Answering Obama’s Afghanistan deceptions

December 8, 2009

Barack Obama's December 1 nationally televised address to announce a further escalation of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan cemented his role as a war president who bears responsibility for the U.S. war on that country. It also marked Obama's assumption of the task of providing the justifications, alibis and obfuscations needed to cloak U.S. military aims in an aura of legitimacy.

Eric Ruder goes through Obama's speech and counters seven of Barack Obama's worst half-truths and lies about Afghanistan.

DECEPTION NO. 1: "We did not ask for this fight...[T]he United Nations Security Council endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks...and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, we sent our troops into Afghanistan."

HERE, BARACK Obama is repeating a lie that has been told and retold so often that it goes completely unexamined in the mainstream press. Countless Western newspapers reported on the Taliban's offers to hand over Osama bin Laden, so long as the Bush administration provided Afghan government officials with evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the September 11 attacks--something that any sovereign nation, like the U.S., would require before agreeing to an extradition.

As the Washington Post reported on October 3, 2001: "In Afghanistan, leaders of the ruling Taliban militia, which has been harboring bin Laden, urged the United States to share its evidence with them, saying they hoped for a negotiated settlement instead of a military conflict. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said his government would be willing to talk to the United States about bin Laden, but 'we don't want to surrender without any proof, any evidence.'"

President Barack Obama speaks on Afghanistan at West Point
President Barack Obama speaks on Afghanistan at West Point (Pete Souza | White House)

The Bush administration refused to provide any evidence, insisting there would be "no negotiations."

But the narrative of Taliban intransigence was so thoroughly unquestioned from the start that it was possible for Reuters to headline an October 4, 2001, story: "Taliban won't give up bin Laden even if proof--paper"--even though the article itself acknowledged that Zaeef agreed to have bin Laden stand trial in an Islamic sharia court if the Afghan government was allowed to "thoroughly check" U.S. documents linking bin Laden to 9/11. (See the Institute for Public Accuracy's news release "Are Obama and Clinton Being Honest About How Afghan War Began?")

On October 17, 2001, 10 days after the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan began, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the Taliban dropped even this one condition: "For the first time, the Taliban offered to hand over Bin Laden for trial in a country other than the U.S. without asking to see evidence first, in return for a halt to the bombing, a source close to Pakistan's military leadership said."

Taking up Obama's other claim, as Paul Street points out, the UN Security Council didn't authorize a U.S. war on Afghanistan:

As the prominent U.S. legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July of 2008, "The invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq." The UN Charter requires member states to settle international disputes by peaceful means. Nations are permitted to use military force only in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After 9/11, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan.

Assaulting that country was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter since the jetliner assaults were criminal attacks, not "armed attacks" by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the U.S., and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, there was no "imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11 or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign." As Cohn added, international law requires, "The necessity for self-defense must be 'instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.' This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly."

DECEPTION NO. 2: "In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and--although it was marred by fraud--that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution.

THIS IS absurd on its face. How can an election "marred by fraud" simultaneously be "consistent with Afghanistan's laws"? Obama's statement is an assertion of wishful thinking in U.S. foreign policy circles that the Afghan government of U.S. puppet Hamid Karzai can be seen as legitimate.

In reality, the scale of Karzai's electoral fraud was staggering in scale. In Karzai's home province of Kandahar, for example, more than 350,000 votes were counted, but international election observers think only 25,000 people cast ballots. In all, observers estimate that some 1 million votes cast for Karzai were illegitimate.

Furthermore, Karzai's electoral strategy was based on cutting deals with some of the country's most ruthless warlords so they would help deliver votes for him on Election Day. This was clear even before the election as Afghanistan expert Gareth Porter pointed out on August 19: "By all accounts, he has forged political alliances with leading Afghan warlords who control informal militias and tribal networks in the provinces to carry out a vote fraud scheme accounting for a very large proportion of the votes."

DECEPTION NO. 3: "Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future. To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government."

THE "OVERARCHING goal" in Afghanistan for George W. Bush had nothing to do with disrupting al-Qaeda--and the same is true about Barack Obama. Whatever both presidents have said to try to rally public support, the war is really about geopolitical and material interests in an important part of the world.

Even sections of the Washington political establishment recognize that the alleged link between the Taliban insurgency and al-Qaeda is less certain than the Pentagon has claimed. According to Gareth Porter, when the Obama administration was considering Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for a troop escalation, top officials challenged the idea that "the defeat of the Taliban was necessary to U.S. anti-al-Qaeda strategy."

When the time came for Obama to justify his decision to go ahead with the surge, he fell back on the same claims as Bush did. But the real reasons for the Afghan war are different.

After September 11, 2001, the U.S. government took the opportunity of unanimous public support to establish an outpost of U.S. military power in Central Asia, a region from which America had long been excluded, and where it hoped to establish a presence to confront rivals such as Russia, China and Iran.

What's more, a substantial U.S. military presence in the region--and a U.S.-friendly regime in Afghanistan--helps safeguard the delivery of substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the Caspian Sea region, which sustain European countries.

But after eight years that have left the U.S. further than ever from achieving these goals, the U.S. is now also battling to maintain its own credibility. With both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars having gone so badly, the U.S. must now worry that the potency of its military threat might be diminished in the eyes of its rivals.

Like during the Vietnam War, the U.S. is hoping that escalation will demonstrate to the world that it is still a dominant military force--a risky strategy given the historical inability of occupying powers, from the British Empire to USSR, to bring Afghanistan under their control.

DECEPTION NO. 4: "For what's at stake is not simply a test of NATO's credibility--what's at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world."

THIS IS a moment of candor on the part of Obama, but only because he assumes that his U.S. audience will think of NATO as a military alliance dedicated to mutual self-defense. In reality, NATO has always served as a means for the U.S. and Europe to safeguard their common interest of protecting Europe's eastern flank in the global struggle against rivals in the Middle East and Asia.

Consider the words of Julian Lindley-French, one of many think-tank specialists interested in helping NATO project its power:

NATO's world is changing fast, and not for the better. The pace of change is such that much of the security and defense debate, particularly in Europe, resembles the theatre of the absurd, focused on what can be done, rather than what needs to be done...

The center of gravity of power on this planet is moving inexorably eastward. As it does, the nature of power itself is changing. The Asia-Pacific region brings much that is dynamic and positive to this world, but as yet, the rapid change therein is neither stable nor embedded in stable institutions. Until this is achieved, it is the strategic responsibility of Europeans and North Americans, and the institutions they have built, to lead the way towards strategic stability...

In this big picture, challenges and threats, such as strategic terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq are but parts, albeit important ones. Indeed, the lessons that addressing such issues will be vital to success in NATO's future strategic mission--strategic stabilization.

This context makes clear that the war in Afghanistan is important for "NATO's credibility"--not because of NATO's role in defense, but because NATO countries are seeking leverage to expand their military, economic and diplomatic influence.

DECEPTION NO. 5: "[T]hese additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."

THE IDEA that the U.S. might be able to transfer control over military and security matters to Afghan forces in less than two years' time is a fantasy.

U.S. military planners want to increase the size of the Afghan National Army from its current level of less than 100,000 to 240,000 by 2011, and simultaneously enlarge the Afghan National Police from 93,000 to 160,000. They see these increases as a bare minimum for achieving success.

But according to a New York Times editorial, this is a pipedream: "Highly critical reports this fall by American officials showed why this is so hard: 90 percent illiteracy levels for Afghan troops; desertion rates so high that thousands must be recruited each year to keep the force from shrinking; broken logistics; and, most tellingly, 'a lack of competent and professional leadership at all levels.'"

This is why Obama can't be believed about the 2011 withdrawal date for U.S. troops. According to Agence France Presse, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told several members of Congress the day after Obama's speech: "I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving." The AFP report continued:

[Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said the extra troops Obama had ordered to Afghanistan would be in place in July 2010, that a December 2010 review of the war effort would shape the pace of the withdrawal, and that the target date could change. "I think the president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions," he told Republican Senator John McCain.

DECEPTION NO. 6: "We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas--such as agriculture--that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people."

U.S. OFFICIALS have already proven that they depend on corrupt warlords and politicians to maintain the occupation of Afghanistan.

For example, the U.S. has not only turned a blind eye to the operations of Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who's widely known to be a warlord and drug kingpin, but the CIA put him on its payroll. According to the New York Times:

The relationship between Mr. Karzai and the CIA is wide-ranging, several American officials said. He helps the CIA operate a paramilitary group, the Kandahar Strike Force, that is used for raids against suspected insurgents and terrorists. On at least one occasion, the strike force has been accused of mounting an unauthorized operation against an official of the Afghan government, the officials said.

Mr. Karzai is also paid for allowing the CIA and American Special Operations troops to rent a large compound outside the city--the former home of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's founder. The same compound is also the base of the Kandahar Strike Force. "He's our landlord," a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But it's not just Afghan warlords on the U.S. payroll who make life for ordinary Afghans more difficult. U.S. military contractors are making huge profits on reconstruction contracts, many of which have failed to provide any improvement in people's lives. According to Reese Erlich of the San Francisco Chronicle:

When built in 2004, the agricultural storage facility in Nangarhar province was supposed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The U.S. government paid for its construction along with several other so-called "market centers" that would enable farmers to store crops and boost exports to nearby Pakistan.

But construction and design flaws left it unusable, one of many dozens of similar failures in the country, critics say...

In an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, Afghanistan's foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, sharply criticized how U.S. aid is spent in his country. He estimates that only "$10 or $20" of every $100 reaches its intended recipients.

DECPTION NO. 7: "[W]e must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the source, the moral source, of America's authority."

HERE, OBAMA is fulfilling the role that he was elected to fill--at least for those who defend the project of U.S. imperialism. After eight years during which the Bush administration wrecked the image of the U.S. in the eyes of the world, Obama promised to "reboot America's image" in the Muslim world. His talk about "tending to the light of freedom and justice" is about renovating America's image internationally.

But the fact that so many people, even reaching into the liberal establishment, were dissatisfied with Obama's speech marks this as a watershed moment of his presidency.

Obama had promised on the campaign trail that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan, but he distinguished himself from the Republicans and his rivals in the Democratic Party by criticizing the Bush administration's war in Iraq. That skeptical attitude toward the use of U.S. military power is what most of his supporters expected of an Obama presidency.

Consider this angry assessment by liberal author Garry Wills:

He put in clarion terms the truth about [the Iraq] war--that it was a dumb war, that it went after an enemy where he was not hiding, that it had no indigenous base of support, that it had no sensible goal and no foreseeable cutoff point.

He said that he would not oppose war in general, but dumb wars. On that basis, we went for him. And now he betrays us. Although he talked of a larger commitment to Afghanistan during his campaign, he has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement. This war, too, is a dumb one. It has even less indigenous props than Iraq did.

Likewise, Rachel Maddow lambasted Obama, noting the irony that the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was now escalating the war in Afghanistan for the second time during his first year in office.

U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan

She also produced a graph demonstrating that U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan has skyrocketed under Obama's presidency. Her commentary is worth watching in its entirety.

In reality, Obama's embrace of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is not an aberration for Democratic presidents. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson--all Democrats--led the U.S. into the First World War, Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. The administration of Bill Clinton oversaw the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq and a genocidal regime of military and economic sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

That's why Obama's warrior pose isn't a betrayal of his true ideals, but a fulfillment of his role as commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military machine.

Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, took on Obama's claim that "more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades." As Rothschild wrote in response:

Well, let's see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa.

The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. The United States killed between 2 million and 3 million people in Indochina. And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965. The U.S. also supported Suharto's invasion of East Timor ten years later, which took another 200,000 lives. Obama can call that "global security," if he wants to, but it's dripping red.

And here's another whopper: "Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination," he said. Well, what does having almost 1,000 military bases in more than 100 countries mean, then?...

Finally, like Bush, Obama ended his speech by alluding to 9/11 again, citing the "memory of a horrific attack." The White House speechwriters must have carpal tunnel by now from all their cutting and pasting of Bush's rhetoric into Obama's mouth. And that he didn't choke on these words tells you all you need to know about Obama.

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