January 1, 2013 § 3 Comments
The $1 trillion-plus Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first US wars since the American Revolution to have been fought without a general tax increase to cover them. Without tax increases to pay for the Pentagon’s ballooning budget, the country’s debt as a percentage of GDP has grown. Since a rise in debt relative to income can’t continue indefinitely, politicians are looking for ways to arrest the trend. It’s very likely that the burden of covering the costs of run-away US military spending will fall upon poor and middle-income Americans. High-profile economists like N. Gregory Mankiw are preparing public opinion for eventual rate hikes, concealing the role played by US war spending in driving up the percentage of debt to GDP, and blaming growing entitlement spending on the need to raise taxes.
By Stephen Gowans
Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, economic policy adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, and author of a widely used introductory economics textbook, weighed in this Sunday in The New York Times on the growing ratio of US debt to gross domestic product and what to do about it.  Forget about raising taxes on the wealthy, counselled Mankiw. Instead, stick it to everyone else. Here’s Mankiw’s reasoning:
• Debt as a proportion of national income is growing “thanks largely to growth in entitlement spending.”
• If debt to GDP continues to grow, investors will eventually refuse to lend at manageable rates, tipping the United States into a Greek-style financial crisis.
• The crisis can’t be averted simply by raising taxes on the rich. There just aren’t enough wealthy taxpayers around to make much of a difference. Nor would tax increases on the wealthy be fair. “The current tax system looks plenty progressive,” says Mankiw. “The rich are not…shirking their responsibilities.”
• Instead, entitlements need to be scaled back and taxes hiked on the vast majority of Americans.
Mankiw presents this as a corrective to too much wishful thinking on middle-class tax rates. But his argument is more snow job than corrective.
Wasteful Military Spending
Mankiw misses the elephant in the room on federal spending: the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to World Bank figures, from 1999 US military expenditures have steadily increased as a share of national income, rising from 3.0 percent of GDP to 4.7 percent by 2011.  New York Times’ reporters Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller reported last year that the US military budget “has doubled to $700 billion a year since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”  Yes, doubled. If anything is growing, the military is. The Pentagon’s budget is now “the highest in absolute and in inflation-adjusted, constant (for any year) dollars since 1946, the year after the Second World War ended. Adding non-Pentagon defense-related spending, the total may exceed $1 trillion.” 
The US defense budget exceeds the combined expenditures of the next 14 highest spenders—China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Turkey. All but two of these countries are US allies.  China and Russia are not part of a US-led military alliance. But their combined military expenditures are less than one-third of the Pentagon’s budget. It’s difficult to fathom why soi disant hard-headed deficit hawks aren’t scolding Washington for wasteful overspending on defense, unless the professed deficit hawks are using debt as a pretext to argue for cut-backs in programs for poor and middle-income Americans.
The Pentagon’s obesity is largely due to the United States starting two completely unnecessary and extremely expensive wars: one on Iraq, based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and one on Afghanistan, to topple the Taliban who will likely return to power in a negotiated settlement.
Bumiller reported in 2010 that both wars had “cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents.”  With the war in Afghanistan dragging on at a cost of “about $2 billion a week”  another $200 billion has come due since Bumiller tallied up the original $1 trillion price tag. Genuine concern about managing US finances would have long ago led to an end to both wars (not just one), if not complete avoidance of either to begin with.
Taxes were not raised to pay for either war. These are the first wars since the American Revolution for which Washington hasn’t called upon taxpayers to ante up.  The reason is clear. Neither war was likely to galvanize Americans to accept sacrifices. So, the only way to get Americans behind them was to fight the wars in a way that allowed the country to avoid “breaking a sweat,” as historian David Kennedy put it. 
Many Americans are willing to acknowledge that the wars should never have been fought, but rationalize them by pointing to the supposed good they’ve done (the toppling of Saddam Hussein, improved conditions for women in Afghanistan.) But how accepting will they be when they’re presented with the bill, as they most assuredly will be? Someone will have to pay eventually. The trick for politicians will be to blame the bill on something else. Entitlements come to mind.
The Flat Tax System
If Mankiw ignores the obvious links among rising military expenditures, absent tax increases, and a climbing debt to GDP ratio, he also ignores property, state, excise, and sales taxes, to argue that the wealthy are already paying their fair share, and that “the current tax system looks pretty progressive.” Well, yes, the current federal income tax system does look progressive, and Mankiw would be on target if the federal income tax was the only tax Americans pay. But they also pay sales taxes, property taxes and more. Factor in all other taxes and the tax system isn’t quite as progressive as Mankiw would have us believe. As Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein noted in September, “Confining the discussion to the federal income tax…makes the tax code look much more progressive than it actually is.” 
So, just how unprogressive is the tax system? According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, total taxes in 2011 as a percentage of income were:
• Top 1% of income earners, 29.0%
• Bottom 99%, 27.5% .
In other words, taking into account all the taxes Americans pay and not just the one Mankiw wants to confine the discussion to, the real tax system is essentially flat. The super-wealthy are paying about the same rate as everyone else. And yes, while the poor pay little if anything in federal taxes, they make up for it in state, local and other levies. Which means that were federal income taxes hiked on the bottom 99 percent, as Mankiw urges, the real tax system would go from flat to regressive.
It’s widely believed that taxes on the wealthy are redistributed to the poor. It’s true that some redistribution of tax revenue from the wealthy to the poor does occur, but what’s less widely known, and rarely talked about, is that federal tax revenue flows mainly from the bottom 99 percent to the top one percent. This is clear if we recognize that:
• The bulk of taxes are paid by the bottom 99 percent (which is why defenders of the current flat tax system, like Mankiw, keep reminding us that hiking taxes on the rich will make little difference to government finances. The heavy lifting is done by poor and middle-income Americans.)
• A large fraction of tax revenue is used to fund activities the wealthy disproportionately benefit from.
What do federal income taxes pay for?
The US war machine, for one. A large part of federal income tax is paid to defense contractors, companies like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics. The top executives and shareholders of these companies make off like bandits in regular times, but have benefited even more handsomely ever since post 9/11 military expenditures doubled. The profits of the top five defense contractors “rose from $2.4 billion in 2002, adjusted for inflation, to $13.4 billion in 2011,” a 450 percent increase. 
US federal income tax also helps finance US wars. And US wars almost invariably create profit-making opportunities for banks and corporations. For example, then US ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz was positively rhapsodic about the business opportunities that were opened by the US-led (from behind) Nato assault that toppled Muammar Gadhafi, not just petroleum-related but infrastructure contracts too.  In the charmed circle of US capitalism, defense contractors reap a bonanza of profits by supplying the Pentagon with arms, which the Pentagon use to destroy infrastructure that US engineering giants, like Bechtel, rebuild.
Military and non-military aid to other countries is also underwritten by federal income tax revenue. The bottom 99 percent, who contribute the bulk of funds to these programs, benefit only indirectly, if at all. Instead, their tax dollars are converted into credits, which are doled out to other countries to purchase goods and service from US corporations, the direct beneficiaries. For example, the $3 billion in annual military aid Israel receives travels from taxpayers’ pockets to US defense contractors’ coffers. The arms industry sends military equipment to Israel, with payment for the purchase never leaving the United States. The same kind of arrangement is used to provide economic aid to poor countries. These countries don’t get cash to spend as they see fit. They get credits to spend on American goods and services. There may be benefits to poor and middle-income Americans in job opportunities, but the benefits are disproportionately enjoyed by the top executives and shareholders of the companies on which the credits are spent.
Another sizeable part of US federal income tax revenue goes to purchasers of US debt—the debt that piled up to pay for the wars Washington didn’t want to raise taxes to pay for. Needless to say, it is the super-rich, not poor and middle-income Americans, who are the major holders of US debt. And super-wealthy bondholders are often the same people who own shares in companies that supply the Pentagon and benefit from the new foreign business opportunities that US military interventions secure.
So, no, the tax system doesn’t work against the wealthy, as Mankiw and others would have us believe. Instead, a large part of the tax system’s function is to transfer tax revenues from the bottom 99 percent to foreign aid, military appropriations, wars, and interest on debt that the top one percent disproportionately benefit from.
The United States has doubled military spending since 9/11, outspending its peer competitors, China and Russia, by more than a factor of three. It has squandered more than $1 trillion on wars that never should have been fought, and continues to waste $2 billion a week on war in Afghanistan. This excess has been paid for by borrowing rather than taxes, presumably to avoid hurting Americans in their pocketbooks, a pain that would likely provoke anti-war opposition. But the bills are coming due. Mankiw, and other prizefighters for the super-wealthy, are drawing attention away from outsize military spending—a significant contributor to burgeoning debt—and directing it instead to entitlements. They’re also deceptively ignoring payroll, property, sales and other taxes, to argue that the US tax system is progressive and that the wealthy already pay their fair share. In other words, Mankiw is arguing for higher taxes on poor and middle-income Americans, misdirecting attention to entitlement spending to conceal what the bill is really for: military spending that the super-rich have used to fatten their bank accounts.
A. Nothing comes free. Military spending can’t be doubled—and $1 trillion-plus wars fought— without someone eventually being handed the bill. And in the United States, the bill is always paid by the bottom 99 percent. This bill will be paid in entitlement cutbacks and tax increases.
B. The job of establishment economists is to make robbing poor and middle-income Americans seem both necessary and desirable. Feudal lords relied on priests to justify the exploitation of working people. Bankers, top executives and investors have economists.
1. N. Gregory Mankiw, “Wishful thinking and middle-class taxes”, The New York Times, December 29, 2012.
2. The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS
3. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
4. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
5. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2012
6. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
7. David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “Steeper pullout is raised as option for Afghanistan”, The New York Times, June 5, 2011.
8. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
10. Ezra Klein, “The one tax graph you really need to know”, The Washington Post, September 19, 2012.
12. Study co-written by Lawrence J. Korb for the Center for American Progress, cited by Walter Pincus in “Excess-profits tax on defense contractors during wartime is long overdue”, The Washington Post, December 31, 2012.
13. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011. Cretz said, “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources, but even in Qaddafi’s time they were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.”
September 15, 2012 § 5 Comments
For half of the last century, Arab nationalists, socialists, communists and others were locked in a battle with the Muslim Brothers for hegemony in the Arab world.—Tariq Ali 
The Jihadists who toppled the secular nationalist Gaddafi government—and not without the help of Nato bombers, dubbed “al Qaeda’s air force”  by Canadian pilots who participated in the bombing campaign—are no longer disguised in the pages of Western newspapers as a popular movement who thirsted for, and won, democracy in Libya. Now that they’ve overrun the US consulate in Benghazi and killed the US ambassador, they’ve become a “security threat…raising fears about the country’s stability” —exactly what Gaddafi called them, when Western governments were celebrating the Islamists’ revolt as a popular pro-democracy uprising. Gaddafi’s description of the unrest in his own country as a violent Salafist bid to establish an Islamic state was doubtlessly accepted in Washington and other Western capitals as true, but dismissed in public as a transparent ploy to muster sympathy. This was necessary to sanitize the uprising to secure the acquiescence of Western publics for the intervention of their countries’ warplanes to help Islamic guerillas on the ground topple a secular nationalist leader who was practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy– the real reasons he’d fallen into disgrace in Washington. 
The uprising of militant Muslim radicals against a secular state was, in many respects, a replay of what had happened in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, when a Marxist-inspired government came to power with aspirations to lift the country out of backwardness, and was opposed by the Mullahs and Islamist guerillas backed by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China.
An Afghan Communist explained that,
“Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society … Our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would … [Our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being. … Our program was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay … For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education … We told them that they owned their bodies, they would marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pens.” 
That’s not to say that Gaddafi was a Marxist—far from it. But like the reformers in Afghanistan, he sought to modernize his country, and use its land, labor and resources for the people within it. By official Western accounts, he did a good job, raising his country’s standard of living higher than that of all other countries in Africa.
Gaddafi claimed that the rebellion in Libya had been organized by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had vowed to overthrow him and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law. A 2009 Canadian government intelligence report bore him out. It described the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of eastern Libya, where the rebellion began, “as an ‘epicenter of Islamist extremism’ and said ‘extremist cells’ operated in the region.” Earlier, Canadian military intelligence had noted that “Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”  Significantly, US officials now believe that the AQIM may have plotted the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. 
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan rebellion’s most powerful military leader, was a veteran of the U.S.-backed Jihad against the Marxist-inspired reformist government in Afghanistan, where he had fought alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda. Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s to lead the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to his al-Qaeda comrades. His aim was to topple Gaddafi, as the Communists had been toppled in Afghanistan. The prominent role Belhaj played in the Libyan uprising should have aroused suspicions among leftists in the West that, as Western governments surely knew, the uprising was not the heroic pro-democracy affair Western media—and those of reactionary Arab regimes—were making it out to be. Indeed, from the very first day of the revolt, anyone equipped with knowledge of Libyan history that went back further than the last Fox News broadcast, would have known that the Benghazi rebellion was more in the mold of the latest eruption of a violent anti-secular Jihad than a peaceful call for democracy. 
“On Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police. At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiraled out of control.” 
As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators didn’t chant, “Power to the people”, “We are the 99 percent”, or “No to dictatorship.” They chanted “‘No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah’.”  The Islamists touched off the rebellion and did the fighting on the ground, while U.S.-aligned Libyan exiles stepped into the power vacuum created by Salafist violence and Nato bombs to form a new U.S.-aligned government.
Syria’s Hafiz Asad, and other secular nationalists, from his comrade Salaf Jadid, who he overthrew and locked away, to his son, Bashar, who has followed him, have also been denounced as enemies of Allah by the same Islamist forces who violently denounced Gaddafi in Libya and the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party in Afghanistan. The reason for their denunciation by Islamists is the same: their opposition to an Islamic state. Similarly, Islamist forces have been as strongly at the head of the movement to overthrow the secular nationalists in Syria, as they have the secular nationalists in Libya and the (secular) Marxists in the late 1970s-1980s Afghanistan.
The secular nationalists’ rise to power in Syria was a heavy blow to the country’s Sunni Islamic militants who resented their society being governed by secular radicals. Worse still from the perspective of the Islamists, the governing radicals were mostly members of minority communities the Sunnis regarded as heretics, and which had occupied the lower rungs of Syrian society. From the moment the secular nationalists captured the state, Islamists went underground to organize an armed resistance. “From their safe haven deep in the ancient warrens of northern cities like Aleppo and Hama, where cars could not enter, the guerrillas emerged to bomb and kill.” 
In 1980, an attempt was made to group the Sunni opposition to the secular nationalists under an “Islamic Front’, which promised free speech, free elections, and an independent judiciary, under the banner of Islam. When militant Islamic terrorists murdered Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a year later in Egypt, Islamists in Damascus promised then president Hafiz Asad the same fate. Then in 1982, Jihadists rose up in Hama—“the citadel of traditional landed power and Sunni puratinism” —in a bid to seize power in the city. The ensuing war of the Islamic radicals against the secular nationalist state, a bloody affair which costs tens of thousands of lives, convinced Asad that “he was wrestling not just with internal dissent, but with a large scale conspiracy to unseat him, abetted by Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the United States.”  Patrick Seale, a veteran British journalist who has covered the Middle East for decades, described the Islamists’ movement against Syria’s secular nationalists as a “sort of fever that (rises) and (falls) according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad.” 
Media accounts of Syria’s civil war omit mention of the decades-long hostility between Islamists and secular nationalists—a fierce enmity that sometimes flares into open warfare, and at other times simmers menacingly below the surface—that has defined Syria in the post-colonial period. To do so would take the sheen off the armed rising as a popular, democratic, progressive struggle, a depiction necessary to make Western intervention in the form of sanctions, diplomatic support, and other aid, against the secular nationalists, appear just and desirable. Today, only Trotskyists besotted by fantasies that the Arab Spring is the equivalent of the March 1917 Petrograd uprising, deny that the content of the Syrian uprising is Islamist. But the question of whether the uprising was initially otherwise—a peaceful, progressive and popular movement aimed at opening democratic space and redressing economic grievances–and only later hijacked by Islamists, remains in dispute. What’s clear, however, is that the “hijacking”, if indeed there was one, is not of recent vintage. In the nascent stages of the rebellion, the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid noted that the “most puritanical Islamists, known by their shorthand as Salafists, have emerged as a force in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, with suspicions that Saudi Arabia has encouraged and financed them.”
Secular nationalists, socialists and communists in Muslim lands have struggled with the problem of Islamist opposition to their programs, to their atheism (in the case of communists) and to the secular character of the state they have sought to build. The Bolsheviks, perhaps alone among this group, were successful in overcoming opposition in the traditional Muslim territories they controlled in Central Asia, and improving the lives of women, who had been oppressed by conservative Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. 
Western governments, led by the United States, have made a practice of inflaming the Islamists’ hostility to secular nationalists, socialists and communists, using militant Muslim radicals as a cat’s paw to topple these governments, which have almost invariably refused to align themselves militarily with the United States or cut deals against the interests of their own people to fatten the profits of corporate America and enrich Wall Street investment bankers. But whether Washington aggravates fault lines within Muslim societies or not, the fact remains that the fault lines exist, and must be managed, but have not always been managed well.
For example, no matter how admirable their aims were, the reformers in Afghanistan had too narrow a political base to move as quickly as they did, and they rushed headlong into disaster, ignoring Moscow’s advice to slow down and expand their support. The Carter and Reagan administrations simply took advantage of their blunders to build a committed anti-communist guerilla movement.
The leftist Syrian regime of Salah Jadid, which Hafiz Asad overthrew, did much that would be admired by leftists today. Indeed, Tariq Ali, in an apology apparently intended to expiate the sin of seeming to support the current Asad government, lauds Jadid’s regime as the “much more enlightened predecessor whose leaders and activists…numbered in their ranks some of the finest intellectuals of the Arab world.”  It’s easy to see why Ali admired Asad’s predecessors. Jadid, who lived an austere life, refusing to take advantage of his position to lavish himself with riches and comforts, slashed the salaries of senior ministers and top bureaucrats. He replaced their black Mercedes limousines with Volkswagens and Peugeot 404s. People connected with the old influential families were purged from government. A Communist was brought into the cabinet. Second houses were confiscated, and the ownership of more than one was prohibited. Private schools were banned. Workers, soldiers, peasants, students and women became the regime’s favored children. Feudalists and reactionaries were suppressed. A start was made on economic planning and major infrastructure projects were undertaken with the help of the Soviets. And yet, despite these clearly progressive measures, Jadid’s base of popular support remained narrow—one reason why the Soviets were lukewarm toward him, regarding him as a hothead, and contemptuous of his claim to be practicing “scientific socialism.”  Scientific socialism is based on mass politics, not a minority coming to power through a conspiracy (as Jadid and Asad had) which then attempts to impose its utopian vision on a majority that rejects it.
Jadid backed the Palestinian guerrillas. Asad, who was then minister of defense, was less enamored of the guerrillas, who he saw as handing Israel pretexts for war. Jadid defined the bourgeoisie as the enemy. Asad wanted to enlist their backing at home to broaden the government’s base of support against the Muslim Brothers. Jadid spurned the reactionary Arab regimes. Asad was for unifying all Arab states—reactionary or otherwise—against Israel. 
Asad—who Ali says he opposed—recognized (a) that a program of secular nationalist socialism couldn’t be implemented holus bolus without mass support, and (b) that the government didn’t have it. So, after toppling Jadid in a so-called “corrective” movement, he minimized class warfare in favor of broadening his government’s base, trying to win over merchants, artisans, business people, and other opponents of the regime’s nationalizations and socialist measures. At the same time, he retained Jadid’s commitment to a dirigiste state and continued to promote oppressed classes and minorities. This was hardly a stirring program for Marxist purists—in fact it looked like a betrayal—but the Soviets were more committed to Asad than Jadid, recognizing that his program respected the world as it was and therefore had a greater chance of success. 
In the end, however, Asad failed. Neither he nor his son Bashar managed to expand the state’s base of support enough to safeguard it from destabilization. The opposition hasn’t been conjured up out of nothing by regime change specialists in Washington. To be sure, regime change specialists have played a role, but they’ve needed material to work with, and the Asad’s Syria has provided plenty of it. Nor did Gaddafi in Libya finesse the problem of mixing the right amount of repression and persuasion to engineer a broad enough consent for his secular nationalist rule to survive the fever of Salafist opposition rising, as Patrick Seale writes, according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad . The machinations of the United States and reactionary Arab regimes to stir up and strengthen the secular nationalists’ opponents made the knot all the more difficult to disentangle, but outside manipulation wasn’t the whole story in Gaddafi’s demise (though it was a significant part of it) and hasn’t been the sole, or even a large part of the, explanation for the uprising in Syria.
The idea that the uprisings in either country are popular, democratic movements against dictatorship and for the redress of economic grievances, (a) ignores the significant history of struggle between secularist Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brothers, (b) mistakenly minimizes the role of Salafists in the uprisings, and (c) turns a blind eye to Washington’s longstanding practice of using radical Muslim activists as a cat’s paw against Arab nationalist regimes that are against sacrificing local interests to the foreign trade and investment interests of Wall Street and corporate America. With Islamists lashing out violently against US embassies in the Middle East, their depiction by US state officials and Western media as pro-democracy fighters for freedom may very well be supplanted by the labels used by Gaddafi and Asad to describe their Islamist opponents, labels that are closer to the truth –“religious fanatics” and “terrorists.”
Reactionary Islam may have won the battle for hegemony in the Muslim world, as Tariq Ali asserts, and with it, the United States, which has often manipulated it for its own purposes, but the battle has yet to be won in Syria, and one would hope, never will be. That’s what’s at stake in the country: not a fragile, popular, egalitarian, pro-democracy movement, but the last remaining secular Arab nationalist regime, resisting both the oppressions and obscurantism of the Muslim Brothers and the oppressions and plunder of imperialism.
1. Tariq Ali, “The Uprising in Syria”, http://www.counterpunch.com, September 12, 2012.
2. Stephen Gowans [A], “Al-Qaeda’s Air Force”, what’s left, February 20, 2012. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/al-qaedas-air-force/
3. Patrick Martin, “Anti-American protests seen as tip of the Islamist iceberg”, The Globe and Mail, September 13, 2012.
4. Gowans [A]
5. Rodric Braithwaite. Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989. Profile Books. 2012. pp. 5-6.
6. Gowans [A]
7. Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous, “U.S. probing al-Qaeda link in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012.
8. Gowans [A]
9. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.
11. Patrick Seale. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. 1988, p.324.
12. Seale, p. 333.
13. Seale, p. 335.
14. Seale, p. 322.
15. Anthony Shadid, “After Arab revolts, reigns of uncertainty”, The New York Times, August 24, 2011.
16. Stephen Gowans [B], “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, August 9, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/women%e2%80%99s-rights-in-afghanistan/
July 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
By Stephen Gowans
Wars have almost always been highly devastating affairs, with dire consequences in ruined and destroyed lives, as well as in the destruction of economies, farms, factories, housing and public infrastructure. While it cannot be said that all people at all times have considered wars to be best avoided, it is safe to say that the humanitarian case against war is overwhelming.
This essay is concerned, not with war in general, but with military interventions. To be sure, military interventions are often inseparable from wars, since they are often the causes of them. But not always. Some occur in the context of wars that are already underway. And some happen without provoking major resistance.
Today, on the left—and even the right—there are many activists who are committed to an anti-war position, but who are more properly said to oppose military intervention. Opposition to war implies, not only opposition to one country initiating a war against another (aggression), but also to using military means to repel an attack (self-defence.) Yet it is highly unlikely that people who say they are against war mean that they are against self-defence. It is more likely that they mean that a military response to a conflict must only occur for valid reasons, and that self-defence is the only valid one.
However, those who have adopted an anti-war position often stress other reasons for opposing military interventions. These include the ideas that:
• Democracy is senior to other considerations and that people should be allowed to resolve internal conflicts free from the meddling of outside forces.
• Institutions and ideologies cannot be successfully imposed on other people and interventions that seek to do so (e.g., bring democracy to another country) are bound to fail.
• International law is a legitimate basis for determining the validity of military interventions and countries ought to abide by it.
In this essay, the arguments will be made that: none of these principles are grounds to oppose military intervention; one of them is empirically insupportable as an absolute statement; the idea that military force ought to be used only in self-defence is indefensible; and that had these principles been adopted as inviolable, a number of interventions that are now widely regarded as progressive and desirable would never have occurred. A case will be made, instead, that some military interventions are valid and that validity depends on whose interests the intervention serves and whether the long-run effects are progressive. By these criteria, NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not valid, while France’s intervention on the side of the United States in the American Revolution and the Union government’s intervention in the states of the Confederacy in the American Civil War were valid. Also valid were the interventions of the Comintern on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) interventions in Korea (1950) and Tibet (1959), Cuba’s intervention in Angola (1975), and the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan (1979).
Full essay in PDF format: Military Interventions Progressive vs Imperialist
August 9, 2010 § 9 Comments
Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban ought to be hoping for the revival of the communists.
By Stephen Gowans
While worries are expressed about “women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan … seeping away”  there was a time when the rights of Afghan women were much stronger, and stronger still among the people who shared a common culture with Afghans but lived in Soviet Central Asia. While US journalists draw attention to worry that a US troop withdrawal, and the possible return of the Taliban to government, will imperil the few rights women have gained, US establishment journalism expressed few concerns about the loss of women’s rights when Washington backed the misogynist Mujahedeen in its fight against a progressive government in Kabul that sought to free Afghan women from the grip of traditional Islamic practices.
Here’s New York Times’ reporter Alissa J. Rubin.
Women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan have begun seeping away. Girls’ schools are closing; working women are threatened; advocates are attacked; and terrified families are increasingly confining their daughters to home. As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. 
Rubin’s report is part of a propaganda offensive being played out in US newspapers and magazines to drum up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its NATO allies. The campaign is perhaps most blatantly revealed in the July 29 issue of Time, whose cover, to quote the newsmagazine’s editors,
is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.
There is nothing good to be said about the prospect of a Taliban revival. The conditions for women will indeed sink to a barbaric level if the Islamic extremists return to power. But the idea that US foreign policy makers care one whit about the condition of women in Afghanistan, or that the surest way to guarantee the rights of Afghan women is to keep US troops firmly in place, ignores the history of US foreign policy in the region, and also ignores a point Rubin herself makes: that Washington is exploring reconciliation with the Taliban.
Rubin’s use of the word “reconciliation” is apt. Washington had a working relationship with the Taliban going back to 1995, when it funded and advised the nascent movement through the CIA, in partnership with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and Saudi Arabia.  Washington had no qualms then about the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women, and for reasons explained below, probably has no qualms today either. The State Department maintained friendly relations with the Sunni extremists right up to 1999, when every Taliban official was on the US government payroll. 
That there are concerns far more senior to decision-makers in Washington than the conditions of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies is evidenced by the enormous support oil-rich Saudi Arabia receives from the US government. The kingdom is a key strategic ally for Washington and a source of colossal profits for US oil firms and US investment banks, through which the Saudis recycle their petrodollars. And while little is ever said in the United States about the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women are subjected to practices as barbaric and benighted as any the Taliban have inflicted on the women of Afghanistan. But the Saudis, owing to their cooperation with America’s corporate rich in building Himalayas of oil profits every year, get away with backward practices that leave the Western world sputtering in indignation when carried out by the Taliban, whose practices toward women only received the scrutiny they deserved when the Islamic fundamentalists refused to play ball with Unocal on a pipeline deal.
Here’s how the Saudis – one of Washington’s partners in the Middle East – treat women. Women are not allowed to vote, drive cars, or leave the house without a male chaperon, and when they do leave they must avoid men and cover most of their bodies. If they want to marry, divorce, travel, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, they need the approval of a male relative. A woman’s place is in the home, and a woman’s role is to raise children and care for the household. In a court of law, the testimony of two women is worth the testimony of one man. The sexes are strictly segregated, with separate men’s and women’s entrances to most houses and public buildings and segregated areas in public places. US restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks collude in the oppression of women by maintaining separate areas for the sexes in their restaurants. Girls go to all-girls’ schools where the teachers are less well-qualified and textbooks updated less frequently than in boys’ schools. Fathers can marry off their daughters at any age, and girls as young as nine have been married. In one case a 10 year old girl was forced into a marriage with an 80 year old man. With its separate and unequal legal rights and schools, and its restrictions on the movement of women, the Saudis practice a form of apartheid no different from that once practiced in southern Africa. The only difference is that the victims are defined by their possession of uteruses, not the color of their skin. 
Further evidence of Washington’s supreme indifference to the rights of women abroad is evidenced by the role it played in undermining a progressive government in Afghanistan that sought to release women from the grip of traditional Islamic anti-women practices. In the 1980s, Kabul was “a cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city’s university. Afghan women held government jobs.”  There were female members of parliament, and women drove cars, and travelled and went on dates, without needing to ask a male guardian for permission. That this is no longer true is largely due to a secret decision made in the summer of 1979 by then US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to draw “the Russians into the Afghan trap” and give “to the USSR its Vietnam War” by bankrolling and organizing Islamic terrorists to fight a new government in Kabul led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. 
The goal of the PDPA was to liberate Afghanistan from its backwardness. In the 1970s, only 12 percent of adults were literate. Life expectancy was 42 years and infant mortality the highest in the world. Half the population suffered from TB and one-quarter from malaria.
Most of the population lived in the countryside, which was ruled by landlords and wealthy Mullahs. Women – subjected to traditional Islamic practices of forced marriage, bride price, child marriage, female seclusion, subordination to males, and the veil – lived particularly barbaric existences. 
In stark contrast, the Bolsheviks had raised the living standards of the Afghans’ Tajik, Turkman and Uzbeck brethren in Soviet Central Asia and liberated women from the misogyny of traditional Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. 
In 1978 the government of Mohammed Daoud, who the PDPA had backed but had increasingly grown disenchanted with, killed a popular member of the party. This sparked mass demonstrations, which Daoud met with orders to arrest the PDPA leaders. However, before the order could be executed, the PDPA ordered its supporters in the army to overthrow the government. The rebellion was successful, and Noor Mohammed Taraki, leader of a hard-line wing of the party, was brought to power. The Saur (April) Revolution was a spontaneous reaction to the Daoud government’s plans to arrest the PDPA leaders and suppress the left, not the realization of a plan worked out with Moscow’s connivance to seize power. While the new government was pro-Soviet and the Soviets would soon intervene military at its request in an effort to suppress US-supported Islamic reaction in the countryside, Moscow was not behind the seizure of power. 
The new government immediately announced a series of reforms. The debts of poor peasants would be cancelled and an Agricultural Development Bank would be established to provide low-interest loans to peasants, in an effort to root out the usurious lending practices of moneylenders and landlords. Land ownership was to be limited to 15 acres and large estates broken up and redistributed to landless farmers. 
At the same time women would be liberated from the constraints of traditional Islam. Bride price – the treating of marriageable women as chattel to be exchanged in commercial transactions – was severely limited. The age of consent for girls to marry was raised to 16. And students from the cities were dispatched to the countryside to teach both men and women to read and write. 
While some gains were achieved, especially in Kabul where PDPA support was strongest, the reforms never took root in the countryside, where the government pressed ahead too quickly, arousing a determined opposition by the rich landlords and Mullahs it lacked the military power to suppress.  Washington’s recruiting of tens of thousands of mujahedeen from Muslim countries to jihad, including the Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, eventually contributed to the Soviet decision to withdraw its military forces and to the eventual overthrow of the PDPA government, which hung on for a few years after the Soviets quit the country. Soon the Taliban, backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had returned Afghanistan once again firmly to the Middle Ages, after the country had taken a few determined steps toward modernity under the leadership of the PDPA. Significantly, it was the Bolsheviks in Soviet Central Asia, and the Marxist-Leninist-inspired PDPA in Afghanistan, that acted to improve the conditions of women, while the United States allied itself with religious zealots who enforced – and continue in Saudi Arabia to enforce – a barbaric patriarchal rule over women.
For Washington, profits stand above women’s rights. The communists, by contrasts, were inspired by the aims of liberating peasants from feudal backwardness and breaking the grip of traditional Islam on the lot of women. The latter acted as paladins of human progress and women’s rights; the former, as captives of the logic of imperialism. Liberation of women from the misogyny of the Taliban and Saudis will not come about through the agency of Washington. Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban and the consequent loss of the few gains Afghan women have eked out under a puppet government backed by the Pentagon, ought to hope, instead, for the revival of the communists. They have a track record in the service of women’s liberation; Washington’s record, by contrast, is not one to inspire confidence.
1. Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghan women fear the loss of modest gains”, The New York Times of July 30, 2010.
3. Michael Parenti, “Afghanistan, Another Untold Story”, Michael Parenti Political Archives, December, 2008, updated in 2009. http://www.michaelparenti.org/afghanistan%20story%20untold.html
5. “Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia
San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2001. Cited in Parenti.
6. From an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998, translated by William Blum, available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BRZ110A.html
Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs ["From the Shadows"], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.
B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.
7. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland: With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984a.
8. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, London, 1984b.
9. Szymanski, 1984a.
10. Szymanksi, 1984a.
11. Szymanksi, 1984a.
12. Irwin Silber, Afghanistan – The Battle Line is Drawn, Line of March Publications, 1980.
August 7, 2010 § 8 Comments
By Stephen Gowans
If legitimacy and moral principle mattered, a groundswell of effective popular resistance would have arisen in NATO countries and brought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end long ago. But vigorous opposition is inspired by more than ideals; it happens when war has very real personal consequences for a large part of the population. In the NATO countries, this has not been true of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been fought with light causalities to a tiny fraction of the population that makes up a volunteer, professional military; have led to no major tax increases; and have provoked few disruptions due to retaliatory terrorist attacks. By contrast, the wars have had very real, tragic, personal consequences for large parts of the Afghan and Iraqi populations. Asymmetrical conditions (intolerable ones for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq; life lived much as it always is in the aggressor countries) produce asymmetrical responses (a determined armed resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq; a weak anti-war movement in the aggressor countries.)
Absence of Legitimacy
While it’s true that large numbers of people have been opposed to the war on Iraq from its formal beginning in 2003, those who said there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that the WMD angle was a transparent pretext, that the war was for oil, and that it (along with the war on Afghanistan) wouldn’t lessen threats to the US and Britain but increase them, were in the minority. They were dismissed in various ways: as loony and pro-authoritarian, as having never met a dictator they didn’t like, as thug-huggers and apologists for terrorism, and so on.
Others, perhaps intimidated by the ridicule they saw heaped upon this minority and afraid of departing too far from the mainstream of mass media-approved opinion, compromised. Some called for more sanctions rather than war, although sanctions, which are simply war by other means, had already led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five(1)and perhaps as many people over five. Perhaps their concern was chauvinistic: not that Iraqis were being killed, but that US and British troops might get killed. Or maybe they didn’t know that sanctions are indeed directed at ordinary people. After all, the politicians who imposed them kept assuring everyone that sanctions only hurt the leadership of target countries, not the people.
The cowardly, afraid they would be tarred as dictator-lovers, issued statements denouncing both sides – the aggressor and the intended victim, as if, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland, they had declared, “We like neither the Nazis nor the Poles,” in case, in opposing the Nazi action, they should be accused of supporting Polish politics.
Some of these people thought they were being clever. If they said (quite truthfully though irrelevantly) that they hated Saddam Hussein because he was a dictator, they could take the dictator-lover charge off the table, and focus public attention on US actions. But all they did was help to give heart to those seeking a silver lining in the dark cloud of impending war. “The war might be conducted for the wrong reasons,” rationalized the silver lining seekers, “but at least some good will come of it. The world will be rid of a vicious dictator.”
Perhaps the largest part of the sector that opposed the war did so, not because the war was nakedly imperialist and would increase the threat to Americans by further inflaming anger against US domination of the Middle East, but because they were Democrats and this was Bush’s war. Likewise, there were many Republicans who opposed the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, not because it was nakedly imperialist, but because it was Clinton’s war. The Democrats who opposed the Iraq war weren’t anti-war or anti-imperialist, they were anti-Bush. And the Republicans who opposed the Kosovo air war weren’t anti-war or anti-imperialist, they were anti-Clinton. Part of the reason the anti-war movement, which has been mostly a part-time affair limited to a series of ritualized, orderly, marches, has virtually died out, is because Bush – the impetus for opposition to the wars – has retired to his ranch in Texas. Protest, at least in the view of partisan Democrats, is no longer necessary; indeed, from their point of view, it is to be vigorously avoided.
Withdrawal: An Exercise in Semantics
Today, the war in Iraq is in the midst of a US troop draw down, but not as the beginning to the end of US military involvement in Iraq. The real purpose is to redeploy troops to Afghanistan, where, with the war going poorly for the Pentagon, more troops are needed. US military occupation of Iraq is open-ended.
The withdrawal, which will reduce the number of American troops to 50,000 — from 112,000 earlier this year and close to 165,000 at the height of the surge — is … an exercise in semantics. What soldiers today would call combat operations — hunting insurgents, joint raids between Iraqi security forces and United States Special Forces to kill or arrest militants — will be called “stability operations.” Beyond August the next Iraq deadline is the end of 2011, when all American troops are supposed to be gone. But few believe that America’s military involvement in Iraq will end then. The conventional wisdom among military officers, diplomats and Iraqi officials is that after a new government is formed, talks will begin about a longer-term American troop presence. (2)
A longer-term American troop presence is exactly what US Secretary of War Robert Gates in 2007 told Congress could be expected. He said he envisioned keeping at least five combat brigades in Iraq as a long term presence, which is equal to about 20,000 combat personnel with an equal number of support staff. (3) The US military spokesman in Iraq, Major General Stephen Lanza, assured supporters of a US troop presence in Iraq that despite the troop draw-down, “In practical terms, nothing will change.” (4)
Meanwhile, the US government isn’t just rebranding the occupation, it’s also privatising it. There are around 100,000 private contractors working for the occupying forces, of whom more than 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly “third country nationals”, typically from the developing world. … The US now wants to expand their numbers sharply in what Jeremy Scahill, who helped expose the role of the notorious US security firm Blackwater, calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000, to be based in five “enduring presence posts” across Iraq. (5)
Colonialism without Colonies
The 1980 Carter Doctrine identified Persian Gulf oil as a US national security interest. In plain language, this meant that the petroleum rich countries of the Persian Gulf would be reserved as an area open to exploitation by US business enterprises and investors. The US would tolerate no attempt by other outside forces – or internal forces either — to control the region’s petro-reserves, and thereby deny or limit US enterprises access to the region’s oil and gas on preferential terms. Access would be guaranteed to ensure that US oil majors reaped a bonanza of profits from the sale of Middle Eastern oil to its principal consumers, namely Western Europe and Japan, and not primarily to guarantee sufficient oil to run the US military machine and economy, as is commonly supposed. Indeed, while the United States relies on oil from the Middle East, it has access to plentiful supplies of fossil fuels from sources that are much closer to hand: Canada (which has the world’s largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia); Venezuela (sixth in the world in oil reserves); and from its own oil wells. (6)
The Carter Doctrine was the modern version of colonialism. Under the old one, an outside power claims a territory as its own for the purposes of monopolizing its land, labor, markets and raw materials for the enrichment of its dominant politico-economic interests, its ruling class. It does so by planting its flag, appointing a governor, and establishing a military garrison. This announces to the world that use of this territory is exclusively at the discretion of the colonial power, and that the monopoly is backed by the colonial power’s military.
Under the Carter Doctrine, Washington would leave the flags, constitutions, currencies and leaders of the nominally independent Middle Eastern countries in place. But it would be understood that these countries would open themselves to exploitation by US business enterprises, if they weren’t already, or would remain open, if they were. The Pentagon would be the ultimate enforcer, ensuring that investment opportunities remained available on preferential terms to US businesspeople and that US investments were kept free from the threat of expropriation, or limitation by high taxes, stringent regulations, strong unions, restraints on repatriation of profits, and affirmative action programs designed to promote local businesses. Whereas the colonial powers had carved out territories for themselves and ipso facto claimed them as their own, Carter simply said what amounted to, “This now belongs to the United States on a de facto basis and anyone who says otherwise will have to deal with the Pentagon.” Significantly, this warning wasn’t directed at outside powers alone; it was also intended for communist, socialist and nationalist forces, who might take it into their heads that the land on which they lived and their raw materials ought to be collectively or publicly owned for the benefit of the local population or turned over to the local bourgeoisie to spur independent internal development.
Iran (after 1979) and Iraq were a problem. Nationalists were in power in both countries. Washington provided military assistance to help Iraq in its war against Iran, hoping the two nationalist powers would exhaust and weaken each other in war, and, in the aftermath, Washington could step in to assert control. When Iraq invaded Kuwait with what it believed was tacit US approval (7), Washington used the event to initiate a war against Iraq that continues today. The eventual invasion of Iraq was carried out under the Wolfowitz Doctrine, which said the United States would prevent the emergence of a regional Middle Eastern power capable of monopolizing the region’s petroleum resources, but which really meant that regional oil powers, like Iraq and Iran, would be prevented from controlling their own petroleum resources. George W. Bush pointed to preventing “a world in which these extremists and radicals got control of energy resources” (8) as the rationale for US military strategy in the Persian Gulf. What made the objects of Bush’s alarm “extreme” and “radical” was that they weren’t prepared to surrender control of their oil and gas to US corporations.
The Insecurity State
Fighting terrorism and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons has become the rationale for US military domination of the Middle East. Yet it was US military domination of the Middle East that sparked terrorist attacks against US targets in the first place, and established the conditions that pressure Iran to develop nuclear weapons (which isn’t to say that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, only that the need to build a defense against US and Israeli aggression makes it more likely that it will.)
What motivates Osama bin Laden and his followers has largely been kept from Western audiences, who have been fed pabulum about al Qaeda’s “hatred of our freedoms,” but it is clear that bin Laden’s campaign of terrorism is a reaction to US imperialism in the Middle East. He importunes his followers to strike the United States because:
…the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. (9)
On another occasion bin Laden explained that:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy Mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. (10)
Having operated on behalf of the CIA to oppose Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s, bin Laden is sometimes said to be a creation of the United States, a kind of Frankenstein monster. But receiving assistance from a state does not make one its creation. Bin Laden would have militantly opposed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan whether the CIA helped him out or not. There is, however, a sense in which bin Laden is, indeed, a creation of the United States, or more precisely, a reaction against its policies. Bin Laden, as a fighter against US domination of the Middle East, wouldn’t exist were it not for the United States stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, and now Iraq and Afghanistan; were the United States not the guarantor of Israel’s existence as an anti-Arab settler state; and had Washington not created a string of marionette rulers throughout the Arab world. In seeking to extend and consolidate US hegemony on behalf of the United States’ dominant economic class, these policies have had the effect of stirring up a nest of hornets. Once stirred up, the danger the hornets pose become a pretext for further extension of US hegemony to deny the hornets sanctuary and a base of operations from which they can inflict harm. As Victor Kiernan once remarked: “Now, as on other occasions, it appear[s] that American security require(s) everyone else to be insecure.” (11)
Right All Along
The ridiculed minority was right. The Iraq war was – and continues to be – about oil; there never were any weapons of mass destruction; Iraq posed no danger to the West; and rather than lessening the threat of terrorist attack, it has increased it. As for the idea, promulgated by Barack Obama as justification for his war policy in Afghanistan, that Afghanistan must be occupied by US forces and the militaries of its allies in order to prevent the country from becoming a base of operations for al-Qaeda, it can be pointed out that terrorist attacks can be – and have been – plotted and organized just about anywhere. William Blum asks:
[W]hat actually is needed to plot to buy airline tickets and take flying lessons in the United States? A room with some chairs? What does “an even larger safe haven” mean? A larger room with more chairs? Perhaps a blackboard? Terrorists intent upon attacking the United States can meet almost anywhere, with Afghanistan probably being one of the worst places for them, given the American occupation. (12)
Indeed, it is very unlikely that al-Qaeda is the position to establish a base of operations in Afghanistan, a point made by Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the uber-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, who advised General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander in Afghanistan. Biddle “said the chance of a new Qaeda stronghold that could threaten American territory was relatively low” equating the odds of this happening “to a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America” which he said was “substantially less than 1 percent.” So why carry on an occupation whose costs approach $1 trillion (13) in order to avert an event that has virtually no chance of happening? Because, says Biddle – who advances an argument that is perhaps one of the least cogent ever — “It’s like buying life insurance” and “most Americans buy life insurance.” (14)
Richard Boucher had a different view. When he spoke on September 20, 2007 at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, he was US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Boucher’s account of why the United States has spent countless dollars on war in Afghanistan had nothing to do with insurance policies and much to do with oil and gas. “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan, so it can become a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south,” he explained. (15) Boucher’s views mesh with Biddle’s if we take “stabilize” to mean pacifying forces opposed to the United States controlling Afghanistan as a hub between South and Central Asia.
Fadhil Chalabi, an adviser to Washington in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and later Iraq’s oil undersecretary of state, described the invasion of Iraq as “a strategic move on the part of the United States of America and the UK to have a military presence in the Gulf in order to secure [oil] supplies in the future”. (16) He echoed the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan, who, in his memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, lamented “that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” (17) George W. Bush himself, in worrying that “extremists would control a key part of the world’s energy supply” if the US did not have a troop presence in Iraq, indirectly acknowledged that oil was central to the reason he ordered an invasion of the country. (18) But it should be recalled that it is not the need to guarantee a secure supply of Middle Eastern oil for US consumers that was central to the reason for the invasion, for the US has access to plentiful oil from sources close to home. What really counted was the attraction of securing a bonanza of profits for US oil majors from the sale of Middle Eastern oil to Western Europe and Japan. A subsidiary benefit also figured in the equation: if Washington controls Japan’s and Western Europe’s oil supply, it controls Japan and Western Europe. (19)
Testifying before the Chilcot Inquiry into the Britain’s role in the Iraq war, Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former director general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI-5, confirmed what the minority had said eight years earlier: “That Iraq had presented little threat … before the invasion”(20) and that fears that “Saddam could have linked terrorists to weapons of mass destruction, facilitating their use against the west…certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or the medium term.” (21)
Manningham-Buller also testified that “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had greatly increased the terrorist threat” and that “involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.”(22)
Democracy for the Few
The majority of citizens of the aggressor countries are opposed to their governments deploying their nations’ troops to Iraq and Afghanistan,(23)and yet the wars go on. US voters elected a president whose equivocations led them to believe he would end the wars, although the letter of what he said was never anti-war. The wars continue, just as they did under his predecessor. The Nobel committee (grotesquely) gave the new US president the Peace Prize, hoping it might nudge him to declare peace. Its members’ hopes were dashed. There never were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet the occupation of Iraq continues, and will for the foreseeable future, by both US troops engaged in combat operations under a new name that draws a veil over their continued combat role and private sector mercenaries hired by the United States. The reasons for conducting the wars have been shown to be false, and yet talk of bringing US military intervention to a close is merely a sop to public opinion. The conventional wisdom among decision-makers is that a significant US troop presence will continue in both countries beyond 2011.(24) Even if US troops are repatriated (or redeployed to the next war for profits), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue anyway through local surrogates: the US-trained, equipped and directed Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan) armies, to say nothing of US State Department-hired mercenaries.
In a true democracy, the decisions made within the society reflect the interests of the majority. Does anyone believe the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are waged in the interests of the majority?
It is commonplace to refer to the waging of the wars as if it is something that legitimately involves the plural “we”, as in: “we” are still in Afghanistan, and when are “we” going to get out of Iraq? There is no “we”. “We” weren’t asked to consent to the wars, “we” don’t support them, and “we” don’t benefit from them. The reality is that “we” don’t matter, except insofar as we have to be tossed a lagniappe every now and then to prevent our opposition from escalating to levels that would threaten to destabilize the rule of those who, from the system’s perspective, really do matter.
On the other hand, “we” are not really burdened by the wars, either. “We” don’t fight them, or not many of us do. A small minority of volunteer professional soldiers and private sector mercenaries fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they fight in ways that minimize the number of their casualties. And because “we” don’t fight the wars, even though “we” oppose them and “we” don’t benefit from them, it doesn’t really matter whether “we” are opposed morally and intellectually. Foreign policy is shaped without reference to public opinion and in complete isolation from it, and therefore the moral and intellectual opposition of majorities counts for little. Foreign policy, it should be clear, doesn’t depend on public opinion as an input. That’s not to say it can’t be shaped by pressure from below, but the pressure that alters foreign policy doesn’t come in the form of ritualized, non-disruptive expressions of popular opposition: the orderly and nonviolent march; petitions and letter writing campaigns; letters sent to editors of newspapers, and so on. The fact that all of these things have been done and continue to be done without the slightest discernible effect is proof enough. No, foreign policy bends from pressure that disrupts the normal functioning of society and therefore threatens the interests of the dominant economic class; in other words, from activities that are “incompatible with the stability required by big business for the tranquil digestion of profits.” (25) And foreign policy becomes something other than an expression of the class interests of big business, that at best can be momentarily restrained only by enormous pressure from below, when the authority to make foreign policy is wrested from the control of big business’s representatives and reconstituted on the basis of a different class altogether.
But bringing about reforms within the system (that is actually bringing them about and not simply registering dissent), much less changing the system altogether, requires a willingness to accept all manner of risks, dangers and penalties: trouble with the police and security services and the potential of going to jail or being forced to live underground. While a small minority may be prepared to accept these risks as the price of pursuing their moral and intellectual ideals, most people are not made in the mold of Che Guevara. Mass movements for change that disrupt the tranquil digestion of profits arise when conditions become intolerable for the mass of people – so intolerable that the considerable costs of acting to change them are outweighed by the costs exacted by the conditions themselves. It is no surprise that the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States was student-led. It was students who faced the unwelcome prospect of being sent to Southeast Asia to kill or be killed. It wasn’t until the war led to tax increases that opposition in the wider society was aroused. But as “soon as the risk of having to serve at the front was removed, agitation and concern over Vietnamese sufferings died down abruptly; a year or two more, and Vietnam was forgotten.”(26)In the end, it wasn’t the student movement that brought the war to a close; it was the resistance of the people for whom the conditions of the war and decades of colonial domination had proved intolerable: the Vietnamese.
Cost of War
It’s worth quoting an Elisabeth Bumiller New York Times article on this at length.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents. (27)
But while the numbers are high in absolute terms, a second look
shows another story underneath. In 2008, the peak year so far of war spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs amounted to only 1.2 percent of America’s gross domestic product. During the peak year of spending on World War II, 1945, the costs came to nearly 36 percent of G.D.P. (28)
With the cost of the war being eminently affordable, there’s little burden on US citizens.
“The army is at war, but the country is not,” said David M. Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. “We have managed to create and field an armed force that can engage in very, very lethal warfare without the society in whose name it fights breaking a sweat.” The result, he said, is “a moral hazard for the political leadership to resort to force in the knowledge that civil society will not be deeply disturbed.” (29)
The wars haven’t imposed a painful tax burden either. Bumiller points out that,
taxes have not been raised to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan — the first time that has happened in an American war since the Revolution, when there was not yet a country to impose them. Rightly or wrongly, that has further cut American civilians off from the two wars on the opposite side of the world. (30)
Some will say the anti-war movement is weak because it has been hijacked by the Democrats and derailed by Obama’s beguiling anti-war rhetoric. While these factors can’t be discounted, it seems more likely that a greater cause of the weakness can be found in the light to virtually non-existent costs the wars have imposed on the civilian populations of the aggressor countries and the failure of massive demonstrations of the past to make any difference, coupled with the expectation that future demonstrations will likewise fail to influence decision-makers. People seem to implicitly recognize that on matters of foreign affairs, governments operate on a plane completely divorced from, and unresponsive to, public opinion expressed in peaceful, respectful, and non-disruptive ways. Or to put it another way, despite its vaunted status, democracy, as it is practiced in most places, bears little connection to the original and substantive meaning of the word.
Everything about Bush’s wars, now Obama’s wars, and which have always been US wars and more broadly wars for profits, is false. They weren’t started to reduce threats to the physical safety of citizens of the countries that waged them, but to consolidate US domination of the Middle East to ensure the region’s land, labor, markets and especially its raw materials and petro-resources are available for the enrichment of the business enterprises of the United States and its allies. The effect has been quite the opposite of the stated intent. Rather than reducing the threat of terrorist attacks, which had arisen in response to ongoing US efforts to dominate the Middle East, the wars have increased the threat. Still, while the threat has increased, disruptions due to terrorist attacks have been minimal. The wars have made little difference in the lives of the citizens of the aggressor countries. As a result, while military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are completely illegitimate and their continuation is opposed by majorities in the NATO bloc, they are not total wars involving global conflicts among fairly evenly matched countries that disrupt the lives of the citizens of all belligerents, but grossly uneven contests between an alliance of rich countries led by a global hegemon of unprecedented military power against weak, Third World, countries that suffer complete devastation while the civilian populations of the other side emerge unscathed. The gross imbalance in wealth and military strength means that for the hegemonic powers there is no need to inconvenience their civilian populations with conscription, there are no tax increases explicitly levied to fund the wars, and there are few retaliatory attacks of consequence. Civil society, accordingly, remains quiescent, and while its members may be morally and intellectually opposed to the wars, the costs they face as a result of the wars are too mild and the threat of jail and trouble with the police that an effective resistance implies is too great, to allow a strong, effective and sustained anti-war movement to develop. It seems that so long as disruptions are kept to a minimum and most people’s lives are kept fairly comfortable and filled with family, friends and work, that naked imperialism and rule by governments with utter disdain for popular opinion are possible as the normal features of political life in an imperialist “democracy”.
Contrast the quietude of life in the aggressor countries with conditions in Iraq (little different from those in Afghanistan.)
It’s not only the hundreds of thousands of dead and 4 million refugees. After seven years of US (and British) occupation, tens of thousands are still tortured and imprisoned without trial, health and education has dramatically deteriorated, the position of women has gone horrifically backwards, trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is divided by 1,500 checkpoints and blast walls, electricity supplies have all but broken down and people pay with their lives for speaking out. (31)
And what was the reason for producing this humanitarian catastrophe? It wasn’t to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for Iraq’s WMDs would have posed little threat, if they existed, which they didn’t, when US and British troops invaded. Nor was it to eliminate a dictator. If it was, the costs — hundreds of thousands dead, four million refugees, and a destroyed society – can hardly be justified to eliminate a single man whose threat to the wider world was virtually nil. Neither was the reason for the 2003 invasion to guarantee access to the world’s energy supply so that Americans can continue to burn fossil fuels in their SUVs, run their power plants, keep their B2 bombers in the air, and continue to enjoy a standard of living based largely on petroleum. Yes, it’s true that the US standard of living depends on oil, but the United States is capable of satisfying its energy requirements through ready access to plentiful supplies of oil located elsewhere in the world and closer to home. Its next door neighbour, Canada — which is a virtual appendage of the United States — has the world’s largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia. No, the reasons for the invasion of Iraq weren’t WMDs, eliminating a dictator, and keeping the world’s oil supply out of the hands of radicals and extremists; the reason was to secure a bonanza of profits for US oil majors from the sale of Iraqi oil to Western Europe and Japan, the principal customers for oil from the Middle East. Energy profits – specifically those to be derived from transforming Afghanistan into “a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south” – figured in the decision to invade that country. In a business society where key decision-making posts in the state are filled by corporate executives, corporate lawyers and ambitious politicians backed by corporate money, is it really any surprise that its wars, much as almost everything else about it, are organized around the inexorable need of business to expand its capital?
All of this should leave us thinking about how much substance there is to the idea that we live in democracies of the many; of whether the democracies we live in are really democracies of, for, and by the few; and whose interests really matter. Other questions: How can the societies in which we live be made different? Who – and what — is standing in the way of real, meaningful change? And how might the roadblocks be swept away? Also: What conditions conduce to the mobilization of the mass energy necessary to bring about radical change? And what activities carried out when the conditions are not present can facilitate their emergence and prepare for the time they do emerge?
1. “Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency’”, UNICEF.org, August 12, 1999. http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm
2. Tim Arango, “War in Iraq defies U.S. timetable for end of combat”, The New York Times, July 2, 2010.
3. The New York Times, September 27, 2007.
4. Seumas Milne, “The US isn’t leaving Iraq, it’s rebranding the occupation”, The Guardian (UK), August 4, 2010.
6. Research Unit for Political Economy, Behind the Invasion of Iraq, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2003, pp. 97-98; Albert Szymanski, The Logic of Imperialism, Praeger, 1983, pp. 161-166.
7. David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2003.
8. Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No.3, August 2003.
11. V.G. Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism, Verso, 2005, pp. 293.
12. William Blum, ”The Anti-Empire Report”, August 4, 2010, http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer84.html
13. Elisabeth Bumiller, “The war: A trillion can be cheap”, The New York Times, July 24, 2010.
14. Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, “Several Afghan strategies, none a clear choice,” The New York Times, October 1, 2009.
15. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report”, December 9, 2009.
16. Naomi Klein, “Big Oil’s Iraq deals are the greatest stick-up in history,” The Guardian (UK), July 4, 2008.
17. The Observer (UK), September 16, 2007.
18. The Guardian (Australia), September 5, 2007.
19. Research Unit for Political Economy.
20. Sarah Lyall, “Ex-official says Afghan and Iraq wars increased threats to Britain”, The New York Times, July 20, 2010.
21. Haroon Siddique, “Iraq inquiry: Saddam posed very limited threat to UK, ex-MI5 chief says”, The Guardian (UK), July 20, 2010.
23. In April 2010, 39 percent of Canadians supported Canada’s military mission to Afghanistan, while 56 percent opposed it. “Support for Afghanistan Mission Falls Markedly in Canada,” http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/04/support-for-afghanistan-mission-falls-markedly-in-canada/
Two out of three Germans are opposed to the war, according to a poll in Stern magazine. Judy Dempsey, “Merkel tries to beat back opposition to Afghanistan”, The New York Times, April 22, 2010.
Some 72 per cent of Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately. William Dalrymple, “Why the Taliban is winning in Afghanistan”, New Statesman, June 22, 2010.
In the United States, public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans have turned against the war. Dexter Filkens, “Petraeus takes command of Afghan mission”, The New York Times, July 4, 2010.
A July 11 ABC/Washington Post poll, found just 42 percent of respondents said that the Afghan War was “worth fighting” — with a majority, 55 percent, saying they did not think it was. A CNN poll (5/29/10) found that 56 percent opposed the war in Afghanistan, while 42 percent supported it. In three surveys since July, the AP/GfKpoll has reported that at least 53 percent of respondents say they oppose the Afghanistan War. In September, 51 percent told the Washington Post/ABC News poll (9/10–12/09) that the war was not “worth fighting.”
Steve Rendall, “USA Today: Americans continue to support Afghan war—in 2001”, FAIR Blog, July 30, 2010.
25. Kiernan, p.302.
26. Kiernan, pp. 340-341.
April 23, 2010 § 2 Comments
By Stephen Gowans
There are two questions about the justice of any war. Are the reasons for fighting it just? Is it fought in a just way? When it comes to Canada’s involvement in the war on Afghanistan, it looks like the country fails on both counts.
Let me defer to the end the question of whether Canada’s participation in the US-led war on Afghanistan is just, noting only at this point that an April public opinion poll by the Canadian pollster Angus Reid shows that only 39 percent of Canadians support their country’s military mission in Afghanistan.  Take away an enormous propaganda effort to rally Canadians to support the war and these numbers would be smaller still. The propaganda effort has included a “wear red on Friday” campaign to “support our troops”, bumper stickers warning that anyone who doesn’t stand behind the troops shouldn’t dare stand in front of them, and the first intermission of the popular Hockey Night in Canada TV broadcast being transformed into an ongoing PR campaign for the Canadian Forces’ role in Afghanistan.
Hockey Night in Canada’s first intermission revolves around former National Hockey League coach Don Cherry, a pugnacious, inarticulate and bigoted blowhard, whose jingoist leitmotif is that Canada distinguishes itself on the world stage in two ways: by producing the world’s best hockey players and the world’s best soldiers. He has, ever since Canadian soldiers shipped out to Afghanistan, turned his Coach’s Corner segment into a platform for promoting unquestioning support of the Canadian military.
The more immediate question is whether Canadian troops have conducted themselves justly in the war, and specifically, whether they’ve been complicit in the torture of the Afghan militants they’ve captured. We do know that Afghan authorities have tortured prisoners. The question is: Did Canadian troops know that the captives they transferred to Afghan authorities would be abused? While we can’t at this point say for sure that that they did, what we do know fails to support Ottawa’s denials that they did.
Canadian troops have detained Afghans for years. They haven’t held the detainees in a Canadian detention facility, because no Canadian detention facility exists. No facility exists because Canada refuses to build one. Several countries and branches of the Afghan government have urged Ottawa to build its own prison in Afghanistan to get the notorious Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) out of the business of holding detainees. 
Numerous concerns have been raised about the NDS, and it is hardly a secret that the organization has a reputation for torturing prisoners.
In “September, 2006, near the beginning of the Canadian and British military operations in the south…a memo from [British] military lawyers describe[d] efforts to have a NATO-monitored prison facility opened and run in order to get the NDS out of the detainee-handling chain. The memo [said] that a desirable option would be to build a facility in an unused building in Kandahar, but… that the ‘proposal is meeting resistance from the Canadians and the Dutch.’” 
Documentation drawn from British military files alleged that “in six known cases in which Afghan captives [were] handed by British forces to the [NDS] prisons, including one in Canada’s military jurisdiction in Kandahar,” detainees had been “tortured using electric shocks, beatings with wires, whips and metal rods, sleep deprivation and cuts, between early 2007 and late 2008.” 
In 2007, both an Amnesty International report and investigation by the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail warned that the NDS was torturing captives turned over to them by Western forces. 
Richard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat who was posted to Afghanistan for 17 months, testified before a complaints commission that he had warned Ottawa that “the NDS tortures people. That’s what they do, so if we don’t want detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS.”  The commission, known as the Military Police Complaints Commission, was established after the Canadian military tried to cover up the torture of Somali captives by Canadian troops. Canada sent a military mission to Somalia in 1993.
Earlier, Colvin had told the Canadian parliament that he had informed Ottawa as early as May 2006 that the NDS was torturing prisoners. “According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.” 
But neither Colvin’s bosses nor the Canadian military were interested. It took a whole year before Ottawa changed its prisoner-transfer policy to allow “for follow-up visits to ensure detainees weren’t tortured.”  “But on February 11, 2009, Canada signed a letter along with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands” offering “to provide (NDS) intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh advance warning of monitoring trips to detention facilities.”  The advance warning would give the NDS time to cover up evidence of torture, allowing Ottawa to claim it had no evidence the NDS was abusing the captives Canadian troops were transferring to NDS custody. And when “the Red Cross tried to raise concerns about detainees with the Canadian army, the ‘Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls.’”  As further evidence that Ottawa was deliberately turning a blind eye, Colvin said “the Canadian government responded to his frequent warnings by telling him to stop writing these concerns into reports.” 
Earlier this month, Ahmadshah Malgarai, a Canadian citizen born in Afghanistan who worked as an interpreter for the Canadian army in Afghanistan, testified that “the (Canadian) military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture.” 
He said that Canadian soldiers transferred prisoners to Afghan officials knowing they would be tortured. “I saw Canadian military intelligence sending detainees to the NDS when the detainees did not tell them what they expected to hear.” He added that “If the [Canadian] interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture.” 
The response of the Canadian government to these allegations has been to stonewall requests for pubic access to documents that would show whether the Canadian military did indeed turn over prisoners to the NDS knowing they would be tortured.
Canada’s Parliament has demanded that the government make public thousands of pages of heavily censored documents. But the government refuses.
While it says it can’t publically disclose the documents for national security reasons, there are other reasons Ottawa might be reluctant to comply with Parliament’s order. Twenty-three years ago, Canada wrote the United Nations Convention against Torture into its criminal code. The convention prohibits the transfer of a prisoner to a state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” 
Given that there are substantial grounds for believing the NDS is torturing prisoners, and that Ottawa has received ample (though apparently unwelcome) warning that prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers to the NDS were being abused, public disclosure of the documents could open senior members of the Canadian government and top military brass to war crimes charges.
As Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom points out, “Technically, there seem to be grounds for charging Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former defence minister Gordon O’Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier and various others under both Section 269.1 of the Criminal Code and Canada’s Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act.” 
On top of complicating efforts to determine whether the Canadian government and military have committed war crimes, the Harper government’s refusal to comply with Parliament’s directive tramples “centuries of precedent [which] dictate[s] that Parliament is supreme in holding the government to account.” If Canada’s parliamentary speaker rules that the government is in contempt of Parliament, and the government continues to refuse to disclose documents in its possession, Canada’s whole system of government will have been undermined, according to University of Ottawa law professor, Errol Mendes. “The executive would no longer be accountable to the House of Commons.” 
Here, then, is what we know. Canadian troops are in the business of detaining and interrogating Afghan militants. They don’t hold the militants in Canadian-run detention facilities. There are none. Canada has been asked by several countries and Afghan government departments to build its own detention facilities in order to protect detainees from torture at the hands of the NDS. Canada refuses. Instead, the Canadian military transfers captives to the NDS, despite the organization’s notorious reputation for abusing prisoners. “If we don’t want detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS,” warns diplomat Richard Colvin. An Afghan who worked as a Canadian army interpreter testifies that Canadian interrogators transferred detainees they suspected of lying to the NDS, knowing the NDS would use torture. The Canadian government stonewalls demands for public disclosure of documents that could show whether the government and military were complicit in torture. The stonewalling places the government in contempt of Parliament. The fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy — that the executive is answerable to parliament — has been undermined. Does it seem likely, given this, that Ottawa and the Canadian military are innocent of all charges?
The justification for Canada’s involvement in the war on Afghanistan has never been strong. The US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was carried out in violation of international law. The claim that Afghanistan must be made safe against the return of al Qaeda holds no water. Al Qaeda’s operations can be planned practically anywhere, and have been. Crushing the Taliban, if that’s even possible, won’t stop al Qaeda. On the contrary, Western wars of aggression on Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, on top of military and diplomatic support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist forces, simply enrage more southwest Asians and north Africans, making it more likely they will be galvanized into action against Western aggression under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism or, in Afghanistan and Iran, under the banner of liberation from foreign occupation. For example, “There is no doubt among (US) intelligence officials that the barrage of attacks by CIA drones over the past year have made Pakistan’s Taliban…increasingly determined to seek revenge by finding any way possible to strike at the United States.”  The failed attempt of Faisal Shahzad to carry out a car bomb attack in Times Square is now seen as a possible revenge attack.
Canada’s Afghan mission represents complicity with the United States in predatory wars which do nothing to prevent the aggrieved of southwest Asia from striking out against the West and everything to increase the number of aggrieved.
And while Canadians have looked askance at the US-led war on Iraq, the minority that continues to support Canada’s Afghan mission should recognize that the mission they support – and the troops they support who carry out the mission — have assisted the United States by freeing up US troops to serve in Iraq. Canada, then, has made its own (indirect) contribution to an Iraq war which is unjustifiable on moral and legal grounds and, far from promoting or defending the interests of ordinary people in the United States, does the opposite. It is ordinary Americans who carry the burdens of fighting the wars and paying for them through their taxes and who bear the burdens of the retaliation the wars inevitably provoke.
Finally, while Canada’s Afghan mission is sometimes justified as necessary to defend the Karzai regime, who wants to defend a regime that beats prisoners with wires, whips and metal rods and hooks their genitals up to car batteries? Apparently the Canadian government does, and worse, appears to count on the Karzai regime’s torturers to act as an outsourced shop for torturing prisoners who don’t bend under the interrogation of the Canadian military.
If we consider that it’s not the Karzai government that exercises real power in Afghanistan — it’s the US-led occupation force that calls the shots — a critical question arises. Could the NDS’s regular use of torture continue without the occupation’s implicit support? The answer is obvious. No. That the NDS continues to use torture suggests that the practice is tolerated because it serves a purpose: it offers an outsourced means of torturing recalcitrant prisoners, allowing Western militaries to preserve a carefully cultivated but undeserved pristine image for conducting themselves justly in war. “We would never stoop to the brutality of torturing prisoners,” the Canadian military seems to say, (ignoring the 1993 torture of Somalis by Canadian troops) “but we’re perfectly willing to outsource torture to the NDS” (and provide advance notice of our monitoring visits to allow evidence of torture to be covered up.) 
On top of becoming embroiled in a conflict with no justification, and one which depletes the public purse of funds that could otherwise be used for humane purposes, it appears that Ottawa and the Canadian military are complicit in the torture of Afghans. Considering that the occupation’s rational is indefensible and that Afghans therefore have every right to resist the foreign troops who exercise the occupation, Canada’s probable complicity in the abuse of Afghans puts the Canadian government even more decisively on the wrong side of justice, morality and history. The war is doubly unjust. There are no defensible grounds for it, and the actions of Canada’s military in it, appear on the basis of what we know, to be criminal.
1. “Support for Afghanistan Mission Falls Markedly in Canada,” http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/04/support-for-afghanistan-mission-falls-markedly-in-canada/
2. Doug Saunders, “British officers recorded claims of detainee torture, memos reveal”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 20, 2010.
3. Doug Saunders, “Detainee-torture allegations spread to Britain”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 19, 2010.
4. Saunders, April 20.
5. Saunders, April 19.
7. Steven Chase, “Canada complicit in torture of innocent Afghans, diplomat says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 18, 2009.
9. Steven Chase, “Afghan detainee monitoring not undermined by offer of advanced notice, Ottawa insists”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 22, 2010. Ottawa says the letter was a “slip-up” and that the offer was retracted.
10. Chase, November 18.
12. Steven Chase, “Soldiers did not unlawfully shoot unarmed Afghan: Natynczyk”, The Globe & Mail (Toronto), April 16, 2010.
14. Thomas Walkom, “Walkom: Only the losers need to fear war-crime laws,” The Toronto Star, November 21, 2009.
16. John Ibbitson, “Historic ruling to decide who holds real power in Ottawa”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 20, 2010.
17. Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Evidence mounts for Taliban role in car bomb plot”, The New York Times, May 5, 2010.
18. The US-led occupation is also the de facto authority in Iraq. How is that, as Steven Lee Myers reported in the April 21, 2010 edition of The New York Times that “Torture and other abuses of prisoners are pervasive in Iraq”? (“Secret Baghdad jail held Sunnis from the north”). Myers reports that “An Iraqi security force under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s direct command held hundreds of detainees from northern Iraq in an undisclosed prison in Baghdad, torturing dozens of them” and that 505 cases of torture were recorded in 2009 alone. This raises questions about why the United States is supporting a government known to practice torture, and whether it tolerates the practice in order to use Iraqi security forces as an outsourced shop for the coercive extraction of information from captives through maltreatment.
The Guardian’s (UK) Mark Tran reported on April 28, 2010 (“Iraqis tortured at secret Baghdad prison, says watchdog”) that Human Rights Watch “had interviewed 42 men who were among about 300 detainees transferred from (a) secret facility” that “was under the jurisdiction of Maliki’s military office.”
According to the rights organization,
“The jailers suspended their captives handcuffed and blindfolded upside down by means of two bars, one placed behind their calves and the other against their shins. All had terrible scabs and bruising on their legs. The interrogators then kicked, whipped and beat the detainees. Interrogators also placed a dirty plastic bag over the detainee’s head to close off his air supply. Typically, when the detainee passed out from this ordeal, his interrogators awakened him with electric shocks to his genitals or other parts of his body.”
Wasn’t putting an end to ‘Saddam’s rape rooms and torture chambers’ one of the US pretexts for the invasion of Iraq? Perhaps an end has been put to Saddam’s torture chambers, but torture continues, now under the direction of a new local puppet. How is it that torture persists in the lands the US has ostensibly liberated in the name of human rights, if not through its complicity and (in Afghanistan) that of Canada and other errand-boys of US foreign policy?
Last updated May 6, 2010.
November 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
Despite revelations of complicity in major human rights abuses, Canada takes lead role in U.N. rebuke of Iran.
By Stephen Gowans
Canada sponsored on November 20 a U.N. General Assembly Resolution censuring Iran for human rights abuses, only three days after a senior Canadian diplomat testified before a Canadian House of Commons committee that the Canadian military had been complicit in the torture of Afghans.
Richard Colvin, who served 17 months in Afghanistan, testified that Afghans who were detained by Canadian soldiers were tortured after they were turned over to Afghan authorities. Colvin says that when he raised the matter with higher authorities, he was ignored and later told to remain silent.
In his testimony, Colvin asked Canadian members of parliament, “If we are complicit in the torture of Afghans in Kandahar, how can we credibly promote human rights in Tehran or Beijing?” 
As early as May 2006, Colvin informed Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, then-commander of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, that he had reason to believe ”the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured.” 
Despite repeated attempts to red-flag his concerns to higher authorities, Colvin was ignored. Then in April 2007, he received “written messages from the senior Canadian government co-ordinator for Afghanistan to the effect that (he) should be quiet and do what (he) was told.” 
Canada had defended its transfer policy, arguing that if detainees were tortured, the Red Cross would let Canadian military officials know. But Colvin testified that when the Red Cross tried to alert the Canadian military, the “Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls.” 
After Colvin raised the alarm, it took more than a year for Ottawa to negotiate a new transfer agreement. Under the new agreement, Canadian officials were able to visit detainees to determine whether they were being tortured. An Afghan human rights organization that receives funding from the Canadian government, reported this year that 98 percent of detainees are tortured, an indication that torture continues, despite the amended transfer agreement. 
While Colvin condemned Canada’s complicity in torture on the grounds that it is “a very serious violation of international and Canadian law” and is “a war crime,”  the Canadian media have largely overlooked the principal wrong, focusing instead on how the revelation could strengthen the insurgency and complicate efforts to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. That Canada’s military has committed a serious violation of international law – a war crime — is barely acknowledged.
Colvin is partly to blame for deflecting attention from the principal crime to tactical considerations. In his testimony, he offered four reasons Canadians ought to care about Afghan detainees being tortured. (That he felt he had to offer any reason, is shocking.) Violating Canadian and international law ranked only second. What concerned Colvin more – and what the Canadian media have picked up on as the principal crime – is that most of the detainees were “innocent,” that is, weren’t insurgents. In other words, implicit in much of the media coverage, and Colvin’s testimony, is the idea that the real scandal isn’t that detainees were tortured, but that the wrong people were tortured, and that this strengthens the insurgency by turning large numbers of Afghans, who would have otherwise acquiesced to the occupation, against it. Based on the additional concern Colvin has shown for the “farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants” and “random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time; young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up,”  torturing those who resist a foreign military occupation isn’t the problem; it’s the torture of “innocents” that is troubling, and it’s troubling because it stirs up the natives. Canadian soldiers, then, are being criticized, not, as they should be, for committing a war crime, but for acting in a way that undermines the mission’s goal of pacifying the Afghan population.
The use of the word “innocents” to describe those who aren’t resisting occupation, and by implication, “guilty” for those who are, is a criminalization of a behavior that, while inconvenient to the goals of the Canadian military in helping to enforce U.S. domination of Afghanistan, is hardly criminal at all. It is what some part of a population will reliably do, and has every right to do, when confronted by an uninvited foreign military presence. Complicity in the torture of insurgents is every bit as much a crime as complicity in the torture of non-insurgents.
As other Western countries, Canada presents itself as having the moral authority to call non-Western nations to account for human rights abuses. Its condemnations, however, are selective, directed exclusively at countries that resist Western domination, while passing over those that are firmly within the orbit of U.S. imperialism. Canada is prepared to censure Iran, Zimbabwe and China, but not Haiti (where it acts as part of a foreign occupation force), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and countries of North Africa, despite regular and flagrant human rights violations in these countries. It is difficult to understand how a country that participates in the military occupation of Afghanistan for reasons that are contrived and indefensible, joined an unprovoked and illegal air war against Yugoslavia in 1999, is complicit in torture, and has treated its aboriginal people abominably, has the moral authority to lecture anyone on human rights.
By contrast, Iran, the object of Canada’s censure, hasn’t attacked any country in the modern era, doesn’t act as a janissary to an imperialist bully, and isn’t complicit in torture as an occupying force in foreign territory.
Were Canada genuinely interested in promoting human rights it would have long ago sponsored U.N. General Assembly resolutions to censure the United States for its notorious abuses of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at the largest U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, Bagram air base, where US “military personnel who know Bagram and the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, describe the Afghan site as tougher and more Spartan” and where “many are still held communally in big cages.”  But, then, the abuse of prisoners carried out in the service of U.S. foreign policy goals doesn’t seem to rank high on Canada’s list of human rights violations.
Canadian officials defend their country’s military presence in Afghanistan as necessary to back up the “democratic” government of Hamid Karzai, and yet Karzai’s government routinely tortures prisoners, and without the slightest censure by Canada in international forums. Karzai recently won a second term as president in an election marred by fraud engineered in part by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a C.I.A. operative who is “a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade.”  While vote fraud in the last presidential election in Iran is only alleged, and without much supporting evidence, the fraudulent nature of the last Afghan presidential election is nowhere in dispute.  The Afghan president should be denounced as a dictator, (and would be, were he not a puppet of the United States and therefore immune from the demonizing criticism the Western media and Western governments dole out to leaders of countries that resist U.S. control and domination.) And yet, far from censuring the Afghan government for its human rights abuses and vote fraud, Canada helps prop up the country’s deeply unpopular government through an illegitimate military presence.
Despite calls in parliament for an inquiry into Colvin’s allegations, the Canadian government refuses to pursue the matter publicly, preferring instead to engage in attempts to discredit Colvin as unreliable, an effort undermined by its having seen fit to appoint him to a senior diplomatic post in Washington. Ottawa insists there is no evidence that Afghan officials tortured detainees turned over by Canadian soldiers. But the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, which receives substantial funding from the Canadian government, reported this year that a survey it conducted of detention center inmates found that 98 percent had been tortured. 
On top of complicity in the torture of the people of a country it is guilty of participating in an indefenesible military occupation of, the Canadian government is guilty of torturing the truth, in the service of the fiction that it has the moral authority to rebuke other countries for their human rights abuses. We in the West, and particularly those of us in Canada, ought to be more concerned about the behavior of the Canadian government and its military, than of the Iranian government, whose censurable activities (related to political survival in the face of an overthrow movement Western powers have had a hand in organizing ) are by far the lesser crimes, if indeed, they can even be called crimes.
Canada, then, is waging an unjust war, within which, the evidence suggests, it has committed a war crime. On top of this, it has been silent on the crimes and human rights abuses of its Western allies and non-Western countries that operate, as it does, under the umbrella of U.S. imperialism.
The only way Canada can begin to establish moral authority is to withdraw from Afghanistan, offer restitution to the Afghans it has been complicit in the torture of, and hold the United States, Britain, Israel and other allies to account for their crimes and human rights abuses. And that’s just for starters. It also needs to refrain from sponsoring movements to overthrow governments, such as Iran’s, that pursue an independent course outside the domination of other countries. (Tehran’s arrest of political activists who have sought, with Western assistance and encouragement, to overthrow the Ahmadinejad government, would never have happened had Canada and other Western countries not interfered in Iran’s affairs by financing regime change NGOs.) Until Ottawa makes these amends, its censure of Tehran remains tantamount to Dracula rebuking a mosquito for feasting on human blood.
1. “Transcript: Explosive testimony on Afghan detainees,” The Canadian Press, November 18, 2009.
2. Steve Chase, “Canada complicit in torture of innocent Afghans, diplomat says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 2009.
5. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, “Many detainees were just farmers, Afghan official says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 20, 2009.
6. “Transcript: Explosive testimony on Afghan detainees,” The Canadian Press, November 18, 2009.
8. Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon seeks prison overhaul in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, July 20. 2009.
9. Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan leader is said to be on C.I.A payroll,” The New York Times, October 28, 2009.
10. Stephen Gowans, “When election fraud is met by congratulations,” What’s Left, November 3, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/when-electoral-fraud-is-met-by-congratulations/
11. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, “Many detainees were just farmers, Afghan official says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 20, 2009.
12. Stephen Gowans, “The role and aims of US democracy promotion in the attempted color revolution in Iran,” What’s Left, July 4, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/the-role-and-aims-of-us-democracy-promotion-in-the-attempted-color-revolution-in-iran/