David Coates

Chapter 9: Reviewing 2009

The Move from Iraq to Afghanistan

Five key developments are particularly worthy of note in 2009

l. The slow run down of the US military presence in Iraq
2. The escalation of the US military presence in Afghanistan
3. Stalemate on the peace progress in the Middle East
4. The Obama acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize
5. The renewed threat of terror attacks on US civilian aircraft

To take each in turn:

1. The slow rundown of US combat troops in Iraq began in 2009: all US combat troops were pulled out of Iraqi cities by June (in line with the US-Iraqi agreement) and 12,000 were redeployed to Afghanistan by September as the Obama administration strove to make good on its commitment to pulling all combat forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But that still left 12 combat brigades in Iraq at year’s end, and 50,000 will still be there after the 2011 withdrawal, performing training and counter-terrorist operations. It also still left the Guantanamo Bay prison facility in place, as the Obama administration struggled with political opposition at home to the redeployment of terrorist suspects to jails on the US mainland. Committed to the closing of Guantanamo by January 22 2010, the Obama administration by November was proposing to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, and was exploring the relocation of the remaining 215 Guantanamo detainees in a near-empty top security jail in north Illinois. Both moves triggered local resistance and protest; and coincided with an admission made by President Obama when interviewed during his November trip to China that he longer expected to make the January 22 deadline. The executive decision to relocate Guantanamo prisoners to Thomson Illinois was eventually made (December 15 2009), with the administration conceding that their original timetable might slip by as much as one year. In relation both to closing Guantanamo and to “bringing home of the troops”, extracting the US from the legacy of George W. Bush’s war of choice continues to be an extremely difficult thing to do.

2. One part of that war is now increasingly seen as Obama’s and Obama’s alone; and that is Afghanistan. Candidate Obama’s commitment to taking the war back to Afghanistan, to tackle the Taliban-supported bases of global terrorism, led the incoming president to commit an extra 17,000 US combat troops to the Afghan war zone in February 2009. The administration then spent the rest of the year reviewing its Afghan strategy, pondering the possibility (and dangers) of making a significant additional military deployment there. The parallels with Vietnam and the fate of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative were regularly canvassed by progressive opponents of that deployment. (See, for example, Tom Hayden, ‘Don’t Go There Mr. President”, The Nation, May 27 2009: and for the argument that a Taliban victory would not automatically bring back al-Qaeda bases, The Nation’s special issue on Afghanistan, September 9 2009) That skepticism about the potential for success in Afghanistan was balanced by the military call for extra troops to achieve that success (reportedly 40,000 additional troops according to the general commanding, General McChrystal, to bolster the 68,000 US troops already deployed in Afghanistan). The Obama administration’s strategic pondering was regularly condemned by the political right as willful indecision; but was made all the more necessary by the evidence of corruption and impotence in the Karzai government, and the scandal of widespread electoral fraud in the August Afghan presidential election that (after a proposed and then abandoned run-off election) in November returned Karzai for a second term.

Lacking a credible and legitimate domestic partner, both the US and UK governments then put Karzai on notice, demanding swift curtailment of corrupt practices; but both governments continued to insist throughout 2009 that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan remained the best way of preventing further attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on American and Western European targets. Both kept the pressure up on the Pakistani state and military, to take out fundamentalist military bases on the Pakistan side of the border. The resulting increase in suicide attacks and car bombings inside Pakistan pointed to the scale of the task faced by western military forces in taking the fight to the enemy in a region long used to repelling foreign and local armies. The rising toll of American dead – 44 in July, 45 in August, 39 in September, 58 in October – fueled growing opposition to the war in the US electorate as a whole. A Washington post-ABC News poll in October found 51 percent of American adults already convinced that the war is not worth fighting; and that finding was replicated in a series of other polls taken as the White House continued to review its Afghan options. That review ended December 1 with the President’s decision to commit an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan for an 18 month period, after which US troops would begin to come home.

3. Nor was success any easier on the other major and related diplomatic front opened up by the Obama administration – that of finding a peace settlement in the Middle East. Barack Obama made a major policy statement in Cairo in June – saying that “if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security” and “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop”. Accordingly his administration made clear, both publicly and privately, its opposition to the building of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem But those settlements continued to be built, in spite of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reluctant endorsement in June of the principle of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. Political power within the Palestinian territories slipped inexorably through 2009 towards Hamas and away from Fatah moderates. Political power in Israel after the February 2009 election lay with parties of the right. Bridging the concerns and mutual antipathy of the two continued to preoccupy the US state department and Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell: but 2009 closed with no publicly visible narrowing of the gaps between hard-line positions on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide.

4. The decision of the Nobel Committee to award the Peace Prize to Barack Obama so early in his term of office proved highly controversial both within the US and more globally. That controversy was compounded by the coincidence in time of the award ceremony and the announcement of the escalation of the US military presence in Afghanistan. The President went to Oslo and defended the use of US force abroad. The full text of the speech is available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iRWjTDaT4JuS0nFj9APZAues8vjAD9CGFID00
It included the following defense of the US military presence abroad

“…the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”

5. The year closed with another attempt to blow up a US passenger plane in mid-flight, when a Nigerian man claiming to have al Qaeda links was overpowered by passengers as he attempted to blow up a US passenger flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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