Only a month after taking charge of US troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces, has openly challenged President Obama. Coming amidst increasing political turmoil, it is a dangerous moment for his presidency.
In an NBC television interview, Petraeus said that Obama’s 2011 target date for withdrawal was dependent on conditions permitting. The general’s open defiance comes as the US occupation is suffering its the highest level of casualties since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
But it is not only the Afghan people and the US troops killed on the battlefield or on the roads of Afghanistan who are bearing the brunt of the war. When combat troops return home, increasing numbers cannot cope with the psychological after-effects of seeing the carnage inflicted not only by the Taliban but by their own side.
In descriptions of mental trauma reminiscent of the long-term effects on US veterans from the Vietnam war, Time reporter Mark Thompson says that the US army faces a “third front” – trying to rescue its own soldiers from insanity. Soldiers are seeking mental health support more than 100,000 times a month.
One in every 10 soldiers who has completed a single combat deployment has a mental ailment, Thompson has found. The rate rises each time a soldier is redeployed. “More than 500,000 troops have returned home to the US in the last decade with a mental illness,” Thompson estimates.
The result is that suicide rates in the army have been rising. Despite a $7 million expenditure on hi-tech facilities like Fort Campbell, near Nashville, Kentucky, home to the 101st Airborne Division, suicides there have continued to rise.
Not only do they suffer mental breakdowns, but soldiers - and even more significantly – their carers, have turned their weapons on themselves and their superiors. Last November, after a killing spree at the Fort Hood military facility in Texas, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan was accused of killing 13 people. Hasan, who received medals for service in the Gulf war, had specialist training in the treating traumatic stress at the US armed forces University of the Health Sciences.
But the physical and psychological fall-out amongst his troops, will not deter Petraeus who shows typical disdain for the poor bloody infantry who do the dirty work, and pay the price, while the generals screw up on a consistent basis. Speaking in his Kabul headquarters, he said that he would resist any large-scale or rapid withdrawal of American forces.
Petraeus let the cat out of the bag about the real reason for the continuing US-UK occupation of Afghanistan. He said the country had the potential to become a "new Silk Road", a crossroads for trade, especially in minerals: "Afghanistan is blessed with the presence of what are... trillions of dollars' worth of minerals”.
Behind Petraeus stands the military-industrial complex – the US and global corporations anxious to exploit the lithium and oil resources. The oil corporations’ appetites will have been whetted by an announcement by the Karzai regime that a survey has found a rich new oil field in the north of the country.
The military top brass are deepening the crisis for Obama, whose approval ratings continue to slide. In advance of the November mid-term elections, around half the country disapproves strongly of the government.
Obama appointed Petraeus after sacking Commander General Stanley McChrystal in June. This was after McChrystal had openly attacked the administration in an interview published by Rolling Stone magazine. To have one general defy your government may be regarded as a misfortune; but to have two in quick succession ready to counter the commander-in-chief in public looks like carelessness.
To have all this happen while the US economy continues to tank and a series of rabid right-wingers in and around the notorious Tea Party challenge the authority of the state itself, might be considered to be a dangerous cocktail.
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