OBAMA’S DECISION to escalate the war in Afghanistan is a watershed event, a defining moment of his presidency. It is true that Obama consistently argued that Iraq was the “wrong war,” a distraction from Afghanistan, the “right war.” Yet for many, it still feels like a betrayal. Despite Obama’s consistent support for stepping up U.S. military action in Afghanistan, his criticism of the Iraq War fixed in the minds of millions of his supporters that Obama was not going to be a war president like his predecessor.
“There are countless reasons the American people have lost confidence in the president’s Iraq policy,” Obama told Congress in 2007,
but chief among them has been the administration’s insistence on making promises and assurances about progress and victory that do not appear to be grounded in the reality of the facts.… We have been asked to wait, we have been asked to be patient, and we have been asked to give the President and the new Iraqi Government 6 more months, and then 6 more months after that, and then 6 more months after that.
It is this Obama that his supporters recall, not the Obama pushing for escalation in Afghanistan. To hear him reaffirming the “war on terror,” stoking public fears, calling Afghanistan a “war of necessity” to defend the U.S. against terrorist attacks, and making solemn references to 9/11, is jarring. The difference is that whereas the Bush administration, high from its initial success in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, spoke elatedly of remaking the Middle East, now the escalation and spread of the conflict is justified in terms of staunching a worsening situation.
The anger among some prominent liberals is palpable. After Obama’s West Point speech announcing the new surge, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart asked if Obama was channeling Bush. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow compared Obama’s speech to Bush’s 2002 Bush Doctrine speech and found them strikingly similar.
“Like many people, I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president,” commented Gary Wills. Wills stayed loyal as some of Obama’s supporters became soured by the president’s backtracking on opposition to torture, and his support for detentions without trial and renditions, “disheartening continuations of George W. Bush’s heritage.” But for Wills, the Afghan surge was the last straw:
Although he talked of a larger commitment to Afghanistan during his campaign, he has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement. This war too is a dumb one. It has even less indigenous props than Iraq did.
The liberal opponents of the Iraq debacle—many of whom initially supported the invasion of Afghanistan as a “just war,” could for a long period of time focus in on Bush, Cheney, and the neocons as imperial cowboys who had hijacked American foreign policy. Obama’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, his backtracking on torture and detention without trial, and the neocon rhetoric he has used to justify it, make this position no longer tenable. Obama isn’t so much “channeling” Bush as demonstrating to his ruling-class backers that he is capable of filling the shoes they expect him to fill as commander-in-chief of the American Empire. This isn’t surprising. The Democratic Party is not only beholden to Wall Street—as the Obama administration’s bailout of the bankers makes clear—it is also a party of U.S. imperialism, a fact learned by the Vietnam War generation and now being learned all over again by a new generation.
It is a watershed moment, then, because it signals clearly and unequivocally that Obama is positively engaged as the leader of the world’s largest imperialist power.
As much as the Iraq War, Afghanistan is a war conducted—using 9/11 as a window of opportunity—to achieve a dominant position in a strategically important region for the United States, an area rich in natural gas that borders China, Iran, and Pakistan.
It is worth remembering that the United States, by funding the fundamentalist resistance in Afghanistan against the 1979 Russian invasion in what was the largest and most expensive covert action since the Second World War, spawned both bin Laden’s al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban.
Washington sought at first to work with the Taliban. “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco [the consortium of oil companies that controlled Saudi oil], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that,” said one U.S. diplomat in 1997. Then, after 9/11, when most people were mourning, the Bush administration was discussing how to “capitalize on these opportunities,” as Condoleezza Rice once said.
The opportunity to set up a string of U.S. bases and a client state in a region rich in oil and natural gas wasn’t to be missed, and so offers by the Taliban to hand over bin Laden were ignored, and the invasion went forward. Once engaged, U.S. imperialism could not accept defeat without threatening its reputation in the eyes of its allies, dependents, and rivals, as the world’s most powerful hegemon.
Obama’s warning that Afghanistan is not Vietnam reveals less about the differences between these two wars than it does about the obsessions that haunt U.S. administrations. True, the Taliban is not the National Liberation Front; as a Pashtun-based organization based on deeply reactionary politics, it is incapable of providing a framework for the kind of national liberation struggle that could defeat the occupiers as was done in Vietnam.
On the other hand, given the unwillingness of the United States and its allies to commit the kind of forces that might mean victory over the Taliban (hundreds of thousands rather than 100,000 troops)—a product of the lingering impact of Vietnam that makes U.S. governments shy away from the military draft—the ability of the Taliban to continue to harass and demoralize the occupying forces may be enough. This is especially true given the fact that the U.S. is incapable of creating a strong central client state in a country that has never had a strong central government.
As analyst Cohn Hallinan has pointed out, the main goals of the surge—defeat al-Qaeda and significantly degrade the Taliban, build up the Afghan army and strengthen the power and reach of the central government, and reinforce the partnership with Pakistan to defeat a “common enemy”—are not likely to go well.
First, it isn’t clear that the U.S. will even be able to find the few hundred al-Qaeda operatives Obama claims are operating in Afghanistan. Second, the Taliban have already demonstrated their ability to play whack-a-mole, leaving areas of heavy U.S.-led military operations and moving elsewhere to fight another day. Third, the increased levels of violence that will be inflicted on ordinary Afghans as a result of the surge will drive more of them into opposition to the occupation. As Patrick Cockburn writes, while the Taliban isn’t really strong enough to become hegemonic in Afghanistan, U.S. policy is going to create a wider war. “U.S. officials on the ground in Afghanistan say that the insurgents are members of the embattled Pashtun community, fighting the Americans as they once fought the Soviets,” note Cockburn. However, “Their connection to the Taliban is often vague.”
By treating Pashtun villagers as if they were all Taliban, and Taliban as being the equivalent of al-Qa’ida, Mr Obama is increasing, not reducing, the threat of terrorist attack on the US or Britain. He is providing the battleground bin Laden hoped for and, like President Bush before him, has jumped willingly into the al-Qa’ida trap.
In addition, there is the fact of low and declining U.S. troop morale among soldiers who are being forced to return for multiple tours of duty.
The goal of strengthening the Afghan army will be difficult to achieve, given the extremely high levels of desertion (25 percent) and its extremely low morale. And as Hallinan notes, Tajiks, who are 25 percent of the occupation, make up 41 percent of the troops and 70 percent of the officers. Tajik troops are being widely deployed in Pashtun areas, creating the conditions for a future civil war.
Administration officials claim the surge will work, just as it did in Iraq. But Patrick Cockburn writes, “The guerrilla war against the U.S. in Iraq ceased because the Sunni community was being slaughtered by Shia death squads.” The surge had at most a marginal impact. Continues Cockburn:
Yet it is the mythical success of the US troop “surge” in Iraq in 2007–8 which is being used as a template for US military policy in Afghanistan two years later. A strategy, which did not work in the way the Pentagon said it did in Iraq, is now to be applied in Afghanistan where conditions are, in any case, entirely different. A danger is that the new American strategy will provoke the same mass slaughter in Afghanistan as happened in Iraq.
Finally, efforts to fight a “common enemy” in Pakistan fall down because the Pakistani government’s enemies—the Pakistani Taliban—are not the same as the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar, which is avowedly concerned only with returning to power in Afghanistan, not challenging Pakistan. Writes Hallinan, “In short, Obama’s ‘partnership’ would have the Pakistanis pick a fight with all four wings of the Taliban”—an effort that would further destabilize Pakistan. That destabilization is being advanced by the Predator drone attacks, which have escalated under Obama’s command, and have killed hundreds of Pakistani civilians.
The escalation of the war by a Democratic administration underscores the necessity, and the opportunity, for building a clearer and more consistent antiwar movement that is independent of both parties and willing to take on both.
It is no longer as easy to make vague appeals to some alleged better nature of American intervention—it has always been about using military might to deter any potential challengers to American power. The “war on terror” was, and continues to be, a pretext to justify the indiscriminate use of that power. It is a pretext, however, that is much harder to sell to the American public more than eight years after 9/11.
The antiwar movement against the war in Afghanistan was always weaker than that against the war in Iraq, mainly because many who opposed the Iraq War accepted the one in Afghanistan as somehow the legitimate “retaliation” for 9/11. That now can and must change. As the war in Afghanistan escalates and intensifies, there is an opportunity to begin building a stronger movement against the war in Afghanistan, one that is based on firmer politics, and independent from both parties of war.