History Lessons for Obama

Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

History has an uncanny way of repeating itself in this part of the world. Look at these lines written by a young Winston Churchill more than a century ago, at the height of the British Empire.

Writing in his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, an account of his service in Afghanistan, the young man who went on to lead Britain in the Second Great War, describes how, then as now, the tribesmen in Pakistan’s north and Afghanistan challenged authority and fought the world’s greatest power repulsing it again and again: "The tribesmen … thought that the soldiers there were the only troops (the government) possessed," Churchill wrote. "’Kill these,’ they said, ‘and all is done.’ What did they know of the distant regiments which the telegraph wires were drawing from far down the south of India?”

Watching the US-led coalition and Pakistani troops fight for their lives on this untamed frontier of civilization, one is often struck by the fact how little has changed in this part of the world. And how one big power after another comes to Afghanistan with great ambition and arrogance only to leave totally humbled and chastened. Not for nothing this land is known as the Graveyard of Great Armies!

The cowboy coalition has been no exception. It realized long ago that its fate wasn’t going to be any different. But it persisted, braving the odds. Having invaded Afghanistan and inheriting its mess, the coalition had no option but soldier on. Which is why one was perplexed when Bush’s successor talked of focusing himself totally on the so-called good war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama has won many a heart around the world with his vision and courage on almost every front including with his decision to wrap up the neocon misadventure in Iraq, as promised.  He is abundantly blessed with that commodity that is so essential for leaders but eluded his predecessor – plain common sense.

However, his rhetoric on Afghanistan committing more troops and promising to wipe out the “safe havens of Al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan” has been disconcertingly similar to his predecessor. Somehow it didn’t jell with his overall vision and level-headed approach to all other issues.

Now there are signs this is changing. Obama’s offer of direct talks with “moderate Taliban” to end the conflict in Afghanistan is perhaps the first time anyone in Washington has demonstrated common sense and reason on this issue.  

I have no sympathy for Taliban. They have done nothing but brought shame and disgrace to the pristine name of the faith they claim to champion and its followers. Burning schools, targeting women and forcing their narrow version of Islam at gun point are actions that are unpardonable and have nothing to do with the faith whatsoever. But that’s a different debate altogether.

In fighting the US-led coalition, they are seen by the majority of Afghans, Pakistanis and many in the Muslim world as waging a legitimate war. For them this is a nationalist struggle, a justifiable resistance. And this is a war, history would tell you, no foreign power has ever won on the Afghan soil. Even if they happen to be the world’s mightiest and best trained armies with the cleverest and deadliest weapons at their disposal.

Obama is right. Seven years into this war and we are not winning it, the President admitted in an interview with the New York Times this week. It’s actually eight years since the US-Nato forces invaded Afghanistan in what was once seen as the legitimate war as opposed to the disaster of Iraq.  Obama’s view on Afghanistan is backed by his own generals. General David McKiernan, the commander of the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, echoed the President’s assessment when he said the coalition is losing the war against the Taliban ‘in some parts of the country’.

The limits of the US military power have been laid bare from the killing fields of Iraq to the unruly wilderness of Afghanistan like never before. The US has no option but declare some sort of face-saving ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Afghanistan and leave the country at the earliest possible date.  Else the Western coalition faces a debacle far more humiliating than that befell the Russians not long ago.

While the Taliban and their country have little to lose, the devastating effects of this war are being experienced beyond Afghan borders – next door in Pakistan.

The country that was once the frontline of America’s war and laboratory of General Pervez Musharraf’s Enlightened Moderation has been transformed into the main front of this disastrous campaign. 

This war is unraveling the only Muslim nuclear state. Thousands have been killed in Pakistan’s north and the lawless tribal frontier along the border with Afghanistan.

The bulk of the Pakistani army, trained to fight the Indian military, has been fighting its own people in the tribal areas who have blood lines extending beyond the border into Afghanistan. 

The continuing US drone attacks inside Pakistan targeting innocent civilians coupled with the terrible effects of the coalition campaign in Afghanistan have spawned an unprecedented anti-US and anti-West movement across the region.

It is far more powerful and dangerous than the Western coalition or their friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to realize or are prepared to acknowledge. It has generated a fierce backlash never seen before in the Muslim world. Obama has inherited a legacy of US and western-backed occupation from Palestine to Pakistan.

The war started by Bush has not rooted out terror nor eliminated Al Qaeda and Taliban. It has only expanded the conflict setting the whole region on fire. It has radicalized an entire generation of young Muslims.

More dangerously, this endless and directionless campaign threatens to tear Pakistan apart even as the country’s self-serving, squabbling politicians can’t seem to see beyond their nose. And this is not a problem that is limited to Pakistan or Afghanistan any more.

What happened in Mumbai last year and in Lahore last month suggests that the disastrous effects of America’s war are being felt far and wide.

President Obama could stop this. He has already reversed many of his predecessor’s ruinous policies. But nothing demands his urgent intervention as Afghanistan and Pakistan do. For when you refuse to learn from history, you end up repeating it.

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: aijaz@khaleejtimes.com.

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