War in Afghanistan: geo-strategy or oil profits?
Amid the roar of imperialist savagery in Afghanistan, tiny groups of internationalists have proclaimed their rejection of all the contending imperialisms, denounced any illusion in pacifying capitalism or support for any agencies with this objective, and called for the development of class struggle that alone can overthrow the world wide capitalist system, the mainspring of imperialist war.
These groups trace their origins from the heritage of the Italian and German left, the only internationalist currents to survive the decay of the Third International by holding high the proletariat's internationalist positions through the storm of World War II. They are part of what the ICC terms the proletarian political milieu.1
As a contribution to the strengthening of this milieu, we are examining the strengths and weaknesses of its present response to the war, as we do whenever such events test the very being of revolutionary organisations.
We will not deal here with the common approach of the different groups: the ICC's territorial press has already recognised and demonstrated the working class nature of their response.2 Nor can we hope to be comprehensive in the short space available here. We will instead discuss some significant elements of the explanation of imperialist barbarism by one of these groups - the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP).3
Looking for the material roots
It is not enough for revolutionary organisations to know that the US state and the other big imperialist powers are not as hostile to terrorism as they have been claiming these past 4 months, nor enough to know that they are not motivated by the interests of civilisation and humanity in launching a war that causes death and misery on a mass scale. They have also to explain what is the real reason for this barbarism, what are the interests of the imperialist powers, and of the US in particular, and whether there can be an end to this nightmare for the working class.
The IBRP offers the following explanation for the war in Afghanistan: the US wants to keep the dollar as world currency and thus retain its control over the oil industry:
"...the US needs the dollar to remain the currency of international trade if it is to retain its position as the world superpower. Above all then, the US is desperate to ensure that the global oil trade continues to be conducted primarily in dollars. That means having the determining say in the routing of oil and gas pipelines over and above US commercial involvement in its extraction at source. This is when straightforward commercial decisions are tempered by the over-arching interest of US capitalism as a whole, when the American state becomes politically and militarily involved for the sake of wider objectives, objectives which often come up against the interests of other states and increasingly against those of its European 'allies'. In other words this is the heart of imperialist competition in the 21st century" ("Imperialism, Oil and US National Interests", page 8, Revolutionary Perspectives n°23, the quarterly journal of the Communist Workers Organisation which is the British affiliate of the IBRP).
"For some time now European oil companies, ENI of Italy amongst them, have been engaged in numerous projects to get oil from the Caspian and Caucasus directly to refineries in Europe and it is obvious that from January 1st [when the Euro becomes legal tender in the countries of the European Union] the project for an alternative oil market could begin to take shape but the United States, faced with perhaps the most vicious crisis it has experienced this side of World War Two, is not going to let go of its own economic and financial power" (ibid., page 10).
The war then is supposedly intended to remove the potential barrier constituted by the Taliban regime and its Al Qaida supporters to routing an oil pipeline through Afghanistan to carry part of the output of the oilfields in Kazakhstan, as part of a wider strategy of the US to control the distribution of oil. The US wants the secure and diversified routing from the worlds oil supplies. Behind this imperative, according to the IBRP, is the fate of the dollar, and behind the fate of the dollar is the superpower status of the United States. The Europeans on the other hand are also interested in improving the status of their fledging currency the Euro in the oil market and thus increasingly oppose the US with their own imperialist interests for this reason.
The underlying objective of the US in the Afghanistan war is, as the IBRP say, to preserve its position as 'world superpower', by which we understand its overwhelming military, economic and political superiority over all the other countries on the planet. Its opponents want to limit or eventually usurp this position. In other words, contrary to the fairy stories presented to us by the bourgeois media that it is about the struggle between good and evil, between democracy and terror, the IBRP as revolutionaries, reveal the imperialist interests of the protagonists. Behind imperialist conflict are the conflicting interests of rival capitalist powers, accentuated by the economic crisis.
Furthermore the IBRP, are moving away from their attempt to explain the present war (and the growing accentuation of imperialist conflict) as the result of the desire for immediate economic gain. Ten years ago the IBRP said, about the upcoming Gulf War, that: "?the crisis in the Gulf is really about oil and who controls it. Without cheap oil profits will fall. Western capitalism's profits are threatened and its for this reason and no other that the US is preparing a bloodbath in the Middle East" (CWO leaflet quoted in International Review n°64).
The US victory in the Gulf War, however, saw no significant improvement in oil profits, nor did it significantly change the price of oil. The IBRP seems to have realised this, and also that ex-Yugoslavia did not provide any profitable markets for the imperialist powers who were fighting each other there, as they first thought, and it now seems to have developed a broader explanation of the situation. Such an approach can only be welcomed because the credibility of the Marxist left depends on its ability to understand imperialism on the basis of a global and historical analysis, in which immediate economic factors are not the cause of war.4
But despite taking this step forward, the IBRP nevertheless sees imperialist objectives hinging on the fate of currencies, in other words on a specific economic factor. And they give the question of oil and oil pipelines a decisive weight in the role of the dollar and its new rival the Euro. Oil, for the IBRP, is very much at 'the heart of imperialist competition in the 21st Century'.
But is the preservation of the status of the United States as world hegemon really so directly and decisively dependent on the role of the dollar, as the IBRP says?
And does the position of the dollar as world currency really depend so directly on the US control of oil? Let us examine these questions in more detail, taking the last one first.
Oil and the dollar.
While an important say in the commercial control of oil production - most of the major world oil companies for example are American owned - certainly helps the United States to maintain its economic power, and is thus a factor in the dominance of the dollar, it is not the fundamental explanation of the means by which the dollar gained and retains its role as world currency.
The dollar achieved its pre-eminence before oil became the principle fuel on the planet. In fact no currency's strength is especially founded on the control of raw materials.
Japan for example controls practically no raw materials, but the yen, despite the recent stagnation of the Japanese economy, remains a strong currency. Conversely the former USSR had huge quantities of oil under its command but this did not prevent its economic collapse, let alone enable the rouble to become a world currency5. It was not control of the coal or cotton supply that launched the pound sterling as the principal currency of the 19th century.
It is rather the preponderance of a country's economy in terms of world production and trade, and its relative political and military weight that explains why particular currencies have become the standard monetary reference for world capitalism.
The pound sterling achieved its ascendancy because Britain was the first modern capitalist country. The greater productivity of its industries enabled its products to displace those of the rest of the world in terms of price and quantity, because elsewhere capitalist production was only beginning to take hold. The whole world sold raw materials to Britain. And Britain - as the famous expression had it - was "the workshop of the world". Britain's military, particularly naval, strength, and its accumulation of colonial possessions reinforced the supremacy of the pound and the position of London as the world's financial centre.
The development of capitalism in other countries began to undermine the supremacy of British capitalism, and its competitors began to overtake it in terms of productivity. And the new conditions of capitalism revealed by the First World War sounded the death knell for sterling. The Second World War sealed its fate. In a world where rival capitalist nations have already carved up the world market and seek to expand by its re-division in their favour, the question of military competition - imperialism - tends to favour countries of a continental scale like the United States rather than the European countries whose relatively small size was more appropriate to an early phase of capitalist growth. The exhaustion of all the European powers after the First World War, including the victors like Britain, enormously increased the relative weight of US production and its share of world trade, and therefore increased international demand for dollars. And after the devastation of Europe in the Second World War, the United States, stimulated by a phenomenal growth in arms production, achieved a crushing economic supremacy on the world arena. By 1950 the USA accounted for half of total world production! The Marshall Plan of 1947 supplied the European economies with the dollars they desperately needed to reconstruct by buying American goods. Dollar supremacy was institutionalised at the world level by the Bretton Woods agreement, and the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund under the aegis of the US.
By 1968, the reconstruction period had come to an end, and the European and Japanese economies had improved their economic position relative to the US. But even the relative weakening of the US economy, although it led to the effective devaluation of the dollar, did not mean the immediate end of its prime position. Far from it. The US had many means to use the new conditions to its advantage. The decoupling of the dollar from gold by Washington in 1971, allowed the US to maintain the power of the dollar and the competitive position of American production, by exchange rate manipulation which also helped cheapen its growing foreign debt (a method that Britain had used in the 30s to preserve sterling's role even after the eclipse of its economy by that of the US). At the beginning of the 80s the raising of interest rates, and the deregulation of the movement of capital, with the consequent mushrooming of financial speculation, helped offload the effects of the crisis onto other countries. Behind these measures the military supremacy of the United States, which became unassailable after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ensures that King Dollar retains his throne.
The role of oil in the dollar's prime position is therefore relatively insignificant. Even if it is true that in the 'first oil crisis' of 1971-2, the US, through its influence over OPEC oil pricing, managed to transfer enormous funds to its own pockets from those of the European and Japanese capitalist powers via Saudi Arabia, such manipulations are hardly the main instruments of dollar supremacy.
What counts in the hegemony of the dollar is America's economic, political and military domination of the world market on which oil and other raw materials are bought and sold, and this domination is mainly decided by factors of a more general and historical nature, rather than the control of oil.
The IBRP however believe that the acceleration of the USA's military adventures in central Asia is part of a long term preventative measure to occupy the centres of oil production and the oil routes to prevent the European powers from controlling them with a view to making the Euro the dominant currency in world oil production and trade. The supposed objective is to stop the Euro, the fledgling currency of the European Union, taking the dollar's crown, and thus overtaking the US as a rival imperialist bloc.
But, if our explanation is correct, the European powers would have to do a lot more than increase their influence on the oil industry in order to displace the dollar with the Euro. Even if the European Union was a really unified political and economic entity its overall GDP per capita is about 2/3rds that of the United States. Although the EU now has a common currency, it is still fragmented into several competing national capitalist units that undermine its economic strength relative to that of the United States. The European Central Bank lacks the US Federal Reserve's unity of purpose on monetary and fiscal policy, which is why, until now at least, it has tended to follow in the wake of the latter's policies. The economy of Germany, the strongest political pole in the Euro zone, still only ranks third behind the USA and Japan, and for reasons other than a lack of control of oil and pipelines.
At the political and military level the divide is even wider. The EU contains several imperialist powers, which compete both among themselves and in relation to the US. Europe's greatest economic power remains a military pigmy compared to Britain and France, its main rivals (and it is worth pointing out that one of Europe's major military powers and larger economies - Great Britain - is not even in the Euro zone). Germany is increasing its military strength, its troops have intervened outside its borders (in Kosovo) for the first time since World War II. Nonetheless, its ability to project its military power extends no further than its immediate neighbours in Eastern Europe.
As the currency experts of the bourgeoisie point out, this military weakness and the conflicting interests within the EU pose a serious threat to the Euro: "Glyn Davies, author of 'A History of Money From Ancient Times to the Present Day', said the greatest long-term threat to monetary union in Europe would be wars or 'disputes regarding attitudes to countries that are at war'.
'It's the political aspect which will matter,' he said. 'If you have a strong political union, then it can withstand many attacks. But if there are political differences, it can weaken the monetary union considerably'" (International Herald Tribune, 29.12.01).
For this and other reasons, the Euro will find it difficult to win over the confidence of the world economy in the dollar.
From all these standpoints, the drive to protect the dollar's domination of the world economy cannot be considered a credible reason for the vast military campaign being waged in Afghanistan. As we said at our last international congress, "The USA wants to control this region because of the oil - not for purely economic reasons but above all because it wants to ensure that Europe would not be able to use this source of oil in case of war. We only have to recall that during the second world war, in 1942, Germany carried out an offensive on Baku in order to gain control of its oil supplies, which were so vital for the war effort. Today the situation is a bit different with regard to Azerbaijan and Turkey, for whom the question of oil is more one of immediate economic gain. But the real stakes of the situation are not at this level" ("Report on imperialist tensions, in International Review n°107)6.
Is US imperialist hegemony dependent on the dollar?
The second question posed by the IBRP is: does the superpower status of the US depend on the dollar's pre-eminent role? Not, we would say, in the decisive way that the IBRP suggest. As we have argued military superiority is as much a cause of the dollar's status as an effect. Obviously the economic and monetary pre-eminence of the US in the world economy is a crucial factor in its military supremacy. But military and strategic might does not flow automatically, mechanically and immediately or proportionally from economic power. There are innumerable examples to prove it. Japan and Germany are the strongest world economic powers after the United States, but are still military dwarfs compared to Britain and France who, while weaker economically, have nuclear weapons. The USSR was extremely weak economically but contested America's power at the military level for 45 years. And despite the US' relative economic weakening since 1969, its military and strategic strength relative to its nearest rivals has vastly increased.
Like every other country, the US cannot rely on the performance of its currency to automatically guarantee its imperialist position. On the contrary the US must continue to devote enormous, costly resources to its military and strategic interests in order to try to outflank its main imperialist rivals, and to reduce their pretensions to contest its leadership. The US's anti-terrorist campaign since September 11th, has scored remarkable successes in this imperialist struggle. It has forced the other major powers to support its military and strategic objectives, without allowing any of them more than a few crumbs of prestige from their support for the rapid military success of American forces in Afghanistan over the Taliban regime. At the same time it has expanded its strategic weight in central Asia. The display of its military superiority has been so devastating that its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, has evoked only the mildest criticism from its previously vociferous opponents in European capitals. The US can now more easily set about expanding its 'anti-terrorist' crusades in other countries.
Yet it would be difficult to measure whether the American offensive of the last three months has made oil supplies any more secure for the US than before, or significantly increased the dollar's crushing superiority over the Euro. The real US victory is at the military/strategic level, as it was after the Gulf War. The economic benefits will be as elusive as they were from this previous conflict.
Control of oil for economic advantage was not the decisive question that caused the US to spend billions of dollars a month on the war in Afghanistan, and to risk the stability of Pakistan, where the proposed pipeline would continue after it left Afghanistan.
The CWO, already showed in an article in 1997 "Behind the Taliban Stands US imperialism" that there was nothing intrinsic to the Taliban regime that threatened US oil interests. On the contrary the US saw the regime as a factor of stability compared with the Taliban's predecessors. Even after harbouring Osama Bin Laden, the regime presented no insuperable obstacles to an accommodation with the US and its interests.7
The role of oil in imperialist war today
The era when capitalist powers went to war for immediate or direct economic gain, was an embryonic phase in the evolution of imperialism, one that barely outlasted the 19th century. Once the major capitalist powers had divided up the world between them as colonies or spheres of influence, the possibility of direct economic benefit from war became more and more uncertain. When war became a question of military conflict with other imperialist powers wider strategic questions came to the fore, entailing industrial preparation and expense on a massive scale. War became less a question of economic gain than a question of the survival of each state at the expense of its rivals. The ruination of most of the contending capitalist powers in the two world wars this century testifies that imperialism, rather than being the "highest stage" of capitalism as Lenin thought, is an expression of its decadent period, when capitalism is increasingly forced, by the national limits of its own system, to vaporise men and machines on the battlefield rather than valorise them in the production process8.
Instead of war serving the needs of the economy, the economy has come to serve the needs of war, and raw materials haven't escaped this general rule. If the imperialist powers want to control raw materials, especially crucial ones like oil, it is not because the bourgeoisie believes, like the IBRP, that this will ensure the health of its profits or currency, but because of its military importance.
"The biggest peace-time military construction program in American History was endorsed by the House Armed Services Committee. A report to the House Foreign Affairs Committee called the strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East 'almost equal to that of the North Atlantic treaty area itself'. Bases in the Arab states and Israel are necessary to protect sea and air routes. Protection of this region is vital, the report said, 'because in this area lie tremendous oil resources which the free world requires now for its greatly expanded rearmament effort'" (International Herald Tribune, 1951).
US imperialism has been quite candid: the control of oil is important, first and foremost, for military reasons, so that it can guarantee its flow to its own armies in times of war and cut its supply off to the hostile armies of rival countries.
The real stakes revealed by the war in Afghanistan
Although the IBRP recognises that capitalism is in its historical period of decline, this theoretical framework is missing from its understanding of imperialist war today. Capitalism's fundamental need is still the accumulation of capital, but the relations of production that once ensured its fantastic development now prevent it from finding sufficient fields for expansion. Increasingly production is geared towards the destruction, rather than the reproduction of wealth. The understanding that war, while becoming more and more necessary for the bourgeoisie, has ceased to be profitable for the capitalist system as a whole, is therefore not a denial of Marxist materialism but an expression of its ability to understand the different phases through which an economic system passes, and in particular the passage from its ascendant to its decadent phase. In the latter phase, the economic imperative continues to push the bourgeoisie, all the more in the periods of open crisis, not toward war for immediate, or particular financial gain, but toward a global and ultimately suicidal fight for military supremacy among its rival national units.
Only by drawing out the implications of capitalist decadence for present day imperialist conflict can we show to the working class the enormous dangers represented by the war in Afghanistan, and by those wars which will inevitably follow it. The IBRP on the other hand tends to give the proletariat a false, reassuring picture of a system that is, as in its youthful phase, still able to subordinate its military objectives to the needs of economic expansion.
Moreover, with its misconception of a European imperialism, united around the Euro, the IBRP gives the impression of a relatively stable evolution of world capitalism toward two new imperialist blocs. On the contrary, the contradictory and antagonistic interests of the European powers towards each other as well as to the USA points to quite a different period of capitalism's decay. It indicates a terminal phase of decomposition, where, even if Germany is trying to assert itself as an alternative pole to the US, imperialist chaos has the upper hand; where military conflict threatens to generalise in a catastrophic way.
It is quite true that the war in Afghanistan is about the maintenance and reinforcement by America of its position as the world's only superpower. But this status is not determined by specific economic factors, like the control of oil, as the IBRP puts forward. It is rather dependent on geo-strategic questions, on the ability of the US to achieve a military supremacy in key areas of the world, and to prevent its rivals from seriously contesting its positions. Areas of the world like Afghanistan which proved their strategic worth to the imperialist powers long before oil became known as 'black gold'. It was not for oil that the 19th century British Raj twice sent armies into Afghanistan, and eventually succeeded in setting up a puppet ruler there. The importance of Afghanistan is not because it is a potential vehicle of an oil pipeline, but because it is at the geographical hub of the main imperialist powers of the Middle and Far East, and of South Asia, control of which will greatly increase US power not only in this region but in relation to the major European imperialisms.
The United States achieved its dominant imperialist position essentially by emerging victorious from two world wars. Fundamentally the key to its ability to keep this position also lies at the military level.
1See the ICC books The Italian Communist Left and The Dutch and German Communist Left
2See for example "Revolutionaries denounce imperialist war" in World Revolution 249, November 2001.
3 See www.ibrp.org
4In Internationalist Communist Review n°10, the IBRP even recognises the importance of military strategic questions over the economic: "It then remains for the political leadership and the army to establish the political direction of each state according to a single imperative: an estimation of how to achieve military victory because this now overrides economic victory". "End of the cold war: new step towards a new imperialist line-up".
5Indeed, the rouble's role as dominant currency in the ex-COMECON countries of the Eastern bloc was wholly dependent on the USSR's military occupation of their territory.
6We should also point out that the IBRP is simply wrong on the factual level, in claiming that "The area around the Caspian Sea is the site of the world's largest known reserves of untapped oil". The proven oil reserves of the entire ex-USSR amount to some 63bn barrels; those of the five main Middle Eastern producers amount to more than ten times that figure, while Saudi Arabia alone accounts for more than 25% of the world's proven reserves. In addition, Saudi oil is by far more profitable (in the purely economic terms of which the IBRP is fond), costing only $1 a barrel to extract, and with none of the gigantic cost of building pipelines across the mountains of Afghanistan and the Caucasus.
7A recent book Ben Laden, la vérité interdite by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié, (Editions Denoël, 2001) covers the unofficial diplomacy between the American government and the Taliban regime, up and till September 11th, and tends to point to the opposite conclusion to the IBRP's on the relationship between the oil interests of the US and the development of military hostilities with Afghanistan. Until the 17th July 2001 the US was trying to use diplomacy to resolve its outstanding problems with the Taliban regime, such as the extradition of Osama Bin Laden for the attack on the USS Cole and American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. And the Taliban were by no means hostile to negotiating over such questions. Indeed after Bush's inauguration as US president the Taliban had proposed a reconciliation that they hoped would lead to their diplomatic recognition. But after July 2001 the US effectively broke off relations, sending a brutally provocative message to the Taliban regime: threatening military action to get Bin Laden, and announcing that they were in discussions with the ex-king Sahir Shah to retake power in Kabul! This suggests that the war aims of the US were already decided before September 11th and that all that was needed to launch hostilities was the pretext of the terrorist outrages on that date . It also suggests that it was not the Taliban that prevented a diplomatic process that might lead to a more stable Afghanistan for US oil interests, but the US government, which had another agenda. Instead of the IBRP formula: a war in Afghanistan to stabilise the country for an oil pipeline, the evidence points to a war that has destabilised the whole region for the greater goal of American military and geo-strategic superiority.
8Capital is accumulated or 'valorised' by the extraction of surplus labour from the working class.