Jul 25, 2005
The war in Afghanistan, which had practically disappeared from the media, returned with a kind of vengeance in June and July of this year, when a series of spectacular actions, including the downing of a U.S. helicopter with its crew, forced the war back onto the front pages for a few days at least. As the following article makes clear, not only hasn't the war in Afghanistan disappeared, it is heating up.
The article, which we reprint below, first appeared in issue # 59 of Class Struggle, the magazine published by the British group, Workers Fight, part of the Internationalist Communist Union, some of the member groups of which appear in a list at the back of this magazine. Although originally written a half year ago, it could just as well have been written this month, with the exception of several statistics, which we updated.
Afghanistan, the first victim of Bush's "war on terrorism," has been relegated to the backstage of the world political scene since the U.S. and British governments decided to invade Iraq. When political leaders mention it at all, it's only to speak of the alleged "democratic" wonders of Western-engineered "regime change." Lately, the so-called democratic process in Afghanistan has even been portrayed as a blueprint showing a possible way out of the present Iraqi quagmire for the U.S.-led imperialist coalition.
So, for example, the October 2004 presidential election – which resulted in the formal election of Hamid Karzai, a former warlord and CIA associate, who was originally appointed as interim president by the U.S. in December 2001 – was hailed in Western capitals as marking Afghanistan's "return to freedom and democracy." Never mind the fact that this election was marred by widespread fraud, nor that the parliamentary elections, which should have been taking place on the same day according to the country's interim constitution, had to be postponed due to "concerns over security."
Just as in Iraq, this phrase – "concerns over security" – has become part of virtually every public statement issued in Afghanistan. But it is merely a hypocritical euphemism designed to conceal the reality of what is happening inside the country.
More than three years after the first Western bombs hit the country in October 2001, the war is still going on in Afghanistan, despite the "democratic" farce of the presidential election. The country's so-called "democratic" regime exists thanks only to the funds and military protection provided by its Western masters, and this regime rules over only a tiny territory around the capital, Kabul. It is nothing but a dictatorship dressed up in a "democratic" cloak for the benefit of Western public opinion. Finally, most of the country remains oppressed by the brutal rule of the many warlords and armed militias produced by the past 25 years of virtually continuous war and torn apart by their rivalries – in addition to being subjected to military occupation and on-going acts of war by Western forces. And all of this passes under the watchful eyes of Washington and London, whose governments may have "concerns over security" today, but never had any concern for the price paid by the population for the wars carried out by the two imperialist powers.
Today, 9,000 soldiers of the NATO-sponsored "International Security Assistance Force" are based in Kabul and its immediate surroundings. Their task is primarily to protect Western embassies and officials, Karzai's puppet administration and the Afghan privileged class. Even in Kabul, however, this heavy military presence has failed to prevent regular terrorist attacks, including in the center of the capital itself. In addition, the international force mans a few outposts in the north-east of the country, where Afghanistan's huge untapped natural gas reserves happen to be located. "Peace-keeping" is all well and good, but minding the interests of Western oil and gas majors is even better, as far as Western governments are concerned!
Since the U.S. agreed to hand over control of the "International Security Assistance Force" to NATO, in August 2003, in order to prevent a number of participating countries from withdrawing their troops, all offensive military operations have been carried out by an 18,000-strong force under U.S. command, involving mostly American soldiers. Unlike the international force, these troops operate in an area covering roughly the southern and eastern half of the country. Officially, more than four years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, they are still busy hunting down al-Qaeda operatives and the remnants of the Taliban regime. But while Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar have successfully escaped more than three years of a relentless manhunt, they have long ceased to be the main problem facing the U.S. military.
In this part of Afghanistan, just as in Iraq, the U.S. army is fighting a war of attrition against guerilla forces which seem to enjoy some support among the population, particularly around Baluchistan, in the south, and in the northern Hindu Kush mountains, along the Pakistani border.
The level of resistance to the Western occupation does not appear to be comparable to that in Iraq, neither in terms of the forces involved, nor in terms of their military resources. But the guerrilla groups benefit from a mountainous terrain, with few roads or tracks that can be used by motor vehicles. The proximity of the border allows them to disappear into Pakistan when necessary, where they have a network of support among the over two million Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan and probably also among the Pakistani fundamentalist groups. This provides them with a logistical base for their operations in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, because of Afghanistan's poor communications and the isolation of the areas in which they operate, U.S. forces do not have to continually watch their backs after every operation, for fear of retaliation – as they do in Iraq. Nor do they have to worry too much about the Western media poking its nose around in these isolated areas as it does in Iraq. In fact, the few Western journalists who have wandered beyond the capital have often been arrested and taken for questioning, like the British photographer Peter Juvenile, who was jailed twice last November, officially under suspicion of having had contact with the kidnappers of three U.N. employees.
The few accounts which have filtered through about U.S. operations against the guerilla forces are testimony to the amount of blind brutality being used in this war, not so much against the guerillas themselves, but against the population. Unable, most of the time, to engage elusive guerilla groups directly, the U.S. has made systematic use of heavy airborne weaponry. A village suspected of providing help or shelter to guerilla groups is simply bombed into the ground with all its population. The devastating 2000-pound bombs that are used leave no witnesses. And in the remote areas of Afghanistan, even more so than in Iraq, there is no-one to count the number of casualties.
For U.S. leaders, this is a war they can afford far more easily than the war in Iraq. Its very nature means that it has resulted in many fewer casualties among U.S. troops. The Bush administration may not have been able to produce bin Laden, their pretext for invading Afghanistan, but they have not yet had to justify a large number of body bags to U.S. public opinion. Up until now, this has been the kind of war that Washington could sustain for a very long time.
What is significant, however, is that the number of U.S. casualties has not been going down. On the contrary, even the official figures show a small but steady increase. As of mid-July, 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense provided the following official figures: 12 deaths in 2001, 43 in 2002, 47 in 2003, 52 in 2004, and 57 in just over six months of 2005.
In any case, there is certainly no sign that the U.S. general staff is planning to reduce its presence in Afghanistan. Last spring, National Guard units were still being activated in the United States, sent for their two-month training before being deployed for a 16-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Just as in Iraq, U.S. authorities have embarked on a program to construct 16 U.S. airbases across the country, including a giant 37-square-mile base near the southwestern border with Iran. In addition, under the pretext of containing the explosion of opium production, which followed the fall of the Taliban, a network of U.S. Special Forces units is being set up across the country under the cover of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Clearly the U.S. military is in Afghanistan for the long haul. The odds are that as long as it is there, bombing villagers and imposing its stooges on the population, the present guerilla war will continue, if it does not gather pace, finding more recruits among a population which is increasingly alienated by the occupation and the terrible poverty to which it is subjected.
But the guerilla groups that the U.S. army is trying to subdue play only a limited, if not a marginal role in the West's "concern over security" in Afghanistan. The main cause of insecurity, for Western personnel – just as for the population – is the rule of the warlords.
The reality of this situation was put in a nutshell by an article in last November's issue of the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique:
"As soon as you reach the suburbs of Kabul, the Afghan state disappears. There are only warlords. Their rule is absolute. They raise taxes and duties and boast of their ability to ignore any directive coming from the central government. Even in the capital it is hard to know who is really in the driving seat: President Hamid Karzai and his government? Zalmay Khalizhad, the Afghan-American who was parachuted in by Washington as U.S. ambassador? Or the international forces which patrol every district in town? The most wealthy part of the town has been `bunkerized.' This is where foreign embassies are to be found. The U.S. has even taken over Kabul's largest avenue, where they are building a huge building for the CIA."
The writer of this article provides the answer to his own question. In Kabul at least, U.S. authorities are in the driver's seat.
But what about in the rest of the country? There, the rule of warlords, relying on armies of irregulars involving thousands of men, goes back to the 1980s, when the Soviet army occupied Afghanistan in an attempt to keep the country within the sphere of influence of the USSR. Most of today's most powerful warlords emerged as "commanders" in the struggle against the Soviet occupation, usually recruiting their militias from their own ethnic groups: Pashtun (the largest minority with 40% of the population) or – in decreasing order of importance – Tadjik, Hazara and Uzbek.
Some of these "commanders" – like the Uzbek "general" Dostum, the ruler of the region surrounding the northern town of Mazar e-Sharif, and the Tadjik Ismael Khan, the "lord of Herat" in western Afghanistan – were officers in the army of the pro-Soviet regime before defecting with their troops and weaponry. But the majority took a leading role in the anti-Soviet guerilla war either out of religious and anti-communist convictionor from self-interest. The U.S. largesse began to flow to these "commanders" very early, via the CIA and the Pakistani secret services, as well as from Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf emirates.
Once the would-be "commanders" had access to funds which could buy weapons, they had no difficulty finding recruits. In a country whose entire economy was paralyzed by the war, a weapon was an insurance against starvation, even if a dangerous one. The "mujahadin" used their prestige and/or naked force, carried out in the name of Allah, to extract what they wanted from the population of the territory they controlled. Of course, the "commanders" and their lieutenants kept the bulk of this extortion for themselves.
When the Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, in March 1989, leaving a regime in place that had virtually no control over the country outside the main towns, the warlords consolidated their territories and tried to extend them as far as they could, using the heavy weapons left by the retreating Soviet army. The result was an on-going civil war across the country. The war reached a climax after the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in 1992. The most powerful warlords – Dostum, Ismael Khan, the Tadjiks Rabbani and Masood, the Pashtun Hekmatyar and the Hazara Wahdat faction – fought a four-year battle over Kabul in an attempt to establish their own rule over the country.
Meanwhile, the smaller warlords used the opportunities offered by the vacuum of power elsewhere in the country to develop prosperous rackets. Imposing "taxes" on traders or even ordinary travelers became a normal way of raising funds, together with smuggling goods towards Iran and Pakistan and drug trafficking. It was during this period that Afghanistan became the most important of the opium producing countries.
The victory of the Taliban in 1996 brought this bloody in-fighting to an end, but not the rule of the warlords. Although the regime of the Taliban was very rigid in some ways, it was far looser in others. The Taliban enjoyed a swift victory against the far more heavily armed militias of Dostum and Hekmatyar, for example, because many of the lesser warlords whose men made up Dostum's and Hekmatyar's militias changed sides at the decisive moment. But they changed sides only to become pillars of the Taliban's regime in their respective fiefdoms. Having always used brutal methods to impose their own control over the population, few of them were disturbed by the Taliban's methods. So long as they enforced the Taliban's feudal repression and did not act so as to constitute a potential threat to Taliban rule, these warlords were left in charge of their fiefdoms, even though they now had to share part of their loot with their masters in Kabul and to refrain from indulging in drug trafficking.
When the U.S.-led coalition started to bomb the Taliban's centers of power in October 2001, the warlords did not take long to figure out which side was going to win the war. They began to change sides again, joining the ranks of the Northern Alliance, which brought together Masood, Dostum and Ismael Khan. The last to abandon the Taliban were the Hazara and southern Pashtun warlords, whom U.S. envoys had to win over with large sums of money – all in dollars.
The first interim government, formed under U.S. auspices in December 2001, reflected the balance of forces, but it also reflected the imperialist warlord's decision to co-opt the Afghan warlords into the new regime. Outside the prime minister's post, all the key positions went to the main factions of the Northern Alliance. Karzai, the prime minister, was himself a former Pashtun warlord from the south who had sided with the Taliban for three years before going into exile and getting involved with the CIA-sponsored group formed around the deposed king Zahir Shah. His brother, however, had remained in the country to lead the family's clan, and still exercises, to date, unchallenged rule over a whole area close to Kandahar, in the south, where his militia is assisting the U.S. forces to hunt down the guerillas.
The composition of the interim government changed several times. But the role of the warlords was never really reduced. Some of those appointed in 2001 may have been replaced by others – but simply because the new appointees were considered more loyal to the coalition or less dangerous inside government than outside.
The disastrous results of this policy for the population can be seen even more blatantly on the ground.
For example, a Human Rights Watch briefing paper issued in September last year has this to say about the area surrounding the northeastern town of Jalalabad: "Militia forces remain under the de facto control of military commanders, including Hazrat Ali, who cooperates with U.S. and coalition forces operating in the area, and Haji Zahir, the son of Haji Qadir, a former Mujahadin commander and member of President Karzai's government who was assassinated in Kabul in 2002. Hazrat Ali's and Haji Zahir's commanders throughout the area operate criminal enterprises and continue to engage in numerous human rights violations, including the seizure of land and other properties, kidnapping civilians for ransom and extorting money." The same report added that during the election campaign, the henchmen of these two U.S. allies acted as de facto "election agents" for Karzai, removing posters of rival candidates from the walls of Jalalabad.
An even more striking case is that of the city of Herat. Following the fall of the Taliban, Ismael Khan took over control of Herat and proclaimed himself governor while setting up an armed militia, estimated to be 25,000 strong. He was co-opted into Karzai's government, brought into Kabul, in an obvious attempt to separate him from his power base. When this failed, he was sacked and returned to Herat where Karzai, apparently under U.S. pressure, appointed him governor. But Khan went on defying the government, refusing to pay any income tax to Kabul and enforcing his own system of taxes on all trade to and from nearby Iran.
In August last year, four local warlords, who are even more feared for their bloody cruelty than Khan himself, joined forces to attack Khan in Herat. After a month of fighting, they managed to force him out of the city. Their victory was immediately hailed by U.S. officials. And a senior Afghan government official was quoted as saying: "It is vital to remove Ismael Khan. It is part of a complex and secret plan which I cannot divulge.... Yes, I regret the use of these other militia groups. But sometimes you have to do a little wrong in order to achieve a great good. Herat will be well administered under a technocratic government. We are engaged in a virtuous circle away from illegitimate fiefdoms towards a legitimate central authority and a secure, stable, free, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan."
What happened subsequently would make this statement laughable – if it were not for the fact that the population of Herat was made to foot the bill for this "secret plan," being subjected to the rule of yet another crowd of thieves and torturers.
In September of last year, Khan was formally demoted as governor of Herat and Karzai appointed a new governor to replace him. Shortly afterwards, Human Rights Watch noted that "Ismael Khan still controls some militia forces around Herat and it is unclear who holds real power in Herat." This was a euphemism. Before the end of the month, the head of the region's police, who had just been appointed by Karzai to replace Khan's police chief, had to flee for his life and return to Kabul after his escort was attacked by Khan's militia. But the ultimate irony came in December, when Khan was re-integrated into Karzai's government as the minister of "Water, Mines and Energy." Back to square one!
The policy of co-opting the warlords into the regime comes at a price, and not just because of Karzai's lack of authority in Herat – although this is significant in and of itself, since Herat is the country's third largest city. In Mazar e-Sharif, Dostum's northern fiefdom, Karzai has been unable to appoint a mayor because the local militias had already appointed their own man. To counter-balance Dostum's power, Kabul appointed a powerful Tadjik warlord, Mohammad Atta, as regional governor. But when Kabul decided to appoint its own man as chief of police, Atta moved in and put him under house arrest, no doubt to show Kabul it would not be able to call the shots over his head.
The occupation forces and its puppet regime in Kabul face a problem of their own making: their policy of playing one militia against another and co-opting warlords selectively into the regime keeps backfiring without in any way consolidating the authority of the state. On the contrary, the power of the warlords has returned to what it was before the Taliban came to power. For example, the production of opium in the country this year almost reached the record level set before the Taliban clamped down on opium production.
Today, unlike in the 1990s, the warlords are prevented from making a bid for central power by the Western occupation. But this does not prevent them from paralyzing the country's economy, oppressing the population and holding it ransom.
In response, the occupation forces have introduced a series of U.N.-sponsored programs called "Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration" (DDR), which are supposed to facilitate the collection of heavy weapons and the reintegration of militiamen into civil life. But so far, according to the government's own figures, only 25,000 militiamen have gone through the DDR programs – which is only a small proportion of the armed militiamen operating across the country.
Moreover, these fancy figures conceal the real paralysis of the government in disarming the militias. For example, a big fuss was made when Dostum surrendered 50 rusty Russian tanks and heavy artillery pieces held by his men. But the government has been unable to get these weapons brought back to Kabul, so they remain in military bases controlled by Dostum's militias.
Likewise for reintegrating militiamen into civilian life. Once they use the one-time payment given to them in exchange for their weapons and uniforms, there is no job for them to go to, except one – in the Afghan army and police. Many of the 25,000 demobilized militiamen have re-armed, this time as "respectable" soldiers and policemen. But thanks to the influence of their former warlords, they just happen to find themselves in the same unit as others coming from the same militia.
No wonder the Afghan Human Rights Commission found that 15% of the cases of human rights violations are committed by the police, including many cases of torture such as the pulling out of fingernails! This is also why, for example, the 8th Army Corps, which is based in Mazar e-Sharif, happens to be dominated by Dostum's former militia – something that Dostum was well-placed to orchestrate while he was deputy minister of defense.
With the DDR programs, the only difference is that the militiamen have new uniforms and are paid by the government to carry out their looting at the expense of the population. In any case, these programs are not likely to reduce the power of the warlords, particularly of the most powerful, but rather to entrench it at every level of the state machinery.
Given the rule of the warlords, whether imperialist or local, there can obviously be no democracy in Afghanistan.
The presidential election provided unquestionable proof. The whole charade began with the registration process. Bush hailed the announcement that 10.5 million people had registered, stating that "a really great thing has happened in Afghanistan." He forgot to mention one small detail – this figure was higher than the 9.8 million people eligible to vote. The European Union-sponsored Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit attempted to find out what had happened. It found three of the nine regions had more registrations than people eligible to vote – with 130% of those eligible registered in two of the regions! The other six regions showed over or close to 90% of eligible voters registered, with one significant exception – the Central region which includes Kabul, where only 64% of those eligible to vote registered. In other words, the registration level was the lowest, by far, where the warlords had the least influence. The implications were obvious: there were large-scale multiple registrations and vote buying.
Not that a regular registration process would have made this election democratic. Indeed, the list of candidates did not give the electorate much choice. Seventy of the candidates who signed up to run were ruled off the ballot by the electoral commission – without it having to provide any justification. Given conditions prevailing in the country, the prerequisites for being allowed to stand were already overwhelming for anyone who was not from a relatively well-off background or did not enjoy the support of rich backers and a significant election apparatus. Indeed each candidate had to present a university degree, together with the photocopies of 10,000 registration cards and pay a non-refundable fee of $1,000 – equivalent to more than eight years' wages for a skilled worker.
Of the 18 who were finally allowed to stand, two immediately withdrew their candidacy in favor of Karzai's. Not surprisingly, both were awarded minor positions in the new government announced in December. Of the remaining 16, 10 were linked with "mujahadin" factions, including the only woman candidate, two were royalists and two had fundamentalist links. Only one of the candidates dared to express publicly his opposition to the Western occupation – and even then only in very mild terms.
But the ideas of the candidates did not really matter because most of them never had a chance to express themselves. Karzai monopolized the use of state television, while private cable television channels were suspended at that time – supposedly due to "viewers' complaints about their "anti-Islamic programs." Holding public election meetings was effectively banned in most towns, including Kabul, except for the candidates favored by the local militias.
On election day, the predictable wide-scale fraud took place, involving multiple voting, intimidation, the confiscation of ballots by militiamen, etc. This did not prevent hundreds of Western observers in Afghanistan from declaring the election "democratic" – or, at least, this was what the occupation authorities, Western governments and Karzai claimed. They even dared to congratulate themselves that election day had been such a "quiet" day. "Quiet"? Not for the 40 Afghan people who were killed on that day, including 25 by two American bombs dropped on their villages!
However, some observers – for example, those from human rights organizations – were outspoken in their condemnation of the fraud. It must have been blatant – before the polling stations closed, 14 candidates issued a joint statement demanding a re-run. Of course, Karzai was not one of them, nor was the woman candidate, who was later duly rewarded for her silence with a position in the December reshuffle.
In the end, after two weeks of counting, Karzai was proclaimed the victor with slightly over 50% of the vote, while his closest rival was reported to have only 16% of the votes. Karzai certainly achieved his aim, but, contrary to what Blair and Bush boasted at the time, "democracy" had nothing to do with it.
The next step in this stage-managed farce was to be the parliamentary elections, which were first schedule for the same time as the presidential election, then postponed to the spring. [In fact, they were postponed once again after this article was written. They have now been re-scheduled again, this time for September.] It would come as no surprise if they were to be put off indefinitely. Karzai's main problem and probably the real reason why these elections have been postponed: it's impossible for him to stop local warlords from getting their own candidates elected. From there, it's not a huge jump for them to form an anti-Karzai coalition in the future parliament. But whether this happens or not, one thing is certain: once again, the Afghan masses will not have the choice of voting for candidates who voice their interests in these elections.
As in Iraq, Western governments wasted no time after invading Afghanistan to start talking about "reconstruction." Grandiose figures for international aid were announced by the media. Schools and hospitals were going to be built; roads, revamped; sewage systems, installed, etc... Afghanistan was going to see at last the benefits of the capitalist market.
So what has really been done over the past three years? The same issue of Le Monde Diplomatique already quoted provides some idea of the situation: "In Kabul's bazaar, poverty impregnates everything: people in rags scrape a living out of nothing. Of course, there are the NGOs [non-government organizations] – around 2,000 Western NGOs have offices in Kabul. They provide work for a section of the town's population, while at the same time parasitizing it.... The rewarding jobs, of course, are given to Westerners or to Afghan exiles returning from the West. Local Afghans are left with the menial tasks."
Despite these jobs, a survey carried out by Afghan journalists shows that unemployment and low wages come second after security in people's preoccupations, and even in first place with the population of Kabul.
The truth is that in more than three years of occupation, absolutely nothing has been done to revive the economy in order to create jobs. For example, no significant reconstruction program has been started. Even what was destroyed by U.S. bombing in 2001 is still rubble. As for the roads, which are vital for the country's agriculture, they are still waiting to be mended.
In the mid-1980s, there were 100,000 industrial workers in the country, employed in 32 factories. Today, they number only 8,000, due to lack of energy and antiquated machinery. To date, there have been no plans to reopen factories, except for three in the north, and no plans to rebuild power stations to replace those which were damaged or destroyed in the 2001 bombing and over the previous decade.
What has happened then to the billions of dollars of foreign aid? Part of this money may have been absorbed for no useful purpose by some NGOs. But how much of it has gone to fund expenses of the occupying countries' satellite agencies? How much of this aid, as in Iraq, has gone to fund military activities under the pretext of being allocated to "security" purposes, like providing security guards for Western bigwigs and companies? Not to mention the army of Western "advisers" who get paid Western salaries in a country where senior civil servants earn not much more than $60 a month! And finally, how much of this money has been used by the occupation authorities to line the pockets of Karzai's ministers and officials, as a means of buying their loyalty? After all, the corruption of Karzai's administration is an open secret, just as is the joint involvement of senior government officials and warlords in drug trafficking.
More than three years of imperialist occupation of Afghanistan in the name of democracy and "fighting terrorism" have resulted in reinforcing the ruthless rule of the Afghan warlords and their terrorism against the population – not to mention the dead, the injured, the destruction caused by the invasion and the extreme poverty to which the population remains subjected. The imperialist powers have replaced the feudal rule of the Taliban with the rule of a corrupt Islamic state and fundamentalist warlords. They claimed they would free Afghan women from their enslavement under the Taliban, but only a small minority of women – mostly from the middle and upper-classes in Kabul and in the north – have seen any change. And even that change is not much because of the permanent threat toward women coming from the armed militias.
Just as in Iraq, the invaders had no plans other than to destroy their target and impose their dictates on the population. However, they have managed to re-ignite the powder keg which existed in the country before the Taliban. Last July, a British parliamentary commission, whose members had supported the Western invasion, warned on its return from Afghanistan that the country was threatening to "implode." This is not an abstract possibility, but a very real one, given the increasingly obvious weakness of Karzai's regime and the entrenchment of the warlords' power. In a region where national borders often split ethnic and language groups between two or three countries, the implosion of the central piece of the regional puzzle could affect the whole region with unpredictable consequences.
Instead of using its enormous resources to help in building a decent future for the population of Afghanistan, once again the capitalist system is threatening them with a future of poverty and oppression, at best, if not a catastrophe of historical proportions.
Originally written January 7, 2005