In a major foreign policy speech on Tuesday, US President Obama announced the sending of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The fact that he gave the speech at West Point military academy, the single most prestigious US military academy, was significant. As the chief arbiter and representative of the different factions of the US state apparatus, the president was attempting to shore up his base within the military while also boosting that base’s prestige to the public.
The long-studied and long-awaited decision sought to balance between different strategic as well as political goals. In so doing, he has apparently pleased nobody. Recognizing the general unpopularity of the war, Obama announced that these additional troops will be brought home shortly before his next election campaign (or in two years from now). This timetable, however, is already being attacked by the Republicans, who say that it must be set not by a predetermined date, but by achievement of certain goals (whatever those goals may be). On the other hand, his decision to send the additional troops is wildly unpopular with many of his fellow Democrats, especially amongst some of his strongest supporters. This is ironic since Obama, himself, practically announced he was going to ramp up the war in Afghanistan during his election campaign.
The expected cost of this troop “surge” is some $30-40 billion. Already, there is increasing concern about the massive US deficit – vastly swollen by the trillions given away to finance capital in the US. Several options have been floated to pay this new cost: One is a special “war tax”. Such a tax would be hugely unpopular and the Republicans would be bound to make political hay from it. Another possibility is to increase the deficit, but this deficit is already huge and very worrisome for Corporate America. The third possibility is to further cut other federal programs – which are already cut to the bone. Whatever is done, there are bound to be conflicts and struggles.
Although never mentioned in his speech (of course), there has been much discussion within US and Western military/strategic circles about a concept called “asymmetric warfare”, which refers to wars such as that being fought in Afghanistan, in which the which US military is not confronting another state power. At the start of the invasion of Afghanistan, it was thought that they could just get it, take out the Taliban and al Qaeda, and leave. It turned out to be much more complicated than that. As most military experts understand, winning a war takes more than defeating the enemy on the battle field.
For US capitalism to accomplish its goal, it must build a credible central government in Kabul. This, in turn, revolves around Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It is extremely difficult to see how a Karzai regime can change. With a brother who is a major drug king-pin, Karzai has built a regime based on support from regional war lords, drug kingpins, thieves, thugs and murderers. How can he now transform his entire method of operating without alienating this base of support?
US (and Western) imperialism will seek to build their own independent base of support in parts of Afghanistan. Several factors come into play here:
On the one hand is the significance of Obama’s having put General Stanley McChrystal in charge of US (and Western imperialism’s) troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal is the former head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). JSOC was developed as an “elite” force that would identify and kill terrorist cells, including those holding kidnapping victims, using what is called “surgical strikes”. In Iraq, under McChrystal’s command, JSOC ran notoriously brutal prison camps in Iraq, so brutal that it was his explicit policy to openly bar the Red Cross from entry into those prisons. One former McChrystal colleague who publishes under the pen-name Dalton Fury, an ex-Army Ranger, wrote: From my perspective, our rules of land warfare, our respect for human life, and our strategic constraints handcuff us to the point that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. But, with LTG McChrystal at the helm now all bets are off. This puts the lie to all Obama’s talk about morality, justice, freedom, etc. It puts the lie to his claim that he opposes the use of torture. It also means that the idea of winning over the population of Afghanistan is not likely.
Taliban and al Qaeda
The only thing the US and Western troops have going for them is the extremely reactionary nature of the opposition – the Taliban, who are also widely unpopular in Afghanistan and al Qaeda. This contrasts with the situation in Vietnam, where even Eisenhower admitted that if there had been a genuine election during his days that Ho Chi Minh would have won easily. Even Obama recognized this when he referred to the situation in Vietnam as one of a “popular insurgency.” In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese forces and the Vietcong were combating the power of the corrupt landlords, etc. In Afghanistan, it is one corrupt group of thugs (the Karzai regime) combating another – perhaps slightly smaller - such group.
This, and this alone, means that some support – however limited and reluctant – or at least a lessening of popular resistance to US and Western troops in Afghanistan cannot be ruled out.
Counterbalancing this are the goals that determine US strategy in Afghanistan, and lying behind those goals are the motives that drive the opposition.
In some ways, those motives can be summed up in one word: Israel. The unwavering US support for Israeli racism and expansionism can be seen as a modern-day equivalent of the Crusades of several hundred years ago. This support guarantees the continued existence of widespread hostility to US imperialism throughout the Muslim world. Due to the lack of a wider working class movement in general, a layer of the capitalist class of the Islamic world has captured this general opposition, through such groups as al Qaeda and also the Taliban. These groups, themselves, express the imperialist drive of Arab imperialism in the case of al Qaeda and Pakistani imperialism the case of the Taliban.
Imperialist Rivalries and Oil
Then there is the rising conflict between US capitalism and that of China and also Russia. China, for instance, is making some links in Afghanistan which relates to its conflict with Indian capitalism.
Access to natural resources has always been one of the driving forces behind imperialism, and the conflict in Afghanistan is no exception.
Testifying before US congress in 1998, John J. Maresca, Unocal Vice President of foreign relations commented on the enormous gas and oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region. He said: “One major problem has yet to be resolved: how to get the region’s vast energy resources to the markets where they are needed.” The preferred solution is a pipeline that would be through southern Afghanistan, including through Helmand Province and from there into Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan along a route known as Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) route. (TAPI also gives US capitalism a very specific interest in trying to help resolve or at least modify the conflict between Indian and Pakistani capitalism.)
It is significant that in all the talk about US military strategy in Afghanistan, the province that is repeatedly named as a center for US efforts at “pacifying” – a concentration point for US troops - is Helmand Province, the same province through which major portions of TAPI would pass.The US will also increase its attacks in northern Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan – another region for the TAPI pipeline.
In his speech, and elsewhere, Obama emphasized the need to help assure economic development in Afghanistan. This is similar to the campaign to win “the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people during that war there. However, here a problem arises: McChrystal first called for the additional troops in an Oct. 1 speech to the London Institute for International Strategic Studies. In that speech, McChrystal explained the difficulty in carrying out development projects. He explained, for instance, the “simple” problem of digging a well: Wherever this well would be dug would strengthen the political might of whatever ruling force existed in that location, at the expense of that force’s local and regional rivals. So, at every step, all the rivalries between these bands of thugs and thieves come into play.
Maybe even more important, any economic development would threaten the semi-feudal class relations that exist in in rural areas of countries like Afghanistan (and Pakistan). And since the capitalist class itself is directly drawn from and has direct ties to and overlaps this semi feudal landlord class, they themselves cannot support or lead any such economic development. Thus, the very base of support upon which an imperial power must rest would oppose such development.
The only countervailing force could be that of the working class and its potential peasant allies. However, although different capitalist powers may have their conflicts, even leading to wars, one principle is sacred amongst them: Never, under any circumstances, must they call upon the working class to organize to express their interests. Thus, any economic development projects will inevitably get bogged down.
US Working Class
Obama and US capitalism will also be facing another problem: The attitude of the US working class. In his speech, Obama cited all the trite clichés about the US being one people, united for justice, freedom and liberty, etc. However, never in recent decades has this lie been more doubted at home. The concentration of wealth is greater than at any time in US history, and this is widely seen or at least felt. This concentration was both expressed and boosted by all the bail-out programs of Bush and then Obama, programs designed to save the profits of finance capital. Meanwhile, the millions of people who lost their jobs and homes here are left to fend for themselves. The millions of college and university students who cannot afford school are left to doubt their future. Millions of children from poor families cannot receive basic health care.
During Vietnam, there was an organized troop resistance movement which was linked to the mass popular resistance to the war. In the absence of such a massive resistance, the opposition to this war amongst the troops is expressed, among other ways, by increased troop suicides. In one under reported incident, 21 US soldiers at a base in Iraq attempted suicide on September 8 of 2008, and 16 of these succeeded. This base was infamous for its brutal treatment of Iraqis. In all of 2008, there were 268 reported suicides of active duty US soldiers. Amongst Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, it is estimated by Truthout.org that 46% suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. There are widespread complaints amongst these veterans that they cannot get help from the Office of Veterans’ Affairs.
During Vietnam, President Johnson called his policy one of “guns and butter” – war overseas while concessions to the working class and the youth were granted at home. Now, US workers and youth are seeing economic attack after attack. These attacks are now generating the beginnings of a widespread student movement. This student movement will spread and deepen. Already widely discussed is the fact that the money needed for education and other social programs is being spent on these wars, while there is none for economic reforms.
Also, as opposed to the Vietnam era, wider layers of the US working class have come under attack for decades now. These attacks have sharply intensified with the economic crisis. This lays the ground for a direct link between any student movement and a wider working class movement. Already, such links are being discussed and even acted upon. This contrasts with the Vietnam era, when much of the student movement discounted the role of the working class. (It is no accident that the petit-bourgeois academic Herbert Marcuse – known for his claims that the working class would no longer play a role – was so popular at that time, and now he is almost unknown.)
In sum: The increased presence of US troops in Afghanistan might have certain short term successes, mainly due to the reactionary nature of the armed resistance to these troops (the Taliban and al Qaeda). This, in turn, flows from the absence of a mass workers’ movement internationally. However, the economic crisis of capitalism is starting to reverse the decades of relative quiescence of the working class movement. In the US, this is seen in the rising student movement, one which will inevitably tend to link with the US working class. The US troops surge in Afghanistan will exacerbate all the tensions inherent in US society as well as internationally, and will only accelerate the development of a world working class movement.