Afghanistan: The forgotten war

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

Nearly two years after its launch, the `war on terrorism' is proving to be a `task that never ends' for the United States, which has to deal with a people who are underdeveloped and do not take kindly to the presence of foreign forces.

THE scale of the horror and atrocities visited upon Iraq - and now the scale of the emerging Iraqi resistance - is such that all our attention tends to be currently focussed on that tragic country and we tend now to forget the ongoing war - and resistance - in Afghanistan where America's infamous "war on terrorism" first began.

In his fateful speech of September 20, 2001, United States President George W. Bush referred to this "war" as "a task that never ends," and one that might be fought in as many as 50 or 60 countries. Some two years later, the reality is that the forces of the U.S.-led coalition are bogged down in unending conflicts in both countries - Afghanistan and Iraq - which first came into the eye of this storm, so that other countries - notably Syria and Iran - which had been slated for immediate invasion and "regime change" have been spared for the time being, thanks to this deepening quagmire.

The fate of these two countries has been intertwined from the very onset of this war. On the morning after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre (WTC), U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld advocated an immediate focus on war upon Iraq whereas Secretary of State Colin Powell persuasively argued that Afghanistan was a softer target and easier to identify immediately with Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and so forth. Attack on Iraq could wait.

A campaign to associate both countries with a global network, centred on Al Qaeda, was launched immediately and intelligence agencies of the U.S. and the United Kingdom were instructed to provide the proof. Indeed, Niaz Naik, the former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, was to claim on BBC a bit later that U.S. diplomats had told him in July that military action against Afghanistan was being prepared for "some time in October". Powell was thus simply arguing that there be no change in plans: Afghanistan first, Iraq next.

Once the decision to invade Afghanistan had been thus made, nothing could make the U.S. deviate from its path. As late as September 23, barely two weeks before the invasion began, The Observer reported: "The thousands of intelligence, security and police officers investigating the attacks on America on both sides of the Atlantic are racing against an unknown deadline: they have to produce enough evidence of Osama bin Laden's involvement to convince world opinion before Western military action begins... Sources in all the principal agencies - the American FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), and Britain's MI6 and MI5 - insist that, at present, there is nothing approaching the standard of proof that would be required to persuade a jury in a criminal court of law."

It was in fact even more difficult to link the Taliban itself with the events of September 11; it denounced the attack immediately and promised in no uncertain terms to help find the culprits. Lack of evidence at that time did not matter any more than it was to matter later, regarding Iraq's purported "weapons of mass destruction".

The U.S. demanded that Osama bin Laden be turned over to it. The Taliban first asked for some evidence, on the grounds that without evidence of criminal activity no principle of extradition applies. When the U.S. refused, the Taliban dropped even that demand and offered to hand over Osama bin Laden to the Pakistani authorities and under the collective jurisdiction of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC, involving 52 countries) to stand trial "in accordance with Islamic laws of evidence".

The agreement had been negotiated between the heads of two Pakistani religious parties and Mulla Omar, the Taliban head of state, and was explicitly approved by Osama bin Laden himself. General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani head of state, turned down the arrangement, under pressure from the U.S., which was interested not in catching Osama bin Laden but in occupying Afghanistan.

Significantly, the Taliban had made a similar offer much earlier, in February 2001, well before the WTC bombings, in which they were willing to surrender Osama bin Laden in exchange for official recognition of their government by the U.S. and some economic aid. The U.S. had turned down the offer at that time as well. This again is not altogether different from the U.S. insistence on inspections in Iraq and then going on to invade Iraq even after the Iraqi authorities had given the inspectors unrestricted access to any site they wished to inspect and to destroy whatever they thought was in violation of the United Nations sanctions.

In other words, both wars were eminently avoidable. Indeed, had the U.S. accepted the earlier offer of the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden in exchange for official U.S. recognition of it as the Government of Afghanistan, the tragedy of September 11 itself may not have happened - presuming that Al Qaeda was indeed behind that attack. What was at stake for the U.S., however, was not the avoidance of war or misery for war's victims - it had indeed been making different kinds of war against those two countries for many years previously - but a very elaborate imperial design. I have written extensively about this imperial design in several articles pertaining to Iraq and, in fact, the two articles I published immediately after the September 11 events ("Responding with Terror", Frontline, September 29, 2001, and "Re-mapping the Globe", Frontline, October 27, 2001).

This design is itself evolving rapidly and new elements of it come into view from time to time. A key element that is becoming increasingly apparent is the gradual formation of a historically new kind of imperial army that shall be led by the U.S. but shall be comprised of soldiery drawn from diverse countries, to enforce the will of global capitalist imperialism as a whole. This too has become clearer in Afghanistan already but is designed to take on massive proportions in Iraq in the foreseeable future.

As the U.S. made up its mind to invade Afghanistan, it deliberately ignored the United Nations Security Council and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies with the exception of the Anglo-Saxon cousins in the U.K. Once the Anglo-U.S. occupation of Afghanistan was achieved in October 2001 it assembled its Afghan clients in Bonn, under the benign eyes of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, got the clients to elect Hamid Karzai as the head of an "Interim Authority" and then got this "Authority" to "request the U.N. Security Council to consider authorising the early deployment to Afghanistan of a U.N.-mandated force". The "Bonn Accord" further specified: "This force will assist in the maintenance of security for Kabul and its surrounding areas. Such a force could, as appropriate, be progressively expanded to other urban centres and other areas."

The Security Council, of course, complied, thus bestowing legitimacy on the Anglo-U.S. conquest and its creature, the `Interim Authority'." Troops for this International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were then provided by a bunch of NATO countries, notably Germany, which took up much of the policing functions so that the U.S. troops would be free to consolidate their conquest. This is the first time that German troops have been deployed in a war zone since the Second World War.

That was extraordinary enough. In an even more extraordinary move, NATO itself has now taken over, as of August 11, command of the ISAF in the first such deployment outside Europe in its 54-year-old existence. The name itself - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - has always signified that North America and Western Europe were the regions of its operation. Then, after the collapse of communism in southeastern Europe, NATO has been broadened to include a number of countries from that region as well and countries as far-flung as Uzbekistan have now applied for membership in what NATO calls its "Partnership for Peace".

Meanwhile, NATO was of course the chief military instrument in the final destruction of Yugoslavia. As the invasion of Afghanistan was being prepared, reports began to circulate of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan troops being trained at U.S. bases in Alaska and Montana, while U.S. Rangers began training troops in Kyrgystan and perhaps Tajikistan as well (The Guardian, September 26, 2001). In other words, these statelets were not only providing bases but also preparing their troops for participation in the wars of the core imperial army itself. This has now become altogether clear in Iraq, where Polish and Ukrainian troops have come in without any discussion of Security Council approval and, significantly, NATO has provided guidance to the Polish-led division though it has yet not assumed any direct role there.

Several aspects of the direct NATO takeover of the ISAF in Afghanistan are notable. First, as NATO's Deputy Secretary General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo noted in Kabul: "This new mission is a reflection of NATO's ongoing transformation and resolve to meet the security challenges of the 21st century." Key words here are "transformation" and "security challenges". What is being announced here is that NATO is being "transformed" for a global role far beyond the region for which it was originally designed, while "security challenges of the 21st century" is short-hand for what Bush calls "terrorism with a global reach".

This puts in perspective the true grievance of the Franco-German alliance as it fleetingly opposed the unilateral U.S. decision to invade Iraq at the time and in the manner of its own choosing. These countries had been party to the destruction of Iraq over more than a decade through U.S.-mandated sanctions under the U.N. aegis and the illegal U.S.-U.K. bombings of Iraq all those years. Nor did they disagree with the idea of U.S. invasion of Iraq; Germany had indeed offered its air space in the eventuality of such an invasion some five months before it happened. Their grievance was that the U.S. did not sufficiently recognise that though it was the hegemonic imperial power, there in fact was, in the present phase of global capitalism, a fully integrated Atlantic ruling class, of which Europe itself was very much a part and which then should be given an appropriate role in the management of Empire.

The second aspect of NATO's takeover of the ISAF command is that it has deliberately been announced as "indefinite". They are there to stay until the realm has been fully secured. Thirdly, Germany was the country most insistent that NATO take over the command directly and the first commander under the new dispensation is indeed a German General. Finally, their jurisdiction shall be confined initially to Kabul and its environs, the Security Council mandate specified for the ISAF. But this jurisdiction is expected to get extended to other parts of Afghanistan over time.

Afghanistan is supposed to have general elections in June 2004, and it is likely that the government which then emerges will be as much a client as the present one and will then formally request NATO for an expanded role, bypassing the inconvenience of seeking a new Security Council resolution, though the U.N. Special Envoy in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has himself been asking for an expanded role for this security force.

WHY this shift at this time? The obvious reason is that the resistance against U.S. occupation has gained enormous momentum over the past year or so. The Taliban really had no understanding of the kind of firepower the U.S. could bring to bear upon it and seem to have thought, until the invasion really began, that it would withstand the U.S. attack just as the so-called mujahideen had been able to withstand the Soviet firepower, forgetting that it was the U.S. weaponry that had made the war against the Soviets possible in the first place and it had no such weaponry against the U.S.

But it seems to have learned fast. After a couple of set-piece battles in which many Taliban fighters got slaughtered, the regime and its main forces did manage to withdraw and melt away into the mountains of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. When the Americans began their saturation bombings of the mountain strongholds it again did not initially know how to hide or fight back and suffered uncountable casualties. Over the next few months, though, the Taliban and its allies - some old allies and some new ones - managed to re-group and start fighting a very different kind of guerrilla war.

The occupation of Afghanistan had been swiftly accomplished in October/November of 2001. Less than a year later, international media were again rife with news of resistance across a wide swath of the national territory. By then, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former Afghanistan Prime Minister whom the CIA and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had used as their main conduit for arms and men against the Soviet troops, had re-emerged from his exile in Iran and joined up with the Taliban, now de-emphasising the Islamic character of the resistance and focussing on the issue of national resistance to foreign occupation and a rightful place for the Pashtuns, who comprise roughly 40 per cent of the country's population.

The security situation under U.S. occupation and the client regime that was dominated by the gang of thugs and rapists of the Northern Alliance had deteriorated so sharply that a large part of the populace, opposed to foreign occupation any way, began to recall wistfully the rule of the Taliban, which had guaranteed more personal security than what they had experienced at any other time since the U.S. jehad against the Soviets began some 20 years ago. Meanwhile, Taliban-style groups started re-emerging in numerous small towns and villages.

By September 2002, Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami-e-Afghanistan (HIA) was getting organised with new command structures on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with substantial support in the provinces of Kandahar, Ghazni, Kunar and Logar. The rule of Karzai's gang is so tenuous in the outlying provinces that local administration has no choice but to cooperate with the resurrected power of this group throughout eastern Afghanistan.

There is some reason to believe that Ismail Khan, the Governor of Herat, who runs perhaps the most efficient administration in today's Afghanistan and is close to both Russia and Iran, has reached some kind of an understanding with the HIA. Reports emanating from Afghanistan also suggest that the institutions of Karzai's own regime are thoroughly infiltrated by the Taliban as well as Hekmatyar's men. For Karzai, personally, the situation is so grim that he does not trust Afghan soldiers and is protected by 46 bodyguards drawn from the U.S. Special Forces.

A remarkable story in The Washington Post of November 8, 2002, began Thus: "The U.S. military is losing momentum in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan because the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban have proven more successful in adapting to U.S. tactics than the U.S. military has to theirs, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said this week." There is, of course, that wonderful word "remnants", referring to the Taliban here, just as all the acts of resistance in Iraq are supposedly carried out by "remnants" of the Baathists. The report in any case quoted the CIA assessment that "security was most precarious in smaller cities and some rural locations", far from where the ISAF has any jurisdiction.

Then, using the all-purpose term `Al Qaeda' for anyone in Afghanistan who dares to resist the U.S., the report went on to say: "A detailed analysis just released by the U.S. Army War College reported that Al Qaeda fighters have been quick to adapt to the high-tech weaponry the United States used in its attack on the network." Stephen Biddle, the report's author, has said that already by March 2002 these forces were successfully using all the classic guerrilla tactics of cover and concealment, camouflage discipline, dispersion, communications security and so on.

Three days later, on November 11, a report in Time magazine began with the bald statement: "The U.S. concedes it has lost momentum in Afghanistan, while its enemies grow bolder." The report ended: "Is Afghanistan slipping out of America's control? It's an especially relevant question at a time when Pentagon planners are holding up Afghanistan as a template for possible `regime change' in Iraq." That was four months before the full-scale U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq got going, and by now of course resistance in Iraq has surfaced even more quickly than in Afghanistan.

Such headlines and reports were to become routine over the next several months. By February 2003, a month before the Iraq invasion, Robert Fisk, the splendid and authoritative British reporter, was writing of "the near collapse of peace in this savage land and the steady erosion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan - the nightly attacks on American and other international troops, the anarchy in the cities outside Kabul, the warlordism and drug trafficking and steadily increasing toll of murders".

In a more recent column in New Statesman (June 19), Fisk was again to report:

"We are in a combat zone the moment we leave this base," an American colonel told me at Bagram airbase, near Kabul. `We are shot at every day, several times a day.' When I said that surely he had come to liberate and protect the people, he belly-laughed.

"American troops are rarely seen in Afghanistan's towns. They escort U.S. officials at high speed in armoured vans with blackened windows and military vehicles mounted with machine-guns in front and behind. Even the vast Bagram base was considered too insecure for the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, during his recent, fleeting visit."

A specific aspect of this quandary for the Americans is that three-quarters of the so-called Special Forces personnel in Afghanistan now are actually members of the National Guards and the Reserves, since the bulk of the Special Forces personnel there have been withdrawn for duty either in Iraq or in some other place from where troops have been sent to Iraq. This, too, is probably very much a part of the situation in which NATO has decided to take command of the ISAF directly, preparing, no doubt, for a much wider combat role for NATO in the near future. What the Americans cannot do, their European cousins shall. Or so they hope.

It seems most unlikely that they will succeed. The people of Afghanistan have never taken kindly to foreign forces. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-appointed head of the provisional government, is a nonentity and is widely hated even among the Pashtuns whom he is supposed to represent. He studied in India, then drifted to Peshawar, where he once used to own a little restaurant. It is not clear when the Americans picked him up, but he is known to have been close to the Taliban when the U.S. was patronising it and broke with it when it clashed with the U.S. At some point, he moved to the U.S., helped his brothers and sisters to open several restaurants there, and re-emerged as a consultant with the U.S. energy corporation UNOCAL during the years when it was trying to negotiate an oil pipeline through Afghanistan with the Taliban government.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan who engineered Karzai's ascendancy as head of state, was also a consultant with UNOCAL. The writ of this gang does not run much beyond Kabul, so that the rest of the country is a patchwork of about two dozen regional administrations run by local strongmen commonly referred to in the media as `warlords'. These are men of shifting loyalties and alliances, and they will work with any power centre, domestic or foreign, which seems to be ascendant in their own region, be it Iran or Pakistan or India, the Taliban or Hekmatyar or the Kabul gang.

THE only lucrative business in Afghanistan today, other than gun-running, is the opium/heroin trade. The Taliban had banned poppy production, which is now flourishing again under U.S. occupation and with the full participation of its clients in the Northern Alliance. United Nations statistics suggest that Afghanistan is again the world's leading exporter of heroin, supplying to Central Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Billions of contraband dollars are involved, and every warlord has a stake in it, above all the ones most closely allied with the Karzai dispensation.

Underneath all this wealth and corruption and warlordism is the real country, which was poor and underdeveloped enough even previously, but has been ruined more and more since the Americans started assembling their jehadi force in 1980. Roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, homes and farmlands are all ruined. Six to seven million people, roughly a third of the population, were at the point of starvation when the U.S. invasion began, and the invasion created more refugees. Since then, the prospect of immediate starvation has receded but two million refugees have returned to a country that is largely a huge mass of rubble and dust; the U.S. bombing of Kandahar was so severe that roughly 80 per cent of the population of the city fled and most buildings simply collapsed.

Afghanistan has buried in it more land mines per square mile than any other country in the world; the road from Kabul to Kandahar, the country's major highway, is largely unusable thanks to these mines. Only 5 per cent of the rural population has access to clean water, 17 per cent has access to medical services, 13 per cent has access to education, and 25 per cent of all children die by the age of five. Life expectancy is 43, half of what it is in the NATO countries that have taken over as occupiers.

Talking of elections in a country that does not even have an administration is a cruel joke; if held, they will produce an assembly of anointed notables, allies and enemies of each other simultaneously. Speaking of "development" is an even more cruel joke. The occupying benefactors can hardly leave their own compounds, imprisoned as they are in their own power bases. The native collaborators they have chosen, largely from the Northern Alliance, are crooks and criminals, more interested in rape and child abuse than in "development". Then there are the technocrats, discredited by the company they keep and at odds with the fundamentalists within the regime itself; the only woman in the Cabinet has had to go and is so afraid for her life that she has to be kept under elaborate guard.

The Taliban arose and were widely welcomed with relief because of the anarchy and criminality of the very people who have now returned to power; the same Taliban is now becoming a group of national heroes because their demise was brought about by foreign occupiers and their friends. In fact, the Taliban has become so confident that it is revealing the names of its regional commanders to journalists, and, surprisingly, most of the new commanders of the underground forces are those who occupied key posts under the Taliban's government. It is astonishing how very many of them have survived the savage U.S.-U.K. bombardment not only of the cities but even of the mountain fastnesses.

And then there is Hekmatyar, potentially far more powerful than Osama bin Laden, since he is a Pashtun leader who has a base within his country of a kind that no foreign `guest', such as Osama bin Laden, could ever have. A combination of the Taliban and Hekmatyar's HIA, if it lasts, is likely to be too much for NATO. European populations are unlikely to have a stomach for the kind of war that is now beginning. And Hekmatyar is clever; he is talking now not of jehad but of national liberation.

ONE shall have no sense of a historical perspective if one does not see the parallels between Afghanistan and Iraq, otherwise countries very different from each other. Both have been devastated by roughly 20 years of U.S. interference. Every brand of fundamentalist in Afghanistan who tasted power in the country did so thanks only to the U.S.-organised anti-communist jehad, just as the Baath itself rose to power through U.S. sponsorship of it there against the increasing power of the Iraqi Communist Party.

Just about the time, around 1980, when the U.S. was organising its fundamentalists for jehad against the progressive and secular government of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), it was instigating Saddam Hussein to invade Iran and, together with the British, supplying him with all kinds of weapons including the technology to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. That war, instigated by the U.S.-U.K. combine, ruined Iraq during the 1980s, just as the U.S.-instigated jehad of the 1980s ruined Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar came to power in Kabul with U.S. backing, as did the Taliban some years later, as did Saddam Hussein in Baghdad several years earlier; eventually, they all became enemies, as did Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian millionaire who too was recruited by the CIA. The Northern Alliance, which preceded the Taliban and has now returned to power as a dominant faction in the Karzai government, was far more rapacious than Saddam Hussein himself, if that's at all possible; Ahmed Chalabi, Rumsfeld's favourite candidate for rulership of Iraq, is a person who has been sentenced on several counts of embezzlement by a Jordanian court.

Both countries suffered from U.S.-dictated, U.N.-enforced sanctions - Iraq for a longer period and with constant bombings by the U.S.-U.K. alliance, Afghanistan not for so long. However, society and economy in Afghanistan were much poorer and far more fragile, so that it had been thoroughly devastated already by the war of the 1980s and the subsequent civil wars among factions originally created by the U.S. Hence sanctions against the Taliban only made worse a situation that was already dire. However, one-third of the population on the verge of starvation in Afghanistan by the time the invasion came compares with the million or so Iraqis who died owing to the sanctions in that long-suffering country.

The decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq predates the events of September 11, 2001. The neo-conservative, Christian fundamentalist, zionist cabal that came to dominate the U.S. administration under Bush had been urging Bill Clinton to invade Iraq throughout his Presidency and the U.S. Congress passed the "Liberation of Iraq Act" as far ago as 1998. And it is known from unimpeachable sources that the U.S. had been threatening Afghanistan with an invasion throughout 2001, starting in February, but especially vociferously during the summer that year, well before the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon.

Once the decision was made to carry out the respective invasions, sometime in late September 2001, nothing at all could dissuade the governments of the U.S. and the U.K. from doing so. On the very day that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was telling Parliament that there was no peaceful way to get Osama bin Laden, his country's press broke the story of the Taliban's repeated offers to extradite him.

As the two governments made their case for invasion on the basis that the Taliban was responsible for September 11, their own intelligence agencies were saying that there was credible evidence, just as intelligence agencies warned their respective governments that there was no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could endanger the U.K. or the U.S. Bush and Blair issued dossiers of what they called "evidence" before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In both cases, scholars dismissed the dossiers with contempt and the intelligence services were embarrassed. In both cases, the basic strategy was the same: massive aerial bombings, attempts to play ethnic groups against each other, clients flown in from the U.S. (Karzai, Chalabi), "Interim Authority" in Afghanistan, a National Council in Iraq, and so on. And, the same rhetoric - "We come not as occupiers but liberators" - which colonisers have used for some 200 years. And when a national resistance begins to take shape, one constantly hears of "remnants" - of the Taliban, of the Baath - while the "civilising mission", the "white man's burden", continues on its infernal march.

The wonder is that in countries so deeply injured and exhausted, a quagmire for the world-conqueror has opened up so fast. So, a new kind of imperial army is to be assembled. The entrance of NATO into Afghanistan would be laughable if its expected consequences were not so grim. This same cynical drama shall be played out in Iraq on a much larger scale, and the recent bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad, with its casualties that included a very fine international civil servant of Brazilian origin, shall undoubtedly be used now to beef up such an army.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his ilk are incapable of confessing that the Security Council is hated in Iraq because it was the sanctions mandated by the Council that killed half a million Iraqi children. Instead, the word will now go that there should be an international armed force, but not under U.N. aegis because the U.N. blue flag no longer guarantees safety for those who carry it. There might be a Security Council resolution authorising the formation of an international military outfit comprising soldiers from all corners of the empire, mandated by the U.N., led by the U.S., guided by NATO and so on - a true imperial army representing not this or that imperialist country alone but the combined will of the ruling classes of the world to finish a war that the U.S. started but is incapable of finishing on its own.

The "international community", the "Free World", is always there to do the bidding of its leader, which is on its own incapable of fighting even a bunch of half-literate mullahs in towns and villages of Afghanistan because, for lack of an alternative leadership, these mullahs have come to embody the national will.

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