I wrote a draft of this in early December that had some limited circulation. This version moves the focus away from criticisms of the left responses to the Obama Afghanistan policy towards the policy itself. In some ways it’s a restatement of arguments I made about Iraq five years ago that tries to incorporate the impact of a global economic crisis and of a different political face for the ruling class. I hope to open up two discussions: the first concerns the origins, objectives, and implications of the policy - particularly with respect to the ruling class flexibility to reconsider and change it. The other concerns the development of a more useful conceptual framework for the left.
Obama has made his speech on Afghanistan and we should think about what it entails and implies.
The majority of the U.S. left looks at these issues in the context of classical conceptions of imperialism, emphasizing the interests of U.S. capital in maintaining and extending its dominant position: in the first place against popular anti-imperialist movements; but with increasing frequency also against purported imperialist rivals.
“... this war is not about “defending the American people” — but establishing a stable U.S. domination over a highly strategic arc reaching from Iran...to Pakistan...It is a war for consolidating U.S. domination in large parts of the world.” Ely, Kasama (12/2)
“All this ... is about oil. But not just oil, but all other resources, and not just resources, but the control of those resources and the fear of a rising multi-polarity being led by the Chinese with accompaniment by a renewed belligerence of Russia and the rising economic power of Brazil and India among others (the BRIC nations).” Miles, Znet (12/4).
I realize these short excerpts don’t adequately express Ely and Miles’s complete positions. However, taking them as they stand, whatever their other merits, neither helps explain why Obama is implementing this particular policy and not another – potentially quite different - one.
“...Protecting the U.S.”; establishing an “...arc of domination” in SouthWest Asia; acting against a, “...rising multi-polarity” within the global capitalist system, may or may not point to some of the motivations that underlie U.S. policy in general, but they are hardly sufficient to explain this particular policy. The goal of “U.S. domination” could arguably be implemented through policies which were quite different. Non-military interventions could be pursued rather than costly and unpromising wars. A concentration on mounting problems closer to the “homeland” could be prioritized to ensure there there actually was a more “stable” base from which to expand “U.S. domination”.
The other day I ran across this in a column by Tom Friedman, perhaps the best known publicist for global capitalism. It illustrates my point:
“Frankly, if I had my wish we would be on our way out of Afghanistan not in, we would be letting Pakistan figure out which Taliban they want to conspire with and which one they want to fight, we would be letting Israelis and Palestinians figure out on their own how to make peace, we would be taking $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget to make us independent of imported oil...” Port Angeles Daily News. (In my local paper it appeared on Jan. 18. I’m not sure when it ran originally in the N.Y. Times.)
There is no question whether Friedman would prefer a stable U.S. domination over this section of the world - this “strategic arc - of course he would. There is no question that he is worried about the weakening of U.S. economic power relative to its capitalist competition and to the challenges it faces – he’s written a number of irritating books on the subject. But there is also no question that he doesn’t like the current Obama policy and supports a substantially different approach. This possibility for substantially different ruling class policies from sectors of the class that share a substantial agreements on assumptions and objectives, should motivate us to look beyond our own generic ‘explanations’ for what is happening. This is particularly true when, as is the case here, these explanations are firmly rooted in the political categories of a past where we didn’t do all that well.
So what “facts” support these postulated U.S. imperialist objectives in Afghanistan? Do the gas pipelines, the narcotics trade, the copper mining proposals and similar factors create a clear interest for U.S. capital that is appropriately pursued by this grotesquely asymetric use of military force? Which U.S. ruling class factions have organized to promote these interests? Where is the trail of influence from these alleged interests to the adopted policy?
Exactly how does a more consolidated domination emerge out of increasingly destabilized territories and regimes? If the goal in Afghanistan actually is that of “consolidating U.S. domination”, one obvious objective would be establishing a friendly and stable pro-capitalist regime. The institutionalized and protracted external domination suggested by the Obama policy will make Afghanistan and the region less friendly and a whole lot less stable, not more so. It is hard to see a, “stable consolidated U.S. domination” developing out of these policies under the best conditions. If it is assumed that U.S. policy will also confront a “rising multi-polarity”, based in rival centers of capitalist power looking to gain some relative advantage, it is impossible. This leaves us with a goal – stable consolidated domination – that would be completely at odds with the means – military conquest and occupation with limited forces. My firm belief is that the ruling class does not subject itself to stress tests that it has every reason to believe it cannot pass.
Let’s look a little closer at the “rising multi-polarity” interimperialist conflict, argument presented by Miles. There is no doubt that there are inter-imperialist conflicts and contradictions in the region, but what is their relationship to this Afghanistan policy? Does any potential inter-imperialist conflict over resources in Afghanistan (U.S/NATO. vs. BRIC is the one Miles proposes) outweigh the historic conflicts in the region - between Russia and China, between China and India, between India and Pakistan? Does it outweigh all three country’s counterparty status or the dependence of the BRIC states on inter-imperialist coordination to maintain stability in the international financial and commodities markets? Does it outweigh their common interests in managing internal populist unrest – perhaps with Chinese Uighers and Russian Chechens – or threats to Russia’s interests in the formerly soviet ‘stans’? Does it outweigh the common interests of these rivals in combatting “terrorism”, such as that flowing from Naxalite peasant insurgency, newly marginalized Chinese workers, or neo-fascist tendencies in the ruling Hindi elites and among the Russian National Bolsheviks. I’d say no, inter-imperialist contradictions don’t outweigh these factors, and if they did we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the way that we are – nor in Iraq, for that matter.
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