Obama and the Graveyard of Empires

Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen is reportedly recommending to President-Elect Obama that the U.S. increase by 30,000 its current force of 32,000 in Afghanistan. That, as Robert Dreyfuss points out in a recent column, is about 20,000 more troops than Obama was proposing while on the campaign trail.

Obama, who has enthused about refocusing the War on Terror back on Afghanistan, is likely to accede to the admiral’s request. There are at present under NATO command approximately 31,000 non-U.S. troops within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the Taliban and other “insurgents” in Afghanistan. (80% of these are from from the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Australia, and Turkey.) Popular opinion in most of those countries runs high against continued deployment; in Australia it is of course sold as an obligation of NATO membership.

Add to these the redoubled U.S. force and we’ll have a have a robust occupation army of 93,000 foreigners. With the exception of Albania and Azerbaijan, which have sent only small contingents, all participating nations are historically Christian, encouraging the Afghan perception that their Muslim nation is under infidel attack. In the 1980s, the Mujahadeen encouraged by the Reagan administration viewed the Soviet-backed secular regime as an assault on their religion and way of life; Soviet troops peaking at over 100,000 in 1987, with the advantage of supply lines from the immediately neighboring USSR, and including numerous ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who could speak local languages and had some understanding of local culture, could not repress the rag-tag CIA-supplied guerrillas and secure control of the country.

Nor, as Michael Beardon warned in his prescient article in Foreign Affairs in November 2001, entitled “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires,” could an honor roll of would-be conquerers from Alexander the Great in the third century BCE to the British in the nineteenth century defeat the hardy, fiercely independent Afghan tribesmen.

Beardon citing Louis Dupree, the premier historian of Afghanistan, attributed the “British disaster” of 1878-81 to four “mistakes”: the occupation of Afghan territory by foreign troops, the placing of an unpopular ruler in power, harsh acts committed against local enemies, and paltry subsidies paid to local allies. “The United States would be wise to consider them today,” he concluded. Again, Beardon was writing just as the U.S. was beginning its adventure in Afghanistan, and when the war in Iraq based on lies was still a twinkle in Dick Cheney’s eye.

Does Obama, often described as lacking knowledge of foreign affairs, and praised (by all the wrong people) for reaching out to (all the wrong) “experienced” foreign policy wonks, really believe that he can succeed in Afghanistan where so many others have failed?

Here perhaps we find the audacity of sheer historical ignorance. The audacity of hope that “Yes, we can”–with a center-right Democratic administration, better than a far-right Republican administration–sufficiently stabilize Afghanistan to achieve the primary U.S. (imperialist) objectives in the region.

Obama seems to believe that the U.S. can defeat those resisting the foreign presence and its local allies, stabilize the thoroughly corrupt Northern Alliance warlord regime with Hamid Karzai as its symbolic head, and stem the flow of Taliban back and forth across the Pakistan border. Most importantly, it can finally get that oil pipeline done–the one that’s to run from the Caspian Sea through Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the Indian Ocean bypassing Russia and unfriendly Iran. The deal was signed in December 2002 but construction has been stymied by the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. That pipeline is, I believe, the big prize.

The war on Iraq has been in my opinion less “a war for oil” actually promoted by Big Oil than a war engineered by neoconservative ideologues to reconfigure Southwest Asia for long-term U.S. and Israeli geopolitical advantage. But it’s, in fact, been disastrous for the interests of U.S. imperialism, and bitterly divided the ruling class. It’s produced the highly unusual situation where one faction of that class has bet its money on an African-American named Barack Hussein Osama (accused of “socialism” by his right wing critics) to rectify the situation. While I don’t expect a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq under what will in fact be a center-right administration, the focus will be on the competition for control over Central Asian oil and gas. That means a degree of control over Afghanistan that has eluded Washington since the invasion of 2001.

In the view of the faction of hawks Obama represents, the Iraq War has been a colossal distraction from the Afghan War. The problem isn’t just that Bush diverted troops to Iraq “before we got bin Laden” or wiped out all the remnants of al-Qaeda, a group notoriously difficult to quantify or even define. The problem is that he used 9-11 for one purpose rather than another. He used the toppling of the Taliban to seque into Iraq rather than to rigorously pursue the agenda for U.S. hegemony over Central Asia centering around control of Caspian Sea oil and gas.

Obama presumably wants to go back in in force and do Afghanistan properly. That doesn’t necessarily mean wiping out the Taliban mentality that (say) requires women to wear burqas (that mentality is, after all, pre-Taliban and not so different from the mentality prevalent in societies such as Saudi Arabia whose governments are pro-U.S.). The U.S. and ISAF don’t need to produce a social revolution to maintain permanent bases (encircling China) or to construct and protect a pipeline providing privileged access to oil and natural gas. All they need to do is maintaining a puppet regime with minimal authority and establish a sufficient level of stability to attain such objectives.

But even that is proving a highly difficult undertaking. Thus Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, British ambassador to Afghanistan, reportedly told the duputy French ambassador to Kabul François Fitou in September 2008, “The foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse without them … They are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from the crisis, which will probably be dramatic… In the short term we should dissuade the American presidential candidates from getting more bogged down in Afghanistan … The American strategy is doomed to fail.” These are observations by a top diplomat of the nation most deeply invested alongside the U.S. in the Afghan War. He proposed replacing president Karzai with “an acceptable dictator.” The top British military commander in Afghanistan agrees; Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith stated in October, “We’re not going to win this war.”

Karzai himself has repeatedly protested the high civilian casualty rate as a result of U.S. bombing; has called for negotations with the Taliban for an end to the insurgency, even (over U.S. objections) agreeing to insure Mullah Omar a safe-conduct should he agree to participate in talks in the country; and (although this has attracted little press attention) called for a firm deadline for foreign troops’ withdrawal. “This war has gone on for seven years;” he observed in a statement last month, “the Afghans don’t understand any more how come a little force like the Taliban can continue to exist, can continue to flourish, can continue to launch attacks.”

While the supposedly sovereign leader of Afghanistan–this puppet who seems to chafe at his puppet role–is talking like this, Obama and what will soon be his generals are planning a drastic increase in foreign forces with no deadline for their withdrawal. (By the way: Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election in October 2009, and Afghan-American neocon politician Zalmay Khalilzad, one-time UNOCAL executive, Afghan kingmaker in 2002, former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, may well be a candidate.)

Obama wants to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, a real war for oil in the guise of “the war on terror.” The unfinished job’s been easy so far, requiring only 629 U.S. troops’ lives (up 154 so far this year from 117 in 2007, 98 in 2006), and an additional 410 lives of allied troops. But the blood and treasure spilt in Afghanistan was a key factor in the collapse of the once-mighty Soviet Union. As Obama orders his troops into that graveyard, how will the empire, reeling from crises unprecedented in many decades, respond? As the candidate of change and hope becomes the commander in chief of an escalating expanding war, how will his antiwar supporters rethink their politics?

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

15 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Don Hawkins said on December 27th, 2008 at 8:54am #

    Pakistan is putting troops on the Indian border. That started to happen a yesterday. I am not sure how India or Pakistan do it but what do you think defcon 2 here in the States on the 27 th of December 2008 @ 10:53 am. No problem as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said his country would avoid launching a military action but would retaliate with full force if attacked. That’s using reason Prime Minister hang in there. Yes you could certainly say a little off subject.

  2. Don Hawkins said on December 27th, 2008 at 9:54am #


    MUZAFFARABAD: Pakistani and Indian troops traded fire at Chakoti Line of Control, causing panic among the locals. On Saturday night at 9:00 pm, Indian troops violating ceasefire opened indiscriminate firing at positions of Pakistan army in areas of Pando and Opi, Chakoti sector.

    The Indian troops used small weapons and mortar guns in the firing that lasted more than one hour. Pakistan army retaliated with same force.”Online News

    Not good, not good at all.

    Btw, the Line of Control (LoC) in Baramulla district of north Kashmir. Above top secret dot com

    MUZAFFARABAD: Pakistani and Indian troops traded fire at Chakoti Line of Control, causing panic among the locals. On Saturday night at 9:00 pm, Indian troops violating ceasefire opened indiscriminate firing at positions of Pakistan army in areas of Pando and Opi, Chakoti sector.
    The Indian troops used small weapons and mortar guns in the firing that lasted more than one hour. Pakistan army retaliated with same force.
    Besides compelling people living in Chakoti sector and adjacent villages to shift to safer places, the firing has created panic among them because it was the first time Pakistan and Indian troops exchanged fire followed by Mumbai carnage.
    Various families had been migrated to other places from Chakoti sector due to firing. According to eyewitnesses, firing was continued till Sunday morning. Word press

    What defcon 3 now.

  3. Don Hawkins said on December 27th, 2008 at 11:09am #

    It is difficult to determine the actual size and composition of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals, but NRDC estimates that both countries have a total of 50 to 75 weapons. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we believe India has about 30 to 35 nuclear warheads, slightly fewer than Pakistan, which may have as many as 48.

    NRDC calculated that 22.1 million people in India and Pakistan would be exposed to lethal radiation doses of 600 rem or more in the first two days after the attack. Another 8 million people would receive a radiation dose of 100 to 600 rem, causing severe radiation sickness and potentially death, especially for the very young, old or infirm. NRDC calculates that as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack, roughly divided between the two countries.
    Besides fallout, blast and fire would cause substantial destruction within roughly a mile-and-a-half of the bomb craters. NRDC estimates that 8.1 million people live within this radius of destruction.

  4. bozh said on December 27th, 2008 at 11:31am #

    perhaps US/allies goal is not to beat pashtuns but to keep them in the divided/evil empire.
    and thus have tajiks, uzbeks, and pashtuns living in mutual fears/skirmishing or even waging wars while nato/U simply establishes bases from iraq to ‘stan.
    or, if the goals r s’mthing else, no one is proffering and neither do i.
    US may eventually wreck also syria and have a string of bases from isr to all other ‘stans and to outer mongolia.
    so, if that’s what it is, US wld succed. in add’n , it has lostsof aircraft and missiles to keep firing on afgh’n for decades.

  5. Don Hawkins said on December 27th, 2008 at 11:43am #

    MOSCOW (AFP) — Russia on Saturday said it was “extremely concerned” about the build-up of troops on the India-Pakistan border, warning that tensions between the two nuclear foes had reached a dangerous level.

    “Russia is extremely concerned by the news that on both sides of the border there is a build-up of troops and military equipment,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

    “The tension in this region has reached a dangerous level. There are worrying reports that New Delhi and Islamabad are not ruling out the use of force against each other,” it added.

  6. Brian said on December 27th, 2008 at 12:12pm #

    I am not at all surprised that Obama will do this. He is not a liberal. I read his misnamed book, The Audacity of Hope. In the book he praised the Reagan military build up as necessary. Of course, the whole effort was a massive waste of American taxpayer dollars.

    So, it’s not surprising that he would go more deeply into Afghanistan.
    How can anyone come away after a careful study of all of Obama’s public record and be impressed with him? He’s really not that smart. What he is good at is appealing to the power elite. There’s a kind of intelligence in that ability but he’s not going to solve any problems with his approaches. Not one.

  7. Max Shields said on December 27th, 2008 at 1:38pm #

    To date, after 22 months of bearing witness, Obama lacks convictions, and what little “vision” he has that varies from Bush II, he lacks the essential backbone to take on a fight.

    He has continued to frame US military actions as a ‘war on terror”. That is his foreign policy. One does not proclaim such a clear policy (continuation of the last administration’s) and then do an about face – unless, he 1) has convictions 2) the strength to fight for them.

    While there are clearly limits to what can be done within the parameters of empire, a “leader” can demonstrate some fight. Nothing, absolutely nothing in his resume, in his person biography, in his 3 year stint as a “community organizer”, as a state sentator or as a US senator demonstrates that Barack Obama will do anything to jeopardize his political postures through the force of personal courage of his convictions (whatever else these may be).

    I’d gladly entertain a contradiction to these comments (with references to his acts of “courage”). One does not advance a cause unless one has one and one is willing to lose.

  8. Max Shields said on December 27th, 2008 at 2:58pm #

    There are, certainly, issues with all the POTUS as securers of empire, but my last post was slightly inspired by something I read regarding FDR:
    “During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelet, battled the private utility interests in his campaign for rural electrification [providing electicity service to rural areas].

    Somehow I just can’t imagine Obama “battling” anyone in power. We know Clinton never did (or if he did it wasn’t evident in all the legislation that turned over more and more of the commons to private interests). No fight in these wimps. As long as “progressives” keep backing these spineless politicians, than expect, the Republicans to be right back in there.

  9. Don Hawkins said on December 27th, 2008 at 6:44pm #

    What they are reading in India.

    NEW DELHI: A DAY after Pakistan was reported to have mobilised its troops across the border, New Delhi said it will “rise to the challenge” and those who want to see India diminished will be “disappointed”. He also cautioned the political parties in the country to eschew communalism, as these “internal divides” were strengthening “enemies”.
    Delivering the 29th Bhimsen Sachar memorial lecture here, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “Those who wish to weaken our unity and hurt our nation should remember that India has always endured and emerged stronger.” Without referring to the previous conflicts between the two nations, Singh said, “The force of history is on our side. Those who wish to see us diminished will be disappointed. India knows how to rise to a challenge. It will.”

    Earlier in the day, at Berhampore in West Bengal, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee asked Pakistan not to deflect attention from the real issue of terrorism by whipping up a war hysteria. “I appeal to Pakistan and Pakistani leaders, do not unnecessarily try to create tension. Do not try to deflect (attention from) the issue. A problem has to be tackled face-to-face. Evading a problem will not help to get rid of it,” Mukherjee said.
    “It is unfortunate that an atmosphere has been created in Pakistan, some sort of war hysteria… Indian express

    India knows how to rise to a challenge. It will, and I hope they use reason and not instinct or that change we have been hearing so much about could happen in seconds. Side note the President elect Obama is in Hawaii on vacation and Bush is in Texas kicking back it’s all under control we have nothing to concern ourselves with and I’ll bet in Colorado deep inside the mountain they have a screen with India and Pakistan. Nice game of checkers anyone?

  10. The Angry Peasant said on December 27th, 2008 at 9:40pm #

    I have the feeling that the only difference in the Obama presidency to come and the might’ve-been presidency of McCain is a matter of severity. I’m still trying to decide if Obama will be any better than McCain would’ve been. Never thought I’d say that. But, of course, that’s where we are now. Rapaciously evil or hypocritically evil.

  11. Don Hawkins said on December 28th, 2008 at 7:29am #

    The Angry Peasant how could you say such a thing about our new shinning star. Yes things don’t look good in the Middle East and the economy is in a little trouble and now India and Pakistan are on defcon 4 and climate change is starting to take it’s toll but our new President is now in Hawaii staying at a 8 million dollar house on the beach remember that movie and book on the beach? Yes he is setting an example for all of us to look up to for his new hope and change for the Earth. Three million to start in front of his office with change on there mind and signs saying one and one is two. I can see the meeting now and the shinning stars trying to figure our what that means.

  12. Don Hawkins said on December 28th, 2008 at 8:28am #

    On Dec. 16, The Tennessean published an op-ed column of more than 450 words by one Michael Kimmitt, deriding Al Gore and declaring that “a multitude of actual climate scientists” believe that Gore’s “global warming evidence is comical.”

    Kimmitt, represented in The Tennessean only as a “communications consultant,” now sells real estate in Franklin, which I suppose makes him an authority on matters scientific. His main source for his assertion that “thousands of respected scientists” have dissented from “the global warming storyline” was a list of 650 (not “thousands”) so-called scientists who supposedly challenged global warming orthodoxy — a list recently released by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

    Mr. Kimmitt complained that the mainstream media had given insufficient coverage to the committee report. What he did not reveal, however, was that the allegedly authoritative document was actually concocted by a single U.S. senator, James Inhofe, described publicly by one of his fellow committee members as a “Luddite,” and also frequently called the senator from Exxon, because of the enormous campaign contributions he has regularly received from oil and gas interests.

    Inhofe has called President Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency “a Gestapo bureaucracy” and declared that global warming “is the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.” One way to judge the credibility of Inhofe’s statements is to watch the hearings of his Senate committee on C-SPAN and notice how his fellow Republicans, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, grimace and roll their eyes, like high school students listening to the class dunce.

    Another way to assess the credibility of Inhofe’s “sound science” is to discover who funded the “research” of the so-called scientists he frequently cites. Over and over, the money has originated with sources like the American Petroleum Institute or Exxon-Mobil, or from front organizations funded by Big Oil. Moreover, some of the cherry-picked criticisms of global-warming theories cited by Inhofe turn out to have come from researchers who actually believe in global warming but disagree with some tiny aspect of the massive scientific literature on the subject.

    Some of Inhofe’s 650 “authorities” have publicly disassociated themselves from his compilation. And many others could easily be described as pseudo-scientists, publishing in journals of questionable respectability, peer-reviewed by contrarians like themselves. The truth is that every national academy of science in every major industrial nation in the world has confirmed that global warming is real, that it is taking place largely because of human activity, and that it is a serious threat to life on Earth.

    Using Sen. Inhofe as his principal authority for his attack on Gore and for his own denial of global warming says a lot about Mr. Kimmitt, whom The Tennessean failed to identify, as it should have done, as himself a former corporate “spokesman” employed by ExxonMobil Oil.

    Yes maybe we failed to identify these new shinning stars as nothing more than spokesman for people who enjoy 8 million dollar houses and billions to those shinning starts to buy those houses and a few other shinning star stuff and these new people make P.T. Barnum look like a hotdog vender.

  13. Don Hawkins said on December 28th, 2008 at 8:34am #

    Does anybody remember this comment a few day’s back I forget her name but this was one of the best.

    One gigantic boat, we are all in it together. some rich, some poor, some supposed to be our smart ones, but it seems the dumb have figured out whats going on, but feel powerless to do anything about it! theres a behind the scene agenda, been there since time imortal. ok, you smart ones, what do we do about it? it’s only about good verses evil, who can change a mans heart!!!!!!!!! thats really the bottom line, its the human heart condition!!!

  14. Alice Cameron said on December 28th, 2008 at 9:01am #

    Is there a count of how many people have died (this includes non- americans) in revenge for 9/11. If anyone knows? Does anyone care?

  15. The Angry Peasant said on December 28th, 2008 at 5:40pm #

    Millions of Iraqis have either been killed or have had their lives torn asunder by the United States’ imperialistic actions. If you watch Brian DePalma’s movie, “Redacted,” check out the extras on the DVD. DePalma brings a number of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan to a screening of his movie (in Jordan). Afterwards, he interviews several Iraqi families about life as refugees living in Jordan, where non-Jordanian citizens are forbidden by law to work. Listen to these peoples’ stories. It’ll give you a pretty grim idea of how many lives have been ruined by the USA. In that region alone.