America’s Imperial War

by George Monbiot

Never was victory so bitter. Those liberals who supported the war in Afghanistan, and so confidently declared that their values had triumphed in November, must now be feeling a little exposed. Precisely who has lost, and what the extent of their loss may be, is yet to be determined, but there can now be little doubt that the dangerous and illiberal people who control the US military machine have won. The bombing of Afghanistan is already starting to look like the first shot in a new imperial war.

In 30 years’ time we may be able to tell whether or not the people of Afghanistan have benefited from the fighting there. The murderous Taliban have been overthrown. Women, in Kabul at any rate, have been allowed to show their faces in public, and readmitted into professional life. Some $3bn has so far been pledged for aid and reconstruction. But the only predictable feature of Afghan politics is its unpredictability. In the absence of an effective peacekeeping force, the tensions between the clan leaders could burst into open warfare when the fighting season resumes in the spring. Iran, Russia and the US are beginning, subtly, to tussle over the nation’s future, with potentially disastrous consequences for its people.

In the meantime, 7 million remain at risk of starvation. Some regions have been made safer for aid workers; others have become more dangerous, as looting and banditry fill the vacuum left by the Taliban’s collapse. Already, some refugees are looking back with nostalgia to the comparative order and stability of life under that brutal government. For the Afghan people, the only certain and irreversible outcome of the war so far is that some thousands of civilians have been killed.

But other interests in Afghanistan are doing rather nicely. On January 29, the IMF’s assistant director for monetary and exchange affairs suggested that the country should abandon its currency and adopt the dollar instead. This would, he explained, be a “temporary” measure, though, he conceded, “when an economy dollarizes, it takes a little while to undollarize”. The day before, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development revealed that part of its aid package to Afghan farmers would take the form of GM seed.

Both Hamid Karzai, the interim president, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy, were formerly employed as consultants to UNOCAL, the US oil company which spent much of the 1990s seeking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan. UNOCAL appears to have dropped the scheme, but smaller companies (such as Chase Energy and Caspian Energy Consulting) are now lobbying for its revival. In October the president of Turkmenistan wrote to the United Nations, pressing for the pipeline’s construction.

More importantly, the temporary US bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caspian states appear to be putting down roots. US military “tent cities” have now been established in 13 places in the states bordering Afghanistan. New airports are being built and garrisons expanded. In December, the US assistant secretary of state Elizabeth Jones promised that “when the Afghan conflict is over we will not leave central Asia. We have long-term plans and interests in this region.”

This is beginning to look rather like the “new imperium” which commentators such as Charles Krauthammer have been urging on the US government. Already there are signs that confrontation with the “axis of evil” is coming to involve more than just containing terrorism. Writing in the Korea Times last month, Henry Kissinger insisted: “The issue is not whether Iraq was involved in the terrorist attack on the United States, though no doubt there was some intelligence contact between Iraqi intelligence and one of the chief plotters. The challenge of Iraq is essentially geopolitical.”

An asymmetric world war of the kind George Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, have proposed provides the justification, long sought by the defense companies and their sponsored representatives in Washington, for a massive increase in arms spending. Eisenhower warned us to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” But we have disregarded his warning, and forgotten how dangerous the people seeking vast state contracts can be.

In October I wrote that “the anthrax scare looks suspiciously convenient. Just as the hawks in Washington were losing the public argument about extending the war to other countries, journalists start receiving envelopes full of bacteria, which might as well have been labeled ‘a gift from Iraq’. This could indeed be the work of terrorists, who may have their own reasons for widening the conflict, but there are plenty of other ruthless operators who would benefit from a shift in public opinion.” The suggestion was widely ridiculed.

This week’s New Scientist reports that the FBI has yet to catch the perpetrators of the anthrax attacks. “Investigators are virtually certain of one thing, though: it was an inside job. The anthrax attacker is an American scientist – and worse, one from within the US’s own biodefense establishment… If he wished to scale up US military action against Iraq, he almost succeeded – many in Washington tried hard to see Saddam Hussein’s hand in the attacks. If he wished merely to make the US pour billions into biodefense, he did succeed.”

Now Bush has secured a further $48bn for the defense contractors who helped him into office, and those who contested the first phase of his war are still reviled, by people such as the British foreign office minister Peter Hain, as “rejectionists” and “isolationists”. In truth, it is those who supported the war who have endorsed US isolationism.

Hain insists that Britain will use its influence to restrain the “hawks on Capitol Hill”, but I fear that Henry Kissinger comes closer to the truth when he suggests that “Britain will not easily abandon the pivotal role based on its special relationship with the US that it has earned for itself in the evolution of the crisis… A determined American policy thus has more latitude than is generally assumed.” Jack Straw’s newfound enthusiasm for the US missile defense program (which necessitated, of course, the unilateral abandonment of the anti-ballistic missile treaty) suggests that Dr Kissinger is rather better versed in British politics than Mr Hain.

Over the past few weeks, the men who run the military-industrial complex have shoved aside the government of the Philippines, dispatched 16 Black Hawk helicopters to Colombia, arrested the Cuban investigators seeking to foil a bomb plot in Miami, alarmed Russia and China by scrambling for central Asia, begun developing a new tactical nuclear weapon, and all but declared war on three nations. Yet still the armchair warriors who supported their bombing of Afghanistan cannot understand that these people now present a threat not just to terrorism but to the world.

George Monbiot writes for the London Guardian. Monbiot’s past columns are collected on his website.

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