Monday, November 02, 2009
Or you could talk about the regional apocalypse that is developing within the bloody embrace of NATO and Obama-style multilateralism. I wish it were redundant to spend too much time talking about the terrorising of the Afghan population by the occupiers, but it plainly isn't. Johann Hari sometimes does a good job of drawing attention to the humanitarian consequences of the war. Here, he notes that according to Lt Col Kilcullen, in recent aerial attacks the US has killed 98 civilians for every two 'insurgents' killed. If that ratio holds for the air war as a rule, then consider that the US is currently boasting of having killed up to 25,000 insurgents. 25k is 2% of 1.25m. Lacking a Lancet-style cluster survey, one can only make an educated guess as to whether such a figure is approximately realistic. There was one cluster survey carried out for the first nine months of the invasion and occupation, which estimated that 10,000 civilians had been killed, the majority from air attacks. A similar survey today would be reporting the effects of a far more intense aerial campaign, in a war lasting for eight years now. Who can say that the soaring use of cluster bombs, daisy cutters, 'smart' missiles aimed at wedding parties, drone-based ordnance, and the usual deposits of unexploded ordnance, will have harvested a negligible number of bodies? I just venture that, were this to be properly investigated, levels of mortality way well exceed those in Iraq.
Further, nowhere is the point sufficiently taken that these consequences are an intended, deliberate, and considered outcome of the aggression. It is not just that as the US transfers the risks of its operations to the civilian population through high-octane aerial attacks, it necessarily leads to a perhaps undesired but accepted level of civilian slaughter. It is that the distinction between civilian and combatant is being eroded as rapidly as it was in Vietnam. The Afghan population has simply become, in the context of a guerilla war, part of the enemy. NATO planners know full well that the insurgency couldn't sustain a heavy presence in 80% of the territory, and effectively take over the Nuristan province, without the backing of a socially significant layer of the population. I would infer that the intention of constant attacks on civilian population centres is to terrorise the population - perhaps with the hope that whatever measly and corrupt civilian programmes are being promulgated can 'win hearts and minds' at some point in the increasingly distant future.
The second point is that we are witnessing anew the way in which imperialism and nationalism can intersect to bloodily reconstruct the geography and political economy of whole regions. Such is the history of the Indian subcontinent during and after colonial rule. There was little in the history of Muslims and Hindus in India to give rise to any apprehension of the schism that would arise in the 1930s, never mind the calamity that would unfold with partition in 1947 - 90 years after an uprising uniting Muslims and Hindus had delivered India's first body blow to the British behemoth. The story of India's division is an extraordinarily rapid one, in which the divide and rule policies of the British - some of whose deadly fruits were borne again this year in Sri Lanka - interacted with the independence struggle that took off in the 1920s following the Russian revolution and the 1919 Amritsar massacre. In Uttar Pradesh, a highly mixed region notable for its role in the 1857 uprising, the British authorities had already used such tactics by, eg, acceding to demands that Hindi be the official language of the region. As Indian struggles wrung forms of electoral representation from the British, the colonial power insisted that voters identify themselves on a communal basis. One major example of such divide-and-rule was the attempted partition of Bengal in 1905, then a mixed state in the east of India. That was succesfully resisted, but the basic policy of attempting to foment divisions based on confession remained.
This became important in the independence struggle as upper and middle class Indian Muslims whose position had been established through the colonial state sought to be included in any future settlement. The Muslim League, founded in 1906, was initially loyal to the British crown, and sought to promote these interests, and had supported the partition of Bengal on the basis that it was good for Indian Muslims. The British patronised the League for this reason. Until the 1937 elections, however, the majority of Indian Muslims had sought representation in a future independent polity through the Indian National Congress. The turn to other forms of political expression, some class-based and others confessional, resulted from Congress refusing to work in coalition with the Muslim League in government, which aroused fears that it would be a de facto communal power. (In truth, the Congress had allowed a certain blurring of the edges between secular nationalism and Hindu communalism by permitting joint membership of Congress and Hindu Mahasabha until the early 1930s. Much of its leadership was reactionary and sectarian, and the inspirations for avowedly secular Indian nationalism often included dubious Hindu communalist figures such as the writer Bankim Chattopadhyay.) By 1940, the Muslim League was campaigning for a Muslim state to be named Pakistan, including Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, the North West Frontier Province and Bengal. Jinnah, who was no sectarian and had attempted to broker unity with the Congress, had concluded that Muslims and Hindus were two nations.
It turns out that there were more than two potential nations in there. India was first divided at the cost of 1 million lives. Then, as the Pakistani state came under the domination of the military in 1957, it escalated its practises of discrimination and oppression against the more populous eastern 'half' of the country, and thus sparking an independence struggle which it unsuccessfully attempted to suppress with near genocidal violence. It might have succeeded had it not provoked Indian intervention. But Pakistan was divided at a cost up to 3m civilian lives. Kashmir has remained a running sore and an object of military rivalry between India and Pakistan. Whatever happens to Kashmir, it has cost up to thousands of lives every year. And today, the authority of the Pakistani state over substantial swathes of its territory is in question - not because of fundamentalism, but because the state is unable to meet the needs of the population, and is instead devoting resources and firepower to fighting its own front in the 'war on terror'. Obama's $7.5bn aid package is supposed to help overcome this, but the conditions that come with this commit the Pakistani state to a prolonged, expensive and destabilising war (admittedly with the assistance of Xe, née Blackwater). It also infringes further on the polite fiction of Pakistani sovereignty by demanding more and larger US permanent military bases in the country. The military is divided over this strategy, and - despite much bravado - is unable to control south Waziristan or the Swat valley. It is taking sustained blows in major cities such as Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Islamabad. Some of the attacks reportedly aren't even coming from Talibs, but are mutinies from within. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, created by the British to contain Pashtun revolt, are now a faultline in the 'war on terror'. The North-West Frontier Province, originally annexed from the Emirate of Afghanistan, may as well now be an autonomous region of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's viability as a national state is also now in question. The US has attempted to control the country using largely Uzbek warlords, with a handpicked, carefully groomed and scented Pashtun leader. Whoever 'won' the Afghan election wouldn't be able to claim much legitimate authority outside of Kabul. Lacking much of a fiscal base, it is almost entirely dependent on US and donor funding, aid projects, World Bank programmes etc. Even if the Taliban and its associates were decisively defeated, it is hard to see this fractious bunch of mercenaries emerging into a coherent national ruling class, since their brand of highly profitable narco-capitalism comes with military competition and territorial struggle built in. The insurgency (not yet convinced by the insights of satyagraha for some reason), has marginally better chances. It has more national cohesion than the warlord factions do, but is inherently self-limiting by its rootedness in one dominant ethnic group and its reactionary ideology. Of course, the Taliban have proven to be capable of reinventing themselves, but that still doesn't mean they have a remotely plausible social vision. At best, they would be capable of forming an authoritarian nationalist coalition with some defecting warlord groups. It is hard to see a coherent national movement emerging here. If anything, the trend is toward a combination of regionalism and localism.
NATO imperialism is thus intersecting with national and regional politics in such a way now as to accelerate the centrifugal trends already in evidence. The legacy of British 'nation-building' in southern Asia has at times commanded applause and admiration from some of the intelligentsia, but it is a legacy that we are constantly living with no less than with the current reality of US empire. In both the long and the short view, the 'divide and quit' settlement has actually been catastrophic. Its problems may have been resolved more amicably and less bloodily if not for constant outside subventions, the pressures of the Cold War, the coopting of the Pakistani military, the creation of a layer of reactionary Wahabbis to fight Afghan communists and then the USSR etc. That the one force capable of subverting the barbaric heritage of colonial nation-building, international socialism, meets the present challenge in an historically weak state, only adds to the presentiment of grave danger.