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Afghanistan: Roach Motel of Empires


In just a few months, Afghanistan will surpass Vietnam as the longest single war fought by the United States in its history. In his West Point speech President Obama denied that "Afghanistan is another Vietnam"–and in some senses he is correct. Vietnam in 1975 was a far more unified state–ethnically and politically–than Afghanistan ever has been. Afghanistan is far more mountainous and difficult to occupy, and is bounded by more artificially colonial borders than either Vietnam or Iraq.

But what Afghanistan has in common with both Vietnam and Iraq is its long history of  resistance to foreign occupation—whether by Chinese, Japanese and French in Vietnam, the Turks and British in Iraq, or the British and Russians in Afghanistan–before the Americans ever arrived. This proud history is the main factor that has united Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and sectarian groups in the past two centuries.

Afghanistan is the "roach motel"of empires. They check in, but they don’t check out. They get lured into battle, and then get bogged down in a quagmire they cannot win. British soldiers barely escaped with their lives from three colonial wars in Afghanistan, before their global empire finally collapsed.

The Russians withdrew in defeat only a few years before the Soviet Union and its Afghan allies collapsed. In 1979, President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had consciously lured the Soviets into invading Afghanistan by arming Islamist mujahedin fighting a pro-Soviet revolutionary government. The mujahedin (aided at the same time by Osama Bin Laden) defeated the Soviet superpower after only ten years.

Retaliation was a Trap

Bin Laden learned from this experience when he turned against the Americans in the 1990s, according to the British reporter Robert Fisk (who interviewed him in Afghanistan). By attacking U.S. embassies and eventually American cities, Bin Laden felt he could provoke another superpower to retaliate by occupying Afghanistan, and getting bogged down in the same futile war that the Soviets had lost. A few days before 9/11, Al Qaeda assassinated the only mujahedin leader who had unified the Northern Alliance, so the U.S. invaders would not be able to find a strong puppet ruler.

Two days after 9/11, Fisk published an article warning that "Retaliation is a Trap," but few Americans listened to his prediction. After the U.S. quickly drove the Taliban from Kabul with a high-tech war, it seemed that his prediction was even ludicrous. Now, Fisk looks downright prophetic, as the Americans are blindly following the path toward eventual stalemate and defeat.

So far the Americans are following the same script as the Soviets in Afghanistan. They believe that control over Kabul is control over the country, even though the insurgents  run most of the countryside. They believe that aerial strikes by jets and drones (like the Soviets’ HIND helicopters) would defeat the insurgents, when the bombing only alienated more civilians. They believed that torture would help to crack the insurgency, when it only legitimized Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule. They believed that driving insurgents into Pakistan counted as victory, only to have created a border safe haven for the insurgency. They were also manipulated by tribal leaders to attack their rivals, driving the (previously neutral) rivals into the hands of the insurgency.

Every U.S. mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan functions as a Taliban Recruitment Mission. More Americans are opposing the occupation not because they sympathize with the Taliban, but precisely the opposite.  The longer we mess around in a  complex ethnic and tribal environment we do not understand, the more likely it is that the Taliban will take full power–at least in the southern and eastern provinces.

Double Standards

Like the Soviets, the Americans are perfectly capable of denouncing human rights violations by their Islamist enemies, but completely ignoring abuses by the violent warlords they are supporting. President Karzai in Kabul and the warlords in the provinces are part of the problem, not the solution. The Islamization of Afghanistan did not begin when the Taliban took power in 1996, but when the U.S.-backed mujahedin ousted the pro-Soviet government four years earlier.

During those four years, the U.S.-backed mujahdin warlords destroyed Kabul in a civil war, required women to wear the burqa, and institutionalized rape in warfare. The Taliban only perfected and deepened these mysogynist policies in their five years of power, until the same U.S.-backed warlords returned to power as the Northern Alliance in November 2001. (My article at the time predicted that the war "ain’t over ‘till it’s over"– also a no-brainer eight years later: http://www.counterpunch.org/grossman1.html )

We are arming and financing the same vicious men who brought fundamentalism to Kabul in the first place. By backing the mujahedin against the Soviets in the 1980s, we helped set into motion a cycle of violence that has since claimed more than two million Afghan lives, and helped to create Al Qaeda. By supporting the warlords against the Taliban today, what new monsters are we creating, and will they also eventually turn on us?

Like the Soviets, the Americans do not understand that the insurgency is driven not only by Islamist fundamentalism, but also by ethnic nationalism. In the case of the Taliban, they are representing the grievances of the Pashtuns who have seen the artificial colonial "Durand Line" divide their homeland between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The best way to defuse the Taliban is to recognize the legitimacy of this historical grievance, and incorporate Pashtun civil society into both governments.

A Partition Strategy?

But instead of unifying the different ethnic regions of Afghanistan, the NATO occupation seems headed more toward a de facto partition of these regions. The foreign policy team that President Obama has assembled includes some of the same figures who advocated the ethnic-sectarian partition of Yugoslavia and Iraq. Obama’s Special Envoy to Af-Pak, Richard Holbrooke, authored the agreement that partioned Bosnia into Serb and Muslim-Croat republics in 1995, in effect rubberstamping the ethnic cleansing that had forcibly removed populations during a three-year civil war. He also turned a blind eye when Serb civilians were expelled from Croatia the same year, and from Kosovo in 1999.

Vice President Biden has advocated the sectarian partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves, which has largely been accomplished through violent removals and the construction of walls between Baghdad neighborhoods.  Both Holbrooke and Biden used the argument of "humanitarian intervention" to oppose ethnic cleansing by their enemies, while at the same time turning a blind eye when their allies would do the same. (Holbrooke would similarly use the argument of drug-running against the Taliban, but suddenly downplay the argument after U.S. allies–such as Northern Alliance warlords and Karzai’s family–were exposed as knee-deep in narcotics.)

Some trends in Afghanistan show traces of a similar partition strategy. President Karzai recently instituted a series of laws on women in Shia communities, causing an outcry from women’s rights groups. Hardly unnoticed was his application of different legal standards to different sectarian territories—a sign of de facto (informal) partition. Various "peace" proposals have advocated ceding control of some Pashtun provinces to the Taliban. Far from bringing peace, such an ethnic-sectarian partition would exacerbate the violent "cleansing" of mixed territories to drive out those civilians who are not of the dominant group—the process that brought the "peace of the graveyard" to Bosnia, Kosovo, and much of Iraq.

Military bases and "Afghanization"

In both former Yugoslavia and Iraq, the U.S. interventions have left behind large permanent military bases, just as they have in Afghanistan. According to GlobalSecurity.org, at least 36 Forward Operating Bases and 31 military camps are operated by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.  Many of the largest air bases, at Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar, Shinand and Jalalabad, were the same bases from which the Soviets launched air attacks on the mujahedin in the 1980s. These military bases are the epitome of the roach motel—they become a self-fulfilling argument for continuing an occupation: to defend the bases.

Whether or not Obama gradually withdraws combat forces, he has said nothing about withdrawing from these sprawling bases, which are only being expanded for the upcoming surge, and hardened for a longer-term occupation. Even after a so-called "withdrawal," the Pentagon could engineer a Philippine-style Visiting Forces Agreement to guarantee U.S. access to Iraqi and Afghani bases. The bases are not being built to wage the wars; the wars are being waged to leave behind a string of new, permanent bases that would forever serve as garrisons (and targets) in this strategic region.

The Pentagon also plans to leave behind Afghan and Iraqi proxy forces that would "take up the fight," much as it tried to do through Vietnamization in 1973-75, and Moscow tried to do–just as unsuccessfully–in Afghanistan in 1989-92. But it doesn’t matter whether the troops are American or foreign—if they are backing a corrupt regime that came to power through fraudulent elections or repression of democratic movements, "Iraqization" and "Afghanization" are doomed to failure.

Propping up the regimes in Baghdad and Kabul will only highlight their indebtedness to foreign masters, and help legitimize the Islamist insurgencies, rather than weaken them. Islamist fundamentalism and foreign occupation are two sides of the same coin. They reinforce each other, feed off of each other, and need each other. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

We should get out of Afghanistan and allows Afghanis to form a National Unity Government—not simply of the northern mujahedin warlords and the Pashtun Taliban (the men with the guns), but of all Afghan ethnic groups and civil society–including the women, youth and elders.

If Obama really means it when he claims "We will not claim another nation’s resources," then he should renounce any future Caspian Basin gas pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Obama really means it when he says "We have not sought world domination," he should plan a real exit strategy from the Afghan military bases–starting with the torture center at Bagram–and help Afghans disarm the warlord militias that we helped to create. If he claims that "We do not seek to occupy other nations," the best way to prove it is simply by not occupying other nations.

Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a geographer teaching at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime antiwar movement organizer. He is a civilian board member of G.I. Voice, which runs a G.I. coffeehouse next to Fort Lewis. His writings and presentations are on his faculty website at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz and his history of U.S. military interventions is at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html Dr. Grossman can be reached at [email protected]

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