On declaring victory in Afghanistan, and getting out

No doubt, Prime Minister John Key will be waiting on his instructions from Washington and Canberra about the final timetable for the withdrawal of NZ troops from Afghanistan. There are encouraging signs that such a withdrawal may not be long in coming, and I’m not simply talking about the death of Osama Bin Laden, either.

As the Stratfor think tank has just pointed out, the April 28 promotion of General David Petraeus to head the CIA clears the ground for US President Barack Obama to speed up the American disengagement. For months, Petraeus has been arguing that the war in Afghanistan is going well, the Taliban forces are tiring and are being rolled back and the US tactics of clearing and holding the ground are finally “winning” the war. Oddly enough, that’s not really what a US President intent on phasing down the US role in the Afghan war wants to hear, and the general has been praised for his sterling efforts and kicked upstairs. As Stratfor puts it:

With the death of bin Laden, a plausible, if not altogether accurate, political narrative in the United States can develop, claiming that the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished. During a White House press conference on Monday, U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan commented on bin Laden’s death, saying “We are going to try to take advantage of this to demonstrate to people in the area that al Qaeda is a thing of the past, and we are hoping to bury the rest of al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden.”

Petraeus was the architect of the American counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. He symbolized American will in the region. The new appointment effectively sidelines the general. By appointing Petraeus as CIA director…..Obama has retained Petraeus as a senior member of the administration while simultaneously isolating him.

Together, the two steps open the door for serious consideration of an accelerated withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan

In essence, the death of Bin Laden enables Obama to plausibly declare victory, and get out. That it does so while a credible figure like Petraeus is also claiming victory on the ground only makes the time especially ripe for Obama to bring forward the 2014 withdrawal date – and the end of 2012 would be ideal. Obama could then go into the 2012 presidential election as the incumbent who got Bin Laden and put an end – allegedly with honour – to direct US military involvement in the Afghan war. The so called Biden strategy – whereby any subsequent threat posed by Afghanistan is contained from planes and ships offshore – can then become the US default position. One can only hope that someone in the White House remembers to send John Key the memo.

Harawira and Bin Laden: If the comments reported in this morning’s NZ Herald are accurate, Hone Harawira’s translated (from te reo) words of praise for Bin Laden can only be condemned : “A man who fought for the rights, the land and the freedom of his people”. That view of the man and his movement is indefensible romantic bullshit. Bin Laden was a mass murderer. He promoted a distorted, extremist version of Islam that led directly to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Moreover, Bin Laden’s project failed dismally. The jihadist hope that the forces of repression would cause the Arab street to rise up against its neo-colonial oppressors (and their puppets) and restore the Wahhabi dream of a new and shining Caliphate has simply not happened. Instead, the recent street opposition to tyranny across the Middle East has been largely non-violent, secular and carried out by Christians and Muslims, unionists and clerics, all working in unison. The outcome of their struggle remains uncertain. Yet it is a good thing that Bin Laden lived long enough to see how wrong his tactics and analysis were,

Locally, Harawira’s praise of Bin Laden is a reminder of just what kind of leadership and what kind of package left wing voters would be getting with the Mana Party. To be fair, there was a period in Bin Laden’s life that can be seen as admirable – in his 20s, when still the heir of a family fortune he could have chosen to become a playboy in Europe. Instead, he went and fought as a guerrilla for ten years against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. None of this justifies his subsequent tactics. If Harawira chooses to ignore Bin Laden’s responsibility for mass murder – reportedly on the grounds of not speaking ill of the dead – perhaps he could bring himself to criticize Bin Laden’s abuse of the hospitality afforded to him by the Taliban, an extension of customary courtesy to their guest for which the Taliban have paid dearly over the past ten years.

Finally, two other threads in the Bin Laden story. Andrew Sullivan and others – including Marcy Wheeler on her excellent Empty Wheel site – have utterly disproved the Fox News/Sarah Palin meme that torture interrogations yielded up the crucial information about the trusted courier that led to Bin Laden’s whereabouts being detected.

As Sullivan points out, the reverse is actually true. Both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Libi did NOT reveal the name of the courier or his significance under waterboarding. In fact, it was the sense that KSM was lying under torture that led interrogators to assume the courier was in fact, important. As Sullivan concludes:

So in torturing these two men, interrogators got nothing of substance. In fact, it was only by assuming that these men were lying under torture that the investigation continued. It was subsequently, during normal interrogations that KSM gave us a central clue: Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

Glenn Greenwald on Salon has also done a welcome column on the media’s credulous willingness to circulate the false story about the circumstances of Bin Laden’s execution. Initially, the mainstream media was more than happy to peddle the White House yarn that Bin Laden had resisted, and had used his wife as a human shield, thus causing her to be killed. All of which now turns out to be untrue. Bin Laden was unarmed, the wife was neither a human shield nor killed. The story always did ring false – for all of Bin Laden’s faults, cowardice in the face of physical danger was not one of them. As Greenwald says:

….What does matter is how dutifully American media outlets publish as “news reports” what are absolutely nothing other than official White House statements masquerading as an investigative article. And the fact that this process continuously produces highly and deliberately misleading accounts of the most significant news items – falsehoods which endure no matter how decisively they are debunked in subsequent days – doesn’t have the slightest impact on the American media’s eagerness to continue to serve this role.


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