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Afghanistan… What was he (Obama) thinking?

December 18, 2009


More and more, the US build up in Afghanistan is reminiscent earlier US military efforts. While there are a number of them that could be carted out with valid comparisons – Vietnam, Iraq, for some reason another, one, long lost to public consciousness keeps coming to mind: it is the one I consider the most cowardly, strategically dumb – but politically necessary (in terms of rebuilding the military arm of US foreign policy) of all the US military interventions since World War II – the 1983 US invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, code-named `Urgent Fury’ (sounds like an aging hegemonic power with an enlarged military prostate) Grenada, a virtually defenseless place, was an easy target.

After the stunning defeat – that is the correct word I believe – the US suffered in Vietnam, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 with its equally humiliating US hostage crisis, and then the 1982 bombing of the US marine barracks in Lebanon (for which Hezbollah will never be forgiven), the US was desperate for a military victory in part to make up for the drubbing it had taken, in part to set the stage for further direct US military interventions in the Third World. The Reagan Administration was eager to score a win and then `build on that’…for example in Panama in 1989.


If Grenada comes to mind, I suppose it is because once again – as I will argue below – the current US administration is in, some ways, in a similar situation. It wants either `a win’ or, more importantly this time the illusion of a win – so it can use Afghanistan as a springboard for future interventions.  There is also the disturbing impression – growing rather strong – that in deciding to go to war, Barack Obama has yielded to intense political pressure from the military itself, with military controlling the civilian sector rather than the other way around, as it should be.

Has Ronald Reagan morphed into Barack Obama?

On some level – the US has been actively using `springboards’  since Sept 11, 2001 when it rushed into Afghanistan militarily and crudely, only to use Afghanistan as a springboard and an excuse to invade Iraq, the supposed success of that intervention being used as a springboard to back into Afghanistan where we screwed things up so badly in the first place. Once again, more than like, this Afghan military adventure will be used as a spring board for further US military aggression – in the name of free trade and democracy of course – somewhere else, perhaps Africa or Latin America?

So…Afghanistan was a springboard for Iraq which was a springboard for Afghanistan again which is probably a springboard for a leap into the unknown – Iran? Africa, Venezuela? – but this next time, it is hoped, under the cover of a NATO coalition?

What was he thinking?

Why does this speculation come to mind? It is a response to the two awful speeches our president – elected on a peace platform – has made in recent days, the first at West Point, the second – and here is performance was at the very least hypocritical,  – accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while giving his excuses for further wars. And the question comes to mind: What was he thinking?

I don’t know.

For the reasons Barack Obama has given for his Afghanistan strategy does not make any sense to me. Conn Hallinan, guest blogger here (December 16), and commentator on international affairs for Foreign Policy In Focus, gives a number of reasons why Obama’s decision – it was ultimately his – to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan won’t work. Among them

– As former Soviet General Rodionov suggests, `everything has already been tried’ – meaning the Soviets tried different military strategies in Afghanistan and none of them worked

– Each of Obama’s three stated goals for the Afghan surge (1. To militarily defeat Al Queda and isolate the Taliban; 2. To train the Afghan army to take over the war; 3. To partner with Pakistan against `a common enemy) are all profoundly flawed (again see Hallinan for the details)

– the surge will irritate Washington’s relations with its European allies that are less than enthusiastic about the whole venture.

Pretexts, Not Reasons

Like with Iraq before 2003, the reasons given for military action in Afghanistan are pretexts. The Afghan pretexts are not so crude as with Iraq where there were no weapons of mass destruction and the invasion (isn’t that the correct word) had nothing to do with `building democracy’, The specific pretexts for the Afghan surge cited above are a little more `tactical’- clever if you like – than the crude bullshit that George Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice peddled. But once again pretexts cloud the both the underlying more substantial reasons for the build up.

Hallinan’s piece deconstructs the pretexts quite well, but leaves open a fundamental question. If this Afghanistan operation is so profoundly flawed in the first place, then why is Obama proceeding? What are the underlying rationales for yet another US act of aggression against a Middle East nation? Why would a president who won the presidency at least in part on a promise to get us out of war in one country (Iraq), escalate US military operations in another?

Reasons Not Pretexts

Several friends addressed these questions a couple of evenings ago here in Denver at our monthly book club meeting. We didn’t come to any strict conclusions – just started to get at the underlying themes and rationales for the Afghan surge. Among them:

– Afghanistan is not `a good war’ but yet another immoral one fought by the United States to further its imperial aims in the Middle East and Central Asia to tighten its control over the region’s oil and national gas production and pipelines.

– it seems obvious – both from Hallinan’s comments and our discussion that the `current

 – Afghan’ surge would not `win the war’, that the Taliban and Al Queda would melt into the mountains and virtually nothing would be accomplished militarily and that the US military and the Obama Administration is well aware of this..

– The factors driving the policy are a number of considerations, among them:

– Obama doesn’t want to be a one term president and thinks he must show `not only that America is strong’ to get re-elected, but that the Democrats are not soft on using the military option.

– It was suggested that what might be referred to as `Democratic Party insecurity’, making the Democrats appear as foreign policy whimps goes back to as far as 1948 when – in the language of militarism – `Truman lost China’, meaning not that Truman couldn’t find China on the map so much as a Democrat, he was in power when the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1948 took place. Since that time, the argument goes, there has been a `China Syndrome’ among Democrats. One reason Johnson refused to withdraw from Vietnam in the 1960s, although he knew the US couldn’t win the war, is that he thought if a withdrawal took place during his presidency, the Democrats would lose in 1968. (So he didn’t withdraw but the Dems lost anyway.) This argument might sound obscure, but there is something to it – Democrats have long been on the defensive about being `soft on defense’ etc.

– The more general theme about the bedrock power of US militarism in American life not only fueling this war, but all US military interventions in the Third World was raised. According to this logic – historically persuasive – the military industrial complex – the war machine – the only part of the US production economy that remains relatively healthy needs wars – constant, perpetual wars. The `war on terrorism’ against the elusive enemy who could strike anyone, anytime, anywhere provides the excuse for such a policy.  

How else can it justify the manufacture of new and more obscene weapons systems. We seem to be in a `drone mode’ these days. It is not only the military industries that like wars, but the military itself. Again, there is some truth to this argument too, and to the pervasive power that the US military has in the political process in this country.

– the energy angle, that Afghanistan could be the site of a natural gas pipe line extending from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan, India and perhaps China. There is something to this too, although the strategic value of Afghanistan to energy is somewhat limited. Still, a US military presence in Afghanistan extends US strategic influence in the area, puts more pressure on Iran from the East (and also on Russia, China and India to a certain extent) and helps extend United States strategic control of oil and natural gas that much further.

Prince’s hypothesis: Learning from the Scythians

I approach making hypotheses these days, much as the Sycthians did, as described by Herodotus. When faced with a difficult decision, they would first argue the issue out soberly and come to some decision. Then they would get – and they did get quite often – seriously stoned and discuss the issue in an altered state. If the decision sober matched the decision stoned, they would proceed. I will not divulge in what state I arrived at the following, but will only admit that the other approach will soon be considered:

My own unproven hypothesis is that while there is some economic rationale to the US Afghan troop surge, that it does not make much sense – or perhaps enough sense – is more apt to justify the military build up. Something else is probably going on, but what?

The Obama Administration knows what Hallinan has presented, but unwisely has rejected his advice (they could do far worse).

– For starters, Obama knows that Afghanistan is war that cannot be won; he knows that the Taliban and Al Qaeda – the latter being strategically irrelevant despite all the hooplah – will fade into the mountains, nip away at the US military using classic guerilla tactics as they did against the Soviets.

– But Obama can still claim that the US has won the war and then move onto the next one where the strategic interests might be more important. So the actual winning of the war doesn’t matter as long as the administration can argue – more or less like they did in Iraq – that the surge worked, and justified the effort (and the losses which will ensue).

The US loves NATO

– At least on some level the Afghan surge – nay the whole effort – is a US attempt to drag its NATO allies along with it, so that they begin to absorb the human, economic and political costs of US global policing. Afghanistan is a test case for the `international coalition’. The scenario is already quite clear – the US wants more from its European (and Asian) allies in terms of participating in US directed `global security’ efforts.

The Europeans are skeptical at best, their populations more and more openly hostile. The US wants to convince its allies that the joint operations can be successful, not only to knock out the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but perhaps more importantly to set a precedent so that such joint efforts can be reproduced and intensified in the future.

In this sense the Obama Administration – very much in tandem with Bush before him – hopes this is the first joint military effort of its kind, not the last. In so doing, the attempt is to permanently reshape and refocus NATO into a strike force that the US can use anywhere in the world – but especially in countries and regions where strategic resources are at stake – be they oil, gas, coltan, copper, etc.

Two Track US Security Strategy in Africa: NATO or Africom

Along these lines, it seems that the US is playing a two track strategy in Africa – on the one hand trying to develop Africom – the US African Command. US security interest in Africa gravitate around oil diamonds, copper, coltan and other strategic materials at a time when the global supplies for all of these are tightening. To date, the Africom `option’ – not particularly popular with many African countries by the way, up until the present anyway – is their insurance policy, with the US `exploring its options.’ The US would much prefer an expanded NATO presence in Africa. Should the NATO option not work, the Africom option will be further developed.

All this comes as the US military is stretched more and more internationally and the US economy – as a result both of the structural crisis it has been in for decades combined with the dramatic financial crisis of recent years – is in a mess. Military operations under the cover of NATO would ease some of the financial pressures that the US is certain to face in the future. It is from this perspective that one can say the fate of the US military operations in Afghanistan are crucial – not only for the fate of the country, but – if this analysis is even close to correct – the outcome has much broader implications, that go far beyond whether or not Barack Obama runs for a second term.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2009 5:06 pm

    hey this is a real nice post and i also like your blogs’ layout, have bookmarked your site and looking for more updates.

  2. December 18, 2009 9:40 pm


  3. January 11, 2010 11:23 am

    I cannot believe this is true!


  1. Tweets that mention Afghanistan… What was he (Obama) thinking? « Rob Prince's Blog --

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