The Wounded Shark: 'Good War' Lost, But the Imperial Project Goes On
Who says so? America's biggest ally in the Afghan adventure: Great Britain. This week, two top figures in the British effort in Afghanistan -- Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, UK ambassador to Kabul, and Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the senior British military commander in Afghanistan -- both said that the war was "unwinnable," and that continuing the current level of military operations there, much less expanding it, was a strategy "doomed to fail."
The biggest headlines went to the comments by Cowper-Coles, whose frank assessment was quoted in a secret French diplomatic cable that was published by a muckraking French magazine last week. Cowper-Coles put it plainly:
The current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust....The presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of its solution. Foreign forces are the lifeline of a regime that would rapidly collapse without them. As such, they slow down and complicate a possible emergence from the crisis.
These are indisputable facts that have been glaringly obvious to most sentient observers for many years. Yet the diplomat's acknowledgement of reality has been greeted as a shocking breach of decorum by his fellow professional liars in Anglo-American officialdom. His brief outburst of truth (which, to be fair to the good knight, was meant to be in secret; he didn't mean to tell the public the truth!) was quickly disavowed in Washington and London. Although the cable's authenticity was not in question, the UK Foreign Office said that their ambassador's comments "did not reflect official British policy."
That is certainly the unvarnished truth, for "official British policy" has long been to "do whatever the hell the Americans tell us to do." Cowper-Coles was upfront about this too:
Acknowledging that there is no option other than supporting the Americans in Afghanistan, the ambassador reportedly added, "but we must tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one.” The American strategy, he is quoted as saying, “is destined to fail.”
Then, just when the Brits thought they were putting a lid on a story that was most displeasing to their Potomac masters, their top military officer in Afghanistan confirmed and amplified the ambassador's analysis in an interview with The Times. Speaking after his unit's second tour on the battlefield in Afghanistan, Brigadier Carleton-Smith said bluntly:
“We’re not going to win this war....We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” Carleton-Smith said. "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”
The American-installed president of Afghanistan, former oil company factotum Hamid Karzai, echoed the British assessment. In fact, he went so far as to invite Taliban supremo Mullah Omar -- ranked just a notch below Osama bin Laden in official American demonology -- to return to the country for peace talks, with full guarantees for his personal safety and liberty. Omar quickly rejected the overture, but there is clearly a growing consensus for a negotiated settlement.
A consensus everywhere but Washington, that is. There, in the marbled courts of the Potomac Empire, fierce factional opponents such as Barack Obama and John McCain are marching lock-step with George W. Bush on escalating the war in Afghanistan: more troops, more airstrikes, more "collateral damage."
This bipartisan Washington strategy was distilled perfectly by none other than Karl Rove, the ostensibly retired Bush Regime mastermind who is now working behind the scenes for McCain. As Eric Margolis reports in the Edmonton Sun:
I recently asked Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's former senior adviser, how this seemingly impossible war could be won. His eyes dancing with imperial hubris, Rove replied, "More Predators (missile armed drones) and helicopters!"
It sounds like Rove is giving Obama advice on Afghanistan as well. The Democratic candidate's stated polices on the conflict dovetail exactly with those of Rove, Bush and McCain: Thousands of more troops. More military hardware. More drone missile strikes, not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan as well. Obama has also pledged to pressure the Europeans to send more troops and hardware of their own to Afghanistan, with "fewer restrictions" on their combat operations.
In other words, the American political establishment is committed to plunging headlong into what almost all outside experts -- including America's closest allies, not to mention the Afghans themselves -- say will be a bloodsoaked, botched catastrophe.
Both Obama and McCain have loudly proclaimed themselves to be agents of "change." And on Afghanistan, we can see that these two wise statesmen are telling the truth. No matter who wins, we will see great change in Afghanistan -- for the worse.
All of this is most curious. The ostensible reason given for the seven long years of continuous death and destruction in Afghanistan -- and the justification for its escalation for many years to come -- is, of course, the 9/11 attacks in the United States. But even if for some reason you took the official account of 9/11 as the gospel truth in every respect, Afghanistan played no role in it at all. We are told that the attack was masterminded by bin Laden's Karl Rove, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- who operated in Pakistan. We are told that the other conspirators operated mostly in Germany -- and the United States. There has never been any evidence presented that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had the slightest operational role -- or even the slightest knowledge -- of an attack on the United States.
On the other hand, there is a good deal of credible evidence that the United States promised to attack Afghanistan -- months before 9/11 -- if the Taliban didn't play ball on oil deals and other issues. There is evidence that even before the attacks, the Taliban offered to turn bin Laden over to international justice, if evidence of his involvement in terrorism was presented. This offer was repeated even more frantically after 9/11. But as for evidence of Afghan involvement in 9/11, there is none.
Thus the only ostensible reason given for the seven-year U.S.-NATO onslaught in Afghanistan is that the Taliban regime gave refuge to bin Laden and his small organization after they were kicked out of Sudan. This was done with the backing of one of the Taliban's closest allies at the time: the Bush Family's business partners, the Saudi royal family. And as Margolis notes, bin Laden, whatever else he might be, was also a national hero in Afghanistan for his part in the Washington-backed holy war against the Soviets.
But for taking in Osama (himself the scion of yet another Bush business partner, the Bin Laden family), at the request of America's ally, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan has had to pay with the innocent blood of tens of thousands of its people, and with seven years of war, chaos, terror and ruin. Even though they had nothing to do with 9/11. Even though they had offered to give bin Laden up for an internationally monitored trial.
But as Margolis notes:
...the current war is not really about al-Qaida and "terrorism," but about opening a secure corridor through Pashtun tribal territory to export the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Basin to the West.
Yet beyond these more immediate, gritty concerns, there is also the blind, iron logic of perpetual war that drives any imperial power. Like a shark, it must keep moving, must keep the water churning, obscured with clouds of blood and fear -- or else it will stand revealed as the naked, brutish, pointless thing that it is: a bestial lust for domination, a secretion of the chemical mud that lies in the lower swamps of our misfiring, imperfect brains. Every imperial project bedecks itself with high-flown rhetoric and shining, self-glorifying, emotion-rousing ideals. These are internalized by millions of individuals, who are then unable to see the world in any other way. Whatever is done in the name of these ideals is rational, reasonable and right; anything that threatens their primacy and authenticity is evil, insane and worthy of destruction.
(This dynamic doesn't apply solely to imperialism, of course. Any all-consuming mythology of meaning and explanation can generate this kind of blind, partisan passion -- as the current presidential campaign illustrates so well, on both sides.)
That's why an empire must keep marching, and roaring in the thought-obliterating noise of war and fear. Peace gives space for reflection, for questioning, for the development of a more human, more humane response to reality. And all of these are deadly to the mud-brain lust for domination, and to the inflated rhetoric that cloaks it. For when empires stop -- or are stopped -- the meaninglessness of the entire project is laid bare.
In his new book, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe, Robert Gellately quote from the remarkable collection of reportage and private writings by the Russian novelist Vassily Grossman, who covered almost every major Eastern battlefront in World War II. Grossman relates how Soviet soldiers were astounded by the level of comfort and wealth in Germany -- even in the ruined Germany of 1945. Grossman writes:
...our soldiers started to ask themselves, why did the Germans attack us so suddenly? Millions of our men have now seen the rich farms in East Prussia, the highly organized agriculture, the concrete sheds for livestock, spacious rooms, carpets, wardrobes full of clothes. They saw all the paved roads and what was by comparison boundless plenty and luxury and asked themselves plaintively: 'But why did they come to us? What did they want?"
It is not hard to imagine someone in Afghanistan or Iraq looking at the lives of most Americans and asking the same questions. The Germans left their spacious rooms and carpets to slaughter millions of people in foreign lands because they had internalized the emotion-laden, self-glorifying ideals of an imperial project, whose inherent, horrifying emptiness was finally exposed in the husk of a shriveled little man in a concrete bunker putting a bullet through his brain. There was no point to it all.
The imperial desire to hold sway over the distribution lines of the world's oil resources is an immediate impetus behind the destruction of Afghanistan. But the particular pathology of the American elite, especially the Bush Faction, has dictated the particular form this desire for domination has taken. In an excellent essay-review of several new books on the "War on Terror," Pankaj Mishra notes a telling example of the Potomac mindset:
Busy unleashing his awesome firepower on Iraq, Rumsfeld had no idea what to do after his streamlined army reached Baghdad, apart from letting stuff happen. Wiser in Battle, the memoir of the US lieutenant general Ricardo Sanchez (HarperCollins), reveals that, as the Iraqi resistance unexpectedly intensified, the defeat in Vietnam began to prey on Bush's mind, unraveling his syntax as he harangued his commanders in Iraq:Kick ass! ... We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal ... There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!
Anyone who has read Hitler's "table talk" will feel a shiver of familiarity -- and revulsion -- when reading Bush's words. This is the voice of our mud-brain thrashing its way through broken fragments of higher-order thought. This is the voice of an imperial elite -- of our imperial elite.
[For more on how the myths and lies of imperial power are internalized, then acted out in malign, destructive ways, see this important new essay by Arthur Silber, "Perverse Priorities in a World of Lies."]
And so the meaningless imperial project will keep churning forward; this is one solemn campaign promise that we can count on the candidates to honor. The howling atrocity in Iraq will continue in one form or another, but it will now be compounded beyond measure by a new injection of murderous folly in Afghanistan -- a project doomed from the start, as Mishra notes:
As Tariq Ali bluntly clarifies in his new book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (Simon & Schuster), the post-9/11 project of "nation-building" in Afghanistan, which prioritised western interests over all others, was always doomed. It was "a top-down process", trying to create "an army constituted not to defend the nation but to impose order on its own people, on behalf of outside powers; a civil administration that will have no control over planning, health, education etc, all of which will be run by NGOs, whose employees will be far better paid than the locals, and answerable not to the population but to their overseas sponsors; and a government whose foreign policy is identical to Washington's."
American bombing raids, which have killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan, further unite fractious Afghans against foreign usurpers. Tariq Ali correctly prescribes skepticism against strategists and journalists who blame Pakistan for increasing attacks on western forces in Afghanistan while disregarding the fact that "many Afghans who detest the Taliban are so angered by the failures of NATO and the behaviour of its troops that they will support any opposition."
Mishra then concludes:
Seven years on, hundreds of thousands are dead, and millions of refugees on the move, while the US seems only to have boosted its old enemies in Afghanistan, Iran and Lebanon, and created formidable new ones in Iraq and Pakistan. In The War Within, Woodward shows the US president slipping deeper into his own world. "We're killin' 'em! We're killin' 'em all!" But not even the Bush administration, which has proved ready to do unspeakable things to its perceived enemies, can kill them all. It can continue to stage elaborate shock-and-awe spectacles, but if, as is increasingly evident, the target audience refuses to be impressed by them, they are rendered utterly futile - even dangerously counterproductive. "Force," as James Baldwin pointed out in the early 1970s during the US bombing of Indochina, "does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for instance, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary and this revelation invests the victim with patience."
...A gracious acceptance of the limits of US firepower may not be forthcoming from the next administration, which will face the hard choice to get out or fight on. Indeed, failure may make it even more determined to maintain the pride of US arms and the image of the mightiest power on earth. The prospect of humiliation in Vietnam was what prompted Nixon's devastation of Cambodia, setting the stage for the genocidal Pol Pot. As Hannah Arendt wrote, "when all signs pointed to defeat", the goal was "no longer one of avoiding humiliating defeat but of finding ways and means to avoid admitting it and 'save face'."
Could smashing up Iran or invading Pakistan become the face-saving formula for the exponents of "shock and awe"? ...[Such] is the crazy logic of a wounded militarism that, notwithstanding its battered economy, the US may soon be embattled on many more fronts in what is already its most damaging war.
The United States has lost its pointless war against the people of Afghanistan. Yet both the "progressive" standard-bearer and the "conservative" stalwart have sworn to expand the conflict. Both have internalized the rhetoric and beliefs of a violent imperial project. Both men have shown themselves too weak in truth to escape the fear of appearing weak in the false light of militarism.
What other horrible deeds will these weak men embrace to put off the humiliation of defeat? I think we may find that our darkest years are ahead of us, as the hollow core of imperial ambition is exposed, and a dreadful, mighty reckoning for its atrocities blows back against us with hurricane force.