As the United States government and the United Nations Security Council debate the invasion, occupation, and “regime change” of Iraq, it makes sense to assess the first US exercise of power after Sept 11, namely the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Before I go on I want to comment on what seems to be fashionable terminology these days, the use of terms like “regime change” and “nation building” to describe the US imposing its will on other countries. There’s never any question of whether or not we have the right to do it. When asked about the term, “regime change,” Bush said, “regime change sounds more civil.” More civil than what he didn’t say, but we can speculate. The US invasion of Afghanistan could be described as follows: “a radical and agressive…step…using…great military power against a relatively defenseless nation.” This is actually how Jimmy Carter referred to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he called Russia’s “attempt to extend its colonial domination of others.” We rarely look at ourselves through the same lens that we use to look at others. Clearly, the US does not “extend its colonial domination of others,” it engages in “regime change” followed by “nation building.”
Prior to the bombing of Afghanistan, which began on October 7th 2001, there was practically no debate in our country, or in the corridors of power anywhere in the world. After September 11, the US found it quite easy to set the agenda for the world without going through the United Nations Security Council. Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Weekly Standard (12 November 2001), said “not a single Great Power on the planet lies on the wrong side” of the US. He was glad that we could finally give up pretenses of working within international law, what he called a “decade-long folly” based on “norms rather than…national interest.” Krauthammer includes weapons nonproliferation treaties and human rights conventions among the “norms” he derides as “refined nonsense.” Last month Bush submitted his National Security Strategy to Congress, a document that supports Krauthammer’s view and promotes the “Bush Doctrine,” i.e., we have the right to a first strike, to act unilaterally when we please, and to maintain military dominance over the rest of the world. Business Week criticized the document for its “Texas-style swagger and go-it-alone message.” (7 October 2002) But if we think in terms of the US as an empire exercising its power, a “go-it-alone message” and lots of posturing makes sense because you want to show the world who’s boss.
Krauthammer claimed that the real goal of the “war on terrorism” was simply “demonstrating that the United States has the will and power toenforce the Bush doctrine.” For the case of Afghanistan, he said that this requires “making an example of the Taliban”
“Every day that they remain in place is a rebuke to American power…The future of Islamic and Arab allegiance will depend on whether the Taliban are brought to grief…”
Krauthammer’s perspective on Arab allegiance seems to be shared by members of the US government. In April, Saudi prince Abdullah warned Bush that he might end the “strategic partnership” between the US and Saudi Arabia, so Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers threatened him using Afghanistan as an example of what we might do to those who “rebuke” American power. A US official told the NY Times, “This was to give him some idea what Afghanistan demonstrated about our capabilities…the idea was, if he thought we were strong in Desert Storm, we’re 10 times as strong today.” (25 Apr 2002)
There were a number of reasons given publicly for the US campaign in Afghanistan. Concern for the plight of Afghans was high on the list, although the US record demonstrates otherwise. Prof Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire estimated that over 3,000 civilians were killed in the first eight weeks of the bombing. He noticed how careful the US was to avoid getting its own soldiers killed, whereas Afghan soldiers and civilians were expendable. Herold concluded that “US military planners and [the] political elite” put a “very low value” on Afghan lives, exposing the tacit racism involved in “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Eliminating the Taliban was considered by many to be worth the price in civilian casualties.
President Bush asserted in his “State of the Union” speech in January that the United States had “saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression,” but the facts show that the US bombing actually exacerbated many of the dangers that existed in pre-Sept 11 Afghanstan. On September 6 2001, the World Food Program described, “widespread pre-famine conditions.” They were just about to start a new project to provide food aid to 5.5 million people, but five days later (Sept 11), all aid convoys were stopped at the borders to prevent “terrorists” from escaping. This put at risk the millions of Afghans who were in danger of starvation, since refugees could no longer leave, and aid couldn’t get in. A month after Bush’s State of the Union announcement that we “saved a people from starvation” Doctors without Borders reported (21 Feb) that “The food crisis in northern Afghanistan is reaching alarming proportions.” Mortality rates in one Northern camp have doubled since August. That is, twice as many people are dying per day now compared to before the US bombing.
The relief agency CARE has just issued a policy brief (end of September
2002) entitled, “Rebuilding Afghanistan: A little less talk, a lot more action,” in which they complain that “promises [to rebuild the country] now look increasingly suspect.” This is what is called “nation building.” Reconstruction needs in Afghanistan are, according to the report, “significantly higher” than in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, or East Timor, where international donations averaged $250 per person per year.
And yet, in Afghanistan only $75 has been pledged per person for 2002, and $42 per person per year over the next five years. CARE estimates that Afghanistan needs at least $10 billion over the next 5 years to rebuild, which is not at all forthcoming.
Over $10 billion has been spent on Afghanistan since October 7 2001, mostly by the US government; 84% of it was spent to bomb the country and to finance anti-Taliban fighters. Part of the US plan included a “regime change” shifting the balance of power away from the Taliban and towards the “Northern Alliance.” That meant paying warlords $100,000 each and supplying them with truckloads of weapons. “We were reaching out to every commander that we could,” an intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal (15 Apr 02). Presently the warlords that we supported are “the greatest threats to stability in Afghanistan,” according to CARE.
In addition to spending $10 billion to destroy the country, the US also propped up its chosen leader, using the vehicle of the traditional Loya Jirga, or “Grand Council.” This meeting, which convened in June, was actually considered to be one hope for weakening the power of the warlords. It was potentially an unprecedented opportunity for the Afghan people to have some say as to how their country was to be run.
Over 1500 delegates met for 6 days, and the expectations were that finally diplomacy, not violence would take center stage. This is not to say that it was thought to be a miracle cure, but as a former member of the Afghan parliament said, “People have every reason to pin hopes on any peaceful political developments.” (IRIN, 1 April 2002). A lot of people enthusiastically tried to get involved. In Pakistan, 250,000 refugees demanded a voice in the Loya Jirga (AFP, 31 May 2002). In Kandahar, a surprising number of women turned up to nominate themselves for the Loya Jirga delegate elections. “I want to help my sisters in Kandahar. We have all suffered the pain together and now it is time to give a voice to women,” said one candidate (IRIN, 27 May 2002). One man who was chosen as a delegate said, “I am proud to be going to Kabul. I want to go there and give my vote toward ending the power of the warlords and bringing peace to Afghanistan.” (NYT 3 June 2002).
Just prior to the meeting, a group of delegates put together a “wish list” that “emphasized access to food, education, and health services in neglected rural areas” but above all else the delegates were united in “the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government.” Delegates Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi wrote, “The sentiment quickly grew into a grassroots movement supporting the former king, Zahir Shah, as head of state. The vast majority of us viewed him as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords.” Upon arrival in Kabul, more than 800 loya jirga delegates (out of 1500) signed a petition supporting the nomination of the former king as head of state (Starr & Strmecki, NYT 14 Jun 02). But even allowing Zahir Shah to be nominated wasn’t on the US agenda.
Soon after the start of the meetings it became apparent that the only true purpose of the Loya Jirga was to legitimize Hamid Karzai’s interim government, and confirm him as President of Afghanistan. This was engineered by eliminating the former king as a possible competitor for head of state. According to a NYT op-ed piece by Frederick Starr and Martin Strmecki (14 Jun), “America’s envoys pressed the king to withdraw himself from consideration, in effect pre-empting the loya jirga from selecting the nation’s leader by itself.” Then, before Zahir Shah could even make his own announcement, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan told the press: “The former king is not a candidate for a position in the transitional authority. He endorses Chairman Karzai.”
From that point on, an atmosphere of threats and intimidation by supporters of the interim Karzai government dominated the Loya Jirga. It came as little surprise when Karzai was re-elected. In picking Karzai, the “council did what had been expected of it,” according to the NYT.
This shows the true love for freedom and democracy that permeates US “nation building” efforts. When it really matters, even minimal democracy is not allowed. Compare this with Iraq. When 100% of the Iraqi population “voted” for Saddam Hussein with nobody else on the ballot, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “[it's] not a very serious vote and nobody places any credibility on it.” (AP 16 Oct 2002) But in Afghanistan, the “rubber stamp” vote for a US-backed leader was hailed by the NYT as “a resounding endorsement of national unity” and “the first broadly representative election in over 20 years” (13 Jun 02).
This wasn’t the worst of it. Most of the delegates thought they would at least get to vote for the cabinet, but Karzai made it clear that it was only up to the assembly to ratify his choices. I’ll quote from the NYT piece by delegates Zakhilwal and Niazi:
“our hearts sank when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another. A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: ‘This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?’… Three powerful Northern Alliance commanders…have been made vice presidents…These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the mujahedeen government…As the loya jirga folded its tent, we met with frustration and anger in the streets. ‘Why did you legitimize an illegitimate government?’ one Kabul resident asked us. The truth is we didn’t…[W]e delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process.”
That was in the op-ed pages, i.e., it’s only someone’s “opinion.” In contrast, the “news” section of the same day (NYT 23 Jun 2002) was upbeat, praising the cabinet as “a careful balance of factions and ethnic groups.” In this context one has to read between the lines.
“Factions and ethnic groups” is shorthand for “factions and ethnic groups with guns”– in other words, “warlords.” Human Rights Watch said, “Afghanistan’s warlords are stronger today than they were…before the loya jirga started.”
The United States has eliminated the Taliban, but what is in its place?
The president Hamid Karzai has little popular support. He relies on the backing of the US (even his bodyguards are mostly US Special Operations
soldiers) and is at the mercy of various warlords, also backed by the US. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution calls him “basically the mayor of Kabul during daylight hours.” So the US has eliminated one source of instability in Afghanistan, and replaced it with another, which it (partially) controls. The prospects are just as bleak for Iraq, if the US decides to engage in the kind of “regime change” and “nation building” it implemented in Afghanistan.
The author is a Staff Scientist at the California Institute of Technology. He also is on the Board of Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission. His most recent article on Afghanistan can be found in the September 2002 issue of Z Magazine.