Afghanistan: It's Obama's war now

December 4, 2009

The article below is an abridged editorial from the US Socialist Worker.

US President Barack Obama has disappointed many of those who hoped his presidency would deliver "change we can believe in."

But there's one campaign promise Obama has kept — twice.

In his prime-time speech on December 1, Obama followed through on a pledge to escalate the war in Afghanistan for a second time, announcing that he would send an extra 30,000 US troops.

When Obama took office, less than 50,000 US soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan. He ordered an additional 21,000 soldiers there earlier this year. With the extra 30,000, he has doubled the US presence.

Obama motivated the troop buildup with a speech that recalled George W. Bush's call for a "war on terror". He recycled the Bush lie that the US invasion of Afghanistan, launched eight years ago, was retribution for the September 11, 2001 attacks.

He falsely claimed that Afghanistan's Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. "America, our allies and the world were acting as one to destroy al-Qaeda's terrorist network, and to protect our common security", Obama told West Point cadets.

Later, Obama concluded by summoning the war frenzy cynically whipped up by the Bush administration after September 11: "It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united — bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.

"I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fibre of my being that we — as Americans — can still come together behind a common purpose."

Wrapping himself in the flag Bush-style, Obama strained to sell people on the idea that the discredited, fraudulently elected government of President Hamid Karzai can rule legitimately.

"[W]e and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election," Obama boasted, "and although it was marred by fraud, that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution."

So the US military helped Karzai to hold an election so obviously fraudulent that the UN demanded a run-off, but the second-place finisher refused to take part — that's some triumph of democracy!

Obama tried to sugarcoat the war drive with a promise that US troops will start pulling out of Afghanistan in July 2011. But given the scale of the Taliban resistance, that plan is utterly lacking in credibility. The talk about Afghans taking responsibility for their own security was a dead ringer for Bush's promises that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down".

In another note reminiscent of the Bush years, we were treated in the run-up to the speech to a steady media diet of good news about the Afghan war campaign, designed to suggest that there's "light at the end of the tunnel".

Take, for example, the revelation that anti-Taliban militias are "spontaneously" springing up in various parts of Afghanistan. A November 21 New York Times report said, "the Americans hope the militias will encourage an increasingly demoralised Afghan population to take a stake in the war against the Taliban".

But even the NYT acknowledged that US Special Forces are "fanning out across the countryside, descending from helicopters into valleys where the residents have taken up arms against the Taliban and offering their help" — casting serious doubt about how "spontaneous" these militias are.

With this effort, the US is hoping to bypass unpopular and tyrannical warlords and set up tribal networks allied with occupation forces. Money for development will be used to further cement these ties.

But this strategy is a long shot at best. The NYT admitted, the strategy of giving ammunition, communication hardware and other support to these militias could backfire spectacularly.

This isn't just a hypothetical. US backing for Afghanistan's mujahideen fighters against the ex-USSR's occupation in the 1980s gave rise to the armed networks that eventually produced al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Now the Obama administration cites the fight against the terrorists of al-Qaeda as the main reason for sending even more US troops to kill and be killed in Afghanistan.

This involves a double conceit — historical amnesia about the bitter fruits of US policy in Afghanistan since the 1970s, and deception about the real reasons for the continued US interests in cultivating a pro-US regime in Afghanistan.

That effort goes back to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR. "The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter", recalled Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter's national security advisor from 1977 to 1981. "We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War."

At the time, US foreign policy officials encouraged the growth of the most extreme Islamic elements because they considered them the key to defeating the USSR.

After the US achieved its goal, the mujahideen fighters it had backed came to power — and Washington stepped aside and watched, as the country descended into a civil war among the divided factions that had triumphed over the Soviet Union.

When the Taliban emerged as the victor in 1996, the US adopted an attitude of benign indifference. At least the Taliban brought stability and an unrelenting hostility to the opium trade, reasoned US officials.

But September 11 gave the US a new opportunity to project military power into the heart of Central Asia. It quickly installed military bases in countries that had been part of the old USSR, giving the Pentagon the means to pressure China, Russia and neighbouring Iran, and provide greater US access to the region's oil and gas resources.

Bush's failure to secure those gains with the "war on terror" drew criticism from Obama throughout the presidential campaign.

Perhaps some Obama supporters thought that the Democratic candidate's call to escalate troop strength in Afghanistan was simply rhetoric to shield him from criticism on the right. But Obama's West Point speech makes it perfectly clear that he's a willing and aggressive proponent of the pursuit of US imperial aims.

White House estimates say each additional US soldier sent to Afghanistan will cost taxpayers US$1 million a year. So Obama's double dispatch of troops will cost an additional $55 billion over the next year. Compare that to the Afghan government's entire national budget of roughly $1 billion a year.

The Obama administration hasn't committed as many troops as some military hardliners want. But the reality is that the current combined US/NATO presence — 68,000 US soldiers, 33,000 from various NATO countries, and more than 70,000 US military contractors — already exceeds the number of troops deployed by the USSR at the height of its involvement in Afghanistan.

The US could continue to muddle through — unless it meets a significant opposition that can't be ignored. Already, there is anxiety that the US public may not be willing to put up with a five- or 10-year strategy.

The anti-war movement needs to give those anxieties concrete expression by organising a visible opposition. The demonstrations organised in cities across the US to respond to Obama's speech are an important opportunity to begin building a vocal opposition to a war that is all Obama's now.

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