An empty buffer

For the U.S., Afghanistan is a socio-economically irrelevant space to be kept empty through least-cost military means.

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

At the site of a suicide car bomb explosion in Jalalabad in Afghanistans eastern province of Nangarhar, on May 31.-RAFIQ SHIRZAD/REUTERS

At the site of a suicide car bomb explosion in Jalalabad in Afghanistans eastern province of Nangarhar, on May 31.-RAFIQ SHIRZAD/REUTERS

THE facts regarding Afghanistan's revealed irrelevance to the United States (and a reluctant North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO) are visible to all who wish to look: on an average, for every $100 spent on military efforts in Afghanistan, a trifling $4.50 is budgeted (and an even smaller amount is disbursed) for so-called reconstruction efforts (Table 1). At the same time, poppy cultivation and corruption have soared, poverty and inequality spiralled, and everyday life for average Afghans is more difficult and insecure though of course not for the small, urban, westernised Afghan elite.

All this is to be expected if Afghanistan is seen as an empty space as I have argued many times, most recently in my book. 1 The U.S. seeks to re-establish Afghanistan as an empty buffer state at minimum cost (by which I mean few soldiers bodies and a few dollars). Interestingly, a central component of Al Qaeda's strategy is to bleed America to bankruptcy and to spread out U.S. forces to the greatest degree possible 2 (both captured in the phrase imperial overstretch). All the talk about democracy and girls schools is for public consumption in Euro-America. Indeed, the new so-called humanitarian interventions are merely a smokescreen to hide and sell larger geopolitical agendas. 3

What reconstruction aid has been disbursed is heavily biased towards high-visibility, glamour projects (with military uses) and the much ballyhooed girls schools. If the do-gooder interventionists really cared about Afghan girls education, they would have channelled monies towards the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which has independently supported girls education in Afghanistan for over two decades, that is, long before the likes of Sarah Chayes and Laura Bush discovered the girls of Afghanistan in October 2001.

The new-found concern for Afghan women formed an integral part of selling the war to the Euro-American public. 4 But the completion of highways serves another very important function: it helps sell brand Karzai to the Western voting public as Western hotel journalists 5 safely congregate for ribbon-cutting photo-ops of Hamid Karzai guarded by legions of foreign occupation troops. 6 If donors really cared about the well-being of average Afghans, dollars would flow into building toilets rather than highways and shopping malls in Kabul. 7 Naturally, some aid projects undertaken by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have had important wider beneficial effects. For instance, de-mining efforts.

The least-cost U.S./NATO intervention has been accompanied by very high levels of civilian casualties when measured appropriately, that is, not in absolute numbers but in, for instance, civilian deaths for every 10,000 tonnes of bombs dropped. The bombing of Afghanistan has been as deadly for civilians as that of Laos and Cambodia. 8 Again, such callous disregard of Afghan civilians flows directly from the lack of any interest in the empty space of Afghanistan. The nation has nothing economically to offer: no exports of any significance, certainly no consumer market in which to make and sell brand products, and no attractiveness as an export platform for manufactures. In effect, the U.S./NATO intervention and occupation is simply to ensure that nothing negative (like the Soviet Army during the 1980s or Al Qaeda camps in the early 2000s) in a purely geopolitical sense exists there.

The data presented in Table 2, compiled from three publicly available databases 9 , reveal that at the very least some 6,500 to 7,200 Afghans have died at the hands of the U.S. and NATO in the past seven years. We see that even during the years 2003-06, when the Afghan resistance was not yet fully reorganised, the share of reconstruction in total U.S. budgeted outlays hovered between 10 and 15 per cent.

Another report mentioned that in the seven years that U.S. occupation forces had been on the ground in Afghanistan, reconstruction aid amounted to a mere $11.5 billion whereas military outlays totalled $115.3 billion. 10

Another recent statement said that Western countries had delivered only $15 billion out of the promised $25 billion and that over 40 per cent of aid returns to donor countries as corporate profits and high consultant fees. Pierre Lafrance of the MADERA non-governmental European organisation, which works in agricultural development, stated, For every $100 spent on the military operations in Afghanistan, $7 goes to civilian reconstruction. 11

Why should it be otherwise if Afghanistan is only an empty space?


3. As argued brilliantly in Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism. Using Human Rights to Sell War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), pages 176.

4. A point elaborated upon in Carol A. Stabile and Deepa Kumar, Unveiling Imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan in Media, Culture and Society (2005);

7. As I have argued in an unpublished manuscript, An Excess of Corruption and a Deficit of Toilets: American and Karzais Successes in Afghanistan (Durham: manuscript, Department of Economics, University of New Hampshire, April 2008).

8. See my Urban Dimensions of the Punishment of Afghanistan by U.S. Bombs, in S. Graham and S. Marvin (editors), Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers; 2004): Table 17.2 A History of U.S. Bombing Campaigns and Resulting Civilian Deaths, page 316.

9. At I present disaggregated data which allows reproducing the aggregate results, that is, verification and sources, which is unlike the overall figures provided by the Associated Press which never provides disaggregated raw data.

11. Paris Meet Sets Sight on Afghan Reconstruction , Gulf Times (May 24, 2008).

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