Obama, Afghanistan and Karl Marx
By Hans Vogel
In the first chapter of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, his lucid account of Louis Napoleon's 1851 coup d'état, Karl Marx wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Then Marx went on to explain: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”
Impressive this wisdom from old Karl Marx, is it not? Now the question before us is this: how is the US adventure in Afghanistan to be interpreted in this light? Though it might actually be a tragedy, in world-historical terms it is not, being rather a farce for being the second appearance of a great world-historical fact. It could not be anyway else, because the US is involved. Taken as a group, the inhabitants of that country (although there are always individual exceptions) lacking a capacity for originality, everything they undertake is bound to be imitative of another event.
Having established that, one might wonder who is the historical personage duplicated by Obama and of what event the US Afghanistan adventure is the duplicate? To begin with the latter, what tragedy does it replicate as farce? Immediately, two events spring to mind.
1. The US War in Vietnam (1961-1975), begun by John F. Kennedy, one of Obama's cherished political icons, to block the supposed advance of communism in a region (Indochina) that was doubly interesting from an economic oint of view. First, because it was thought to hold immense oil reserves, and second, because it proved to be ideal for the cultivation of poppies, the plant from which heroin is made. During the time the US was fighting its war “defending freedom,” Indochina was the world's major producer of heroin. Coincidentally, as soon as the US had recognized its defeat and left, the production and export of heroin stopped. Meanwhile, the US military had utterly destroyed three nations: Vietnam and its neighbors Laos and Cambodia. More than six million people (mostly civilians) had been massacred, infrastructure, the economy and the environment had been wrecked. At least 50.000 US soldiers had lost their lives.
2. The Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-1989), gleefully dubbed by US experts “the Soviet Vietnam” was as miserable a failure as the US adventure in Vietnam, though on a more modest scale (one million Afghan dead, 15.000 Soviet soldiers). Though the Russians had succeeded in subduing much of Central Asia in the latter half of the 19th century, their Soviet successors proved unable to repeat this feat in Afghanistan, despite an impressive panoply of modern weapons. It was nevertheless impossible to prevail against an enemy that was both determined to expel any foreign invader and dedicated to a fanatical form of religiosity. The USSR lost the Afghan war due to the combined forces of nationalism, tribalism and Islam.
Although it is tempting to compare the US Afghan cock-up primarily with the Soviet disaster in the same country, I believe the correct historical parallel is the Vietnam war. Prior to committing major numbers of troops to the theater, the US installed a puppet government, almost standard procedure for any major US foreign intervention, a technique perfected in Central American and the Caribbean. With a favorable, pliable government in place, any and all impediments to full-blown intervention were eliminated. This is exactly what happened in 2001. At the Bonn Conference on the future of Afghanistan, the US forced the other attendants—including different Afghan parties—to accept its own candidate to become president. Thus Hamid Karzai was imposed, subsequently confirmed by dubious elections and is still in power. Once their “own son of a bitch” firmly in place, the US could send any number of troops it desired to the theater of operations. However, at present, the US seems to be wanting to rid itself of Karzai for showing too much independence of spirit. This is only normal, since no puppet can ever fully satisfy the whims of his masters. Locked in a colonial war, facing an elusive enemy in a faraway land, in a hostile geographical environment, US troops soon found themselves considering the entire civilian population as the enemy. This is exactly what happened in Vietnam. It can be explained partly by a general US tendency toward paranoia, a central element of the “American” mind since the landing of the Mayflower on the shores of Massachusetts. The net effect is that countless Afghan citizens are being killed due to US soldiers' paranoid tendency to empty their guns at anything that moves in foreign lands. Indeed, it seems to be Vietnam all over again.