Obama’s Afghan War in Perspective

Practically everyone now understands that the war in Afghanistan is going very badly. This is not because the Taliban and other “insurgent” forces are strong and their foreign foes weak. It is because of the Afghans’ indomitable spirit of independence that is only intensified by each civilian death due to house raids or bombs.

Republican Party chair Michael Steele says “This [war] isn’t something the U.S. wanted to engage in.” But it should be clear how we arrived at this point.  And since sometimes we forget how many outrages have led to it, and how the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of a continuum, let me try to sum it up.

After 9-11 the Bush regime decided to use the changed circumstances (the climate of fear and to some extent Islamophobia) to invade Iraq. He had wanted to do this for some time. In early 1999 he’d told the man who was planning to ghostwrite his autobiography: “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade—if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

But first he needed to invade Afghanistan, something far more easy to explain to the American people as a war of necessity.. (We were attacked! They—widely understood to mean the world’s Muslims in general—attacked us! We have to fight back!)And since we were attacked by a group based in Afghanistan, it seemed to make sense to hit back at that country. Even the Peace and Justice Studies program at my university was inclined to support military action.

The Taliban government controlling 90% of Afghanistan had hosted the mostly Saudi al-Qaeda, a spin-off of the Mujahadeen whom the CIA had organized to fight a jihad in the 1980s. The point then had been (as President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it) to “bleed the Soviets the way they bled us in Vietnam.” What goes around comes around. Osama bin Laden, recruited by the Saudi government to lead Arab forces, worked with the CIA then turned against the U.S. when it established bases on the sacred soil of his country in 1990 (in order to attack Iraq and drive it out of Kuwait).

Bush announced soon after 9-11 that the U.S. would not distinguish between terrorists and those who sponsored them and would wage a long-term War on Terror. He may have calculated that such simple logic would appeal to the frightened, grieving masses, and justify any U.S. attack on any of the State Department’s list of terrorist-supporting nations like Syria and Iran. This conceptual apparatus was a product of the neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, nominally deputy to Defense Department Donald Rumsfeld (but really co-secretary), Vice President’s chief of staff “Scooter” Libby, Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, and a small number of other figures who came up with different talking points such as, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be mushroom cloud over New York City.” These neoconservatives had long made it plain that they wanted “regime change” throughout the “Greater Middle East” in order to benefit Israel. That meant striking Iraq, benefactor of Hamas, Hizbollah and other groups violently confronting the Jewish state.

Oilman Dick Cheney, wielding enormous influence over the younger president, saw opportunities for securing U.S. control over a lot of Middle Eastern oil. (Big Oil was well-represented in the Bush cabinet; Bush had been an oilman, Rumseld was a billionaire oilman, Condoleeza Rice had been on the Chevron Board of Directors for a decade.) Cheney was not a neocon intellectually, and it’s doubtful that he cares much about Israel, but he had aligned himself with neocons whose interest in transforming the Middle East coincided with his own. When following the stolen election of 2000 he had been assigned by George Bush to choose top officials he had seeded the Defense Department with neocons and placed some within the State Department as well, where they were sometimes to tussle with Powell. (Powell has told Bob Woodward that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz  were running their own “separate government” within the government and bitterly resents the fact that this cabal forced him to deliver the speech to the UN so totally filled with lies just before the Iraq attack.) Undersecretary of State John Bolton (later UN ambassador by presidential appointment, having failed to receive Congressional approval) lied repeatedly about Syria to encourage an attack on that Arab state.

They misled the country about both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship was more complex than they acknowledged. Bin Laden had been in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power in 1996, fresh from a long stay in Sudan. His initial hosts were anti-Taliban. But the Taliban let him stay and operate his camps dating back to the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s because the Pashtunwali honor code obliges one to show hospitality to outsiders. Also, he had provided services to the Mujahadeen, and he was willing to assist the Taliban financially at a time when only two governments (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) were offering aid. But they monitored him after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa and U.S. retaliatory strikes against his Afghan camps, and reason would suggest they did not desire any more U.S. attacks. Only two of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers had trained in Afghanistan. It wasn’t clear that the Taliban leadership knew anything about the attack plans. (And there is some evidence that the Taliban was prepared to hand bin Laden over to the use and the U.S. declined the offer having decided to attack and occupy Afghanistan.)

The Taliban, which had come to power rapidly with Pakistani assistance and considerable popular support, hadn’t been opposed to the U.S. in a general sense. Afghan-American and future ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad had entertained some of their leaders at his Texas ranch while discussing a UNOCAL pipeline project. (Neocon Khalilzad authored the Defense Planning Guidance document along with “Scooter” Libby under Wolfowitz’s supervision in the 1990s. Secret until leaked to the New York Times, it called for the U.S. in the post-Cold War era to take pre-emptive military action to suppress potential threats from other nations and prevent any other nation from rising to superpower status. This is called “the Wolfowitz Doctrine.”) U.S. official and businessmen have long hoped to construct a natural gas pipeline to transport Caspian Sea area gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. This would avoid routing it through either Russia or Iran and be of enormous geostrategic importance.

In 1996 Khalilzad had written a Washington Post op-ed piece stating, “The Taliban do not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran. We should…be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic reconstruction. It is time for the United States to re-engage” with Afghanistan.

The U.S. never recognized the Taliban regime, which fell under international opprobrium for such things as the soccer stadium stonings and the destruction of Afghan culture such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. But Colin Powell gifted the Taliban a million dollars to eradicate opium poppies in early 2001. The Afghan leaders were strict Muslims and found many American ways disturbing and immoral, but they had no reason to attack or support an attack on the U.S. They were not interested in triggering a global war between Islam and the U.S., which is al-Qaeda’s apparent goal. They were concerned about consolidating their grip over their own country, which had been wracked by war for decades. After the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in 1993, infighting between the new rulers including  Northern Alliance forces and Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s forces between 1993 and 1996, had produced more misery and the Talibs known for their severe moral probity looked good by comparison.

The U.S. bombed bin Laden’s camps from October 7, 2001 killing an unknown number of people. (Bush had suggested that there were tens of thousands of al-Qaeda members, although some in the intel community thought it might be in the hundreds.) They easily drove the Taliban from power; it was about the most primitive regime on earth, and could not organize an effective defense. The Talibs vacated the main cities at the request of tribal elders who appealed to them to spare the people bloodshed.

Things worked out very well short-term (despite the fact that bin Laden escaped). The Taliban was gone, and Khalilzad was able to arrange the election of longtime CIA contact Hamid Karzai as president in June 2002. That done, troops were redeployed to Kuwait in preparation for the Iraq invasion beginning March 2003. The neocons must have been delighted at how public support for the Afghan War segued into broad support for their far more important project. The masses bought their lies about Iraq. This was only temporary, but neocons know well that lies temporarily believed serve their purpose.

Striking while the iron was hot, the administration made the case that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9-11. He was, it declared, probably responsible for the mysterious anthrax attacks in September 2001 and also was in possession of weapons of mass destruction in violation of international law. In his State of the Union address in January 2002 Bush announced that Iraq was part of an “Axis of Evil” comprising Iraq, Iran and  North Korea. (The term is usually credited to Bush speechwriter David Frum, yet another neocon.) But these countries were actually in no way an “axis.” Iraq and Iran had fought a long war with the U.S. supporting Iraq in the 1980s (Rumsfeld during his first stint as Secretary of Defense had twice visited Baghdad, shaken Saddam’s hand, and arranged to share U.S. satellite imagery of Iranian troop deployments) and were hostile towards one another. North Korea was added to stave off criticism that the War of Terror was just about the U.S. attacking Middle Eastern Muslim nations. Bush’s advisors knew that red-blooded Americans, cowboys and Christians, would see this as a simple question of Good versus Evil, the essence of the War on Terror.

Bush had asked his counter-terrorism Richard A. Clarke immediately after 9-11 to find evidence for Iraqi complicity in the attacks. Clarke said he had found no evidence for significant contact between Iraq and al-Qaeda and that the secular government of Iraq was indeed an enemy of the radical Sunni al-Qaeda. Clarke later recalled that the president “in a very intimidating way” asked for such information. But he found none.

Enraged by the failure of the existing intelligence apparatus to provide links between Iraq and 9-11, the administration began to solicit disinformation justifying war from Iraqi friends and contacts. In September 2002 it established the Office of Special Plans under Douglas Feith and Abram Shulsky. Shulsky had once written an article about the classicist and political theorist Leo Strauss (one of Wolfowitz’s mentors) and his ideas about intelligence gathering. One of Strauss’s central concepts is the need for wise men to use “noble lies” conveyed by “gentlemen” less wise than themselves to convince the masses to support things they otherwise wouldn’t (in their foolishness) support. The masses wouldn’t likely support wars to enhance Israeli security, so other reasons needed to be found. In off-the-record interviews with sympathetic journalists like Judith Miller of the New York Times were able to get this material into the media. They would then in their weekly appearances on TV programs like Face the Nation they would cite these articles. The allegation, based on documents forged in Italy, that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq was one of the more egregious lies. An Italian Parliament investigation indicates neocon Michael Ledeen was one of those responsible.

The CIA decided to investigate this particular allegation and sent Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat married to a CIA agent, to investigate in the spring of 2002. He reported back that there was no merit to it. Still it became one of Bush’s central accusations during his State of the Union address in January 2003. It was immediately debunked by the IAEA. (Powell shrugged the matter off, saying if the report had been wrong, it had been wrong.)

In July 2003 Wilson told his story to the press, intimating that the administration had deliberately used disinformation to justify the war on Iraq. Vice President Cheney’s highly secret and powerful office took revenge by destroying Wilson’s wife’s career.  “Scooter” Libby had the story of her identity leaked through Judith Miller in the New York Times in a story attempting to discredit the couple. It is a crime to reveal an agent’s identity. When the couple pursued legal action Libby was indicted in 2005 and convicted of lesser crimes in 2007. The slap-on-the-wrist sentence was immediately commuted by Bush.

 Even when the lies became apparent by late 2003, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, etc. escaped punishment (and even widespread exposure). Indeed they were rewarded with World Bank presidency, TV appearances and professorships. They had created a climate in which any foe could be branded a terrorist and marginalized. (Bush refused to even talk with Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat). The world had become safer for Israel, with Bush deferring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on every issue. And U.S. military deaths were merely in the thousands. (It was as Madeleine Albright would say, “well worth it.”)

The neocons had demonstrated to their satisfaction what current Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had told a West Bank settler woman in 2001 after she asked if he was afraid of world opinion: “I know what America is. America is something that can easily be moved. Moved to the right direction.”

* * *

When Obama came to power, the Iraqi government placed in power by the U.S. had already negotiated the agreement for U.S. forces’ withdrawal. So all he needed to do was go along with that agreement. This has allowed him to escape blame for that continuing war as the U.S. troop presence steadily drops according to schedule. (That could of course change.) And he has largely escaped criticism for his failure to hold his predecessor accountable for the lies used to justify that war. (He wants to be a uniter, not a divider. He’d just like to put all this behind us, have people forget about and move on)

He could have announced withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the Taliban had resurged and where the central regime under Karzai had become ineffective, corrupt, and unpopular. He might have allowed that heavily armed people at war for decades and with no al-Qaeda remaining among them to settle their affairs themselves. He could have taken his vice president’s advice. But Joe Biden is no Dick Cheney in terms of influence. Instead, deferring to his generals, he dramatically escalated the conflict, expanding it further into Pakistan. To alleviate concern about an endless imbroglio he stated the troops would start to be withdrawn in July 2011. Now he and his generals are backpedaling on that commitment.

He replaced one commander (Gen. McKierny) with another (Gen. McChrystal) who, noting the obvious—that mass bombing was simply producing more enemies—redefined the mission as one of “protecting” people from the Taliban and facilitating development projects.

The problem is, Afghans tend to see the Talibs as their kin if not their friends. And they notice that the foreign imperialists aren’t good at distinguishing who’s a Talib and who’s not. When they kill the wrong people they apologize and even make very public expressions of remorse, but they keep doing it again and again. They pay blood-money and offer to build roads and schools, but it happens far too routinely. They do not understand Afghanistan, seem disrespectful and ignorant, and should not be here.

As Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarked recently, “You’re dealing with Afghan culture that is fundamentally different than us, in ways we don’t understand.” It’s quite remarkable that such a figure now opines that the war “is not going to end well.” Everyone is turning against the war.

McChrystal’s statements to Rolling Stone suggest that he was stressed out by an impossible task and really wanted to go home. The  comments by Steele suggest that he wants to use the public’s war weariness for political purposes: “Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”

There is some truth in this, of course. Obama chose to make this his war. But it was something the United States under George Bush actively prosecuted, producing great suffering not just for Afghanistan but Pakistan. If he hadn’t wanted to engage in, it was because he wanted very badly to invade Iraq and needed to get there through Afghanistan.

The fact that those responsible for these wars (and the hidden ones in Pakistan and Yemen) have escaped prosecution à la Slobodan Milosevic should disgust any decent person. The fact that many of them are working relentlessly to arrange an attack on Iran, with enormous congressional support, should terrify us.

And the fact that the Afghan War is now the longest in our history, with no end in sight as Obama, Joe Biden and the generals all suggest the drawdown next year might not be feasible, should make us both depressed and angry.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department 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: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu





Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu