Guns, butter and Afghanistan

By Sammy Barker

The relative decline of US imperialism has underpinned the domestic debate about President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan.

In his speech to the Corp of Cadets at West Point on 1 December, Obama said: ‘…as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it allows us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.’

This drew a fierce response from the Wall Street Journal, which supports the surge as a necessary expression of power, not as an unfortunate diversion from its exercise at home:

‘We only wish Mr. Obama understood the link between the larger welfare state he is trying to build at home and the economic weakness that will undermine our military power” (WSJ, 5 December 2009).
For the Journal it is the diversion of necessary military resources to domestic welfare that threaten the future of US imperialism: ‘Among the Western Europeans, only France and the UK spend more than 2 per cent of GDP on defense, supposedly the NATO-mandated minimum. Nearly everyone else is below that.  Germany, the continent’s largest economy, stands at 1.3 per cent. US defense spending has been above 4 per cent of GDP since 2004, having fallen to 3 per cent after the Cold War ended” (ibid).

The source of the problem is clear to the Journal: ‘The overlooked culprit here is the rise of the modern welfare state. Since World War II and especially from the 1960s, Europe has built elaborate domestic income-maintenance programs, with government-run health care, pensions and jobless benefits. These are hugely expensive, requiring high taxes and government spending that is a huge proportion of GDP’ (ibid).

The choice is then clear: ‘Higher taxes and borrowing may allow guns and butter to co-exist for a while.  But over time the welfare state will defeat the Pentagon here, as it has in Europe. President Obama’s domestic agenda may well mean that his successors lack the option to deploy 100,000 troops to Afghanistan, or to some other future trouble spot. This is the way superpowers lose their superiority’ (ibid).

Certainly there can be no doubt about how expensive the military exercise of power has become for imperialism. Obama said that the surge will add ‘roughly 30 billion dollars for the military this year’. That works out at roughly $1 million for each additional soldier deployed.

Obama’s policy has already resulted in the occupation in Afghanistan taking larger resources than Iraq – the fiscal 2010 budget asked for $65 billion for Afghanistan and $61 billion for Iraq. There is a new supplemental spending bill for the surge deployments.

This is a definite trend. The Pentagon budget increased for every year of the first decade of the 21st century. Such a run did not happen during the decades covering World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Yearly increases are planned for at least another decade, regardless of the economic position of the government.


Such financial demands add weight to the contradictions at the heart of the new policy on Afghanistan.  Obama defined three core elements in US strategy: ‘… a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.’ The first element appeared confused before being implemented. Obama’s speech suggested that troop withdrawal would begin within 18 months. This had some immediate effect, with a CNN/ORC poll indicating 64 per cent supported Obama’s policy.

But the concession to domestic opinion quickly ran up against the real balance of forces in Afghanistan. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Afghan army and police force can form a stable support for the Karzai government in such a period, or indeed any period.

In less than a week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had both diluted the 18-month timeline. This followed a sharp attack by defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who supported the surge but said that the timeline allowed the insurgents to say ‘you’ve got the watches and we’ve got the time’.

A more realistic view emerged when Gates visited President Karzai shortly afterwards. Karzai said, on 8 December, that Afghanistan would not be able to pay for its own security until at least 2024. Refusing to provide a timeline, Gates said: ‘Whether that is 15 or 20 years, we’ll hope for accelerated economic development in Afghanistan… as the Afghan economy expands, then the proportion of the costs of supporting the Afghan security forces will diminish’ (New York Times, 9 December 2009).

General McChrystal is seeking to build Afghan army and police rolls up to 400,000 strong. There is an estimated cost of this at $50 billion for a five year period, should it ever be possible. As the cost of the war for the US in 2010 will be nearly five times Afghanistan’s GDP, then it may be some time before we see full ‘Afghanisation’.

The policy of building up the Afghan army and police as a credible alternative to NATO forces is highly problematic. This is not only because such a policy creates openings for infiltration by the Taliban and insurgents – though a number of fatalities for coalition forces are already attributable to this. Much more important is the demoralised character of the existing forces.

The figure for fatalities amongst the police is unclear; the Afghan Ministry of the Interior gives a figure of 4.5 per cent, whilst EU foreign policy Chief Javier Solana has claimed the figure may be more than double that number. The attrition rate for injuries was established by the EU commission to be at 24 per cent. No wonder large numbers are drug addicts: 60 per cent according to British commanders in Helmand province.

The Afghan army suffers fewer fatalities, due to its proximity to NATO forces in operations. After 8 years of being built up by NATO forces, Washington claims there are around 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army. This refers to the numbers who have gone through ‘Basic Warrior Training’. But many of these are repeat trainings, and many disappear after training.

A more credible measure is how the army is used in actual combat. In July 2009, 4,000 US Marines were sent into Helmand province to take on the Taliban. They were accompanied by 600 from the Afghan security forces. Given that the army is supposed to have 90,000 in arms, compared to around 65,000 US forces available at the time of the operation, the disproportion is clear. We have to conclude that much of the Afghan National Army exists only on paper.

Or talk to the Taliban?

At the heart of imperialism’s problem is how to create a stable neo-colonial apparatus in a largely pre-capitalist society. Given the ethnic overlap with important border states such as Iran and Pakistan, there is no chance that a homogeneous and representative bourgeois army and police force can be built.  In a society where customary right holds sway, the normal reciprocal relations become avenues for corruption under an occupying power.

Imperialism faces having to fall back upon the kind of political blocs which it has relied upon up until now, urban arriviste forces and tribal warlords. Karzai can hold such forces together, but what this alliance cannot deliver is a defeat of the insurgency.

The alternative for imperialism involves accepting it cannot completely vanquish the insurgency. US imperialism was able to oust the Taliban government relatively easily in 2001. It had huge military preponderance. It had substantial indigenous allies in the Northern Alliance. And, crucially, it had the assistance of the Pakistan government which withdrew all support for the Taliban.

The resistance has been much more difficult to deal with. Not only has the Taliban regrouped as a guerilla force, it has also found itself at the head of a broader opposition to foreign occupation, and central government corruption.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress on 16 December 2009, that the Taliban had a ‘dominant influence’ in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The London based International Council on Security and Development reported, in autumn 2009, that 80 per cent of Afghanistan experiences ‘heavy’ insurgent activity; 17 per cent ‘substantial’; and 3 per cent ‘light’. US intelligence indicates that the Taliban has 25,000 full-time fighters, a number which has tripled since 2006.

Given the strength of the resistance, it is inevitable that imperialism will consider negotiating a settlement, even though this runs counter to the idea of military victory through the surge.

Previously, negotiation has been off-limits – the first suggestions of replacing Karzai circulated after he suggested personally inviting Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, to Kabul for talks. However, in early October 2009, before the decision on the surge, White House sources suggested that the Taliban may be allowed into the political process. Clinton suggested the need for dialogue with the Taliban when she visited Stormont in October. This has been also picked up in the EU, notably by German defence minister Guttenberg.

For its part, the Taliban has registered the distinction in Obama’s West Point speech where he said the priority is to defeat Al-Qaeda. On 4 December, the Taliban issued a statement that it had ‘no agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantees if foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan’. This was understood in press circles to represent an offer to the US administration of an effective separation from Al Qaeda. To date, the U.S. administration has not formally responded, but it is clear where negotiations could begin from in future.

A civilian surge?

The basis for a civilian surge is every bit as difficult as the military surge. Henry Crumpton, advisor to General McChrystal, reported first hand on the aid efforts: ‘Right now, the overwhelming majority of civilians are in Kabul, and the overwhelming majority never leave their compounds.  Our entire system of delivering aid is broken, and very little of the aid is getting to the Afghan people’ (New York Times, 18 October 2009).

At present the UN, and allied NGOs, are unable to operate in most of the country. In reality an expansion of this is only possible under the expanded protection of military forces, whether NATO or armed contractors. Existing Provincial Reconstruction Teams have been taken over by the military. The US Department of Defence estimates suggest that there are 100,000 armed private guards in Afghanistan, with this figure likely to rise to 150,000 under the surge. Most of these are Afghans employed by companies which are fronts for the warlords that the US is allied with.

Outside of these, and the corrupted government structures, there is nothing to base a civilian surge on. Those forces capable of providing relief are either expressions of tribal clientalism, or the alternative government structures established by the Taliban.  

Certainly there is a huge need for aid. In the UN Development Programme, Afghanistan ranks 181st out of 182 countries in terms of human development. Medical research, cited in the Oxfam report ‘The cost of war’, suggest two-thirds of Afghans suffer from depression or some other form of mental disorder. The International Committee of the Red Cross found that 3 out of 4 Afghans have been forced out of their homes at some time. The Oxfam report also reports a survey finding that 21 per cent of Afghans have been subjected to torture.

Obama’s speech glided over the problem that the Afghan government is not an instrument capable of stabilizing Afghanistan. He said that the US would support ‘Ministers, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people’. Thus is put aside all the concerns about electoral fraud in the Presidential election. But despite brazening out issues of legitimacy, even more audacious is the minimisation of the issue of corruption. A couple of token actions by Karzai have been accepted as good coin. Transparency International recently reported that the Afghan government was the ‘second most corrupt regime in the world’.  

Destabilising Pakistan

The final element of Obama’s policy is ‘an effective partnership with Pakistan’. US imperialism has been the most influential and close ally of Pakistan since 1947. After all the years of very faithful co-operation by successive military and civilian governments in Pakistan, it is strange that this should now be a question at all.

But the whole of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan is based on the tactical setting aside of Pakistan’s sovereignty. In pursuit of Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, US imperialism is engaging in military actions inside Pakistan, by aerial drones and by Special Forces on land. Not only is this creating a civilian opposition in Pakistan, it is promoting a military opposition which could lead to a military coup against the civilian government.

For his part, President Zardari is fully co-operating with the US war. Yet he has been under sufficient pressure to seek control by the Pakistan government of the drones, a request flatly rejected by the US administration. Recently the US and UK governments hectored the Pakistan government over its supposed failure to capture and hand over Osama bin Laden. Prime Minister Gilani made a forceful rebuttal, clearly anxious not to see the CIA take over operations from Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence. This tension is despite the fact that the US Congress has tripled aid to Pakistan, reaching $7.5billion.

Under pressure from the US, the government overturned the peace accord reached with indigenous forces in Waziristan, and unleashed the military offensive in the Swat valley. Rather than achieve a simple victory, this has added to domestic instability. Nor has it cut off the Taliban in Afghanistan from the rear. The Zardari administration is also facing a serious problem with the reopening of corruption investigations by a very confident judiciary.

In total, the new US policy is destabilising the civilian government in Pakistan. This is not a recipe for an ‘effective partnership’; rather it threatens to promote nationalist movements inside and outside the military creating new difficulties for the US.

The impact in Britain

The alliance of the British government to the US-led war comes at a price: ‘The Defence budget is now 10 per cent higher in real terms than in 1997, and the Chancellor confirmed in the PBR that not a single pound will be cut from the Defence budget in 2010/11. Over and above the Defence budget is the Reserve funding for equipment and other military spending on Afghanistan. This has risen from £750 million in the first year our forces were deployed in Helmand to over £3.5 billion this year, and higher again next year.  That is £390,000 per year per soldier fighting, compared to £180,000 in 2006, and rising’ (No 10 daily script, 15 December 2009).

Not that this comes without problems even within the government’s framework of positively promoting the intervention, and the role of the military: Military spending will face a black hole of £36 billion over the next ten years if there is no increase in the defence budget, the National Audit Office warns today… Even if the defence budget rises by 2.7 per cent annually for the next decade, the shortfall will still be £6 billion, it says’ (Times report 15/12/09).

For the British government too the choice would seem to be guns not butter. Just as much the relative decline of US imperialism impacts upon those who align with it. This is not just in creating additional tensions in government spending. It is also in the declining viability of British foreign policy. While Obama engaged in a long internal consultation before committing to the surge, the British government spent months in silence about its policy. This created the first rifts, outside of usual suspects, in the ‘tri-partisan’ policy that exists in Parliament in the form of public opposition from Kim Howells and Frank Fields. Alongside this was a call from withdrawal from the Independent.

Indeed for most of 2009 the government has been defending itself from a vocal lobby for the dispatch of 2,000 troops and additional spending. This has involved senior military figures such as General Dannett, and non-stop press campaigns. Brown has been slow to concede – 900 extra troops were dispatched in July, and a further 500 announced in December. But the lobby has a view that a long occupation is necessary.  Chief of Staff, General Richards, who took over from Dannett, suggested in August that the military operation could last up to 40 years. A few days earlier the Ambassador to the US, Sir Nigel Sheinwald also said the war could take decades.  

Such an orientation is different from that assumed by Gordon Brown, who believes in a rapid ‘Afghanisation’. Talking of the international conference in London on 28 January 2010, he said: ‘I want that conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which military strategy can be accomplished. A strong political framework should embrace internal political reform to ensure representative government that works for all Afghan citizens, at the national level in Kabul and in the provinces and districts. It should identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and if at all possible set a timetable for transferring districts starting in 2010’ (Lord Mayor’s speech, 16 November 2009).

The most senior British commander in Afghanistan, Lt-General Parker contradicted this saying it would be ‘very foolish to start setting deadlines for something as critical as that’ (Telegraph interview, 21 Decmeber 2009).

The army opposition would seem to be closer in outlook to John McCain, who envisaged an occupation without end. The perspective of this view is unrealistic. General Richards told a meeting of Salford University students, in October, that the conflict was winnable `given a proper emphasis on providing the Afghan people with health, education and jobs’. This is nation-building on a scale envisaged by no-one.

But there is another military opposition that is not of this view. Families and friends of serving soldiers are working with, or expressing sympathy to, the anti-war movement. Though this occurred in the Iraq War, the numbers around Afghanistan are much bigger. There is also the court martial of serving soldier, Joe Glenton, who addressed the last national demonstration. He has been widely supported amongst serving soldiers. Clearly this is an opposition in the military community which favours an earlier exit rather than a prolonged occupation.  

What is certain is that the tensions within British government policy will grow as the crisis of the US intervention does.  For the sake of the people of Afghanistan, it is vital that socialists promote the domestic opposition to the war.