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Eric Margolis Headshot

A Death of a Thousand Cuts in Afghanistan

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The effluvia of platitudes, doubletalk, synthetic optimism and fudging at last weekend's NATO summit in Lisbon could not conceal the fact that for all their soldiers, fighter aircraft, heavy bombers, tanks, helicopter gunships, armies of mercenaries, and wizardly electronic gear, the western powers are being slowly beaten by a bunch of lightly-armed Afghan farmers and mountain tribesmen.

NATO's 28 members faced deepening differences over the Afghanistan War as public opinion in the United States, Canada and Europe continued to turn against the conflict.

President Barack Obama again painfully showed he is not fully in charge of US foreign policy. His pledge to begin withdrawing some US troops from Afghanistan next July has been scornfully contradicted by US generals and resurgent Congressional Republicans.

Claims by other NATO nations that they will pull out by 2014 must also be taken with much salt. As in Obama's bait and switch in Iraq, the US and its reluctant allies are likely to simply rebrand their combat forces "trainers" and keep them in Kabul propping up the US-installed regime of Hamid Karzai. Remove NATO's garrison and Taliban would be in Kabul in days.

Obama came to Lisbon fresh from groveling before Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pleaded with Israel for a token three-month freeze on settlement building in exchange for a huge bribe from Washington of advanced US F-35 stealth warplanes, promises of UN vetoes, and raising up to $1 billion US arms stockpiled for Israel's use.

Israel will likely accept Obama's bribe, but with more sweeteners, and not before rubbing his face in the dirt to show who really calls the shots in US Mideast policy. George H.W Bush, the last president to tangle with Israel, came out far the worse for the experience.

Obama appears to want out of the Afghan War, but lacks the courage to implement withdrawal. His final gamble of sending 30,000 more troops into the $7.5 billion monthly war has so far failed to produce the hoped-for decisive victory. But powerful pro-war groups, including the Pentagon, the arms industry and Republicans, are thwarting his attempts to wind down the war.

Those American, Canadian and European politicians who eagerly backed the Afghan War now fear admitting the conflict was a huge waste of lives and treasure. Their political careers hang in the balance.

As a group of Republican congressmen told me in a private meeting in Washington, they dared not oppose the Afghan War lest their political opponents accuse them of treason, betraying the troops, and appeasing terrorism. Having demonized Taliban, who were former US allies, it is now impossible for official Washington to deal with the movement in a rational manner and achieve a sensible negotiated settlement to the conflict.

While the US heads deeper into war and debt, its dragooned European allies are fed up with what was supposed to have been a limited "police action" to eliminate al-Qaida bases.

Instead, Europe got a full-scale war against Afghanistan's Pashtun tribes raising uneasy memories of its 19th-century colonial "pacifications." For example, this is Britain's fifth invasion of Afghanistan.

France's influential new defense minister, Alain Juppé, openly described the Afghan conflict a "trap" for NATO and demanded an exit strategy.

By contrast, British Defense Chief Gen. Sir David Richards, warned, "NATO now needs to plan for a 30 or 40 year role." In short, permanent occupation. It's worth recalling that US forces have been implanted in South Korea and Japan since the end of World War II.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai is demanding the US scale back military operations and night raids that inflict heavy civilian casualties. Washington counters that Karzai is mentally unstable.

America's rational for invading Afghanistan was to destroy al-Qaida. But CIA chief Leon Panetta recently admitted there were no more than 50 al-Qaida operatives left in Afghanistan. The rest -- no more than few hundred -- fled to Pakistan years ago.

So what are 110,000 US troops and 40,000 NATO troops doing in Afghanistan? Certainly not nation-building. Most reports show Afghanistan is in worse poverty and distress than before the US invasion.

While the delegates at Lisbon exchanged toasts and spoke of rebuilding Afghanistan, giant US Army bulldozers, demolition teams and artillery were busy leveling wide swathes of Afghan homes around the Pashtun stronghold, Kandahar. In 2006, US Marines conducted a similar ruthless campaign to crush the rebellious Iraqi city of Falluja, razing a third of it and using white phosphorous shells.

The US is using the same punitive tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq as Israel employs on the occupied West Bank: targeted assassinations, death squads, demolishing buildings or whole neighborhoods. Now, the US is sending heavy tanks to Afghanistan to crush resistance.

The US military establishment is determined the mighty US armed forces must not be defeated by Afghan tribesmen. Defeat in Afghanistan would bring demands for major cuts in the bloated US military, which consumes 50% of world military spending, and ending major arms systems.

Failure in Afghanistan would also threaten the entire NATO alliance.

Europe is slowly re-emerging as a world power, however fitfully and painfully. NATO has been the primary tool of US geopolitical control of Western Europe since the late 1940's. The post-war US-Japan Security Treaty plays a similar role by allowing the US to militarily dominate North Asia.

If the US loses the Afghan War, its reluctant allies would call into question the reason for the alliance. Europe would hasten building an integrated military independent of US control.

Taliban and its allies are not about to defeat the US and its allies on the battlefield, but they already control half of Afghanistan and intend to inflict the death of a thousand cuts on the financially strapped western powers until public opinion demands an end to this pointless conflict.

That is why Afghanistan so unnerves Washington's right wingers. The defeat of Soviet armies in Afghanistan in 1989 began the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Could the same fate be in store for the American Raj?

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010