Challenges For Barack Obama: Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan

Noam Chomsky

Poder 360, March 2009

Barack Obama’s willingness to “talk” with enemies became a defining issue during the campaign. Can he live up to that pledge?

Diplomacy is the only sane alternative to the cycle of violence from the Middle East to Central Asia that threatens to engulf the world. A corollary is to recognize that violence only begets violence. It would also help if the Obama administration, and the West, faced up to the unannounced issues that drive policy in the region.


The government of Iraq has forged a Status of Forces Agreement, reluctantly accepted by Washington, that is intended to end the U.S. military presence. The SOFA is the latest step in a process of mass nonviolent resistance that has compelled Washington, step by step, to agree to elections and increased independence of the occupied country.

An Iraqi spokesman said that the tentative SOFA “matches the vision of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.” Obama’s “vision” isn’t spelled out clearly, but he would probably go along in some fashion with the Iraqi government’s demands. If so, that would require modification of U.S. plans to ensure control over Iraq’s enormous oil resources while establishing bases to reinforce its dominance over the world’s major energy-producing region.

It is noteworthy that recent worldwide polls show strong opposition to U.S. naval bases in the Gulf. Opposition is particularly strong within the region.

The prospect of shifting forces from Iraq to Afghanistan evoked a lesson from the editors of The Washington Post: “While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country’s strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world’s largest oil reserves.” That’s a welcome recognition of reality as pretexts about security and democracy promotion can no longer conceal actual interests and intentions.

The NATO command is also coming to acknowledge the crucial energy issues. In June 2007, NATO Secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer informed a meeting of members that “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure” of the energy system.

The task presumably includes the projected $7.6-billion TAPI pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, running through Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, where Canadian troops are deployed. The goal is “to block a competing pipeline that would bring gas to Pakistan and India from Iran” and to “diminish Russia’s dominance of Central Asian energy exports,” the (Toronto) Globe and Mail reported, plausibly outlining some of the contours of the new “Great Game” (when Britain and Russia vied for influence in Central Asia during the 19th century).


Obama has endorsed the Bush policy of attacking suspected al-Qaida leaders in countries that the United States has not (yet) invaded. In particular, he has not criticized the raids by Predator drones that have killed many civilians in Pakistan.

Right now a vicious mini-war is being waged in the tribal area of Bajaur in Pakistan, next to Afghanistan. The BBC describes widespread destruction from intense combat: “Many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected U.S. missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.”

The attack was reported in the mainstream Pakistani press by the highly respected dissident physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy but ignored in the United States. Things often look different at the other end of the club.

Hoodbhoy observed that the usual outcome of such attacks “has been flattened houses, killed and maimed children, and added numbers to a growing local population that seeks revenge against Pakistan and the U.S.” Bajaur today may illustrate the familiar cycle that Obama shows no sign of breaking.

On Nov. 3, Gen. David Petraeus, newly appointed head of the U.S. Central Command that covers the Middle East, had his first meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and other officials.

Their primary concern: “The continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government,” Zardari told Petraeus. His government, he said, is “under pressure to react more aggressively” to the strikes. These could lead to “a backlash against the U.S.,” already deeply unpopular in Pakistan.

Petraeus said that he had heard the message, and that “we would have to take (Pakistani opinion) on board when attacking the country—a practical necessity, no doubt, when more than 80 percent of the supplies for the U.S.-NATO war in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan.

How Pakistani opinion was “taken on board” was revealed two weeks later in The Washington Post, which reported that the United States and Pakistan reached “tacit agreement in September (2008) on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that allows unmanned Predator aircraft to attack suspected “terrorist targets” in Pakistan, according to unidentified senior officials in both countries. “The officials described the deal as one in which the U.S. government refuses to publicly acknowledge the attacks while Pakistan’s government continues to complain noisily about the politically sensitive strikes.”

The day before the report on the “tacit agreement” appeared, a suicide bombing in the conflicted tribal areas killed eight Pakistani soldiers—retaliation for an attack by a Predator drone that killed 20 people, including two Taliban leaders. The Pakistani parliament called for dialogue with the Taliban. Echoing the resolution, Pakistani foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said, “There is an increasing realization that the use of force alone cannot yield the desired results.”


Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s first message to President-elect Obama was much like that delivered to Petraeus by Pakistani leaders: “End U.S. airstrikes that risk civilian casualties.” His message was sent shortly after coalition troops bombed a wedding party in Kandahar province, reportedly killing 40 people. There is no indication that his opinion was “taken on board.”

The British command has warned that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and that there will have to be negotiations with the Taliban, risking a rift with the United States. “Issues are already on the table,” writes Jason Burke, a correspondent for The Observer with long experience in the region: “The Taliban have been engaged in secret talks about ending the conflict in Afghanistan in a wide-ranging ‘peace process’ sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain.”

Some Afghan peace activists have reservations about this approach, preferring a solution without foreign interference. A growing network of peace activists is calling for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban in a National Peace Jirga, a grand assembly of Afghans, formed in May 2008.

At a meeting in May in support of the Jirga, 3,000 Afghan political and intellectuals, mainly Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, criticized “the international military campaign against Islamic militants in Afghanistan and called for dialogue to end the fighting,” Agence France-Presse reported.

The interim chairman of the National Peace Jirga, Bakhtar Aminzai, “told the opening gathering that the current conflict could not be resolved by military means and that only talks could bring a solution.” A leader of Awakened Youth of Afghanistan, a prominent anti-war group, said that we must end “Afghanicide—the killing of Afghanistan.”

Polling in war-torn Afghanistan is difficult, but the results merit attention. A Canadian-run poll found that Afghans favor the presence of Canadian and other foreign troops—the result that made the headlines in Canada. Other findings suggest qualifications.

Only 20 percent of the Afghans in the poll “think the Taliban will prevail once foreign troops leave.” Three fourths support negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban, and more than half favor a coalition government. The great majority therefore strongly disagree with the U.S.-NATO focus on further militarization of the conflict, and appear to believe that peace is possible with a turn toward peaceful means.

A study of Taliban foot soldiers by The Globe and Mail, though not a scientific survey as the newspaper points out, nevertheless yields considerable insight. All were Afghan Pashtuns, from the Kandahar area. They described themselves as Mujahadeen, following the ancient tradition of driving out foreign invaders. Almost a third reported that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years. Many said that they were fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops. Few claimed to be fighting a global jihad, or had allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Most saw themselves as fighting for principles—an Islamic government—not a leader.

Again, these results suggest possibilities for a negotiated peaceful settlement, without foreign interference.

In Foreign Affairs, Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid recommend that U.S. strategy in the region should shift from more troops and attacks in Pakistan to a “diplomatic grand bargain—forging compromise with insurgents while addressing an array of regional rivalries and insecurities.”

The current military focus “and the attendant terrorism,” they warn, might lead to the collapse of nuclear-armed Pakistan, with grim consequences. They urge the incoming U.S. administration “to put an end to the increasingly destructive dynamics of the ‘Great Game’ in the region” through negotiations that recognize the interests of the concerned parties within Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and Iran, but also India, China and Russia, who “have reservations about a NATO base within their spheres of influence” and the threats “posed by the United States and NATO” as well as by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The new U.S. administration, they write, must end “Washington’s keenness for ‘victory’ as the solution to all problems, as well as the United States’ reluctance to involve competitors, opponents, or enemies in diplomacy.”

Early on, in a number of danger zones, Obama’s administration could break the ominous cycle of violence.