Crossing Zero: Obama’s AfPak War and imperial overreach:Book Reviewby Michael Hughes
Daniel Ellsberg, the famous journalist who released the Pentagon Papers, described Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald’s latest book Crossing Zero: The Afpak War At The Turning Point of American Empire as “a ferocious, iron-clad argument about the institutional failure of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“No border,” write Gould and Fitzgerald, “has been more contentious than the one today separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, known as the Durand line but referred to by the military and intelligence community as Zero line.”
As the authors point out, by “crossing Zero” the Obama administration’s AfPak strategy has accelerated the CIA’s illegal secret war in Pakistan which has had the antipodal effect of fanning violent Islamic extremism while violating America’s values and principles.
Using the dismantling of Al Qaeda as a pretense, the U.S. approach has been nothing more than an extension of British policy employed during the 19th century’s Great Game in Central Asia, driven by private enterprise and the West’s “Christian zeal” to “carry the light” to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan – bearing resemblance to the British East India Company’s exploitation of the region which began in the 1600s.
This work is unique in the way it portrays how the legacy of colonialism continues to haunt the present, including British regulations imposed on Pashtuns and other indigenous people in the border regions. The authors explain:
“The British then re-enacted a set of legal rules known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The FCR were imported and adapted from the Irish Penal codes, a series of English laws and rules introduced into Ireland beginning in 1366 (Statutes of Kilkenny), for the purposes of keeping the Anglo-Norman population from intermarrying with the native Irish. After centuries of legal evolution, the FCR had transformed from a severe code developed by a Protestant Christian Empire to subjugate the Catholic Irish into a set of harsh rules selectively applied to Muslim Pashtuns and Baluchs.”
Gould and Fitzgerald assert that after the 1947 partition of India and the creation of Pakistan these regulations were applied on an even broader scale, quoting Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid:
“Even after 1996, FATA [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas] remained a backwater, as under the FCR, Pakistani political parties were banned from operating in the area, thereby giving the mullahs and religious parties a monopoly of influence under the guise of religion. Development, literacy and health facilities in FATA therefore remained at a minimum.”
The book highlights critical inflection points throughout Afghan history that have led to the current turmoil, chief among them being the forced partition of Afghanistan in 1893 when the British drew the Durand line as part of their “divide-and-rule” stratagem – a demarcation that split the Pashtun tribes.
The Durand line deprived Afghanistan of real estate east of the Hindu Kush and of the most strategic mountain passes west of it. It disallowed the return of Peshawar, a city long identified with Afghanistan, and cut access routes to the Arabian sea, leaving the country landlocked and dependent.
In 1947 Pakistan was created by Britain to maintain a strategic military zone for use during the Cold War. Pakistan inherited Britain’s “threefold frontier” of separation from Russia’s South Asia khanates, applying it to their present-day “strategic depth” doctrine to prevent any Indian presence in Afghanistan, which the authors contend is a “a continuation under different conditions of the British policy of treating Afghanistan as part of the security buffer zone of South Asia.”
Pakistan was always paranoid of Pashtun nationalism and worked to undermine an independent Pashtunistan movement. According to Selig Harrison, after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military theocracy pitted Punjabis and their Arab allies against Baluchis, Sindhis and Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line, in a cruel historical irony. For centuries they had resisted the incursions of the Moghuls into their territories, but now find themselves ruled by Punjabis who invoke the grandeur of the Moghuls to justify their power.
Crossing Zero thoroughly documents how the best-laid plans of Western powers have led to three decades of incessant war and the annihilation of Afghanistan’s secular tribal structure, transforming it into one of the most violent and poverty-stricken places on earth. According to Gould and Fitzgerald:
“After nearly thirty years of war, Afghanistan had been reduced to a Stone Age subsistence, its already impoverished population traumatized, displaced and occupied by an army of savage religious extremists exported by Pakistan, calling themselves the Taliban – ‘seekers of the light’.”
The authors condemn Washington’s “special relationship” with Pakistan, which obscured a pre-existing ethnic and political time bomb created by the Durand line. Since the dawn of the Cold War the U.S. has continually chosen to partner with Pakistan as a strategic bulwark at Afghanistan’s expense, reminiscent of Britain’s “Forward Policy” to destabilize Afghanistan and put pressure on the Russian empire’s southern flank.
The book is a clear indictment of America’s misguided funding and training of the mujahideen – Islamic extremists dubbed “freedom fighters” by President Reagan – via Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s– a strategy that directly led to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Gould and Fitzgerald smash conventional wisdom throughout the book, including uncovering the reality that the U.S. and C.I.A. tricked the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it: “We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War ”, as the U.S. went from Nixonian détente to Carterian confrontation.
During the post-Soviet era the CIA tragically continued to support Islamist efforts to establish a caliphate in Kabul, despite the fact a 1987 poll of Afghan refugees concluded that 71.6 percent were in favor of King Zahir Shah being reinstalled as leader of postwar Afghanistan, longing for the 40 years of peace they had experienced during his reign which ended abruptly in 1973.
The book elucidates how U.S. officials during the Clinton administration implicitly approved Pakistan’s plan to create the Taliban during the 1990s, calculating that the Taliban could bring stability to civil war-plagued Afghanistan so Western oil companies could lay down a pipeline through the region.
Post-9/11, the region spiraled into chaos as the U.S. redirected resources to Iraq as opposed to stabilizing Afghanistan and funded violent Afghan warlords to “keep the peace”. Most damaging was the installation of Hamid Karzai as president in 2002 by Bush neoconservatives against the will of the Afghan people who again wanted Zahir Shah as head of state. The Karzai regime was corrupt, dysfunctional, and over-centralized – the type of government that ran counter to thousands of years of Afghan tradition.
The U.S. did everything in its power to, as former Special Assistant to Ronald Reagan Congressman Dana Rohrbacher said, “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory because the Taliban were beaten at that point.” The U.S. then invented a cult of “mafia networks”, transferring vast sums of wealth through a handful of favored front companies – including some entangled with Karzai relatives – that went directly to Afghan gangsters, warlords and even the Taliban.
Crossing Zero’s primary critique is focused on the policies of President Obama, who had run for office on a platform of staying out of “dumb wars”. Yet, this president not only escalated the Afghanistan war but condoned the privatized secret extrajudicial executions of terrorist suspects by Predator drone – a program that dwarfed the size of the one started under Bush.
As Stuart Gottlieb, director at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies writes:
“If you were under the impression that U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise to craft new counterterrorism policies ‘in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideal’s’ could be accomplished without exposing dangerous contradictions, consider this: Since Obama’s swearing-in, the United States has executed dozens of suspected al Qaeda leaders and operatives without court hearings, the presentation of evidence, or the involvement of defense lawyers. These executions, typically carried out by missile strikes from unmanned CIA drone aircraft, have taken place in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Scores of civilians, including many women and children, have reportedly been killed or maimed in the strikes.”
Obama also continued to support a 10-year-old failed counterinsurgency strategy (COIN), proven to be fundamentally flawed under General McChrystal, according to former U.S. military strategist William R. Polk, who pointed out that the force applied during the failed campaign in Marja was not the “counterinsurgency model of 1 soldier for 50 inhabitants but nearly 1 soldier for each 2 inhabitants. If these numbers were projected to the planned offensive in the much larger city of Kandahar, which has a population of nearly 500,000, they become impossibly large.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to provide billions in aid to Pakistan hoping they would eliminate insurgent safe havens, only to find Pakistan had been using the funds to build up its military to fight a future war against India, while its spy agency continued providing sanctuary and support to Taliban elements. Not to mention, because Obama promised to begin withdrawing troops in mid-2011, Pakistani military officials boldly indicated they would continue to support Taliban “assets” so they could control a post-NATO Kabul.
Obama mentioned, as he accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize of irony, that meeting future challenges would require new ways to think “about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace”. But Obama’s AfPak strategy defies any definitions of justice, as the authors write:
“But in crossing Zero, the United States has crossed a threshold where its capacity for violence undermines its own standards of justice and individual rights without which the violence has no meaning. In other words, the United States has come to a turning point at which the purpose of the force it has created has become its own undoing.”
Crossing Zero exposes the Pentagon’s plans to retain military bases in Afghanistan indefinitely in an effort to further America’s global power projection long after Al Qaeda and the Taliban are a distant memory, and how President Obama has continued the vast expansion of the interests of private corporations across the globe and the building of the largest military establishment in history to protect them, as his administration requested an increase in total war spending to $708 billion in 2011, a figure that is 6.1% higher than the peak under the Bush administration.
The Guardian’s Priyamvada Gopal highlights the truth that the U.S. doesn’t actually have anything substantial to offer Afghanistan beyond feeding the gargantuan war machine that’s been unleashed:
“And how could they? In the affluent west itself, modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits. Other ideas once associated with modernity – social justice, economic fairness, peace, all of which would enfranchise Afghan women – have been relegated to the past in the name of progress. This bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators. A radical people’s modernity is called for – and not only for the embattled denizens of Afghanistan.”
The book offers a few game-changing solutions that address problems such as Afghan’s women’s rights – a crisis which derives directly from the influence of Saudi Arabia and Sunni Muslim clerics who wish to impose a questionable interpretation of ultra-orthodox Sharia law. The authors argue that a declaration of women’s rights in an Islamic society should be established, made universal through a standardized interpretation of the issue by accepted Koranic authorities.
A regional solution has been impossible because the U.S. and NATO have been backing the wrong horses such as Islamic fundamentalists from Karzai to the Taliban – who differ only in their length of beards – and Muslims who espouse dangerous neoliberal economic policies.
Gould and Fitzgerald see the need for empowering a mix of moderate and secular Muslims and pragmatic nationalists, who are mostly trained professionals and former bureaucrats from the Zahir Shah, Daoud Khan and PDPA governments – a group deep in Keynesian, liberal and third-world economic, social and political policy expertise.
The authors underline how difficult it is for Afghanistan to establish a legitimate sovereignty when the will of its people is overridden by prominent Western intellectual, corporate and military power centers who seem to think reconciling with brutal, religiously-extreme crime syndicates is a workable solution. U.S. neoconservatives, Saudi financiers and Pakistan’s military and civilian elite have also controlled Afghanistan’s narrative, leaving its people voiceless in their own affairs.
The authors endorse a plan proposed by Khalil Nouri of the New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC), an Afghan-American organization seeking to implement a de-militarized tribal solution to the conflict, who believes the only viable solution for achieving peace in Afghanistan is to hold traditional tribal meetings called jirgas in neutral countries – free of the kind of outside interference that brought Hamid Karzai and the warlords to power in 2002, which is outlined in a white paper entitled Restoring Afghanistan’s Tribal Balance.
Islam must be moved off center stage, Gould and Fitzgerald stress, where the current acrimony has been intentionally focused by the combatants and replaced with another model that incorporates histories and enduring beliefs that link Afghans with the West in a common struggle.
This can only be done by moving the initial jirga – or an initial planning session – to more than just another place, but to another environment entirely that supersedes today’s crisis, such as the five thousand year old UNESCO World Heritage Site north of Dublin known today as Newgrange, which the authors believe would be beneficial for a number of reasons:
“Parallels have been drawn by numerous experts to the complexities of Afghanistan’s sectarian/tribal dynamic with the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. Various tactics employed by peacekeepers in Northern Ireland have been tried in Afghanistan with limited success, but the circumstances surrounding the two countries are not dissimilar and for very good reasons. Aside from sharing a long colonial heritage with Britain, and in Pakistan the Frontier Crimes Regulations (which were adapted from the medieval Irish Penal codes) Ireland and Afghanistan share an ancient legacy of tribal law and secular codes of moral conduct that long precede the Christian and Islamic eras. Ireland’s pre-Christian Brehon Laws provided a sophisticated set of rules for every aspect of Irish society from the quality of poets to the “ordering of discipline” to the worthiness of kings. Prior to hostile European invasions, Pashtunwali was a guide for a peaceful and hospitable Afghanistan that was known to accommodate Jews and Christians, considering them both to be religions of ‘the book’.”
Afghanistan has become more than just a stark illustration of the ineptitude of Obama’s misguided AfPak strategy – it reflects the futility of de-emphasizing diplomacy and how U.S. militarism has worked against our own interests. War and the endless preparations for it do more harm than good, destroying what they claim to protect. As Gould and Fitzgerald close:
“Afghanistan has given us a mirror with which to understand the truth about ourselves and to see what we have become as a nation and a democracy. Our future will depend on whether we can accept the challenges that it portends.”
(Michael Hughes is a journalist and foreign policy strategist for the New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC), a think tank founded by Afghan natives focused on developing political, economic and cultural solutions for Afghanistan. Mr. Hughes writes regularly for The Huffington Post and his work has appeared in CNN.com and Ruse the magazine. Michael graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in History).
Michael Hughes’s review is being featured on an all-pakistani blog