The official meaning of the war in Afghanistan: the defence of the civilised, democratic world against terrorism and Islamic fanaticism, fought by the civilised and democratic states standing shoulder to shoulder with the USA.
The real meaning: an imperialist conflict where the official enemy is only a scapegoat and the real enemies pose as friends.
Ever since the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc at the beginning of the 1990s, the USA has been faced with a growing challenge to its world domination. Not just from the minor enemies (also former friends in most cases) who have been the target of US bombs � Saddam, Milosevic, bin Laden and the Taliban; not just from second and third rate powers, once loyal clients, who are more and more ready to follow their own immediate aims, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel; but also, and above all, from the major powers who were once the mainstay of the western bloc, but who, now that the Russian bear is no threat, are themselves pursuing their own imperialist ambitions: France, Germany and Britain.
Three times in the last decade the USA has had to resort to massive displays of military force to remind all its former vassals who is the world’s boss. Each time its success in dragooning its rivals into US-run military ‘coalitions’ has been far outweighed by the sharpening of conflict that followed soon afterwards. Not long after the Gulf war, in which Germany was given a role only as a moneybags, German imperialism revived its historical ‘drive to the east’, provoking the war in Yugoslavia by supporting the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. After nearly a decade of war and massacre in the Balkans, the USA was compelled to launch its air war against Serbia � on the surface to defend the oppressed Kosovans, in reality to enable the US to implant itself in a region previously dominated by Germany, France, Britain and Russia.
The Afghan war takes this pattern to a new level. Presented as a justified response to the horrible slaughter of September 11, the war had in fact already been planned: in July 2001 the US warned Afghanistan that an attack was being prepared, and it had already set up military bases in Uzbekistan. The real motive behind the war was once again to ‘restore order’ in a world where the dominant rule has become ‘every man for himself’. The rows over America’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty, over the ‘Son of Star Wars’ anti-missile programme, over the ‘Euro-army’, helped to swell a growing tide of anti-American propaganda in Europe. September 11 and the campaigns about ‘solidarity with the USA’ called a temporary halt to this, but even while the majority of the European powers claimed to back America’s ‘anti-terrorist’ assault on Afghanistan, the differences were always visible. Most of Europe’s governments officially supported the war, but there was plenty of scope for the expression of doubts and criticisms. For its part America was quite determined to give its allies a minimal role in the fighting. Britain in particular was systematically humiliated, the role of its troops in the actual combat being embarrassingly below the level of Blair’s grand military posturing. This US ‘unilateralism’ has been attacked more and more vociferously by European experts and diplomats who claim that even NATO � which the US formerly used as a cover for its interests against the squabble-prone United Nations � is virtually redundant. “Will the Americans ever fight a war through NATO again? It’s doubtful. The US reserves the right to itself to wage war, and dumps on others the messy, expensive business of nation-building and peace keeping” (former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, quoted in The Observer, 10 February 2002).
In the last month or so the divisions between the US and its ‘allies’ have once again got the press talking about a ‘new low in US-European relations’. First we had Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech which brought forth a storm of polemics from the French, the Germans, even ex-Tory ministers like Chris Patten, who insisted that none of the countries of the ‘axis’ (Iraq, Iran, North Korea) could be proven to have any direct links with al-Qaida. They were especially incensed by the inclusion of Iran in the axis: had Germany and Britain not been wooing Iran since September 11? The US targeting of Iran was partly a response to Iran’s efforts to procure a sphere of influence in the new Afghan carve-up by backing its own choice of war-lords and armed gangs. But it is even more a way of issuing a warning to the likes of Germany and Britain. The naming of North Korea serves a similar purpose in the Far East in relation to the ambitions of China and Japan.
More recently, the press in Europe has revealed America’s determination to launch an attack on Iraq and topple Saddam. According to a US state official cited in The Guardian (14 Feb), it was very unlikely that the Iraqi regime would accept the stringent programme of weapons inspections the US will demand. “As the American intelligence source put it, the White House ‘will not take yes for an answer’, suggesting that Washington would provoke a crisis”. An article published on 5 February in the same paper observes that Germany had led the chorus of protests by European states against the ‘axis of evil’ speech. The words of Berlin’s deputy foreign minister, Ludger Vollmer, were particularly significant “We Europeans warn against it. There is no indication that Iraq is involved in the terrorism we have been talking about for the last few months� this terror argument can be used to legitimise old enmities”.
At the same time the US announced a new defence budget of unprecedented proportions: a 15 percent increase, the biggest in 20 years, and more than double the military spending in all the European Union. Over the next five years the total budget is planned to rise to two trillion dollars. This means that America’s share in the world’s arms expenses will be as big as the next 25 biggest budgets put together. And the gap is not merely financial. It is also technological � no European state can come anywhere near the US in the use of pilotless attack aircraft, satellite information systems, speed and scale of military transport, and so on. And it is strategic: “�the Afghan war has fundamentally reshaped the architecture of international alliances. Central Asia is splattered with new American fortresses, the Pacific and Indian oceans are patrolled by aircraft carriers and fleets of awesome size” (Observer, 10 February, ’Armed to the teeth’ by Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy. ) This article points out how alarmed the Europeans are at all this: “Lord Robertson, the usually unflappable (NATO) secretary general, has been moved to warn some members that unless the declining European defence expenditure is reversed then Europe � and the Europeans in NATO � are in danger of becoming military pygmies”.
Thus we can see the emerging contours of a new arms race, of a new period of rising imperialist tensions between the most powerful states in the world. The ‘war against terrorism’, Bush has always insisted, has the whole world for its stage and will continue indefinitely. That is because its real aim is not to combat terrorism but to permanently terrorise the world into submission to US diktats. The European powers know this, and their opposition to the US has nothing to do with concern for those who will die as a result of thus lurch into unending warfare. It is based solely on the calculation of their own imperialist interests.
Does this mean that we are heading towards a third world war? Not for the foreseeable future. To fight a world war you need more than just temporary alliances or largely economic conglomerations like the EU. You need fully formed imperialist military blocs. The road to the formation of such blocs can only go so far today for a number of reasons. The tendency for each country to pursue its own national-imperialist interests not only causes problems for the US � it also makes it very difficult for the major European powers to sink their own rivalries and enmities and come to together as a single anti-US bloc under the leadership of the most powerful European nation (this, of course, is Germany, whose very history demonstrates the problem). No less important is the vast military imbalance we have already referred to. The war in Afghanistan, while sharpening tensions between the US and its rivals, has underlined this imbalance even more. As Beaumont and Vulliamy put it, “The reality � even before the latest proposed increases in military spending � is that America could beat the rest of the world at war with one hand tied behind its back”. Conflict between European powers and America will continue and indeed worsen, even taking the form of proxy wars fought through local gangs or even nation states. But it cannot yet be an overt confrontation.
But there is another reason why a third world war is not on the agenda. Imperialist blocs require an ideology if they are to mobilise their populations, and above all their proletariats, for war. The US bourgeoisie has certainly achieved a good measure of success in whipping up a massive campaign of nationalist hysteria after the September 11 attacks, and even gives us a glimpse of what capitalism would need to do on an even bigger scale to drag the proletariat off to war. But a war against the Taliban is one thing; even the US bourgeoisie is not ready to mobilise its workers to make war on ‘democratic’ Europe. And in Europe itself, even the ‘war against terrorism’, while creating negative feelings of disorientation and fear, did not at all actively mobilise the proletariat. Underlying this is the fact that the working class today � in contrast to the 1930s � has not been subjected to a massive defeat and is still ready to defend its class interests rather than sacrifice itself on the altar of war.
And this is precisely why the big wars of today are still aimed at scapegoats rather than at the real enemy. The bourgeoisie is still unable to pursue its imperialist rivalries to their ultimate conclusion. But this is no reason to fall into complacency. The efforts of the USA to impose ‘order’ on a world sliding into chaos can succeed only in aggravating and extending that chaos; humanity is even more menaced by a spiral of local and regional wars than by a single world holocaust. Even more dangerous is the fact that such a spiral could take place without the bourgeoisie having to defeat the workers of the central capitalist countries in a direct confrontation. We could be defeated piecemeal, gradually succumbing to the loss of our class identity, by the creeping rot of a disintegrating social system, making it increasingly impossible for the working class as a class to take power and save society by organising it anew.
And still the working class remains the only force capable of preventing this slide into the abyss. Its current struggles may seem puny in the face of the relentless attack on its living standards demanded both by the deepening world economic crisis and the huge growth in military spending and preparations for war. But the simultaneity of these two elements is no accident; they spring from the same source � the decadence and obsolescence of the capitalist system � and they mutually reinforce each other. In struggling against both crisis and war, the working class can come to recognise their intimate connection, and thus to understand the necessity for its own revolutionary alternative.