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With attention focused on the disastrous U.S. war in Iraq, there has been much less media coverage of the Bush administration’s other ongoing war, in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is now entering its sixth year, but from the perspective of the U.S. ruling class, the situation is deteriorating rapidly.
The U.S. began bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 in retaliation for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A ground invasion began shortly afterwards and U.S. troops in collaboration with a collection of Afghan warlords known as the Northern Alliance quickly overthrew the fundamentalist Taliban government led by Mullah Omar, accusing it of harboring those responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Just as in Iraq, Washington promised that the invasion would bring about liberation for the local population — particularly women, who had suffered severe oppression under the Taliban — democracy, respect for human rights, stability, and prosperity. Now, more than five years later, it is easy to see just how hollow those promises were. According to a report in the London Times, “the triumph and hope” that followed the Taliban’s ouster “have given way to despair and disappointment.”
With the partial exception of the capital, Kabul, much of the country remains in chaos. Kandahar in the south, for instance, gets no more than six hours of electricity every two days. “Bad roads, open sewage systems, and a lack of fresh water are seen in the city as inconveniences very low down on the list of complaints,” the Times reported. “Kidnapping, banditry and police corruption rank much higher.” Thirty-nine percent of Afghans under the age of five are malnourished and 61 percent depend on untreated drinking water.
“When we saw the Taliban go and the foreign soldiers come we were so full of hope,” Abdul Shakoor, a young shopkeeper, told the newspaper. “We were 100 per cent sure that, with the world behind it, our Government would improve our lives. But now our hopes are crushed.”
The supposedly democratic government of Hamid Karzai was in fact hand-picked in 2002 by the then-U.S. ambassador to the country, Zalmay Khalilzad, and rules in alliance with brutal U.S.-backed warlords, such as Ismail Khan, Rashid Dustum, and Yusuf Pashtun, whose records are as bad as or worse than the Taliban, but whom Washington relies on to control much of the country. The result has been continued human rights abuses and enormous corruption, with much of the foreign aid that has gone to the country ending up in the hands of local strongmen and their private armies.
In a recent editorial, the New York Times lamented that “after years of effort — and more than $1 billion spent — Afghanistan’s American-trained police force is unable to perform even routine law enforcement work.” The newspaper reported that “investigators for the Pentagon and the State Department found that the training program’s managers did not even know how many police officers were serving, while thousands of trucks and other American-purchased police equipment have simply disappeared.”
Meanwhile, the situation for women, who were initially promised so much, remains abysmal. The majority of girls in Afghanistan still cannot go to school, and a report by the charity Womankind Worldwide concludes, “It cannot be said that the status of Afghan women has changed significantly in the last five years.”
Malalai Joya, the youngest and most outspoken woman in the Afghan parliament, lives in fear for her life. She told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “Here there is no democracy, no security, no women’s rights. When I speak in parliament they threaten me. In May they beat me by throwing bottles of water at me and they shouted, ‘Take her and rape her.’ These men who are in power, never have they apologized for their crimes that they committed in the wars, and now, with the support of the U.S., they continue with their crimes in a different way. That is why there is no fundamental change in the situation of women.” According to the Afghan Human Rights Commission, some Afghan women are even burning themselves to death to escape abuse from their families.
Large numbers of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. launched its war. According to a study in the Journal of Peace Research, as many as 10,000 died during the initial invasion and its immediate aftermath, but since then no one has been keeping accurate figures, although the fighting has never stopped. Unlike in Iraq, however, where only Britain has given the U.S. substantial military support, Washington has been able to persuade its NATO allies — including Britain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and France — to provide the majority of the 32,000 international troops in Afghanistan, even though Germany, Italy, and France have refused to actively engage in combat operations.
In 2003, NATO officially took over command of the so-called International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has been engaged in fierce fighting with rebel groups in the south and east of the country. In percentage terms, ISAF casualties are even higher than U.S. casualties in Iraq, with nearly 200 deaths in 2006 alone. Of course the Afghan casualties are much higher, with at least 4,000 killed last year, many of them civilians.
The brutal tactics of the ISAF is one of the factors that has resulted in growing support for Taliban rebels, who have rebuilt a formidable guerrilla army in the south in alliance with other anti-American forces. Coalition forces routinely kill civilians in their clashes with rebel forces. In October, for example, observers reported that at least thirty nomadic herders were killed in one ISAF air strike alone. In early December, eyewitnesses told reporters that British troops in Kandahar indiscriminately opened fire on bystanders after a suicide bomber attacked one of their convoys.
Support for the central government is declining and the insurgency is gaining strength, with the number of suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and border clashes increasing substantially. Even though the ISAF has killed thousands of rebels, “the Taliban and its allies draw on what appears to be an almost inexhaustible supply of potential foot soldiers,” the Los Angeles Times reports. “Particularly in dirt-poor rural areas, many Afghans believe their daily lot has improved little since Taliban times, and tend to cast the blame on the same Americans they once hailed as liberators.” One analyst says the rebels are “a fresh new generation — copying the skills and ways of the armed resistance groups in Iraq.” Suicide bombings were previously unknown in Afghanistan (as they once were in Iraq), but there have now been over a hundred of them in the past year.
While the U.S. and its allies have provided $7.3 billion for development projects since 2002, much of this money has vanished, and they have spent a staggering $82.5 billion on military operations during the same time. “People previously were repelled by the fanaticism of the Taliban, but anger at Americans is growing,” according to retired Pakistani general Talat Masood. “And ultimately, they would prefer that their lives be secure. It’s a survival instinct.”
The deteriorating situation on the ground and the resurgence of the Taliban has exacerbated tensions between Washington and several of its NATO allies. At a summit held in Riga, Latvia, in late November, George Bush pushed hard for other NATO countries to increase their troop deployments and to drop their refusal to join the U.S., Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands in fighting the insurgency in the south and east. But Bush was almost completely rebuffed by France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. These governments argue that the situation in Afghanistan cannot be resolved by military means. They have no desire to be dragged into the same kind of quagmire in which the U.S. finds itself in Iraq, and they see Washington’s current difficulties as an opportunity to advance their own interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“Afghanistan was supposed to be the good war,” bemoaned the New York Times in the editorial I quoted earlier. But the war in Afghanistan has been an imperial adventure from the beginning, despite the fact that many supposedly on the left, applauded it at the time as a “just war.” In reality, it was designed to reassert U.S. power after September 11, to prepare the ground for an invasion of Iraq, to insert the U.S. military in a crucial strategic region, and to gain access to Central Asian oil and gas supplies. One thing it was never about was bringing to justice the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. According to Bob Woodward’s insider account in Bush at War, by September 13 then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had already noted, “Bush was tired of rhetoric. The president wanted to kill somebody.”
A few days later, Bush ordered Powell to send an ultimatum to the Taliban government demanding that they turn over Osama bin-Laden or “We’ll attack them with missiles, bombers and boots on the ground.” Bush added, “Let’s hit them hard. We want to signal this is a change from the past. We want to cause other countries like Syria and Iran to change their views. We want to hit as soon as possible.” But when Mullah Omar responded that he would be prepared to extradite bin-Laden if the U.S. provided evidence implicating him in the 9/11 events, his offer was ignored.
The Australian journalist John Pilger reports that “in late September and early October , leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic parties negotiated bin-Laden’s extradition to Pakistan to stand trial for the September 11 attacks. According to reports in Pakistan (and the Daily Telegraph), this had both bin-Laden’s approval and that of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.” But this deal too was rejected. According to Pilger, “The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan was notified in advance of the proposal and the mission to put it to the Taliban. Later, a U.S. official said that ‘casting our objectives too narrowly’ risked ‘a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.'” In other words, the opportunity to go to war was not to be squandered.
If nothing more, it is at least poetic justice that, as the U.S. imperial project unravels in Iraq, the same thing is beginning to happen in Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s first imperial intervention, where it believed it had secured a decisive military victory more than five years ago. But does this mean that anti-imperialists should now give support to the Taliban, just as we have called for support for the resistance in Iraq?
Unfortunately, matters are not so simple. Although the Taliban is now fighting against an imperial occupation, when it was previously in power it had a history of accommodation with global and regional imperialist powers. Worse, the Taliban’s reactionary politics are a positive impediment to the development of a genuine and effective liberation movement. It has repeatedly threatened, attacked, and killed women and girls who attend school, work outside the home, or fail to comply with its strict dress code. Most recently its leadership has issued rules calling for teachers to be killed as government collaborators and opposing all development projects, including schools, clinics, and roads. Taliban forces had already murdered twenty teachers in the past year and burned down 198 schools. U.S. imperialism is faltering in Afghanistan and Afghans have the right to resist it, but the Taliban may ultimately do more to weaken that resistance than to help it.
Phil Gasper teaches philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. His article “Afghanistan, the CIA, bin-Laden, and the Taliban” appeared in International Socialist Review 20, November-December 2001. This article will appear in the January-February ISR (www.isreview.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.