Behind the Fog of Deception

Washington's real war aims

by Lance Selfa

International Socialist Review, November-December 2001


All U.S. military operations have justifications produced for public consumption that serve to cover over the real explanations. George Bush I cast the 1991 Persian Gulf War for oil as a noble effort to show that "naked aggression would not stand." In 1999, the U.S. sold a war to preserve NATO's "credibility" as a humanitarian operation to save Kovosar refugees. George Bush II's "war on terrorism" is no different. If Bush was simply interested in "bringing to justice" the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, he wouldn't be launching a multi-year, open-ended "war on terrorism." Bush's constant talk about "defending freedom" and vanquishing "evildoers" deliberately obscures the geopolitical and imperial aims of the U.S. in this war.

The reason for these deceptions is simple to explain. If the American people knew the real reasons for intervention-as they came to understand during the Vietnam War-they wouldn't stand for it. Strobe Talbott, who participated in these deceptions as Clinton's special envoy to Russia during the Kosovo War, explained:

The American people have , never accepted traditional geopolitics or pure balance of power calculations as sufficient reason to expend national treasure or to dispatch American soldiers to foreign lands. Throughout this [the twentieth] century, the U.S. government has explained its decisions to send troops "over there" with some invocation of democracy and its defense.'

At its most basic level, Operation Enduring Freedom is about defending one kind of freedom-the continued freedom of the U.S. to intervene around the world and to bend countries to its will. Bush hopes Enduring Freedom will be his Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 war against Iraq that his father described as the proving ground for a U.S. policy of "what we say goes." Perhaps in his wildest dreams, Bush II believes his "war on terrorism" will become the 21st-century equivalent of the Cold War, with "terrorism" standing in for "communism" as the all-purpose rationale for U.S. imperial designs.

In its current phase as an attack on Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom has allowed the U.S. to advance several long-standing geopolitical aims, of which three stand out: projecting U.S. power into the "arc of conflict" in Asia, eroding Russian influence in Central Asia to gain greater access to Caspian Sea oil and gas resources, and strengthening U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.


Asia The next frontier for U.S. domination

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has placed a priority on preventing or retarding the rise of a "peer competitor" whose military and economic strength could potentially challenge U.S. hegemony in the landmass that stretches from Europe to Asia. Most U.S. military scenarios assign the role of "peer competitor" to one of three Asian powers: Russia, China, or India. As the administration's Quadrennial Defense Review, issued September 30, 2001, put it:

The possibility exists that a military competitor with a formidable resource base will emerge in the region. The East Asian littoral-from the Bay of Bengal to the Sea of Japan-represents a particularly challenging area. The United States also has less assurance of access to facilities in the region. This places a premium on securing additional access and infrastructure agreements and on developing systems capable of sustained operations at great distances with minimal theater-based support.

The U.S. defense establishment believes that the most likely "challenger" for regional hegemony in the next two decades will be China. The U.S. views Asia as potentially the most unstable region in the world, a characterization that gained credence when regional foes India and Pakistan detonated nuclear weapons within weeks of each other in 1998. Unlike Europe, where the end of the Cold War brought a significant reduction of U.S. occupation forces, Asia plays host to Cold War levels of 100,000 troops in Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea. But recent regional developments-from rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula to movements to kick the U.S. out of Okinawa, have made U.S. bases in East Asia more uncertain.

What does this have to do with the "war on terrorism" being waged in Afghanistan? Quite a bit. First, a look at the publicly available map of U.S. army and naval deployments shows that the U.S. is ringing the region with troops, ships, and other military hardware. Whether the U.S. Iooks at deployments in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and its attempt to negotiate a return to a naval base in the Philippines as permanent fixtures of its "forward defense" remains to be seen. But they would certainly help in the longer-term plan of the U.S. to redeploy even more of its European-based forces to Asia.

Second, if China is the main "strategic competitor" of the future, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan help to place China into a vise. U.S. military might is now deployed in Japan, Korea, and the Strait of Taiwan on China's eastern flanks and in Central Asia to China's west. China doesn't have the power to stop U.S. projection into Central Asia, and it dare not cross the United States. So it decided to take a limited role of support to the U.S. war in Afghanistan because it

would extend Chinese influence in Central Asia and thus balance the American extension in the region; it would win gratitude from the U.S., and in the process a new confidence could be built between the two countries. All these benefits would play in Beijing's favor on the Taiwan or Xinjiang issues.

China, Pakistan's ally for more than 50 years, has played a key behind-the-scenes role in gaining Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. China's long-term goal of becoming a regional power in Asia in the future depends on keeping the U.S. at bay today. So, temporarily at least, China's interest in preventing the U.S. from becoming an enemy coincides with the United States' interest in keeping China in check.

The U.S. knows that "stability" in South Asia depends on its finding some way to navigate between Pakistan and India. Since the end of the Cold War, India-a rival to China-has craved a role as one of the chief partners of the U.S. in Asia. It was the only major country besides Israel to hail Bush's May 1, 2001, speech outlining his Star Wars plans. So it came as no surprise that India offered basing rights, intelligence, and political support for America's war on "Islamic fundamentalism." As two establishment military analysts explained the U.S. interest in South Asia:

The United States expects to maintain indefinitely a strong security presence in East Asia and in the Persian Gulf It would like this presence to be regarded favorably by India, and it would like India at least to understand and preferably to share its view of how to strengthen the security of the region around the Indian Ocean....

The United States looks on the Indo-Pakistani dispute, with its nuclear dimension, as the biggest threat to the region's security, with the dangers of terrorism and of a weak Pakistan close behind. In all these issues, India's policies are crucial to regional peace.

But the U.S. couldn't fully take up the Indian offers. Instead, it oriented primarily to its old Cold War ally Pakistan. Throughout the 1980s, Pakistan served as the main subcontractor to the U.S. proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military intelligence trained most of the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, making a special project of the Taliban. Now, the U.S. has forced Pakistan to pull its support from the Taliban. Ideally, Pakistan would like whatever postwar Afghanistan government emerges from the rubble to be a vassal that it can control. Because of Pakistan's obvious influence in Afghanistan, the U.S. has chosen to orient primarily to Pakistan-and to encourage its support with a $1 billion International Monetary Fund loan and a multibillion-dollar aid package. But to be able to exploit whatever advantages from either rival it can, the U.S. Iifted sanctions against both India and Pakistan.


The Caspian Sea oil rush

Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of an area that may hold the second-largest deposits of oil and gas in the world, behind only the Persian Gulf. For that reason, all of the major and minor powers-the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany-have schemed for a decade since the USSR's collapse to get their hands on the area's resources. The U.S. staked its claim with a well-publicized 1997 military operation-the deployment of 500 U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina to the deserts of Kazakhstan. This, the longest airborne operation in military history (7,700 miles), was meant to show the world that "there is no nation on the face of the Earth that we cannot get to," in the description of the operation's commander, Marine General John Sheehan. Today's B-2 bombing runs, where U.S. bombers take off from Missouri, bomb Afghanistan, and return to base in a single flight, exceed the global reach of the 1997 operation.

Because the Caspian riches are located hundreds of miles from international waterways, they have to be piped to market. Just what route those pipelines take will determine who the real winners and losers from the Caspian oil rush will be. Since the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. has tried to use its power to make sure that the pipelines reward its friends and bypass its enemies. So, despite the fact that the shortest and most economically viable shipment route would lie through Iran to the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has campaigned for an 1,100-mile pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. This pipeline (and other similar routes) is aimed to keep Caspian Sea oil and gas away from Iran and the Soviet-era routes that run through Russia. The U.S. has sought ways to drive wedges between the former Soviet republics and Russia so that they will sell their natural resources to the West. This U.S. concern with promoting "independent, sovereign states that are able to defend themselves" (one of Sheehan's explanations for the 1997 airlift) serves the purpose of further weakening the ex-superpower in Moscow. To prevent this, Russia has tried to assert its remaining power over the Central Asian republics (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan).

U.S. policy in Afghanistan is wrapped up in this scramble for oil riches. In fact, the U.S. and Pakistan sponsored the Taliban's rise to power as a means to create "stability" in the country to pursue these schemes. Today, the Wall Street Journal has joined the rest of the U.S. media in calling for the Taliban's heads. But in 1997, the Journal declared, "Like them or not, the Taliban are the players most capable of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history." The Taliban's success was crucial to secure Afghanistan, "a prime transshipment route for the export of Central Asia's vast oil, gas and other natural resources," the Journal noted. The most audacious plan, by Unocal, to build a pipeline across Afghanistan to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan "was based on the premise that the Taliban were going to conquer Afghanistan."

To the U.S., the Taliban offered "stability" that could assure that Unocal's plans were realized. However, the U.S. began to reverse its policy after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. It became increasingly convinced that the Taliban would no longer accept the subservient role the U.S. had assigned. Therefore, the U.S. began to look for ways to replace the Taliban with a more pliant Afghan government-three years before the September 11 World Trade Center attack.

By 2000, it could be said that "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." In Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. went ahead with its plan. With Russian cooperation, the U.S. gained access to two Soviet-era bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

This collaboration between the U.S. and Russia could mark the most significant geopolitical shift to develop from the Afghan crisis. Russian president Vladimir Putin quickly offered his support to Bush after September 11. Then he overrode the objections of his military chiefs to line up the Central Asian republics to provide basing to U.S. military forces. Some reports suggest that Russian special forces troops are participating with the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan. And certainly, Russia (along with Iran) used its pull over the Northern Alliance to cement it behind the Western attack on the Taliban.

Putin's actions amounted to an about-face of Russian strategy that had viewed the U.S. and NATO as a hostile force." Particularly since NATO humiliated Russia in pulverizing its ally Yugoslavia in 1999, Putin had used the war in Chechnya to reinforce Russian control over its former empire. Clearly, Putin hopes his service to the West will be rewarded with more than a free pass in Chechnya. He wants-as does his main conduit to Europe, Germany-a transformed relationship with the West. Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, an old Cold Warrior and Sovietologist, held out the possibility of a "fundamentally altered" relationship with the West. Putin even floated the possibility of Russia's joining NATO- an amazing development, since one of NATO's chief missions has been to counter Russian influence in Europe.

However, Putin (or at least his military chiefs) may rue the day they ever agreed to U.S. basing in Central Asia. On October 7, the U.S. completed an agreement with Uzbekistan pledging to defend the republic from outside intervention. The agreement "all but removes any impression that the U.S. military presence in the region will be short-lived. It allows U.S. ground forces to remain for a year, and is likely to be renewed, say officials familiar with the talks," the Wall Street Journal reported. The agreement is a step toward making "the entire region a Western energy preserve."


Reasserting American hegemony in the Middle East

The last time Afghanistan figured prominently in U.S. attentions, President Jimmy Carter declared his "doctrine." Following the 1979 USSR invasion of Afghanistan, Carter asserted openly what all U.S. administrations since the 1 940s had believed: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and any such assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

The U.S. didn't seriously believe the Soviet Union was using Afghanistan as a staging area for a thrust into the Persian Gulf. The "Soviet threat" justified a new policy of direct U.S. intervention into a region made more unfriendly to U.S. interests after the 1979 Iranian Revolution tossed out the main U.S. strongman.' To enforce the "Carter Doctrine," the U.S. created the Rapid Deployment Force, later renamed the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). CENTCOM oversaw U.S. efforts to "pre-position" tons of U.S. military hardware and thousands of troops in friendly states around the Gulf. This deployment in the Gulf gave the U.S. the power to respond immediately to any crisis that threatened its access to oil, and to "hold" the situation until a more substantial U.S. force could be assembled for war. Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 1991, represented the culmination of the Carter Doctrine and CENTCOM's mission.

The Gulf War rescue of the Kuwaiti monarchy established a "Bush doctrine" as well: "pledging defence assistance to oil-rich conservative regimes against any force that threatens them." Indeed, the three major war-fighting scenarios of the U.S. for the Persian Gulf focus on containing Iraq; preventing Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf's "chokepoint" as it empties into the Indian Ocean; and defending the Saudi regime from internal unrest or overthrow. These scenarios, plus enforcing sanctions against Iraq and maintaining the "no-fly zones" over that country, further justified the presence of about 25,000 U.S. troops either on land or on ships in the region (with another 155,000 on alert for rapid deployment). Despite the overwhelming U.S. presence in the Gulf, the U.S. suffers from two Achilles' heels in its role as regional superpower. One, it has been unable to solve the Palestinian question, which again threatens to explode the delicate balance in the region. And two, its own massive military intervention has rendered the Gulf monarchies even more unpopular...and more unstable.

Added to these problems are tensions with U.S. allies that have built over the decade since the Gulf War. These include European and international oil-firm resentment at U.S-imposed sanctions on Iraq and Iran and Saudi attempts to strike a more independent position from the United States. The current crisis in Afghanistan and the "war on terrorism" offer the U.S. a chance to arrest this erosion of its authority in the Persian Gulf. The largest buildup of U.S. forces in the Gulf since the Gulf War has accompanied Bush's "war on terrorism."


Contradictions the war will uncover

In launching Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. is taking a huge gamble. It is throwing its power into the middle of one of the most unstable regions in the world. Its geostrategic aims in the current war may be apparent, but they are no guarantee that the U.S. will reach its goals. Bush may have promised that "we will not fail," but the contradictions inherent in the situation may blow the whole thing up.

First, the enormous fault lines in Bush's coalition can erupt at any time. Bush has assembled a coalition of convenience whose members share fundamental antagonisms to each other. Pakistan and India remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to go to war over Kashmir. As Pakistan cracks down on Islamist militants, they could strike back with attacks in Kashmir, goading India to respond. Only days before the U.S. went to war, Islamist militants launched the biggest car-bomb attack ever in Srinigar, killing 35. Since the war began, Pakistani and Indian forces have launched attacks across the "line of control" in Kashmir.

Georgia and Russia may be united with the U.S. in the "war on terrorism," but Russia accuses Georgia of giving sanctuary to Chechen rebels. Only days after war began, it took its war against Chechnya into Georgia. In response, Georgia threatened to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States and to send its forces to retake Abkhasia, a breakaway province that the Russians currently patrol.

Second, pre-September 11 disputes between the U.S. and its "coalition partners" that have been pushed under the rug will emerge again. Russia and China are riding the "war on terrorism" horse as far as it will take them. But will the U.S. give up national missile defense (NMD) in exchange for future Russian and Chinese collaboration? That's unlikely. In fact, Bush has already started to repackage NMD as an "antiterrorist" weapon. And even if the U.S. issued a number of behind-the-scenes promises and guarantees to Russia, will it give up its plans to route Caspian Sea oil and gas away from Russian control or allow Russia into NATO? Again, highly unlikely. And with a U.S. military foothold in Central Asia, it's even less likely to give up its Caspian Sea schemes. So Russia and China could as easily revert to their pre-September 11 roles as the biggest challengers to the U.S. in the Eurasian area.

Third, the war will pour gasoline on political fires already burning around the Middle East and Asia. The sight of the U.S. bully pounding one of the poorest countries in the world, forcing millions to flee or starve, will enrage millions more. The Islamist oppositions from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Central Asia will gain more recruits to launch more serious attacks on U.S.-allied governments. And any Israeli atrocity against Palestinians carried out while the U.S. is bombing Afghanistan will heighten the outrage. Civil-war conditions could develop in countries throughout the region. Only days after the U.S. and Britain commenced bombing, Pakistani forces shot down demonstrators in cities across the country. And the Palestinian Authority (PA) faced its most serious confrontations with Islamists since 1994, prompting PA police to request riot gear from Israel!

Of all of these hot spots, the most troublesome for the U.S. are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban's two main sponsors. Within days of the first air strikes over Afghanistan, Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf purged the army to remove potential coup plotters. In the face of large demonstrations and a destabilizing refugee flow from Afghanistan, Musharraf has already called on the U.S. to wind up its war before November, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Saudi Arabia's interior minister Prince Raif denounced the war against Afghanistan. The normally pliant Saudi regime has refused the use of its bases to launch attacks on Afghanistan. As the London Guardian explained,

Officially, the state department in Washington remains "very satisfied" with the Saudi approach to the crisis, but this masks increasing alarm not merely about the governmental response but about potential insurrection that could endanger the Saudi regime.

These tensions will jump enormously-and the coalition will fracture -when the U.S. moves on to its next "anti-terrorism" target. Already, hawks are pushing for Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Lebanon to be added to the hit list. For U.S. imperialism, it won't be good enough simply to bomb Afghanistan from the sky. Its leaders want to reestablish the notion that the U.S. will dispatch ground troops to enforce its will. But Afghanistan and the Taliban-the world's most isolated government-won't be a big enough prize. To really show that the U.S. can enforce its will anywhere, it will move against another "rogue state." If all of the media chatter and clamor from the right is any indication, Iraq would be the most likely target.

In an incredible editorial, National Review editor Richard Lowry laid out the right's fantasy program for Iraq. It's not simply the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but the imposition of a U.S.-run colony modeled on the nineteenth-century British Raj in India:

An American occupation would not last years, on the model of a MacArthur regency in Japan. Instead, the U.S. would quickly-say, after less than a year- hand control over to a U.N. protectorate, with some Arab input to soothe feelings and a non-American-some anodyne European, such as a Swede-running the show. He would in effect act as Iraqi dictator, but without the brace of pistols. After five years or so...the baton could be passed off to an Iraqi government.

The entire effort would represent a return to an enlightened paternalism toward the Third World, premised on the idea that the Arabs have failed miserably at self-government and need to start anew....

The goal...would not be perfection, bur a pro-Western and reasonably successful regime, somewhere between the Shah of Iran and the current government of Turkey...

It would guarantee the West's access to oil, and perhaps help break up OPEC (the ill-gotten gains from which fund repressive dictatorships and, indirecty, terrorists). And it would be a nice economic benefit to the United States: If the Teamsters like drilling in ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], they should love occupying Iraq.

Whether the administration's plans are as far-reaching as Lowry's, we can't say at this point. But there's no doubt that some in the administration share his views. What's more, the administration has already announced plans to conduct a similar "nation-building" operation in Afghanistan, tossing aside Bush's campaign criticism of former president Bill Clinton for "nation-building" in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans. Making such a scheme succeed portends a Kosovo-like occupation of Afghanistan for decades-a military task that will be "lengthy, costly, and ultimately doomed."

A U.S. campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon will not confront an isolated and ragtag band of terrorists, but a substantial political movement that is heavily integrated into Lebanese society. What is more, Hezbollah's role in driving Israel out of southern Lebanon brought it national hero status, cutting across Lebanon's religious and political divides.

Any move to expand the war to the Middle East will put further pressure on the already tenuous alliance between the U.S. and the so-called moderate (read "pro-U.S.") Arab states. Around the region, millions know the U.S. has maintained a genocidal sanctions regime against Iraq. They know that the U.S. props up dictatorial regimes throughout the region. And they know the U.S. provides political cover and weapons to Israel's repression of the Palestinians. Whether they support Islamists or not, they aren't likely to accept a revival of nineteenth-century colonialism under the racist assumptions of "enlightened paternalism." If the U.S. moves to impose a colonial regime on Iraq or any other country, it will ignite a national liberation movement greater than anything it has seen since the Iranian Revolution. Those with Lowry's delusions should recall what happened to the Shah of Iran.


A new American century?

The U.S. begins the 21st century in a position of world strength that rivals the great empires of the past-from ancient Rome to Victorian Britain. Its economy accounts for 22 percent of world output, and it leads the world in all of the most cutting-edge technologies. Its military spends more than the next largest 15 militaries in the world combined. And the combined spending of the U.S. and its most loyal allies-the NATO countries, South Korea, and Japan-outdistances military spending in the rest of the world. This dominance has bred the kind of imperial hubris that contributes to dreams like Lowry's.

Yet every empire that thought it could reorder the world in its image has ultimately fallen by the wayside. Imperialism has always generated resistance to it-either from other potential rivals or from peoples and nations it tries to subjugate. Right now, the most likely U.S. "peer competitors," Russia and China, are lined up with the "war on terrorism." But it doesn't take too much imagination to see that they will not accept U.S. Ieadership forever. And if the U.S. pushes its advantage in Central Asia, it could push them into opposition to U.S. plans again. Russia and China, who counterposed a vision of a "multipolar" world to a U.S.-dominated "unipolar" world before September 11, might push themselves (or themselves and other countries) forward as rivals to the U.S. in world politics.

Even more immediately, U.S. blustering will provoke opposition from within its own empire. Its power depends on alliances with some of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the world. Inevitably, the victims of these regimes will fight back-threatening not only the regime, but U.S. power as well. If today's Saudi Arabia is truly facing an insurrectionary threat that the U.S. can't suppress, the U.S. faces the prospect of one of its biggest foreign policy disasters since the Second World War. The overthrow of the Saudi regime may not be imminent, but even talk about the possibility suggests an underlying fragility to U.S. dominance.

As the world's only superpower, the U.S. interposes its power into conflicts around the world. As it did in Vietnam, when it took over France's colonial administration, U.S. intervention "Americanizes" conflicts and makes the U.S. a target of any people fighting for self-determination. If the U.S. pursues an out-and-out imperialist policy of the type Lowry advocates, then these challenges will simply multiply. Many fear that the U.S. is already setting itself up for a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan. If it takes its "war on terrorism" to Lebanon or to the Philippines or to Indonesia (as some administration officials have hinted), it could face two, three, or many Vietnams.

Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. is likely to find opposition at home, and not just from a self-identified antiwar movement. Bush's "war on terrorism" is unfolding in the context of a world recession. In the U.S., unemployment levels have hit 10-year highs and the slowdown in industrial production is the worst since the Second World War. This means that as Bush ramps up the war, millions of workers in the U.S. will be paying for it with job cuts, welfare cuts, and cuts in social spending to fatten the military contractors' bottom lines. As the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs put it in 1918,

[The] working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.

In the space of a few days in September, politicians' promises of Medicare prescription drug benefits and "saving Social Security" disappeared. Then the Congress handed out nearly $15 billion in aid to airline bosses, while refusing to do anything to help the more than 100,000 laid off airline workers. "Corporate America is waving the flag with one hand and stuffing their pockets with the other-at the expense of working people," a UAW official aptly explained. As the war drags J on and the economy worsens, more people will come to the realization that they have no interest in this war drive. Then Bush will be exposed for what he did-cynically manipulating ordinary people's outrage at the September 11 attacks to push through his own right-wing agenda. That's the kind of opposition that Bush fears the most.


Lance Selfa is a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review and a member of its editorial board.

Central Asia watch

September 11th, 2001

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