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.
Not only on the ground does the Afghan war resemble the Vietnam war, but also in the attitudes and behaviour of the US public and politicians. Apparently unable to understand their own motives, let alone those of any foreign enemy, the US government believes the war can be won and the problem (whatever it may be) solved. The solution is being sought in quantitative, rather than qualitative terms, that is to say, in a steady increase in troops deployed, bombs dropped and rounds fired. Indeed, the same solution the US sought in Vietnam, with zero results. At least not the result it claimed to be seeking in the first place. During the 1960s and 1970s, the US public only developed a critical attitude towards government strategies when the failure of the Vietnam adventure had become impossible to ignore thanks to detailed, daily news broadcasts. Therefore, in order to avoid the growth of a critical public movement vis-à-vis the Afghanistan deployment, the government has been tightly controlling press reports. Thus the US public remains in the dark as to the horrors its soldiers are inflicting on the people of Afghanistan each and every day. But it is impossible to hide the truth forever. After all, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the US, was right when he said: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
A fact about which the general public is not informed at all is the extent to which the cultivation of poppies and the production of heroin are being protected by the US and its clients. Like Vietnam once, Afghanistan is now the world's major producer and exporter of heroin. Under the aegis of the US government. That is right, the US and its agencies (Pentagon, CIA, DEA and who knows which others) are protecting the drug trade. A quick glance at the latest report of UNODC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is instructive. In 2007, poppies were cultivated on almost 200.000 hectares, yielding more than 8.000 metric tons of opium (from which heroin is made), representing over 90% of world production. Before the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had effectively eradicated poppy cultivation. Therefore, it is tempting to believe that was the real reason for the US to colonize the country, namely to control the world opium and heroin production! The street value of Afghan heroin runs in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The mineral resource parallel to Vietnam is less obvious, but still significant. Afghanistan does not seem to hold important hydrocarbons reserves but instead, rather tremendous quantities of valuable metals. There are also persistant accounts concerning Afghanistan's strategic location with respect to Central Asia's oil and gas reserves. Apparently, the shortest and most economical pipeline route runs right through Afghanistan.
If Marx would have termed the Vietnam war a tragedy, he probably would have regarded the Afghanistan war a farce but, of course, not with the purpose of ridiculing or playing down the very real suffering of the Afghan people. The farcical resides in the fact that the US government is repeating step by step all the stupid mistakes, lies and crimes of the Vietnam era, as if acting on the basis of some unknown Pentagon screenplay. If that is not farcical, I would not know what is.
Moreover, the Washington dimwits who embarked on the Afghanistan adventure (planned in detail long before the New York Twin Towers were destroyed) had another example of a failed operation right in front of them. But they did not care to look at it. The ill-fated Soviet intervention in Afghanistan should have made the Pentagon war planners realize that a US attempt to conquer and colonize Afghanistan was not such a good idea. As it turned out, no one in the Pentagon had the frame of mind to ask the right questions. After the demise of the USSR, these mentally challenged planners found it convenient to ascribe the Soviet failure in Afghanistan to Soviet ineptitude, not to the inherent difficulty of the Afghan geography or the tenacity of the insurgency.
Hence we are faced with the unique situation of a country, the US, unwittingly re-enacting two scripts at the same time. Even Karl Marx would have been puzzled. Perhaps here we have struck upon the true uniqueness of the US: its complete denial of history and historical experience, including its very own history.
Now what about Obama? Surely the man has been trying to follow in the footsteps of a famous predecessor (Lincoln), much like Napoleon III tried to reenact the career of his famous uncle. It is still too early to tell whose example Obama is imitating. Obama himself may believe he is a second Lincoln, but for the time being, it rather looks like he is a second George W. Bush on account of his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Obama may also turn out to be a second Kennedy and meet his end by an assassin's bullet, or another FDR, given the seriousness of the depression currently affecting the US. But perhaps the predecessor is to be found outside the US. Some are suggesting that Obama may actually be the US Gorbachev, presiding over the dissolution of the US into a number of smaller independent states. It seems under the surface, disintegration has already set in, with major states like California and Texas having made the first steps on the road towards full autonomy.
One thing is certain: we are living in interesting times. We are now witnessing the end on an era and the birth of another. At any rate, it seems the days of the US as the main determining factor of international affairs are over. We should now rather be making a catalog of the good things that have come out of the US before the curtains are drawn. I would suggest this list will not turn out to be as long as many would have thought only yesterday.