Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Obama’s latest surrender to Israel, and drone warfare

November 12th, 2009

President Barack Obama’s single most important foreign policy decision during 2009 has been his recent backdown over requiring Israel to abandon the building of settlements in the occupied territories. Beforehand, this was to be a precondition for peace talks. This capitulation to the Israelis has blown the credibility that Obama had built up so carefully in the Arab world, torpedoed the Fatah wing of the Palestinian leadership that the US has been supporting, and made it virtually impossible for the Iranians to accept the deal being brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over their nuclear programme. Such failure will in turn, embolden the Israelis to take military action against Iran.

In next month’s New York Review of Books, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley summarise the current mess in this fashion:

……Obama is only the latest in a string of American presidents who have shown few limits to the harm they can inflict on those Palestinians they purport to strengthen. By twice twisting Abbas’s arm, first to attend a meeting with Netanyahu and then to withdraw the Goldstone report [ on human rights abuses during the recent Israel offensive in Gaza] the administration unwittingly hurt him more in the space of two weeks than its predecessor had done in as many terms. The US hope was to tame Netanyahu, empower Abbas, motivate peace advocates, curtail extremists, and energize negotiations. So far, it has accomplished the precise opposite.

In the short term, this unraveling has now placed a large question mark over the elections in Palestine, due in January. At best, these will only be possible in the West Bank, and – given the damage Obama has done to Abbas – perhaps not even there. Yet of all the consequences, the worst is likely to prove to have been the impact on the Iran deal. What the IAEA was proposing was that Iran should agree to have the processing of the nuclear material ( for its valid nuclear energy needs) carried out in other countries.

Iran has always resented the double standard involved: that Israel can develop nuclear weapons and flout the world’s anti-proliferation measures with impunity, while Iran is being threatened with war if it goes down the same path. To have Obama now publicly abandon any pressure on Israel to deal in good faith with the Palestinians would have made the hardliners in Teheran more likely to baulk at allowing their sovereignty to be abridged in the fashion proposed. Especially now the IAEA has investigated the ‘secret site’ at Qom – touted by Obama and Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Milliband a few months ago as a grave cause of concern – and found it to pose no danger whatsoever.

The Iranians have not as yet given their final word on the IAEA offer. The signs are that it will reject it – or at least try to buy time with counter-proposals to buy in its nuclear fuel, or to allow enrichment to be done on its own soil by foreign personnel approved by the IAEA. (This is not satisfactory since – as the North Koreans have shown – the host country can kick out the foreigners overnight and re-assume control.) The next move may be made by the Israelis, and their air force. It is bizarre that the main agent for peace right now is Mohammed al-Baradei of the IAEA. He and UN arms inspector Hans Blick played very much the same futile brokering role on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

for Afghanistan, will Obama choose to listen to his vice-President and order only a limited involvement based on protecting the main Afghan cities – until such time as the US can get out entirely ? Or will he go down the nation building route proposed in August by General Stanley McChrystal, a policy has been estimated to require upwards of 200-300,000 troops in order to’ succeed.’ No one knows which way Obama will ultimately jump, possibly including Obama himself.

Either way, we can be sure it will involve lots and lots of unmanned drones. Obama is reportedly, very keen on them. A drone-atic, no less. I don’t know about you, but Predator drones creep me out. It’s the hovering and the death dealing from a vast distance, so impersonally. I know, at the receiving end, its probably not much different from having your village, house, family, and self being blown to pieces by a gum-chewing pilot sitting seven kilometers high in the sky – but at least pilots are nominally human. The drones are not human, and the names applied to them and their software – Predator, Reaper etc – make the modern battlefield seem more like a day at the mall. Heard about the new Reaper drone with the Gorgon Stare? Its awesome.

Drones are increasingly being used in the Afghan war. In the tribal regions of Pakistan in particular, they are deeply unpopular for continuing to target and kill innocent civilians, and for violating Pakistani sovereignty. As in the first Gulf War, this allegedly ‘smart’ technology is only as smart as the people using it. This Tomgram report on robot warfare indicates, that the new generation of drones will soon be able to offer multiple screen coverage of the target – far beyond anything known from one-day cricket or Olympic track and field coverage. Currently, the operators of Reaper drones are sitting half way across the world and pressing the killswitch with only one screen angle to choose from when lining up the target. Soon, as Julian Barnes wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times, the Gorgon Stare technology will enable 12 ( and ultimately 65 ) screen angles and related compositing. This will put large swathes of a town or target zone up on screen, for selective tracking in real time, and targeting at will.

As Tom Engelhardt says in the above Tomgram report, this will allow the post Guantanamo vision of George Bush to become a reality – in that it will create a visual space where the US can play judge, jury and executioner anywhere in the world 24/7, without leaving the office. Sure, you’d hope this would make the operators better able to detect that the intended target was really an innocent wedding party, or a goat herd, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The drones are also getting smaller, and over time, more personal. Reportedly, payloads will soon become no bigger than a loaf of bread. Or even smaller still. A New Yorker story last month by Jane Mayer ( she broke some of the early stories about rendition ) describes drone-delivered bombs so small they will be able to fly in through the window like a killer bee, and then detonate in your personal space. Take that, Hugo Chavez !

in the real world for a moment. Here’s another good reason for John Key to figure out a coherent reason for Why Our Troops Are In Afghanistan. Is it to defeat Al Qaeda or to defeat the Taliban ? Key continually blurs the difference. We have to stop the Taliban over there, he tends to argue, because otherwise, we will be fighting the terrorists on our doorstep etc. That argument has never made much sense, and it is making even less sense by the day.

On Tuesday for instance, on Juan Cole’s website, there is some pretty compelling evidence as to why Key’s argument doesn’t stack up. The terrible old mujahedin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyr – once the US favourite, now a potential drone target – recently issued a videotape to Al Jazeera expressing his hostility to Bin Laden, and to the remnant of the Arab fighters of Al Qaeda still in the region. (By some estimates, there are only about 100 Arab fighters left in Afghanistan.)

The hostility from Hekmatyr makes sense. Thanks to Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and his Taliban government got kicked out of office, and run out of the country. If – or should I say when – the Taliban finally overthrow the corrupt Karzai government in Kabul, why would they then re-entertain the forces that have caused them so much grief and inconvenience? Far more likely that they would turn inwards and revert to imposing their own twisted version of Islam – and very unpleasant it would be. Yet it would pose little or no threat to New Zealand, and the minimal potential for harm is simply not worth putting New Zealand lives at risk.

Only the Haqqani faction of the Taliban seem to harbour any residual goodwill towards Bin Laden, If the Taliban return to power, it will be under Mullah Omar, not the Haqqanis. Even if – as would be wise – one takes Hekmatyr’s comments as being part of his own struggle for influence within the various Taliban factions, his logic still stacks up. Why would Mullah Omar and his Taliban – who previously had shown no interest in exporting their revolution – choose to re-endorse the global jihad of Bib Laden, a failed project that has cost the Taliban their ability to rule, and forced them into another decade of war to reclaim what they had before he arrived ?

The return of the Taliban is inevitable. It will be a horrible regime. Yet it poses little or no risk to us, or to anyone else beyond its borders. We can better contain from outside what we obviously cannot subdue internally. Meanwhile, Obama sits in the White House pondering a strategy, and counting on allies like New Zealand to be willing to take the heat, and thus minimize losses among American soldiers. In that sense, our SAS are merely drone-equivalents.


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    1. 7 Responses to “Obama’s latest surrender to Israel, and drone warfare”

    2. By Jigadesh on Nov 12, 2009 | Reply

      Great. More of the same old US sanctioned land pinching and oppression of people who just want a fair deal. What a sad failure for humanity.

    3. By Joe Blow on Nov 12, 2009 | Reply

      This administration has a lot to learn about Israel. They’ve really screwed up as the last thing they want is for Hamas to win elections and that’s exactly what they’ll get now (if they have elections). Still did anyone notice that the US House of Representatives rejected the Goldstone report 344 to 36? Now you could blame it all on the Israel lobby if you want but I’m beginning to think that public opinion in the US really is in support of Israel. It’s difficult to tell because most polls are conducted by think tanks like the Anti-Defamation League which is an international NGO set up to combat anti-Semitism. So even if the American public are really all Israel lobby brain wash victims I can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is more about religion and what it says in the bible about God’s people returning to Judea than just the pro-Israel PR spin. I think that Mr Obama has just found out that this thing runs deeper than he thought.

      Key’s an accountant – what more needs to be said? First he ruled out the SAS training Afghan troops but later did a turn around when they got deployed by NATO to train the police in Kabul. What does he know about war? Brown’s recent talk of Afghanistan being about defending the UK from terror is starting to sound really weak. No one’s listening anymore…

      I personally think that this should be about the consequences to the people within the borders of Afghanistan if we pull out and I think we owe those people more than just pissing off when the going gets tough.

      It looks like Obama will send in between 20 and 30 thousand more troops so he’s in for the long haul even if public opinion is against the war…

    4. By Joe Blow on Nov 13, 2009 | Reply

      Okay I’ve found what appears to be a non-partisan source on what the American public opinion on West Bank settlements is. The good news is that 75% thought that Israel should not build settlements in the West Bank March this year which is up about 25% from 2002, which I’m guessing could be the source of Obama’s original call for a freezing of settlements in June. However, “one third of Americans show more sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians, substantially more than the 12 percent who express more sympathy for the Palestinians.” Also more frighteningly people questioned found both of the following arguments equally convincing:

      “UN resolutions 242 and 338, which were endorsed by nearly all members of the UN, including the US, called for Israel to withdraw from territories it invaded in the 1967 war. Thus, for Israel to build new settlements in these areas is illegal under international law.”

      “Israel has a right to build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza because Jews have lived in these areas for centuries and have legitimate historical claims to property there.”

      Then after hearing these arguments, opposition to the settlements dropped to 60% which says to me that quite a few of them don’t really know what’s going on in Israel and are easily swayed either way.

      The actual questionnaire:

      So I’ve come to the conclusion that the House of Representatives’ overwhelming rejection of the Goldstone report is largely down to the Israel lobby’s misrepresentation of its findings and I’d guess that very few Americans have even heard of it let alone have an opinion on it. Here’s what Richard Goldstone had to say about the factual inaccuracies of the House resolution:

    5. By Ken Slugg on Nov 13, 2009 | Reply

      Gordon, I am a dismayed that you see the future situation of Afghanis, in particular the non-Pashtuns, as not worthy of more consideration. Why focus on New Zealand interests rather than the interests of all people in this war. Need I paraphrase Hone to imply who is most at fault for attracting the Arab mujahadeen to Afghanistan and for creating the vast refugee camps in Pakistan that fed the Taliban? And is it really your best answer to just let the Taliban go at it against the various tribal-leaders? And what would the role of NGOs presently in Afghanistan be in this whole mix? How many Afghani casualties could be dismissed in this fashion? What’s an Afghani life worth to you? And one of our SAS, or PRT lives? Since the Afghanis are victims of their circumstances, and the SAS and PRT are there of their own volition I am tempted to quote a Xiu Xiu song at you, which I would expect you may be familiar with. It is called Support Our Troops (Black Angels OH). I’ve included the lyrics below if you’re not familiar or just want a refresher, though I’d recommend the Devendra Banhart cover as a doo-wop alternative (that can be found on a split 7″ with Xiu Xiu (who cover Banhart’s ‘Body Breaks’).

      There are many more options than stay with the current US-led occupation: for one, get more co-operation from regional heavyweights like Iran and India who have more of a stake in regional peace. Obviously the Anglo-Saxon quintet have to go, and that should save a lot of cash, which can be used to pay some sort of reparations (ala te tiriti o Versaille) which can be used to coax less willing, but more competent countries to commit. As JB#3 put it “we owe them more than this.”

      One other point: the three Afghani refugees I spoke to in Iran this past August and September were very keen to go back to their country, but said Karzai’s government is making it very difficult for them. I suggested they come to New Zealand instead, but I suppose our refugee policy has surreptitiously been arranged like McCully said our aid policies would be, “to further New Zealand’s goals.”

      Support Our Troops (Black Angels OH)
      Did you know you were going to shoot
      off the top of a four year old girl’s head
      And look across her car-seat down into her skull
      And see into her throat and did you know
      that her dad would say to you,
      “Please sir, can I take her body home?”
      Oh wait, you totally did know… that that would happen
      Cuz you’re a jock who was too stupid and too greedy
      And too unmotivated to do anything else but still be
      The biggest and still do what other people tell you to do
      You did it to still be a winner
      You shot your grenade launcher into peoples windows and
      Into the doors of peoples houses
      but you really wanted to shoot it at someone
      just to see them blow up.

      why should I care if
      you die?

    6. By Joe Blow on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

      Ken sorry to interrupt your comment to Gordon but it’s so great to have someone actually suggesting other alternatives to a complete withdrawal that I couldn’t help but reply. I think Gordon might have been being facetious in the article above anyway. Most people seem to be advocating a complete withdrawal without thinking about the consequences to the people in Afghanistan if that takes place. After the Russians left in 1989 the socialist government held out for three years until it fell to the Mujahideen in 1992 which lead to a four year long tribal bloodbath until the Taliban took power in 1996 and the civil war with the Northern Alliance didn’t finally end until Massoud was assassinated by a suicide bomber on September 9 2001 only two days before 9/11. That’s about eleven years of civil war! How long will it grumble on if the US and the ISAF make a complete withdrawal?

      I whole heartedly agree that what happens should be more about the interests of the people of Afghanistan than about NZ interests and that there needs to be more emphasis on getting regional support. They are at least paying lip service to doing this but I’m not sure what has actually happened in reality. It would take longer than the 10 months Obama has been in office so far anyway. However, there are some problems with getting India and Iran more involved. The main problem is how Pakistan would feel about India coming on board in light of the issues over Kashmir. I’ve even read about rumours that the Indian external intelligence service and Pakistani ISI are secretly fighting it out in Afghanistan already. In the case of Iran they have always traditionally supported the Northern Alliance but apparently after they got wind of the possibility of permanent US bases in Afghanistan they have started funding the Taliban. I guess they may be swayed to support the Northern Alliance again if it was on the condition that the US and ISAF would eventually pull out…

      I actually prefer the idea of handing Afghanistan over to Pakistani control although it looks like their government doesn’t have the strength to do it by itself. The reason I like this idea is because after reading Gordon’s interview with Robert Fisk I realised that most of Pashtun Afghanistan and Pakistan are of the same ethnic group and the only reason they are two separate countries is because of the Durand line drawn by the British. However, there are possible problems with India if this went ahead but Pakistan always supported the Taliban as an ally anyway so the change in balance of power between India and Pakistan wouldn’t be as great as if India was given a greater role in Afghanistan. Either way you can’t have Pakistan and India working together in Afghanistan and there are also possible divisions and problems with shia and sunni nationals working side by side.

      I still think that Obama should at least try and turn the war in Afghanistan around after inheriting a largely under funded war with poorly conceived goals in relation to bringing development to Afghanistan, but I can see that public opinion is already turning and the time and resources needed might not be possible. Therefore, I thought that if they can’t turn the war around, a possible alternative could be for them to make a deal with the Taliban where they relinquish southern predominantly Pashtun Afghanistan to the Taliban while retaining a force in north to protect the Hazara and Tajik so that massacres like at Masar i sharif can be avoided not to mention also avoiding full scale civil war lasting for god knows how long. Kind of like what has happened with pieces of the former Yugoslavia like Kosovo.

      Anyway, it’s just an idea…

    7. By ewingsc on Nov 18, 2009 | Reply

      “The return of the Taliban is inevitable.
      It will be a horrible regime. ”

      Afghanistan does not exist and act in isolation.

      Any more than Zimbabwe
      (the country formerly known as Rhodesia)
      exists and acts in isolation.

      Great article.

    8. By kimonz on Dec 13, 2009 | Reply

      An extraordinarily ignorant comment even from a such an uninformed commentator:”The return of the Taliban is inevitable. It will be a horrible regime. Yet it poses little or no risk to us, or to anyone else beyond its borders.”
      As someone who lived and worked in Afghanistan in aid projects from 2004-06, Mr Gordon, I can can tell you how absolutely wrong you are on all counts. Talib return is neither enevitable, tolerable or benign to anyone beyond Afghan borders. I’d like to drop your likes into the middle of Oruzgan province for a week in the heart of Pashtun country for your pansy rear end to receive an education in reality checks. From that point your meanderings might at least have some element of credibility and substance.

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