The war is a lost cause but a useful story. His Afghanistan ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“surge’ works as Obama’s re-election strategy with swing voters in 2012. Whatever the outcome, Obama has made it clear: He is willing to kill to get re-elected, says Christian Parenti.
real goals of the Afghanistan escalation are domestic and electoral.
Like Lyndon Johnson, who escalated in Vietnam, Obama lives in mortal
fear of being called a wimp by Republicans.
To cover his flank and look
tough in the next US election, Obama is expanding the war in
Afghanistan. To look strong in front of swing voters, he will sacrifice
the lives of hundreds of US soldiers, allow many more to be horribly
maimed, waste a minimum of $30 billion in public money and in the
process kill many thousands of Afghan civilians.
It is political theater,
nothing else. What are the other possible explanations for Obama’s
escalation? And why has he pledged to start drawing down the new
deployment after only a year of fighting?
Is it to get the job done?
To rebuild Afghanistan? To kill Osama bin Laden and crush Al Qaeda? No,
all those goals are nearly impossible. And Al Qaeda is too small and
internationally defused to destroy.
Some say that Afghanistan
is about a pipeline to export gas from Central Asia. Nonsense — only a
maniac would invest large sums of money in building a pipeline there.
In the late 1990s the Argentine firm Bridas and the US firm Unocal
jockeyed for the right to build such a pipeline. But that dream, always
tentative, has evaporated. Afghanistan will never be stable enough for
such a project.
Others say the Afghanistan
war is about establishing US military bases to menace China, Russia and
Iran. Indeed, because of its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the
United States now has bases on either side of Iran and small bases in
Central Asia. But these do not require this escalation.
The real purpose of these 30,000 soldiers is to make Obama look tough as he heads toward the next US presidential election.
As a landlocked,
underdeveloped, fragmented buffer state with few resources, Afghanistan
has long served as a means to get at other issues. Consider the history
of how the United States has used Afghanistan.
First, during the cold war
Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan used the country as the Soviet
“bear trap.” Later, George W. Bush used it to trampoline into Iraq. The
Bush administration discussed regime change in Iraq at one of its first
cabinet meetings. Among other things, the administration wanted direct
economic control, and indirect geostrategic control, over Iraq’s vast
oil wealth. That has been partially accomplished, as witnessed by the
recent Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell deals there.
The only credible way into
Iraq was via Afghanistan. On September 15, 2001, Deputy Secretary of
Defense Paul Wolfowitz actually suggested that the United States skip
an invasion of Afghanistan and go directly to Iraq. But that would have
made coalition-building impossible. After all, Al Qaeda was in the
So, the Afghan invasion was
done — but on the cheap, fast and light. And then for eight years
Afghanistan festered as the forgotten other war.
Then came the US
presidential elections of 2008. Obama promised to end the Iraq War. But
living in fear of being called a wimp, he too used Afghanistan. It
became a rhetorical charm, political mojo in his masculine war dance:
He promised to lose Iraq (withdrawal, or redeployment if you prefer)
but to do so while salvaging our national honor by winning the
“necessary” war in Afghanistan. In short, he used Afghanistan to show
that he was not the soft, meek, scared little Democrat portrayed in GOP
Wait, you say, most
Americans want out of Afghanistan! So what? Presidential elections are
not decided by the majority of voters but rather by swing voters, in
swing states. By “Reagan Democrats” and “Clinton conservatives.” By a
sliver of older, whiter, middle- and working-class men and (less so)
women, in rural and suburban Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee,
This demographic has a
strong sense of national honor, a fondness for the military, a
traditional sense of masculinity and the role of violence in ordering
the world, and perhaps a too-simple view of international politics.
Obama feels he must go to the polls able to tell them he was not afraid
to fight, that he made a good effort in Afghanistan.
Never mind the reality of
the war. What will it look like? Nay, what will it feel like to swing
voters? Will they believe that the young black president with the funny
Muslim name cut and ran?
There is nothing else to
Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. The war is a lost cause but a useful
story. Victory in Afghanistan is re-election in 2012.
But the ghost of LBJ’s
re-election surrender in 1968 stalks the young president. The irony is
that if Obama cannot claim progress and begin drawing down in time, his
Afghanistan gamble may backfire and cost him a second term in the White
Whatever the outcome, Obama has made it clear: He is willing to kill to get re-elected.
Christian Parenti is a contributing editor for The Nation magazine and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press), and is at work on a book about climate change and war.
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