Geopolitical Fetishism and the Case of Afghanistan

— Purnima Bose

AS THE UNITED States’ military intervention in Afghanistan inches into its eleventh year, a profound disjunction characterizes the American public experience of this conflict and the realities of war.

According to the United Nations, the casualty count for Afghan civilians from 2007-2012 numbers 12,783, and the death toll from 2001 to the present for U.S. armed forces totals 1,895.(1) Yet the war in Afghanistan rarely features prominently on the front page of the national dailies, with the exception of the more excessive instances of military atrocities such as the recent massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales.

Nor is the conflict covered in the nightly newscasts of network journalism, or referenced in the political speeches of the 2012 presidential candidates. The lack of urgency toward the Afghan conflict among the U.S. public stems perhaps from a number of factors, including the absence of a military draft and the restriction of the direct experience of war to a very small percentage of the citizenry; the fact that the U.S. government has made no demands for shared sacrifice in the way of rationing goods and services from the general public; and the reality that Afghanistan constitutes only one of several U.S. military interventions (Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya are others).

A general dearth of meaningful information for understanding the conflict also plays a role. The consolidation of media outlets to a handful of corporations, the transformation of serious journalism into sensational entertainment, the advent of cable news and the concomitant crisis in print journalism, and the decline in resources for foreign reporting all add to the war’s invisibility.(2)

The generalized ignorance in the United States regarding the Afghan conflict contributes to a form of fetishism in the Marxist sense, which I will call “geopolitical fetishism.” “Commodity fetishism,” for Marx, signifies the dual processes by which social relations are obscured in capitalist societies and commodities become reified as “mysterious things” with “metaphysical subtleties.”

Geopolitical fetishism functions at a level larger than the commodity, individual producer, and consumer to encompass relations between states. It disguises a number of material realities, including the human consequences of military intervention, the geo-strategic motivations of imperial states, and the operations of what David Harvey terms “the new imperialism.”(3)

According to Harvey, a dialectic between the logics of territoriality and of capital constitutes the new imperialism in which each logic is “distinct” but simultaneously “intertwine[d] in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.” (29) The logic of territoriality inheres in “imperialism as a distinctively political project,” generally pursued by states “whose power is based on command of a territory and a capacity to mobilize [their] human and natural resources towards political, economic, and military ends.” (26)

In democratic states, this project is enacted by politicians and statesmen who “typically seek outcomes that sustain or augment the power of their own state vis-à-vis other states.” (27)

 They act, in other words, out of the territorialized space of the nation-state and a temporality governed by electoral cycles, a crucial point in relationship to the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan that I will return to later.

In contrast to the logic of territoriality, Harvey associates the logic of capital with discrete “processes of capital accumulation in space and time,” a more dispersed form of imperialism in which the control and manipulation of capital is prioritized over territorial objectives. (26) Where the logic of territoriality is bound to specific geographical entities, the logic of capital exceeds territorial limits and geopolitical boundaries, and is characterized by movement.

“[P]roduction, trade, commerce, capital flows, money transfers, labour migration, technology transfer, currency speculation, flows of information, cultural impulses, and the like”  constitute the logic of capital. (26-27) Economic power is not spatially bound and can flow multi-directionally to and from territorial entities.

Dispossession and New Imperialism

The logic of capital plays a crucial role in what Harvey terms “accumulation by dispossession.” Whereas Marx posited primitive accumulation — the expulsion of peasants from their land and their transformation into wage laborers, and the enclosure of the commons — as comprising the pre-history of capitalism, Harvey views these processes as ongoing and actively present today, with additional mechanisms for the transfer of wealth from the many to the few and its consolidation among elites.

In addition to neoliberal privatization, accumulation by dispossession occurs through financialization, the manipulation and management of crises by federal and international banking units, and policies devised by the state to redistribute wealth (for example, by restructuring tax codes).

Not surprisingly, the state functions as the primary agent for the redistribution of wealth given its superior capacity to organize “institutional arrangements,” in Harvey’s words, “to preserve that pattern of asymmetries in exchange that are most advantageous to the dominant capitalist interests working within its frame.” (132-133)

These dual logics of territoriality and capital are masked by geopolitical fetishism. Where in older forms of imperialism, territorial expansion through direct military seizure and political domination from the metropole were front and center of the colonial project, in the new imperialism the status of land and its ownership is occluded.

Laura E. Lyons has argued for the necessity of grounding analyses of globalization and geopolitical relations in actually-existing land, but it is precisely this dimension that disappears in representations of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.(4)

The new imperialism does not strive for direct control of the totality of Afghan territory, but instead asserts dominion over discrete pockets of land for the establishment of military bases. While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of U.S. military bases in the world and in Afghanistan given the secrecy surrounding the Pentagon’s properties overseas, some analysts estimate that by 2009 the U.S. military had acquired control over 795,000 acres, housing around 190,000 troops on more than 1,000 bases worldwide.(5)

The U.S. Defense Department during the last decade has undertaken a systematic realignment of military forces and bases overseas, precipitated by the end of the Cold War and a foreign policy orientation no longer directed toward containment of the Soviet Union. Michael T. Klare identifies multiple U.S. geopolitical interests behind this realignment — controlling other countries’ access to resources, “a shift from defensive to offensive operations,” and uncertainty about “the future reliability of long-term allies, especially those in ‘Old Europe.’”(6)

To address these concerns, the U.S. military is scaling back on the number of conventional military bases it operates in Germany, Japan, and South Korea in favor of establishing new facilities in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South East Asia, and Africa.(7) Reluctant to term these facilities “military bases” — a designation which signifies large-scale operations with permanent barracks, family housing, recreation facilities, arsenals — the Defense Department prefers the vocabulary of “enduring camps.”(8)

Unlike military bases which require the negotiation of elaborate treaties with host countries, the new facilities, because of their apparent flexibility and alleged impermanence, can bypass the usual protocols requiring congressional approval for their establishment; instead the president can exert his prerogative to secure “partnership agreements” without consulting Congress.

These new facilities are geared toward enabling the rapid deployment of troops to conflict zones and come in two varieties: those that contain weapons stockpiles and logistical facilities (such as airstrips or port complexes), and bare-bone facilities that are assembled on an as-need basis in response to specific crises.

Staffed by “a small permanent crew of US military technicians,” the first type of installation, “forward operating bases” [FOBs] typically do not house large combat units. The second type of installation, called “cooperative security locations,” or the more benign-sounding “lily pads,” are run by “military contractors and host-country personnel.”(9)

In Afghanistan, the U.S. base count currently hovers at about 450, ranging in the size of the facilities and amenities available for troops.(10) These facilities vary from rustic Combat Outposts, Camps and FOBs consisting of tents in compounds made of mud and straw, to mega-bases like the one at Bagram that “resemble small American towns” and house fast food franchises, including Burger King and Popeyes.(11)

Moreover, the U.S. military has dedicated millions of dollars in the next several years toward the construction of additional facilities in Afghanistan and the renovation of existing ones such as Bagram Airfield. According to Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the US Army Corps of Engineers, these structures will be “concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins.”(12)

Mock Reality and Strategic Aims

The durability of these construction materials augurs a longer-term presence of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan than is indicated by the 2014 withdrawal timetable.

Recently, Michael Shaw has remarked on the narrative structure of mainstream media representations of the war in Afghanistan, which he notes are “largely unironic” inversions of reality. He identifies a series of “mock” figures and scenarios that together constitute the media’s construction of a “narrative of pretend” about the Iraq and Afghan wars.

The visual images of the wars present, as Shaw explains, “a mock version of reality showing mock-progress, in mock-relationship with our mock-allies, by way of mock media access depicting mock front lines… no one is going to question these photos, or the often Grand Canyon-sized gap between pictures and reality […] so long as the images make our cause appear just and our warriors appear heroic.”(13)

Shaw’s use of the word “mock” sublimely captures the imitative and ridiculous quality of such narratives, as well as the corporate media’s contempt for the public’s ability to discern the real consequences of the conflict. To his repertoire of narratives, we can add the “mock withdrawal,” most immediately evidenced by the ten year Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by U.S. and Afghan presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai on May 1, 2012.

While the text of that agreement has yet to be released, the New York Times reports that it contains references to a continued U.S. military presence in the region, and a more detailed security agreement will be negotiated in the next few years.(14) A number of the new military facilities will be geared toward drone warfare and oriented around special operations units, which largely work in secrecy.(15) The year 2014 represents a mock withdrawal insofar as the total number of U.S. soldiers on the ground could very well decrease even as technological warfare and covert operations increase.

Imperial Logics Converge

Given the resilience of U.S. military bases and their tendency to persist many decades after conflicts are declared ended, it is worth probing the geostrategic aims of maintaining a semi-permanent military presence in Afghanistan, aims that contain geographical aspects — in other words, the logic of territoriality — but also slide into the logic of capital. I see geopolitical fetishism as eliding three primary objectives of the policy that is geared towards establishing and maintaining U.S. military bases in this embattled country.

First, the United States hopes to stabilize the region and check the growth of Islamic militancy in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Second, the presence of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan further erodes the influence of Russia in the region and curbs the potential challenge of a strong China. The third and final objective seems to be to secure control over access to oil and gas reserves in Central Asia (energy reserves that are crucial to the competing economies of Asia in the next 50 years) and to the untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan itself.

Global oil production and distribution have long been a consideration of U.S. foreign policy, going back to the late 1970s when president Jimmy Carter declared that the United States would use “any means necessary, including military force,” to ensure its access to oil reserves in the Persian Gulf in what became known as the doctrine that bore his name.(16)

As the second largest consumer of petroleum, having been overtaken by China in 2010, the United States imports roughly half of its energy requirements. The Middle East region’s chronic instability has necessitated an attempt to diversify its sources of imported oil; the United States consequently has turned its attention to the massive untapped reserves in Central Asia.

The Central Asian Republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are believed to possess considerable oil and gas reserves. Because these countries are landlocked, Afghanistan has become strategically important.

As the U.S. government Energy Information fact sheet on Afghanistan notes, the country’s “significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographic position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. This potential includes proposed multi-billion dollar oil and gas export pipelines through Afghanistan.”(17)

Successive U.S. administrations and various corporate executives of Unocal (now Chevron) and CentGas (an international consortium of six corporations) have conducted on-again/off-again negotiations with Afghan officials over the construction of gas and oil pipelines. During the Bush administration, cozy relationships between government officials and the oil industry most probably helped lubricate negotiations.

Overlapping interests among administration officials include U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s membership on the board of directors of Chevron from 1991-2000; she even had an oil tanker named after her till it was renamed “Altair Voyager” to deflect charges of impropriety. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans and Secretary of Energy Stanley Abraham both worked for Tom Brown, an oil and gas exploration company.

Vice President Dick Cheney was famously the CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services such as drilling wells, building wells, and a host of other activities involved in oil and gas production. President George Bush himself hails from a family that has been in the oil business since 1950.(18)

The existence of significant oil and gas reserves in Central Asia, along with the 2010 Pentagon discovery that Afghanistan has about a trillion dollars of untapped mineral wealth including iron, copper, cobalt, and industrial metals like lithium (one Pentagon internal memo describes Afghanistan’s potential to be “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a crucial material for manufacturing batteries for laptops and Blackberries) represents the convergence of the two logics of the new imperialism — in which the territorial dimensions of intervention map on to the capitalist logic of resource exploitation, together becoming the means of accumulation by dispossession.(19)

But the logic of capital is most evident in the U.S. reconstruction effort, marked thus far by corruption, lack of oversight and subpar workmanship resulting in hazardous new highways; schools, clinics and hospitals that are crumbling and not been built to withstand the chronic earthquakes in the region; and medical facilities that lack adequate clean water delivery or waste removal systems.

Mock Reconstruction

While millions of dollars have been channeled toward Afghan reconstruction by numerous countries, most of this aid does not make it into the hands of ordinary Afghans. Instead, as Fariba Nawa reveals: the United States and donor countries “have a system, through world financial institutions, that treats the country like a massive money laundering machine.

The money rarely leaves the countries that pledge it; USAID gives contracts to American companies (and the World Bank and IMF give contracts to companies from their donor countries) who take huge chunks off the top and hire layers and layers of subcontractors who take their cuts, leaving only enough for sub-par construction.”(20)

USAID and the Pentagon have awarded more than a few no-bid, open-ended contracts to corporations such as the Louis Berger Group [LBG], a privately-held New Jersey based engineering consulting corporation, charged with constructing schools, medical clinics, and highways.

Contracted by the United Nations via USAID to build the Shiberghan highway in northern Afghanistan, LBG partnered with a Turkish firm, which, in turn, hired an Afghan-American construction company for the actual construction.

By construction time, the money for the highway had gushed through so many agencies and contractors that very little trickled down for high-quality building materials and the highway started to disintegrate before it had even been completed.

After all the contractors and subcontractors had taken their cuts — varying from six to twenty percent — not much money remains for materials to build decent highways, let alone to fund the annual maintenance required to keep them functioning.(21)

In Marx’s account of the circulation of capital in the production process, profits from production — after the cost of inputs and labor has been subtracted — are ideally reinvested in the production process both to make it more efficient and to finance a market expansion. Capital, in other words, expands in this process and ideally creates new opportunities for investment and economic growth.

In Afghanistan, however, because so much of reconstruction is funneled through U.S. and international corporations — at the expense of contracting directly with local Afghan businesses — the process of capital expansion typically associated with production has been transformed to its opposite, a capital contraction, or, rather its redistribution by the U.S. government in another example of accumulation by dispossession.

Construction of the Kabul to Kandahar Highway, along with other infrastructure projects, was rushed under pressure from the Bush and Karzai administrations to demonstrate progress in reconstruction ahead of crucial elections for both politicians. As Peggy O’Ban, a spokeswoman for USAID acknowledges, reconstruction involves “cultural and political imperatives. The quality [of a highway] may be affected if it’s between one layer of asphalt or two, for example. [The Kabul to Kandahar highway] wasn’t just to build a road but to show that the transitional government can get things done. Free society is the goal.(22)

The need to demonstrate progress for political purposes, rather than as a commitment to improving Afghanistan’s infrastructure, suggests that the goal of creating the illusion of progress is more important than its actualization. To paraphrase Michael Shaw, mock reconstruction has become the occasion to trumpet mock progress in Afghanistan.

Geopolitical fetishism obscures the operations of the new imperialism in both its territorial and capitalist dimensions. Instead, the contradictory stories Americans tell ourselves about our military intervention involve projecting Afghans simultaneously as terrorists who deserve punishment for 9/11 (the retributive-justice narrative); as victimized women who need saving (the rescue narrative); as brave anti-communist warriors who suffered the consequences of our disengagement with the region following the end of the Cold War (the premature withdrawal narrative); as feudal villagers who must be inculcated in democracy (the democratizing mission narrative); and as a primitive Third World nation that must be pushed into capitalist modernity (the developmental narrative).

The resilience of these narratives requires a more honest and de-fetishized appraisal of our geostrategic motivations in the region, and their actual toll in creating misery. In the meantime, casualties continue to mount.

Notes

  1. Given that official tallies of Afghan casualties did not begin until 2007, the actual number of civilian deaths over the entire war is much higher. The figures for Afghan casualties are from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Executive Summary and Recommendations,” Afghanistan Annual Report 2011: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, February 2012). For US armed forces fatalities, see Susan G. Chesser, “Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians.” (CRS Report for Congress, R41084, February 29, 2012) at www.crs.gov.
    back to text
  2. For a breakdown of corporate ownership of the media, see Columbia Journalism Review, “Who Owns What.” http://www.cjr.org/resources/ and the Freepress, “Who Owns the Media?” http://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart. Accessed May 10, 2012.
    back to text
  3. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford UP, 2003).
    back to text
  4. See Laura E. Lyons, “Dole, Hawai’i, and the Question of Land under Globalization,” Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation, ed. Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons (Bloomington: Indiana University 2010).
    back to text
  5. Kenneth Partridge, “Preface,” US National Debate Topic 2010-2011: The American Military Presence Overseas (New York and Dublin: H.W. Wilson Company, 2010), xii.
    back to text
  6. Michael T. Klare, “Imperial Reach” The Nation, April 7, 2005, http://www.thenation.com.
    back to text
  7. In addition to Michael T. Klare, see Alexander Cooley, “US Bases and Democratization in Central Asia,” Orbis v. 52 (Winter 2008): 65-90; Michael Mechanic, “Mission Creep,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2008, (www.motherjones.com); Nick Turse, “The 700 Military Bases of Afghanistan,” CBSNews, February 10, 2011 (http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-215_162-6193925.html) and “450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet,” The Huffington Post, February 13, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nick-turse/450-bases-and-its-not-ove_b_1273018.html).
    back to text
  8. Michael T. Klare, “Imperial Reach” and Nick Turse, “Base Desires in Afghanistan” TomDispatch.com, October 21, 2010 (http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175310/tomgram%3A_nick_turse,_base_desires_in_afghanistan).
    back to text
  9. Klare, “Imperial Reach.”
    back to text
  10. Nick Turse, “450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet.”
    back to text
  11. Nick Turse, “The 700 Military Bases of Afghanistan.”
    back to text
  12. Qtd. by Turse, “450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet.”
    back to text
  13. Michael Shaw, “Rotor Wash, In/Visibility of the Afghan War, and My Excellent Weekend at Indiana U,” April 16, 2012, (http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2012/04/rotor-wash-invisibility-of-the-afghan-war-and-my-excellent-weekend-at-indiana-u/.)
    back to text
  14. Alissa Rubin, “With Pact, US Agrees to Help Afghans For Years to Come,” New York Times. April 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/23/world/asia/us-and-afghanistan-reach-partnership-agreement.html?pagewanted=all.
    back to text
  15. Turse, “450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet.”
    back to text
  16. President Carter, State of the Union Speech, January 23, 1980, http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/documents/speeches/su80jec.phtml.
    back to text
  17. Qtd. by Sitaram Yechury, “America, Oil, and Afghanistan,” The Hindu Online,13 October 2001. http://www.hindu.com/2001/10/13/stories/05132524.htm.
    back to text
  18. See Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban for a detailed account of negotiations over the oil and gas pipelines (London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2001). For ties between Bush administration officials and the energy industry, consult articles by Katty Kay in The Guardian (“Analysis: Oil and the Bush Cabinet,” January 29, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1138009.stm) and Kevin Phillips in the Los Angeles Times (“Bush Family Values: War, Wealth, Oil,” February 8, 2004, http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0208-05.htm).
    back to text
  19. Qtd. by James Risen. “US Identifies Vast Mineral Resources in Afghanistan,” New York Times, June 13, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?pagewanted=all.
    back to text
  20. For an excellent analysis of reconstruction, see Fariba Nawa, Afghanistan, Inc.: A Corpwatch Investigative Report, (May 2, 2006), 28. Available at: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=13518.
    back to text
  21. Ibid., 8.
    back to text
  22. Qtd. by Nawa, 6.
    back to text

July/August 2012, ATC 159

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.