Monday, November 2, 2009

Why are we in Afghanistan?

It used to be that analyzing the whys and wherefores of conflicts was relatively easy. There were two economic models competing against each other. A state controlled model and a quasi free-market model. There were beneficiaries of each of these models and conflicts could be understood by their struggle to keep and increase their share of resources and power. The destruction of the Soviet Union meant that conflicts could no longer be framed in terms of the cold war, but still there seemed to be a logic to conflicts. Globalization was creating huge markets and the battle was on for resources and market share. For a while it even seemed that this struggle between the haves would maybe even benefit the have-nots. For a very short while. With the emergence of rival centers of power in Europe and China the Iraq war could be perhaps explained as an attempt by the US to control access to essential resources. Though the explanation seemed to be incomplete. That the US would want to control the resources of the middle east made sense. That it would chose to do so by occupying Iraq seemed less understandable.

Whatever logic there is for the occupation of Iraq there is even less for the occupation of Afghanistan. The US involvement in the 70's and 80's made sense in the context of the cold war. The US saw an opportunity to trap and then bleed the USSR. Once the Soviets were no longer there, there was no more US interest and the US pulled back. The initial foray into Afghanistan by the US in 2002 could be understood in the context of 9/11. The perpetrators of the attack were dead. However, the leadership of AlQaida was located in Afghanistan hosted by the Taliban. In the context of desire for revenge for the murder of 3000 people the invasion "made sense." After the rout of the Taliban the occupation did not. With the resurgence of the Taliban it still does not. The arguments used by the US President [insert name here] that the war in Afghanistan is essentially to prevent AlQaida from planning another attack on the US have, after almost eight years, become transparently ridiculous. (You can read Stephen Walt's articulate response to the current president's assertions at Foreign Policy.)

The 9/11 hijackers plotted in Hamburg and trained in Florida. The leadership of Al Qaeda, those that are still alive, are probably in the tribal areas of Pakistan. They can just as easily be in Somalia or Yemen. The bottom line is that if people want to plot against the US there is nothing that restricts them to a particular geographical region. Therefore, there is no need for us to be in control of a particular geographic region in order to thwart their planning. These are criminals who have, like many criminal operations, a global scope. And compared to other global criminal operations their capabilities are not very impressive. Hardly a reason to be occupying a country.

So why are we in Afghanistan? I really don't know. There is the pipelineistan scenario of Pepe Escobar. You can read about it here. But that reasoning again seems to me to be about as strong as the control of mideast oil argument was for the invasion of Iraq. Let me take a different view. My argument is weak, without much to back it, but hey, this is a blog.

The US after the first gulf war was the dominant power in the world. The alliance that the US was able to build on short notice was a statement about US power even more stupendous than the ease with which Saddam's army was vanquished. But the short history of humankind is replete with stories of empire, all of which share at least one thing in common: They are no more. It made sense then that there would be those in the US who would want to delay, if not totally avoid, the decline of American power. Hence the Project for a New American Century. The question then becomes how does one perpetuate empire? The US victory over the Soviet Union was in part due to the ability of the US to build multilateral alliances. Alliances are built against enemies, once enemies are vanquished alliances either fall apart or become a vehicle for the dominant partner's hegemony - this has held true from the Delian league to NATO. Therefore, according to this way of thinking the US has to dominate. And the instrument of domination has to be the military because this is an area where the US is so far ahead of anyone else that one can argue that this military superiority can be maintained well into the future. The instrument to be used is clear, but how the instrument is to be used is not clear.

In the 90's the major buzz in military circles was the Revolution in Military Affairs or RMA. The idea behind RMA was that technology developments had now made it possible for relatively small military forces to impose their will throughout the globe. The idea had been around for some time but the requirements of RMA for a highly developed military infrastructure had manifestly become available only now. The success of the US in the first gulf war provided support for the contention that the technological superiority of the US was sufficient for RMA. The further success in Kosovo strengthened this idea. But there really had not been a true test case. In each case, Kuwait, Kosovo, and then Afghanistan one could argue that other factors had contributed to the victory. A test case was needed which could then be used to cow any future opponents. Hence the need for an invasion of Iraq. And the need for keeping the number of troops relatively small. And the dismissal of Shinseki. And all the rest of it. Did we invade Iraq just to provide a test for RMA? There are many different agendas that support a particular policy. The desire to control mideast resources, ensuring the enrichment of Halliburton, the need for the Friedmans of the US to swagger, the paranoia of our Vice President and the psychological issues of our President all played a role. But something has to drive a policy and my contention is that the need for a demonstration project drove the invasion of Iraq. As a demonstration project the invasion of Iraq seemed to work beautifully - the mission was accomplished. Almost. The history of the Iraqi occupation has now put paid to the idea of RMA. It has now become necessary to come up with a different way to use the military instrument.

At this point one might ask why not give up on a military strategy altogether. Why not attempt other means, and surely, the biggest economy in the world can come up with other means. The answer I suppose is that power always tries to perpetuate itself. In the US power belongs to the military industrial complex. The military dominates US foreign policy. Therefore, the US response in the area of foreign policy will necessarily be a military one. RMA has failed, but there are other ideas out there. And these ideas need to be tested. Enter counter-insurgency or COIN. The occupation of Afghanistan is being driven by the need for testing the latest military doctrine (or fad). Again there are multiple factions that find the occupation of Afghanistan in their interest. I am sure the interests that Pepe Escobar refers to are there. The military industrial complex is certainly not unhappy. The billions of dollars that are being spent on the nation building campaign has to go into someone's pockets (and I am pretty sure those pockets do not belong to the Afghan public) and certainly they are not unhappy. But the driver is the military interest in finding something to replace RMA. Afghanistan is a testbed for the various ideas on how to use the US military to preserve the American empire. The poor people of Afghanistan be damned.

No comments: