Match Game

A year ago this week, the Taliban abandoned Kabul, and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance army entered Kabul. The Alliance, an ally of convenience for the combat-averse Americans, was a ragtag collection of warlords and former (and current) mass murderers whose entry into Kabul the Americans and British wished to avoid; they sensed, correctly, that giving Northern Alliance-affiliated warlords access to power in the first days of a post- Taliban occupation would make it nearly impossible to dislodge such people from power later. And thus it has been.

The U.S. media has largely ignored the Afghan anniversary, preferring to focus on the “drama” of Iraq’s reluctant acceptance of a U.N. Security Council resolution whose provisions it had already said it would accept, and American officials’ insistence that inspections won’t work so why don’t we just invade and get it over with. But the rest of the world has very much been paying attention; and what has happened in Afghanistan over the last year, and what is happening there and elsewhere in the region this week, underscore the treacheries awaiting any U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This week, Kabul saw two days of rioting in and around Kabul University, including, on Monday night, two deaths when police opened fire on a crowd of about a thousand student protesters. Such deaths, according to Interior Minister Taj Mohammed Wardak, “have never happened before in the history of Kabul” — a remarkable statement considering even the last quarter-century.

Ostensibly, the students were protesting their wretched living conditions; according to one student quoted in a BBC report, “We have no water. We have no bread. Everything is expensive.” The cost of living has soared in Kabul since the Taliban’s departure, but beyond that, an unevenly distributed influx of foreign aid, the absence of whip and stick-wielding religious police, the return of music, and a few more opportunities for women in Kabul itself, not much has changed for Afghans in the last year. Religious laws for women — written and unwritten — frequently remain, and those that were dropped a year ago are starting to come back. Abject poverty, of course, continues. But most importantly, the war is not over, and the warlords that once terrorized Afghanistan have picked up where the Taliban left off. The U.S.-backed Karzai government has virtually no power beyond Kabul itself.

One year after the Americans promised a return to democracy, most of Afghanistan remains carved up among a collection of opulently thuggish warlords, many of them the same commanders of armies of mass rape, torture, and murder from whom the country fled to the Taliban as an antidote six years ago. When Northern Alliance troops entered Kabul, it meant the ensconcement of men like Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, whose reluctance to withdraw his Northern Alliance troops from Kabul colored the Bonn talks that eventually appointed Karzai himself and that set up last spring’s loya jurga. The loya jurga was to be a traditional council of elders that would decide upon a permanent structure for a new Afghan democracy; instead, the Americans used it as a rubber stamp to coronate Karzai. Bloodstained warlords who were to be excluded sat instead in the front rows as honored guests, and Karzai used the occasion to put many of them either in his cabinet or in effective control of one or another part of the country. In Fahim’s case, reluctance to cooperate with formation of a new national army has also allowed many of the warlords to reestablish themselves, battle each other, and steal at will from food and relief agencies and hapless civilians.

This is American democracy, one year later. As the U.S. endlessly threatens and prepares for an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, it’s instructive not just as a glimpse into the complexity of political histories and cultures in a region that the Americans don’t understand well (or care much about); and not just as an insight into the difficulty of installing a pro-American post-Saddam “democracy,” which the Bush Administration does not publicly seem much concerned about. That’s likely to be even more difficult in Iraq than with the looming quagmire in Afghanistan. But as the student unrest suggests, the American invaders are confronted with an incongruous but nearly impossible set of expectations.

Beyond military might, the United States also represents nearly unimaginable wealth in a region of severe privation. If the United States comes marching into Iraq and either occupies it or supports a puppet government, one of the expectations will be that the even worse destitution there, brought about by the Gulf War bombing and 11 subsequent years of the most restrictive economic sanctions in the history of the world, will be abruptly reversed. The Americans will be expected to make the bad times over. The more likely reality will be either civil war or an equally unaccountable new government combined with the sort of profiteering and corruption that happened when foreign capital was suddenly allowed to overrun Russia — but tell that to an Iraqi.

Meanwhile, many, if not most, Iraqis directly blame Washington for the genocidal levels of death wrought not just by the Gulf War, but by those sanctions. The sanctions have resulted in death — mostly slow, unpleasant death by malnutrition or preventable disease — of unfathomable numbers of people, well over a million in a country of only 23 million, many of them under the age of five.

For the U.S., an equivalent proportion would mean the deaths of over 12 million people — spread amongst every city and village, every family, every congregation. Such unfathomable death would generate unfathomable anger, as it has in Iraq.

That anger extends also to other Islamic countries, which tend to look across Western-drawn national borders far more easily than Americans do; all Muslims are regarded as brothers and sisters, and an affront to one people taken as an affront to all. As yet another ominous warning of the powder keg that prepares itself even as the Pentagon lays plans to light it, the Jordanian government this week sealed off and sent the military into the southern city of Maan, where “radicals” are said to have amassed a cache of weapons to be deployed should the Americans invade neighboring Iraq.

Jordanian officials insist the move, while intended to “get things in order before a possible war on Iraq,” was strictly criminal in nature and had nothing to do with the threatened war itself. As with Karzai government claims that the Kabul protests weren’t political, nobody believes them. Such weapons collections are being gathered, and their use planned, in nearly every teeming slum in the Middle East, and probably throughout much of the Islamic world.

The twin outrages of Iraq and the Bush Administration’s unconditional backing for the Israeli government’s ongoing murderous campaigns in Palestine don’t need Osama bin Ladin to call for a holy war against the Americans. But they may have him anyway. U.S. officials this week announced that they had intercepted phone conversations that they believe are from bin Laden, and that he is therefore likely to be alive. Should the U.S. attack Iraq, how explosive a figure of resistance to American invaders would his reappearance be?

When analysts refer to the Colin Powell camp within the Bush Administration as the “pragmatists,” this is what they mean — not Powell’s resistance to the diplomatic awkwardness of the U.S. “going it alone,” but his acknowledgement of the powder keg that is a violence-soaked Middle East. Pragmatism suggests that no military force in the world can either control or direct the explosion that will likely occur when Washington launches an invasion.

This is a war with the most clearly imperial aims of any major global conflict in a generation; the Bush Administration proposes to redraw Asia’s maps to America’s lasting economic, political, and military advantage. But once you start proposing to erase international boundaries, a funny thing happens: other people also start thinking about where to redraw them. And as developments suggest this week from Jordan to Kabul to whichever phone booth bin Laden is dropping rupees from, a number of people are already doing more than just thinking.

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