Tuesday, 30 December 2014

AFGHANISTAN: Tragic Past, Turbulent Future

Synoptic Introduction to US Involvement in Afghanistan  
Afghanistan has been subjected to Western military intervention several times in its history, starting with the first Anglo-Afghan war, 1839-1842. This war coincided with the First Opium war that England declared against China, demanding that China permit the East India Company sell Opium inside China, opium that came from India but would eventually come from Afghanistan as well. England fought two more wars against Afghanistan – 1878-1880 and in 1919. However, it always had great difficulty imposing institutional control at any level owing largely to the rebellious tribes.

While officially gaining its independence after the third war that the British imposed on the people of Afghanistan in 1919, the country remained under the British imperialist sphere of influence, prompting a tribal uprising in 1929. Typical of the manner that the British operated throughout their empire when a country tried to gain independence, in 1933 London imposed a puppet ruler King Zahir Shah who remained in power just six years fewer than the Shah of Iran. The coincidence of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and rise of a secular pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan came as a shock to the US that was the world’s self-appointed “policeman’ during the Cold War.

The contemporary history of US-Afghan relations is characterized by attempts on the part of Washington to reduce the Muslim nation into a strategic satellite and use it to counterpoise the USSR in the 1980s and Iran after 2001. Backing the disparate jihadists groups, including Osama bin-Laden’s, the US did its best to bring the secular regime down only to have it replaced by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) thanks to the support from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, behind which was the US. When the US toppled the Taliban in 2001, civil war and chaos ensued because the country lapsed into war-lord rule.

The US would simply inherit the legacy of British imperialism at gunpoint. US military and financial intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s against the Soviet-backed regime resulted in a strong Mujahedin resistance, along with a strong al-Qaeda that the US had also helped so they could bring down the Moscow-backed regime. All of this backfired because what replaced the secular leftist government was a much more militantly anti-Western regime that repressed human rights and declared America and the West its enemies.  
Under President George Bush, the stated US goal in invading Afghanistan and coercing Pakistan to accept US military intervention on its soil from which to launch operation against the Afghan regime, Taliban and al-Qaeda was to capture and/or kill Osama bin-Laden thus eliminating the terrorism threat to the US. 

The stated goal had some merit, although al-Qaeda operated throughout many countries in the world and it was simply impossible to launch military invasions against friendly ones like Saudi Arabia. The unspoken US goal was to establish a foothold next to Iran, given that the US would also invade and occupy Iraq where regime change took place as it did in Afghanistan. In short, the real goal of the US was to determine the balance of power so that Iran does not enjoy that role or at least its power is considerably diminished. NATO sent troops and money to back the US war effort.

In 2008, amid a very deep recession looming in the horizon, Obama campaigned on the “bad war in Iraq” vs. the “good war” in Afghanistan, a campaign that afforded him political “legitimacy” with right wingers and with domestic and foreign lobbies that profit economically and/or politically from perpetual conflict in the Middle East. Before the 2008 election, I wrote a piece about the futility of US persistence in keeping Afghanistan as a satellite, raising questions about US goals relevant to this day: 

* If the goal is to maintain a Karzai-type regime that controls only a part of the country while peasants grow heroin whose production has skyrocketed since the US invasion, then that goal has been achieved but at a very high cost to the US and especially to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. Afghanistan remains a very unstable country, torn by perpetual civil war conflict and it is now the largest poppy producer in the world because its legitimate economy is in shambles and lkely to remain so.
* If the goal is to allay the fears of the American people that the US “will continue to take the war to Al-Qaeda,” the question is whether this has yielded results other than psychological owing to the assassination of Osama bin-Laden. Is Homeland Security taking care of this problem at an immense cost to taxpayers, either that is at $1.6 trillion, as one estimate has it, or $6 trillion when everything is thrown into the mix, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to funds spent at home?
* If the goal is to appease the substantially vociferous right-wing elements entrenched throughout American society from media and business to politics, intelligence services to military, as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia that link their security to a weak Iran, then the money and cost in every other respect is well worth it as far as the US policymakers are concerned
*If the goal is to maintain the military-industrial complex healthy and to use the culture of fear as a mechanism of  conformity against the background of down socioeconomic mobilization at home, then the Afghanistan war, along with other US overt and covert militaristic adventures has succeeded. However, the cost is that the majority of the American people do not support US sending or maintaining troops in Afghanistan or anywhere in the Middle East, which is the key to Obama relying heavily on contractor and drone warfare.

1) Did the United States win the war in Afghanistan?
The US had lost the war in Afghanistan as soon as it invaded, despite individual battles won against Afghan rebels allied to various warlords and groups as we will see. Ideologues blinded by rationalizations intended to justify the military solution-oriented US policy, certain corporate interests profiting from war (charging $10 per bottle of water for the troops), the Israeli lobby, and the US media along with an assortment of right-wing think tanks refused to see it ten years ago as they do today. Perhaps it was the idea that the US had just “won the Cold War”, so why could it not win against Muslim rebels in the mountains of Afghanistan?

Despite the futility of this war that carried a very heavy price for the people of the invaded land, the US continued presumably to save face and to show that indeed a real effort had been made before withdrawal that left behind a land more divided than ever. Remnants of die-hard Cold War mindset, rightwing ideology, and the symbolism of another American loss transcend pragmatism among US policymakers – Republicans and Democrats alike. Even if Obama had ordered an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2010 to the existing 50,000 troops on the ground, the US could have never kept Afghanistan in its sphere of influence once the troops withdrew. Besides, did the US have the luxury of massive defense spending without any tangible results to show for it? 

That the US has recently signed a bilateral agreement with Kabul, parallel to the one Kabul signed with NATO, is an indication of its failure to find a political solution and that it sees no alternative to military occupation, at least in the next few years. Meanwhile, the rebel activity has not and will not stop. Just as the US could not win the war in Vietnam against the Communist North, similarly, it could and cannot possibly rely on a military solution to Afghanistan, an Islamic country with deep suspicion if not tremendous hatred for the secular imperialist West that has invaded the country since the First Opium War and tried to deprive it of its national sovereignty in every domain from political to economic.      

2) What is the view worldwide of the US intervention in Afghanistan after a decade of war, positive or negative?
Without any doubt, Muslims throughout the world opposed US military intervention as they continue to do, considering there is no substantive change in US foreign policy. In the non-Muslim world, there was never much support for US militarism as the election of 2008 proved when Obama candidly admitted that the US had become very unpopular throughout the world, but he would change all of that by changing US foreign policy. The unpopularity of the US persists because human rights organizations have charged US-NATO forces have used white phosphorus, a napalm-like chemical to combat the rebels of Afghanistan, and drones kill mostly civilians. These constitute war crimes for which the US and its NATO partners will never answer at the International Court of Justice.

In the June 1984 issue of the State Department Bulletin, the US raised the issue of chemical weapons use in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. The US argued that chemical weapons use constitutes “a violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, related rules of customary international law, and the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.” Moreover, the US took its case before the UN General Assembly at a time that Reagan’s defense secretary was talking about ‘limited nuclear war’ as ‘acceptable’ as long as it does not take place in the US. That was then when the Soviets had troops in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the CIA encouraged Afghan warlords to have peasants grow heroin along with hashish that was sold to Soviet troops. Under US military presence in Afghanistan, warlords have used the exact same strategy on NATO troops that they used on Soviets. This was one problem facing NATO that knows better than anyone the war in Afghanistan is a lost cause.

Another problem is that in June 2009, the US media reported that Afghan rebels were allegedly using white phosphorus. But who exactly produces white phosphorus? We know that Israel has used it against Palestinians. The chemical decomposes the human flesh like a strong acid poured. If Afghan rebels acquired white phosphorus, then who provided it for them? China and Russia may be candidates, but not the only ones, if they have any role at all. 

The Obama election in 2008 did in fact bring about a change in US perception because the rest of the world believed the new president would in fact change the course of foreign policy from militarism and unilateralism to multilateralism and diplomatic solutions to crises. The world believed that the American culture of covert and overt interventionism would come to an end and a new era had dawned in Washington when Obama took office.

The only change from Bush to Obama was reduced reliance on “boots on the ground” and shift to greater reliance on technology, including drones, and contractors working for DoD. Given that there was no policy change and the US continues on the path of neo-imperialism in Afghanistan as in the greater Middle East area, world public opinion toward the US is right back where Bush left it in 2008. While people in public opinion polls like many aspects of American society, they deplore its foreign policy. Anti-Americanism as a political and cultural phenomenon remains very strong in most of the world. This is not just among the media and governments, but among the people as well.

3) Did you ever support the intervention in Afghanistan?
I never supported the war in Afghanistan because a military solution to a political problem results in mass destruction where the victims are mostly innocent civilians. Not just on moral grounds, but practical ones, including nebulous publicly stated goals about US delivering “freedom and democracy”, always at gunpoint. The idea that the US could “win the war on terror” by invading Afghanistan was as absurd in the planning stages, as irrational in its motivations and execution as the current plans to maintain a regime of military occupation on a more limited basis for the next three years.

When Bush announced the invasion I believed and I still maintain today that war would accomplish absolutely nothing, including the publicly-stated goals of the Bush administration and the rationalizations Obama provided for continuing the war. Other than an immense cost to the US budget and civilian economy from which resources were diverted, and other than the absurd “war on terror” regime that replaced the Cold War, the national interest measured in terms of what is best for the totality of the American people has been damaged very seriously under Bush and Obama. It is beyond doubt that besides a handful of US corporations, the beneficiaries of the US invasion in Afghanistan were Iran and China. As the US was spending enormous amounts of money on a futile war, China was focused on building its civilian economy which is now the world’s number one.

Taking advantage of its geographic proximity to Afghanistan and given its interest in raw materials, China was striking deals with Kabul that it may not have the opportunity to secure if it were not for the pro-US regime. In return for some Chinese aid for infrastructural development similar to what China does in Africa, Afghanistan has signed deal for mining operations, mostly copper that China needs. In due course, Afghanistan will become an economic satellite of China, but closely linked politically to Pakistan and with ties to Iran as well.

While the US invaded with the goal of limiting Iran’s role in the regional balance of power, the exact opposite took place, as the government in Tehran strengthened its position with weakened neighbors. There are over one million Afghan refugees in Iran that the government has used as a bargaining chip with Kabul. Moreover, Iran had backed insurgent groups. The US realization that it needs Iran to stabilize Afghanistan, along with Syria and Iraq, of course, is an admission of its shortsighted militarist-oriented foreign policy that precludes political solutions as a priority because it deems destabilization would work to its benefit.      

4) With fewer US troops on the ground, will Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-E-Taiba and the Taliban in Pakistan openly to reinforce the Taliban in Afghanistan, will it become even worse?
The US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement was signed on 30 September 2014, the same day that the NATO Status of Forces Agreement was signed. This is in essence a continuation of the status quo, with Afghanistan remaining a strategic satellite of the US-NATO. The alternative would be to leave completely and permit Iran to enjoy some influence with Pakistan possibly reducing the country into its satellite after reaching an agreement with the Taliban. While US-NATO troops would not formally be engaged in combat operations on the ground, they would have “training and advisory roles” largely to combat “terrorism” which may require US Special Ops forces engagement.

Drone missions that many governments and human rights organizations have castigated as war crimes will continue not only in Afghanistan but Pakistan well. Only at the end of 2017 would the US “consider” reducing its military role into what it calls “normal” but without specifying it. This is a prescription for continued bloodshed in Afghanistan to the detriment of the people as well as neighboring Pakistan. The Taliban and warlords are not losing their strength, but gaining as the military occupation persists.
While the symbolism of Osama Bin Laden's death may have been significant for the US, the level of Islamic unconventional warfare (terrorism) has actually increased since the US declared “war on terror”, reminiscent of the “war on drugs”, the other US success story on the domestic front! Why would al-Qaeda give up its operations in Afghanistan until there is removal of foreign forces and a political solution coming from inside the country with regional powers as supporting players?

As far as the Pakistani-based Lashkar-E-Taiba, it is highly unlikely that the government in Pakistan can do very much about it, given that the government has a history of creating and cooperating with insurgent groups to achieve its foreign policy aims. Why would Pakistan give up another foreign policy leverage it has in its arsenal?  How likely is Pakistan intelligence, ISI, to give up its valuable links to Lashkar-E-Taiba just because the US and NATO are opposed to this "terrorist organization"? When militant Islamic groups look at the success of ISIS why would they not be encouraged?

5) What will happen to Afghanistan’s future?  
 The future of Afghanistan in the next three to five years looks very much like the past, namely, unstable unless there is a regime able to forge some kind of consensus among the disparate tribes and coopting the warlords into the political process. An estimated 200 warlords in charge of militias call themselves freedom fighters just as they did when the US supported them against the Soviet-backed secular regime in the 1980s. These warlords are in many respects the local power that is much more powerful than the Taliban and al-Qaeda combined, largely because they are grassroots with local support and sources rooted in the heroin economy. 

What kind of regime can forge a functional consensus in Afghanistan so that the country’s rebuilding could start and the people enjoy relative peace and reconstruction of their country and their lives? First, any strictly secular regime would fail, so it would have to one that takes the religious and tribal traditions into account of the disparate groups. Second, massive aid of such an inclusive regime from different sources, including China, Pakistan, India, Iran, as well as the EU, US, and oil-rich Arab countries would have to flow into the country to rebuild it and secure a sustainable legitimate economy instead of the illegal one rooted in corruption.  

Without the strategic cooperation of Pakistan and Iran, and without the tolerance of its close neighbors, including India, China, and Russia, there cannot be a stable regime in Kabul. How likely that we would see stability in Afghanistan? I suspect that when the economy begins to improve at a rapid pace and peoples’ lives improve, stability is inevitable. However, this will not come any time soon, because it is highly unlikely for the warlords and Taliban to be appeased unless they continue to have a political and economic stake in the new regime.

Externally-imposed solutions such as the US interventionist model will end in unmitigated failure. Only domestic players, with the assistance of regional powers can make Afghanistan stable, not permanent military occupation. This does not mean that the world ought to turn a blind eye if a tyrannical regime emerges. However, there is a huge difference between genuine international cooperation intended to help bring about the best form of government in Kabul, and US military intervention. While the permanent US military occupation, with NATO backing leaves no room for optimism, the US-Iran rapprochement is a good beginning for international cooperation at the same time that China’s economic presence is also a source of relative stability and promise for Afghanistan’s future.

1 comment:

Ron said...

One of your best articles!