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The Democrats’ War in Afghanistan

Part 1: Eight Years and Counting

The United States invasion and occupation of Afghanistan entered its ninth year in October, and the majority of Americans now tell opinion polls they want it to end.  So far the war has failed to achieve U.S. objectives, and it is likely the Obama Administration’s expansion of the fighting will compound the failure.

Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar — Washington’s principal enemy leaders in the Afghan war — are not only alive, free, and still taunting the White House after all these years, but appear to believe they now have the upper hand in Afghanistan.

Bin-Laden’s purpose has always been to draw the United States ever deeper into armed conflict with Islamic society in order to degrade America’s image, undermine its economy, and gain recruits.  The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan played directly into al-Qaeda’s hands, as will Washington’s effort to widen the Afghan conflict, especially as it stabs into Pakistan and alienates its masses of people in the process.

So far the two wars launched by President George W. Bush have cost the U.S. the antagonism of much of the Muslim world, serious erosions of its own democracy and reputation, and over a trillion dollars.  Even if the wars end soon, says Nobel Prize economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, the overall expenditure — including everything from long-term care for severely injured troops to interest on the war debt — will exceed $3 trillion, enough to rebuild America and help the world
end world poverty and hunger.

Speaking about Afghanistan this summer, President Barack Obama declared: “This is not a war of choice.  This is a war of necessity.”  Many war opponents argue that it is indeed a war of choice, and that international police work would have been far more successful and just.

We’ll discuss this in Part 2, along with the fact that the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, and for that matter the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, need not have occurred had Washington taken less warlike actions in the key year of 1979, as well as 2001 and 2003.  The fact that the U.S. has intervened deeply and for long periods over the past 30 years in Afghanistan is probably not understood by many Americans who think it all began when the World Trade Center collapsed.

Upon assuming office, President Obama instructed the Pentagon to devise a winning strategy for Afghanistan.  Within weeks the White House agreed to the outlines of a new war plan submitted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that was supposed to lead to a U.S. victory.  In March, Obama expanded the Afghan war when he heeded a Pentagon request and ordered 21,000 more U.S. troops to join the battle.

Several months later, however, McChrystal reported that the situation has deteriorated to the point where the war — ever more clearly displaying its neocolonial aspect — “will likely result in failure” within a year unless his forces increase by a minimum of 44,000 troops and a maximum of 80,000.

Obama has been engaged in “rethinking” war strategy since receiving the general’s verdict several weeks ago.  He is expected to soon decide whether to deploy a larger number of additional troops to join 68,000 American fighters already scheduled for Afghanistan and about 50,000 NATO soldiers.  This total presumably includes the 13,000 troops Obama also deployed without informing the American people, until the Washington Post broke the story in mid-October.

The White House is investigating two options for continuing the conflict — both of which would intensify the war and spread it more deeply into Pakistan.  As briefly summarized by The Economist, they are “manpower-intensive counter-insurgency (COIN), which aims to win over the Afghan population and build a stable government; and counter-terrorism, which seeks to deal narrowly with threats to the West, mainly through air strikes or raids by Special Forces.”

McChrystal, who appears to be supported by top Pentagon brass, backs COIN, which includes a counter-terrorism aspect as well as “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, an effort that utterly failed when tried in Vietnam, and will fail in Afghanistan.  Vice President Joseph Biden and some other administration advisers back the lower intensity counter-terrorism option without greatly expanding the number of troops or engaging in “nation building.”

If McChrystal’s minimum request is accepted it means a combined U.S.-NATO  force of over 160,000 troops, not including scores of thousands of “contractors” doing duties previously performed by soldiers until recent years.

Scott Ritter, the former UN chief weapons inspector and critic of the war, had this to say about McChrystal’s request for more troops in a Truthdig article:

McChrystal operates under the illusion that American military power can provide a shield from behind which Afghanistan can remake itself into a viable modern society.  He has deluded himself and others into believing that the people of Afghanistan want to be part of such a grand social experiment, and furthermore that they will tolerate the United States being in charge.  The reality of Afghan history, culture and society argue otherwise.  The Taliban, once a defeated entity in the months following the initial American military incursion into Afghanistan, are resurgent and growing stronger every day.  The principle source of the Taliban’s popularity is the resentment of the Afghan people toward the American occupation and the corrupt proxy government of Hamid Karzai.  There is nothing an additional 40,000 American troops will be able to do to change that basic equation.

At this stage the U.S., NATO, and their Afghan forces enjoy at least a 12-1 advantage in troop strength against the opposing forces, not to mention air power, drone attacks, and an enormous technological, logistics, and communications advantage.  This increases to 20-1 if McChrystal’s minimum kicks in — and that’s evidently still not enough to defeat the insurgency.  The latest word from the White House and Pentagon is that the new strategy may devolve to holding Afghanistan’s 10 largest cities and leaving the countryside to fend for itself, except for air strikes.

Our guess is that Obama will view the issue politically, as well as militarily, and try to merge both positions, increasing the number of troops but fewer than McChrystal desires.  No one knows for sure, but he is intentionally creating suspense to magnify the importance of his eventual plan.

The Washington Post (Oct. 26) reported that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently conducted theoretical war games to examine “the likely outcome of inserting 44,000 more troops into the country to conduct a full-scale counterinsurgency effort aimed at building a stable Afghan government that can control most of the country.  It also examined adding 10,000 to 15,000 more soldiers and Marines as part of an approach that the military has dubbed ‘counterterrorism plus.'”

Complicating the situation, Washington’s handpicked Afghan leader, President Hamid Karzai, is presiding over a thoroughly corrupt government and an alienated population.  His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is accused of being drug lord and wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, who has been on the CIA’s payroll since the beginning of the war, along with innumerable warlords and disreputable officials.  The UN has ascertained that last August’s elections were so fraudulent that a run-off election was set for Nov. 7 between the incumbent and his independent rival, Abdullah Abdullah, M.D., who won 30.5% of the vote.

On Nov. 1, Abdullah — who had long been associated with the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance — announced his withdrawal from the second round voting, paving the way for Karzai to be declared winner of a second term.  Abdullah angrily attributed his decision to the refusal by the government and election commission to accept his recommendations for changing balloting rules to prevent more foul play.  He also knew he didn’t have enough votes to win in any event.

The Obama Administration has been increasingly cool toward Karzai, supposedly for corruption but not least because he has publicly criticized some U.S. actions such as indiscriminate bombings.  It is reported  that the White House would have preferred a Karzai-Abdullah power-sharing arrangement to Karzai alone.  Since Abdullah withdrew without calling for an election boycott or public demonstrations on his own behalf, he may yet end up associated with the new government in some fashion.

Washington swiftly accommodated itself to Karzai’s reelection.  Obama gently slapped a ruler across his knuckles, and insisted for all the world to hear that he do more in his second term to fight rampant corruption and the country’s extraordinary narcotics trade, which makes other big drug cartels look like they are selling dime bags.  Karzai nodded agreement, made overtures to Abdullah, and life goes on.

Even though the election has not transpired precisely the way Washington wished, it will have little impact on U.S. plans.  President Obama, who heretofore identified Afghanistan as the main danger, not Iraq, now says the danger has spread to Pakistan as well — an unanticipated but logical result of the Bush wars.  The tribal areas of Pakistan are the target of increased U.S. air power, missile attacks, pilotless drones, and Special Forces engagements.

The Obama Administration is exerting heavy pressure on the Islamabad government of President Asif Ali Zardari, and investing another $7.5 billion in new aid, to intensify efforts to crush al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban (which was only formed in 2007), and other groups in the mountainous western section of the country.  This has created increasing anti-American sentiment among the masses of people in Pakistan who think Zardari is a virtual puppet of Washington.  In a public opinion poll last August, some 60% of the Pakistani people viewed the U.S. as the greatest threat to their country compared to India or al-Qaeda.

In order to prevail in Afghanistan — or in Af-Pak, as the two-front war is described — President Obama evidently is considering a major compromise with the Taliban.  Associated Press (Oct. 9) reported that “President Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future,” both locally and in the central government.  In addition the White House and Pentagon will seek to bribe the Taliban to stop attacking U.S. troops, as was done with the Sunni resistance in Iraq, by inducing former opponents to get on Washington’s payroll.  The Pentagon is putting aside $1.3 billion to pay Taliban effectives who wish to “reintegrate into Afghan society.”

Part 2: The Origins of a Bad War

Most Americans have little knowledge of the complex events that led up to President Bush’s bombardment and invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.  The fact is that today’s war in Afghanistan is one of several disastrous consequences of U.S. interference in that country that began 30 years ago in 1979 and continues to this day.

So far, the main results have been the creation of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the growth of the jihadist movement, the 9/11 attack, the Afghan and Iraq wars, and now the Af-Pak war.  Let’s trace some of the origins of America’s Afghan adventure as President Obama contemplates the extent to which he will, in effect, add fuel to the fire.

Land-locked, rugged, Texas-sized with a population of 28.4 million, and strategically located where the rich geopolitical resources of the Middle East and Central Asia converge, Afghanistan gained independence from colonial Great Britain in 1919.  A monarchy was established in this desperately poor country until overthrown by a military coup in 1973.

Another coup took place in April 1978, this time led by the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) backed by the Afghan army and military officers determined to enact reforms to “bring Afghanistan into the 20th century.”

The PDPA set about governing by introducing modernizing reforms, including laws conferring equality upon the country’s oppressed women, and improving the lot of working people and subsistence farmers.  The law granting rights to women was observed in Kabul and some big cities during the dozen years that the left held power ever more tenuously, but were usually ignored elsewhere in the large territory controlled by the warlords and Islamic fundamentalists.

The PDPA’s immediate establishment of closer relations with the neighboring Soviet Union set off alarm bells in Washington, which feared Moscow would gain an important pawn in the Cold War geopolitical chess game.  Within a year President Jimmy Carter and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski decided to subvert the new leftist regime by “secretly” aiding right-wing warlords and ultra-orthodox religious groups who were beginning an armed struggle to overthrow the PDPA government and its hated reforms.

The plan was fully operational by mid-1979.  Working with the Pakistani intelligence agency over the next decade, the CIA poured a minimum of $8 billion into the coffers of warlords and fundamentalist fighting groups.  Some sources say this figure is much too low.  Saudi Arabia was also a very large contributor.

CIA operatives immediately started training the mujahedeen (the collective name of the Islamic fighters) at camps it set up in Pakistan, then in Afghanistan itself.  The U.S. also supplied them with sophisticated arms (such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles), military advisers, and logistical information for the next decade.

Writing in Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, journalist-author Ahmed Rashid said the training camps “became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism.”  In the words of William Blum in his book, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, “The war had been a rallying point for Muslim zealots from throughout the world…. Thousands of veterans of the war . . . dispersed to many lands to inflame and train a new generation of terrorists ready to drink the cup of martyrdom.”

(It must be kept in mind that jihadist fundamentalism constitutes an extremely tiny segment of the worldwide Muslim community of 1.6 billion people, nearly a quarter of Earth’s population.)

By the late summer of 1979 the right-wing rebel forces were becoming a serious threat to the Kabul regime, which eventually requested that Moscow send troops to help defend the regime.  Six months after the Carter-Brzezinski plan went into effect — and one year and nine months after the PDPA took power, the Red Army began arriving in December 1979.  (We specify the time period because the Western mass media often suggest that deep U.S. involvement began after, not before, the arrival of Soviet troops.)

As Brzezinski bragged many years later, Washington’s plan from the beginning was to create conditions that would oblige the Soviet Union to become militarily involved in Afghanistan’s civil war, and suffer the same fate as the U.S. in Vietnam in the earlier 1970s.  It worked.  In time the Red Army found itself sinking in the quagmire that earned Afghanistan the title “Graveyard of Empires.”

Among the recipients of U.S. largesse, training and military supplies was Osama bin-Laden, the millionaire scion of a Saudi Arabian family, who also received support from Pakistan and from sources in his homeland, probably including the Saudi royal family, which invested mightily in supporting the war.

Over the years up to 40,000 foreign fighters — mostly Arabs with jihadist leanings but from many other parts of the world as well — arrived in Af-Pak to join the struggle against the left-wing government, its unpalatable social reforms, and the Red Army.  Most gravitated to bin-Laden’s organization, which by 1988 he formally titled al-Qaeda.  The title means “The Base,” a reference to their training camp.  It is known that the CIA set up at least one of bin-Laden’s camps, but it may or may not have been The Base in question.

For the next several years following the arrival of Soviet troops, the White House — now occupied by the rightist Reagan administration — continued to build up the rebel forces.  During the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan began to describe the warlords and fundamentalist armies as “freedom fighters,” a description circulated by the mass media and was probably believed by the most Americans at the time.

Moscow began to withdraw in 1987 and completed the project by early 1989.  The left-wing government managed to hold on until it was brutally crushed in 1992.  The civil war then transformed into a war for control of Afghanistan between several of the strongest rebel groups.  It lasted four years, claimed up to 65,000 lives in Kabul alone, mostly civilians, and resulted in victory for the ultra-orthodox Taliban in 1996.  The Taliban is a national organization as opposed to international al-Qaeda.  The group was formed in the middle of the civil war in 1994 by Mullah Omar and consisted of the most orthodox Afghan jihadists.  The name means “students.”

Assuming power, the Taliban immediately imposed a draconian form of Islam and a violent, repressive dictatorship throughout the country.  The leftist reforms were quickly abolished.  The network of schools for girls, for instance, was closed.  Thousands of women students were ousted from colleges.

The consequences of the Carter/Reagan intervention in Afghanistan spawned the conditions that made it possible in the late summer of 2001 for 19 Al-Qaeda operatives armed with box cutters — none of them Afghans — to hijack the four airliners and slam three of them into symbols of U.S. military and financial power in Washington and New York.

The political reasons behind 9/11 tragedy included opposition to America’s support for the suppression of the Palestinians; anger over the 1991-2003 U.S.-UN sanctions that caused over a million Muslim deaths in Iraq, half of them children; Washington’s manipulative intervention in Middle East since the end of World War II; and the Pentagon’s stationing of troops in Muslim countries, particularly — in the eyes of bin-Laden — Saudi Arabia.

President Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in retribution for 9/11 need never have occurred.  It was a result of Bush’s bizarre decision to define the attack as a declaration of war against the United States instead of a gross criminal act by a small non-state organization only partially based in Afghanistan and mainly composed of non-Afghans.

The rational alternative — worldwide police work, sanctions, homeland defense and other stringent measures — would certainly have been more successful against al-Qaeda, and far less costly for the United States than eight years of fruitless war.  Bush spurned this alternative not because war was a “necessity,” as the Obama Administration alleges, but to pursue neoconservative imperialist objectives for obtaining hegemony in the region under Bush’s banner of an endless “global war on terrorism.”

Further, just before the invasion, Taliban leader Omar told the U.S. he would turn over bin-Laden to a third country if Washington didn’t attack Afghanistan, as Bush was about to do.  Mullah Omar had one condition: he asked the White House to provide evidence that the al-
Qaeda leader was actually guilty.  Bush’s response: “There’s no need to negotiate. . . .  There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt.  We know he’s guilty.”

Refusing any negotiations, Bush launched a war.  As the attack started, CIA teams were already on the ground in Afghanistan, once again paying off their old retainers — the warlords and various groups defeated by the Taliban five years earlier — with thick packages of $100 bills to resume and intensify the civil war against the Taliban in concert with the invading Americans.  At least $70 million was distributed in the first months of the war, mostly to the Northern Alliance, a big loser for power in Kabul in the ’90s.

Bush followed the Afghan adventure with a second war of choice in March 2003 — the transparently unjust and illegal invasion of Iraq, backed by the same bipartisan Congress that gave him a blank check for “War on Terrorism” in 2001.  This war, too, turned into a costly stalemate, but 120,000 U.S. occupation troops remain in the country, and the Iraqi people continue to suffer mass privation and pain.

Afghanistan is not Washington’s “good war,” though it is now characterized in that fashion not only by most Republicans — who demand a wider war — but by President Obama and many Democrats who were critical of “Bush’s” Iraq war.

Now that a Democratic president is directing the war, Bush’s campaign for invasion, regime–change, and the neocolonial occupation of Afghanistan has metamorphosed into a form of “humanitarian intervention,” reminiscent of the Democratic Clinton Administration’s terminology to rationalize its illegal and unjust three-month bombardment of Yugoslavia (Serbia) a decade ago.  This has gravely weakened the American antiwar movement, which is largely based on Democratic voters who have now markedly reduced their antiwar activism.

We believe the ruthless reactionary Taliban should be kept out of power.  In our view, as we wrote in 2001 just after the invasion:

If any brutal dictatorial regime deserved to be overthrown by its own people, the Taliban is the perfect choice.  But for the imperial superpower to arrogate the task to itself, with its planes, missiles, self-interest and hypocrisy, bodes ill for the long-suffering Afghan masses and the region in general.  Indeed, this projection of U.S. military power deeper into strategically important Central Asia is designed to extend Washington’s hegemony closer to several former Soviet republics now discovered to be awash in oil and gas reserves.

Afghanistan is now Obama’s war.  Speaking to a military audience recently, he declared that fighting the war was necessary because “those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.”  So far, Obama’s troop buildup has inspired more attacks from the Taliban and other oppositional forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the situation will only get worse in proportion to the number of U.S. troops sent to the region.

What is Washington’s actual mission in the Af-Pak war?  In a statement May 19, Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command, declared that “The mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and other transnational extremists.”

This evidently is why President Obama is widening the war in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.  But is this necessary?  The White House acknowledges that there are at most 100 members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan at this point, but indicates that more have been driven across the border to Pakistan, without specifying how many.

Is it up to 500?  Could it be high as 1,000 adherents to al-Qaeda and other “transnational” extremists?  For some reason the Pentagon doesn’t say, though it certainly must have a good estimate.  In Afghanistan there are many thousands who are associated with the Taliban and similar groups, but these organizations operate strictly within their own borders, as does the Pakistani Taliban, and in no way have threatened to attack the United States.

Does it really require the killing of many hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, trillions of American dollars, and the fixated attention of our entire society to deny the relatively small al-Qaeda a possible haven where it can plot to attack the United States?

Given the counterproductive failure of Bush’s wars, wouldn’t it be better and far less costly at this stage, if not in 2001, to rely upon international police work, high technology surveillance, tight homeland security, sanctions if absolutely needed, and a multitude of other means short of war at Washington’s disposal?

What’s to prevent the Obama Administration from accepting this non-military alternative today, now that the neoconservatives are out of power?  Two reasons present themselves: politics and international policy.

In terms of politics: It seems to us that the Democratic Party would rather continue fighting a self-defeating war in Afghanistan than to be accused by know-nothings of “cutting and running,” of being “weak on defense,” and of “lacking patriotism.”  The Democrats seem to fear these right-wing attacks will cost them votes in today’s conservative America, so instead of fighting back politically they effortlessly bend the knee further to militarism and war.  The fact is, when it comes to war, both ruling parties essentially see eye to eye.

In terms of international policy: Since the end of World War II — and particularly after the implosion of the USSR and the socialist camp nearly two decades ago — the U.S. has functioned as the world’s dominating hegemon based on its willingness to use overwhelming military might to extend its economic and political parameters throughout the world.

A large number of Americans have been manipulated by incessant government and mass media propaganda into believing that Washington’s foreign-military strategy is to spread democracy and to keep people safe from the terrorists.  Is that what the neoconservative wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were all about?  Is the real problem that Bush didn’t fight hard enough in Afghanistan — meaning that Obama should deploy another 40,000 U.S. troops right away, and probably more later on?  How then does this differentiate the Democrats from the Republicans on the most important issue of the day?

By launching an unnecessary war in Iraq and starting a war in Afghanistan instead of relying on nonmilitary means, the Bush Administration harmed the United States as well as the two victim countries.  By following in Bush’s footsteps in Afghanistan, Obama is compounding the harm.

Doesn’t America have other priorities than to continue the fighting in Afghanistan?  The U.S. is a declining superpower in deep economic difficulties.  The recession, foreclosures and unemployment are crushing tens of millions of American families.  Even without a recession, economic inequality is rampant; government social services for the people are lagging far behind comparable societies; the civil infrastructure is becoming a shambles; the healthcare system remains a wreck, although a relative improvement may be forthcoming soon; and our political system, where our choices as a nation are confined to the warmaking right and center, needs an overhaul.

Meanwhile Washington’s spending a trillion dollars a year on past, present, and future wars.  The $680 billion Pentagon budget Obama just signed is only part of it.  Can’t the U.S. do more for itself and the world by investing that money into making a better America?

Antiwar critic Andrew Bacevich, a fairly conservative former Army officer and currently a professor and author of several important books on the military and U.S. policy, wrote an article in Commonweal that contained a couple of paragraphs that fit in here:

If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself.  Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: “Come home, America.”  The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking — in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three.  Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril.  That Barack Obama should fail to realize this qualifies as not only ironic but inexplicable.

We profoundly agree with this quote except for “inexplicable.”  Obama has a number of attractive qualities, but he is a centrist in a political party of the center/center-right — an improvement over the competing mass party of the right/neocon-right/far-right, but hardly the politician to lead the struggle Bacevich suggests.  Just getting him to avoid widening the unnecessary Af-Pak war any further, much less ending it, is daunting enough.

A majority of the American people want an end to the war, including a large majority of Democratic Party voters — and Obama says he is susceptible to public pressure.  The problem is that the Democrats began leaving the antiwar struggle in droves after their party won the elections.  They don’t want to publicly protest Obama’s actions when he is under continual Republican attack on everything but the war.  How does supporting a neo-con Republican war help Obama fight the Republicans?  It doesn’t.  It just creates public pressure to keep the war going.

The unintended consequences of the U.S. decision to support the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in 1979, followed by the Bush wars, has been unacceptably costly to the peoples of the region and the United States.  We should be concerned about the unforeseen results that will emanate from President Obama’s moves to continue and expand the Af-Pak war.  American imperial hubris got us into Afghanistan, and it’s certainly time to get out now.

The author is the former editor of the Guardian Radical Newsweekly.  For the last decade he has edited the Activist Newsletter, which appears at <>.   He may be reached at <>.

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