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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reflections on the WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Logs 

While many responded to the release of the Afghanistan war logs by WikiLeaks with a belief that it would politically damage the Obama administration, as I did, or undermine support for the war, as others did, Chris Floyd was a contrarian:

So in the end, what really is the takeaway from this barrage of high-profile revelations dished up by these bold liberal gadflies speaking truth to power? Let's recap:

Occupation forces kill lots of civilians. But everybody already knew that -- and it's been obvious for years that nobody cares. How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?

Pakistan is pursuing its own strategic interests in the region: interests that don't always mesh with those of the United States. Again, this has been a constantly -- obsessively -- reported aspect of the war since its earliest days. How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?

The Afghan government installed by the occupation is corrupt and dysfunctional. Again, this theme has been sounded at every level of the American government -- including by two presidents -- for years. How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom of the war?

There is often a dichotomy between official statements about the war's progress and the reality of the war on the ground. Again, has there been a month in the last nine years that prominent stories outlining this fact have not appeared in major mainstream publications? Is this not a well-known phenomenon of every single military conflict in human history? How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?

Iran is evil and is helping bad guys kill Americans and should be stopped. It goes without saying that this too has been a relentless drumbeat of the American power structure for many years. The occupation forces in Iraq began blaming Iran for the rise of the insurgency and the political instability almost the moment after George W. Bush proclaimed mission accomplished and all hell broke loose in the conquered land. The Obama administration has continued -- and expanded -- the Bush Regime's demonization of Iran, and its extensive military preparations for an attack on that country. The current administration's diplomatic effort is led by a woman who pledged to obliterate Iran -- that is, to kill tens of millions of innocent people -- if Iran attacked Israel. The American power structure has seized upon every single scrap of Curveball-quality intelligence -- every rumor, every lie, every exaggeration, every fabrication -- to convince the American people that Iran is about to nuke downtown Omaha with burqa-clad atom bombs.

So once again, and for the last time, we ask the question: How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?

It doesn't, of course. These media bombshells will simply bounce off the hardened shell of American exceptionalism -- which easily countenances the slaughter of civilians and targeted killings and indefinite detention and any number of other atrocities anyway.

Floyd is on to something here, even I don't agree with his conclusion, as it strikes me as too reductionist. Admittedly, the logs have a multifaceted quality that tend to confirm the preconceived notions of those who learn about them. Hence, in the US, the emphasis has been, as noted by Floyd, upon the the purported deceit of the Pakistanis and the alleged covert operations of the Iranians. We may well paradoxically remember the release as part of the inexorable momentum in support of an attack upon Iran. But, as I noted on Monday, the primary impact of the disclosures is in Europe, where restive populations of the UK and Germany have been even more disquieted by US mendacity and lack of concern about civilian casualties.

But there is more to it, more to the US intervention in Afghanistan that has been commonly understood, and the WikiLeaks release does little to clarify it. As I remarked here on Tuesday:

Unlike the invasion of Iraq, which has been a tawdry exercise in imperialist competition, the occupations of Afghanistan, both the Russian and the American ones, are about something else. Both have been modernization exercises, attempts to coerce a pre-industrialized society into the circuits of globalization. It is an effort similar to the centuries long effort of sedentary, agricultural societies in China and Southeast Asia to enclose the more migratory hill peoples and reduce them to state subjects, as described by James Scott in his magisterial The Art of Not Being Governed.

As explained by Scott, peoples that remain outside the state system are considered existential threats. Hence, the contemporary designation of regions around the world with limited to non-existent state authority as especially perilous, as rogue states, failed states and terror havens. David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist, has, much like Scott, a different perspective as expressed in his articles based upon his field work in Madagascar in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For him, the erosion of centralized authority creates an opportunity for people to develop their own informal practices of government and social relations.

Thus, in regard to Afghanistan, the liberal emphasis upon subjects such as the lack of any significant al-Qaeda presence in the country or the need to redirect our effort away from military activities to economic development misses the point. People within much of Afghanistan, as well as the hill regions of Pakistan, object to modernization as imposed from the outside, whether by force or by economic assistance. Given that the state and capital are interwoven forms of social control that must expand to encompass all the space provided, both outwardly (the entirety of the territory of the world) and inwardly (every aspect of daily life, including the extremes of childhood and human sexuality), the war in Afghanistan is a perpetual one, one in Brezhnev, Bush and Obama have all found themselves on the same side.

Afghanistan is therefore a foreshadowing of possible conflicts throughout the most impoverished regions of the lesser developed world, especially Africa, which has become a Pentagon preoccupation.

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