|Kissinger's fantasy is Obama's reality
|Guardian News and Media
Meeting George Bush at the White House to discuss Afghanistan, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid once marvelled at how a "US president could live in such an unreal world, where the entire military and intelligence establishments were so gullible, the media so complacent, Congress so unquestioning – all of them involved in feeding half-truths to the American public".
The masters of war and delusion are still flourishing. Widening his campaign of extrajudicial execution by drone missiles within Pakistan, Barack Obama seems far from abandoning an anachronistic American faith in superior firepower; the militarism of our new Nobel peace laureate seems constrained only by its steep financial costs.
Unabashed about their cheerleading in Iraq, many mainstream American journalists and columnists continue to resemble court scriveners of the kind the Mughal emperors employed: "intense", "methodical" and "rigorous" were some of the adjectives used to describe Obama's protracted decision-making on Afghanistan. As for the decision itself, Fareed Zakaria, fresh from a "small lunch" with the president at the White House, expressed the new liberal-hawk consensus when he exulted: "Obama is a realist by temperament, learning, and instinct."
Actually, Obama's idea of sending 30,000 more soldiers to help subdue the Taliban, reinforce the corrupt regime in Kabul, and assassinate more people in Pakistan until the inevitable American retreat, seems a particularly incoherent fantasy. Perhaps Zakaria means that Obama is a "realist" in the same way as Henry Kissinger was praised as one, doggedly pursuing "national interests" through the world's manifold complexity. After all, Obama invoked Kissinger's apparently prestigious imprimatur when he proposed to bomb "safe havens" for terrorists in Pakistan during his presidential debate with John McCain last year.
Certainly a more historically grounded realism would acknowledge that Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with a highly politicised postcolonial population, is not Cambodia – the hapless country Kissinger and Nixon devastated after failing to make Vietnam fall in line with American national interests. Or that the Pashtuns, though never colonised and hardly ever a nationality, have repeatedly proved more effective than the most organised anti-colonial movements in expelling foreign occupiers from their land.
Unleashing greater firepower on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama could have learned from the shrewd psychological realism of his early hero, James Baldwin. "Force," Baldwin wrote during Kissinger and Nixon's last desperate assault on Indochina, "does not reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary and this revelation invests the victim with patience."
The Taliban, predictably resurgent as a result of Nato's blunderbuss tactics, may now choose to lie low for a while. The general respite from violence may even prove long enough for Obama's intellectual courtiers to declare that the surge in Afghanistan has "worked". As in Iraq, a new cycle of suicide bombings may then begin; but America, and its media, will have already turned away.
The realism of American foreign policy, it seems, can only be selective and ephemeral, as American elites endlessly calibrate their national interests – invading, bombing and abandoning vast regions as they please, leaving other people to pick up the pieces.
Obama's long speech on Afghanistan barely mentioned Pakistan, which in 2005 suffered a single suicide attack and now – after the intensified American-led or directed assaults on Afghanistan, Swat and Waziristan – suffers several such outrages in a week. In the same speech Obama did not refer even once to India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars over Kashmir, and whose military occupation of the Muslim-majority valley remains the biggest recruiting tool for jihadists in Pakistan, such as those who led the terrorist attack on Mumbai a year ago. (Not much exaggeration is needed to indoctrinate them: an Indian human rights group last week published evidence of the mass graves of nearly 3,000 Muslims allegedly executed over the last decade by Indian security forces near the border with Pakistan.) Obama will of course speak of Afghanistan's neighbours when another jihadi assault on India, which is very likely, brings India and Pakistan closer to war, endangering America's campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida. But it is also true that the historical and geopolitical relationships between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan may be too fraught for American foreign policy realists to reckon with.
In 1971, India facilitated the secession of Pakistan's easternmost province (now Bangladesh), provoking Pakistan's humiliated army and intelligence officials to pursue a policy of creating "strategic depth" against India by seeking Pashtun clients inside Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Pakistani officials who helped supply the mujahideen during the CIA-led anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan turned to fuelling the popular insurgency in India-ruled Kashmir, which since 1989 has claimed more than 80,000 lives. Throughout the decade, Pakistan's highly secretive intelligence agency, the ISI, trained and financed militant Islamist groups for jihad in Kashmir – even as it settled on the Taliban as its proxy in Afghanistan, which had been abruptly abandoned by the US following the Soviet withdrawal.
Obama himself identified Kashmir as the rusty nail in south Asia's body politic a month before he was elected. Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, he told Joe Klein of Time magazine that "working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way" were "critical tasks for the next administration". But, assuming the presidency, Obama inherited other, more strategic as well as lucrative national interests.
The Bush administration had wished to build up India as a strategic US ally and counterweight to China in Asia. Encouraged by an assertive Indian-American lobby, and American arms manufacturers, Bush offered an exceptionally generous civil nuclear agreement to India – which, unlike Iran, has long refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty. India is now finally an open market for US defence companies: Lockheed Martin alone hopes to cut deals worth $15bn over the next five years.
Of course, as China increasingly underwrites the American economy, notions of "containing" the Middle Kingdom through pro-America allies now look like some idle cold-war game-playing in Condoleezza Rice's state department. But the Bush administration's decision to legitimise India's nuclear status, and to help project the country as a rising superpower, has stoked an old paranoia in Pakistan (and indeed in China, which, breaking from its policy of befriending previously hostile neighbours like Vietnam and Mongolia, has recently assumed its harshest stance towards India in decades).
American officials often complain that Pakistan's security establishment is "obsessed" with India. Seen through the perspective of American national interests, the obsession seems purely irrational, a frustrating diversion from the urgent task of combating anti-American extremists. But Pakistan sees India as gaining "strategic depth" in its own backyard, using Afghanistan – where India has poured over a billion dollars in aid since 2001 and has four consulates in addition to its embassy in Kabul – to support secessionists in the troubled Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
Pakistan's leaders – who are convinced that America will abandon Islamabad just as it did Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 – will play the same charade with Obama that General Musharraf's foreign minister once frankly described as, "First say yes, and later say but". They may well launch a few token crackdowns on militants but are unlikely to abandon the possibility of allowing some to remain in order to unleash them, at a later date, on India-ruled Kashmir. As always, the road to stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan runs through the valley of Kashmir; and in making south Asia's primary conflict disappear, Obama now seems yet another exponent of that exhausted genre of magical realism.