The Spark

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

Afghanistan:
A Hidden War That Is Turning into Another Quagmire

Jul 6, 2006

The following article is largely excerpted from Issue 68, July-August 2006, of the Class Struggle magazine put out by the International Communist Union based in Great Britain.

In May, the U.S. military announced with great fanfare what it described as the largest ever ground offensive against “Taliban” forces. This so-called “Operation Mountain Thrust” was designed to uproot all insurgent forces from the southeastern part of the country, staging simultaneous attacks on their bases in the four provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabol and Oruzgan to prevent them from slipping away to a neighboring province.

The second phase of this operation began on June 15. According to a U.S. military spokesman, Colonel Tom Collins, it will eventually involve over 11,000 troops, including 3,500 from the Western-trained Afghan National Army, 2,300 U.S. soldiers, 2,200 Canadians and 3,300 British soldiers.

This continuing need for an offensive shows that the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating rapidly over the past year, despite U.S. claims to the contrary. In January this year, the preamble of the latest Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan had already revealed this deterioration: “Four years after U.S. forces ousted the Taliban from Kabul, Afghanistan faces an increasingly violent insurgency in southern and southeastern areas, while in the rest of the country regional military commanders – i.e. warlords – further entrench themselves by subverting the political process and controlling the country’s drug trade.”

Since then, the worsening of the situation has accelerated. In late June, U.S. General Karl Eikenberry, the commander of U.S. Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan, admitted to a House of Representatives committee that Taliban forces had reconstituted themselves: “We are seeing enemy forces now operate in formations of 40 to 50 fighters; they are demonstrating better command and control, and they are fighting hard .... The enemy we face is not particularly strong, but the institutions of the Afghan state remain relatively weak. This situation is enabling the enemy to operate in the absence of government presence in some areas of the country.”

In fact, “some areas” is an understatement. In Helmand province, for instance, a report published around the same time by the European-based think tank “Senlis Group” notes that “effectively, the central Afghan government has authority in just two Helmand towns. In the other district centers, district governors have only a few policemen to secure the district municipal offices.” According to the same report, not only is the authority of the central administration confined to these two main towns (which are nevertheless the targets of regular terrorist attacks) but the northern part of the province is entirely controlled by the insurgents who operate there virtually openly. In fact, they have put their own administrations in place. The same can be said of the other three provinces targeted by “Operation Mountain Thrust.” The report adds that guerilla activity has also developed dramatically in Nangarhar province, only a few dozen miles from the capital, Kabul.

But southeastern Afghanistan is not the only part of the country where insurgent forces have regrouped. Various reports have noted that the same process is taking place along the Iranian border, in areas where the Taliban never had much presence or influence until now. The insurgency has also spread to central Afghan provinces, such as Wardak, to the west of Kabul, where attacks against heavily-guarded convoys traveling along the Kabul-Herat main road occur daily. Meanwhile, in the northeastern part of the country, entire areas have been taken over by guerilla forces formed by some of the old Mujahedin factions of the 1980s, which were not invited into, or had refused to join, the political process. German troops occupying the area further north along the border with Tajikistan also reported a 100% increase in guerilla activity over the past year.

Judging from these reports, insurgent forces seem able to operate freely in many areas in most of the country’s provinces. From a distance, it is impossible to tell whether this renewed insurgency is a coalition led by the former Taliban, as U.S. and British officials claim, or whether, as seems more likely, it is a collection of factions, each acting for its own territorial (and/or political) interests. But whichever is the case, their existence and continuing activity has reached a point where they may become a threat to the regime led by Hamid Karzai in Kabul, thereby compromising the plans of his imperialist puppet masters.

The Insurgency – a By-product of the Occupation

In rural areas and small towns, the insurgents have been resorting to the same terrorist methods against the population used in the past decades by other fundamentalist guerilla groups. Anyone working for the central administration and NGOs, whatever his or her job, is a legitimate target. So-called “night letters” – i.e. leaflets distributed under cover of night, warning those collaborating with the “enemy” of drastic retribution – are frequent occurrences. Checkpoints are set up on roads, partly to control the movements of the population and raise “taxes” on its day-to-day activities, but mostly to demonstrate the guerillas’ ability to police the population,i.e. provide the basis for a state machinery capable of maintaining law and order and putting down potential opponents. The major part of the insurgents’ activity is devoted to harassing the population, in order to secure its loyalty (or at least its neutrality) and strengthen their grip on the territory they control.

Nevertheless, despite being at the receiving end of this constant harassment, the population seems to be offering a certain level of active support to the insurgents, judging from their growing numbers and the ease with which they manage to melt into the landscape. And this is hardly surprising given the corrupt and parasitic nature of Karzai’s regime and the record of his Western allies.

Indeed, for the poor farmers, there is little to choose between the “legal” looting of local resources orchestrated under the auspices of the central administration and the “illegal” taxes raised by the insurgents. On the contrary, while an underpaid police force is willing to turn a blind eye to the racketeering of numerous gangs in return for bribes, the insurgents make sure, at least, that they are the only gang in the area. The poor may not like their methods, but, compared to the official institutions, they may even appear to be “honest.”

The methods of the Western forces are no different from those of the insurgents, except that their ability to cause casualties and damage is far greater. From the viewpoint of those carrying out the attack, there may be a difference between the suicide bombing of a military convoy and the aerial bombing of a village suspected of sheltering insurgents. But from the viewpoint of those at the receiving end of these attacks, the only difference is measured by the number of civilians killed and injured. Using such a measure, the terrorism of the Western forces is far more lethal for the population than that of the insurgents.

The “reconstruction” of public infrastructure promised by the invaders has yet to materialize after five years of occupation. Apart from rebuilding a handful of roads linking the country’s main towns for purely military reasons, the occupying forces have done nothing in the areas that improves the lives of poor farmers. No collective irrigation works have been undertaken, the promised water pumps were never delivered and, anyway, the energy needed to operate them is not available. Afghanistan remains among the poorest countries in the world – in 3rd or 5th position from the bottom, depending on the method of ranking – and its rural areas are poorer still.

The reasons for the discontent of the rural population are best illustrated by the poppy “eradication” campaign presently being carried out by the occupation powers and their local agencies.

The Hypocrisy of the West’s “War on Drugs”

By and large, Afghan agricultural production is confined to subsistence farming, whereby farmers produce just enough (and sometimes not enough) for consumption by their family and immediate communities. The only cash crop available in most areas is the opium poppy, which is why large numbers of farmers grow poppies on part of their land.

Of course, this production is strongly encouraged by local warlords, for whom the poppy trade and above all the trade of its derivatives – opium, morphine, heroin – is highly profitable. Poppy production reached a record high during the two decades of civil war that preceded the Taliban’s rule. The opium business became the warlords’ main source of income for buying weapons. In the last years of the Taliban regime, poppies were banned. But as soon as the regime fell, production resumed and has once again reached a record high. In and of itself, this testifies to the corruption and paralysis of the regime. Today, poppy production still represents, by far, the largest single source of income for the country’s economy.

No one doubts the lethal potential of opium or heroin. But for the Western powers to claim the high moral ground on the drug issue is all the more ironic given the past (and probably continuing) involvement of Western agencies in drug-trafficking, including in Afghanistan. The CIA itself contributed to the development of poppy production in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when it got its regional ally, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence, to help smuggle drugs out of Afghanistan and weapons into Afghanistan, for the benefit of the fundamentalist factions fighting Russian troops.

Needless to say, if Western governments have embarked on this poppy “eradication” campaign today, it is not for the sake of the health and welfare of the world’s population, but for political and military reasons. Otherwise, the Western occupiers wouldn’t tolerate so many top officials of their puppet regime being so notoriously linked to the drug trade. Controlling poppy production means, in effect, controlling the main source of income that could provide a potential insurgency with the funds to buy weapons and equipment. It also means controlling who, among the population, is allowed the “privilege” of cultivating a plot of poppies. Rather than “eradicating” the opium trade, the Western forces are only trying to “regulate” it, for their own strategic benefit.

Predictably, therefore, this “eradication” campaign has been carried out without the slightest concern for the interests and livelihood of the poor farmers. The case of farmers in Nangarhar province, attested to by the Senlis Council think-tank report quoted earlier, seems typical: “The majority of farmers who eradicated their poppy fields have said that the ensuing compensation was completely inadequate and unrealistic. Farmers were given unfamiliar seeds for crops that they had no knowledge of how to cultivate. Other seeds were for crop varieties incompatible with Afghanistan’s climate, and which required inaccessible inputs, such as high- phosphate fertilizers.”

Helmand province is traditionally one of the country’s largest producers of poppies. In 2002, British officials managed to convince a number of Helmand farmers to give up poppy production in return for an indemnity equivalent to about a third of the trade value of their harvest. However, no money was ever paid and four years later, the British government still owes these farmers around 24 million dollars – equivalent to 15% of the total “reconstruction” funding allocated by Blair for the province!

Since then, opium “eradication” in Helmand has been carried out by a combined force comprising about 1,000 Afghan army and police units with “embedded” U.S. and British advisers, a 500-strong local militia and a contingent of “experts” provided by a U.S.-based “private military company” called Dyncorp. But, says the Senlis Council report: “There are widespread allegations that the poppy eradication process is corrupt at many levels and that wealthy individuals are being exempted from eradication. According to farmers, the eradication teams only eradicate fields where the farmers or owners could not pay a 'ransom’ .... There are strong indications that the farms belonging to powerful people are not being eradicated whilst the poor farmers’ livelihoods are being destroyed. In other words, crop eradication plays into the hands of the local strong men.

Reducing poor farmers to even worse poverty can only push them either to seek the protection of local strong men, in order to be allowed the “privilege” to grow at least some poppies –which may well fit the designs of the occupation authority, but exposes the justification for this whole exercise – or else may turn them toward the insurgents for support and revenge. In the rural areas at least, this “eradication” process is, just like the West’s regular bombings, an effective recruiting tool for the insurgents.

The Kabul Riots – the Shape of Things to Come?

Guerilla activity is confined by its very nature to rural areas. But Afghan towns have seen terrorist attacks from the very beginning of the occupation. Initially, some of this terrorist activity reflected the rivalries between warlords, who were bidding for a more prominent role in the new regime. Some ministers were shot by armed militias that supported other ministers, although this did not prevent the media from blaming these incidents on “remnants of the Taliban regime” or on Al-Qaeda!

Five years later, these rivalries seem more or less settled – although, for how long remains an open question. A large number of warlords have already been co-opted into every level of Karzai’s state machinery, and they are now busy making as much as they can out of their positions. Others are still being co-opted, such as the new head of the Kabul police whose appointment by Karzai, in June, caused a scandal, because he had been involved in the kidnapping of three U.N. workers in late 2004, not to mention all kinds of other criminal activities!

In any case, today’s terrorist attacks, which are on-going in Kabul as well as in most of the main cities, are probably primarily due to insurgent groups fighting the occupation. They may or may not be linked to the rural guerilla insurgency.

The existence of these armed groups feeds on the same kind of popular discontent as in the countryside – the shocking neglect and incompetence displayed by the occupation authorities and their puppet regime. Five years after the invasion, only half of Kabul’s population has any access to drinking water. The same goes for electricity. What electricity exists is intermittent. There are almost no jobs, and those who manage to find one are paid such low wages that it is impossible to make a living. The collective infrastructure is virtually non-existent. The schools are so overcrowded that they have to operate a 3-shift system to handle the school children. Even then, the existing buildings are not large enough and have to be supplemented with tents, despite the scorching weather.

Meanwhile, the regime’s armed gangs, sporting uniforms of the new Afghan police and army, parade in the streets. Many of them were recruited from the ranks of the warlords’ militias. They are brutal and arrogant towards ordinary people, but totally ineffective when it comes to preventing criminal activities. And the Westerners, military or otherwise, seem to live in a luxury that can only be felt as an insult by ordinary Afghans.

In addition to swelling the ranks of insurgent guerilla and terrorist groups, the discontent of the urban population expresses itself in other ways. It was already apparent in the last general election, when the turnout in the capital dropped by nearly a third, down to just over 50%.

But on May 29, this discontent suddenly exploded on the streets of Kabul. The trigger was a road accident in which a U.S. army truck collided with civilian vehicles on the outskirts of the capital, killing several passengers. Surrounded by angry bystanders, U.S. soldiers shot their way through the crowd, killing a number of civilians, as many as 30 according to some television reports.

This was the last straw. Groups of demonstrators gathered in various parts of the capital, swelling quickly into thousands. They went on to attack military and police checkpoints first, which were quickly burnt down, and then governmental and “humanitarian” organizations’ buildings, a TV station, and more or less anything related to the authorities and their Western backers. During the riots themselves, which lasted the whole day, both the Afghan and foreign forces remained invisible – which probably says something about the number and anger of the demonstrators. It was only the next day, once the dust had settled and everything had gone back more or less to normal, that the police dared to stage a series of random punitive raids, arresting 140 youth, according to the figures released by the Interior Ministry.

Karzai was quick to blame the riots on “provocateurs,” immediately followed, although in more cautious terms, by a U.S. army spokesman. But the size of the protest, the largest since 2001 in Kabul, makes this claim laughable.

These riots show that the large concentrations of urban and working class poor, such as exist in Kabul, could represent a serious threat to the regime put in place by the West – and, in fact, much more of a threat than the armed guerilla groups. These latter may be a nuisance to the huge military machine of the West, but they can be stamped out or, at least, contained. Not so for the urban poor, who cannot be dispersed or isolated and whose numbers provide them with an almost unlimited capacity to resist, even against the most repressive regime.

Of course, such resistance would be ineffective if it did not have political objectives and parties to organize it. From the outside, it is not possible to know what political forces are present and active on the ground in Kabul. Many reports mentioned hand-written political slogans on makeshift banners during the Kabul riots, some of them clearly inspired by fundamentalist groups, others against the corruption of the regime and the Western occupation. TV footage showed demonstrators carrying portraits of the deceased Massoud, a fundamentalist Mujahedin leader from the 1980s, who was apparently murdered by a Taliban agent.

If the political scene is entirely dominated by fundamentalist forces with nothing to offer to the population except another form of dictatorship, then the future is bleak for the Afghan poor. But there are large numbers of youth in this population and some of them may want to make the conscious choice of breaking, once and for all, from the past decades of civil war and warlord rule, in order to build a future free of social exploitation and all kinds of oppression – the kinds carried out in the name of religion, as well as those in the name of Western-sponsored “democracy.”

In the meantime, the Western powers are confronted not only with increasing guerilla activity, which could develop into a generalized guerilla war against their forces, but also with a powder keg developing in large urban centers like Kabul. The population has every reason to be fed up with the present state of affairs, and may feel that it has nothing to lose by taking on the Western invaders and their puppets.

The Western coalition put together a regime which, because it could not be democratic toward the population, had to be based on an alliance of interests between warlords. In and of itself, this means that the very basis on which this regime rests is fragile and that it will not survive long without the military machines of its Western sponsors.

The only real objective of the imperialist powers in Afghanistan is to ensure that Afghanistan, which is at the interface of three politically volatile regions vital for imperialist profits – the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central Asia – remains firmly under their control. To achieve this objective, the imperialist powers know only one method – armed repression against the population. But the more they resort to such methods, the more gasoline they pour on the fire they have created. Today, Afghanistan looks increasingly like yet another quagmire produced by the imperialist world order.

In any case, the working class of the Western countries – especially in the U.S. and Britain – has every reason to oppose the great power game being played out against the Afghan population. As Marx used to say to British workers about the occupation of Ireland, “a population that oppresses another one cannot be free.” The same applies to the oppression of the Afghan (or Iraqi, for that matter) population by the U.S. and British armies. The working class should have nothing to do with it!