History never repeats itself, of course. But human nature being what it is -- and the tropes of power and dominance being what they are -- there is a great deal of assonance in history: near-rhymes, recurring echoes in the present which do not chime exactly with the past but fall closely enough to resonate with meaning.
Reading Timothy Synder's account of the genocidal famine in Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s (in his new book, Bloodlands), I ran across the following passage. In it, Snyder describes how Stalin sought to explain away the manifest, catastrophic failure of his policy of forced collectivization, which had led to millions of deaths by starvation:
Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of progress.
This passage leapt immediately to mind while reading accounts of Barack Obama's vaunted "review" of his ever-intensifying, ever more catastrophic war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The results of this "review" were a foregone conclusion, of course: the President would decide that his policy was the right one and should continue. The only "change" would be a surge in "kinetic activity" along the Pakistan border, with increased drone bombings of Pakistan villages (which have already killed many hundreds of innocent civilians) and more Special Forces operations "along the border" (i.e., inside Pakistani territory). There will also be greatly increased pressure on the Pakistani government to "invade" its own territory and slaughter thousands of its own people in the border regions to relieve the pressure on their American masters in Afghanistan.
In other words, American policy in Afghanistan is failing so badly that Obama is about to engulf a volatile, unstable, nuclear-armed nation in a vast, divisive, violent upheaval led by an utterly corrupt and unpopular government. The result will be the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent people, the displacement of millions more -- in a land still reeling from one of the worst natural disasters the world has seen in modern times -- and, of course, the spread of extremism, hatred, instability and chaos.
But for Obama, this highway to hell is actually an indication of "considerable gains toward our military objectives." The ever-spreading insurgency in Afghanistan, which now controls or has strong footholds even in northern regions which the Taliban never controlled before the war, is not, as you might think, a glaring indication of the catastrophic failure of the militarist agenda; on the contrary, it is, Obama says, a sign of "significant progress." This has been the argument of our bipartisan militarists since the very beginning, in Afghanistan and Iraq: any problems in our violent occupations of these foreign lands is caused by enemy action -- and all enemy actions, including the control of more and more territory, can be defined as evidence of progress. The very success of the enemy, the fierceness of their resistance, is evidence of their desperation, their ultimate and imminent collapse.
Thus Stalin on the deaths of millions of innocent people at the hands of his policies. And thus Obama, and the entire bipartisan political establishment, on the bloodbath in the bloodlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We are speaking of echoes and assonance, of course, not exact parallels. The death tolls in the Af-Pak catastrophe has not reached Stalinist proportions -- yet. But the prospects for the widening war in Pakistan are almost unbearable to contemplate. What might a nuclear-armed state, controlled largely by its military, do in the event an imminent collapse brought on by the launching of a civil war at the behest of a foreign power? What if it decided the only way to bring the nation back together was a war against the hated common enemy in India? We have already been to the brink of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India within the last decade. And even a non-nuclear war between the two would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.
And that is only one entirely plausible scenario if the Pakistanis knuckle under to the wishes of their imperial patrons -- the "progressive" Peace Laureate and the Bush Family apparatchik he has retained as his warlord -- and launch the all-out assault on their own people that Washington demands. As Hamlet said: It cannot, and it will not, come to good.
Meanwhile, the present reality of the situation is bad enough, and worsening. Even as the Obama Administration was trumpeting its "progress" and "success" in the nine-year war on one the most blasted, broken-down, defenseless places on earth, Patrick Cockburn, on the ground in Afghanistan, was recording the evidence of growing hunger among the "liberated" people, due largely to the utter corruption at the heart of American policy:
But the most extraordinary failure of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is that the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars has had so little impact on the misery in which 30 million Afghans live. Since 2001 the US alone has provided $52 billion in aid, two thirds for security and one third for economic, social and political development.
Despite this some nine million Afghans live in absolute poverty while a further five million, considered ‘not poor’, try to survive on $43 a month.“Things look alright to foreigners but in fact people are dying of starvation in Kabul,” says Abdul Qudus, a man with a deeply lined face in his forties, who sells second-hand clothes and shoes on a street corner in the capital. They are little more than rags, lying on display on the half frozen mud.
“I buy and sell clothes for between 10 and 30 Afghanis (two to six cents) and even then there are people who are too poor to buy them, “ says Mr Qudus. “I myself am very poor and sometimes I don’t eat so I can feed my children.” He says he started selling second hand clothes two years ago when he lost his job washing carpets.
US officials admit privately that the torrent of aid money that has poured into Afghanistan has stoked corruption and done ordinary Afghans little good. Aimed at improving economic and social conditions in order to reduce support for the Taliban it is having the reverse effect of destabilizing the country. Afghanistan was identified as the third most corrupt country out of 178 in the world in a report released yesterday by Transparency International.
...The US government policy of providing aid through large American private companies, whose interest lies in making a profit rather than improving the life of Afghans, is proving a failure in Afghanistan as it did previously in Iraq. As winter approaches half of Afghans face the prospect of ‘food insecurity’, or not getting enough to eat in the next three months, according to the US Famine Early Warning System.
This is the reality behind the "considerable progress" proclaimed by Barack Obama this week -- as willfully blind to the truth in his cozy Oval Office as Stalin in the halls of the Kremlin.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on December 17, 2010.