It was fascinating to see the war in Afghanistan roll onto the glossy pages of Time Magazine and Newsweek. Articles were garnished with photos of American soldiers striding purposefully through the Afghan wastelands or standing tall against a backdrop of awestruck Afghanis. With their hulky builds and the techno-wizardry of their gear, they seemed like men from another planet, especially against the "childlike," "primitive" nation they had come to save. The slant was glaring: The American soldier was being storied as the farm-boy turned superhuman, thanks to his training, technical know-how and the pure moral strength of democratic culture. What's more, it all sounded hauntingly familiar.
The media was not just reporting news but recreating myths; and it was obvious which myth in particular was being repackaged to the public. Superman, all at once the Kansas farm-boy and the gracious stranger from Krypton, who defends Metropolis urbanites (read citizens of the world) against one-dimensional villains plotting for world domination. Superman, who doesn't really belong but benevolently vigilant as always, appears at the crisis, saves the day and then soars back into the wide blue yonder as citizens watch in awe - recall that the peacekeeping forces in Kabul are not American but European. Also remember the emphasis on "saving" the oppressed Afghan women; the U.S. was definitely advertising itself as Superman to a collective Lois Lane trapped behind burqas. This is your basic Saturday morning cartoon.
It's important to remember that myths are both grand exaggerations of and smoke screens for reality. What's the hard reality behind the pretty picture? I stumbled upon the ultimate cue to the "where lies the truth?" question in the 1976 movie, All the President's Men. In one of the scenes in which Deep Throat and Woodward meet, Deep Throat sets Woodward on track by this simple advice: "follow the money." In this case, of course, we can translate "money" as oil. But wait: is it really about oil? Yes, if you take Michel Collon's word: "If you want to rule the world, you need to control oil. All the oil. Anywhere."
First, some dirty oil history. It's suspected that FDR maneuvered the U.S. into WWII to get control over the Pacific by cutting off oil supplies to Japan and so provoking the Pearl Harbor attack. As it turns out, oil also casts its murky shadows on the Vietnam conflict. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover (later to be president) presented a study proving that one of the world's largest oil fields lay beneath the South China Sea, right off the coast of Vietnam. While the U.S. launched a non-designated war 40 years later, with invasions topped off with heavy doses of bombing, U.S. oil corporations conducted a ten-year survey of the seabed off Vietnam's coast. After the war, Vietnam divided its offshore coastal area into oil lots and put them up for bid; none from among the Norwegian, British, Dutch, Russian, German or Australian petroleum companies struck black gold, but the U.S. "luckily" tapped into a vast reserve (Marshall Douglas Smith, Black Gold, Hot Gold). And the 1954 CIA-led coup in Iran, which installed the despotic Shah of Iran on the throne, reversed the previous regime's nationalization of Iran's oil, redirecting it towards the U.S.
Of course, the most spectacular of oil-dramas have been always been staged in the Middle East. The deserts of Saudi Arabia conceal 261 billion barrels of oil, far outstripping the U.S.'s own considerable reserves of 22 billion barrels. Micheal Klare, author of the book Resource Ways, says, "We [the U.S.] view oil as a security consideration, and we have to protect it by any means necessary, regardless of other considerations, other values." At last, someone honest enough to admit that freedom, democracy, human rights are catch-words masking the crude, molten hunger for power.
And the mission in Afghanistan? Let's look closer and see if we can't find our specter. Given how brutal the Taliban regime was, the U.S. seemed to have a divine right to sail in, take them out and replace the power vacuum with a legitimate Afghan government. However, the U.S. was cheerfully pumping money into the madrassas that recruit young men for holy war, as a tactic for bringing down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Between 1977 and 1988, the U.S. government poured between $12 billion and $15 billion worth of arms, training and funds to set up the Afghan mujahideen factions. But while the CIA equipped the mujahideen with high-grade weapons, they were careful to disguise their involvement by hiring a middleman. As Israeli editor Yacov Ben Efrat says, "In order to diminish financial activity between the U.S. and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia was engaged to transfer large sums of money from its accounts, which the CIA managed behind the scenes."
Here are some questions we might ask. If the Taliban extremists were brutal in their human rights record, what do you call the deliberate institutionalization of a system which ensnared young boys, away from their families and a future, in a foreign war on pretext of Islamic jihad? The best warrior is surely the ignorant, fundamentalist warrior: What do call these "scholarships" that funded the brainwashing of 5 to 17-year-old boys in to hard-boiled, intolerant soldiers, as a tactic for bleeding the Soviet Union? What name do you give the duping of these young boys, who believed that they were fighting and dying for God's cause, while in reality they were just doing the U.S.'s dirty laundry?
Some other details: John Cooley, a former journalist with ABC television and author of Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, reveals that young Muslim men were actually recruited in the U.S. and sent to Camp Peary, the CIA training camp in Virginia where Afghans, Arabs and even some African-American Muslims were taught "sabotage skills" to be used against the Soviets. So some of the mujahideen were actually trained on U.S. soil. It's curious how the axis of evil actually turns out to be aligned to the axis of good.
But what's the connection between Afghanistan and oil? As it turns out, the pearl at the center of the oyster is the Caspian Basin, located a few thousand miles away from Afghanistan. Here are some facts: oil in the Caspian Sea adds up to a staggering 206 billion barrels, which is 16 percent of the world's potential oil reserves. The moment the Soviet Union fell, oil corporations began scuttling around the Basin, conducting surveys and negotiating deals. Afghanistan, is the key to accessing the Caspian oil since it is the corridor to the glut of black gold.
Initially, though, the Taliban were seen as a plus factor for getting a pipeline built through Afghanistan. Whatever their religious convictions and human rights record, the U.S. saw them as stabilizing force that would provide optimal conditions for the pipeline. The Taliban, however, refused to go along with the conditions laid down by the U.S., and we all know the result. Two French intelligence analysts recently wrote a book called Bin Laden, The Forbidden Truth, in which they report a telling moment during the U.S.-Taliban negotiations: "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold or we bury you under a carpet of bombs." I don't think I need to say whose line this was. But in present day Afghanistan, it's unlikely that Hamid Karzai's government will put up resistance to U.S. oil objectives.
It's time to extract our conclusions. It's clear that the Taliban had to leave because they weren't cooperating with U.S. oil interests - the classic case of the illegitimate son taking a stand against the autocratic father. But how do we reinterpret the moral justifications for the war? What can we say about the women? I want to make a radical suggestion here: The Taliban, for all their barbarity towards the Afghan women, actually disrespected them less than the U.S. If the Taliban oppressed the women, the U.S. processed them through its massive propaganda machine, the media, to get a sellable idea justifying its ends. The U.S. reduced the women to a counter in the vast game for resources.
What's to be done? Responsibility, as always, rests on the citizen. This has been said so many times that it's practically become a truism, but that doesn't alter the fact. It's the citizen's responsibility to be aware, alert and conscious, and it's the citizen's responsibility to shoot down any myth making which the U.S. uses to dodge accountability. But what hope is there? Not much, as far as I can see. Americans have always wanted the easy way out; for proof, look no further than our fantasy life. WWII and the chemical revolution created Captain America, the chemically enhanced Christ, to shoulder the world; when the age of genetic engineering and biomedical wizardry began the '90s, the X-men, whose powers were written in the mysterious codes of their genes, became astronomically popular. We are always waiting with bated breath, for the distant, masked savior lingering in the shadows. The sad, ordinary reality of things is that we have only our human bodies and a human will with which to make change - but it becomes a lot harder when our government filters what we see with cartoon reality. Seas of pain roll around us, that we neither see nor hear, because we're sitting, pasty faced, in front of Saturday morning T.V.