Obama cannot win in Afghanistan

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have conclusively demonstrated a single, simple proposition, writes James Turley: imperialism has no progressive role to play

Following months of foot-dragging and not a little strong-arming from his paymasters abroad, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has finally been induced to call a second round of elections after August’s vote.

The official result of that poll, handed Karzai a narrow victory. He picked up 54.6% of the vote - the margin needed to avoid a run-off with the next candidate being 50%. Yet there was a fly in the ointment: the trifling matter of widespread, barely concealed electoral fraud, running the gamut from ballot-box-stuffing to vote-selling. The legitimacy of the election was tenuous already, the Taliban forces concentrated in the south having backed up their boycott with deadly force - turnout in the region was estimated at 5%. Before the eyes of all the world’s media, the election turned into a farce.

It was, of course, a farce that - in a sane world - would have been entirely predictable. Yet judgements are rarely sober when the stakes include billions of dollars in ‘aid’ money, the lives and livelihoods of many tens of thousands of foreigners present on Afghan soil (be they soldiers, carpetbaggers or NGO workers), and the ‘good name’ of almost the entire political class in America and western Europe. It is now more than obvious that Karzai has been under almost continuous pressure from the US to back down from his victory claim and allow the run-off vote. Now, by all appearances, Karzai is back in the fold: “While this election could have remained unresolved to the detriment of the country, president Karzai’s constructive actions established an important precedent for Afghanistan’s new democracy,” said Barack Obama.

And understandably so: Obama declined, in his own election campaign, to distance himself from the Afghan misadventure. Instead, he has happily assumed responsibility for it, taking his cue from the late Bush appointee, general David Petraeus - a man described memorably by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins as “that most dangerous of generals, a clever strategist” (October 20). Victory was possible, Obama assured America and the world - provided the US and its allies showed sufficient resolve, and wound down the disastrous occupation of Iraq tout de suite.

In Britain, we have had our own change at the top of government. Tony Blair, whose name is entirely associated with Iraq and Afghanistan, gave way to long-time chancellor Gordon Brown. Many voices in the media, appointing themselves ‘experts’ on the often tortured relationship between the two, had imputed to Brown more sceptical views on the thorny issue of overseas military operations than the crusading evangelist, Blair. Precisely how continuing to fund these wars for half a decade and never raising a peep of dissent provided any basis for this conclusion was largely left to the imagination, amid a seemingly never-ending series of cryptic briefings from sources in both the great New Labour camps.

It turns out that - who’d have guessed it? - Brown was every bit as committed to tailing US foreign policy as Blair (and, indeed, as he had been to US economic policy). The Iraq war is now effectively over, though a good handful of permanent US bases, to say nothing of thousands of US troops, will remain for the foreseeable future. Afghanistan, meanwhile, seems to be going even worse.

When the war began, the public were sold it on the basis that it was a quest to apprehend and charge Osama bin Laden for the September 11 2001 atrocities; as it became obvious that bin Laden had jumped, so the tune changed. We were there to raise the downtrodden Afghan masses from their oppressed and benighted state, by overthrowing the brutal Taliban regime and instituting a modern liberal democracy. Women were to be released from the shackles of religious domination. The country’s main cash crop, opium poppies destined to form a variable percentage of street heroin in our cities, was to be wiped out and replaced with more ‘constructive’ economic endeavours. All this, at the point of American M16s.

The effort was already foundering by March 2003 - but by then, the ruling class had bigger fish to fry. The invasion of Iraq that month presented a more serious military problem for the Pentagon and its transatlantic toadies; though its billing by Kenneth Adelman, a Bush defence official, as a “cakewalk” had an element of truth to it, there was no doubt that, even in its decrepit state at the time, Saddam Hussein’s regime was militarily more powerful than the Taliban. Quite apart from the military side of the question, there was the political context - the legitimacy of the war drive had been challenged spectacularly by enormous protests around the world. The high point in Britain was the February 15 demonstration in central London, where the attendance was estimated at between 1.5 and two million people.

The Iraqi regime was, in the event, toppled very quickly - yet it quickly became apparent that the occupation forces had no real strategy; amid rampant corruption and the ascendancy of tribal-religious resistance groups, Iraq degenerated into an obvious quagmire, with US-UK troops stuck in a grinding stalemate with its opponents and uneasy alliances with the largest armed groups. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the full course of events - needless to say, one side effect of the endless difficulties in Iraq was to distract attention away from parallel difficulties in Afghanistan.

Of course, we all knew that one wasn’t going too well either - but its relatively muted coverage lent a certain spurious authority to assertions like Obama’s: that Iraq was ‘the wrong war’, that Afghanistan was still ‘winnable’. Now Obama has had to put his money where his mouth is, and that means taking responsibility for electoral fraud, thousands of civilian deaths (and, of course, highly-publicised US casualties). The Taliban have always operated across the Afghan-Pakistani border and this forced the US into escalating incursions into the lawless western areas of Pakistan. It is a situation with worrying echoes of the extension of the Vietnam war into Cambodia; the result, then, was the Khmer Rouge killing fields, and the parlous effect on Pakistani society the ‘Af-Pak’ strategy is having is increasingly obvious.

Obama is dithering over a request from Nato commander Stanley McChrystal for 40,000 additional troops; the notion that such a ‘troop surge’ would actually end the war is transparently risible, and an increasingly war-weary electorate, who believed last November they were voting in a peacemaker, will not take well to the idea.

What the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have conclusively demonstrated can be boiled down to a single, simple proposition: imperialism has no progressive role to play. The ballot box cannot be exported - the act of imposing a political regime renders any claim to democratic principle a sham. A brief look at the recent histories of the US and UK, meanwhile, demonstrates that ruling class commitments to democracy are paper-thin at the best of times. Iraq was turned, by years of sanctions followed by years of low level civil war, from a semi-industrialised capitalist power (albeit one labouring under a brutal dictatorship) into a carnival of carnage, its infrastructure decimated and the Ba’athist regime replaced by an Iranian-backed Islamist ‘government’ and endless militia warlords no less brutal than Hussein. The net result of imperialist intervention in Iraq has been to add chaos to oppression.

In Afghanistan, the case is even more clear - not least because Afghanistan is an intensely contradictory country, deeply divided along tribal and national lines, which has only for very brief periods in its history been united into a single meaningful political formation. More commonly, the reality has seen the country dominated by petty warlords, with any central government currying favour and collecting tribute. The establishment in 1978 of the Stalinist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was perhaps the most serious attempt at modernisation in recent history, with much work put into building up basic infrastructure, but immediately prompted a devastating civil war and a disastrous and protracted Soviet intervention. The CIA infamously pumped millions of dollars into hard-line Islamist reactionaries to weaken the Soviet Union - among these were the predecessors to the Taliban, and a charismatic Saudi jihadist by the name of Osama bin Laden.

The result is a heap of ruins. American military dominance, though unlikely to be seriously challenged in the near future, is decaying - it has lost the ability to build stable regimes in its conquests (even if these were almost invariably brutal dictatorships); it is reduced to inflicting punishment beatings on recalcitrant populations. Where it maintains occupations, it merely intensifies and prolongs the state of chaos.

Communists fight intransigently against imperialism. This is not just the pre-eminence of America, of course, but the whole system of inequality between states, made necessary by capitalism. It is useless to pose the United Nations or ‘multilateral’ forces as an alternative to gung-ho American occupation, because the problem is systemic.

We demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.