Obama’s imperial war

In Afghanistan, the U.S. president embraces his role as leader of the American Empire.

AT THE end of March, under cover of darkness, Barack Obama made an unannounced six-hour visit to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, meeting with U.S. military personnel and with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Obama’s brief stopover underlined both the continuing difficulties that face U.S. forces in Afghanistan and his determination to escalate military intervention to defend the interests of the American empire.

Obama took the opportunity to defend the U.S. occupation. “We did not choose this war,” he told U.S. troops. “This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence; of us wanting to meddle in somebody else’s business. We were attacked viciously on 9/11. Thousands of our fellow countrymen and women were killed. And this is the region where the perpetrators of that crime, al Qaeda, still base their leadership.”

 But the reality is that the United States government did choose the war in Afghanistan, and from the start it had everything to do with “America wanting to expand its influence,” and very little to do with bringing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice. In the first place, the immediate perpetrators of those attacks—the individuals who actually planned and carried them out—died in the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In the second place, most of the planning for the attacks took place not in Afghanistan, but in Germany, Spain and in the United States itself.

 And in the third place, if the U.S. had been seriously interested in pursuing the leaders of al Qaeda, it would have pursued the offer of the Taliban government in September 2001—in accordance with international law—to extradite Osama bin Laden in exchange for evidence that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan before the U.S. invasion, Mullah Zaaef, repeatedly requested that the U.S. provide such evidence, and when Secretary of State Colin Powell announced in late September that he would publish a dossier documenting Bin Laden’s involvement, Zaaef responded that this was “good news” that could resolve the situation “otherwise than [by] fighting.” But no dossier was ever issued.

The journalist John Pilger reported that

in late September and early October [2001], leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic parties negotiated bin Laden’s extradition to Pakistan to stand trial for the September 11 attacks. The deal was that he would be held under house arrest in Peshawar.

According to reports in Pakistan (and the Daily Telegraph [a conservative British newspaper]), this had both bin Laden’s approval and that of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

The offer was that he would face an international tribunal, which would decide whether to try him or hand him over to America.

But according to Pilger, the Bush administration killed the deal:

The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan was notified in advance of the proposal and the mission to put it to the Taliban. Later, a U.S. official said that “casting our objectives too narrowly” risked “a premature collapse of the international effort if by some lucky chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.”

The only way of interpreting that final comment is that the U.S. did not want bin Laden, or other al Qaeda leaders, to be handed over, because that would remove their rationale to attack Afghanistan, something that the Bush administration had already decided to do.

In fact we know on the basis of insider reports from figures such as the administration’s “counterterrorism czar” Richard Clarke and Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, that at first the White House wanted to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq. Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, revealed in his book The Price of Loyalty, that an invasion of Iraq was already being discussed in cabinet meetings as early as February 2001. But in the days following September 11, Bush was persuaded that it would be better to attack Afghanistan first—in part because that could be more easily sold to the U.S. public—and then use that as a stepping stone to a later war on Iraq. That is exactly what happened.

Far from being something that was forced on the U.S., the invasion of Afghanistan was from the beginning very much a war of choice.

THE WAR also played a role in furthering longstanding U.S. goals of maintaining and extending its position as the world’s most dominant power. A memorandum written by the Council on Foreign Relations in consultation with the State Department in October 1940, shortly before the U.S. entered the Second World War, stated that the U.S. aimed “to hold unquestioned power” in the postwar world and “to achieve military and economic supremacy” across as much of the globe as it was able to control.

Following the war, an internal State Department Policy Planning document written by George Kennan, one of Democratic President Harry Truman’s key foreign policy advisers, outlined U.S. goals in equally blunt terms:

[W]e have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population.… In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.…

We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

The goal of dominating a “grand area” that is “strategically necessary for world control,” was the underlying rationale for repeated U.S. interventions—overthrowing governments and killing millions—in Indochina, the Far East, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America in the second half of the 20th century. All told, Washington has used its military forces to violently intervene in foreign countries well over 200 times since the Second World War.

For most of this period, the U.S. was engaged in a global competition for power with the Soviet Union. But following the latter’s collapse at the start of the 1990s, new opportunities emerged. In early 1992, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, wrote a classified report arguing that in the post–Cold War world, the U.S. “must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor…. [W]e must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”

When Wolfowitz’s document was leaked to the New York Times in March 1992, it created such a public uproar that it was quickly withdrawn. But the same ideas were rearticulated in a report from the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) issued in September 2000, written by a number of figures (including Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Lewis Libby) who would shortly play prominent roles in the Bush administration.

The PNAC report outlined a strategy for “maintaining global US pre-eminence…and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests,” including using overwhelming military force to take control of the Gulf region, with its strategically vital oil resources. But the report also noted that to implement such aggressive policies, “some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor” would be needed. From that perspective the 9/11 attacks offered the Bush administration a golden opportunity to put into effect plans that many of its members already wanted to pursue.

 Afghanistan, as noted, was seen as a stepping-stone to Iraq and the Gulf, but it was also important for other strategic reasons. As political analyst, and University of London professor, Gilbert Achcar notes:

[T]he ideological framework created by 9/11 and the Afghanistan war provided an opportunity to establish a direct military presence not only in Afghanistan but in Central Asia, which, strategically speaking, is considerably more important. Countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where the United States set up air bases after 9/11, lie in the heart of the former Soviet Union. If you add to this the U.S. involvement in the Caucasus, you see that Washington is trying to set a military vise around the Caspian Basin, which is an important source of hydrocarbons, not only oil but especially gas.

As Achcar goes on to point out, the region is also important to the U.S. because of its concerns about increasing military and economic cooperation between Russia and China. Washington hopes that a U.S. military presence at “the heart of the landmass extending from European Russia to China” will serve to keep its rivals in check.

BUT WHILE the Bush administration began the war in Afghanistan, since taking office last year, Obama has definitively made it his own, significantly escalating the U.S. military presence and the level of aggression over the past 12 months. Thirty percent of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have occurred since Obama became president. Meanwhile, each week brings new reports of Afghan civilians who have become “collateral damage” in the war, and military operations have now spread across the border into Pakistan, creating millions of refugees and hundreds more civilian casualties.

The destabilization of Pakistan is one reason why Obama has sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the area and has expanded military operations, including deadly attacks by unmanned military drones. It is also an indication that despite over eight years of war, the U.S. has been unable to achieve its goals, and has no chance of doing so in the foreseeable future. Administration and military insiders are now talking about a decade or more of occupation and war.

There is no longer any significant al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, and the idea that at this stage the war has anything to do with the 9/11 attacks is laughable. Instead, the U.S. wants to create a stable central government that will support U.S. interests in the region and ensure that nuclear Pakistan remains a reliable Western ally. But it is failing miserably to achieve either one of these aims. Following last year’s fraudulent elections, Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul has no legitimacy, and remains weak and corrupt. To make matters worse, recognizing that the U.S. has no one to replace him with, Karzai has started to thumb his nose at Washington, making friendly overtures to both Iran and China, criticizing the U.S. for the large number of civilians it has killed, and warning U.S. and NATO forces that they could be seen as “invaders.” Meanwhile, the increased U.S. military presence is only serving to increase instability in the region.

A few weeks after a major U.S. offensive in Marja, a U.S. military spokesman told the New York Times that the Taliban have “reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways,” adding, “We have to change tactics to get the locals back on our side.” But just as in Vietnam in the 1960s, it is impossible for the U.S. military to distinguish “the enemy” from the “locals.” According to the Times:

In Marja, the Taliban are hardly a distinct militant group, and the Marines have collided with a Taliban identity so dominant that the movement appears more akin to the only political organization in a one-party town, with an influence that touches everyone. Even the Marines admit to being somewhat flummoxed.

 “We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’ ” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”

“We have to readjust our thinking so we’re not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we’re trying to chase the enemy out,” he said. “We have to deal with these people.”

At the beginning of April, a few days after Obama’s visit, details emerged of a massacre carried out by U.S. special forces in February. The commandos shot and killed two civilian Afghan men, two pregnant women and a teenage girl in the southeast town of Gardez, then attempted to cover up what they had done by digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies and cleaning up the crime scene. The incident was horrific, but in general terms by no means an aberration. As Obama embraces his role as protector of the U.S. empire, we can expect the civilian death count and the atrocities to mount further.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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