'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Afghanistan is Lost 

With Iraq and Iran dominating the news, the defeat in Afghanistan, originally the central front in the war on terror, has received little, if any, attention. But out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind, as Tariq Ali has described the gravity of the situation:

It is Year 6 of the UN-backed NATO occupation of Afghanistan, a joint US/EU mission. On 26 February there was an attempted assassination of Dick Cheney by Taliban suicide bombers while he was visiting the 'secure' US air base at Bagram (once an equally secure Soviet air base during an earlier conflict). Two US soldiers and a mercenary ('contractor') died in the attack, as did twenty other people working at the base. This episode alone should have concentrated the US Vice-President's mind on the scale of the Afghan debacle. In 2006 the casualty rates rose substantially and NATO troops lost forty-six soldiers in clashes with the Islamic resistance or shot-down helicopters.

The insurgents now control at least twenty districts in the Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan provinces where NATO troops have replaced US soldiers. And it is hardly a secret that many officials in these zones are closet supporters of the guerrilla fighters. The situation is out of control. At the beginning of this war Mrs Bush and Mrs Blair appeared on numerous TV and radio shows claiming that the aim of the war was to liberate Afghan women. Try repeating that today and the women will spit in your face.

Who is responsible for this disaster? Why is the country still subjugated? What are Washington's strategic goals in the region? What is the function of NATO? And how long can any country remain occupied against the will of a majority of its people?

Few tears were shed in Afghanistan and elsewhere when the Taliban fell, the hopes aroused by Western demagogy did not last too long. It soon became clear that the new transplanted elite would cream off a bulk of the foreign aid and create its own criminal networks of graft and patronage. The people suffered. A mud cottage with a thatched roof to house a family of homeless refugees costs fewer than five thousand dollars. How many have been built? Hardly any. There are reports each year of hundreds of shelter-less Afghans freezing to death each winter.

Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, this conflict is likely to continue indefinitely. Most Americans know little about what has transpired there, and the lack of the loss of a significant number of American lives means that we are probably willing to prosecute what is, by comparison to nearby Iraq, a small dirty war for quite awhile, even if the objectives become increasingly obscure. Paradoxically, if we finally leave Iraq, it will reinforce our commitment to remain in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the refusal of other NATO countries to increase their forces there is cause for cautious optimism, and, perhaps, the Italian left will eventually compel the government to withdraw its troops.

Tariq Ali's analysis of the situation is not that unique, but the conclusion of his article points towards a possible additional explanation for US military intervention in the region:

Washington's strategic aims in Afghanistan appear to be non-existent unless they need the conflict to discipline European allies who betrayed them on Iraq. True, the al-Qaeda leaders are still at large, but their capture will be the result of effective police work, not war and occupation. What will be the result of a NATO withdrawal? Here Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states will be vital in guaranteeing a confederal constitution that respects ethnic and religious diversity. The NATO occupation has not made this task easy. Its failure has revived the Taliban and increasingly the Pashtuns are uniting behind it.

The lesson here, as in Iraq, is a basic one. It is much better for regime-change to come from below even if this means a long wait as in South Africa, Indonesia or Chile. Occupations disrupt the possibilities of organic change and create a much bigger mess than existed before. Afghanistan is but one example.

The key phrase here is the possibilities of organic change. Is there anything that alarms the US more than organic change within a country or region? After all, the US frequently tends to support social, religious or political minorities so as to make them dependent upon US support for their survival. There are many examples over the decades: Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq (under Hussein), Vietnam (Diem, the Catholic, in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country), Taiwan (the Han Chinese of the KMT and previous waves of immigration, not the indigenous Minans, and, of course, not the continental People's Republic, at least until 1972), military dictatorships and moneyed elites in countries around the world, but, especially Central and South America (always sensitive to the need for advanced weaponry and well trained security services to maintain docility), and, of course, the classic, enduring case, Israel.

Most recently, in the 1990s, we lived through the embrace of the ex-Soviet apparatchiks of Central Asia. Organic change can be roughly translated as indigenous change, even as we admit that there is no pure form of it. Such change presents the prospect of people governing themselves according to social and economic systems independent of ones imposed by the US, and, potentially, even resistant to the US, as we now observe in Venezuela. Few people respond enthusiastically to being subjected to the ruthlessness of neoliberal primitive accumulation, the remorseless exploitation of their labor and resources, for the benefit of transnationals and the far away elites that control them.

Is it possible that the urgency for the invasion of Iraq was the fear that the Iraqis themselves would soon depose Saddam and the Baathists without US assistance? Was it necessary to invade Iraq to depose Saddam and destroy the country's infrastructure so that Iraqis could not chart their own course? Is there an even greater fear that the Iranians may likewise liberate themselves from the stifling constraints of the Islamic Revolution, opening the door to a powerful non-aligned relationship with the Russians and Chinese, among others, two countries, we should recall, that are now both considered lost, China, in 1949, and Russia, in 1917 and, again, now, in the early years of the 21st Century, because they are among the rare countries self-sufficient enough to periodically refuse to accept US dictation?

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