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Imperial Ambitions & Strategy in Afghanistan

Friday, October 2, 2009
Graphic from the New York Times.

Graphic from the New York Times.

While reading a current article by researchers from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, about current strategy in the Afghan, it got me thinking on what exactly the U.S. wants out of Afghanistan and how this has to do with its stated intentions and its more probable (unstated) intentions.

In the Cato article the authors state and ask:

Such an undertaking, amounting to a large-scale social-engineering project, is unwarranted. The cost in blood and treasure that we would have to incur — coming on top of what we have already paid — far outweighs any possible benefits, even accepting the most optimistic estimates for the likelihood of success.

The essential question now is not whether the war is winnable, but whether the mission is vital to U.S. national security interests.

The authors conclude that setting up a stable, centralized, Afghan government is actually not necessarily within the security interests of the United States.  In fact, they state that trying to carry out a counter-insurgency campaign (where so many others failed) would cost the nation billions of dollars in military and government aid and that it would not actually bring good concrete “results” for U.S. interests in the region.

If the reason the U.S. got into Afghanistan was solely to oust Al Qaeda and to disrupt its networks:

Containing al-Qaida and disrupting its ability to carry out future terrorist attacks does not require a massive troop presence on the ground. Committing still more U.S. personnel to Afghanistan undermines the already weak authority of Afghan leaders, interferes with our ability to deal with other security challenges, and pulls us deeper into a bloody and protracted guerilla war with no end in sight.

In fact, as what many key U.S. advisers are arguing behind closed doors, if the goal is to go after Al Qaeda then the key country to focus on is Pakistan, where Al Qaeda elements happen to be.  But, at the same time Ted Carpenter, of Cato, (in an interview on NPR) states that Al Qaeda (now) is much more than just an organization that sets up base in nation states, it is much more diversified than it has ever been and doesn’t necessarily need a nation state to call base.

“It has been a big mistake of U.S. policymakers to completely conflate al-Qaida and the Taliban. The former is a foreign terrorist organization with the United States in its cross hairs. The latter is a parochial insurgency. It is not a direct security threat to the United States,” he explains.

Carpenter says that over the years, the U.S. has drifted into war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — not primarily against al-Qaida, which U.S. intelligence officials say has been entrenched in neighboring Pakistan since being driven from Afghanistan in late 2001 by American forces. Carpenter says it is time to rethink the strategy.

“If al-Qaida is not in Afghanistan, why on Earth are we in Afghanistan? We went there to defeat al-Qaida. If this isn’t the arena for al-Qaida anymore, then our mission seems to have no rational purpose whatever,” he says.

It’s also not if as the U.S. government, in its “benign” interest in spreading “freedom” to “oppressed peoples” all over the world, is seeking to build a strong Kabul based government out of the kindness of its own heart.  There are plenty of examples in where the U.S. chooses to either ignore human rights abuses by its own allies or pressure certain governments on human rights abuses in order to further a certain foreign policy objective (such as splitting up Yugoslavia but keeping intact Georgia, etc.).

Andrew J. Bacevich, in an article for the Council of Foreign Relations website, wrote:

[F]rom my point of view, the idea that fixing Afghanistan will provide any sort of antidote to the threat posed by jihadism is simply absurd. If we could wave our magic wand today and transform Afghanistan into whatever it is the COIN [counterinsurgency] advocates think they can achieve there, the threat posed by jihadism would still exist and would not even be appreciably diminished. So the notion that we should embark on a counterinsurgency strategy there — which even optimists would concede will require us to continue this campaign for another five to ten years at the cost of several hundred billion dollars, no doubt losing several hundred if not thousands of American soldiers — really demands to be challenged.

As we can see there are certain folks in the elite bourgeois policy circles that seem to think counter-insurgency is actually detrimental toward U.S. interests in the region and that wasting billions of dollars to fight a home-grown insurgency that poses very little threat (definitely not as much threat as Russia posses to U.S. capital interests in North and Central Asia or China in parts of Africa) makes no sense.

However, there are other elites that seem to be pushing the “nation building” line hard and that it does indeed serve U.S. interests in the region.  My opinion on the security threat, however, is that they are conflating the security threat of the Taliban in order to better push for the counter-insurgency option.

Yet, despite all of this there is no disagreement in elite policy circles (as this New York Times article shows) about the necessity of increasing U.S. power (in one form or another) in the region (through either taking out Al Qaeda or building a friendly regime in Kabul).

Now, what does all this wrangling and disagreement (all be it quite narrow and focused on U.S. imperial interests) show us about U.S. policy?

For one, it has me thinking that if indeed the arguments of certain Obama advisers and those of the Cato Institute are right then what is the U.S. trying to do in building a completely new nation state within Afghanistan?  If the stated intentions of the U.S. where that Afghanistan was a threat to the U.S. because of Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is now essentially weakened in the state of Afghanistan (and may not even be allowed back in even if the Taliban take power again), then why are will pursuing a counter-insurgency against the Taliban?

For one, it’s because the ambitions of the U.S. where more imperial in nature than security oriented in nature.  The U.S. has no problem with teaming up with dictatorial Afghan warlords (as our alliance with the tribal leaders in the North showed) and these tribal leaders are essential not that different from the Taliban allied tribal leaders.  The difference is that the Northern Alliance leaders were friendly to U.S. interests (in order to gain power in the country as they were on the brink of defeat before the U.S. intervened).

The only reason for actually wanting to do a counter-insurgency campaign in the country and to invest billions of dollars to prop up a centralized Kabul government is to create, essentially, a strong U.S. client-state in a region that is vital to U.S. interests (Iran, pressuring a finicky U.S. ally in Pakistan, pressuring the Russians in Central Asia, oil pipelines, military bases, etc.).  If the real reason was to do counter-terrorism the U.S. would have left quite some time ago.  But, stated interests are not intentional interests.  And the intention is to further spread U.S. power (whether under a Democrat or Republican) in the regions of South and Central Asia.

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