So far Obama’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Pakistan looks a lot like Bush’s, which differed mainly in focusing on Iraq. Civilian casualties increased each year under bush and have continued to increase under Obama right to the present. Air strikes have not been reduced under Obama, while the number of missile strikes and civilians killed by them in Pakistan have increased. Switching to “counter insurgency” or “counter terrorism” tactics is not a solution, unless we want a repeat of the massacres of civilians by torturing US trained death squad in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 80s and Colombia and Iraq in the present. Hundreds of bodies bearing the marks of torture and military style execution have already been found after the Pakistan military’s offensive in the Swat valley – an offensive the Obama administration demanded in return for doubling rather than cutting US military aid to Pakistan. There have been lots of positive statements made about reducing civilian casualties by reducing the number of air and missile strikes, ending torture and protecting rather than killing civilians. President Obama, General McChrystal and the US military’s Australian counter insurgency adviser David Kilcullen have all made such statements and McChrystal has also acknowledged that providing jobs and negotiating with some of the “insurgents” will be necessary. These are positive – but they remain words so far – and units under McChrystal’s command were involved in torture by beating people unconscious and causing hypothermia with extreme cold. Some members of those units say McChrystal guaranteed the Red Cross would never have access to the bases where torture took place. Psychological torture has not been banned and indefinite ‘detention’ without trial has merely been moved from Guantanamo to Bagram. Torture by the militaries of democracies has continued while it was formally banned in many countries right to the present – and the new head of the CIA has said he may seek Presidential approval for “harsher interrogation techniques”; and that extraordinary rendition by the FBI and CIA to torturing dictatorships will continue.
It’s time to drop the pretence that NATO and Pakistan military offensives, air and missile strikes, raids, torture and death squads – all of which also kill civilians – are not increasing Taliban suicide and car bombings – just as similar offensives resulted in waves of bombings in Iraq. (There are also questions over who is responsible for some of the unclaimed market bombings and whether some of the increased military aid to Pakistan may be going to the Taliban and other clients of Pakistan's military) It’s also time to drop the pretence that NATO’s war in Afghanistan so far has protected Afghans, provided democracy, ensured women’s rights (the only area it’s made any progress at all in – though very little), ended the heroin trade, or that it’s preventing terrorist attacks in NATO countries or in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
So far the change in the war on terror under Obama is largely in the public relations. The name “war on terror” has been dropped, but many of the realities remain the same. If we want to win a “war for hearts and minds” rather than just kill and torture people while talking about one we need to drop less bombs, fire less bullets, drag less people away for “interrogation” and instead provide food, jobs, education and healthcare.