Obama’s domino theory by Juan Cole

Obama's domino theory

The president sounds like he's channeling Cheney or McCain -- or a Cold War hawk afraid of international communism -- when he talks about the war in Afghanistan.
By Juan Cole
President Barack Obama may or may not
be doing the right thing in Afghanistan, but the rationale he gave for it on
Friday is almost certainly wrong. Obama has presented us with a 21st century
version of the domino theory. The U.S. is not, contrary to what the president
said, mainly fighting "al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. In blaming
everything on al-Qaida, Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the
public and fell back on Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy
theories.

Obama realizes that after seven years,
Afghanistan war fatigue has begun to set in with the American people. Some 51 percent of
Americans now oppose the Afghanistan war, and 64 percent of Democrats
do. The president is therefore escalating in the teeth of substantial domestic
opposition, especially from his own party, as voters worry about spending
billions more dollars abroad while the U.S. economy is in serious trouble.

He acknowledged that we deserve a
"straightforward answer" as to why the U.S. and NATO are still
fighting there. "So let me be clear," he said, "Al-Qaida and its
allies -- the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks -- are in
Pakistan and Afghanistan." But his characterization of what is going on
now in Afghanistan, almost eight years after 9/11, was simply not true, and
was, indeed, positively misleading. "And if the Afghan government falls to
the Taliban," he said, "or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged -- that
country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our
people as they possibly can."

Obama described the same sort of domino
effect that Washington elites used to ascribe to international communism. In
the updated, al-Qaida version, the Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then
all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the
shores of the United States. He even managed to add an analog to Cambodia to
the scenario, saying, "The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to
the future of its neighbor, Pakistan," and warned, "Make no mistake:
Al-Qaida and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from
within." 

This latter-day domino theory of
al-Qaida takeovers in South Asia is just as implausible as its earlier
iteration in Southeast Asia (ask Thailand or the Philippines). Most of the
allegations are not true or are vastly exaggerated. There are very few al-Qaida
fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being
called the "Taliban" is mostly not Taliban at all (in the
sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded
"Taliban" only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of
Afghanistan, and only 4
percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58 percent of Afghans
say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to their country, but
almost no one expects it to happen. Moreover, with regard to Pakistan, there is
no danger of militants based in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas
(FATA) taking over that country or "killing" it.

The Kabul government is not on the
verge of falling to the Taliban. The Afghan government has 80,000 troops, who
benefit from close U.S. air support, and the total number of Taliban fighters
in the Pashtun provinces is estimated at
10,000 to 15,000. Kabul is in danger of losing control of some
villages in the provinces to dissident Pashtun warlords styled
"Taliban," though it is not clear why the new Afghan army could not
expel them if they did so. A smaller, poorly equipped Northern Alliance army
defeated 60,000 Taliban with U.S. air support in 2001. And there is no prospect
of "al-Qaida" reestablishing bases in Afghanistan from which it could
attack the United States. If al-Qaida did come back to Afghanistan, it could
simply be bombed and would be attacked by the new Afghan army.

While the emergence of "Pakistani
Taliban" in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is a blow to
Pakistan's security, they have just been
defeated in one of the seven major tribal agencies, Bajaur, by a
concerted and months-long campaign of the highly professional and well-equipped
Pakistani army. United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replied last
summer to the idea that al-Qaida is regrouping in Pakistan and forms
a new and vital threat to the West: "Actually, I don't agree with that
assessment, because when al-Qaida was in Afghanistan, they had the partnership
of a government. They had ready access to international communications, ready
access to travel, and so on. Their circumstances in the FATA (Federally
Administered Tribal Areas) and on the Pakistani side of the border are much
more primitive. And it's much more difficult for them to move around, much more
difficult for them to communicate."
 
As for a threat to Pakistan, the FATA
areas are smaller than Connecticut, with a total population of a little over 3
million, while Pakistan itself is bigger than Texas, with a population more
than half that of the entire United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen
cannot take over Pakistan, nor can they "kill" it. The Pakistani
public just forced a military dictator out of office and forced the
reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which oversees secular law. Over
three-quarters of Pakistanis said in a poll last summer that they had an
unfavorable view of the Taliban, and a recent poll found that 90
percent of them worried about terrorism. To be sure, Pakistanis are
on the whole highly opposed to the U.S. military presence in the region, and
most outside the tribal areas object to U.S.
Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory. The danger is that
the U.S. strikes may make the radicals seem victims of Western imperialism and
so sympathetic to the Pakistani public.

Obama's dark vision of the overthrow of
the Afghanistan government by al-Qaida-linked Taliban or the "killing"
of Pakistan by small tribal groups differs little from the equally apocalyptic
and implausible warnings issued by John McCain and Dick Cheney about an
"al-Qaida" victory in Iraq. Ominously, the president's views are
contradicted by those of his own secretary of defense. Pashtun tribes in
northwestern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan have a long history of
dissidence, feuding and rebellion, which is now being branded Talibanism and
configured as a dire menace to the Western way of life. Obama has added yet
another domino theory to the history of Washington's justifications for massive
military interventions in Asia. When a policymaker gets the rationale for
action wrong, he is at particular risk of falling into mission creep and
stubborn commitment to a doomed and unnecessary enterprise.
--

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South
 Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the
Muslim World."

One Response to Obama’s domino theory by Juan Cole

  1. brendabowers says:

    The Pakistan/Afghanistan snake pit will be Obama’s Vietnam. And surely he knows this, so why is he doing it? Might it be because he wants to divert the American public’s attention from his real agenda of Socializing the United States? Certainly the little old $165 million AIG smoke-screen got him the $6 billion for his Obama Army otherwise known as the G.I.V.E. Act. Brenda Bowers

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