The Spark

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

Afghanistan:
A Bloody War in Defense of a Failed Regime

Sep 29, 2009

With U.S. Senator John Kerry standing beside him, practically still twisting his arm, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced there would be a run-off election for the presidency on November 7. He had been "consulting" with Kerry and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ever since the "panel of experts' appointed by the U.N. had thrown out one-third of his votes in the first election. It was obvious he had been given "an offer he couldn't refuse." The threat behind the offer had been none too subtle: Obama said he would make no decisions about increasing U.S. troops in Afghanistan until after the electoral situation was resolved.

Of course, it wasn't a real threat. Obama was not about to order a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, nor even to leave the numbers as they are. But it was a warning to Karzai that the U.S. could just as easily dump him, as continue to prop him up.

Not that Karzai needed much reminding about who and what was keeping him in power. His army isn't able to control Kabul any more than it has ever been, and probably less today.

In any case, it was all a show, aimed at the U.S. population, growing increasingly discontent with the war in Afghanistan, one that has dragged on now for eight years. The reports of vast, open fraud in the first election had become a bit of an embarrassment, coming as they did just as Obama was poised to order more troops into Afghanistan.

If and when the election takes place, it will not be aimed at the situation in Afghanistan, but at spiffing up, for U.S. consumption, the picture of this Afghan "democracy," for which increasing numbers of U.S. troops are dying.

There will be more, of that there is no question, despite the other show that has been put on lately, the supposed debate within the Obama administration and the military over the U.S. "perspective" for the war.

From the point last summer when the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Stanley A. McChrystal, pointedly "leaked" the recommendations of his report to Obama, it's been clear the U.S. is preparing to gear up, not only for Afghanistan, but for Pakistan. Whether the next contingent is 40,000, as McChrystal insisted he must have, or whether it is some lesser number, the fact is, the war is going to be expanded, a further disaster for the Afghan population, for the U.S. troops sent there to do imperialism's dirty work, and for the population of this country.

Obama for his part, just as pointedly, has insisted on making what he portrays as a very measured, deliberate examination of the situation in Afghanistan – in other words when he finally "decides," it will be as though he had no other choice.

It's all crap – the melodrama about the election in Afghanistan, and the one here at home about Obama's Big Decision.

The fact is, this war, the one Obama once characterized as "the necessary war," is going to get bigger, wreaking more damage to the Afghan population, destroying the young men and women from the U.S. who end up there.

October 25, 2009

The article that follows was written at the end of September, before the electoral fraud issue had been resolved. The version here was translated from an article published by the comrades of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), in France, in issue #122 of their political journal, Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle). It describes the situation facing the population of Afghanistan in the period just before and during the election. Exposing the claim that the Taliban is a single force, it describes its actual composition today, coming in part from the old Taliban, but also in part from the militias of warlords who control sections of the country. Finally, the article shows the links between the U.S.-backed Karzai regime and a number of other warlords, who have shifted sides before and can be expected to do the same again.

The process that had been designed to assure the re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has turned into a farce, albeit a potentially dangerous one, due to the considerable amount of ballot-rigging involved. And all the indicators coming lately from Afghanistan show that, contrary to previously optimistic Western reports, the war is bloodier than ever.

Despite the "surge" of U.S. troops which followed Obama's election, with 17,000 soldiers sent in April, and despite the deadly extension of the war into the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan – or, maybe, precisely because of it – casualties among the occupation forces soared to their highest monthly level since 2001. In July, 2009, 76 soldiers died and in August, the number was 77. The result is that in the main Western countries involved in the military occupation, a majority of public opinion has now shifted against the war.

The number of Afghan casualties must have increased also, and even at a faster rate, although no statistics have been kept. A single NATO bombing of hijacked gasoline tankers in Kunduz province on September 4th claimed 150 victims!

This deterioration has been acknowledged by both Western military and civilian authorities in pessimistic assessments and contradictory statements.

In August, the newly appointed head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, declared to the Wall Street Journal that the insurgents were getting the upper hand and that 10,000 more troops would be needed to "secure" just the southern province of Kandahar. In later statements to the U.S. Congress, McChrystal argued that 40,000 more U.S. troops would be required from the U.S., plus more from other NATO countries – just to buy time to build up the Afghan army and police and to avoid an overthrow of the regime, which would be damaging for the imperialist powers.

Britain's Major-General Nick Carter, new commander of NATO's forces in southern Afghanistan, declared "time is not on our side." The newly-appointed head of the British army, General David Richards, avoiding such euphemisms, declared that the British army would have to remain in Afghanistan for the next 40 years!

Only Prime Minister Gordon Brown stood out among these gloomy commentators, during his surprise visit to British troops in Helmand at the end of August, hailing the "progress' made, and then announcing plans to cut the number of British troops in Afghanistan in half – within three to five years. But then, there's an election campaign on in Britain, and Brown wants to leave Afghanistan out of it.

The Canadian and Italian governments also announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan within the next two years, in response to the hostile reaction of their populations following a sudden increase in casualties among their troops.

The Continued Increase of the Armed Resistance

The so-called "Taliban" is estimated to be active in 80% of the country, up from 55% in 2007. Its activity has recently spread to areas previously considered relatively "safe," partly in response to the activities of the occupation forces.

For instance, the province of Kunduz had been, so far, one of the regular trading posts with the outside world, thanks to a low level of armed conflict and to the proximity of Tajikistan. Kunduz's capital plays the role of financial center, which Kabul is unable to play due to lack of security. However, in the past few months, since the U.S. army started bringing more of its supplies by road via Russia and Tajikistan instead of using the increasingly unsafe routes from Pakistan, armed groups have begun systematically to target convoys of Western supplies in Kunduz – whether for resistance purposes or for criminal reasons, or a combination of both.

In Helmand province, after a joint offensive by British and U.S. troops this summer – the so-called "Operation Panther's Claw" – some armed groups simply slipped out of Helmand into neighboring provinces, avoiding open combat with nearly 20,000 Western troops using heavy airborne equipment. As a result, terrorist attacks have increased in the relatively quiet capital of Nimruz province, which borders Helmand on the west. And a significant resurgence of armed activity has broken out in part of Kandahar province, on the other side of Helmand.

The armed groups opposing the U.S.-British occupation are usually described collectively as "the Taliban" and portrayed as a homogeneous force, forming a loose network of armed groups, somehow coordinated by a command structure of former cadres of the defunct Taliban regime. For the Western governments this is a convenient way of explaining away their failure to make any progress, pretending they are confronted with an enemy well organized on a national level. This convenient fiction lets Western governments claim the war is a continuation of the punitive 2001 invasion against the Taliban regime in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, and that the West must continue this war until the remnants of this regime are eradicated once and for all.

It's a complete fiction! There are certainly cadres from the old Taliban machinery who remain active in the country, although many have already been absorbed by Karzai's regime, while others seem to have chosen exile, in Pakistan or in the Gulf countries. But the vast majority of the armed resistance is split into a galaxy of more or less rival groups, each with its own agenda, hardly willing to accept collective discipline. Although Islam is the common religion of these groups, religion is not necessarily their main reason for existing, and their version of Islam is not necessarily more reactionary than the version predominant among the rural population. Of course, sometimes these groups cooperate. But they do not form a homogeneous force that can in any way be equated to the former Taliban regime.

Western propaganda pretends these armed bands operate within a relatively centralized network to obtain funding. This theory was based on the assumption that their main source of funding was drug-trafficking, which would require an organization extending beyond the limits of their respective fiefdoms. However, there's nothing really to support this theory. And in June, Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke recognized this when he announced that the U.S. would no longer support the opium eradication program. He said it does not "reduce the amount of money the Taliban get by one dollar."

The available evidence shows that, in reality, each armed group raises its own funding, from various criminal activities, including kidnapping for ransom, and from collecting taxes. But a bigger source of their funds comes from extorting money and goods from Afghan contractors paid by foreign aid. While 40% of all foreign aid to Afghanistan returns to the West in the form of salaries to Western consultants and procurement from Western companies, according to Oxfam, still some 25% goes straight into the pockets of the resistance in the form of protection money paid by contracting companies operating in Afghanistan. These kickbacks well supply the needs of armed groups using unsophisticated weapons, as is the case of most Afghan groups. Local groups organized around a few villages, led by a local strong man, can supply themselves in this way with weapons and anything they need for their armed operations.

Some groups are organized on a larger scale, but they are not necessarily associated with the old Taliban. For example, the Party of Islam is led by the old Islamic warlord Gulbbudin Hekmatyar. He is a former protégé of the Pakistani secret services during the Russian occupation, a leading warlord during the pre-Taliban era and a determined enemy of the Taliban after they came to power. His fiefdom covers a large part of Kunar province, on the Pakistani border east of Kabul, stretching through Laghman province toward the suburbs of Kabul. Another such group is that of Jaluddin Haqqani, in the Khost and Paktia provinces, also on the Pakistani border, but south of Kabul. Haqqani had the same political career as Hekmatyar until the Taliban came to power. But, unlike Hekmatyar, he joined the Taliban and was appointed to various posts. Just before the 2001 invasion, Haqqani broke with the Taliban and went into exile in Pakistan, where he put together a militia of supporters and brought it back into his native Paktia province to fight the Western occupation. In any case, both Hekmatyar and Haqqani are above all Pashtun nationalists and their objective is to promote their own political ambitions as Pashtun leaders, not to promote a return of the Taliban.

Other armed groups have emerged simply because some local potentate fell out of favor with the Karzai regime. Ghulam Yahya, for example, was a former commander in the Northern Alliance. He was mayor of the northern town of Herat until 2006, when Karzai decided to replace him with one of his loyal supporters. Yahya went back to his ancestral district, where he organized a large and well-armed militia and proclaimed that he no longer recognized the Kabul regime. From then on, Yahya was described as a "Taliban." But while Yahya is undoubtedly a brutal warlord whose methods are not very different from others, a Wall Street Journal reporter who visited his district found that schools were open to both sexes and that none of the restrictions imposed on youth by the Taliban regime existed.

If resistance groups are so fragmented and uncoordinated, why have the Western forces failed to contain them? No matter how much the population may hate the armed gangs who tax them endlessly and brutalize them, they must hate even more the well-equipped Western soldiers who consider their dead as "collateral damage."

Karzai and His Allies

Against this deteriorating backdrop, the charade of what even the Western powers no longer dare call a "democratic" presidential election took place on August 20th. The election exposed once again the corruption and isolation of the puppet regime maintained in power by the West since the early days of the invasion, nine years ago.

The election should have taken place on May 21, when Karzai's term ended. However, due to what the West called the "lack of security," that is, the fact that the regime controlled only a small part of the country, the election was postponed for three months. This postponement may also have had to do with Karzai's low ratings in opinion polls, since he seems to have devoted considerable effort to winning new supporters during this three-month respite.

Karzai probably thought his standing among the country's largest ethnic minority – the Pashtuns, who represent 42% of the population – would not be enough this time to win the election, since the Pashtuns are also the main support for the various groups fighting against the Western occupation. And they could also support his two main rivals, both former members of his government, Ghani, who is a Pashtun, and Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tadjik, with the Tadjiks representing about 30% of the population.

In any case, Karzai went out of his way to secure the support of ethnic warlords from non-Pashtun minorities.

There was one particularly disgusting episode in this horse-trading: Karzai wooed the votes of Shia fundamentalists from the Hazara minority, representing only 9% of the population, led by Mohammad Mohaqiq and Karim Khalili. In March, responding to demands from Shia clerics, Karzai signed a "Shia personal status law" applicable to Shia families only. This law was such a reactionary step backward, especially concerning the status of women, that Afghan women came out into the streets to protest. Western governments felt pressure to demand that the new law be amended. At the end of July, just before the planned election, a "revised" version of this law was enacted – but it was barely changed. It stripped Shia women of most of the rights they had under the Afghan constitution. It deprived them of any rights concerning their children; it gave a husband the right to refuse food and maintenance to his wife if she refused to obey his sexual demands; it forced a woman to get permission from her husband to work; it even allowed a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying "blood money" to the family of his victim, injured as the result of the rape.

After this law was enacted, Mohaqiq declared his support for Karzai and Khalili joined his presidential ticket as one of his vice-presidents. Their two parties, based on the Hazara, were promised five cabinet positions once Karzai was re-elected.

For the other vice-presidency, Karzai chose another warlord, Mohamed Fahim, a Tadjik with a long record of ruthlessness. He had been head of the security services of the pro-Moscow regime during the Russian occupation, then joined the anti-Russian guerrilla army in time to participate in the occupation of Kabul. Subsequently, he was head of security services, first under the post-Soviet regime before the Taliban was victorious, and then within the Northern Alliance. Fahim was defense minister under Karzai until he was fired in 2004, partly due to his refusal to disband his militia, but also due to his personal prestige in the emerging Afghan army, which made him potentially dangerous for Karzai. He was given the honorary title of "marshal for life" and remained outside mainstream politics in his northern fiefdom – where his followers were regularly accused of all sorts of trafficking, racketeering and smuggling – until Karzai chose him again.

The final associate chosen by Karzai in this election and perhaps the most important is Rachid Dostum, an Uzbeck warlord. Dostum's specialty was changing sides at the "right" time: first, as a general of the pro-Russian Afghan army, then by switching sides to join the anti-Russian guerrillas with his troops; and then, competing for power in the post-Russian regime, before joining ranks with the Taliban against his previous rivals; and, finally, turning his coat again against the Taliban, joining the Northern Alliance. At all times, under all regimes, Dostum had a reputation for cruelty. In fact, after a spell as Karzai's army chief of staff, he became the only warlord threatened with prosecution as a war criminal. But all that has been forgiven. Early in August, Karzai allowed Dostum to return from his exile in Turkey without risking arrest. In return, Dostum became a "convinced" campaigner for Karzai among the Uzbek minority, which is 9% of the population.

In addition to this list of non-Pashtun warlords, Karzai's other associates are not much different. Karzai's brother used his official position at the head of the Kandahar provincial assembly to build himself a fiefdom which is frequently accused of connections to drug-trafficking. Karzai's minister of energy, Ismael Khan, is a well-known Tadjik warlord whose own fiefdom is centered around the town of Herat. Khan was co-opted into the government only to avoid a possible rebellion in his region. Furthermore, many of the governors appointed by Karzai in the Pashtun-dominated provinces are local warlords whose loyalty could be bought.

Could these unsavory characters actually produce votes for Karzai? Certainly not. But they control armed men, whether legal or extra-legal, allowing them to ensure that ballot boxes were filled with the "right" ballots, regardless of voters' choices. And, in case of a backlash against Karzai caused by too much ballot-rigging, these warlords could be an insurance policy against the risk of an ethnic coalition of the non-Pashtun minorities.

The Regime's Corruption Backfires

It's hardly surprising that the August 20th election was even less "democratic" than Karzai's first election in 2004 – if the word "democratic" makes any sense in the context of a war that catches the population in the cross-fire between Western forces and the guerrilla groups fighting them.

Even before the election, the registration process showed the results would be rigged. For instance, in Kandahar province, the fiefdom of Karzai's brother, the 1,080,000 registered voters were more than the estimated population of 1,057,500 (including children). Likewise, in the most conservative southern and eastern provinces, a curious phenomenon was observed: there were more women than men among the registered voters. Everywhere else in Afghanistan, there were twice as many men registered to vote as women!

On election day, 75 attacks were officially recorded in 15 of the country's 34 provinces, resulting in 50 civilian deaths. Turnout collapsed from 70% in 2004 (probably a gross overestimation at the time) to around 30%. Estimates of the number who voted in Helmand province varied between 5 and 10%.

But even this abysmal turnout concealed a much worse reality. Evidence of fake voting began to accumulate. In Helmand, even the provincial governor expressed his surprise on TV at what he described as a "high turnout" – considering the circumstances. His surprise was due to the fact that many polling stations had been closed after coming under rocket or mortar attack. How the ballot papers reached the ballot boxes was a mystery. But it was not just in Helmand that such mysteries arose.

In Kandahar province, for instance, a New York Times journalist reported that, in one district, all the polling stations had been closed during the whole day by henchmen sent by Karzai's brother. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, 23,900 ballots were sent from that district to Kabul, all in Karzai's favor. Another New York Times journalist reported similar occurrences in several districts around Kabul, where the local member of parliament was said to have organized the stuffing of ballot boxes with pro-Karzai ballot papers. In one polling station, for instance, 12 ballot boxes were already filled just one hour after opening time, with a claimed total of 5,500 voters. A week later, a re-examination of the voting record showed that only 600 people had actually voted during the whole day. Even then, after a recount, the result was 996 votes for Karzai and 5 for two other candidates!

According to the Election Commission timetable, the results of this election – and that of the elections to the provincial assemblies held at the same time – were supposed to be finalized by September 17th. But on that date, there were no results after complaints of vote-rigging in at least 2500 polling places, 10% of the total. The Election Complaints Commission said that 691 of the most serious cases of vote rigging could potentially deprive Karzai of the absolute majority he needs to be elected without a second round. Although Karzai claims to have won 54% of the votes against Abdullah's 28%, this result is widely contested, not just by Karzai's rivals but also by Western poll watchers. The head of the EU monitoring commission declared publicly that 1.1 million of the 3 million votes cast for Karzai were "suspect."

Imperialism Is Fanning the Flames

No wonder all the reports show the deep disgust of the population for a regime which exists only thanks to foreign troops, and whose corruption and parasitism are increasingly intolerable.

The Western governments were taken by surprise by these developments. They certainly knew that Karzai's regime was corrupt to the core: not only did this corruption not bother them, but they actually fed it in many ways. However, it is one thing to know about this corruption, but quite another to be confronted with a population whose anger threatens to erupt because of it. As a result, the occupation authorities have given conflicting signals. Some U.S. advisors who were in favor of endorsing Karzai's election fell out publicly with others who were against it – and this was duly reported by the media. Some diplomats suggested that a solution might be found with Karzai inviting his two main rivals, Abdullah and Ghani, to form a coalition government. But, by that time, Abdullah, who probably smelled blood, was so busy fanning the flames of discontent against Karzai and his regime that Karzai turned down the suggestion. He threatened to dismiss the Election Complaints Commission.

At the time of this writing, the Election Commission is supposedly preparing a second round of elections between Karzai and Abdullah for the third week of October. This proposal could be a pretext to stop further investigation by the Election Complaints Commission and prevent Karzai's large-scale vote-rigging from being further exposed. Will this move satisfy all those who are discontented? It remains to be seen.

While a second round may be the only remaining option, it is exactly what the Western powers (and probably Karzai himself) wanted to avoid. The danger is that another round of voting could allow the general discontent against the regime to be expressed – regardless of what Abdullah represents. He certainly is no better than Karzai. To counter such a challenge, Karzai is likely to call for an ethnic vote, hoping that this will prompt the Pashtun elders, strong men and warlords to mobilize their resources to support him. But in Afghanistan's ethnic powder keg, this could set off an explosion in the already explosive situation created by the war. If such an explosion breaks out or if the corruption of the Western puppet regime increases the flow of recruits to the anti-occupation forces, the responsibility will lie entirely with the Western governments that decided on the invasion in the first place.

The only option offered today to the Afghan population who want to fight the catastrophic situation created by the war and this corrupt regime is to join Islamic forces that pursue their own reactionary agenda, forces who, in fact, are as deadly an enemy of the poor population as are the imperialist powers occupying the country. The responsibility for this situation rests entirely with the imperialist powers due to the policy they have carried out in this part of the world for the past four decades. And this is why it is imperative that all the imperialist forces leave Afghanistan now, before their presence aggravates still further the catastrophic situation for a population that has already suffered far too much.