Monday, August 15, 2011

Crossing Zero: book review

Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire by Elizabeth Gould & Paul Fitzgerald (City Lights Books, 2011).

Things have not gone well for the NATO occupation since the publication in 2009 of Invisible Afghanistan by wife-and-husband journalist team Gould and Fitzgerald. Drones are now crossing "zero” (intel speak for the Durand line) every few days, and there has been progress on construction of some massive military bases the U.S. is hinting to be invited to help operate with the Afghan military, but little else. The death of Osama bin Laden was largely symbolic, and insurgency rages on. Maybe President Obama should have checked out Invisible's final chapter containing practical suggestions such as #4: Start helping Afghans in a way they can understand, see, and appreciate. Instead, three more years of occupation have produced a country where ¾ of people lack access to clean water, and one in five children dies before reaching adulthood, mostly due to water-borne diseases. Kabul, the capital, still has no sewer system, so pollution seeps into the water pumped from wells.

In their latest book Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire, Gould and Fitzgerald not only present the NATO nation-building project as failed, but they join a growing of chorus of voices reporting that the effort to subdue insurgency in the region is rapidly losing ground. Their explanation of why this might be so focuses primarily two factors: the role of Pakistan, and the Pasthun tribe straddling the Durand Line. They also hint at a third factor rising: the U.S. may simply run out of money to continue.

Students of history will remember that Brittania drew a boundary west of which they ceded influence to Russia in the so-called Great Game. The boundary landlocked Afghanistan by keeping the port of Karachi in British imperial India, and split the Pashtun homeland. Pakistan fell heir to these territories when it was partitioned from newly independent India after WWII.

Our own country's love-hate relationship with Pakistan is neatly summed up by the U.S. record of alternately bestowing and withdrawing military aid eight or nine times over the last twenty years. The authors discuss how the U.S. looked the other way at crucial junctures in Pakistan acquisition of nuclear weapons capability. They offer some gritty detail about what is now general knowledge: that Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI trains, equips and otherwise supports fighters who attack NATO forces with regularity. Subsequent to the book's publication the trend has continued, with Taliban spokesmen claiming responsibility for downing a NATO helicopter full of Navy SEALS, and for deploying suicide bombers to the Afghan governor's office in Parwan, a usually quiet area north of the capital, and home to the immense Bagram Air Base.

If you are like me, you wonder why the U.S. pays billions each year in aid to a regime that funds and trains the insurgents who fight it. Besides providing a pretext for endless war, that is. Claims by their congressional enablers that Pakistan's cooperation is key in the war on terror fall on increasingly deaf ears, especially as many citizens in the U.S. believe Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan unmolested for years.

As for Pakistan's motives, Gould and Fitzgerald make a convincing case that the regime in Pakistan fears it will be made redundant if NATO succeeds in pacifying Afghanistan. As long as war against militant elements persists, NATO needs the cooperation of Pakistan – for fuel transport, among other logistics. Arch enemy India might become an even better friend of the U.S., and Pakistan's fate would be uncertain, especially in light of historic aspirations by Pasthuns to establish a nation of their own.

The increasing influence of CIA drone strikes in the region is also noted. These have accelerated rapidly on President Obama's watch, and recently an independent research team in the U.K found 168 children have been killed by bombs dropped from remote controlled drones since 2004. Gould and Fitzgerald remain unconvinced that the war for Afghan (and/or Pashtun) hearts and minds can be won in this fashion. And they speculate on the effect of discrediting the current government and driving Pakistan's nuclear-capable military establishment into the arms of fundamental Islamist extremists such as the Pakistani Taliban who have vowed to remove the "infidels" running Pakistan.

Drones are crossing "zero" to bomb Pakistan's tribal areas weekly, and the authors see this as a probable location where the American Empire passed the zenith of its imperial overreach. We now begin our descent, into a period of declining influence and strength worldwide, falling into the trap laid thirty years ago by funding mujahadeen homefield advantage fighters against the Soviets. The authors note the emergence of a new generation of insurgent leaders on both sides of the zero line that are more urban and tech savvy. If the 21st century version of the Great Game means countering the influence of the rising economic power of China, they see draining the U.S. treasury to fight the very terrorists our policies create offering little hope for a "win" on the playing field AfPak.

Book website:  Crossing Zero The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire.

1 comment:

  1. What would "a 'win' on the playing field AfPak" look like? I presume that "the 21st century version of the Great Game [which] means countering the influence of the rising economic power of China" requires some response other than fair competition. And this means that "Great Game" has utility as a metaphor for US policy, as it did for UK policy beforehand, in that it mocks the idea of "fair play" and instead buttresses economic policy with, if not replacing it by, conquest. This interpretation would supply a definition for "perfidious Albion": play by the rules until it appears you can't win, then cheat. I've heard it stated with some seriousness by US Special Forces soldiers that, if you're not cheating, you're not trying.
    The question, then, is what is gained by a "win" on such a playing field.


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