Mister Obama's War hits a speed bump

Mister Obama’s War has hit a speed bump in Times Square. The question is will the President and members of Congress pay any attention to it and slow down, or will they floor the accelerator and race into Pakistan?

The speed bump is a nobody named Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old, westernized Pakistani, highly educated, and a naturalized American citizen with a wife and two kids. A casualty of the US financial meltdown, a career in the finance industry fizzled and his $285,000 home went underwater and was foreclosed.

Shahzad then trekked to North Waziristan in Pakistan along the Afghan border, where someone allegedly taught him how to make a car bomb. Fortunately, that training was either inadequate or he was a lousy student.

Following on the bloody Fort Hood shooting and the failed underpants bomber, Shahzad’s action has become leverage for greater US military intervention into the rugged Pashtun areas of northwest Pakistan.

That intervention is currently limited to deadly CIA drone attacks and reluctant Pakistani army assaults under pressure from the Obama administration. Past incursions into Pakistan territory by US special ops elements caused serious disturbances in Pakistan.

The focus of all this concern is an area of Afghanistan and Pakistan populated by the Pashtun people and known unofficially as Pashtunistan. Both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban are virtually all Pashtuns.

The Pashtun homeland was divided in 1893 by the British, specifically Sir Mortimer Durand, who drew the current border, called The Durand Line. Afghanistan has traditionally claimed the areas across the Durand Line in Pakistan, but Pakistan won’t give any of it up.

The disputed Pashtun lands in Pakistan. The area centered around Kandahar in Afghanistan is the Afghan part of PashtunistanThe disputed Pashtun lands in Pakistan. The area centered around Kandahar in Afghanistan is the Afghan part of Pashtunistan

Essentially, the US has inserted itself into the middle of an ethnic conflict between the dominant, ruling Punjabi people of eastern Pakistan and the Pashtun people, who are seen by the Punjabis as backward mountain people, a prejudice that ignores a Pashtun brilliance for military strategy.

North of Pashtunistan, making up the top piece of bread in the sandwich, is The Northern Alliance, the coalition of ethnic groups the US linked with when it attacked in 2001. Pashtunistan is the meat in the middle.

The Pashtuns, of course, are very tough, have always used a rigid form of Islam as an organizing principle for their rugged lives and they do not like foreign intervention.

Four years after Durand made his line, at age 23, Winston Churchill wrote this about the Pashtun people in what is now northwest Pakistan: “A continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. …The people of one valley fight with those of the next. …Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

Churchill even has a very relevant warning for those who would control the Pashtun people through development projects. “In the these valleys the warlike nature of the people and their hatred of control arrest the further progress of development.”

According to Anatol Lieven in an essay in The National Interest, drone attacks like the ones now being escalated in North Waziristan are provocative enough; but moving US troops into the area would be explosive. “The consequences will be devastating” and could destroy the complex balance that is Pakistan as we know it.

While Pakistan is notorious for its corrupt and insurmountable class divide, its military is a relatively more egalitarian institution. Military leaders are torn between US demands and the intense mistrust and hatred of the United States among the population and deep in its ranks. Nationalistic pride is so strong, greater US intervention into Pakistan would trigger terrible turmoil.

US pressure to attack in North Waziristan is intensifying following the Times Square bombing attempt. Hillary Clinton has publicly threatened “serious consequences” if links were found between Shahzad and Pakistan.

A US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal, “It’s time for Pakistan to go in there and gut the Taliban and al Qaeda once and for all.”

Why did he do it and who made him do it?

After 911, the argument went back and forth in this country between they did it because they oppose our freedom or they did it because we invaded and occupied their lands — specifically Saudi Arabia for its oil.

The same argument is bubbling up in the case of Faisal Shahzad. Did he do it because he was seduced by evil terrorists to hate America? Or did he do it because his life was coming unglued and he was angry at US intervention into his homeland? And does it matter?

It’s good here to revisit Susan Sontag, who said this when confronted with the post-911 lust for revenge: “By all means let’s mourn together, but let’s not be stupid together.” My ex-cop neighbor symbolized this latter position when he told an aide to Senator Arlen Specter: “I don’t care who it is. I want blood!”

Out of this came the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The antiwar movement did not fare well in these years. Its best, most wise counsel was trampled by a lynch mob. The well considered idea that US military occupations like Afghanistan and Iraq might not be so easy, might mean an immense moral and practical cost at home and might provoke even more attacks against us was dismissed as un-American. National self-examination was deemed subversive.

It’s OK for Americans like my neighbor to be emotional and militant when we are attacked, but when we attack and occupy somebody else’s homeland – that person’s emotions and militant thoughts are evil and, like a snowball going downhill, demand of us even more foreign intervention.

60 Minutes did a story Sunday on the potential for terror attacks on American soil, followed by a profile of Hillary Clinton. In neither story was it even hinted our military actions in the world have consequences. Ms. Clinton was presented as the Iron Lady determined to intensify US military efforts against those in North Waziristan who trained Shahzad.

It was as if the plot to bomb Times Square had been hatched outside history. It was as if the United States was immune to history.

There is an important distinction between, on one hand, protecting the United States and its citizens from terrorist attacks through the effective use of intelligence and smart international military and police work and, on the other, the escalating military occupation of the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.

The former is a matter of protection and is an honorable enterprise. While the latter is a matter of international bullying; we can understand it, but it’s not, and never has been, an honorable enterprise.

Lost in all the demagoguery and media parroting of military PR is the possibility that what we have been doing from the beginning in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been nurturing a growing insurgent network, and that intensifying our presence in response to Faisal Shahzad will only make the situation worse.

Are we headed for another tragic endgame?

Edward Luttwak is a libertarian military theorist; he is an interesting and often obnoxiously cold-blooded writer. In February 2007, he wrote an essay in Harper’s magazine highly critical of General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine, the current blueprint for US military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He calls Petraeus’ famous Field Manual 3-24 “military malpractice” because it doesn’t face up to the realities of what the United States has bitten off in Iraq, Afghanistan and, ultimately, in Pakistan.

All the talk in Field Manual 3-24 about the need to listen, to develop social structures and to “protect the people” amounts, Luttwak says, to a dishonest abdication of what is the only historically proven, effective method of occupation and counterinsurgency warfare. As examples he cites the Romans and the Germans in World War Two.

As a modern occupier, he says, the US is too “ambivalent.” It is willing to invade and conquer territory or entire nations; “yet it is unwilling to govern what it conquers,” in the sense of shamelessly taking over Kabul or Islamabad and ruling by brute force – like the Romans or Germans would do.

In other words, the US military wants its cake and to eat it too. It wants to be an imperial army, but under Petraeus, it wants to be seen as helpful and nice. It also wants to sell its actions at home and around the world. It is in this context that Luttwak says Petraeus’ doctrine is “military malpractice.” It’s phony.

“All its best methods, all its clever tactics, all the treasure and blood that the United States has been willing to expend, cannot overcome the crippling ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern, and their principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents, the necessary and sufficient condition of a tranquil occupation.”

Again, Edward Luttwak is not a warm and cuddly guy. What he seems to be saying is, thanks to a long line of leaders, the United States has gotten itself into a major bind, a bind not unlike the one it got itself into in Vietnam decades ago.

Back then, the pro war elements complained about having to “fight with one hand tied behind our back.” A bit further along the timeline, we got the “stab in the back myth,” in which the antiwar movement and the liberal media were blamed for losing the war — when, really, we lost the Vietnam War because it was un-winnable and never should have been taken up in the first place.

The hypocrisy of the Petraeus Doctrine is that, while it claims to emphasize the political and the developmental, it tries to focus and compartmentalize the ruthless killing aspects of counterinsurgency warfare Luttwak recognizes into highly sophisticated and secret cells of special operations units – a bit like the cellular structure used by guerrillas – in order to avoid detection by critics and Americans at home who might find such things distasteful and hard to justify, especially now, nine years on with no end in sight.

There has been much PR about what a great effort is being made in Afghanistan to cause fewer civilian casualties. Still, the number of convoy and checkpoint killings of unarmed innocents in Afghanistan is in a “steep rise,” according to the New York Times. It’s double what it was last year for the first four months of the year.

If the war is expanded into Pakistan, it will only get worse.

Military malpractice or sleight of hand?

General Petraeus’s most brilliant coup may be that what Luttwak calls “military malpractice” is, in fact, a siren song meant to woo American civilian leaders and media heavyweights into sustaining these very troubled and costly US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Pakistan.

Petraeus’ Field Manual 3-24 emphasizes over and over sensitivity, helping the local society and how important it is “to get at the root causes of the insurgency and to determine the best ways to combat it.”

But what if “the root causes of the insurgency” are US troops?

The cartoon possum Pogo once put it this way: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”