The United Nations, the United States and the War In Afghanistan: Prospects for Peace, Prospects for War?

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"The United Nations, the United States and the War

In Afghanistan: Prospects for Peace, Prospects for War?"

By Michael O’Loughlin

(Salisbury Unitarian Fellowship, October 25, 2009)


My remarks today will try to address a number of questions, the answers to which many of you perhaps already know but it may remain useful to review part of their logic and test whether our answers are good ones.

The questions: First, what is US policy towards Afghanistan and what are the principle reasons for that policy? How does the instrument of war and the use of the military fit in that policy?

Second, given present policy, what can we anticipate for the near term future of policy, i.e., can we have any confident prediction of what may happen in the next couple of years, at least until the next presidential election, where Obama’s War may have serious consequences affecting his chances for reelection?

A third question: What is the role of the United Nations in all of this, relevant to US policy and NATO? What is its future?

Finally, a fourth question that is always on our agenda: In the light of all of this analysis, or perhaps in spite of it, what should US policy be; what should the UN be doing, if anything, in Afghanistan?

The Contours of US Policy

In an important sense, US policy towards Afghanistan fits well within the overall pattern of the history of US foreign policy. A history largely of imperial policy with the US a dominant powerful state shaping relationships with other client states across the globe, much in the same fashion as the age of European Empire of the 19th century. Once our government has determined that a particular region and set of nation states are important to the national interest then the resources of the state are directed at creating the political and economic conditions in the client state and region that will accommodate and advance the self-identified interests of the United States. The “resources” used to pursue that policy cover the spectrum from the manipulation of political and diplomatic tools through foreign economic aid and including foreign military aid and outright use of force.

In the colonial-client state relationship, among other decisions to be made, is of course the decision as to whether the existing regime in the client state should be supported or opposed: regime maintenance or “regime change?” Once that decision is made in some fundamental fashion, a policy of support or opposition is developed and strategies and tactics laid out to achieve one of those ends.

Clearly, the Middle East has been and remains a critical area of interest for US foreign policy and our interest has moved eastward as well towards Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. In brief, regarding Afghanistan, as an historical matter, US policy has shifted radically over the course of time: Beginning in the 1980s, we were in opposition to the Afghan Government, so much so that we militarily supported the Mujahedeen aiming for the overthrow of that Soviet-backed government.

With the successful overthrow of that government, and the rise of the Taliban in control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration pursued a policy of accommodation with the Taliban, falling short of full support but offering a willingness to deal with the existing regime. To be sure, both “carrot and stick” tactics were directed at that regime, but, still, overtures for accommodation were clear and forthcoming.

Indeed, a policy of accommodation continued under the Bush Administration into the summer of 2001. Of course, this accommodation was abruptly ended with the attacks of September 2001. As a consequence of the Al Qaeda attacks, the US shifted policy once again, radically, this time using the military weapon of an invasion that helped to produce “regime change”, i.e., the toppling of the Taliban government and the insertion of a regime to our liking, highly dependent of course on our military, economic and political support.

Today, eight years after the beginning of the war that led to the overthrow of the Taliban, the US government remains, apparently, committed to retaining some kind of Afghan Government that will be friendly to our desires and can be stable enough to ensure that our desires, our “interests” are protected and advanced. As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates told reporters at a NATO meeting just yesterday, “…I assured the allies this morning and will state again this afternoon that the United States has no intention of pulling out of Afghanistan or abandoning our core mission there, a mission we deem critical to our national security and vital national interests. “ i

In this respect, a continuation of the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda may be unnecessary for this purpose. “Partners” in policy may be multiple rather than singular, i.e., Hamad Kharzai may fall from favor as the favorite son of US policy makers and a rapprochement with other tribal leaders and even the dreaded Taliban may come into the offing.

Indeed, the present spectacle of US soldiers fighting and dying for a government that has likely been elected through fraud, raises serious doubts regarding the legitimacy and viability of the Kharzai government. Should Obama try to shore up this government financially and militarily and agree to 40,000 or more combat troops, in effect, pursuing a Bush policy of a “surge” and in effect ramping up the war? Or, does the US cut its losses and seek a negotiated settlement wherein the Government settles for somewhat less control over the “client” government but have sufficient leverage to obtain strategic goals in the region?ii

Desires and Interests

The answer or perhaps the prediction on the question “Whither US policy” depends largely on our analysis of the motivations for our policy: Why are we there in the first place and what, if anything, will keep us there? Two factors, perhaps, best explain both the invasion and the continuing presence of US forces in the country, though, falling short of guaranteeing a war policy.

The first factor, though with less historical standing than the second, is of course the pursuit and desired destruction of Al Qaeda and associated Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as the Taliban, that have either been allied with Al Qaeda or ideologically sympathetic to their version of a Pan Islamic vision.

The Bush Administration’s invasion of the country which historically followed the cruise missile attacks on Al Qaeda training campus during the Clinton years, was in part motivated by the 2001 attacks and the attempt to establish a regime that would cut those ties and prevent any safe haven for Al Qaeda and related groups.

This, I believe, remains a continuing factor in shaping Obama’s policy as well. Can we destroy Al Qaeda? If so, let’s do it; if not, let’s create and support a government that can effectively keep such organizations out of the country and chronically weakened so that the US homeland and its assorted interests around the world will face little danger of effective attack and sabotage from such groups.

Factor Two: The Strategic Interest in Energy Resources

A second factor and perhaps the most important factor in keeping US political and military forces in the area, long after Al Qaeda has spent its energy, is Afghanistan’s strategic geographical position and relationship to the rich oil and gas resources of the region, particularly those associated with the Caspian Sea, which are critical to the well-being and prosperity of the West, including both the US and the Western European countries. The Caspian Sea basin is believed to be the second or third largest location for oil and gas reserves. Holding an estimated 200 billion barrels of oil, it ranks high among valued regions of energy resources. iii

This reality by itself would be reason enough to explain US policy but the additional reality of the emerging “peak oil” moment raises the stakes even higher. As most of you know, “peak oil” generally refers to the rapidly approaching moment when production of that precious energy resource reaches its highest production possible, with future years witnessing declines from that peak.

This means an inevitable serious clash between increasing demand the world over and declining oil resources in production. The strategic interests of nation states are of course related to access to sufficient supplies of energy for their economies. Hence, states which either have rich supplies of energy resources or are adjacent to or situated in between other such states, become prized clients of more powerful states such as the US, Britain, Russia and China that have huge and growing thirsts for oil and gas.

Afghanistan has no significant oil reserves in its territory. However, the country is geographically important for the transportation of oil and gas from the growing Caspian Sea oil deposits to ports south and west. As one Canadian analyst recently wrote, “Afghanistan is adjacent to Middle Eastern countries that are rich in oil and natural gas. And though Afghanistan may have little petroleum itself, it borders both Iran and Turkmenistan, countries with the second and third largest natural gas reserves in the world. (Russia is first.)iv

Looking at the map, we can see the potential of Afghanistan’s value to western economies if it can develop an efficient pipeline across the country particularly from Turkmenistan to the south. Presently, both China and Russia have pipelines going both east and north, respectively. Joining the “pipeline competition”, the US and western countries wish to construct a pipeline through Afghanistan, thus, getting in on the energy resources of this region.

The particular project has taken shape recently, apparently, involving four countries: Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the building of the so called TAPI pipeline. v

US and western corporate interests, energy interests and US government officials have long expressed interest in this region of the world and pipeline prospects for the efficient flow of energy resources westward. As Michael Klare notes, the importance of this region gets elevated in a State Department report of 1997 to the US Congress. Regarding policy, in brief, the report urges that policy aim “to promote rapid development of Caspian energy resources” so as to “reinforce Western energy security.” vi

In an echo of this linkage between this source of energy and “national security interests” Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State under Bill Clinton’s presidency, indicated that any impediment blocking US energy company access to “ an area that sits on as much as 200 billion barrels of oil” “would matter profoundly to the United States.”

Shortly after that statement, Bill Clinton himself expressed the same logic when he commented on positive negotiations with the government of Azerbaijian for tapping its oil resrouces. Clinton stated the following:

“In a world of growing energy demand, our nation cannot afford to rely on any single region for our energy supplies. [Through our agreements with Azerbaijan] we not only help Azerbaijan to prosper, we also help diversity our energy supply and strengthen our nation’s security.” vii

Indeed, the very next year, exhibiting a note of consensus among political elites that would be acted upon three years later, none other than Dick Cheney said that

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