The Political Economy of Afghanistan

The Political Economy of Afghanistan:
Unthinkable Thoughts and Unprintable Words

Morgan Duchesney


This article deals with unthinkable thoughts and unprintable words in addressing some very inconvenient facts about some of the unspoken reasons that NATO, including Canada, invaded Afghanistan in 2002. I am writing about, “unthinkable thoughts” and operating outside the safe realm of “unspoken presupposition.” The unspoken presupposition in this case is the idea that the U.S. and now Canada have an unrestricted right to employ violence in Afghanistan for political and economic purposes and that anyone who questions this right is an enemy of democracy. Prolific dissident writer and thinker Noam Chomsky phrases it aptly in his 2007 book What We Say Goes – Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World:

“One of the most effective devices is to encourage debate, but within a system of unspoken presuppositions that incorporate the basic principles of the doctrinal systems. These principles are therefore removed from inspection; they become the framework for thinkable thought, not objects of rationale consideration.”

I don’t profess to possess the complete truth about why the U.S invaded Afghanistan in 2002 with help from Britain, Canada and other NATO forces. What is clear to me is that the current situation is not really a war, but the aftermath of an invasion. UN resolutions and NATO involvement notwithstanding, an invasion occurred, minus any legal declaration of war. “Legal” wars are waged state against state. The current violence in Afghanistan, if it must be defined, is actually a counterinsurgency campaign waged by outside powers bent on arranging the affairs of a poor country to suit their own economic and geopolitical needs. A violent group of Islamic militants called the Taliban are the designated enemy. There is nothing new about this type of scenario. In fact, it follows an established pattern of U.S. meddling in the affairs of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here are a few reasons for Canada’s presence in Afghanistan whose predictability is matched only by the degree to which their publication is muted and otherwise suppressed. All of the points I make are related to Canadian appeasement of the U.S. government and the transnational business interests they serve.

- Canada is in Afghanistan rather than Iraq to appease our powerful U.S. allies. The Afghanistan counter-insurgency, with its lower casualty rate and NATO approval, is more politically viable than the Iraq quagmire.
- Afghanistan is unfortunately located at the centre of a group of oil and natural gas producers such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. The U.S. government and the transnational corporations they serve must control access to these resources.
- Afghanistan itself has considerable natural resources and must not be allowed to control its own resources. Hence, the Afghan people are saddled with the inept and corrupt puppet government of Karzai who was elected only after being “selected” by the U.S. government because of his public support of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
- Afghanistan is located at the centre of three nuclear powers: China, Pakistan and India. There is no love between India and Pakistan and the economies of China and India are expanding at a phenomenal pace. The U.S. government must maintain a military presence near its main rival China for a number of reasons that are worth mentioning but are beyond the scope of this article. I refer to the technological, military and economic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. It is supremely ironic that China’s state-controlled command economy has proven more stable than that of the U.S. that has traditionally been the bastion of economic vigour and stability. A good recent example of the dangerous practical implications of this new reality is the fact that Pakistan’s current economic crisis may be alleviated with economic assistance from China because the U.S. cannot currently afford to subsidize its South Asian client state.

To justify and hide the main reasons for its military presence in that unfortunate country, the Canadian government is pretending to believe that that Taliban are a genuine threat to the West. The excellent humanitarian work of Canadian soldiers and aid workers is being used as an emotional smokescreen to discourage dissent and mute critics through a cheap and transparent appeal to emotion. A 2011 withdrawal date for Canadian troops was announced by the Conservative government during the recent election but this date may prove as flexible as the Prime Minister’s generous interpretation of the vaunted new fixed election law.

Ostensibly, NATO (mainly the U.S.) attacked and invaded Afghanistan to root out and destroy the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. This is the unspoken presupposition. The reality, however, may be different and urges three other possible reasons: Afghanistan is strategically situated between the three regional nuclear powers – China, Pakistan and India. It is important that the U.S. maintain a strong military presence to exert influence in this most volatile region. Secondly, there are abundant natural resources in Afghanistan, and Khandahar province was supposed to be a conduit for Turkmenstanian natural gas in 1998. Finally, someone had to publicly pay for 9/11 and the Taliban had made the mistake of sheltering al-Qaeda. The fact that they offered to surrender Osama bin Laden to a third country, if they could find him, was rejected by the Bush administration and this offer was not publicized.

There is some recent evidence to indicate that the Muslim world does not hate the U.S. for cultural reasons but instead deeply resents U.S. interference in issue like the endless Palestinian/Israeli conflict. According to a 2007 University of Maryland survey by political scientists Peter Furia and Russell Lucas, “[they found]…no evidence that ordinary Arabs resent countries for what they are, and considerable evidence that they resent them for what they do.” (Basham, 2008 in Ottawa Citizen, July 31, 2008) Organizations like al-Qaeda owe their existence to this simmering resentment. The more radical and militant Islamist groups like the Taliban do not represent the views or intentions of the majority of Muslims. Ironically, however, these groups have become very useful to the U.S. government as it seeks to legitimize its global military interventions and support of oppressive regimes. It is not surprising that the U.S. government would support and arm the Taliban in one era and use their behaviour to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in another. The U.S. government has been operating this way since the end of WW II with no end in sight. George W. Bush has been quoted as believing that U.S. policy actually creates reality.

Prior to the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the U.S. government did not consider it problematic that no serious evidence existed linking Osama bin Laden to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The 2002 Afghan bombing campaign proceeded with unrelenting fury and at a high cost in civilian life. The following account of FBI thinking on the matter is as disturbing as it is revealing. In a June 6, 2002 Washington Post story written by Walter Pincus fully eight months after the 9/11 attacks, FBI chief Robert Mueller stated that “…[the idea] may have been hatched in Afghanistan, but it was probably implemented in the Gulf Emirates and in Germany.” The fact that the head of the FBI feels free to make a casual statement like this while Afghanistan was being heavily bombed and attacked speaks volume about the presumptuous nature of U.S. power and the irrelevance of human life in its calculations.

For that matter, there is serious doubt about Osama bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan in 2002. He may have been there but he had also been reported to be in Sudan and Pakistan and I don’t believe anyone in authority really knew where he was at any given time. An August 2, 2008, Mike Blanchfield’s story in the Ottawa Citizen states that bin Laden is, “likely living in the tribal areas that have become the new centre for the reconstituted al-Qaeda…” Mr. Blanchfield’s story quotes the work of journalist Ahmed Rashid and Rand Corporation researcher Seth Jones but offers no conclusive evidence of Bin Laden’s exact whereabouts. Guesswork of this nature is the norm in mainstream print media reportage. I have searched the Canadian print media in vain for evidenced claims of Bin Laden’s precise location and found reports full of words like maybe, likely and probably. It is reasonable to assume that the U.S. military is keen to find and either kill or capture this elusive figure. It is also conceivable that he is being suffered to live as a convenient bogeyman in the so-called War on Terror. It is difficult to accept that the U.S. government, with billons to spend on high tech surveillance and intelligence gathering; could fail to find this man if they have not already found him and are simply pretending ignorance to maintain the domestic climate of fear.

The Taliban were probably sympathetic to the anti-Western stance of al-Qaeda but they were certainly aware of the grim price to be paid by anyone suspected of harboring a notorious U.S. foe like Osama bin Laden. They could not have missed the lesson of the Shock and Awe spectacle of Gulf War I and the message it carried to potential U.S. opponents. Crushing the Taliban became a convenient reason to excuse the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden failed to materialize. U.S. authorities demanded that the Taliban surrender Bin Laden in spite of the fact that they were unwilling to provide any evidence of his presence in Afghanistan. It is not unreasonable to assume that the U.S. government had to make a grand show of force somewhere and it certainly wasn’t going to bomb Germany or the United Arab Emirates – far too close to Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. ally and the former home of Osama bin Laden and his wealthy family.

In addition to assisting the U.S. with its geopolitical and economic goals in Afghanistan, there are other possible reasons that the Canadian government chose to send combat troops to Afghanistan and not Iraq. These reasons are purely political and quite cynical. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien was aware that he would suffer electorally for sending troops to Iraq so he refused and made public proclamations of Canada’s “independent” foreign policy. The compromise was Afghanistan where the lower casualty rate would allow the Canadian government to lengthen its commitment at a relatively low cost in blood. This would allow the Canadian government to simultaneously appease the U.S. and the Canadian public while restoring the tarnished image of the Canadian Forces as a war fighting entity. In this way Canada will have served its purpose as a U.S. subordinate or client state. At some point, the Canadian Forces and probably the Dutch and British will leave Afghanistan. As stated before, the recently announced withdrawal date for Canada is February 2009, but this inevitable exit is naturally subject to political expediency. I repeat this for emphasis because of the announcement’s strategic placement in the Conservative government’s election platform that was tailored to appease Quebec voters who largely oppose Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.

As the publicly stated reasons for NATO’s invasion don’t match the underlying reasons, the stated intentions are unlikely to be accomplished. I refer to humanitarian assistance and the creation of “democracy” for Afghanistan. The possibility of achieving Western-style liberal democracy in a place like Afghanistan seems remote because the presence of a genuine participatory democracy might actually be an impediment to U.S. domination of this devastated nation. What if the Afghan people voted to remove all foreign influences from their country? They have a long history of expelling invaders and occupiers with dispatch and considerable violence.

An Associated Press article reprinted in a December 1, 2002 issue of the Globe and Mail provides a practical economic reason for the Canadian and even NATO military presence in Afghanistan that goes beyond the possibility that the Taliban were harboring al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda were and are a terrorist threat to the West. I believe that public discourse regarding these practical and less ethical reasons for our presence in Afghanistan is being actively suppressed. As early as 1997, U.S. oil giant Unocal was interested in building a natural gas pipeline through southern Afghanistan but hesitated because the U.S. military was pursuing Osama Bin Laden in that country by firing cruise missiles into Afghanistan. The region was just too unstable to risk such a venture. The pipeline would have shipped natural gas from Turkmenistan through southern Afghanistan into Pakistan. In the future, if the pipeline is built, perhaps China will be the customer. The proposed $3.2 billion Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline would have run through Khandahar province, where Canadian troops are now active. Such an undertaking requires an, “...indefinite foreign military presence in Afghanistan,” (Associated Press: December 1, 2002) Pacification tactics have been a key resource control strategy throughout the history of colonialism. To sum it up: Canada helps pacify Afghanistan for general U.S. good will and the profit of at least one U.S. oil company and the political/economic elite of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rest is window-dressing created to manufacture our consent or at least minimize public protest over the mounting Canadian casualties.

The employment of military force to ensure Western access to Third World natural resources is an established policy of the U.S. government. The cliché’ goes, “What is our oil doing under their sand?” As James Baker, George Bush senior’s secretary of state said of U.S. foreign policy:

“I’ve been in four administrations...and (in) every one of those administrations we had a written policy that we would go to war to defend secure access to the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf.”( Jacob Berkowitz in the July 14, 2007 Ottawa Citizen) In light of this comment it is not much of a stretch to assume that the U.S., Canada and Britain would use military force to control the passage of natural gas through Afghanistan. While we don’t need the gas, it is important that we control access to it.”

As well, it was reported in the May 17, 2008 Ottawa Citizen that the government of Afghanistan is auctioning off its vast oil, gas and mineral resources to Western and Chinese corporations. Concerning Afghanistan’s $88 billion copper deposits, “A 30-year lease was sold to the China Metallurgical Group for $ 3 billion.” (Ottawa Citizen, May 17, 2008, pg. A13.) I can’t imagine that the government of Canada (liberal or conservative - it doesn’t matter) was not aware of the Afghanistan’s natural resources prior to the insertion of Canadian troops or that securing these resources was not a factor in the decision to send Canadian combat troops to Afghanistan. Working people in the developing world usually derive some benefit from natural resource extraction. However, the bulk of the profits are reaped by the foreign corporations responsible for their extraction.

The excellent humanitarian efforts of Canada’s soldiers are commendable, but have been arranged as a public relations exercise to distract attention from the three-pronged mission of establishing a strong U.S. military presence in this geopolitically-vital and unstable region value, securing Afghanistan for the extraction of its natural resources, and demonstrating the consequences of actively opposing the will of the U.S. government. Soldiers don’t create public policy. If they did, the Canadian Armed Forces might be active in other locations of less geopolitical and economic importance. There are many war-torn nations, like Burma, in dire need of NATO military intervention but they lack the key qualification of possessing sufficiently vital natural resources or strategic location.

Morgan Duchesney is an Ottawa writer and martial arts instructor with an interest in social justice and international affairs. He holds an MA in
Political Economy from Carleton University.