The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The "War on Terrorism":
The Origin of the Afghan Powder Keg

Nov 1, 2001

The role played by the great powers in stoking up the Afghan powder keg goes back to the 19th century. For decades what is today Afghanistan was part of an area in dispute between Czarist Russia and British imperialism. In 1893, British imperialism drew up borders outlining the country. This artificial creation did not reflect the wishes of the peoples of the area; rather, it reflected the balance of forces between the Russian empire, on the one hand, and, on the other, the British empire and its sphere of influence. Having failed to include Afghanistan into its empire, London aimed to make it into a buffer zone between the two rival empires.

The result of this operation was a country which had no known natural resources and no access to the sea; it was mostly covered with inhospitable high mountain ranges, stone-filled deserts and arid steppes.

But above all, the new Afghanistan was an incredible patchwork of peoples, with different religious and linguistic traditions. Today, most of the various ethnic groups which make up the Afghan population remain split between Afghanistan and its five neighboring countries. Its largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns, who make up nearly 40% of the Afghan population, is concentrated in the southern half of the country. But the majority of this ethnic group actually lives on the other side of the Pakistani border, where they form Pakistan's second largest ethnic group. The much smaller Nuristani, who live in the eastern mountain ranges of Afghanistan, are also split in two by the same border. Afghanistan's second largest ethnic minority, with 30% of the population, the Tadjiks, live in the north-east of the country but also in Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan. Two smaller ethnic groups the Uzbek in the North and the Turkmens in the northwest are also to be found in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In the center of Afghanistan live the Hazaras. They have no ethnic ties with any of the neighboring countries, but they form the largest Shia grouping in Sunni-dominated Afghanistan and, as a result, have close relations with Iran. Finally, in the south of Afghanistan, the smaller Baluchi ethnic group is related to much larger groups in Pakistan and also in Iran.

In Afghanistan, as in the whole surrounding region, the contradictions between ethnic divisions and national borders have been a constant source of conflicts. These contradictions can easily turn any local destabilization into a threat for the whole region. All the more so, because the five neighbors of Afghanistan are also, to various degrees, heterogenous patchworks of populations living together not by free choice made within a democratic framework respectful of the rights of minorities, but rather under the yoke of dictatorships.

Ethnic conflicts have often threatened the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the 1960s, for example, there were numerous border incidents between the two countries. On the Afghan side, the former king Zahir Shah championed the idea of a "Greater Pashtunistan," which would have redrawn the borders line in order to integrate the Pashtun part of Pakistan into Afghanistan. On the Pakistani side, the then dictator, Marshall Ayub Khan, had plans to turn Afghanistan into a kind of Pakistani satellite state. In the 1970s, Pakistan's Baluchi minority staged an armed uprising against Islamabad. It took five years of bloody repression, involving 100,000 soldiers on Pakistan's side, for the populist prime minister Ali Bhutto, to crush the insurgents. Many times during the course of these five years, Afghanistan came very close to being engulfed in a war with Pakistan simply because the Baluchi People's Liberation Front was using the Baluchi area of Afghanistan as a rear base for its military operations in Pakistan.

The ethnic-based territorial disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan did not dissipate over time. Over the past two decades, Pakistan's successive regimes have all intervened in the on-going war in Afghanistan on behalf of imperialism's interests, of course, but also to promote their own interests. Moreover, on the Afghan side, recent public statements have shown that the old territorial claims have not been forgotten. For example, one of Zahir Shah's advisers used the example of Hong Kong's return to China by Britain to back his claim that the Pakistan- Afghanistan border should be renegotiated in compliance with the 100-year time limit written into the 1893 agreement which created it. In 1993, when this deadline had come, Afghanistan was still deep in civil war. But this demand may well re-emerge in the demagogy of politicians seeking to achieve national unity in Afghanistan or among the Pashtuns at Pakistan's expense.

A Constant Threat of an Indo-Pakistani War

The games of the great powers affected Pakistan itself, dramatically, right from its inception.

In 1947, Britain withdrew from its empire on the Indian sub-continent, during the social cataclysm that London's "divide and rule" policy had, over so many decades, set in motion. In late 1945, the colonial authorities were confronted with an unprecedented wave of strikes and demonstrations in favor of independence, which spread to the Indian army and navy. Britain responded with brutal repression while, behind the scenes, it encouraged Muslim and Hindu gangs to go on the rampage, carrying out pogroms in order to break the wave of strikes and unrest. By the same token, however, the colonial power opened the gates to a flood of demagogy among local politicians seeking to build a power base for themselves if not a state of their own by taking the lead of the pogromist gangs.

The British Labour government soon lost control of the situation and chose to run away. But in so doing, it did not lose sight of the interests of imperialism in general, nor of those of British imperialism in particular. Under the pretext of protecting religious rights, London engineered the partition of the Indian subcontinent. A huge Indian federation would harbor the non-Muslim population while retaining most of the resources of the former colony. And on either side of it, east and west, two territories, 1,300 miles apart were to constitute Pakistan, carved out for the Muslim population. However, not only was Pakistan much poorer and smaller, but separated this way, it was also not viable.

This partition turned the wave of communal pogroms into a social catastrophe which left half-a-million dead and forced ten million people to flee in both directions. In addition it set the two new countries against each other over the territorial claims created by the artificial borders drawn by London. The consequences are well-known: three bloody wars between India and Pakistan, two over the issue of Kashmir immediately after independence and, again, in 1965; the third one in 1971, which led to the secession of East Pakistan to form today's Bangladesh, with India's help.

As subsequent events showed, Pakistan's political instability was not resolved by the secession of Bangladesh. The Indian federation, by contrast, although also a patchwork of ethnic groups, proved large enough for the biggest groups to want to remain within it and for the occasional shocks created by separatist movements to be absorbed without serious consequences. But Pakistan was much poorer, with a territory only one-fourth the size of India and a population one-eighth that of India. Its various ethnic components had few incentives to remain within Pakistan. Right from the start, the country was torn apart by centrifugal forces: Baluchi and Pashtun nationalism, as mentioned before; Punjabi separatism (Punjab being split in two between India and Pakistan); more recently, the nationalist movement which developed among the Mohadjir (a milieu formed by families who came from India in 1947 and populated southern towns, like Karachi, without being really integrated into the local semi-feudal society).

Moreover, as a result of the 1947 partition, ethnic and religious demagogy became respectable components of political life both in India and in Pakistan, thereby paving the way for many more pogroms in both countries, as well as for the rise of various forms of fundamentalism Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, etc. over the past two decades.

India's partition was designed to benefit imperialism, regardless of the cost to the population. It was, in part a response to the lessons of China: U.S. leaders had been unable to intervene to prevent the collapse of Chiang Kai- shek, their puppet, whose forces disintegrated; facing the offensive led by Mao Tse-Tung, during a peasant uprising against feudal landowners. For the imperialist leaders, it was vital that no such setback should be allowed to happen in India; everything had to be done to prevent the possibility of a mass mobilization deep enough to try to challenge the domination of the imperialist powers. Since India's independence could not be avoided, it had to take the form of a divided sub-continent, which would be crippled and poisoned by internal conflicts and, therefore, paralyzed against imperialism. The British Labour ministers did what was required to achieve this objective with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people from the sub-continent on their hands.

During the following decades, imperialism used this partition to its advantage in several different ways.

India's size and resources allowed it to extract some concessions from imperialism, or at least to demand something in return for everything it conceded. This allowed the Indian leader, Nehru, together with the Indonesian leader Sukarno, to champion "non-alignment," i.e. a certain degree of independence from imperialism, although this was mostly an illusion: India did benefit from the military aid of the Soviet Union without ever losing that of the USA. But this did not prevent the Indian economy from being looted by imperialist multinationals. Nor did it prevent the USA from manipulating Nehru, by encouraging his regional ambitions against China, regardless of the resulting potential risk of triggering a war between the two countries which was exactly what happened when the Chinese army invaded Assam in 1962.

Pakistan, by contrast, due to its poverty and instability, proved an easy prey for U.S. leaders, especially after they backed Pakistan's claim over Kashmir against India. Pakistan became a more pliable instrument of imperialism as its army the backbone of its state machinery and the only institution capable of keeping the country together became more dependent on U.S. subsidies. From being merely a tool designed to contain the desire for independence of its giant Indian neighbor, Pakistan soon became an important auxiliary for U.S. imperialism in the area.

A Geo-Political Hinge

Since World War II, Pakistan has been the hinge between three different geo-political zones: to its west, the Middle East with its huge energy resources; to its east, Asia, dominated by China; and to its north, the Soviet Union (or, today, the Russian) sphere of influence.

In each of these regions, U.S. imperialism operated with the active complicity, or at least the support, of the minor imperialisms such as Britain. It moved pawns according to various strategies, which were sometimes contradictory, using its economic and military power to bribe or subjugate regimes. It played different regimes against one another and it used them, when it could, to drown in blood any attempt by the populations to rebel. Pakistan and Afghanistan found themselves caught in the middle of this complex power game and, as a result, have been its main victims.

In 1951, it was the situation in Middle East specifically the nationalization of foreign oil companies' assets by the Iranian prime minister Mossadeq which prompted Washington to tighten its grip on Pakistan and turn it into its regional auxiliary. By 1952, President Sikandar Mirza accepted the principle of U.S. military bases on Pakistani territory; in return, the USA promised to train and arm the Pakistani army.

As it happened, the Iranian crisis was resolved in 1953 by a military coup, organized with the help of the CIA that overthrew Mossadeq's government. Nevertheless the USA went ahead with its plans for the Pakistani army. In 1958, when Marshall Ayub Khan overthrew Pakistan's civilian government in a military coup, the USA did not raise any issue of democracy. It simply rushed, during Khan's first year in power, to open its first air base in Pakistan, near Peshawar, close to the northern Pakistani-Afghan border. This base could be used both against the USSR (which was just over 300 miles away) and against Iran, the most populated country of the Middle East (which was 600 miles away).

With the close of the 1960s and the setback suffered by U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, came the end of its "containment" policy. U.S. leaders began to search for rapprochement with China. This was, in fact, a rather convoluted policy. On the one hand, the USA continued to encourage India in its rivalry with China while, on the other, they used Ali Bhutto's regime in Pakistan as a conduit to communicate with Beijing.

The opportunistic nature of the U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy was exposed against the backdrop of this complex diplomatic game. The Indian nuclear program had been launched in 1964, following the first Chinese nuclear explosion. It had been developed with the help of Washington, which had allowed two General Electric reactors to be sold to India. By the early 1970s, when India was close to testing its first nuclear bomb (developed with the help of the USSR,) the USA supplied India with the "heavy water" it required. And, in 1974, after India carried out its first nuclear test, Washington demonstrated its tacit approval by a massive increase in its military aid to India. Obviously, so far as the U.S. leaders were concerned, the Indian bomb was a useful counterweight to the Chinese bomb.

As to Pakistan, it first joined the nuclear race in late 1971, under Ali Bhutto. Not only did Washington not oppose it, but it actually helped, by allowing the sale of Westinghouse reactors to Pakistan. At the same time, supplies of conventional weapons to Pakistan were massively increased officially to "make the development of a Pakistani bomb redundant." Of course, the point was to avoid upsetting such a useful regional ally, all the more so because, otherwise, China might have used the opportunity to offer its help to Pakistan.

With regard to U.S. policy towards the USSR, Pakistan played an essentially passive role up until the end of the 1970s. Except for a brief period, in the early days of Bhutto's regime when he resorted to a kind of "socialist" demagogy, all the Pakistani regimes, whether military or civilian, shared the same vocal anti- communism especially because their Indian neighbor was presented as a Soviet ally on the international scene, although this was a wild exaggeration. Beyond that, the main role played by Pakistan in this period was to provide U.S. imperialism with military bases to complement its encirclement of the USSR.

It must be noted, however, that U.S. policy towards Afghanistan during that period was very cautious. And the U.S. leaders did whatever was necessary to discourage their Pakistani allies from embarking on a military adventure in Afghanistan. Just like their British predecessors in the 19th century, and despite the fact that it was under Soviet influence, Washington's strategists saw Afghanistan as a useful buffer state between the Soviet Union and the imperialist world. At that point, moreover, Afghanistan had no economic attractions for the imperialist multinationals.

Cold War and Fundamentalism

In 1979, two new developments took place. One of the main pillars of the imperialist domination of the Middle East, the bloody dictatorship of the Iranian Shah, collapsed in January 1979. Then in the course of the same year, a civil war broke out in Afghanistan, resulting in the Soviet Union's military intervention in December.

The political change in Iran confronted U.S. imperialism with a three-fold problem. First, it put in question imperialism's well tested system of domination in the Middle East a system which relied on the tripod formed by Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Second, the fact that a popular movement had been able to overthrow one of the most repressive regimes in the region could set a dangerous precedent for the future. Third, although the U.S. leaders had been rather pleased by Khomeini's hijacking of the Iranian revolution, they were worried by the political instability which carried on during that whole year in Iran, by the increasing anti-American demagogy used by the new regime and by its proclaimed intention to generate support among the Arab populations. All these factors played a role in the U.S. moving the center of gravity of its policy towards Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and towards Pakistan, on the other, where the dominant version of Islam was Sunni rather Khomeini's Shia version.

The events in Afghanistan raised a different kind of problem. The PDPA (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan) had been in power since April 1978, following a military coup which had overthrown the dictatorship of Prince Daoud. The PDPA was a pro-Soviet party, mixing nationalism and social-democracy, representing mostly the urban petty-bourgeois layers. Soon, the PDPA was torn apart by brutal faction fights, which the traditional landlords and clerics used to discredit the regime among the rural majority of the population. A whole section of the state machinery began to melt away. Civil war developed, with entire regions of the country breaking all ties with the central government. Moreover, this dangerous situation could have spread to the neighboring countries through ethnic and religious ties.

The Soviet intervention, in December 1979, was at the least convenient for the imperialist powers, if they didn't explicitly give their go-ahead to Moscow: it meant they would not have to do the job themselves. However, this did not prevent Western governments from condemning the USSR. And above all, it did not prevent U.S. imperialism from trying to use the opportunity to create difficulties for the Soviet Union and to prevent it from consolidating its influence over Afghanistan.

As is known today, Washington did not wait for the Soviet intervention to try to take advantage of the situation. High-ranking Pakistani officers revealed later that, as early as April 1979, the U.S. embassy in Pakistan had asked the ISI (the Inter Service Intelligence the Pakistani secret police which had been shaped and trained by American specialists) to provide it with a list of Afghan opposition groups to which the USA could give financial (and if need be military) "assistance." It was at that time that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami (Party of Islam) became the main recipient of U.S. subsidies and weapons. Hekmatyar was to retain this privilege for over a decade.

With the Soviet intervention, the U.S. immediately stepped up the policy it had started in April 1979. Pakistan became the main transmission belt for Washington's new power game. U.S. President Carter forgot about the economic and military sanctions he had ordered two years before against the then Pakistani dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, following his military coup and the subsequent repression. Starting in 1980, Pakistan became the world's third largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt.

The resources of the Pakistani army and of the ISI were mobilized to channel the funds and weapons supplied by the USA, as well as by Saudi Arabia and some Gulf emirates, to the "Afghan resistance." Over the duration of the war, U.S. funding alone was estimated at 250 million dollars. In addition, the "Afghan resistance" also had a few other benefactors like Iran, China and Egypt, for example who distributed their aid without resorting to Pakistan's help.

Most of these funds and weapons went to Islamic fundamentalist groups. This was not by accident. Nor was it due to the absence of other political forces opposing the Soviet occupation such forces existed and they were not less significant than the fundamentalist groups, which were still tiny. The fact that U.S. aid benefitted mainly fundamentalist groups was the result of a political choice. This choice was partly inspired by Pakistan which had offered a rear base to Afghan fundamentalist groups ever since 1973, when they were banned in Afghanistan and by General Zia personally, who had close ties with the Islamic Alliance (Jamaat i-Islami), a small Pakistani fundamentalist party. But, above all, U.S. leaders chose these fundamentalist groups because they appeared as the most determined enemies of the Soviet Union and, therefore, the best bet to ensure that Soviet influence over Afghanistan would end once the war was over.

The flood of dollars and weapons resulted in the mushrooming of rival groups. In reality, many of these groups existed only because their leaders wanted a share of the U.S. largesse. Some of these groups were Sunni or Shia; others represented minor religious sects. Most of them were strictly ethnic-based. Many among them were merely the armed organization of a local clan. Many had no real presence in the country itself. Those who did were preoccupied with protecting their trafficking in opium from the Soviet troops, or their territories from rival "resistance" groups. Protecting the Afghan population didn't come into their calculations. In short, the leaders of this "resistance," armed and financed as it was by imperialism, were not only religious fanatics, bent on pushing their country back into medieval times, they were warlords and, more often than not, plain crooks.

But none of this prevented U.S. leaders from subsidizing them. It did not take long, however, for the consequence of this policy to become apparent in Afghanistan itself.

The Afghan Catastrophe

After ten years of bloody fighting in the Afghan quagmire, the Soviet troops eventually withdrew, in February 1989. They left the country under a government which was still led by the PDPA, but also included a number of nationalist politicians. For the U.S. leaders, it seemed that the day of "victory" had arrived. The U.S. envoy in Kabul, Jon Glassman, predicted that the PDPA regime would be finished within five months. The Pakistani army general staff drew up plans for a general offensive by the resistance, against Kabul, with the help of U.S. advisers. It was a disaster. The battle lasted two months, leaving 2,000 dead, but the PDPA remained firmly in power not just for five months, but for over three years.

Eventually, however, in April 1992, the disintegration of the PDPA regime was finally complete, after whole units of its army and police had joined, one after the other, the main groups of the resistance. The latter entered Kabul. The United Nations hailed the setting up of what it called a "democratic" government in Afghanistan, despite the fact that this government had succeeded in taking power only thanks to imperialism's weapons.

The new power which called itself an "Islamic government" was based on a coalition of the ten largest resistance groups. This included nine fundamentalist groups and the National Islamic Movement led by the Uzbek warlord, General Dostum. In addition, the new regime was supposed to make space for a myriad of smaller groups through institutions which had still to be defined. However, while the details of its structure were still vague, the nature of the new regime was not: it was to be an Islamic republic.

However, no sooner had this regime settled in Kabul than the coalition lost two of its main protagonists - Hekmatyar's Hizb i-Islami, the largest group, and the Shia front, Wahdat. From this point onwards, the civil war resumed, as fiercely as ever. Worse, as the strongest groups in the ruling coalition were now Tadjik and Uzbek, the civil war took on a more distinctively ethnic character. For four years, the country was deprived of a recognized central power and plunged in bloody fighting by the factions fighting for power in Kabul, but also by a host of local warlords who were trying to take advantage of the power vacuum to carve a territory for themselves at the population's expense.

It was primarily this situation which paved the way for the Taliban's victorious march to power, between 1994 and 1996. The apparent determination of this new generation of fighters to bring the war and the corruption to an end generated some illusions among the Afghan population. Probably, the Taliban did not appear more repressive than the other factions.

The leaders of the various imperialisms had very different concerns. They were worried about the power vacuum and civil war in Afghanistan and the ever present risk of contagion this represented for the neighboring countries. However, they might have tolerated this situation, at least temporarily, had it not been for major changes which had occurred in the Soviet Union in the meantime.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had opened the possibility for Western multinationals to gain access to the national markets and, above all, the natural resources of the former Central Asian Soviet republics. According to estimates being made then, these natural resources, particularly in oil and natural gas, were enormous. As a result, Western multinationals were scrambling to take options on Turkmenistan's gas and Kazakhstan's oil. Their only problem was to find a way to bring this oil and gas to Western markets. From this point of view, Afghanistan offered entirely new prospects. Pipelines built across Afghanistan to the sea allowed the Western multinational companies to avoid going through Russia, which imposed extortionate transit fees and also would gain a measure of control over Western energy supplies or through Iran, which was still subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

However no pipeline could be operated through Afghanistan so long as the civil war continued. Besides, Afghanistan's political instability threatened to spread to some of the former Central Asian Soviet republics, where fundamentalism was already rife, spreading instability which would have deprived Western multinationals of the chance to plunder these countries' natural resources.

The U.S. played a decisive role in arming and training the Taliban this time to impose order on an area which its earlier intervention had helped throw into a never ending battle between local warlords. No imperialist power not even the United States, the only super power in the world after the breaking up of the Soviet Union is able to impose its order on the world with only its own forces. In the search for local political forces ready to accept and aid it to impose its domination, imperialism quite naturally inclines toward the most reactionary forces.

When the Taliban occupied Kabul in September 1996, U.S. authorities hailed the event as a long-awaited return to law and order in the country. So did the oil multinationals, of course. Unocal, the main participant in the trans- Afghanistan pipeline project, congratulated the new regime and promised international financial aid as a reward for the return to political stability.

In January 1997, many months after the Taliban imposed Sharia law, unleashing medieval repression against the population as a whole, and more specifically against women, a U.S. diplomat based in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, had these cynical words to say in an interview: "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that." U.S. diplomats and imperialist multinationals could live with that, of course, but how about the Afghan population? The fact is that the fate of this population just does not count in the power games of imperialism, neither yesterday, nor today.

Besides, for the imperialist leaders, the Taliban meant more than just political stability and enormous profits for the oil companies. As the U.S. daily Washington Post reported in an editorial, in 1996, the Taliban were seen as "anti-modern rather than anti-Western" and "bent on restoring a traditional society in Afghanistan, rather than exporting an Islamic revolution." In other words, the Taliban provided imperialism with a "harmless" counter-weight to Iranian fundamentalism.