Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Afghanistan turning against occupiers: shifting modes of legitimacy for imperialism.

A recent study by the Senlis Council of Afghanistan's southern provinces finds that support for the Taliban is soaring. Not merely hostility to Nato forces - open support for the Taliban, a bunch so cruel and tyrannical that even the vicious, torturing, murdering warlords of the Northern Alliance seem preferable to many.

A military threat and a challenge to imperial legitimacy
The Senlis Council surveyors say that open support for the Taliban is 27%, but that they expect the real figure is much higher because of a reluctance to admit such sympathies to a Westerner. They find that only a fifth of respondents in areas under international control think the troops are helping them, and only 6% of respondents in areas under US control think so. Further, in the US controlled territory of Nangarhar, 51% openly call for the troops to go home, and 87% oppose the US response to the insurgency. 80% overall are worried about feeding their families, reflecting the damage to vital infrastructural lifelines inflicted by the ongoing military assault. More than 70% have no confidence in the Karzai government. And 71% know how to fire guns.

This has the Canadian military worried, for while it reflects especially badly on the US military it does no favours to the international forces either. Military leaders point out that although they can defeat the insurgents body-for-body, every death creates fifteen more recruits. The number of bomb attacks on troops has tripled over the last two years. On the domestic side, most populations in the occupying countries demand withdrawal: in the United States, Britain, Canada, Italy and Germany.

Of good wars and bad leftists.
All of this is brings a few conclusions to the fore. On the one hand, how vicious and despotic does the occupation have to be to drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban? Secondly, for how long can people continue to believe in the healing powers of imperialism? Millions of people would once have entertained the belief that, however risky or bad military operations can be, it probably couldn't be much worse than the Taliban or Saddam, but no longer do. Afghanistan was for a long time 'the good war', the one that most Americans supported long after the Iraq adventure turned foul. The profound, decades-long consensus that American imperialism can be a benign affair, and that it is America's role to help the world and bring democracy to blighted corners of the planet, has taken a serious knock. Thirdly, these polls from Iraq and Afghanistan are a problem for the occupiers, but not because they want to cuddle the natives: it is because the whole basis for the new imperialism's legitimacy is that it can be carried off with the overwhelming support of oppressed people who will welcome their country being converted into an extended US/Nato outpost. The polls say they want us here, like what we've done, appreciate the presence of McDonalds restaurants - and, by the way, look at the little democracy we staged for them. How can you spoiled Western socialists be so cruel as to oppose them?

Recall the Ministry of Defense's internal report emphasising the need to use "emotional attachment to the outside world, fuelled by immediate and graphic media coverage, and a public desire to see the UK act as a force for good" to galvanise "public support, and possibly public demand, for operations prompted by humanitarian motives" which will be "vital to the conduct of military interventions". You can bet that American state planners and policymakers have studied this topic intensively as well, probably for much longer than the British government. This will be shared wisdom at NATO HQ too. When Times editor Peter Stothard was invited into Blair's inner circle to chronicle a wartime bio of the Prime Minister, he discovered how they contemptuously referred to the need to "Kofi it up" - that is, to sell a strategic policy to Labour backbenchers, it was necessary to manipulate their sentimental attachment to the UN and 'humanitarian' imperialism.

The triangulations of Christopher Eric Hitchens.
There will be no end of attempts to resuscitate this impulse, and it is by no means dead, but both Blair and Bush have reverted to a different rhetoric. Blair's talk of an 'arc of extremism' or a 'bungalow of belligerence' or whatever it is these days, complements Bush's claims that if we withdraw, there could be another 9/11. Now, Bush didn't invent that line: it has been the recourse of foaming neoconservatives and opportunists like Hitchens for years. Hitchens' didactic skills are increasingly taking the form of advertising slogans, as per his swift turnaround on Abu Ghraib which, despite early suspicions of government collusion that he couldn't dispel, he was quick to brand a "prison mutiny". In his alchemic logic, no WMDs is proof of WMDs, while a humanitarian disaster simply proves the evil of the enemy (tautologically, nothing the American government does is ever their fault - it has always been forced on them by a terrible foe, or is the result of insubordination or poor planning by some rotten apple). But that is part of the usefulness of neoconservatives - they are conspicuous by their triangulating insistence that whatever the President is doing is either a moral stance on behalf of the superiority of liberal democracy or a necessary security measure or a humanitarian comfort to the victims of some form of fascism. Having been forced to cede the humanitarian angle, and being eventually prepared to give up the idea of anything resembling democracy in Iraq, they are now clustered on the third pole: our security against Third World bandits and fanatics, who will eventually get to us if we leave them a base. From there, one can make happenstance advances on the other points of the triangle - that it would be a moral failure to allow them such a space, that it would expose us to legitimate ridicule of being weak and decadent and easy prey for a few more plane attacks; that however bad things are now, if we leave Iraq and Afghanistan to such people, we have to expect the worst, up to and including genocide. Superficially plausible yet immune to factual correction, this resourceful and fateful triangle is so capacious and flexible that Generalplan Ost could have been executed under its rubric.