Hegemony with a happy face

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Perhaps Afghanistan's President Karzai took Obama's campaign slogan seriously, as his first message to the president-elect spoke directly of a need for change. Karzai's "demand" that Obama "end civilian casualties" was prompted by the November 3 airstrike in support of ground troops in Kandahar province which Karzai revealed and which had reportedly killed some 40 civilians, mostly children. "By bombing Afghanistan, the war against terrorism cannot be won," the Afghan leader told the president-elect via the international media.

Initial reports may have understated the devastation, as locals in Shah Wali Kot district put the toll as high as 90 dead along with many wounded, most said to be wedding-goers. Locals also claimed that Canadian soldiers were involved in the operation aimed at Taliban insurgents, though the Canadian military denies this. (While the Canadian Forces long ago abandoned Shah Wali Kot district,
there are Canadian gunners integrated with American units nearby in
Kandahar's Maiwand district.) The killings mark at least the fifth time since the 2001 invasion that American bombs have ripped apart members of an Afghan wedding party.

The Kandahar outrage was quickly followed by November 5 airstrikes in the northern province of Badghis which killed seven civilians along with insurgent fighters. But despite Karzai's plea the bombings, along with the predictable civilian deaths, are unlikely to be curtailed as they form the backbone of American counterinsurgency strategy. Indeed, this week's victims lie dead despite a claim by NATO in Septmember that it had changed its rules for airstrikes to lessen the risks of civilian casualties.

While it is too soon to say how an Obama presidency will impact the military campaign in Afghanistan, war planners are hoping for a presidential charm offensive that might just win renewed support from America's allies who were alienated by the Bush administration. An "Obama boost" could thus elicit thousands more troops for a war whose intended beneficiaries - the Afghan population - have already begun to turn against the foreign military presence. "Instead of alienating ourselves from the world," said candidate Obama in a major speech, "I want America, once again, to lead."

The primary targets for Obama's diplomatic surge are the citizens of western Europe. European correspondent Doug Saunders, writing in the Globe and Mail, reports that "military and government officials" in both the US and Europe are optimistic that Obama can "win over skeptical European audiences" and elicit major troop contributions for the war in Afghanistan.

Saunders takes no notice of the obvious contempt for democracy on the part of the unnamed officials he cites, one of whom comes from Britain where a majority of the public opposes the war. While a critical journalist might have built the article around the story of a senior military officer seeking to undermine British democracy, Saunders instead reserves his ire for officials who appear to be sensitive to the public's wishes. Rather than an act of odedience to popular will, Saunders sees these killjoys to be "seeking an excuse" to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.

Keen observers will note that the key question is thus about Obama's style, rather than his substance; the policies, whether Bush's or Obama's, are essentially the same, only their presentation is different. In countries whose democracies have been hollowed out, a politician's style is all that counts. And, in the assessment of one European observer, the Guardian's Simon Tisdall, Obama's style will be "hegemony with a happy face."


Dave Markland edits a blog with extensive coverage and analysis of the war in Afghanistan.

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