U.S. Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Posted March 27, 2009

Tariq Ali, the author of three books on Pakistan–most recently, THE DUEL, Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, gave several talks at the University of Michigan Flint in March 2009. Here are my notes, which hopefully will give you a flavor of his hour-long talk on U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The talk was laced with a political humor that is best conveyed in a speech, and which I don’t attempt to reproduce.

“Is Change Gonna Come? U.S. Policy Towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Tariq Ali answered that question by suggesting any such change would be equivalent to change occurring on Wall Street. It is becoming clear that the U.S. government’s response is to bail out the existing system, continuing the policies as of the Bush and Clinton administrations.

After 9/11 those of us who opposed Washington’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan were called idealistic, and worse. Yet what was the aim of the invasion? To capture Al-Queda, which had a maximum strength of 3,000. The invasion has multiplied, not destroyed, them. Eight years later every intelligence report states that it is impossible to win the war there. Hillary Clinton called Afghanistan a “narcostate.”

So the war has been a total failure, politically and militarily. It has put into place a regime that is totally corrupt—even the New York Times reports that President Hamid Karzi’s brother is one of the country’s greatest drug lords. Corrupt officials steal prime land and build large villas in central Kabul. The situation has degenerated so much that only U.S. contractors, not Afghani forces, guard Karzi.

So a realistic commitment to “win” the war there must be accompanied by 250,000 troops (not 17,000 or 30,000) and be willing to kill half a million Afghanis. But that’s not possible. It’s no good blaming the lack of success on the Pakistani government. There is a 2,000-mile porous border. Sending in drones won’t solve the problem, nor in having a drone become the president!

Expanding the war to the border and beyond in Pakistan is the most dangerous thing Washington can do. Drones will kill more civilians and increase anger against the United States. If U.S. pressure intensifies, and there is a split in the army, all bets are off. It could even lead to a nasty civil war.

In the United States all one hears about Pakistan is that it’s a haven for “terrorists.” There are some terrorists, it’s true, but they are not the country’s biggest problems. A far bigger problem is that 60% of all children are stunted. Clothes that used to fit a 6-year old are too big today. Additionally Pakistan has no health service, no system of public education. What any decently run government must do is start with food subsidies, but that is not a concern for the present government, whose officials concentrate on acquiring wealth.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons and there is much talk about how these might fall into the wrong hands. According to all reports Washington has installed fail-safe procedures. But the best solution to this problem is to disarm all the nuclear powers, including Tel Aviv and Washington.

Unlike what happened after World War II when there was a Marshall Plan, in today’s phase of the U.S. Empire there will be no massive rebuilding, only death and destruction. In Iraq there are one million dead and five million who have fled their homes as refugees. This has also meant the destabilization of Syria, where one million Iraqis now live.

Iraq was a country with a modern infrastructure—but all that has been destroyed. The ruthlessness of neoliberalism wrecked whatever safety net used to exist. Instead there is just money to aid the ultra rich. There can be little expectation that Washington will rebuild the societies it has destroyed—it is not managing to rebuild in its own heartland!

Before the war in Iraq began, millions of people around the world and in the United States demonstrated their opposition to that path. But Bush ignored those voices. His refusal to listen, his contempt for those who called for peace, undermined democracy. Many Americans concluded it is not possible to have any effect on one’s own government.

Obama did change that—he did reach out, particularly motivating young people with his message of hope. But by appointing Clinton retreads as his advisors it seems that Obama will continue along the Bush’s path of war and occupation. In fact he is escalating the war on Pakistan’s borders at the very moment when most of the European countries are moving toward pulling their troops out.

If there is no strategy for the either winning the war or exiting, why does Washington stay? Look at a map and see how the new military bases now ring the borders of China. Is boxing in a rival economic power possible? After all, China notices how Washington is proceeding, and has embarked on an aggressive policy of making friends and developing trading partners in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

Unfortunately the situation remains grim.