Friday, November 14, 2008

Afghanistan abyss awaits Obama

Afghanistan abyss awaits Obama
By M K Bhadrakumar, from Asia Times Online, November 15, 2008. (Found via Feral Scholar.)

The struggle for influencing Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda has begun in right earnest. The maneuvering by influential establishment figures - including Congressional voices, Obama advisors and even military officials - who are projecting incumbent Robert Gates as secretary of defense in the incoming administration highlights the pressures working on the president-elect.

The focus is on the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in promoting the basic George W Bush policies promoted since the 1990s by nationalist and neo-conservative Republicans. These are policies animated by long-term ambitions for US economic and military hegemony.

A Gates appointment will signal that Obama may turn his back on his campaign pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq in 16 months. Gates, of course, disfavors any set timeline or timetable for a withdrawal plan.

Equally, his accent is on fighting the war in Afghanistan more efficiently while pursuing a containment strategy toward Russia and pressing ahead with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his perspective, Central Command chief General David Petraeus' troop "surge" policy in Afghanistan meets the requirements.

Adjusting at the margins

To use the words of investigative historian and journalist Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, there is a "phalanx of determined military opposition" in the Pentagon to Obama's withdrawal plans in Iraq, which goes all the way up to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and includes Petraeus and General Ray Odierno, the new commander in Iraq.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that a "smooth and productive" equation between the military brass and the incoming president will be possible only "if Obama takes the pragmatic approach that his advisers are indicating, allowing each side to adjust at the margins". The newspaper quotes Peter D Feaver, a former National Security Council official in the Bush administration who was a strategic planner on the administration’s Iraq "surge" policy, to the effect that if Obama presses ahead with his 16-month withdrawal plan, "a civil-military crisis" might arise in Washington.

According to Porter, Obama had a battle of wits with Petraeus when they met in Baghdad in July and the general argued for a "conditions-based" withdrawal rather than the presidential candidate’s 16-month deadline. Porter says Obama refused to back down and told Petraeus, "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential commander-in-chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security."

But Gates' appointment could change the equation. The smiling, silver-haired and earnest-looking veteran who has been through it all - the Soviet Union, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - proved his awesome capacity to make himself durable in the Byzantine world of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinzki and William Casey. Gates is the very antithesis of the clean break that Obama promised.

Lame duck planting mines

The Russians justifiably claim Gates may have already forced Obama's hand. They see a distinct pattern. In August, cleverly using the Caucasus crisis and the unfriendly public mood in the West about Russia, Gates pressed ahead with the signing of an agreement on the deployment of elements of an American strategic missile shield - 10 interceptor missiles at Wick Morskie between the towns of Ustka and Darlowo on the Baltic coast in Poland and an X-radar in Brdy near Prague, Czech Republic. Of course, Russia has concluded that the US deployments are intended to blunt the thrust of its strategic forces in the European theater.

Again, out of the blue, Washington imposed sanctions two weeks ago against Rosoboronexport, Russia's only arms exporter, for allegedly violating the Iran Proliferation Act of 2000. The sanctions have no "bite" as Rosoboronexport has no dealings with US companies and the Russian company's functioning is not in jeopardy. What the Bush administration has done is in essence create an irritant in US-Russia relations.

Obama will run into resistance from the US military-industrial complex if he attempts to lift the sanctions, as Rosoboronexport is proving to be a plucky competitor in the world's arms market. According to US Congressional reports, Russia is the world's second-largest arms exporter next to the US, with a turnover of US$10.4 billion in exports in 2007, as against $8.1 billion in the previous year, accounting for 17.4% of all weapons sold in the world market. Russia is entering new markets in North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The Rosoboronexport irritant can become yet another factor hindering effective, whole-hearted US-Russia cooperation over Iran, which Obama will seek. A Russian commentator wrote, "The main purpose of this demonstrative move [sanctions] ... is not so much to complicate life for Russian exporters as to saddle a new administration with new irritants between the White House and the Kremlin, irritants that will be difficult for Obama to remove. It is like anti-personnel mines planted on the path toward better relations between Moscow and Washington."

Again, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's annual address to the Duma (parliament) on November 5 contained a statement that Russia might be compelled to deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad unless a compromise was reached on the US missile defense deployments in Central Europe. There was nothing startlingly new in the statement. The Russians have said this before. Medvedev's speech on the whole also contained positive elements regarding European security and relations with the US.

Yet the US media interpreted that it was the "first serious Russian military threat against the West since the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991]"; that it struck a "discordant note amid an otherwise welcoming global reaction to Obama's election"; that the timing and "anti-American tone of the speech were extraordinary given the widely held belief here [in Moscow] that Obama is less ideological in his approach to Moscow than his Republican rival".

They aimed at generating an impression that Obama ought to rely on experienced hands - such as Gates - to deal with those bad boys in the Kremlin. And all this while the general opinion among Russian politicians and experts is one of cautious optimism that Obama is devoid of Cold War phobias and may incrementally opt out of the "containment strategy" toward Russia.

To be sure, Obama will find himself under great pressure to follow Russia policies inherited from Bush, even though these are what he was elected to change or terminate. The crunch comes in December when NATO holds a crucial ministerial meeting to take a view on the membership of Ukraine and Georgia. While on a visit to Estonia on Wednesday, Gates found it irresistible to taunt Moscow: "Russia has no need to impede a sovereign country's desire to more fully integrate with the West. Doing so is not a threat to Russia’s integrity." A lame duck could have kept quiet.

Hard choices of peace

Meanwhile, Moscow hopes Obama will be less supportive of spending on missile defense than the Bush administration. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Obama's positions "instill hope that we shall be able to more constructively examine this theme in the upcoming period". A similar restraint is apparent in the Russian statement read out on behalf of the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the UN General Assembly debate on Afghanistan on Monday. It abandoned the recent high pitch of criticism of the US-led war.

Russia seems to weigh that the war in Afghanistan presents a dilemma of a different kind to Obama and Moscow should not make things harder. Indeed, the Afghan war will be the number...

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