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GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE:

The Politics of Re-Election and the Continuing Tragedy of Afghanistan

by J. Russell Tyldesley
Originally published in This Can't Be Happening on 29 November 2009

To my knowledge there were no peace activists or academics invited to the series of meetings Obama held with his war council to prepare Americans for the inevitable. Even in the war councils of our Native Americans, there was usually a peace advocate so all tribal members could be heard.

It is at least mildly ironic that President Obama, having campaigned on the importance of an exit strategy and timeline for Iraq, has now endorsed a policy of escalation for our war in Afghanistan, with no timetable for withdrawal. Suddenly, Afghanistan is a “must-win”—but, given the goal of building a stable democracy in that country (so as not to be a haven for terrorists, of course), some experts suggest the timetable will be at least 50 years. Others have said that it is flatly impossible, even with a million NATO soldiers deployed.

Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam could not win against the communists of the North. We found out after we withdrew that it was a nationalistic movement after all, and not the advance of a monolithic international communist plot.

It is curious that the administration is not yet pointing to success in Iraq. They know that the unrest in Iraq is far from over. There will be no rest without justice, a commodity hard to imagine among the warring factions and in light of an unrepresentative government in service to the U.S. There is, however, an abundance of smoke and mirrors, gladly embraced by an obedient press, to promote a fake progress. Whereas the troop levels have been drawn down by 16% since Obama’s election (seemingly in fulfillment of a major campaign promise), there has been a 52% increase in armed mercenaries in our employ. These are the figures in the December issue of Harper's magazine. Since private contractors were already about 50% of our personnel in Iraq before Obama’s “change,” do the math—it looks like an escalation to me. There is now an oil agreement with the Iraq government, however, which excites Exxon and other oil giants, albeit that it's not fully endorsed by all sectors of Iraq’s fragmented society.

The comparable privatization and corporatization of war is likely to continue in Afghanistan.

We have witnessed a massive abandonment of the idea of “real change that we can believe in,” eleven months into the new administration. I know "we have to be patient," as say most liberals and many progressives, but so far the record is at extreme odds to the promises.

There is no question, for example, that Obama has bowed to the health insurance industry in the fashioning of a health care reform bill he can sign. The industry will make out like the bandits they already are, no matter which version of the "plan" ultimately comes out of the conference committee. In addition, Obama and his Wall Street-centric advisors have rolled over for the banks and the mega financial institutions that perpetrated the near-global financial meltdown of one year ago. The culprits were bailed out and no new regulatory reforms are yet on the table. Why would the barons of Wall Street change their behavior when there is so much profit in derivatives and other such complex and opaque instruments of greed? Prepare for another meltdown before the end of Obama’s first (and perhaps only) term.

During the G20 summit held in Pittsburgh this past September, Obama said, "I fundamentally disagree with their [the anti-globalization activists being arrested] view that the free market is the source of all ills.” This seems to negate another campaign promise: that there would be reform to NAFTA, the WTO and other global trade arrangements that are sucking jobs from Americans, bringing us risky products produced by near-slave labor and polluting the environments in the seller countries that we are increasingly in hock to up to our eyeteeth. The G20 appears to be yet another attempt to run away from other international institutions that may not do our bidding. We say they are "ineffective," but we have made them that way.

Organized labor (what’s left of it) will not be happy with Obama. He bailed out general Motors and Chrysler with $60 billion in taxpayer money, but instead of using those funds to create jobs and retain jobs, government-guaranteed loans are being used for wage cuts, downsizing, moving production to foreign countries (including Canada, with its universal healthcare), and “lean production” here, all of which are hallmarks of neo-liberalism. (I recommend reading Walden Bello’s article on The G-20.)

It is in this context that Obama’s big decision on Afghanistan is best understood. He will make no fundamental changes to Bush era policies. Maybe this is the reason behind his reticence on holding the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld regime’s collective feet to the fire on their war crimes. On Chris Matthew’s show on November 30, one of the panelists opined that the guiding principle of the Obama era is “no drama.” Anyway, we are prepared to see him maintain the status quo and bow to the entrenched special interests making money on the “war on terror.” The military will be respected, regardless of their own vested interests. The military-industrial-Congressional complex will have no reason to complain. To my knowledge there were no peace activists or academics invited to the series of meetings Obama held with his war council (to much publicity) to prepare Americans for the inevitable. Even in the war councils of our Native Americans, there was usually a peace advocate so all tribal members could be heard.

One thing for sure we know about Afghanistan is that the large part of the population that is not in complicity with the warlords wants us out because, in fact, we are supporting a government of warlords.

It is generally considered that Obama is a smart man. His decision to escalate in Afghanistan has deadly parallels to Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the conflict in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago. As Jonathan Schell argues in his article. “The Fifty Year War,” in the 11/30 issue of The Nation, “Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t know by now that you can’t win a guerilla war without winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people?” Obama’s key advisors all know that truth, as they either lived through the Vietnam experience or studied it extensively. Mr. Schell compares the American Empire to those empires of the past and sees the major difference being that we do not want to occupy a country forever, and only want to install a stable, compliant government before we leave. The problem is getting the people in an occupied country to want what we want. One thing for sure we know about Afghanistan is that the large part of the population that is not in complicity with the warlords wants us out because, in fact, we are supporting a government of warlords.

Afghanistan is well described as a narco-state and could give lessons to the Mafia.

We are supporting a government in Kabul that completely lacks credibility with ordinary Afghans. Of course, this is not the picture the mainstream press in America portrays. The Afghan parliament is comprised of at least 50% warlords or warlord deputies. Most of them committed despicable war crimes during the civil war that followed the Soviet occupation. This was not well reported in the U.S. These warlords still have their own militias and do not answer to Kabul. The country is well described as a narco-state and could give lessons to the Mafia. Nearly everyone of any consequence is on the take. There is a total culture of corruption. The saying goes that the only honest politicians you will find in Afghanistan are in the cemeteries. Virtually no one in parliament even tries to represent the people—to do so would invite assassination.

Although the new Afghan constitution requires 25% of parliament be women, the women are so intimidated they do not dare take a position against the warlords. A new book, A Woman Among Warlords, by Malalai Joya, is the story of one woman elected to parliament who refuses to be silenced by the warlords. She speaks for the people of her village and for all Afghan people who desire peace and freedom from the iron yoke they live under. Malalai travels with six armed guards who work for free. They move to a different safe house nearly every night. She has escaped several attempts on her life. And all this for speaking truth to power. She has been banned from parliament for criticizing other members—those that are guilty of human rights violations and war crimes. Her goal is to have the criminals in parliament tried for the massacres they authored during the civil war, and the crimes they continue to commit in the name of a perverted fundamentalist version of Islam where women are treated as the property of men. She claims that for the average Afghan they are probably worse off under the Karzai government than they were under the Taliban, as bad as they were.

It seems the Taliban will ally themselves to any faction that will pay them. There are even Taliban in the Karzai government. The alliances are ever-shifting and virtually impossible to sort out.

Another article in the same issue of The Nation, “How the U.S. Funds the Taliban,” by Aran Roston, provides examples of how our forces have to buy protection from the Taliban in order to be able to have safe transit for equipment and supplies through the vast rural areas of Afghanistan. It seems the Taliban will ally themselves to any faction that will pay them. There are even Taliban in the Karzai government. The alliances are ever-shifting and virtually impossible to sort out.

Given the facts on the ground that there are no good guys, why then the idea that this is the good war and that we can win it? According to Schell, it is the same syndrome that drove the escalation in Vietnam under LBJ. McGeorge Bundy, LBJ’s national security advisor, admitted that the effort to win Vietnam was likely to fail, but “even an unsuccessful war would damp down the charge we did not do all that we could have done.” So, we now know that we fought in Vietnam for credibility and re-election. LBJ was deathly afraid of the war faction on the right; unfortunately, Obama seems to feel the same political heat. The intelligence community during the Vietnam era debunked the “domino theory” that had all the countries of Asia falling to communism if North Vietnam was successful, but most Americans at the time bought this domino fabrication, and the rest is history.

So, the lessons of Vietnam were known but not admitted publicly before the mega escalation. The same seems to be true now. Obama will opt not to lose credibility by challenging the military community. He will send more young men to die for a lost cause. He will further alienate the civilian population of Afghanistan that would actually like a real democracy. We cannot build a real democracy from the coterie of warlords that dominate the current government. How can we impose a democracy in a country with no such tradition, whose leaders think democracy is a joke (as they publicly embrace it)? How to offset a tribal tradition and the perversion of religion that hold half the population in virtual slavery and most of the other half by intimidation and force?

Nevertheless, if Obama can keep up a gradual escalation until the eve of the 2012 elections, he may be able to win re-election, even without any progress on health care reform and other key agenda items. He will be a war president, and you don’t change horses, etc, etc. But by the end of his second term,, the true extent of the chaos in Afghanistan will be impossible to disguise.

I prefer to think that there are slightly less ignoble reasons to persist in an unwinnable (potentially stalemated) war. Oil, gas, pipelines and a new resource cold war with China and Russia—now that makes sense.


J. Russell Tyldesley, a retired insurance executive, writes from Santa Fe, NM



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This story was published on December 1, 2009.