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Obama Escalates Afgan War
by Gerry Foley

December 2009

This article first appeared on the Socialist Action  website

Obama’s muted but substantial escalation of the war in Afghanistan shows exactly why the decisive section of American big business decided to turn the helm of their system over to him. The new flavor is “Bush lite.” That is, it is a continuation of the same policies that are characteristic of U.S. capitalism in decline but with an attempt to appear more flexible and collaborative with U.S. allies.

Obama’s Afghhanistan proposal displays some balancing between “progressives” and right-wingers in the U.S. The escalation will be less than the military commanders asked for and less than the right demands—but not much less.

And there is some window dressing about a timeline for the massive U.S. military intervention to end. But the time limit is vague, and it is not a great concession to admit that there has to be an end sometime to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.

Of course, the right wing is uneasy when there is even talk of an exit date. But a Florida Panhandle newspaper (the News Heraldof Panama City, one of the most right-wing areas of the country), which opposed the setting of any time limit, noted in an editorial: 

“Wednesday, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified at a Senate hearing that the withdrawal target was, shall we say, flexible. Clinton said the administration is not ‘locked in’ to a 2011 exit, only that ‘there can be the beginning of a responsible transition’ by that date. Talk about soft-pedaling the situation. That’s like saying you’re prepared to start a 1,000-mile trek by taking one step forward.”
Indeed! However, Afghanistan has hardly any long-term economic or strategic value to the United States, unless it eventually becomes host to a pipeline linking the Central Asian oil fields to Pakistan. But it seems that the oil companies have accepted that as a pretty remote prospect. In any case, the U.S. interest in Central Asian oil seems to be more political than economic—designed to prevent China from gaining access and more economic independence. That makes the scheme very speculative.
Pakistan, minus the mirage of an oil pipeline, does not have much strategic value to the U.S. That is why the U.S. put its relations with the country on the back burner after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. During the Cold War, Pakistan was a useful pawn against an India that was neutralist and friendly to the Soviet Union. That situation has long since ceased to exist.

The U.S. covert intervention in Afghanistan when it was ruled by a pro-Soviet regime, which created the Jihadist threat, was an episode in the now bygone Cold War. Obama had to assure Pakistan that the U.S. would not forget it again, as it did after the end of the Afghan-Soviet war.

Obama’s speech was carefully crafted to reassure the right wing, and for that it even drew praise from Republican heavy Karl Rove. But the president failed to mollify a lot of liberals and progressives. The outcries of betrayal of some of the liberal columnists on the Huffington Post are piteous to behold. Some of them complained that he chose West Point as the platform for his speech. But they were merely fooling themselves. To play to a right-wing audience, Obama needed to appeal specifically to the military chiefs.

One of the Huffington commentators, David Sirota, asked: “Where’s the antiwar movement and the marches and the organizing and the protesting? Where are all those well-funded groups that protested George W. Bush’s war policy? Or was all that really just about hating George Bush and embracing blind Partisan War Syndrome?”

The answer is that broad sections of the antiwar movement believed that Obama offered a change from the war policies of Bush and the neo-cons. He had such a different image and style from Bush. But then, lo and behold, he turned out to be just a bourgeois politician. Fooled again!

And like any of the second team of defenders of the capitalist system, liberals or Social Democrats, Obama, once in office, has to demonstrate to the ruling class that he is as devoted to their interests as their first team, the right wing. The liberals should really be angry at themselves for their gullibility, and not Obama.

One of the Huffington Post columnists, Robert Borsage, did point to the handwriting on the wall: “... his speech left me with a haunting foreboding. Surely this is the way that great imperial powers decline. Their soldiers police the ends of the earth. There is always another enemy, always a threat—sometimes imagined, often real—that must be faced. And meanwhile, the productive economy declines, the rich live increasingly off investments abroad, the poor depend on public sustenance, the middle declines. No battle is so costly that it cannot be afforded. ... The secret state expands. The country finds itself constantly at war.”

This is, in fact, the general pattern of the decline of every empire in history, the capitalist empires of England, the Netherlands, and Portugal—like the slave empire of Rome. The features are apparent in the now obvious decline of American capitalism. Inevitably, the dynamic of empire comes into conflict with the needs of the survival of the empire itself. The American ruling class is plummeting from one disaster to another, unable to withdraw from its adventures.

Obama presented the Iraq war as a victory, although admittedly a costly one. In fact, after the expenditure of a trillion dollars, more than 4000 American lives, and the ruin of a country, the U.S. has scored no lasting political or economic gains and is likely to have worked against its own geopolitical ends by dumping Iraq into the lap of Iran. U.S. businesses and private armies like Blackwater (now “Xe”) netted huge profits, but at the expense of the system on which they depend.

While the liberal and progressive commentators did not take up Obama’s claims of U.S. “achievement” in Iraq, some of them did point out the obvious reasons why the escalation is not likely lead to any “achievement.” The Afghan government in whose defense the U.S. is supposedly pouring out its treasure and the blood of its young adults is even more ineffectual than the U.S. client government in Iraq. It has virtually no political authority. Even the base it did have when the U.S. intervention put it in office, the Northern Alliance, may now be crumbling.

The Taliban have been able to extend their operations to the north, threatening a new U.S. supply line (The New York Times, Nov. 27). Of course, the northern area to which the Taliban has expanded, Kunduz, is about half Pushtun, the ethnic base of the Taliban.

There is no indication yet that the ethnic groups that have been hostile to the Taliban—the Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Dari-speaking people—are now going over to the Taliban. But there are indications that the insurgency is becoming generally nationalist, anti-foreign. A series of interviews that Newsweek did with Taliban supporters showed that it was the U.S. occupation and the military means supporting it, air power, that revived the Taliban, after it had suffered a disastrous defeat when the U.S. first intervened.

A number of commentators pointed out that there is no reason to think that the Karzai government and its security forces will ever be self-sustaining. A case-hardened counter-revolutionary politician with East European sophistication, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was cited in a Dec. 3 article in the Huffington Post as saying: “To talk of an Afghan national army is to talk of something that is ultimately not possible.” Brzezinski, a Polish anti-Communist émigré, was one of the strongest advocates of waging a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

An article in the Dec. 3 British Guardian also noted doubts about the prospects of building an effective Afghan national army: “Sceptics point to desertion rates among army recruits of about 16%—one US estimate puts it as high as 25%—as evidence that the new Afghan army will not hold together. Defections by police recruits are said to be even higher...” The author, Simon Tisdall, noted that the Taliban has managed to infiltrate the police and that a Taliban mole killed five British soldiers.

Obama and the U.S. commanders are in fact talking about deals with local strongmen that will not go through the so-called Afghan national government. But the British military that fought in Afghanistan in the 19th century capsulized its experience with the nostrum that it is possible “to rent” but not to “buy” Afghan tribal leaders—that is, they shift their deals depending on their convenience. Moreover, Afghanistan has a tradition of corrupt warlordism that makes deals with tribal leaders and local gangs more complicated and politically disruptive than it was in Iraq.

Also, such practices undermine the argument against the Taliban. For all its ruthlessness and theocratic dogmatism, the Taliban did offer a respite from factionalism and chronic civil war in most of the country.

Although Brzezinski expressed a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the Afghan government, he expressed an Old World realism in responding to accusations of its corruption: “’Who are we to seriously be preaching [such] a crusade?” he asked. “We have a financial sector that is voraciously greedy and exploitative, to put it mildly. We have a Congress which is not immune to special interests. And we have an electoral system that is based largely on private donations which precipitate expectations of rewards. The notion of us going to the Afghans and preaching purity is comical. ...  I think we should just quit that stuff.”

Such frankness inadvertently points up the problem. The U.S. Afghan war is thieves dealing with thieves, and as the richest of thieves the U.S. and its private enterprise parasites are not necessarily the cleverest.

In the Nov. 30 issue of The Nation, Aran Roston revealed how the U.S. government transfers funds through a tangled network of private intermediaries to the Taliban: “In this grotesque carnival, the US military’s contractors are forced to pay suspected insurgents to protect American supply routes. It is an accepted fact of the military logistics operation in Afghanistan that the US government funds the very forces American troops are fighting. … In fact, US military officials in Kabul estimate that a minimum of 10 percent of the Pentagon’s logistics contracts—hundreds of millions of dollars—consists of payments to insurgents.”

But the complications of this privatization go far beyond filling the enemy’s coffers. The practice has also led the U.S. into a deep covert involvement in Pakistan, which could ultimately be a much bigger powder keg than Afghanistan. In its Nov. 23 issue,The Nation revealed that Blackwater, now “Xe Services” is carrying out an extensive covert operation within Pakistan that includes targeted assassinations and kidnappings.

The Nation offered some convincing testimony: “The source, who has worked on covert US military programs for years, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has direct knowledge of Blackwater’s involvement. He spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. The source said that the program is so ‘compartmentalized’ that senior figures within the Obama administration and the US military chain of command may not be aware of its existence.”

Or maybe they don’t want to know. The article continued: “’This is a parallel operation to the CIA,’ said the source. ‘They are two separate beasts.’ The program puts Blackwater at the epicenter of a US military operation within the borders of a nation against which the United States has not declared war—knowledge that could further strain the already tense relations between the United States and Pakistan.”

Blackwater operatives are generally former military specialists trained in the most sophisticated forms of murder, who collect huge bounties and live the lives of adventurers. It is hard for them to be invisible. And sooner or later, some of them are going to be caught, as four were in Falluja, where they were lynched by the local population. That incident led the U.S. forces to destroy the city, and the population is still suffering from the pollution caused by the weapons used.

If the U.S. Murder Inc. operations make messes in Pakistan, that will overshadow the worst that happened in Iraq. The Pakistani government is notoriously unstable and disrespected and there is abundant evidence of complicity with jihadists in the military and intelligence services.

At the moment, the big business press claims that a majority of Pakistanis support military operations against the Taliban. But that is a recent development, apparently owing to the Taliban’s overreaching itself. Past polls showed that a majority of Pakistanis blamed the U.S. for the jihadist violence. And all observers attest to a high level of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

Overall, the Huffington Post columnist’s dire view of the writing on the wall looks credible. And when empires reach this stage of decay, it’s difficult for the rulers to change course. In the American war effort there are just too many irresponsible private interests involved for the national administration to be able to defend the interests of the system as a whole effectively.

Moreover, the right-wing offensive that reached its peak under Bush has created a rabidly reactionary public opinion, the crazy one fourth of the U.S. population who will stand in the way of any intelligent maneuvering by the top leadership of U.S. capitalism.

The real rulers, unlike their right-wing fan club, are not ignorant or deluded. You cannot make huge fortunes without a certain grasp of reality. But maneuvers by the real rulers often create bitterness among the right. Look at the many statements by ex-military that the U.S. was not really defeated in Vietnam but that “weak-kneed politicians sold us out.” There were similar statements in right-wing blogs and Tea-Party rallies that Obama would prove himself a traitor if he withdrew from Afghanistan short of “victory.”

This out-of-control plunge into military adventures generates poisons that flow back into the American body politic itself. The only way that this process can be stopped is for the American people to take control of their country’s future by mobilizing against the war intoxication. And they can do that only if they organize independently of the political parties controlled by capitalism and which serve capitalism.

The delusion that it was possible to turn the U.S. toward humane social values by supporting an apparently more liberal capitalist candidate for president has now been dramatically exposed. Hopefully, the lesson will sink in for those who genuinely want to stop the slaughter of the innocent and the waste of American lives—and those of soldiers from allied nations—and to pull the U.S. out of its slide into ruin.

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