Obama’s Afghanistan Debate: Suffering, Death, and the Needs of Empire


October 7 marked the eighth year of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, making it one of the longest wars in U.S. history, and the end is nowhere in sight. Instead, today the imperialists are facing mounting difficulties and staring into the abyss of possible defeat.

A report by the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, states “the overall situation is deteriorating” and warns of possible “failure.” According to McChrystal, the insurgency is “resilient and growing,” while the U.S. and its puppet Afghan government face “a crisis of confidence among Afghans…that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.” The Taliban are now thought to be active in over 80 percent of the country, and NBC News reported they may now be stronger than they were before U.S. forces overthrew them in October 2001.

In this context, a major debate has emerged in the White House and the ruling class. The U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan is calling for as many as 80,000 more troops. At the same time, other ruling class forces like Vice President Biden are reported to oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan.

While the debate is out in the open, the real terms of it are not. The reality is that this debate has nothing to do with ending the war in Afghanistan. On BOTH sides, and in all shades in between, the argument is over HOW to advance U.S. strategic interests. Any discussion of the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan altogether is being ruled out of order. And the results, whichever side wins out, are going to bring more misery and death to the people who live in this region of the world.

People are being told to choose between one of the two sides in this debate. But this is a “debate” over how to best project and defend the interests of the U.S. empire. The actual interests of the people—of the region, and the world (including people in this country), lie completely outside those terms. There is another choice…a choice which corresponds to the interests of the vast majority of people on the planet. It is standing up to and against any further U.S. action in that region of the world, and in that way, helping bring onto the world stage another way—a force opposed to both U.S. imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism.

The Ruling Class Debate: Framed by the Interests of Empire

First, this is not a debate between “hawks” and “doves,” between those who want more war and those who want less (or no) war.

McChrystal and his supporters argue that the situation demands more U.S. troops—up to 80,000—on top of the 68,000 already there. They want to pursue a new counter-insurgency strategy of clearing the Taliban from territory it controls, and holding those areas and preventing attacks, while new governing structures can be built up. And they think this must be done quickly: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” McChrystal’s report states.

Others in and outside the administration (reportedly including Biden) agree on the need to maintain current U.S. troop levels to prevent a Taliban victory and destroy the Jihadist forces, but oppose a massive troop buildup. Given the Taliban’s roots among the people in Afghanistan and the lack of credibility of the Karzai regime, they feel that completely defeating the Taliban and building a stable central state is either impossible or far too costly economically, politically and militarily. But more, they argue the emphasis should be to launch more attacks on Al Qaeda (which is hiding out in Pakistan), mainly by drones and missiles, and making the stabilization of Pakistan—whose state some feel is in danger of collapse—the U.S.’s top strategic concern. They see Al Qaeda and the “extremist fundamentalists” as the main problem, and propose that some of the “more moderate” Taliban could be split off and integrated into a U.S.-dominated regime. Rather than spreading U.S. troops around the country to defeat the Taliban, they say the U.S. should put more effort into training the Afghan troops to back up and secure the regime installed by the U.S. A big troop buildup, they argue, could backfire—generating even more opposition to the U.S., while being extremely costly, with little chance of succeeding in creating a legitimate and stable pro-U.S. Afghan government. And the problem they see is that all this could take the U.S. focus off Pakistan, where they say it needs to be, overstretch the U.S. military, and weaken U.S. imperialism globally and in the region.

In short, McChrystal’s “option A” calls for more death and destruction wreaked on the Afghan people from the ground, along with more forcefully trying to control life in Afghanistan (including at the village level), and strengthening the Afghan state, through economic aid, bolstering its military and police and other measures. Biden’s “option B” would bring more death and destruction from the air, escalate the expansion of the war into Pakistan, strengthen the reactionary Afghan army and police, while leaving the majority of Afghans (who live in the countryside) to the mercies of the Taliban and local warlords.

So this debate isn’t over ending the war vs. continuing it, or how to best improve or save Afghan lives. Neither side questions America’s right to dominate and decide the future of the people in this region of the world or any other. It’s over how to best wage the war to achieve U.S. imperial objectives.

The Strategic Stakes of the War

Ending the war and leaving Afghanistan is off the table, as Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs made clear (October 5, 2009): “The President was exceedingly clear that no part of the conversation on—no part of the conversation involved was leaving Afghanistan. That’s not something that has ever been entertained…. I don’t think we have the option to leave.”

Barack Obama has insisted on having a thorough debate within his administration over which military and political strategy the U.S. should follow in Afghanistan. Obama has not yet announced his decision, but he has said before that Afghanistan is a war the U.S. “must win.”

The stakes for the imperialists are extremely high in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and defeat or retreat would seriously weaken the whole U.S. empire on a number of different levels. First, Afghanistan and Pakistan are located in the middle of Central Asia, one of the most strategically important regions in the world. Central Asia and the Middle East together contain 80 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas. With demand for energy outstripping supplies, competition for control of energy sources and the energy pipelines that criss-cross Central Asia has been heating up among the U.S., Russia, China and others. Whoever controls global energy supplies can exert enormous influence over the whole world economy and any country that depends on oil and natural gas.

Beyond this, dominance in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia has enormous political and military significance, and is a linchpin in the current world order with U.S. imperialism as the sole superpower.

Any retreat or defeat in Afghanistan would weaken U.S. global credibility—the sense that it is militarily unchallengeable. It would undermine support in the U.S. for other wars, invasions and occupations. And it could weaken the NATO military alliance, which the U.S. is counting on for more support, not less.

U.S. Imperialism and Islamic Fundamentalism—Mutually Reinforcing

Afghanistan and Pakistan are currently focal points in the clash between U.S. imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism.

The U.S. occupation has not, and cannot end religious fundamentalism, or the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. occupation is fueling Islamic fundamentalism in general and the Taliban in particular in many ways and on many levels. This deadly dynamic between these two reactionary and historically outmoded strata—the imperialists on the one hand and the Islamic fundamentalists on the other—continues, and continues to intensify.

The reality is this: If you support either force in this conflict between imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism you are reinforcing both. People must refuse to be locked into—and must actually break with—the framework of picking between these two reactionary paths and strata. And particularly for those who live in the U.S., what is needed is for people to STAND UP in massive numbers and resist and oppose the crimes being committed by the U.S. imperialists—in your name. Turning a blind eye to—or justifying—what the U.S. is doing only serves to give the U.S. more freedom to carry out these crimes and only intensifies the confrontation.

First, much as it is covered up, these Islamic fundamentalists—and the crimes they commit—have been engendered and built up by the imperialist system itself. For example, the imperialists directly supported these forces during the 1980’s when the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia organized and funded the Jihadist movement and Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Beyond that imperialism in its drive for profit has created a situation where millions have been uprooted from their homes and lives, and suffer daily as a result of the workings of the imperialist system. In the midst of great physical and social dislocation and extreme poverty brought on by imperialism, people turn to organized reactionary Islamic fundamentalists who claim to have a “way to fight” the forces that have made people’s lives a living hell—even though Islamic fundamentalism is not any kind of positive alternative to imperialism, and does not seek in any way to break the chains that enslave the people of oppressed countries within the networks of global imperialism.

With regard to Afghanistan in particular, let’s take a look at the last eight years. Working hand in glove with the thoroughly corrupt and reactionary U.S.-installed regime of Hamid Karzai, the U.S. has (to one degree or another) been pursuing a strategy of preventing a Taliban takeover, promoting economic development, training Afghan forces, and facilitating reconciliation. The results have been enormous violence inflicted on the Afghan people, including torture, imprisonment, maiming, and death, deepening impoverishment, hunger and starvation—all of which have worked to drive people into the arms of the Taliban.

And neither “side” in the current debate in the White House will change any of that.

Under Biden’s “lighter footprint” option, there would be more strikes from the air, like the one that killed nearly 100 recently near Kunduz, when 500 desperately poor people surrounded two tanker trucks in hopes of getting free fuel, only to see loved ones consumed in a flaming inferno after U.S. planes bombed the tankers. U.S. airstrikes and the Pakistan army’s offensive in northwest Pakistan have driven over three million from their homes; this too would accelerate under Biden’s plan.

And what of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan that would put tens of thousands more U.S. troops on the ground and attempt to win over and “protect” the Afghan people? This would also accelerate the killing and brutalization of the Afghan people, it would just do it on ground level. A recent Frontline (PBS) documentary, “Obama’s War,” which followed a group of Marines implementing this new boots on the ground, hold territory, defeat the Taliban approach in Helmand Province, provided a glimpse into what this strategy means.

While military commanders talk about this new approach as if it were a humanitarian mission, the encounters filmed by Frontline showed an occupying military force targeting a population it considered a likely or potential enemy. U.S. soldiers operated like police in the inner cities of this country—stopping and frisking a group of Afghan men and warning them not to stuff anything in their shirts or try and run—that this might “look suspicious” with the obvious implication that it might lead to being killed by the U.S. A Marine officer tries to get information from local villagers, then gets angry and warns them if they don’t answer he’ll think they aren’t “co-operating” or they’re helping the Taliban. Meanwhile firefights are going on daily. (And such suspicions can get Afghans killed or sent to Baghram and other U.S. torture centers where over 15,000 Afghans are now locked up without any due process or basic rights.)

The actions of the brutal, corrupt and oppressive Afghan government put in power by the U.S.—and which is like a mafia or warlord state—is also driving people toward the Taliban. This is a government headed by President Hamid Karzai—hand-picked by the U.S.—who recently presided over an election in which nearly one-third of the ballots cast for him were fraudulent. One of Karzai’s chief allies and backers is Gen. Abdul Dostum, a northern warlord responsible for massacring some 2,000 prisoners of war in 2001 by stuffing them into boxcars and suffocating them to death. Dostum has kidnapped and tortured political opponents, and during the 1980s played a prominent role in assassinating revolutionary Maoists.

This is the government that Biden wants to keep in place (with more training for police and military) and that McChrystal wants to strengthen even more. Again, the humanity and lives of the Afghan people are not part of the calculations.

What the U.S. Brings to Afghanistan

The truth is that the U.S. acts to strengthen relations of exploitation and imperialist dominance, and it imposes political structures (whether the forms are more democratic or less) that enforce those relations. This includes preserving and incorporating the traditional and feudal social and economic relations that are the basis for the profound impoverishment of the Afghan people, as well as for religious fundamentalism.

This is a big reason that life remains a horror for the Afghan people. Since 2003, life expectancy has fallen to 43.1 years, and adult literacy has fallen to 23.5 percent. Up to 70% of Afghanistan’s estimated 26.6 million people are considered food-insecure by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which reports millions have recently been pushed into high-risk food-insecurity because of high food prices. One of every three Afghan children under five is malnourished, and in 2005 (the last year for which estimates are available), the average Afghan earned roughly $271 a year—less than $1 a day, and 42 percent of the people exist on less than $14 a month.

The following, from an interview with a displaced civilian, reveals what this means for the people of Afghanistan:

    [translated] If it wasn’t for the war, I would want to go back. If there was freedom, I want to go back. Why am I here? Now there is war and bombardment, and I can’t go back. Before, I was a farmer, but I can’t go back. I was growing wheat and poppy and corn, melons. I was taking care of the children. But right now I can’t do anything. Look, they are barefoot in this cold weather. I don’t have anything. I am very poor. They are standing in the water barefoot. I am scared they will die. Then what can I do? One of my daughters is dead. She died, and they will die, too. This child, I can sell her, but nobody will buy her. What can I do? I can sell her, but nobody wants her. What can I do? For God’s sake, I want to sell this child, but nobody wants her. What can I do? I have nothing. I am poor. I don’t have any blankets, I don’t have any shawls, I don’t have any clothes. There is no food that I can put in her mouth. For God’s sake, I am poor. Otherwise, I wouldn’t give her for one million. I know nobody wants to sell their daughter, but I have to. She is innocent, but I am poor. I have nothing.

(From Robert Greenwald’s new film, Rethink Afghanistan at rethinkafghanistan.com. Also excerpted with transcript on Democracy Now!, October. 2, 2009)

Continuing U.S. domination of this country also means empowering reactionary warlords, religious figures, tribal chiefs, and power brokers who enforce religious fundamentalism and patriarchy. After eight years of U.S. occupation, 87 percent of Afghan women suffer abuse in their homes, honor killings and rape are on the rise, and the vast majority of women remain enslaved in their homes—under the control of male relatives. Meanwhile, an Afghan woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes. “The human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse not better,” one UN official recently declared.

The U.S. can and will bring nothing good in Afghanistan. Its actions will bring down increased suffering and misery to the Afghan people, and with every village that is bombed, with every Afghani who is tortured, Islamic fundamentalism will be fueled. And the dynamic goes on and gets worse.

Supporting any ongoing U.S. occupation—whether the McChyrstal plan or what Biden is proposing—is immoral and wrong. It does great harm to the people. This is true not only because of what the U.S. has done and will do in Afghanistan, but because legitimizing the Afghan war and occupation also legitimizes U.S. military interventions and the U.S. empire overall. The U.S. is a far, far greater danger to the planet than the Taliban—which does not have thousands of nuclear warheads and a massive, globe-straddling military machine, does not have a stranglehold on the global economy that enforces hunger on a billion people, and is not the force driving global environmental destruction. And imperialism is primarily what has driven the revival and spread of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism. Supporting either one strengthens both, when what the world really needs is to bring forward a whole other way.

People here do have an enormous responsibility to the people of Afghanistan—and the world—to oppose the crimes of U.S. imperialism. The rulers of this country should be held accountable for their ongoing crimes against the people of Afghanistan and the whole region by building mass political resistance against their wars of empire, breaking their “America first” ideological hold on people, and politically and ideologically weakening the U.S.’s ability to maraud around the world—and continue to wage war in Afghanistan. 

Larry Everest is a contributing writer for Revolution newspaper (www.revcom.us), and the author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda (Common Courage).  He can be reached via www.larryeverest.com.

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