US, Afghanistan and doctrinal boundaries

by Paul Street | Published: 22:03, Aug 18,2021

— Counter Punch

ONE of the doctrinal principles behind US corporate-imperial news coverage and commentary and mainstream US politics is that the United States is a fundamentally benevolent force for good facing difficulties created by evil others and challenging situations not of Washington’s own making. Debate is permissible on immediate strategy and tactics but is not allowed on these core American exceptionalist positions.

Hence, while there is contestation in US media and political culture over how to respond to the flood of migrants seeking entrance to the United States on the nation’s southern border, there is little if any serious mainstream media discussion and critique of the long and many-sided role that US capitalist imperialism has played in imposing abject misery on millions of people across Central America and Mexico.

The US invasion of Vietnam (and Cambodia) and Iraq could be criticised in dominant US media as bad strategy, as mistakes, but never as monumentally mass-murderous, racist, and imperialist war crimes and crimes against humanity.

John Kennedy (who initiated the US assault on Vietnam and Southeast Asia) could face mainstream criticism for failing to ‘properly’ back the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and then be praised for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis. There was no serious mainstream discussion of how the American empire’s long neocolonial treatment of Cuba and its response to the brilliant Cuban Revolution bred a popular socialist revolution that naturally gravitated to the protective umbrella of the Soviet Union (or of another matter: how the imperialist Kennedy’s response to evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation and how it was the action of a Soviet sub-commander that averted that fate).

The defeat of American invasions and occupations can be reported and discussed in the mainstream media and political culture as the consequence of strategic miscalculations by US policymakers but never as the result of legitimate popular resistance to American imperialism.

As a state senator, US senator, and presidential candidate, the post-George W Bush empire re-brander Barack Obama made it clear that he viewed the invasion of Iraq as a ‘bad war’ only in the sense of being strategically ‘dumb,’ not because it was an immoral, racist, and petro-imperialist adventure meant to put the American boot on the giant Iraqi oil spigot. Candidate Obama even ended up blaming the Iraq ‘mistake’ on Bush’s excessively idealistic desire to export democracy to Iraq — an absurd formulation in line with the American exceptionalist doctrine that Obama would articulate while personally drone-killing children and wedding parties, helping decimate Libya and Honduras, and deepening the US devastation of Afghanistan.

The assumption that the United States has the right to invade, attack, and occupy other nations is taken for granted in mainstream US media and politics. ‘The American people,’ candidate Obama sanctimoniously told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in 2006, ‘have seen their sons and daughters killed in the streets of Fallujah.’ The most remarkable thing about this comment wasn’t just that Obama left out the American empire’s savage decimation of that key Iraqi city, replete with the use of radioactive munitions that sparked an epidemic of child leukaemia, but that Obama just normatively assumed that American troops had any right to be patrolling the streets of a major Iraq metropolis.

‘We lead the world,’ presidential candidate Obama explained, ‘in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good. America is the last, best hope of earth.’ Obama elaborated in his first inaugural address. ‘Our security,’ the president said, ‘emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint’ — a fascinating commentary on Fallujah, Hiroshima, the US crucifixion of Southeast Asia, the ‘highway of death’ and more.

The United States is always good and well-intentioned. This is so doctrinally embedded in US ruling class ideology that evidence to the utter contrary must be reflexively dismissed out of hand. Within less than half a year of his inauguration, Obama’s rapidly accumulating record of atrocities in the Muslim world would include the bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by US explosives in Bola Boluk were children. ‘In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan parliament,’ the New York Times reported, ‘the governor of Farah province… said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed.’ According to one Afghan legislator and eyewitness, ‘the villagers bought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred. Everyone at the governor’s cried, watching that shocking scene.’ The administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge the ‘global policeman’s’ responsibility.

By telling and sickening contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official because that official had scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised air force one photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people of 9/11. The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology.

This brings us to the current spectacle in Afghanistan, where Obama’s vice-president and current US imperial warlord-in-chief Joe Biden is being made to look like a doddering buffoon by the chaotic and desperate scenes from the former US embassy and the Kabul airport. The total collapse of the formerly US-sponsored Afghan regime cruelly mocks his claim just one month ago that everything was fine for an orderly US evacuation and the persistence of a non-Taliban government in the nation’s capital. Does this underestimation of the insurgent, anti-imperial forces’ political and fighting power sound at all consistent with earlier official American over-estimations of their and their illegitimate client regimes’ ability to militarily suppress resistance movement? It’s much the same story all over again, as in Iraq and Vietnam, replete with images of evacuation helicopters atop a besieged US embassy that are hauntingly like those from Saigon in 1975. (In Saigon, the helicopters could fly US personnel straight to offshore imperial aircraft carriers. In Kabul, they move the imperial evictees to a nearby airport where the scene is even more chaotic).

The Biden administration is being predictably and properly mocked for his strategic blundering and the bad intelligence that produced the memorably humiliating optics (‘complete and utter mayhem and chaos’) in Kabul. At the same time, the occasion of Washington’s final departure is leading to a fair amount of officially permissible soul-searching about whether ‘America’s longest war’ was ‘worth it’ in the first place — whether it was a strategic mistake to have gone into Afghanistan, the well-known ‘graveyard of empires,’ in the first place.

Notice two things outside the parameters of permissible discussion: the criminal nature of the US invasion from day one, and the long-standing role of the United States in training and equipping right-wing Islamo-terrorism in Afghanistan and the broader Muslim and Arab world.

Afghanistan did not attack the United States on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda did, and al-Qaeda was sheltered and funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both major US regional allies. France does not have the right to invade and bomb Vermont, and the United States more broadly, if a neofascist purportedly sheltered in the Green Mountains is said to have coordinated deadly terror attacks on the Eifel Tower and the French National Assembly. After 9/11, the various players in Afghanistan, including the Taliban government, were more than ready to talk and negotiate, possibly even hand over Osama bin Laden for international prosecution. They did not want the world’s greatest superpower to pulverise the country. The US rejected these overtures and undertook instead to use ‘immense force used to demolish Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure and to break open its social bonds’ (as Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad noted). Like something out of the texts of the brilliant American anti-imperial new left historian Gabriel Kolko, the American empire went instead with the doomed and enormously destructive path of military punishment. More than 71,000 Afghan citizens died in the ensuing violence while American ‘defence’ (empire) firms including Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin cashed in on the cost-plus contracts that purchased the weapons of imperial mass destruction.

At the same time, as seems unmentionable in US media, the hated Taliban is to no small extent a US product. As Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad explained last May from beyond the margins of acceptable US debate and memory:

‘Afghanistan has been in a civil war for half a century, at least since the creation of the mujahideen — including Abdul Haq — to battle the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan government (1978–1992). This civil war was intensified by the US support of Afghanistan’s most conservative and extreme right-wing elements, groups that would become part of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamist factions. Never once has the United States offered a path to peace during this period; instead, it has always shown an eagerness at each turn to use the immensity of the US force to control the outcome in Kabul.’

It is of course unthinkable that any talking head at CNN or MSNBC, not to mention FOX News, would point out that the best time for women’s rights and advancement in modern Afghanistan came under communist power, in alliance with the Soviet Union between 1979 and the late 1980s. Driven by concerns of imperial geopolitics and not human rights (Orwellian US rhetoric notwithstanding), the United States sponsored arch-reactionary and hyper-sexist Islamist resistance to the socialist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, backing elements it knew would crush women’s rights after defeating the socialist state.

Geopolitical considerations remain paramount for the United States in Afghanistan, beneath all the media horror over Taliban atrocities and sexism. As Chomsky and Prashad wrote last May, ‘The United States, it appears, is willing to allow the Taliban to return to power with two caveats: first, that the US presence remains, and second, that the main rivals of the United States — namely China and Russia — have no role in Kabul.’

Whether those goals are attainable remains to be seen but one thing is clear: Washington’s foreign policy remains today, as across its long and bloody history, about bottom-line imperial calculation first and foremost. Human rights talk is just window-dressing meant to cloak wolfish global power considerations in the deceptive sheep’s cover of humanitarian concern., August 17. Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump and Politics of Appeasement.

LETTER: US militarism poisons the world


Writers including Howard Zinn, Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky and John Pilger have for decades warned that American militarist obsessions with wars to impose the US empire upon the world would end in disaster. 

The chaotic US departure from Afghanistan confirms that it is long past time to disband Nato and the estimated 1,000 US military bases around the globe. Prisoners of conscience and whistle-blowers including Julian Assange must be released immediately, plus those hostages still held in barbaric circumstances at Guantanamo.  

The US has more than enough problems at home, but does not have the ingenuity to reinvent itself.  Your editorial “US abandoning Afghans sends a terrible message” (August 15) is, however, predicated on the false assumption that the Taliban ignored an ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden. In fact, and per a Guardian newspaper report dated October 14 2001 and headlined “Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden over”, the US was determined to inflict wars throughout the Muslim world.  It was the key aspect of the neo-con Plan for the New American Century, of which Christian Zionists including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton were prime signatories.

Let’s not forget the Bush and Tony Blair lies in 2003 that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq held “weapons of mass destruction”, a false accusation now still parroted by the Israeli lobby against Iran.    Not only has the world’s most sophisticated military been routed by the Taliban, but the US military is also by far the world’s worst contributor to the environmental and climatic catastrophes facing humanity. The US and its Nato allies annually spend $2-trillion on war preparations.

Reallocation of military spending away from wars  to socially and economically productive purposes is urgent and imperative. SA could set an example by abolishing the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and redefining  defence in terms of section 198 (a) of the constitution that defines national security as: “National security must reflect the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life.”

Your editorial “Mapisa-Nqakula rewarded for being ‘caught napping’” (August 17) ironically also confirms that the SANDF has yet again proved useless. The SANDF frequently compounds the problems SA faces — not least being corruption. Nor should the SANDF attempt any more peacekeeping disasters in Africa, per the Central African Republic and now Mozambique. The purpose of armies is war, not peace.   

The eight-year-long French and American military interventions in Mali and Niger in the Sahel, like the madness in Afghanistan, have only succeeded in millions of refugees trying to escape to Europe. It is also time for the US and Nato to confront the sponsor of Boko Haram, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamic extremists, namely their Saudi Arabian proxy that funds covert destabilisation of resource-rich countries in Asia and Africa (including SA).

The message is quite simple: if you don’t want refugees, don’t instigate wars through the proliferation of weapons and corrupt dictatorships.

Terry Crawford-Browne,World Beyond War — South Africa

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: Send us an email with your comments. Letters of more than 300 words will be edited for length. Send your letter by email to Anonymous correspondence will not be published. Writers should include a daytime telephone number.

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Twenty years ago today, two hijacked planes smashed into the World Trade Center, another slammed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania.

3,000 people lost their lives that sad and terrible morning.

Like so many of us, I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when the first and then second planes hit the Twin Towers.

Like so many of us, I remember the shock, the horror, and the fear that followed.

Our nation was traumatized.

The truth is, the whole world was shocked and horrified.

Though Americans pay far too little attention to what’s going on to people in other countries, people around the world can’t help but know what’s going on in the United States. People around the world cried, sympathized, and expressed solidarity.

At that moment, the United States had an opportunity to unite the world around diplomacy and shared humanist values.

This path would have rejected war and violence and embraced diplomacy, peace-making, and justice.

Yes, it was imperative that the conspirators behind the 9/11 attack be brought to justice — but that justice could and should have been pursued by global law enforcement and according to international law rather than military means.

But our nation chose a different path.

George W. Bush categorically rejected offers from the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden, without even exploring their viability.

And Bush — and the United States — went to war.

In Afghanistan.

Then in Iraq.

And around the world, as part of the so-called “Global War on Terror.”

Two decades later, the toll is clear.

Here’s the tally from Brown University’s Costs of War Project:

  • More than 929,000 people — including at least 387,000 civilians — have died in the post-9/11 wars due to direct war violence.
  • Several times more have perished from other war-related causes, like malnutrition and disease.
  • 14 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq became war refugees or were internally displaced by war.
  • The U.S. federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is more than $8 trillion.
  • Over 7,000 U.S. soldiers died in the wars, as did more than 8,000 American contractors.
  • There isn’t adequate data to assess the scope of injuries and trauma suffered by U.S. soldiers. We do know that more than 30,000 active duty personnel and war veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have died of suicide.

All those numbers, of course, fail to reveal the individual tragedies that have befallen people and families around the world.

The needless pain, sorrow, and heartbreak is utterly incalculable.

As the author and historian Garrett Graff writes in The Atlantic:

“The United States — as both a government and a nation — got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones.”

  • We waged war on Iraq based on completely fabricated grounds.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency adopted a full-fledged, illegal torture program that the Senate Intelligence Committee would later conclude was “brutal and far worse than the C.I.A. represented.”
  • Military and political leaders repeatedly lied to the nation about purported progress in Afghanistan — now confirmed by the immediate collapse of the Afghan government and army upon U.S. withdrawal.

All of this had a horribly corrosive effect on our country domestically.

  • The war and terrorism narrative inevitably led to a dangerous rise in anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
  • Fear and paranoia were used to justify intrusive surveillance policies — some of it legal, much of it not — that shredded civil liberties and privacy protections.
  • And the lies and body bags boomeranged to deepen domestic cynicism about government, worsen alienation, and fuel conspiracism.

As Graff writes, “the fear and suspicion that came to dominate America’s reaction to the 2001 attacks … yielded a long succession of tragic consequences, cynical choices, and poisonous politics.”

Which brings us to the current moment.

We all owe thanks to President Biden for showing the courage to end the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan and to declare an end to “forever wars.”

Yes, the withdrawal was done imperfectly — due in significant part to the surprisingly sudden collapse of the Afghan government.

But the most important thing is that the withdrawal was completed.

Yet there is no easy escape from 20 years of pursuing war instead of diplomacy.

The U.S. military budget now stands at roughly three quarters of a trillion dollars. And the defense committees in the House and Senate each just voted to bump it up even more.

It’s time now to make a fundamental turn away from war, fear, and militarism.

And, in doing so, to turn toward diplomacy, solidarity, and cooperative efforts to face our great global problems — including the coronavirus pandemic, poverty, and climate catastrophe.

Please join me in telling President Biden:

Thank you for ending the Afghan War. Now please oppose the proposed increases in the Pentagon’s budget. It’s time to redirect the nation away from war and toward addressing the giant global threats that do not yield to military might.

Add your name.

Thanks for taking action.

In memory of the lives lost on 9/11 and in the needless wars that followed,

– Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen


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