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Macbeth, at his darkest, described life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. I can reveal, however, that because he was a timeless genius, Shakespeare was really describing Barack Obama’s June 22 speech on Afghanistan.
From the very first sentence, the aim of the President’s oratory was deception. “Nearly 10 years ago” he began, “America suffered the worst attack on our shores since Pearl Harbor”. First line, first mistake. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor – a historical event entangled in emotion, intended to invoke the myth of a golden age of United States military power saving the world from evil – was not an attack on US “shores”. Pearl Harbor was a military base in a foreign country (Hawaii) that the United States had annexed in 1897.
“We forget that in the crossroads of the ancient world, the graveyard of empires, it is not just “1500 [Americans] who have given their lives in Afghanistan”, but at least twenty times as many Afghans.”
“Our nation was united as we struck at al Qaeda and routed the Taliban in Afghanistan Obama continued. Following the awful crime of September 11 2001 it was not “Al Qaeda” that the US struck, but the men, women and children of Afghanistan. During the first couple of months of the bombing campaign that began on October 7, Professor Mark Herold of the University of New Hampshire concludes, NATO’s air force murdered 3000-3400 innocent civilians. Alone this exceeds the death toll of the 9/11 high-jackers.
President Obama proceeded to quote an unnamed soldier on the (illegal) assassination of Osama Bin-Laden: “the message is we don’t forget”. The ten years of war in Afghanistan, the deaths of thousands of civilians, and a state ordered killing were, so the President said, “a victory for all who have served since 9/11”. Like an Ancient Greek revenge hero, the president admitted that the motivation had been retribution, not justice.
It is hardly surprising that the policies announced along with this tale of sound of fury were just as disingenuous and divorced from reality. The US will withdraw 10000 troops from Afghanistan this year, and a further 20000 by next summer. It will also, so Obama says, complete a total withdrawal by 2014. Asking the Afghans when they would like foreign forces to withdraw is not even considered. The US, and the United Kingdom, will withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but there will not be a total withdrawal. Like Bahrain, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait, Afghanistan will be home to Western military bases for many years to come.
It was these military bases that, along with propping up the Hosni Mubaraks (“not a dictator” – B. Obama 2011) of the Middle East, and support for Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, motivated the attacks of 9/11 in the first place. Nonetheless, journalists have largely greeted this “tale told by an idiot” with glee. Anne Penketh, a blogger for the UK’s leading left-liberal newspaper The Independent, ebulliently announced: “He’s back! President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan could well mark the moment he got his presidency back”. The speech contained the “boldness that has been lacking in his foreign policy choices” she observed. Given that President Obama has been conducting 4-6 wars consistently since he took office, one fear to ask just what constitutes “boldness” in Ms. Penketh’s book.
The war in Afghanistan is officially the longest in US history. It equals the lengths of the First and Second World Wars combined. So long has it been that we forget the Taliban’s offer to hand over Osama Bin Laden in 2001. We forget that the war has always been illegal. We forget that in the crossroads of the ancient world, the graveyard of empires, it is not just “1500 [Americans] who have given their lives in Afghanistan”, but at least twenty times as many Afghans. We forget that we don’t count the bodies of our victims. Out, out brief candle.