By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
The following article is based on a Nov. 27 talk the author gave, sponsored by the New York City branch of Socialist Action.
The U.S. government’s efforts to overthrow the Taliban-as well as to capture or assassinate Osama bin Laden-did not begin following the Sept. 11 attack, or even with George W. Bush. These objectives were established under Bill Clinton.
Washington turned sharply against bin Laden-its former ally-after the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. The Clinton administration retaliated by bombing some of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan as well as a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, and even looked into authorizing an assassination team to kill bin Laden.
After the Taliban refused Washington’s terms to extradite bin Laden for the 1998 bombings, the United States succeeded in getting the UN to impose sanctions against them.
Then a year ago, when the USS Cole was blasted by terrorists in Aden harbor, the Clinton administration again blamed the attack on the al-Qaida leader. After the Taliban stalled on Washington’s demands to hand over bin Laden, new sanctions were imposed on Afghanistan by the UN Security Council.
The Los Angeles Times reported (Dec. 20, 2000): “Russia and the United States joined forces to muscle the resolution through the 15-member council, despite some countries’ concern that the sanctions will only fuel Afghanistan’s civil war and worsen conditions for its people.”
But behind the scenes, the White House was exploring even more drastic measures-a military assault, together with Russian forces, against bin Laden and the Taliban leadership.
Central Asia scholar Frederick Starr wrote in the Washington Post (Dec. 20, 2000): “First, the United States has quietly begun to align itself with those in the Russian government calling for military action against Afghanistan and has toyed with the idea of a new raid to wipe out Osama bin Laden.
“Until it backed off under local pressure, it went so far as to explore whether a Central Asian country would permit the use of its territory for such a purpose….
“Second, Assistant Secretary of State Karl Indefurth met recently with Russia’s friends in the government of India to discuss what kind of government should replace the Taliban.”
Since Bush Junior came into the White House, the United States has blown hot and cold against the Taliban-apparently hoping that with enough carrot and stick diplomacy it could make a deal and not have to go to war. Earlier this year, for example, the Bush administration praised the Taliban for cracking down on opium production in some areas, and awarded it a $3 million grant.
After Sept. 11, however, U.S. officials apparently believed that they had been provided with a scenario that permitted them to undertake a quick war against bin Laden and the Taliban, with relatively little risk of arousing a Vietnam-type antiwar movement.
But why should the U.S. government go to the trouble of committing its full firepower to remove the puny Taliban? Why patch together an international “alliance” to counter the government of one of the poorest countries in the world-a mere flea in international politics?
I would maintain that the “war on terrorism” is at best a secondary goal for the United States. Far more important are the geopolitical objectives of U.S. capitalism in the Central Asian region.
Of course, the greatest natural resource of that part of the world is oil. In order to secure the region’s rich petroleum and natural gas deposits, the world’s great powers have gone to war on many occasions over the last hundred years.
A large belt of oil fields extends from northern Iran, through Turkmenistan and other former republics of the Soviet Union that lie on the northern border of Afghanistan, and into Afghanistan itself. (Afghanistan has only modest amounts of petroleum, but much more of natural gas.)
The Soviet republics in this region were oppressed during Stalinist rule in a manner highly reminiscent of the oppression they endured from imperial Russia at the time of the Tsar.
The people of these republics had the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rates in the USSR. They were systematically denied use of their national languages, customs, religious practices, and even knowledge of their history. Their national borders were gerrymandered with the connivance of Stalin himself in order to divide up and atomize the various nationalities.
In the centralized economy of the Soviet Union, most of these border republics were reserved for agricultural production-principally of cotton. The oil and natural gas resources were less developed, and even today remain largely unexplored. It is estimated, however, that they are at least as large as those in the North Sea-and thus are potentially a rich plum for any giant oil corporation.
Outright imperialist piracy of these countries’ resources, however, is inhibited because of two problems. One is the fact that social remnants of the Soviet workers state are still present, which act to restrict full-blown capitalist exploitation.
The second problem has to do with the need to transport the oil and gas to consumer markets. At the present time, most of the pipelines continue to go to the north, through Russia.
For a decade, the Western oil corporations and imperialist governments have been hoping to short circuit the oil away from both Russia and Iran on its way to foreign markets. They have made plans instead to construct new pipelines through countries they consider more politically reliable.
Afghanistan is the shortest route to bring oil and gas from the former Soviet Central Asian republics-as well as from the oil fields west of the Caspian Sea-to tanker ships in the Indian Ocean or to markets in Pakistan, India, and the Far East. But in order to construct and maintain pipelines in Afghanistan, a secure and compliant government would have to be established there.
The main U.S. corporation dickering for a pipeline route through Afghanistan during the 1990s was the Los Angeles-based Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL), which already held almost a 10 percent share of the Caspian Sea oil fields in Azerbaijan.
UNOCAL initially looked favorably at the Taliban (as the U.S. government and authoritative capitalist organs like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal also tended to do) as a force that could bring law and order and a healthy business climate to Afghanistan-much as kings and dictators had done elsewhere in the Middle East.
One U.S. diplomat said in 1997, “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be ARAMCO [the consortium that controlled oil in Saudi Arabia early in the 20th century], pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of Sharia [Islamic] law. We can live with that.”
But UNOCAL and its U.S. government backers felt compelled to back away from negotiations with the Afghans as it became clear that the Taliban was less a force for “healthy” business to be established and more a stimulus to the “kalishnikov and heroin” business of the region.
The dangers were evident not only in Afghanistan but in the oil-rich former Soviet republics, especially Tadjikistan, which was being destabilized by Taliban-backed Islamists. Even Washington’s pillars in the region, Pakistan and Egypt, were facing increasing disruption by Islamist forces linked to the Taliban.
Putin gives concessions
Though oil serves as a background to the conflict, there are other geopolitical objectives of the Bush administration that it believes warrant its so-called war on terrorism-all of them, of course, related to oil and capitalist business interests in general.
The objectives of the current Bush administration in Afghanistan are not markedly different from those of Bush the elder, who (though few today bring it to mind) trumpeted the “New World Order” at the time of the Gulf War. Actually, U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan really got under way under the Democratic Party administration of Jimmy Carter.
Indeed, if you make allowances for relatively minor changes of focus, U.S. policy objectives in Central Asia and the Middle East have been generally consistent since the end of the Second World War. In the postwar era, the United States found itself in position as the major capitalist power, both in economic and military strength.
In its relations with the underdeveloped “Third World,” the United States was able to rapidly supplant the older imperialist countries, such as Britain and France, who were losing their empires to anti-colonial revolutions.
In the Middle East and Central Asia, the U.S. had several interlocking objectives. First and foremost was to secure the sources of oil in the region-as we have discussed. Second was to outmanuever its capitalist rivals, like Britain and France, for political as well as economic influence.
Third was to try to harness the indigenous capitalist regimes in the region for its own purposes and to thwart any potentially revolutionary mobilizations. And fourth was to contain the Soviet Union in the region, especially in oil-producing areas.
These overall objectives remained consistent for half a century and are still reflected in U.S. policy today-despite the fact, of course, that the Soviet Union is no longer on the map and its main successor, Russia, has been greatly weakened.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks has given considerable concessions to Bush while in return receiving carte blanche to destroy the Chechnyan nationalist fighters.
For now, the United States, with the connivance of Putin and the other pro-capitalist Stalinists who rule the Central Asian republics, has established a military and political beachhead within the region that Russia had previously reserved as its own buffer against Islamic and nationalist pressures on the flow of resources northward.
I would suggest, in fact, that the military bases that the United States is establishing in Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan are less designed to give the U.S. quick access toward “trouble spots” in the south (Afghanistan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf) than to provide military accessibility in the north to intervene against any resistance to the re-establishment of capitalism in the former Soviet border republics and in Russia itself.
How Washington installed the Shah
This is very much in line with the historic objectives of the United States in the region. Although until the last decade the U.S. generally presented the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union as the main enemy, Washington really feared the masses-who from time to time rebelled under the leadership of left-wing or nationalist forces, and who could ultimately, with a real revolutionary leadership, challenge capitalism in the region.
Thus, for example, when movements for self-determination and independence arose among the Kurdish and Azeri people of northern Iran in 1946, the United States saw these developments as a threat to imperialist oil interests in Iran. Since Soviet occupation troops from World War II remained in the area, Washington feared they might give military aid to the revolutionaries.
The United States was able to overcome the danger by a combination of war threats coupled with a carrot offered to Stalin in which the Soviets were promised lucrative oil concessions in Iran. After Stalin withdrew the Red Army and the revolutionaries were defeated, the Shah’s government simply denied the Soviet Union the concessions that had been promised.
Likewise in 1953, when Iran’s prime minister, Mossadegh, had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil corporation and was increasingly talking about putting a constitutional republic into place, he didn’t remain in power very long. British-owned oil interests organized an international embargo against the nationalized Iranian oil, while the CIA created a disruption campaign to bring down the government.
As a result of the CIA’s Operation Ajax, the Shah was brought back into power and Mossadegh barely escaped with his life. Afterwards, the British oil magnates were supplanted by a new consortium in Iran, initially made up of the five largest U.S. oil giants-Standard of New Jersey, Standard of California, Texaco, Mobil, and Gulf.
After the United States had stabilized Iran and obtained hegemony in that country, U.S. commercial interests as well as military aid flooded in. This continued throughout the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Iran became Washington’s major gendarme against mass uprisings in the Persian Gulf oil-producing region.
In addition, Iran was encouraged to join its rivals among the regional powers, Turkey and Pakistan, in the CENTO military alliance. These countries, along with wealthy Saudi Arabia, were seen as the “pillars” of U.S. policy in that part of the world.
(Israel, too, was a “pillar,” but it had strong liabilities for U.S. goals in carrying out joint work with the demagogic Islamic and Arab regimes. Nevertheless, Iran’s SAVAK secret police agency coordinated activities such as assassinations of political opponents with the Israeli Mossad.)
These U.S. client regimes in the region provided the material for the so-called Nixon Doctrine of the early 1970s, which stated in brief, “We pay, you fight.”
The United States, having just been beaten in the Vietnam War and experiencing tremendous antiwar sentiment on the part of the American working people, who had seen their sons and daughters arriving home in body bags, was highly reluctant to undertake a similar operation in the Middle East.
Instead, Nixon said to Iran, Pakistan, and company: We will keep you supplied with the latest military technology, and we’ll train your troops and maybe even provide a few CIA or Green Beret advisors on the ground. This will be enough to keep your dictatorial regimes in power, crush any rebellions, and keep your hostile neighbors in line. But you will have to provide the major ground forces yourselves.
The Carter Doctrine
Despite this handy arrangement, however, by 1978-79 alarm bells were ringing once again in Washington. For one thing, an abortive Islamist revolt took place in Saudi Arabia. Then, much worse, there was a revolution in the country that served as the major regional ally of the United States, Iran. Despite all the armaments that the U.S. had provided, many of the Shah’s troops put down their weapons and joined the masses demonstrating in the streets.
Finally, a reformist pro-Soviet government was established in Afghanistan, soon followed by the invasion of the country by Soviet troops.
This was the background to the so-called Carter Doctrine. In his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 1980, President Carter declared that Soviet troops in Afghanistan were now threatening the Persian Gulf itself and that any assault on the Gulf by an outside power would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It would be repulsed, he said, by any means necessary, including armed force.
This language was a bit stronger than what Nixon had been willing to commit himself to. Carter said that a “line in the sand” was drawn for this country’s enemies-a precursor of George Bush the Elder’s rhetoric 10 years later at the time of the Gulf War.
Carter also said that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was “the most serious threat to peace since World War II,” which was a taste of George Bush Junior’s line a decade afterward.
President Carter described the same scenario that Washington had employed since the late 1940s, that the Soviet Union might sweep down into northern Iran (taking new advantage of the revolution in that country) and capture the oil fields.
I would suggest that an even stronger concern of the U.S. administration was that mass revolutionary sentiment in Iran (which had already been partially diverted by the Islamic clergy) might spread to other countries in the region, providing a severe threat to capitalist interests.
In any case, the United States used both Iran and Afghanistan as excuses to construct or to strengthen a series of military bases, as well as friendly neo-colonial regimes, surrounding Iran, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. These installations-from which U.S. forces were able to be deployed at a moment’s notice-stretched in a crescent from Turkey through Egypt, through Saudi Arabia, Bahraine, and the British island colony of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and they were anchored in the east by the U.S. client dictatorship in Pakistan.
At the same time, the United States took steps to destabilize the Iranian revolution by supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. During the 1980s, U.S. military aid, products, and commercial credits poured into Iraq in a way reminiscent of the largess with which the U.S. had previously given them to Iran under the Shah. For example, Iraq became the largest buyer of U.S. rice in the world.
Despite international concerns about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish villagers in 1978, the U.S. Congress voted to gut an amendment to cut $1 billion in annual farm credits to Iraq as late as six days before the start of the Gulf War.
And as a third measure, the Carter administration took steps to counter the Soviet Union through its aid to the Islamist forces in Afghanistan, which were largely recruited and financed by the U.S. surrogates, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and organized by the CIA. Some Islamist groups were even sent into the largely Muslim border republics of the Soviet Union itself in order to try to foment uprisings there.
Several sources, including Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, have admitted that aid to the Islamist rebels began months before the Soviet invasion, in June or July 1979. A classified State Department report of August 1979 asserted that “the United States’ larger interest … would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin regime [the reformist leaders of Afghanistan], despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan.”
Bluntly put, if Washington were forced to make a choice between two dangerous alternatives, it would rather take its chances with feuding Islamist warlords than with a reformist secular regime that might engender some sympathy among the masses of the Third World.
There are indications that Washington believed that the competing mujahadin factions and disparate national groupings in Afghanistan would never unite-thus cancelling out any strong threat to U.S. interests once in power.
Furthermore, the Iranian mullahs had demonstrated that Islamist forces, although they may mouth anti-imperialist rhetoric and even at times counter U.S. policy, can still be useful in putting the brake on mass revolutionary mobilizations.
Let me interject one thought: In recent months, one group, the Spartacist League, has been boasting that they, unlike virtually every other group on the American left, had welcomed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Spartacists liken the Soviet forces in the 1980s to the Bolshevik Red Army of the 1920s, lending the armed might of the revolutionary workers state to oppressed peoples in struggle abroad.
But the facts are quite different. Brezhnev and the other top Soviet bureaucrats sent in the troops not to solidarize with and to help organize the Afghan people against their oppressors-the landlords and capitalists-but to secure their borders against what they viewed as U.S. provocations.
For this, they hoped to prop up their client regime in Afghanistan-which, although it had instituted some reforms, was corrupt, ruthless, and unpopular.
As soon as they arrived, the Soviets executed the sitting president, Amin, and installed their own stooge, Karmal, into power. During the next few years, they proceeded to make a large part of the country into a no-man’s-land, reducing a large percentage of its villages to rubble, cutting down the orchards, destroying the irrigation channels, and laying tens of thousands of mines in agricultural fields.
An armed force that lays waste to a country, kills a million people, and sends millions more fleeing into an exile of poverty and starvation is not at all “revolutionary,” let alone a descendent of the Red Army of Trotsky and Lenin.
What about the future?
It is obvious that at this point, U.S. imperialism has scored a significant victory in the Afghan war. It is handing the Taliban a humiliating defeat.
Meanwhile, dozens of countries have been pulled into the U.S.-led “anti-terrorism” alliance, by hook or by crook. This will potentially solidify the economic hold that the United States has over many of those countries-as with Iran in the 1950s and Iraq in the 1980s.
Although Washington, by design, has organized the war almost single-handedly, it has done so thus far with remarkably small costs. All the significant ground fighting was carried out by Afghan surrogates. The United States merely bombed from thousands of feet above, while allowing the Marines to sweep in at the end to give the coup de gras to the Taliban in a marvelous bit of theater for TV consumption at home.
In short, lacking any significant criticism by the U.S. labor movement-let alone the compliant corporate media-the majority of working people in the United States have thus far been gulled into believing that a brave president has led the country to avenge the Trade Center bombing by uniting the rest of the world in a noble and victorious crusade.
But the so-called war against terrorism is far from over. Even if bin Laden is found, there will still be plenty of terrorists out there-perhaps this time with a new martyr to avenge. George Bush will find himself unable to keep his promises to end terrorism; and that fact, coupled with a shaky economic picture, may cause his popularity ratings to plummet, just as happened with his father following the Gulf War.
If the war on terrorism is to continue, the U.S. government will have to look for another country-like Somalia or Iraq-to target.
And in the short term, there is still Afghanistan to worry about. How many Afghan refugees will perish as the cold winter comes on? Even if aid can be trucked in over the snowy mountain passes, who is going to rebuild the country’s roads, industry, and agriculture to avoid another famine next year?
And what about the mujahadin warlords who have now been placed in power? Many of them became noted for their cruelty and treachery during the last 20 years of fighting, and today are ankle deep in the heroin trade.
The U.S. capitalist class is clearly worried, as a New York Times dispatch from mid-November reflects: “Just days after the fall of Kabul, power vacuums in outlying provinces are being filled by local military commanders, political leaders, and anyone with a gun. Parts of Afghanistan are beginning to present the same picture of lawlessness that led to the Taliban’s rise in the mid-1990s.”
If such developments persist, they will begin to erode what ever support the Bush administration has acquired inside the United States. At the same time, they will impede the prospects for further imperialist economic penetration into the region, such as for oil drilling and pipelines.
At the same time, the so-called alliance that Washington has forged in the Middle East and beyond has the potential of rapidly falling apart as the pressures of nationalism, religion, and rivalries between regional powers start to surface. And so, as the Marines pour into Kandahar, the U.S. government may find itself entering a far deeper swamp than before.