No Comment — February 19, 2008, 8:59 am

The Bleak Picture on the ‘War on Terror’ Central Front

This President’s Day weekend offered us another demonstration for the proposition that, in the view of the American mainstream media, Afghanistan doesn’t matter. And if Pakistan matters, apparently it’s only for the tragic-charismatic figure of Benazir Bhutto, which they feel may sell a bit. The frivolity of coverage, especially on the broadcast side, is distressing.

Let’s just review the news quickly. This weekend, roughly 140 people were killed in suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan. Had this occurred in Iraq, it seems, it would have been worthy of the evening news. But suicide attacks in Afghanistan, demonstrating the resurgence of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies in a nation which has been declared a success story, is not news. Neither is the looming meltdown of the U.S.-led NATO operation in Afghanistan. All of this apparently not nearly as important as presidential campaign surrogates trading catty comments at one another–the exercise that fills countless hours of broadcast news coverage today.

Here’s the AP’s report on Sunday from Kandahar:

A suicide bomber penetrated a crowd watching a dog-fighting competition in the Taliban’s former stronghold Sunday, killing up to 80 people in one of the bloodiest bombings since the regime’s 2001 ouster.
The attack follows a year of record violence and predictions that the Afghan conflict could turn even deadlier this year.

Several hundred people, including Afghan militia leaders, had gathered in a barren dirt field to watch the event on the western edge of the southern city of Kandahar. Witnesses reported gunfire from bodyguards after the blast, but it was not immediately clear if the bullets killed or wounded anyone.

A prominent militia commander who stood up against the Taliban was killed in the attack and officials said he may have been the target. The bombing crumpled several Afghan police trucks and turned the field a bloody red.

And here’s the AP report yesterday which offers a weekend tally:

A car bomb exploded near a police compound Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, killing at least one person and wounding four, a police official said. The car bomb was apparently triggered remotely, said Jan Mohammad, a police officer at the site in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city and the Taliban’s former stronghold. He said one civilian was killed and four people were wounded.

The bomb blast was the third attack in Kandahar province in three days. More than 100 people were killed by a suicide bomber on Sunday just outside Kandahar city, while 38 died Monday at a market near the border with Pakistan when a suicide car bomb explosion targeted a Canadian military convoy.

The death toll from those two bombings, about 140, made it the deadliest spate of militant attacks in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The back-to-back blasts could also indicate that insurgents are willing to inflict high civilian casualties to further weaken the Kabul government.

These reports tally with the analysis of experts since the last quarter of 2007, who have consistently stated that the Government of Hamid Karzai is in serious trouble. Although the threat of the Taliban and their terrorist allies does not imperil the immediate viability of the Karzai Government, there is no mistaking the trends—they are running against the central authority in Kabul and with the resurgent Taliban. And, as noted here many times, much of the problem in Afghanistan has to do with the Bush Administration’s half-baked, tone-deaf policies which operate not to support Karzai, but actually to undermine his authority.

While most of the U.S. mass media simply don’t want to talk about Afghanistan—“the Afghanistan issues don’t fit well into 30 second sound bites,” one news producer told me—there are some good analyses out there floating about. One of the better ones was published last week in Le Monde by Laurent Zecchini. He took the Karzai Government’s veto of Paddy Ashdown as the new Western proconsul in Afghanistan as a symbol for conditions in a meltdown. He described the habitual disorder among the European NATO allies and the failure of the Americans to offer anything resembling the leadership expected of them on the center stage of the war on terror. Zecchini sizes up the situation very well:

It may well be that the participating NATO forces look to the use of aerial bombardment to avoid any direct engagement with an enemy which has learned the lessons of asymmetric warfare. It is also undeniable that the American tendency to use air strikes in built-up areas has provoked push-back from high-ranking British military officials. And it is far from clear, to use the measure devised for Iraq, that the American army is well situated to denounce the alleged incapacity of the European armies in the Afghan mountains, and their inability to win over the “hearts and minds” of the population. Washington clearly wants to avert the public perception of a failure in Afghanistan, for that would deal a severe blow to the credibility of the NATO alliance. It therefore tries to inspire its allies to send more troops on a combat mission. But its appeals transmitted by Mr. Gates hardly seem measured or likely to achieve that mission.

First the Dutch, and now the Canadians are threatening to pull their troops if they are not reinforced, and other countries, now weighing the costs of Washington’s displeasure, are likely to follow. In the short term, the main threat facing Afghanistan is not so much a Taliban victory, as NATO’s disintegration. (S.H. transl.)

Le Monde is correct to see this problem in the far broader geo-strategic framework. It does seem in the end to be a question of an ailing alliance system, in which the confidence of the allies in the leadership qualities and analysis of the primus inter pares, America, has been severely stressed. It is also a reflection of the rising level of distrust and indifference towards George W. Bush, who is widely viewed among America’s allies as an unfit leader.

And then we turn to the news from the region which gets some play, namely the Pakistani elections. Sweeping fraud was expected, and it may well have occurred. Nevertheless, it was not enough to check a landslide vote of no-confidence in Pervez Musharraf. Here’s this morning’s New York Times report, just up:

Pakistan appeared to be heading for a transition to an elected civilian government Tuesday after President Pervez Musharraf told visiting United States senators that he accepted the resounding defeat of his party in elections, and would work with a new Parliament.

Many Pakistanis expressed relief that the overwhelming victory of the two major moderate opposition political parties in the Parliamentary elections on Monday marked a change in direction after eight years of military rule under Mr. Musharraf even though in the past the parties have rarely produced models of stable government.

After fears that violence and vote rigging would mar the polling, international election observers described the victory for the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N as an accurate reflection of the voting.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, and particularly the bleeding borderland they share–the Pushtun heartland–constitute the center stage of the war on terror. While not acknowledging this in their public rhetoric, at length the key analysts of the Bush Administration have come to this recognition. Too little, too late, as ever. And now they face a clear prospect of meltdown in Pakistan with a vast popular repudiation of Musharraf, creating the nightmare contingency for which they have no plans in place. Unanticipated? I think not. This vote is just what the serious analysts have forecast for more than a year, and one of several reasons why the better analysts have questioned the Bush Administration’s Pakistan policy. The Bushies evidently staked their bets on election fraud. The truth is, they never had a Pakistan policy that saw a future for the region; they consistently entrusted the region and the issues surrounding it to political hacks. What we got was a Musharraf policy that ended in a blind alley.

What does the future hold? Pervez Musharraf is a cat who has used up twelve of his nine lives. He will talk a good talk (just as Carlotta Gall reports this morning with a vintage Musharraf production), but it won’t matter much because Pakistanis of all stripes want to see the last of Musharraf. As we approach his last days, Musharraf’s final, desperate allies will be in the White House — replicating a formula for long-term disaster the U.S. has pulled off in this region many times before. If Musharraf still exercises power six months from now, I’ll be surprised. He will be gone before 2008 comes to an end.

And what will follow in Musharraf’s wake? All eyes will fall on Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kiani, who has patiently been consolidating his position within the Pakistani military for many months. Whether he will emerge as a replacement for Musharraf can’t be said, but that he will have a decisive voice in identifying that replacement is quite obvious. And this reflects the conflict of modern Pakistan—popular aspiration for meaningful democracy and a clean sweep, and the reality of an insidious but stabilizing praetorian politics which keeps the faltering state still upright, even as it robs it of hope for the future. America has not put itself on the side of the future and the aspirations of the people, but rather cynically on the side of the military and its unseen hand on the rudder. The existence of the Pakistani Bomb makes such hardball politics unavoidable, but it does not mean that American foreign policy should end there.

But in the end the looming catastrophic collapse of American policy in the region points to an absence of vision, and a betrayal of hope. And media inattention has contributed not to an informed electorate, but to a predictable failure which needs to be borne by more shoulders than simply the Bush White House.

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