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Socialism Today 83 - May 2004

An Afghan quagmire

THE SITUATION in Afghanistan deteriorates day by day. What was hailed by US imperialism as the first victory in the ‘war against terrorism’ has become another quagmire. Recent months have been the most violent since the fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.

The bloody battles in March in the western city of Heart, between pro-government fighters and militiamen loyal to local warlord, Ismail Khan, killed more than 100 people. The fighting was triggered by the assassination of the civil aviation minister, Khan’s son, Mirwais Sadiq. He became the third minister in the cabinet of US puppet president, Hamid Karzai, to be assassinated.

An estimated 100 people were also killed by the Pakistani army which, supported by US special troops, carried on a so-called security sweep in South Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghan border. No high-ranking leader of the Taliban or al-Qa’ida was killed or captured in the operation, as was earlier claimed, but 46 Pakistani soldiers lost their lives.

These bloody events were then followed by the warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum seizing control of the capital of Faryab province in northern Afghanistan on 6 April, forcing the local governor to flee.

"First in Herat, and now in the north, we are seeing warlords taking on the central government and succeeding", said a spokesperson for the capitalist think-thank International Crisis Group. (The Guardian, 9 April)

Events in Afghanistan have not made the same headlines as the crisis in Iraq. But the seriousness of the situation is another blow to imperialism in general and US imperialism in particular. Imperialism is now paying a heavy price for bringing back the warlords to power and favouring them with positions in Karzai’s government.

The reason for this was that, in the battle against the Taliban, US imperialism needed armed forces on the ground to secure territory after aerial bombardment. The Bush administration therefore turned to the warlords – gave them money, rearmed them and reinstalled them to power. The CIA literally handed over suitcases of dollars to the warlords before the war, and afterwards they were given a free hand to engage in smuggling, drug trafficking and robbing the poor in the areas they controlled. Still, the CIA continues to fund some warlords as part of the war against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.

The inevitable result of this policy – of replacing one group of terrorists with another – is that Afghanistan sinks deeper into chaos, lawlessness and civil war. The government upholds the illusion of power. The president exercises hardly any power beyond the capital Kabul. At least 75% of Afghanistan is controlled by warlords and their estimated 100,000 armed fighters. The UN regards half the country as a ‘no go area’.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently described the situation in Afghanistan: "Local security and police forces, even in Kabul city, are involved in arbitrary arrests, kidnapping and extortion, and torture and extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects. Outside Kabul, commanders [warlords] and their troops are implicated in extortion, intimidation of political dissidents, rape of women and girls, rape of boys, murder, illegal detention and forced displacement, as well as specific abuses against women and children including trafficking, sexual violence, and forced marriage. High-level commanders in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and other cities are also involved in property seizures and forced displacement".

Taliban have been able to regroup and are back in the rural south and southeast. Zabul province, bordering Kandahar, is said to be under the control of Taliban sympathisers. The Taliban movement is still too small to grasp power, but has been able to make a return, portraying itself as a vehicle for Pashtun nationalism. The Pashtun compromise 40% of the population and formed the backbone of the Taliban in the 1990s. They play on Pashtun fear: "The dominance of Tajik forces in Kabul, personified by Marshal Fahim [defence minister and commander of a key Northern Alliance faction], has further stoked the Pashtuns’ sense of marginalisation from political developments in Afghanistan". (HRW World Report 2004)

The imperialist powers have already been forced to postpone the election – from June to September this year. The only reason imperialism wants to go ahead in September is that Bush wants an election before the US presidentials. He needs an alleged ‘success’ in Afghanistan, particularly against the backdrop of Iraq becoming another Vietnam and the lack of success in capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. However, only 1.5 million out of an estimated potential electorate of 10.5 million have been registered so far. The current conditions do not even permit registration to take place all over the country, let alone holding elections.

Any election in Afghanistan will lead to the same kind of intimidation, death threats and vote buying as occurred in the so-called election of delegates to the constitutional Loya Jirga (grand council) in December 2003. The Human Rights Watch documented "numerous cases of local military or intelligence commanders intimidating candidates and purchasing voters... many candidates complained of an atmosphere of fear and corruption... The majority of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga were members of voting blocs controlled by military faction leaders, or warlords". (John Stifton, HRW, 24 December 2003) "There is a risk that elections under present conditions will merely confirm an undemocratic and unstable status quo", admits the International Crisis Group (30 March).

Over the last three years, Afghanistan has once again become a ‘narco-state’, regaining its position as the leading global producer of heroin. Last year, the harvest provided three quarters of the world’s heroin, and 95% of Europe’s. This year, a record harvest is expected. Afghanistan’s production of heroin in 2003 generated revenues of $2.3 billion for the warlords, drug barons and Taliban, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This sum is equivalent to half the legitimate gross national product of the country.

Afghanistan ‘is going to flourish’, the representatives of imperialism claimed after the war. Bush even promised a Marshall plan for Afghanistan. But it is one thing to make pledges at international conferences, another to actually deliver the resources needed. The humanitarian organisation, CARE International, claims that only 1% of Afghanistan’s reconstruction needs have been met. In Kosovo the so-called international community spends 25 times more money on a per capita basis than it has pledged in Afghanistan, and imperialism has committed 50 times more troops per capita than in Afghanistan.

Despite all the money spent and the troops deployed, imperialism has not been able to stabilise, modernise and develop Kosovo, as recent events have illustrated. However, problems there are minor compared to the nightmare existing in Afghanistan. The poor masses, particularly women, are living in hellish conditions. Afghanistan is still one of the world’s poorest countries. According to UNICEF, an average 1,600 women die for every 100,000 live births in Afghanistan. That is twelve times worse than neighbouring Iran, and 130 times higher than the US. In the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, the mortality rate is 6,500 – the highest ever documented in the world. In many parts of Afghanistan women face the same oppression as during the Taliban era. Many are forced out of work and girls’ schools have been set on fire. In Herat, women are arrested if they drive a car and are prohibited from travelling with an unrelated man.

‘Failing is not an option’, is how Bush described his policy towards Afghanistan. But Washington’s policy has already become a complete failure. The rebuilding of an Afghan national army has, for example, turned into a fiasco. The desertion rate reached 10% per month in October last year, and of 10,000 soldiers trained up to February 2004, 2,500 have deserted.

Imperialism has become increasingly reluctant to put more resources into Afghanistan. No country, including the US, is really prepared to send more troops. The imperialist powers, according to Ahmed Rashid, "lack both funds and willingness to confront the major problems". (The New York Review of Books, 12 February 2004) But imperialism’s problems cannot simply be reduced to a ‘lack of will’, but reflect the fact that there can be no future on the basis of landlordism and capitalism.

Per Olsson


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