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Accounts of the Fifth Afghan War


On the 3rd of October, 2001, I wrote a ZNET commentary called “Forward into the Past: US War Aims.” This was four days before the bombardment began. Already the war aims of the administration seemed to escalate as each day went by. First we heard about retaliation for 9/11, perhaps the capture or murder of bin Laden and the top al-Qa’ida leadership.

But, since the Bush doctrine spoke about “those who harbor” terrorists, it had become clear that the Taliban would face the barrage as well. But the jargon of political science departments flew from Bush’s mouth: he did not want to conduct “nation-building,” we heard, although “regime change” was on the cards.

As I wrote then, “US war aims, then, are simultaneously as brutal and unfocused in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq – to overthrow one corrupt regime and put in place another, but this time friendly with the US.” When I wrote of Iraq then, I meant the Gulf War of 1990-91, not the impending chaos.

So it is fitting, one year later, to assess the war aims, to see what the US has done both with the war and with the region, to tally up the accounts of the Fifth Afghan War.

(1) The Taliban is gone from power. Of course the Taliban greatly exaggerated its own sense of military prowess to itself: a half-baked army, that only took power in Kabul in 1996 because Pakistan’s ISI gave it logistical support, the Saudi’s gave it money and the CIA gave it expertise.

The Taliban could not have defeated Rabbani’s forces on its own. To think that it could withstand the barrage of the US army was absurd, that it would stand against a force whose annual budget (then to the tune of $320 billion) is far in excess of the total GNP of Afghanistan (even with the poppy) was a fantasy.

In the first three Afghan Wars (1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919) the Afghan forces watched the British enter the Bolan and Khyber passes, faced them for a few skirmishes, then fled to the north toward Mazar-e-Sharif, to wait out the invasion till winter sent the British back south to India. This time, too, the Taliban boarded their fancy trucks, fled the northern battle-fields toward Kandahar, disappeared into the rural hovels and bomb-filled fields from which they came or else fled across the border to Pakistan and elsewhere.

(2) The aerial bombardment killed a considerable number of people Marc Herrold of the University of New Hampshire estimates at least four thousand. The US government has not released an official figure. But the civilian casualties continue. The tale of the wedding party is one story, but then there are the other tales of drones firing on tall men (who are mistaken by the surveillance devices for bin Laden).

In Kunduz Province alone, the British NGO Halo Trust, estimates that eighty-three civilians were killed by cluster bombs that fell in fields, remained dormant, and exploded as farmers went to work their fields. In all the northern provinces of Afghanistan, the government reports that these bombs have killed over eight hundred people. The United Nations estimates that the removal of these bombs will take ten years and cost upwards of $500 million.

Warlordism continues, as the various factions continue to hold their arms, fight against each other and persist in the militarization of the country. But Afghanistan is not the only place to bear the burden of violence. Consider the four women murdered by their Special Forces spouses at Fort Bragg after the men returned from the war. These four women are also civilian casualties of the war.

(3) After the Taliban fled, the US imposed a government on the people. First it seemed as if the elevation of Hamid Karzai (along with the troika from the Northern Alliance – Abdullah Abdullah at the Foreign Ministry, Mohammed Farim at the Defense Ministry and Younis Qanooni at the Interior Ministry) was only provisional, that when the Afghan elders convened the loya jirga, their will would produce the government.

Now this is far from democracy, but there is a racist tendency to invoke “cultural relativism” to justify these undemocratic practices elsewhere than in the white lands. However, the White House could not countenance even this limited specter of liberty. When it seemed that Zahir Shah, late of a Roman suburb, might become the leader of the country by dint of a peculiar nostalgia for the monarchy, the US intervened and told him to withdraw his name.

Flanked by Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad, the old king, how much prefers chess and good coffee, stepped down. When Karzai was chosen as head of state, Christina Rocca, assistant secretary of state for South Asia and former foreign policy adviser to Senator Sam Brownback (Republican-Kansas), said of him, “To us, he is still Hamid, a man we’ve dealt with for some time.”

Khalilzad is the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and, before 9/11, the National Security Council’s advisor and only Afghan specialist in the Bush White House. Born in Mazar-e-Sharif, Khalilzad left Afghanistan to study at the American University in Beirut in the 1970s, did a PhD at the University of Chicago, then joined Columbia University’s faculty of political science (to work beside former Carter man, Zbigniew Brzezinski).

In 1984, Khalilzad took a post at the State Department and became its resident expert on Afghanistan as the CIA-backed jihad against the Soviets intensified. He worked with ultra-hawk Paul Wolfowitz, left the Reagan administration for the Rand Corporation and then returned to the state department in the policy-planning department under Wolfowitz during GHB’s administration.

The Karzai-Khalilzad team acts as a proxy for US interests, but the US government of course has not funded the project of “nation-building” beyond the use of its troops in the country. The US sent Tommy Thompson to Afghanistan on 8 October 2002, where he announced that the government was not interested only in “forcing out oppressive regimes,” but also “helping meet the everyday needs of your people.”

He was just doing propaganda for the impending catastrophe in Iraq. Can you imagine Tommy Thompson (the Butcher of Welfare) talking about the “everyday needs of [the American] people”!

(4) So the global corporations are back in the saddle. On 30 May 2002, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan signed a $2 billion agreement to construct the gas pipeline from Dauletabad gasfields to Gwadar port in Pakistan. Pakistan’s President Musharraf took time out from the tense situation at the border with India to join Karzai and Turkmenistan’s Niyazov in Islamabad to sign the agreement.

Karzai-Khalilzad are old Unocal hands who are now in place to work for global capital in general, if not Unocal in particular. In the mid-1990s, Khalilzad worked as a consultant for the Cambridge Energy Research Associates and he conducted a risk assessment of an Afghan pipeline for Unocal under this auspices. While on retainer from CERAs and Unocal, Khalilzad defended the Taliban in the Washington Post (October 1996),

“The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced in Iran.” The next year, he entertained Unocal’s Taliban guests (“Four years ago,” the Post reported in November of 2001, “at a luxury Houston hotel, oil company adviser Zalmay Khalilzad was chatting pleasantly over dinner with leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime about their shared enthusiasm for a proposed multi-billion dollar pipeline deal”).

Karzai, too, was with the Taliban then, even offering them a financial donation in exchange for their acceptance of him as the Taliban’s ambassador to the UN. Karzai, at this time, worked as a consultant for Unocal. When the Taliban lost favor in 1998, Khalilzad joined with RAND colleague Daniel Byman to co-author “Afghanistan: The Consolidation of a Rogue State.”

While they argued, “Afghanistan is ruled by a rogue regime, the Taliban” (already a departure from Khalilzad’s 1996-7 assessments), the authors returned to the world of oil: “Afghanistan itself occupies a vital geostrategic position, near such critical but unstable regions as the Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pakistani border. Indeed, the importance of Afghanistan may grow in the coming years, as Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves, which are estimated to rival those of the North Sea, begin to play a major role in the world energy market. Afghanistan could prove a valuable corridor for this energy as well as for access to markets in Central Asia.”

That same year, in denial of his work for Unocal, Khalilzad told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, “A California company called Unocal was interested in exploring that option [of the Afghan pipeline], but because of the war in Afghanistan, because of the instability that’s there, those options, or that option, at least has not materialized.”

We can only look forward to the gas moving along the pipe-line, feeding the ravenous market in India (a market that attracted Enron to build a scam-heavy natural gas power plant).

(5) The New York Times offered us many, many reports on how Afghan women are now “free.” We heard that they now roam the streets alone, attend university and, most importantly (because these stories predominated), we heard that they now get their hair done and wear make-up. The Times, in the last month, ran a story from Nigeria about the country’s shifts in beauty standards after a Nigerian woman became Miss World in 2001.

One woman said, thank god that this has happened because now the standard of beauty would not be fat women. Beauty Pagents have a long history in the US, but their role as the purveyors of overconsumption on the international stage is less well known. The Miss World pageant was founded by Eric and Julia Morley in 1951 as a promotional device for their company, Mecca, which is what was called a “leisure group” (travel, entertainment at a high price).

In 1970, Julia Morley coined the phrase “Beauty with a purpose” and took the pageant to the world stage. A few years ago I did a study of why so many Indian women won these pageants in the 1990s, and came up with the answer that this was perhaps to let us know that global firms wish to project to the Indian consumer a vision of beauty, the advance guard not only for beauty products, but also for the entire consumer goods industry (the creation of desire transforms luxuries into necessities).

The same may be said of the African middle-class, who will now value the anorexic body of the waif rather than the multitude of shapes of us humans. So, the one thing American that has been exported to the Afghan middle-class is the sexist view of the woman’s body as the way to gauge freedom – here restricted to the freedom to prepare oneself for the male gaze. This is not quite the freedom demanded by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

(6) Finally, the region remains fundamentally unstable. There has already been one assassination attempt on Karzai, so that now the US has to guard him. We know that the recent elections in Pakistan had to be fair, because in the provinces that abut Afghanistan (the Northwest Frontier Province and in Baluchistan), the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) or the United Action Forum won a majority of the seats. The MMA is a union of pro-Taliban radical Islamists who are against President Musharraf’s alliance with the US, indeed they are opposed to the US presence in the region.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the MMA told the press soon after it became clear that the Islamists had made unprecedented gains that the MMA would demand that the US vacate its bases in Pakistan. This itself is not a bad idea, but it comes from a party that extols the Taliban and has come to power because of the Fifth Afghan War. The adventurism in Kashmir is a mark of the war as well.

Instability is the order of the neighborhood as the US sets up a slew of bases: two in Afghanistan, several in Pakistan (Jacobabad is the main one), one at Khanabad, Uzbekistan, the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, use of the Almaty airport in Kazakhstan, bases at Khujand, Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube in Tajikistan and finally, use of Indian facilities as well as joint-military exercises in India. The US Empire is present, but unpopular, a brew of trouble.

In sum, the balance sheet of the Fifth Afghan war does not augur well for the Iraq campaign. We hear sounds of a military government, of a divided Iraq, of the Iraqi generals being given the country. One must shudder at each of these scenarios, and know that the embers of the Fifth Afghan War still burn, and they remind us that imperialism cannot be taken at its word, that the interest in not in people, but political power and the resources of power.

Drop Bush, not the Bomb. Or better yet, as the Iraqi Vice President put it, let Bush and Saddam be in a duel. Or play chess.

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