When the Going Gets Tough . . .

By Rebecca Tumposky
December, 2011

Month in Review, December 2010 (Español)

By Rebecca Tumposky

It was tough going for Washington’s West Asian wars this month. But the Obama administration seems determined to plunge ahead with its bloody, dangerous and doomed attempts to address political problems there via military force.    

In Afghanistan, the administration’s rosy claims of “progress against the Taliban” are undercut by its own intelligence reports. As both anti-U.S. sentiment and instability grow in Pakistan in direct response to Washington’s “secret” war, the U.S. reportedly intends to expand military operations. All while Washington’s credibility on those battlefronts - and in the rest of the world - has taken a big hit from the Wikileaks revelations and from the government’s near-hysterical witch-hunting response.

At the same time, a still-fragile different response seems to be coming from Washington regarding Iraq. Nouri Al-Maliki winning another term as Prime Minister and including in his government both Iraqi nationalist and pro-Iranian forces is another setback for Washington. But so far at least, it appears that Obama is resisting pressure from the military brass and Neocon hawks to use Maliki’s success as an excuse to re-escalate and unilaterally extend the U.S. military occupation.

Looming on the near-term horizon is the question of how the administration will respond to collapse of its effort to restart Israel-Palestine peace talks. Israel is engaged in a new burst of land-grabbing and settlement building while the Palestine Authority is planning to take its case to the U.N. If Obama parallels his “Af-Pak” approach with yet more blank-check backing for Israel, the entire region will become even more of a powder keg than it already is.


The Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates released an optimistic strategy report on its war in Afghanistan this month. The document declared the war “on track” while admitting gains were still “fragile.” The report comes after November’s NATO summit in Lisbon where alliance members agreed to keep troops in Afghanistan until at least 2014. 

Obama’s optimism comes near the end of the deadliest year since the Afghan war began. The insurgency has spread and 2010 saw the death of a record numberof both ordinary Afghans and foreign troops. ABC news reports that a record 60% of Americans  say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting: “Negative views of the war for the first time are at the level of those recorded for the war in Iraq.”

Tensions are on the rise between NATO and the Karzai government, most recently over the “kill or capture” night raids in Kandahar province.  According to United for Peace and Justice, “recent WikiLeaks cables show he has been privately asking the Americans to change their tactics for almost two years. …Since then the number of raids has increased fivefold.” With each raid, more Afghan civilians turn against the U.S.

"No one believes in Afghanistan anymore."

Washington’s European allies don’t think this war can be won either. One of the recent Wikileaks revelations was a 2009 memo European Union President Herman Van Rompuy is quoted suggesting European troops are only in Afghanistan to please the U.S. government: "Europe is doing it and will go along out of deference to the U.S. but not out of deference to Afghanistan …No one believes in Afghanistan any more. But we will give it 2010 to see results. If it doesn’t work, that will be because it is the last chance." The leak came in the wake of Germany’s announcement that it will start withdrawing its 4,800 troops as early as next year, ending its mission there by 2014. 

Most significantly, prior to Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review, 16 U.S. intelligence agencies submitted reports that painted a bleak picture. The National Intelligence Estimates say that although there have been gains for the U.S. and NATO in the war, the unwillingness of Pakistan to shut down militant sanctuaries and other factors mean that claims of progress are problematic. That’s putting it mildly as Juan Cole’s Top Ten Myths about Afghanistan, 2010 makes clear.


Unwilling to face the fact that it is foreign occupation and a corrupt Afghan client government that fuels the Afghan insurgency, U.S. commanders have become increasingly fixated on Taliban “sanctuaries” in Pakistan as the reason their war is not going well. Here they come against the dilemma that Pakistan actually supports pro-Taliban fighters “as a proxy force in Afghanistan, preparing for the day the Americans leave.”

Since Pakistan won’t attack its own clients, U.S. generals want to go into Pakistan more aggressively themselves. Already the U.S. has drastically expanded its drone strikes against Pakistansince 2008; an effort led by the CIA, and mainly targeted the northwest Waziristan regionThe U.S. does not acknowledge the missile attacks, but there have been more than 110 this year - more than double last year's total.

The U.S. also keeps pressuring and bribing Pakistan to “do more to root out the terrorists.” But the response is often the opposite of what Washington wants. A stunning example of the losing game Washington is playing came December 17 when the CIA station chief in Pakistan had flee for his life after his cover was blown, according to U.S. claims by the Pakistani military itself.

Making things even worse for the U.S., the New York Times reported that “Rival militant organizations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistanborder have increasingly been teaming up in deadly raids, in what military and intelligence officials say is the insurgents’ latest attempt to regain the initiative after months of withering attacks from American and allied forces…. insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like “a syndicate.”

No surprise then that recent reports say that “Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas… ” Anatol Lievenof the Nation reacted “with horror” to the prospect of this extremely dangerous escalation:

“…some Western security officials are suggesting that the West can afford to put much more pressure on Islamabad to attack Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's border region, even though this may lead to greater destabilization within Pakistan. This is lunatic reasoning. The diminished power of Al Qaeda should be cause for the United States and NATO to find ways to withdraw from Afghanistan, not step up the fight against the Taliban. As for the terrorist threat to the West, this has never come from the Afghan Taliban - but it increasingly comes from the Pakistani Taliban and their allies, as the case of attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad demonstrates.”


West Bank Checkpoint - Photo by Chris YunkerUS-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian authority collapsed earlier this month. All the additional warplanes and diplomatic guarantees Washington had offered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were not sufficient to win an Israeli commitment to even a 90-day partial settlement freeze and serious negotiations.

Most of the Israeli establishment viewed the collapse of Obama’s effort with glee. Their next step was predictable: A burst of new settlement activity throughout the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, one big enough to spur a front-page article in the New York Times that said: “This means that if negotiations ever get back on track, there will be thousands more Israeli settlers who will have to relocate into Israel, posing new problems over how to accommodate them while creating a Palestinian state on the land where many of them are living now.”

Simultaneous with this rapid settlement expansion are a spate of reports on the rise of blatant public expressions of racism in Israel, including an edict signed by hundreds of state-subsidized rabbis “forbidding Jews from renting or selling homes or land to Arabs.” This reflects a growing trend that has even some of Israel’s staunchest defenders in the U.S. worried that things might reach the point where “the majority of American Jewry... might simply write off Israel as a tragic, failed experiment.” Meanwhile, the Israeli government is attacking Human Rights Watch over its recently released report "Separate and Unequal" that describes Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

In the face of Israeli intransigence and Washington’s unwillingness to pressure Tel Aviv, the Palestinian Authority and Arab League are re-evaluating their strategy. Arab League Secretary-GeneralAmr Moussa told Democracy Now, "The committee sees that the negotiation efforts are useless and decided not to resume any negotiations, and its resumption will be conditioned on receiving a serious offer that puts an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as part of the peace process. This is our decision, and we might now appeal to the Security Council and other international organizations." 

Initial steps in that direction are already underway. The Palestinian authority has reportedly prepared a Resolution to go to the U.N. in January that would again declare Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem illegal and demand they be stopped at once. This would pave the way for Palestinians to issue a declaration of statehood in mid-summer of 2011 and then take it to the United Nations General Assembly for a vote, putting major international pressure on Israel to seriously negotiate.  

Palestinian diplomacy has already yielded results: Argentina and Uruguay joined Brazil and Bolivia in recognizing an independent Palestinian state this month, reflecting what Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said is a growing general consensus among members of Mercosur, the South American trade bloc.

Not surprisingly, U.S. politicians have responded with alarm to these moves. Howard Berman, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemned what he called “unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state” and even tried to push through the notoriously pro-Israel U.S. Congress a resolution condemning them. 

But the longstanding pro-Israel consensus in the U.S. elite faces new vulnerabilities in the wake of Washington’s losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one of the more intriguing  WikiLeaks revelations, analyzed by Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the head of the Political Military Bureau of Israel's Ministry of Defense, while discussing Israeli requests for U.S. military aid, acknowledged it is not necessarily in the U.S.’s interests to consistently defend the Israeli state. He described “the sometimes difficult position the U.S. finds itself in given its global interests, and conceded that Israel's security focus is so narrow that its QME [Qualitative Military Edge] concerns often clash with broader American security interests in the region." The gap between Israel’s narrow expansionist interests in the region and the U.S.’s need to minimize the antagonism to Washington growing throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a contradiction that the peace movement can and should exploit. 


Among the indications of Washington’s dilemma are recent developments in Iraq. Within days of being formally approved as Prime Minister by Iraq’s Parliament, Nouri al-Maliki vowed that the Iraqi government won’t extend the deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011. Maliki told the Wall Street Journal, "This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed." Maliki added that the timetable could only be changed if Iraq’s Parliament approved. Juan Cole argues that this is extremely unlikely - “There are not 163 votes in parliament for an extension of the U.S. troop presence” - and he further cites a leaked U.S. cable admitting that “the GOI [government of Iraq] is anxious to ‘get rid of all the white faces carrying guns’ in their streets…”


In this month of rough sledding for Washington, the climate negotiations in Cancun were a bright spot for them. At the UN Climate Conference (COP-16), a follow-up to the 2009 conference in Copenhagen (COP-15), Bolivia was the lone dissenter from a “non-binding” agreement to use market-based techniques “to manage the climate crisis, including acknowledgements that emissions cuts must keep world temperature increases below 2°C, with consideration to be given to lowering the target to 1.5°C.”

The pact was hailed as a victory by the rich northern countries led by the U.S. But it was a loss for the planet and the world’s most vulnerable and poorer countries. Patrick Bond reports: “Most specialists agree that even if the modest Copenhagen and Cancun promises are kept (a big if), the result will be a cataclysmic 4-5°C rise in world temperature over this century, and if they are not, 7°C is likely. Even with a rise of 2°C, scientists generally agree that small islands will sink, Andean and Himalayan glaciers will melt, coastal areas – such as much of Bangladesh and many port cities – will drown, and Africa will dry out – or in some places flood – so much that nine of ten peasants will not survive.”

Prior to the conference, Wikileaks cables were released that revealed the US using “conditional funding promises, spying and threats by the CIA, and cyber warfare in order to overwhelm and strong-arm countries opposing” the West’s agenda. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales put the negotiations in context:

“It’s easy for people in an air-conditioned room to continue with the policies of destruction of Mother Earth. We need instead to put ourselves in the shoes of families in Bolivia and worldwide who lack water and food and suffer misery and hunger. People here in Cancun have no idea what it is like to be a victim of climate change.”


All the rough going for Washington this month was intensified by the big many embarrassments coming from the WikiLeaks exposures. Much of the world - including much of the European press - also regards the subsequent U.S. witch-hunt against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as more embarrassing than effective.

But there are grave dangers to freedom of the press and freedom of speech coming from the anti-Wikileaks crusade. All the more so as it is simultaneous with stepped up repression “at home” of international solidarity and anti-war activists. In the last few months two dozen activists in Minneapolis, Chicago and other cities across the country have been handed subpoenas by the FBI to appear before a grand jury. On December 21, Maureen Clare Murphy, an organizer with the Palestine Solidarity Group in Chicago and managing editor of The Electronic Intifada became one of the latest to be subpoenaed by the federal government.

In a press release issued by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, Murphy stated, "Along with several others, I am being summoned to appear before the Grand Jury … We are being targeted for the work we do to end U.S. funding of the Israeli occupation, ending the war in Afghanistan and ending the occupation of Iraq. What is at stake for all of us is our right to dissent and organize to change harmful U.S. foreign policy."


The tough going Washington faced this month indicates the level of global resistance to the U.S. agenda. The empire remains over-stretched. Expanding its losing Afghan war into Pakistan will not work and - besides causing more death and destruction - will only deepen Washington’s dilemmas. The peace movement in the U.S. is still in an ebb, but the U.S. population is more skeptical of the Afghan war than ever before. Opportunities to turn discontent into effective action lie ahead. It is tough times for our side too, but many chances to make a difference are on the horizon if we get going.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Tumposky is an organizer with the Catalyst project and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, and currently living in Oakland, CA, Becca has been active in Palestine Solidarity, anti-war and worker organizing for the past ten years. She was a member of the anti-racist/anti-imperialist Heads Up Collective in the Bay Area that bridged organizing for economic and racial justice with global justice and anti-war struggles.

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