Examining Obama’s Rationale for Escalating the War in Afghanistan

Outlining his rationale for the decision to send yet more troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama on Tuesday began with a familiar refrain: “We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people.”

“Al Qaeda’s base of operations”, he said, “was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban”, who “refused to turn over Osama bin Laden”.

In fact, the Taliban offered to either try bin Laden in their court system or hand him over to a third country if the U.S. provided evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The evidence, however, was not forthcoming, and so the Taliban did indeed refuse on that basis.

There’s another half-truth in this remark, which suggests that the reason we went into Afghanistan was to get bin Laden. This is belied by the fact that there were plans to overthrow the Taliban that predated 9/11.

The consideration then had mostly to do with U.S. interests in seeing oil and gas pipelines constructed in transit through the country. It cannot have been coincidence that President Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban was Zalmay Khalilzad, who had previously conducted risk analysis for Unocal, the company trying to woo the Taliban and heading the consortium to establish a pipeline across Afghanistan until 1998, when company Vice President John J. Maresca testified to the House Committee on International Relations that unless there was a change in regime, no such pipelines could be built.

Unocal was later bought by Chevron, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s former company, which is heavily invested in the region. Then Vice President Dick Cheney was also very personally involved in the region. He served, for example, as a member of Kazakhstan’s Oil Advisory Board. The list goes on.

So far, the proposed TAPI and other pipelines haven’t quite panned out as desired, but the plans are still on the table. TAPI, for example, the main proposal presently backed by the U.S. (which is opposed to an alternative route through Iran), which evolved from the Unocal consortium, is to be financed by the Asian Development Bank, of which the U.S. and Japan are the major shareholders with significantly more voting power than the rest of its members, thus rendering the ADB a useful instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

Obama’s suggestion that the war was about getting bin Laden is also belied by the fact that both General Tommy Franks – then commander of U.S. Central Command who oversaw the U.S. military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan – and Richard Myers – then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – denied that getting bin Laden was ever a goal of the U.S.-led war. These denials were no doubt self-serving, in light of the failure to capture or kill bin Laden; but that does not mean they were not also honest admissions.

Obama’s remarks also suggest the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed from Afghanistan. He added further into his speech, “it is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.”

The latter part of this statement is simply the politics of fear and nothing more, akin to the statements from government officials prior to the invasion of Iraq that the “smoking gun” of Iraqi WMD and ties to al Qaeda “could come in the form of a mushroom cloud” – a claim those making it knew was absolute nonsense. This is not to say there aren’t terrorists plotting against the U.S. But they hardly need to be confined to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and it’s our policies, including the continuing war in Afghanistan, that serve as the catalyst for such extremism in the first place.

The former part of this remark, needless to say, is just false. 9/11 was neither planned in nor executed from Afghanistan. The attacks were planned in places like Hamburg, Germany and Venice, Florida — or Malaysia, where the CIA had tracked two of the would-be hijackers, both known al Qaeda associates. (Despite being on the terrorist watch-list, and despite the agency having known that they had visas to enter the U.S., the CIA still chose not to notify the State Department, the Department of Immigration, or the FBI). They were executed from American soil.

Continuing, Obama attempted again to associate the Afghan insurgency with al Qaeda, saying “the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government”.

9/11. Al Qaeda. Taliban.

Similarly deceptive rhetoric was employed to convince Americans the U.S. had to invade Iraq:

9/11. Al Qaeda. WMD. Saddam Hussein.

Obama certainly must know of the public opinion surveys showing that most Afghans are opposed to the Taliban. He must certainly know those same polls also reveal that most Afghans want foreign forces out of their country. He must also certainly have been advised of the fact that most Afghans who join the insurgency do so not out of allegiance to the Taliban or al Qaeda, but because they oppose the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil, or because they are fed up with the corruption and ineffectual rule of the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

In other words, the insurgency has nothing at all to do with Al Qaeda. The only connection between most insurgents and Al Qaeda is a common goal to rid the country of foreign troops and/or replace the U.S. puppet regime. It’s instructive that Obama noted the overthrow of the Afghan government as a goal, but not the ousting of foreign forces from their soil. It’s no insignificant omission, given that the policy just announced will predictably serve to fuel the insurgency, following the trend of strengthened insurgency as the number of troops has increased over the years.

As an elementary observation, the increase in troop numbers has nothing to do, therefore, with quelling the insurgency – any more than invading Iraq was about ridding the world of WMD.

The insurgency having nothing to do with Al Qaeda, therefore the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan has nothing to do with fighting Al Qaeda. That’s equally elementary, despite Obama’s claim that “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda”.

But Obama couldn’t very well tell the truth to the American people and still expect to garner their support for yet another escalation of troops to Afghanistan. Much better to use the old Bush formula: We need to send more troops because we were attacked on 9/11. If we don’t escalate the war there, al Qaeda will attack us on our own soil.

And so on.

On the matter of Afghanistan’s corrupt government, Obama had this to say: “although it was marred by fraud”, Afghanistan’s recent election “produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution.” How a government maintained through fraudulent elections could possibly be “consistent with” the law and constitution Obama chose not to bother explaining. We’re just supposed to take his word for it that two plus two equals five.

Another omission in Obama’s speech was the rationale for the 9/11 attacks to begin with: principally, the fact that it was a response to U.S. foreign policy, including U.S. support for Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people and other violations of international humanitarian law.

It would be difficult to argue that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t similarly increased the threat of terrorism against the U.S. for the same reasons we were attacked on 9/11 in the first place and the legitimate grievances that served as the rationale behind the unjustifiable attacks.

One obvious corollary is that fighting terrorism simply isn’t high on the list of priorities for U.S. foreign policy, rhetoric to the contrary aside. Much as with democracy and the principle of self-determination, it isn’t that U.S. policy is opposed to the idea; it’s fine, just so long as the goal doesn’t interfere with the actual policy considerations, which don’t actually have anything to do with democracy (or fighting terrorism, etc.).

This contempt for democracy is illustrated by Obama’s decision on escalating the war, opposed by many, if not most, Americans, and also opposed by most Afghanis, according to surveys. It is also illustrated by the necessity of government officials to lie in order to justify war.

Obama’s decision to wait to announce the troop increase until after the Afghanistan election and its immediate aftermath was perhaps in part a result of deliberations over whether or not to do so. But it’s equally likely that the decision was made before the election even took place, and the delay was simply necessary to give the administration time to engage in a public relations campaign to preempt criticism that the U.S. was backing a corrupt regime.

The principle means of doing so was for the administration officials to make tough statements about the need for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to act against corruption – statements difficult to take seriously for anyone familiar with the situation there who is not inclined to take such rhetoric at face value.

Take, for instance, Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose name was bandied about as a prime example of the kind of guy Karzai should not include in his government. This is the same General Dostum whom the CIA handed suitcases of cash to as a Northern Alliance ally in the initial effort to overthrow the Taliban, who is among the same group of warlords the U.S. itself dealt with and helped to empower. The lectures to Karzai about the need to rid his government of corruption ring hollow in light of the U.S. role in empowering warlords such as Dostum in the first place, people whom the U.S. obviously has no qualms about dealing with itself.

But the admonitions served the purpose of preemptively fending off criticism that the war effort simply serve to prop up a corrupt regime before the announcement of a troop increase was actually made – the predictable outcome since General Stanley McChrystal first made his request for additional forces. Thus, Obama included in his speech the statement that “We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.”

Just how serious his administration is about that is reflected in the anti-opium policy announced this summer. Under the new policy, drug lords associated with the insurgency – and only those with connections to the Taliban or other insurgent groups – are to be targeted. In other words, the drug lords responsible for the vast majority of Afghanistan’s drug trade – including individuals within or allied to the Karzai government or occupying forces (the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai himself is reportedly a leading drug lord, as well as a CIA asset, according to the New York Times) – are specifically excluded from the scope of the U.S. “anti-drug” policy in Afghanistan.

Or, to put it yet another way, the U.S. policy serves to help the biggest drug lords consolidate their control over the opium and heroin trade. The mainstream media, meanwhile, follows the government’s lead in focusing instead on the Taliban’s relatively meager profits from its indirect role in the drug trade, such as by ushr, a tax on all agriculture, including poppy cultivation.

Obama’s only arguments against a withdrawal from Afghanistan were far from convincing. His first was that, “Unlike Vietnam”, in Afghanistan, the U.S. has “a broad coalition” that “recognizes the legitimacy of our action”. The central fallacy here is the assumption that because a deed has international complicity, it is therefore “legitimate”.

His second argument against withdrawal consisted of a simple denial that the U.S. is “facing a broad-based popular insurgency.” Well, if the U.S. isn’t facing a broad-based popular insurgency, then why does Obama feel it necessary to send more troops in the first place? What is all the talk about counterinsurgency (“COIN”) and the need to win hearts and minds, if the insurgency is not broad-based and popular in many parts of the country? This argument is false on its face, another case of two-plus-two-equals-five.

Obama’s only other argument withdrawal was a repetition that “unlike Vietnam”, we’re there because “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border”, an argument for which the central fallacy has already been addressed.

These arguments against withdrawal, like his arguments in favor of escalation, are as ridiculous as Obama’s assertion that, “unlike the great powers of old”, the U.S. has “not sought world domination.” The sane, rational people of the world must surely remain unconvinced, in light of the actual facts of history and current U.S. foreign policy – Obama’s announcement of an increase in troop numbers being no exception.

Jeremy R. Hammond is the editor of Foreign Policy Journal, a website providing news, analysis, and opinion from outside the standard framework provided by government officials and the corporate media. He was among the recipients of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and is the author of The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination. You can contact him at: jeremy@foreignpolicyjournal.com. Read other articles by Jeremy, or visit Jeremy's website.

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  1. bozh said on December 4th, 2009 at 11:52am #

    Warlords protecting-hiring ‘friendly’ or otherwise warlords is not a novelty.
    Wars being the worst hell, why wldn’t the masters of them also lie? Wasn’t every war ever waged based on rationalizations, omission of facts, biggest lies possible, perception or claims to defense of one’s interests, etc.?