Monday, May 25, 2009

Matthew Yglesias and Josh Marshall Debate Imperialist Strategy for Afghanistan

Matthew Yglesias and Josh Marshall are kicking around the pros and cons of American strategy for the Afghan invasion. Marshall has previously supported escalation of the invasion, but is now starting to have some doubts:
Furthermore, if you look at the history, the role of Afghanistan going back over the last few decades, wasn't so much that it allowed for safe havens but that the guerilla, semi-irregular wars there spun off thousands of violent, highly-trained and religiously intoxicated extremists who later spread out around the world spreading terror right and left. And that makes intensifying the conflict in Afghanistan to prevent the growth of safe havens a logically questionable proposition.
This is correct. Al Qaeda emerged out of the CIA-funded resistance to Russia's invasion. The Taliban emerged out of the resistance to the formerly CIA-funded warlords once they'd taken the country over and were running it into the ground. What this tells you, if you didn't know it already, is that when imperialist powers invade weak countries, the result is mass death and destruction, social breakdown, political chaos, and a power vacuum, which in turn lead to the rise of dictators or warlords, which in turn invite yet another round of imperial invasion, starting the cycle all over again.

This exact process is repeating itself right now in Pakistan. The US invasion of Afghanistan temporarily pushed the Taliban out of Afghanistan and forced them to take refuge and regroup in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, where they had already established themselves. Meanwhile, US pressure on Pakistan forced the government and the army to turn at least partially against the Taliban, which the army and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, had historically supported. This created a war between the Taliban and the Pakistani army that the army is now losing, which in turn is being used by the US to justify escalating its intervention in Pakistan.

Yglesias agrees that the US needs to stay in Afghanistan, but disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the US's goal should be the elimination of "safe havens" for terrorists. Instead, he think that the US needs to stay in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan from being further destabilized. He thinks that this requires a political rather than a military solution, and that the US should therefore reduce its use of aerial bombardment, which frequently kills Afghan civilians, in favor of "protecting" civilians from the Taliban, which will supposedly stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan and turn public opinion against the Taliban.

There are several problems with this. First, the US and its warlord allies are no better at protecting the welfare of Afghans than the Taliban, and quite possibly are worse: the warlords, who the US put in power in the first place, are just as brutal and repressive as the Taliban, including in their treatment of women, and always have been, while economically, the Taliban was a significant improvement over the warlords. The US's various interventions, together with the Russian invasion, have been the cause of Afghanistan's instability, not the solution to it.

This pattern of imperial destabilization of Afghanistan doesn't start with the US and USSR. If you go back to the nineteenth century, you find Britain and tsarist Russia competing to dominate Afghanistan. The post-Stalin USSR continued Russia's role as imperialist power, while the US picked up where Britain left off. The current invasion of Afghanistan and its extension into Pakistan fit neatly into this historical pattern. Far from being a stabilizing influence in Pakistan (the ultimate goal of Yglesias's proposed Afghan policy), our invasion of Afghanistan is what destabilized Pakistan in the first place.

The core problem is that Yglesias is under the illusion that invading and occupying a foreign country are somehow going to lead to political stability. This is a dangerous and misguided notion, as I pointed out last week.

Finally, the most important point in this debate is one that neither Yglesias nor Marshall mentions: this invasion is morally intolerable. Strikingly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, neither Yglesias nor Marshall even bother to consider what the effect of the invasion is on Afghans and Pakistanis; their only concern is how it will impact American "national security." Thus, Yglesias writes:
Consider air strikes. If you define the goal as “eliminate safe havens” then maybe airstrikes that accidentally kill Afghan civilians aren’t that big a deal. By contrast, if we’re there to help Afghan civilians, then killing Afghan civilians is a very big deal.
Yglesias thinks that if all the US cares about is eliminating "safe havens," then killing Afghan civilians isn't a big deal. It all boils down to a policy choice for him: we only have to care about killing Afghans if we decide it's in our interest to.

I couldn't come up with a better illustration of the imperialist mindset if I tried.
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  1. Hi. I got here by clicking on your post on Yglesias' blog. Good luck in your endeavor to introduce socialism to Americans, particularly to distinguish between liberalism and socialism. I also commend you for using the word i-m-p-e-r-i-a-l-i-s-m with all its letters. Liberals need to hear it.

  2. Hi lolo, thanks for stopping by. I like the crack about spelling imperialism with all its letters. Liberals have a powerful tendency to ignore what's right in front of them, so they frequently need to have things spelled out for them; I should know, I used to be one. If you have a blog, let me know what its address is, I'd like to check it out.

  3. For what it is worth, here it is.