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Afghan reality

Print edition : Jan 28, 2011 T+T-
In this December 3 picture, President Barack Obama is greeted by NATO Commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus (left) and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry at Bagram Airfield.-PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP

In this December 3 picture, President Barack Obama is greeted by NATO Commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus (left) and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry at Bagram Airfield.-PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP

The cables from Kabul exposed by WikiLeaks show a policy fiasco and confirm the chaos on the ground.

SLOWLY, but surely, the leak of United States State Department cables continues. Media interest in the U.S. has died down. One reason for this is that the prosecution of the WikiLeaks leader, Julian Assange, became the story, and that spiked interest in the cables themselves. The New York Times has since reported on Assange in the manner of a celebrity scandal and failed to take any further interest in the cables. Crises in the cables are now academic; the scandals are on the front page. It tells us something about the state of journalism that this is so: few journalists at the major newspapers continue to scour the cables. That would require effort and time. They have moved on to other stories. The revelations are left to be uncovered at leisure. The danger to the U.S. has passed.

The sheer size of the leak tells us something about the nature of the U.S. footprint. Embassies across the world are not involved alone in the humdrum work of diplomatic niceties. Down the street from most of these embassies are U.S. military bases, where generals are in occupation as equal partners in the country to the ambassador. Both the ambassador and the general collect information to pass on through their various channels to the State Department headquarters (Foggy Bottom) and the military headquarters (the Pentagon). This massive amount of information is siphoned by those in power, who must make sense of it as they formulate policy. The larger the footprint, the harder it is to digest the intelligence and make sensible policy.

Across 130 countries (of 192), the U.S. armed forces maintain over 700 military bases. During the George W. Bush years, Andrew Hoehn was tasked by the White House to study the need for a robust U.S. response to the arc of instability that apparently stretches from Colombia to Indonesia. When you overlay our [base] footprint onto that, he said, we don't look particularly well-positioned to deal with the problems we're now going to confront. To take the teeth out of these military outposts, Bush's Secretary of State Colin Powell called them our family of bases. Chalmers Johnson, the academic and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst who died in December, wrote a series of books excoriating this tendency to make U.S. expansion into something normal, to deny that our garrisons encircle the planet. The bases give ambassadors the kind of heft that allows them to interfere with the minutiae of policy in far-flung countries.

The cables from Kabul show a policy fiasco. On the ground, State Department officials bemoan the lack of clarity. Their partner, the government led by Hamid Karzai, appears to dither, with sections in the government given over to various forms of corruption. In a cable from November 2009 (leaked last year), U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry called Karzai not an adequate strategic partner. Even Karzai tells U.S. officials that Afghanistan lacks capable administrators on almost every level. The brain drain of the war years was enormous, Karzai said, and claimed that luring back expatriates would not succeed since now they were too costly' to keep (10KABUL170, January 19, 2010). The security situation, which is to say the violence in the country, makes it hard to encourage the middle class to return from its exile. The rot is quite deep and the disagreements are rife.

Even the facts are in dispute: plain speaking from the intelligence services is discounted. In his first review of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama designated July 2011 as the date when withdrawal would begin. Even then the promise was hedged with a clause (whether conditions might allow) that permitted a change in plans.

In late 2010, Obama's team conducted its second major review of the war. The WikiLeaks cable dump confirmed the chaos on the ground, with U.S. officials frustrated with the Afghan government and floundering in their meetings with those on the penumbra of the Taliban (including one amusing cable that describes a meeting with former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef; 10KABUL503, February 9, 2010).

More than 700 soldiers died in 2010, with the year bringing in the largest civilian and military casualties for the conflict thus far. Reports show that the insurgency has not been countered; indeed, it might even be in an expansive mood (as described in Anand Gopal's informative study for the New America Foundation, The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar, November 2010).

A poll conducted in mid-December 2010 in the U.S. showed the public's weariness with a war few understand and many despair over: 56 per cent of the public felt that things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation). Seventy per cent of those who make under $50,000 a year oppose the war, while of those who make more money, only 54 per cent oppose the war. Even 45 per cent of the Tea Party members and 44 per cent of Republicans are against the war; 74 per cent of Democrats agree with them. There is a straightforward political mandate for Obama to stick to his July 2011 withdrawal date.

Tricky leaks

In mid-December 2010, the Senate Intelligence Committee held hearings on the Afghan war. To help them out, the 16 intelligence agencies in the U.S. prepared their National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Not long after, the NIE was leaked to the major newspapers. Luckily for the Obama administration both the NIE leak and the White House review were announced during the Christmas break; most people were too busy with their families to notice the discrepancy.

The NIE documents point out that Afghanistan remains vulnerable to insurgency and that Pakistan's government is unwilling to stop its covert support to the Afghan Taliban. The latter point amplifies U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson's cable that there is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups (091ISLAMABAD2295, September 23, 2009).

Already in November, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit, Obama had begun to talk about a withdrawal date of 2014, three years after his original date. In early December, his Defence Secretary Robert Gates told the press in Kabul: There is no doubt the security climate is improving. The senior general, David Petraeus (who missed his father's funeral to remain at his post), said: We've made important progress in recent months. That was the word of the moment, progress. It was in all Obama's comments on the war. On December 16, Obama announced the results of the review, saying that the U.S.-NATO alliance had made significant progress in the country.

To the journalist Bob Woodward, Obama had said he did not want Afghanistan to be his political graveyard ( Obama's Wars, 2010). His choices were not clear. A mandate from the public was not enough. During an earlier review, CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Cabinet that no Democratic President can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it. This is what scuttled the first review, and it has certainly defined the most recent one. The NIE assessment is absent. God spat into the mouth of Cassandra.

In Kabul, Ambassador Eikenberry remains forlorn. One would like to read his current cables, but these are under wraps. At a speech on December 7 at the newly opened office of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kabul, Eikenberry stumbled. According to David Smith-Ferri, Eikenberry said the following: Afghanistan still is a country that. Although great improvements have been made in the last seven or eight years in building the infrastructure that can facilitate commerce: roads, power, access to water it is a country that still remains challenging. Eikenberry's hesitancy about the military solution continues to plague him, but it makes little impact on U.S. policy.

Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, believes that Afghanistan is a small piece of real estate. It is not the base camp of terror. Brennan saw these in Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has a much more modest footprint. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti manages the Somali sector. In January 2010, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi of Yeman said that a base on Yemeni soil was inconceivable. The veracity of the statements of Yemen's officials is in doubt after the WikiLeaks disclosures (President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen told Brennan in 2009: I have given you an open door on terrorism; 09SANAA1669, September 15, 2009). A joint operations centre opened in Yemen early last year. This is what Chalmers Johnson called America's empire of bases. Wars continue. Withdrawals take place, but bases remain. The tentacles of American power are hard to disentangle.