Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 July 2010
Issue No. 1005
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Runaway general

By Salama A Salama

The article in Rolling Stone not only cost General Stanley McChrystal his job as commander of the Allied Forces in Afghanistan but illustrated the divisions in the US administration, and perhaps even signalled the beginning of the end for US involvement in Afghanistan.

This wasn't how things were supposed to happen under Barack Obama. When he first came to office, the US president promised to take US troops out of Afghanistan in an orderly fashion, not pull them out in the humiliating way they endured in Vietnam. Now, this is beginning to look like a tough promise to keep.

When the US waged its war on Afghanistan, the Arab world watched from afar, as if it was a distant affair. Afghanistan doesn't have the alluring profile of other conflicts. Its people are poor and they make their living selling opium. They have no weapons of their own. Most of the time, they fight with weapons they receive, or seize in the case of the insurgents, from their NATO invaders.

Afghanistan seems a distant tragedy for the Arabs, who have their hands full with other stuff. Since the Bush administration blamed Al-Qaeda for the 9/ 11 attacks, Afghanistan -- not just the Taliban regime -- seemed doomed. The West didn't wage war on Osama Bin Laden and his followers, but on an entire nation.

The Americans say they want to leave Iraq. They say that once the war in Iraq is over, they'll be able to sort out Afghanistan. But Iraq was a hard nut to crack, and Afghanistan is worse.

Recently, Obama agreed to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, hoping that he would be able to eliminate Al-Qaeda and carry out a planned withdrawal as of July 2011. McChrystal was the man chosen to lead the troops in Afghanistan, mainly because of his experience with "special operations" in Iraq. Special operations, by the way, are a kind of warfare that features targeted killings and assassinations of enemy operatives, sometimes with their families.

In Afghanistan, McChrystal forged cordial links with tribal leaders and with President Hamid Karzai, a man whose integrity has been questioned by Obama himself. The new strategy has obviously failed and since then everyone has been trying to pass the buck.

McChrystal tried to lay the blame at the doorstep of the White House, making derogatory remarks about Obama's aides, ridiculing Vice-President Joe Biden, and suggesting that the people in Washington were incapable of grasping the situation in Afghanistan. The runaway general, as he was duly dubbed in the US press, came close to accusing Obama himself of mismanaging the war.

Then it transpired that US forces were paying Afghan warlords for protection, and the latter were funnelling money to the Taliban. In short, the war in Afghanistan was turning into one big mess. It is also a war with questionable motives, for the country sits on enormous wealth in natural mineral resources, as has recently been revealed.

When German President Horst Kohler, speaking during a visit to Afghanistan, admitted to a link between war and economic interests, all hell broke loose. He was later forced to resign.

Obama has just appointed General David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war turnaround and McChrystal's former boss, as head of Afghanistan operations. But as more US and British soldiers lose their lives in Afghanistan, and as Europe loses patience with the war, Obama may be hard put to find a suitable ending to this bloody and protracted conflict.

Add the oil spill and the grinding economic crisis and the pressure on the US administration to do something appears set to rise. This is not the last you'll hear of US trouble in Afghanistan.

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