There are now at present some 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces occupying Afghanistan, in league with the Northern Alliance warlords and the corrupt and feeble Karzai regime in Kabul. President Obama clearly wishes to increase the figure and will announce before an audience of West Point cadets Tuesday that he will add over 30,000 more while pushing the Europeans to add 10,000. This will bring the total number of occupation forces to around the level of the Soviet deployment at its peak in the 1980s.
The Soviets were trying to protect the secular government in Afghanistan and to discourage Islamic fundamentalism, a potential threat to the neighboring Soviet Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan. What is Obama trying to do?
Because make no mistake about it, this is Barack Obama’s war now. With this announcement he will have personally increased the force in Afghanistan by over 50,000 troops in response to appeals from his generals.
Obama’s mantra about the conflict in Afghanistan is that it is a “war of necessity.” But this is really just a version of the neocon “War on Terror” trope, which is to say that it implies that it is the natural, reasonable retaliatory response to the 9-11 attacks. (They started it, after all, so we have to take the war to them.)
But neocon strategy has always required the simplistic conflation of disparate phenomena, and the exploitation of public ignorance and fear, in the execution of policy. Who are they, after all? The invasion of Iraq required the Big Lie that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9-11. The earlier invasion of Afghanistan required the clever sleight-of-hand by which the mainly Saudi Arab but international al-Qaeda was equated with the purely Afghan Taliban. “We don’t distinguish between terrorists and the governments that support them,” Bush declared.
This was almost a boast that the U.S. would be boldly ignorant as a matter of public policy, and a warning to the empirical rationalists of the world that the White House was in the grip of truly simplistic minds and would indeed shamelessly exploit popular Islamophobia as they pleased even as they made elaborate public gestures in support of religious tolerance. (The calculated message was: Be scared, world, because we’ve got cowboys in power, and hell, we can get kinda crazy when we’re pissed!)
The fact is, there was and is a difference between al-Qaeda, an international jihadist organization that wants to reestablish a global Caliphate and confront the U.S., and the Taliban, which wanted to stabilize Afghanistan under a harsh interpretation of the Sharia but maintain a working relationship with the U.S. And now, eight years after being toppled, the Taliban are back with a vengeance, demonstrating that they have a real social base. Moreover a Pakistani Taliban has emerged across the border as a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion.
Any number of intelligence reports have pointed out the obvious: more troops just breed more “insurgency.”
Obama’s national security advisor, Gen. James Jones, has stated clearly, “The Al Qaeda presence [in Afghanistan] is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” If there had been a “necessity” to destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that matter has been taken care of. What does Obama think necessary to achieve now?
I imagine he will argue that the Taliban must not be allowed to return to power. But doesn’t that mean implicitly acknowledging that they have genuine roots in Afghan, particularly Pashtun society? The best military estimates put the number of Taliban militants at no more than 25,000, with fully-armed fighters around 3,000. There are about 100,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army (ANA) in addition to all the foreign occupying troops. ANA forces are often described as of “poor quality,” meaning they are illiterate, and mainly attracted by the money. But the Talibs are also generally illiterate and many of them fight largely for the pay as well. Why is it whole provinces like Nuristan have come under Taliban control despite all the counterinsurgency manpower?
Why in attempting to “secure” Helmand province in an anti-Taliban offensive over the summer did the U.S. forces discover that their ANA allies included almost no Pashtuns but were disproportionately Tajiks? Why were U.S. forces unable to dislodge the Taliban from Marjeh, a city of about 50,000 people and hub of the opium trade?
The problem isn’t too few forces. Were that the case the increasing number of forces over the last several years would have produced a better, not worse, security situation. The problem is the premise that imperialists can re-colonize a country under the pretense of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency or liberation in the face of mass resistance.
But why is Obama so intent on staying the course in Afghanistan? What is so important about Afghan policy that the Man of Change can’t change it, even when 57 per cent of the people of the U.S. say they want out?
He will say on Tuesday evening, as eloquently as he and his speechmakers can manage the task, that we simply cannot afford to let Islamist extremists back into power so that they might harbor terrorists who’ll attack the United States.
But recall there was a time when the U.S. State Department was hell-bent to drive a secular government out of Afghanistan—one that wanted to educate girls and establish local clinics and curb the power of the tribal chiefs and mullahs—and determined to assist the most profoundly reactionary forces in Afghanistan with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at their head in establishing an alternative Islamist regime. Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski thought the pro-Soviet Saur Revolution in 1978, in which left-wing Afghan Army officers staged a coup and the Democratic People’s Party seized power, producing a backlash from the mullahs and tribal chiefs, was a golden Cold War opportunity.
Even before Soviet forces crossed the border in December 1979, the CIA was organizing Afghan and international forces to challenge the leftish government and Brzezinski was urging the fighters to view their struggle as a jihad or Holy War. This continued of course through the eight bloody years of the Reagan administration. The jihadis won, Washington’s friends established a regime in 1993, immediately fell out among themselves plunging the country into Tajik-Pashtun civil war involving the bombing of Kabul (hitherto spared in the fighting). Washington politely distanced itself, having lost interest with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving ally Pakistan to deal with the mess.
Pakistan opted to support the Taliban, a force which against the motley backdrop of opium-dealing, boy-raping warlords seemed attractive by virtue of its reputation for moral probity if nothing else. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto later explained Islamabad needed to embrace the Taliban to maintain the trade lines through Central Asia. The U.S. kept its distance from the harshly fundamentalist group, which took power in 1996, withholding diplomatic recognition. But it was historically responsible for its inception and the descent of Afghanistan into the disaster of medieval reaction that began with the stoning of adulterous women in soccer stadiums and culminated with the blasting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
The sins of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan are just staggering. Imagine what might have happened had the U.S. just stayed out of Afghan affairs from the late 1970s and allowed that experiment in secular. reformist government in a highly conservative Muslim society to take its course without billions in arms to precisely the sort of fighters who are being vilified as “Islamic extremists” and “terrorists” today. There may have never been an international CIA-coordinated mujahadeen movement, no young Osama bin Laden persuaded to suspend his studies to head up Arab holy warriors in coordination with the CIA, no total collapse of Afghan society, no “blowback.” Unfortunately people in this country are generally clueless about the recent history of Southwest Asia and the role of U.S. administrations in producing the very problems about which they complain. (I don’t include Obama among these; he knows what he’s doing. Hence total moral culpability.)
The Taliban never invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan; he was there when they took power, guest of a warlord who had been hostile to themselves. He had flown in from Sudan, booted out by the government there following a demand from the U.S. The Taliban extended to him the hospitality required by the pashtunwali code, in appreciation for his services in anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s. But as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have documented on this site, from 2000 the Taliban initiated talks in Frankfurt with the EU, facilitated by the Afghan-American businessman Kabir Mohabbat, to transfer bin Laden out of the country. Mohabbat was employed from November by the National Security Council to negotiate with the Taliban about bin Laden’s fate.
The Taliban, who had confined bin Laden and his key aides to his compound at Daronta, 30 miles from Kabul, invited the U.S. to send one of two Cruise missiles as the easiest way to solve the problem but the Clinton administration delayed in taking action. The Bush administration also dispatched Mohabbat repeatedly to Kabul—three times in 2001—to discuss bin Laden. In other words, at minimum, on can say that the State Department knew, and we should know, and Obama should know, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are two very different things.
So if the president argues that we need to continue the fight with more troops to keep the Taliban down, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a center of international terrorism, he’s going to be speaking so much eloquent nonsense.
He will probably not address the recent comment by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the country after Afghanistan itself most victimized by U.S. aggression in the region. Speaking in English Yousef Raza Gilani told reporters:
“Our only concern is that when US sends more troops to Afghanistan’s Helmand area, if there will be influx of militants they will be moving to Balochistan. This is the concern that we already discussed with the US administration, that influx of militants towards Balochistan should be taken care of otherwise that can destabilise Balochistan.
“A stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest – but at the same time we also do not want our country to be destabilized. We have asked US administration to consult us in case of any paradigm shift in the policy… so that we can formulate our strategy accordingly.”
Balochistan is over 40 per cent of the land area of his country. It is beset with ethnic unrest; some of the majority Balochis resent the fact that they receive few profits from the exploitation of the uranium and copper of their region, and are neglected by Islamabad. There is an armed insurgency led by members of the Bugti tribe. This has some support from educated Pakistanis critical of “Pashtun chauvinism” who accuse the state of trying to keep Balochis backward. (While listed as “terrorist” by the State Department this movement is a separate phenomenon from the Taliban.)
State Department officials have dismissed Pakistani concerns. Isn’t that typical though? They have been dismissing them since the initial invasion in 2001, and as Pakistan becomes more and more destabilized, the U.S. merely repeats its demands for more military cooperation, continues its drone strikes across the border, and pursues its goals in the region in what Islamabad perceives as disregard for its interests. Pakistan has its own problems that policy-makers in the U.S. State Department seem either not to understand or to willfully ignore as it exacerbates them.
And President Obama will not mention that according to the Asia Foundation’s 2009 poll in Afghanistan 56 per cent of respondents say they have some sympathy for the motivations of the armed groups, including the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s outfit, opposing occupation. He won’t note how the PR strategy of depicting this effort as a “liberation” symbolized by the removal of the burqa has been long since quietly shelved, since the burqa is actually back with a vengeance and the warlords upon whom the U.S. must rely to maintain order have always laughed at U.S. proposals for social reform. They know that’s not what the troops are there for.
The U.S. intervened indirectly in Afghanistan in the ‘80s, with no thought for the welfare of the Afghan people and with tragic consequences for them, in order to fight the Soviets and the imagined menace of “communism.” To do that it nurtured a ferocious Islamist extremist trend. There’s never been any acknowledgement of error or apology and don’t expect one. It all made sense at the time from a U.S. imperialist point of view.
What makes sense now, from a U.S. imperialist point of view? Just look at the map. Realize that Afghanistan has no products the U.S. corporate world wants or needs. During the Cold War, Iran, Iraq, Turkey sometimes played crucial roles in U.S. geostrategic thinking but Afghanistan was practically conceded to the Soviet camp even before 1978. It only acquired significance as a Cold War battleground when U.S. strategists realized (in Brzezinski’s words) that they could “bleed the Soviets…the way they did us in Vietnam.” More recently, it has acquired significance as U.S. energy corporations do global battle with the Russians over access to Caspian Sea natural gas.
At present Europe is dependent on the supply of gas via Russia from the Caspian Sea, principally from Turkmenistan. This gives Moscow enormous political leverage when it comes to such matters as NATO’s decision to admit Georgia or Ukraine. U.S. policy has been to build pipelines from the Caspian avoiding Russia or Iran. Construction of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline which will pump the gas straight to the Indian Ocean and on to world markets has been long delayed due to the fighting in Afghanistan.
The pipeline will run through Helmand province, then into Pakistan’s Balochistan. If it all works out, this will represent a highly significant improvement in the geostrategic position of the U.S. in the region, including in the event of another world war (such as might be provoked by a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and unpredictable repercussions of such action).
But Obama will not be talking about the history of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, or the feelings of the Afghan people about occupation, or the reactions of the Pakistanis to the unmitigated disaster on their doorstep, or the real geopolitical reasons for U.S. interest in this backward impoverished Central Asian nation that has been “the graveyard of empires” since the time of Alexander the Great.
He will say it’s still a necessary war to defend Americans from terrorist attack. We should recall, once again, the observation of Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering during the Nuremburg trial that while “naturally the common people don’t want war … the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
We should respond: No it’s not necessary! in the streets that day and those following—until we force Obama to end what are now unmistakably his criminal imperialist wars.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org