Nov 22, 2009

Economic imperatives of war

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

It is common sense that the American invasion of Iraq was motivated in large part by the desire to control the latter's enormous oil reserves. Throughout the history of the world, wars have been waged to secure material riches. However, just as important as the actual acquisition of resources in explaining wars is the economic need of the professional and economic interests associated with war. In other words, without war, professional armies and the multiple industries that create the implements of war are deprived of their raison d'etre.

Dissident intellectuals in the Western world have written prolifically about the so-called military industrial complex and the enormous power that it wields in Western countries, and particularly the United States. The argument is quite simple: overtime munitions and industries have expanded exponentially and their continued profitability requires the persistence of armed conflict. For the most part, munitions industries supply their own war-making institutions. So the major US-based arms suppliers rely primarily on US government contracts. However, like almost any other big industry in the 21st century, the production chains and markets of munitions companies are heavily internationalised.

It is not surprising that the narrative about the military-industrial complex when taken to its logical conclusion is often considered a 'conspiracy theory' because it posits that there exists a very powerful lobby within Western countries that is committed to unending armed conflict. But is this so difficult to believe? A close look at the American economy suggests that the military-industrial complex is one of the few, if not the last, major industries left in the US which has not jumped ship to either Europe or East Asia. There is also a very close link between the military-industrial complex and the corporate media, which, as is also common knowledge, is primarily responsible for moulding 'public opinion'.

The overall picture looks something like this: Americans consume much more than they produce, and rely on the rest of the world to finance their deficits. Meanwhile, the only thing that America produces and exports in a big way is war and weapons, and the whole absurdity of this statusquo is depicted as perfectly logical by the mass media.

Of course, there is also the other side. In Afghanistan, and Pakistan less so, there has developed over the past four decades or so a substantial network of interests that is dependent on the persistence of armed conflict. In the first instance, an enormous number of weapons is smuggled across various borders in cahoots with state functionaries. This smuggling network incorporates the users of the weapons, the transporters as well as a parallel network of drug traffickers (the production and sale of drugs largely funds the purchase and transportation of weapons).

Much has been made about the huge volume of poppy that is cultivated in Afghanistan, processed into heroin and smuggled to Europe. Informed observers are well aware that it is naïve to expect that the well-developed poppy export trade can be eliminated just because it should be. After decades of destruction, Afghanistan's economy is in a shambles and poppy export is one of the last remaining livelihood sources for many ordinary people. It goes without saying that those who are the major beneficiaries of this lucrative trade are hardly interested in a lasting peace which would ostensibly result in crop diversification and a weakening of the poppy lobby.

In Pakistan, the proliferation of militant sectarian groups in the 1980s has also resulted in the establishment of vested interests that are now reliant on the maintenance of a robust market for weapons. For the non-specialist, it is almost impossible to make sense of the various sects that exist in Pakistan now, many of which are very recent concoctions. All of these sects are primarily concerned with establishing their influence over society which means that they are direct competitors of one another. Armed to the hilt, militant sectarian groups serve both the insidious policy goals of the military establishment as well as the economic imperatives of weapons suppliers.

All told, there is a very complex political economy of war which is too often glossed over in mainstream accounts of why conflict persists. The 'war' that has engulfed this region must be understood with reference to this political economy. The question must be asked: Are either the Americans, the warlords/Taliban, or the Pakistani military committed to ending the conflict? Is it possible that any or all three of the major protagonists are actually content to let the conflict drag out because this serves the interests of the shady interests that actually benefit from permanent war?

It is of course impossible to answer this question conclusively precisely because of the shady nature of the interests involved. But recent reports about the quagmire in Afghanistan have confirmed the rather absurd fact that 10-15 percent of the American money flowing into Afghanistan ends up in the hands of the very insurgents who the Americans are purportedly fighting. The short explanation is that Americans (and other Westerners) have to pay to have their convoys protected from insurgent attacks and very often the 'security' that is hired is indirectly linked to insurgents.

Indeed, the very notion that there is a unified insurgency in Afghanistan has been decisively challenged by such evidence. Instead, it appears as if there are myriad warring groups that are keen to get their hands on the spoils of war. One suspects that the situation in parts of FATA is not dissimilar. To some extent, then, this 'war' is less about the heroic ideologies of the Americans, Pakistanis or Taliban/insurgents and more about the cynical material interests that operate slightly beneath the surface. This does not mean that all the protagonists can be considered moral equivalents or even that there does not exist some deeper contradiction between them, but only that it is necessary to factor the dimension that I have outlined above into the explanation for the persistence of conflict. Among other things, a reading of war that acknowledges this fact implies that a genuine politics of working people is more urgent a need than ever before.

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