Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > The Follies of Empire: America in Iraq and Afghanistan

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 10, February 23, 2013

The Follies of Empire: America in Iraq and Afghanistan

Tuesday 26 February 2013, by Eddie J Girdner



Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 2006. Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 2012.

The author is a journalist who writes for the Washington Post. These two recent books reveal many interesting details about America’s two latest imperial ventures. America is an empire, as the late Chalmers Johnson documented so well in his recent trilogy on the US global footprint. This latest phase of America’s projection of power through military force has now gone on for some twelve years. The American people are war weary as the US prepares to wind down the war in Afghanistan.

Imperial Life begins with a scene at Saddam’s Republican Palace in the Green Zone in 2004. The Americans have taken over. They lounge around a large swimming pool in the palace garden. Iraqi workmen are doing gardening. Helicopters fly over taking casualties to a nearby hospital, unnoticed. The Palace has become the headquarters for the American occupation.

The Americans drink Turkish beer, Lebanese wine, and a downscale brand of whiskey in the bar of the al-Rasheed Hotel. They can call their relatives and friends back in the US for free on their government-issued mobile phones. Many are preparing to leave soon and hope to work for President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Most of those hired to rule the country during the occupation have had no previous experience in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. They got their jobs mainly bacause they had some political connections with the Republican Party. Some had worked for the President’s election campaign in Florida in the 2000 election. Now most of them, whether the young bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, or the older employees, some past retirement age, have become disillusioned with the American effort in Iraq and are ready to hang it up.

Chandrasekaran quotes one older employee who was hired to rehabilitate Iraq’s university system. “I’m a neoconservative who’s been mugged by reality.” After the US invasion, the 22 campuses were looted. John Agresto was optimistic when he came. He figured that he needed a billion US dollars to upgrade the universities and 130,000 new classroom desks. The US provided only eight million dollars and 8000 desks. After a few months, it became too dangerous to even visit the universities. His Iraqi staff was threatened by insurgents. Agresto was confined to the Green Zone and then the mortar attacks began on the living quarters of the Americans.

I have argued elsewhere that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a terrible boondoggle, the destruction of a country and the loss of perhaps three million Iraqi lives. This is just about standard for American imperial ventures, comparable to the loss of life in Korea and Vietnam, also in the range of three million in each country. To this day, Iraq is not stable and certainly not democratic. Recently large demons-trations have taken place in Fallujah by Sunis unhappy with the current government. This is nothing new. It is what American imperialism does.

If the goals had truly been peace, democracy, and a better life for the Iraqi people, then surely the war and occupation should be chalked up as a failure. But this would miss the major point. We should recall that the US jumped on the democracy bandwagon only after the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction. The real goal was global power and hegemony, and the control of oil. To that end, the war did not fail. So the overriding American goal, which could never be stated publicly, was largely achieved.

Another goal was to prevent the development of Iraq as an alternative model of development in the Middle East. This was also achieved, similar to the Vietnam War. Technically, the US lost the war in Vietnam, but in a larger sense, achieved its goal. Even though the Vietcong took over the old American Embassy in Saigon and consolidated power, the country had been destroyed. So a successful alternative pattern of development was prevented. To develop, the country was forced, ultimately, to link up with the global market and allow in foreign capital and technology.

Those larger historical questions are beyond the scope of this book. Indeed, the author, as a reporter for a mainstream American paper, could not openly take up such questions. Rather he looks at the specific programmes and efforts, most of which are seen as misconceived and misguided. In that sense, both books look at these wars within the mainstream ideological party line as being “mismanaged”. That, they were, of course, and the examples are amusing, even absurd, but for me this misses the crucial point. These wars should never have been launched in the first place.

The US set out to colonise Iraq. It was imperial rule with Americans bringing American domestic laws and regulations to Iraq, where there was no need, and when it could not possibly work. Here, I will briefly mention a few incidents. The book is well worth reading and could be a guide to how not to do post-conflict reconstruction.

At the Palace, the dining hall is run by an American contractor, Halliburton, and serves only all-American food. Nothing Middle Eastern. No ethnic food is allowed. Even though many Iraqis had to eat there, there is a lot of pork. It was “high-calorie, high-fat comfort food” to satisfy Americans. Milk, bread, vegetables and cereals—all have to be shipped from other countries, following the US Government regu-lations. Some of these come from Kuwait. The cereal is flown in from the US. Even the water for boiling is shipped in. Halliburton brought in Indians and Pakistanis to cook, serve and clean. They were afraid the Iraqis would poison the food. The laundry service is run by Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a Halliburton subsidiary. The clothes are sent to Kuwait, rather than having them done in Baghdad.

The Indians and Pakistanis refer to “freedom fries” and not “French fries”. It was considered bad taste to question American policy while eating. Meanwhile the Indians and Pakistanis cook their own food with local produce and enjoy delicious food.

The Republican Palace, with 258 rooms, is the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The American occupation lasted officially from April 2003 until June 2004. It looks exactly like colonialism. The Americans ran the government, issued the laws, printed the currency, collected taxes, deployed police, and spent the oil revenue. Most of the 1500 employees of the CPA were Americans. The US sent people who were neoconservatives and believed in the goal of democratisation. They did not want veteran Middle Eastern hands as they were considered too liberal and sceptical about the prospects for democratisation. Simply, they knew too much. Shades of East Asia after World War II when everyone who knew anything about China was booted out of the US Government. 

The Occupation is headed by Paul Bremer, of course, who is always surrounded by guards with sub-machine guns who are paid more than a thousand dollars a day. The US Government employees got a 25 per cent salary bonus. Halliburton is given contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Green Zone is a little America. There are hundreds of private American contractors, such as Bechtel, General Electric and Halliburton, who set up trailer parks. There are American fast-food places and a military-run store that sell all American foods, T-shirts, music and so on. Many Americans do not leave the Green Zone for months, the only place seen as safe. There is a health club with the latest exercise machines. There are Bible study classes. Eventually a security detail was required to leave the Green Zone, making it nearly impossible for most. Of course, this is pretty much what one would expect. 

Bremer arrived in Baghdad less than a month after the invasion. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which was run by Jay Garner was replaced by the CPA after Garner was fired. Bremer is the boss. The Viceroy. Henry Kissinger had called him a “control freak”, when Bremer worked for him.

Bremer’s three priorities are first to restore electricity, water and basic services; secondly, to restore liquidity to the people, restore salaries, run the banks and make loans available; and third, to corporatise and privatise state owned industries. Bremer wants to end subsidies on petrol, electricity, fertiliser and food rations. He compares it to privatisation in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down.

Bremer has the power to sign anything into law without consulting the Iraqis. The White House envoy working on the political transition, Zalmay Khalilzad, is kept away because he knew much more about Iraq than Bremer. Some Americans, such as Garner, are horrified by Bremer’s de-Bathification plan and Garner warned him: “You’re going to drive fifty-thousand Baathists underground before nightfall.” But Bremer went ahead and issued the order. All employees with the rank of udu firka and above were banned. Some 15,000 teachers were fired, leaving schools without teachers. The Army, Air Force, Navy, Ministry of Defence and the Iraqi Intelligence Service were also dissolved creating many enemies. Many of these became insurgents.

Then Bremer scrapped plans for setting up an interim government with the Iraqi exiles. Before the war, Baghdad had been a very safe city, but this quickly degenerated. The CPA brought in Bernard Kerik, the former New York City Police Commissioner during the 9/11 attack, mainly because he was a committed Republican and popular in the US. Kerik was supposed to teach Iraqi police how to work in a democratic society. It seems he spent most of his time going around with Iraqis on night raids and then slept during the day. They went around kicking down doors like cowboys having a good time. When Iraqi judges from the Justice Ministry attended a meeting at the Palace, Kerik asked: “Who the fuck are these people?” He had no business there. Without a clue, he soon returned to the US. 

This goes on and on as one reads the book. Snafu after snafu. SNAFU, in fact, is an old military term that means “situation normal, all fucked up”.

There was a problem with privatising the factories. It was illegal under international law. So the Americans resorted to the policy of shrinkage. Let them go bankrupt, starving them of funds. The looting of public property was seen as positive, a way to get assets into the private sector. Shades of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A defence contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), was given a contract to build an independent TV station. They would run the Iraqi Media Network (IMN). It was supposed to be like BBC, but the CPA just used it as a crude propaganda tool.

The CPA failed to restore electricity and then Bremer made the mistake of diverting power away from Baghdad. The goal of making Iraq a model of democracy became a joke across the region as the country degenerated into chaos. Restoration of the universities was also failing.

Then there was a mortar barrage against the al-Rasheed Hotel where many Americans were living. There was growing anti-American sentiment with the delay in the political transi-tion. The Governing Council, set up by Bremer, requested sovereignty before the end of the occupation. The medical system was in crisis. The hospitals had been looted. The country needed drugs. But the US concern was to create a market-based system to distribute medicines. Then Bremer devised a scheme to replace food distribution with cash payments. But the payments would often be squandered on other things. This would lead to food riots.

A twentyfour-year old American was brought in to build a new stock exchange with a compu-terised trading system. Iraqis did not want it. Some 45 members out of 85 on the stock exchange were fired. The Iraqis rehired them when the occupation ended and went back to doing things the old way. American policies created traffic chaos. The military blocked main roads and people began to drive on the wrong side of the road and on sidewalks. Half a million cars were shipped into the country while refineries could not produce petrol for them. There were long lines at petrol stations.

The person in charge of writing a new traffic law just downloaded the laws for the state of Maryland in the US. The Iraqis hated it. By the end, Bremer had signed 100 orders and Iraqis wanted to again run their own country their own way.

Then the Mahdi Army made an attack on American forces in Sadr City. Eight soldiers were killed here, including Casey Sheehen, whose mother, Cindy Sheehen, became a prominent anti-war activist. The US closed down news-papers. Most construction projects stopped because the contractors could not leave the Green Zone. Then the Fallujah operation killed a large number of civilians and practically flattened the city. The Fallujah Brigade operation became a farce. After being armed by the Americans, they became insurgents.

Were the Americans building a “Jeffersonian Democracy?” Bremer seemed to believe so. Bremer left Iraq secretly a day early for security reasons but claimed that the CPA had set the country on a path to democratic government, a free market economy and a modern infra-structure. But they had electricity only nine hours a day, life was hell for most and 85 per cent lacked confidence in the CPA. Almost nine billion dollars in funds could not be accounted for, including 2.4 billion dollars flown in to Baghdad just before the handover to the Iraqis.

The book on Afghanistan is centred mostly in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. It covers the war against the Taliban and Obama’s surge. The local towns have been destroyed by the war where there were flourishing fruit orchards.

Little America begins with a sketch of Now Zad, one hundred miles northwest of Kandahar. While the Americans were fighting in Iraq, the area was turned over to the British who largely left the Taliban alone. In 2009 the Americans took over to implement a new policy of counterinsurgency (COIN). American soldiers are getting their legs and arms blown off with IEDs. When a Marine company arrives, twenty per cent of the troops are wounded and evacuated after only a short period. They kill a lot of Taliban, but at a high cost and the town has been abandoned. The troops wonder if there is any point to the mission. More than two dozen Americans have had their legs blown off around the small city. Unlike the British, the American Marines want to move the lines forward. NATO and the foreign ambassadors are against this, seeing a stalemate with the Taliban as preferable to pouring in more troops and dollars.

But in 2009, Obama takes office and makes the decision to send an additional 20,000 troops. In 2007, he had said that Afghanistan is “the war that has to be won”. This is now Obama’s war. Obama thought that abandoning the war in Afghanistan had caused the 9/11 attacks. Afghanistan is the “good war”, unlike Iraq which was launched on a false pretext. Obama wants to double the troop levels, bring in more civilian advisors, bring in money for construction, make the Karzai Government accountable and carry out counterinsurgency.

This book covers the period from early 2009 to mid-2011, from Obama’s surge to the drawdown. 

The background to the war in Helmand is interesting and few in America seem to be aware of this history. I was not before reading the book. It begins in the late 1940s when the US launched a large development project in the Helmand River Valley. American engineers would be brought in and dams and canals built to irrigate the land. New Western-style towns would be built with schools, hospitals, electricity, and factories.

Predictably, an American private firm would be given a large contract for the work. This was Morrison-Knudson in l951, the company that built the San Francisco Golden-Gate bridge and Hoover Dam. The company set up a base with 120 buildings. Afghans were brought in to grow crops. There would be a two-thousand acre experimental farm, hotel, university, schools, mosque, hospitals, sugar mill, fruit orchards and so on. The company had earlier built the road from Kandahar to the Pakistan border. They brought in all their equipment from the US to create their little America.

The main problem was drainage. The subsoil was impermeable and when the water did not go down, the salts came up and nothing would grow. But the Americans thought they could solve the problems. The King created the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) and in l952 President Harry Truman provided assistance under the Point Four Assistance Programme. Lashkar Gah was a Little America with Americans living an American life style in Afghanistan. There were even swimming pools and women were not required to wear veils. The first co-educational schools in Afghanistan were established.

The Mullahs in Kandahar decided this experi-ment must be ended. There was a plot to attack Americans. Some saw them as infidels putting a curse on the land. But the American Embassy did not take the threat seriously.

By the l960s, the US Agency for International Development took over the project. A dozen American Peace Corps Volunteers were sent for teaching and agriculture. The Afghans liked the Peace Corps better as they lived like locals in the village and learned the language. Efforts continued to solve the irrigation problems up into the l970s. Interestingly, the crop that grew best on the waterlogged fields was poppies. That seemed to be the future anyway. When the Communist Party took over in a coup in l978, the Americans left and the project was finally dead. 

Most of the book details the battles to separate the Taliban and local population under a counter-insurgency strategy. This meant protecting the local population rather than hunting down the guerrillas. Specific elements included ensuring law and order, providing basic services such as education and health care, governmental operations, training local security forces, and rebuilding the infrastructure. The Marine General in charge of the area had ten thousand troops.

Chandrasekaran argues that because of the communist revolution in l978, the feudal land-lords had been killed or fled. They were replaced by the mullahs and local warlords. They funded their militias with poppy production. Thanks to the Americans, they could now produce even more.

What happened in Helmand is instructive. Mullah Nasim Akhundzada became the local leader but was killed when he clashed with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s drug dealing business. Then his brother Rasul replaced him. But when the Taliban took over, the clan fled to Quetta. Rasul died and his son, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, became the clan leader. He then married into Hamid Karzai’s family. So when the US overthrew the Taliban in 2001 Karzai appointed Sher Mohammad as the Governor of Helmand. Mullah Mohammed Omar fled to Pakistan. The Mujahideen warlords returned with the US supporting them. According to the Americans, they were the “ideal leaders for new Afghanistan”. The Mujahideen warlords became part of the provincial government, the police chief, and the intelligence director, who was in charge of the opium bazaar. They were anti-Taliban, supported President Karzai and worked closely with the US Special Operations Forces. The three Pashtun strongmen set out to dominate the drug trade in the province.

When the Taliban began coming back by 2002, the villagers welcomed them because the local people were fed up with the government and the warlords. Being occupied in Iraq, the US left the situation up to the NATO.

In early 2009 the new US Marine Corps General in charge of Helmand was preparing to launch Operation River Liberty and “stop the slide”. The new Commander in Afghanistan, Stan McChrystal, would focus on the South, but after a year he would be sacked and replaced by General David Petraeus. Petraeus would have his own problems by having a secret affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell in Afghanistan, who was writing a book on him. Petraeus would return after a year and be appointed CIA Director and then be forced to resign when “the shit hit the fan”, as they say in the military, when knoweldge of the affair surfaced.

After driving back the Taliban the Americans would “win hearts and minds” by “delivering basic services”. In this case, it came down to throwing lots of money in the direction of the peasants. Perhaps the fastest way to a peasant’s heart is through his pocket book, but what happens when the money runs out? General McChrystal visited Helmand and asked President Obama for more troops. Shades of Vietnam.

Obama and his advisors are not big on Karzai. They see him as a tribal chieftain condoning corruption, neglecting governing, working with warlords, insincere and incompetent. Vice-President Joe Biden accuses him of corruption and encouraging record levels of poppy production. Obama believes that the people turn to the Taliban because of the bad rule of Hamid Karzai’s warlord cronies.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, wants Karzai replaced. An election is coming up and Holbrooke favours Ashraf Ghani, a former Finance Minister with a Ph.D from Columbia University. He is a Pashtun and had worked for the World Bank. But the August election turns into a farce. Karzai’s cronies stuff the ballot boxes. Holbrooke is there to watch the election and has a run in with Karzai at a luncheon in Kabul when he suggests a run-off election. Karzai will not get the needed fifty per cent. This angers the Afghan President who says he does not want to see Holbrooke again.

President Obama settles on thirty thousand troops for the surge. Major battles will be in Helmand. But it is the ninth year of the war and patience is running out in Washington. Karzai’s brother, “the kingpin of Kandahar”, is also a problem for the Americans, as he steers contracts for construction projects to his relatives and cronies. The US tries to pin drug dealing on Ahmed Wali, but lacks incriminating evidence. As for Karzai, he really does not believe in counterinsurgency. He would like for the US to just leave Helmand and the South and concentrate on the border with Pakistan.

The highly fortified US Embassy compound in Kabul is a lot like the Green Zone in Baghdad. Americans spend their time looking at computer screens attending meetings, and hardly ever see any of Afghanistan. There are lots of parties and drinking. Two Americans get sent home for urinating on the wall of the chancery building.

Meanwhile, Holbrooke manages to get 300 million dollars for a new programme in Helmand called Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Production in Agriculture (AVIPA). It was “carpet bombing the district with US dollars”. Some four hundred dollars for every person in the district and it all had to be spent in one year. The US hands out tonnes of free seed and new tractors. A lot of the goods are simply sold for cash across the border in Pakistan. The US then spends more than four billion dollars for reconstruction. The contracts go to big US firms with layers of subcontractors. 

Holbrooke believes that the goal must be a negotiated settlement between the Taliban, the Afghan Government, and the US. Counter-insurgency is too costly and takes too long. But Petraeus is not yet ready to talk. Taking over in July 2010, he uses get tough tactics, trippling night-time missions. Civilians die and Karzai protests. The Pakistan Interservices Intelligence (ISI) Directorate reacts by providing more arms and intelligence to the Taliban, increasing support for Jalaluddin Haqqani in the East. Pakistan must protect its security against India by strengthening the Taliban and providing sanctuaries. The Americans never quite come to grips with this aspect of the war. 

The Sarposa Prison break in Kandahar in which a number of Taliban escape through a 220 metre tunnel is an interesting part of the story.

Back in Washington, Holbrooke suddenly collapses and dies, his last words: “Stop this war.” Perhaps President Obama understood that the time had come. 

By June 2011, the US President is ready to begin the troop drawdown. The war is costing 100 billion dollars a year. More than 1500 American soldiers are dead in Afghanistan.

Reconstruction projects are also about to come to an end. The CIA issues a progress report which concludes that there was no net progress from the surge. Stalemate. The White House does not want to hear it. The President presents the image that the surge has worked. Shades of George W. Bush.

Karl Marx wrote somewhere that the effect of war was equivalent to dumping the nation’s wealth into the sea. These two wars have enriched a few, but killed and impoverished millions. Chandrasekaran has skillfully revealed many interesting details of this tragic history. The books make fascinating reading. Surely, there were many hard-working individuals who meant well, but this could not make the flawed policies right. One wishes that policy-makers could learn from these events. 

George Bush had his war and now Barack Obama has had his. More follies of the American Empire.

Eddie J. Girdner is a Professor at Izmir University, Izmir, Turkey and the author of the forthcoming book Sarvodaya and Democracy (New Delhi: Gyan Publishers). He can be contacted by e-mail at:

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.