Throughout his Senate career and the presidential campaign, the supposed “peace candidate” Barack Obama has reassured the U.S. foreign policy establishment of his willingness to stay firmly within the spectrum of acceptable imperial opinion by voicing strong support for the U.S.-led bombing and invasion of Afghanistan that followed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. According to Obama throughout the current ongoing contest, one of the main problems with George W. Bush’s “mistake” (the Democratic presidential front runner never calls it a crime or immoral) of invading Iraq was that it has “diverted” U.S. military resources that should have been dedicated to the smart and just war in (on) Afghanistan. Like other official “doves” on the “bad war” in Iraq, he was a hawk on the supposedly “good war” in Afghanistan.
BUSH “RESPONDED PROPERLY WHEN IT CAME TO AFGHANISTAN”
Here he has articulated a widely shared elite sentiment reflecting the sharp limits of what passes for “left” opinion in the bipartisan U.S. governing class. As very few Americans beyond the so-called “extreme left” seemed to know or care, the Bush administration’s heavily Democratic Party-supported bombing and invasion of the Afghanistan took place in bold defiance of international law forbidding aggressive war. Sold as a legitimate defensive response to the jetliner attacks, it was undertaken without definitive proof or knowledge that that country’s Taliban government was responsible in any way for 9/11. It occurred after the Bush administration rebuffed efforts by that government to possibly extradite accused 9/11 planners to stand trial in the U.S. It sought to destroy the Taliban government with no legal claim to introduce regime change in another sovereign state. It took place over the protest of numerous Afghan opposition leaders and in defiance of aid organizations who expected a U.S. attack to produce a humanitarian catastrophe. And, as Noam Chomsky noted in 2003, U.S. claims to possess the right to bomb Afghanistan – an action certain to produce significant casualties – raised the interesting question of whether Cuba and Nicaragua were entitled to set off bombs in the U.S. given the fact that the U.S. provided shelter to well-known terrorists shown to have conducted murderous attacks on the Cuban and Nicaraguan people and governments.
As Rahul Mahajan observed, the United States’ attack on Afghanistan met none of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council. Many defenders of the invasion, Democrats as well as Republicans, upheld Bush’s right to attack prior to such consultation by making the analogy of a maniac who had broken into your house and already killed some residents: “do you sit and around a negotiate with the murderers while they kill more or do you go in and take them out?” But, as Mahajan argued, “the analogy to the U.S. action would have been better if the maniac had died in the attack, and your response was to bomb a neighborhood he had been staying in, killing many people who didn’t even know of his existence – even though you had your own police force constantly on the watch for more attacks.”1
Not surprisingly, an international Gallup poll released after the bombing was announced showed that global opposition was overwhelming. “In Latin America, which has some experience with US behavior,” Chomsky notes, “support [for the U.S. assault] ranged from 2% in Mexico, to 18% in Panama, and that support was conditional on the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months latter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported) and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by [Washington, claiming to represent] ‘the world.’”2
But according to Obama, speaking on ABC Television’s “Nightline” the night before the four critical primaries of March 4, 2008 (Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island and Vermont), Afghanistan was George W. Bush’s good war. The president “responded properly when it came to Afghanistan,” Obama told ABC, but “he responded ideologically when it came to Iraq” – not criminally, but rather “ideologically,” according to a candidate who deceptively claimed to stand above “ideology.”
“BECAUSE WE WANTED THEM DEAD”
According to University of New Hampshire business professor Marc Herold, who monitored press accounts in the first half-year of Obama’s “proper” war, the “U.S. air war on Afghanistan” produced a high level of civilian casualties, producing at least 3,000 civilian documented civil deaths, between October 7, 2001 and March 31, 2002.3 When U.S. warplanes strafed the unprotected Afghan farming village of Chowkar-Karez, 25 miles north of Kandahar on October 22-23rd 2001, killing at least 93 civilians, a Pentagon official said, "the people there are dead because we wanted them dead." Queried about the Chowkar killings, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld replied, "I cannot deal with that particular village."4
On February 22, 2008 in Austin Texas, Obama used the platform of a CNN Democratic presidential candidates’ “debate” (consisting of two heavily corporate, centrist, and imperial Democrats) to criticize the Bush administration for dropping the ball of the good and smart war on terror in (on) Afghanistan by choosing to wage its “dumb” and “ideological” war in (on) Iraq.
The Sunday after the debate the New York Times Magazine published what ought to have been widely perceived as a shocking account of the hidden reality of the first and war. Times Magazine writer Elizabeth Rubin went to Afghanistan “with a question: why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes.” Noting that the United States’ “flying war machines are saviors to U.S. soldiers” in that country but “cannot distinguish between insurgents and civilians,” Rubin calmly observed that “the sheer tonnage of metal raining down on Afghanistan was mind-boggling: a million pounds between January and September 2007, compared with half a million in all of 2006.” Remarking casually that “the jets that defeated the Taliban were [now] wiping out innocent families as well” – here Rubin forgot to note that U.S. air power slaughtered innocent civilians from the very beginning of the American assault – the embedded Times writer recounted how U.S. Special Forces “rocketed and bombed an engagement party” in the mountains of Oruzgan in July of 2002, resulting in the death of forty civilians and the wounding of one hundred.
“I ENDED UP KILLING THAT MOM AND THE KID”
By Rubin’s account based on months “alongside soldiers making life and death decisions that led to the deaths of soldiers and civilians,” Obama’s “good war” in Afghanistan did not seem to have gotten much better more than five years later. Seeking to determine “why so many American troops were being killed in Afghanistan,” she found (predictably enough for those who resisted the original and continuing U.S. justifications for the assault) that “seven years of air strikes, civilian casualties, humiliating house searches, and arbitrary detentions have pushed many families and tribes to revenge.” Imagine that! Rubin’s article focused heavily on the story of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province and its leader Capt. Dan Kearny in the fall of 2007. Kearny described his duties as analogous to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in a “tough neighborhood.” But Kearny had significantly more lethal resources with which to fight “bad guys” (as he described those who dared to resist U.S. invasion) than the LAPD. Rubin described how Kearny responded to “insurgent” fire in a Kuna village by calling in bombs and missiles that resulted in significant civilian casualties. “I ended up killing that mom and kid,” Kearny told Rubin, recounting his destruction of a three-story mansion purported to contain “people moving weapons around” as well as a woman and a child. “I kept asking for a bomb drop on [the] house,” Kearny stated, “but no one wanted to sign off on the collateral damage.” Finally, Kearny told Rubin, “he shot a javelin and a tow” – armor-piercing missiles – that resulted in the death of “that mom and the kid.”
THUMBS UP FOR “COLLATERAL DAMAGE” FROM “A NEBRASKA SOCIAL SCIENTIST”
Later in Rubin’s narrative she related the story of how Kearny got “his boss, Lt. Col. Bill Ostlund, a Nebraska social scientist,” to “sign off on collateral damage” by approving a B-1 bomber attack on Yaka China, a “notorious” Afghan village thought to contain “insurgents.” On the morning of the attack, Kearny told Rubin, “Okay, I’ve done my killing for the week. I’m ready to go home.” He estimated that U.S. forces had killed 20 people, adding, “I’m not going to lie to you. Some are probably civilians.”
He was right. According to Rubin, “the tally was bad: 5 killed and 11 wounded, all of them women, girls, and boys” [emphasis added]. Reflecting on this grisly outcome, hardly novel in the long and bloody history of the “good war” on Afghanistan, Rubin coolly explained that “killing civilians” is a “political issue. If [Kearny] didn’t explain his actions to Yaka China villagers and get them to understand his intentions, he could lose them to the enemy.”5
Thank God for the noble intentions of benevolent empires.
“I SAID IT WAS GOING TO OVERSTRETCH OUR MILITARY”
This one snapshot among many predictable (and predicted) criminal atrocities from the war whose launching Obama and other top Democrats saw as a “proper” action on Bush’s part, so supposedly different from his “mistake” (never a crime) of invading Iraq. In the Austin debate, Obama made a special point of condemning the under-funding and under-equipping of the allegedly just and intelligent war Kearny and Ostlund were ordered to fight in Afghanistan. Obama criticized Clinton for authorizing a war that “diverted [U.S.] attention from Afghanistan, where al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001.” After relating the story of an Army captain facing a shortage of weapons, troops, and Humvees in Afghanistan, Obama reprised his imperial, not so peace-oriented reasons for opposing the invasion of Iraq: “I said this is going to distract us from Afghanistan; this is going to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment; it’s going to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives and overstretch our military. And I was right.”
There was nothing in Obama’s widely praised Austin oratory about the much larger number – far beyond 3,000 – of Afghans and Iraqis (some social-scientific estimates placed Iraqi deaths resulting from the U.S. invasion over 1 million) killed by U.S. actions since 9/11. There was no sense of the role that persistent U.S. killing of Afghan civilians and the original and continuing illegal U.S attack on those civilians’ country had played in fueling so-called “anti-Americanism” (actually hatred of imperial U.S. government policies) and no acknowledgement that the majority of the world opposed the attack from the outset.
Obama’s establishment foreign policy team might argue that a more “properly” funded and equipped “war on terror” would have avoided such atrocities in Afghanistan. But this ignores both the possibility (if not likelihood) that more military hardware in the hands of more U.S. occupation forces would have actually increased civilian deaths there and the deeper truth that the U.S. attack on that country was illegal and widely hated from the beginning, within and beyond Afghanistan, before Bush and Cheney “diverted’ America away from its “good” and “proper” war on that suffering nation and towards its “bad” (strategically, but not morally in the language of leading Democrats)and “ideological” war on Iraq.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street is currently completing a book on U.S. political culture and the Barack Obama phenomenon.
1. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003), pp. 199-206; Rahul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terror (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), p. 21.
2. Noam Chomsky, “The World According to Washington,” Asia Times(February 28, 2008).
3 Dr. Marc Herold, A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan (Durham, New Hampshire, 2002), read online at http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm
4. Murray Campbell, "Bombing of Farming Village Undermines U.S Credibility," Toronto Globe & Mail, 3 November, 2001; Herold, A Dossier, p.1.
5. Elizabeth Rubin, “Battle Company is Out There,” New York Times Magazine, February 24, 2008.