ‘secret site’ at Qom – touted by Obama and Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Milliband a few months ago as a grave cause of concern – and found it to pose no danger whatsoever.
The Iranians have not as yet given their final word on the IAEA offer. The signs are that it will reject it – or at least try to buy time with counter-proposals to buy in its nuclear fuel, or to allow enrichment to be done on its own soil by foreign personnel approved by the IAEA. (This is not satisfactory since – as the North Koreans have shown – the host country can kick out the foreigners overnight and re-assume control.) The next move may be made by the Israelis, and their air force. It is bizarre that the main agent for peace right now is Mohammed al-Baradei of the IAEA. He and UN arms inspector Hans Blick played very much the same futile brokering role on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As for Afghanistan, will Obama choose to listen to his vice-President and order only a limited involvement based on protecting the main Afghan cities – until such time as the US can get out entirely ? Or will he go down the nation building route proposed in August by General Stanley McChrystal, a policy has been estimated to require upwards of 200-300,000 troops in order to’ succeed.’ No one knows which way Obama will ultimately jump, possibly including Obama himself.
Either way, we can be sure it will involve lots and lots of unmanned drones. Obama is reportedly, very keen on them. A drone-atic, no less. I don’t know about you, but Predator drones creep me out. It’s the hovering and the death dealing from a vast distance, so impersonally. I know, at the receiving end, its probably not much different from having your village, house, family, and self being blown to pieces by a gum-chewing pilot sitting seven kilometers high in the sky – but at least pilots are nominally human. The drones are not human, and the names applied to them and their software – Predator, Reaper etc – make the modern battlefield seem more like a day at the mall. Heard about the new Reaper drone with the Gorgon Stare? Its awesome.
Drones are increasingly being used in the Afghan war. In the tribal regions of Pakistan in particular, they are deeply unpopular for continuing to target and kill innocent civilians, and for violating Pakistani sovereignty. As in the first Gulf War, this allegedly ‘smart’ technology is only as smart as the people using it. This Tomgram report on robot warfare indicates, that the new generation of drones will soon be able to offer multiple screen coverage of the target – far beyond anything known from one-day cricket or Olympic track and field coverage. Currently, the operators of Reaper drones are sitting half way across the world and pressing the killswitch with only one screen angle to choose from when lining up the target. Soon, as Julian Barnes wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times, the Gorgon Stare technology will enable 12 ( and ultimately 65 ) screen angles and related compositing. This will put large swathes of a town or target zone up on screen, for selective tracking in real time, and targeting at will.
As Tom Engelhardt says in the above Tomgram report, this will allow the post Guantanamo vision of George Bush to become a reality – in that it will create a visual space where the US can play judge, jury and executioner anywhere in the world 24/7, without leaving the office. Sure, you’d hope this would make the operators better able to detect that the intended target was really an innocent wedding party, or a goat herd, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The drones are also getting smaller, and over time, more personal. Reportedly, payloads will soon become no bigger than a loaf of bread. Or even smaller still. A New Yorker story last month by Jane Mayer ( she broke some of the early stories about rendition ) describes drone-delivered bombs so small they will be able to fly in through the window like a killer bee, and then detonate in your personal space. Take that, Hugo Chavez !
Back in the real world for a moment. Here’s another good reason for John Key to figure out a coherent reason for Why Our Troops Are In Afghanistan. Is it to defeat Al Qaeda or to defeat the Taliban ? Key continually blurs the difference. We have to stop the Taliban over there, he tends to argue, because otherwise, we will be fighting the terrorists on our doorstep etc. That argument has never made much sense, and it is making even less sense by the day.
On Tuesday for instance, on Juan Cole’s website, there is some pretty compelling evidence as to why Key’s argument doesn’t stack up. The terrible old mujahedin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyr – once the US favourite, now a potential drone target – recently issued a videotape to Al Jazeera expressing his hostility to Bin Laden, and to the remnant of the Arab fighters of Al Qaeda still in the region. (By some estimates, there are only about 100 Arab fighters left in Afghanistan.)
The hostility from Hekmatyr makes sense. Thanks to Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and his Taliban government got kicked out of office, and run out of the country. If – or should I say when – the Taliban finally overthrow the corrupt Karzai government in Kabul, why would they then re-entertain the forces that have caused them so much grief and inconvenience? Far more likely that they would turn inwards and revert to imposing their own twisted version of Islam – and very unpleasant it would be. Yet it would pose little or no threat to New Zealand, and the minimal potential for harm is simply not worth putting New Zealand lives at risk.
Only the Haqqani faction of the Taliban seem to harbour any residual goodwill towards Bin Laden, If the Taliban return to power, it will be under Mullah Omar, not the Haqqanis. Even if – as would be wise – one takes Hekmatyr’s comments as being part of his own struggle for influence within the various Taliban factions, his logic still stacks up. Why would Mullah Omar and his Taliban – who previously had shown no interest in exporting their revolution – choose to re-endorse the global jihad of Bib Laden, a failed project that has cost the Taliban their ability to rule, and forced them into another decade of war to reclaim what they had before he arrived ?
The return of the Taliban is inevitable. It will be a horrible regime. Yet it poses little or no risk to us, or to anyone else beyond its borders. We can better contain from outside what we obviously cannot subdue internally. Meanwhile, Obama sits in the White House pondering a strategy, and counting on allies like New Zealand to be willing to take the heat, and thus minimize losses among American soldiers. In that sense, our SAS are merely drone-equivalents.