Anti-Imperialism & Obama’s War in Afghanistan
I became an anti-imperialist during the American war on Viet Nam in the 1960s. I came to understand the war as the logical outcome of a long-term US strategy to gain power in Asia (at least since the Spanish-American War of 1898). The US had replaced the French as the imperial power in Southeast Asia in the 1950s. Viet Nam nationalists represented no plausible threat to American security nor were they manipulated agents of a Soviet strategy to take over the world. Ho Chi Minh had never threatened the US, and in fact had allied with Americans against the Japanese during World War II. The Vietnamese nationalists, led by the Communists, sought genuine independence and self-determination; what was termed national liberation. Soviet international policies – with the important exception of Eastern Europe (through which it had been invaded twice in the 20th century) – were essentially defensive, and sometimes positive when the Soviet Union provided support for national liberation struggles. It was not an apologia for Soviet-style Communism to recognize that its international policy did not represent the threat advertised by US propaganda.
Subsequent US interventions in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guyana and Panama added further grist to the anti-imperialist mill. Extravagant claims of Communist takeover justified coups, death squads, and even invasion. US support for apartheid in South Africa, and dictators like Mobutu in the Congo, Suharto in Indonesia were legitimized by anti-Communism, as well.
In the post-911 world, despite even more hyperbolic rhetoric and an intervention against a brutal dictator, it was not hard to decipher from an anti-imperialist perspective (as distinct from a corporate media perspective) that Iraq did not pose a threat to US security, but rather was a vulnerable obstacle to US control of Middle East resources.
But Afghanistan does not so neatly fit into this perspective and this may account for the loss of footing for the US left in opposing this war and presently, Obama’s escalation. Afghanistan did serve as a rear base for Al Qaeda’s 9/11/2001 attack on the US (of course, Hamburg, etc. served as forward bases) and Al Qaeda has a global strategy which is anti-imperialist in rhetoric, if repressive and chauvinistic in practice. Thus Afghanistan became the ‘good war’ for the likes of John Stewart, as well as Obama and many antiwar Democrats, as distinct from the wrong war in Iraq. For them the problem with the Iraq war was, in part, how it distracted from the necessary war in Afghanistan.
Obama’s March 27 “A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” picked up this thread while fulfilling his campaign promise to carry the fight to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the spirit of the great reporter, I. F. Stone let me closely examine the words of our political leaders and quote at some length. If you are familiar with Obama’s latest position, feel free to skip past the quotes.
Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.
…To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy. To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
…There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course.
…Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We’ll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan security forces and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan’s economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.
…And finally, together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. None of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development.
…I remind everybody, the United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. Al Qaeda and its allies have since killed thousands of people in many countries. Most of the blood on their hands is the blood of Muslims, who Al Qaeda has killed and maimed in far greater number than any other people.
Reaction from antiwar spokespeople has been mixed. Democrats in Congress and grassroots activists close to the Obama campaign, while wary, see possibilities, with Obama giving up on the futile Bush hope of restructuring Afghani society, opening the door to diplomatic action inside and outside Afghanistan.
Opposition to the war has so far focused on its ‘unwinnability’ Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’, but without clearly challenging its morality as an imperial war. A difficult war is still, arguably, a necessary one if the threat is dire. Obama, while clearly re-committing to the war in Afghanistan and possible/likely escalation into Pakistan, offers a challenge to anti-imperialist analysis. US withdrawal from Viet Nam meant victory for partisans of national liberation and, theoretically, socialism. What would US withdrawal from Afghanistan mean, for Al Qaeda and Muslim fundamentalists?
These issues are insightfully explored by Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmad Rashid in “From Great Game to Grand Bargain” (in November/December 2008 Foreign Affairs). They are not pro-imperialist, but see no viable alternative to hoping that the US will take the lead as the only possible honest broker — or at least one with enlightened self-interest — to lead the world from the brink of chaos; nuclear Pakistan undermined by internal extremists, fearful of India, isolated Iran, a beleaguered Afghani government, and regional powers, India, China, Russia, as well as the US maneuvering counterproductively for their own advantage. They are fearful of a purely military solution a la Bush and argue passionately for a grand bargain among regional powers as the only long-term chance for peace and stability.
Others in the antiwar camp, from TomDispatch to Noam Chomsky to most antiwar activists attempt to develop a deeper critique. Obama’s speech brought to mind, for Bill Fletcher, LBJ’s reluctant descent into the quagmire of war against Southeast Asia. This raises the further question of what Obama means when he asserts that “going forward, we will not blindly stay the course [echoes of LBJ]. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.” If the US fall short of the ‘metrics’ what will be the consequence? Can the US pull back or will the war have become ‘too big to fail’?
How might an anti-imperialist perspective help us to oppose the war in Afghanistan more effectively? First of all, we have to rid ourselves of the old, never adequate, model of their being one imperialist super-power poised against anti-imperialist freedom fighters. Opposition to imperialism can be reactionary or progressive depending on its goals, its strategies and tactics. Saddam Hussein was not ennobled because the US turned against him, nor is Osama bin Laden (recalling that both were allies of the US in the 1980s).
Anti-imperialism impels us to start from the perspective of the Afghani people. Most polls show that the Afghani people, of all political persuasions, have tired of US and NATO military operations. Air attacks – with inevitable civilian deaths – have been condemned even by the American-anointed President Hamid Karzai (though he did welcome Obama’s latest speech). Anti-imperialists must pay closer attention to what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan. This includes differentiating nationalist opposition to US and NATO interventions from opposition tied to Al Qaeda, distinguish different forces inside the Taliban, and secular opposition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, we must also pay more than lip service to the actions and expressed desires of Afghani women, the likely victims of any compromise with Taliban forces. The perspective of Afghanis and Pakistanis has been curiously absent from most, including left, discussions of the war.
Secondly an anti-imperialist perspective focuses attention on motives that lie below the media spotlight, including economic motives. What role do the energy politics of Central Asia and the Gulf play in US strategy, including the proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to India? How do US forces in Afghanistan affect not only Iran, but China and Russia? Why will so many troops remain in Iraq; what is the future of contract mercenaries in the war machine? Or as Chomsky wonders: why is NATO is involved (and why does it still exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union) – when its original rationale was to protect Europe from Soviet attack?
We would also profit from linking war to the workings of capital, including financial capital and the current economic crisis. Naomi Klein did a brilliant job of linking the Iraq war to a neoconservative fantasy of Iraqi privatization. Obama asserted that “to help Pakistan weather the economic crisis, we must continue to work with the IMF, the World Bank and other international partners.” How are these international institutions implicated in the world financial crisis? As Chomsky notes, along with Brazil’s Lula, the US in the wake of financial disaster is free to do exactly what these institutions prevented third world economies from doing in the name of structural adjustment: increasing government expenditures, protecting companies too big to fail and lowering interest rates.
Why is the military budget sacrosanct in this time of budget cuts? As TomDispatch notes,
By the end of 2009, the cost of the Iraq War — that is, of putting down another set of rag-tag insurgents — will pass that of the Vietnam War and, in dollars spent, stand second only to World War II in U.S. history. Add to that the rising expense of a never-ending Af-Pak War and — in the worst of economic times — you have the equivalent of a vast financial hemorrhage, an economic sinkhole.
Obama’s vaunted cuts amounted to a 4% increase in the military budget. Is the economy so hollowed out that military production is the sole provider of tangible goods, as well as jobs in countless Congressional districts? As a variation on Eisenhower’s theme, has military/financial complex replaced the military/industrial complex? And to disinter Lenin, does the global struggle for markets and resources inevitably lead to armed conflict? What divisions have been caused by the wave of capitalist globalization? Who has been victimized and who has been left out?
My overall point is that a left should be linking the economic crisis to the war and not going along with the conventional separation of these connected phenomena. As insightful and knowledgeable as Rubin and Rashid are about the realities of Afghanistan, they view Afghanistan in a void, not from Central Asia, but from the reality of global economic crisis and from the dynamics of the world economy. For Americans to grasp the problem of escalating war in Af-Pak, as Washington insiders like to call it, they need to see it as connected to their economic problems.
Finally, the left needs to offer an alternative and proportionate strategy to isolate, if not eliminate, Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is dangerous and reactionary, but Bush’s and now Obama’s rhetoric is disproportionate. Al Qaeda has no army, is holed up in the hinterlands, and its tactics are increasingly being disavowed by Muslims to Al Qaeda’s consternation. What can undermine this trend would be continuing intervention in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and of course Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here we can draw upon Rubin and Rashid’s analysis (see above for link) to promote a regional diplomatic strategy as an alternative to war, not as a corollary to it, as Obama has it. They are right that there are shared interests in opposing Al Qaeda and in de-escalating regional conflicts. Most intractable is the Pakistani/Indian conflict over Kashmir — Obama’s plan pays little attention to that issue. A US without imperial pretensions – not maneuvering for energy hegemony and not blindly supporting Israel — is key to a positive outcome, if currently outside the reach of Obama’s policy.