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US slipping into Afghan quagmire

As the war on Afghanistan deepens, the prospect of a successful outcome for US imperialism is increasingly in doubt. The attempt to reinforce its military and political dominance of world affairs, under the banner of ‘anti-terror unity’, is being undermined by a conflict of interests between the major powers and far from secure domestic support for the war in the Western countries.

This article is an extract from a statement issued by the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) on October 27. The full version, along with updates, news and further commentary on the world crisis and the anti-war movement, can be found on the CWI website at

AS THE ASSAULT on Afghanistan continues, it increasingly appears that the US campaign is not going to plan. From the initial reports that the military action was rapidly achieving its aims, the mood of US military and political leaders has swung to fearing that the bombing campaign is making too little progress.

Reports have surfaced that the first ground raid, the limited paratroop excursion towards the end of October, also did not go as planned. The extreme pro-war London Daily Telegraph described it as a ‘cosmetic’ raid, with video footage of US troops sitting in an empty room "designed to provide a show of something happening on the ground". The Telegraph then went on to report Pentagon sources saying that the US troops "were stunned by the resistance they met and had to get out sooner than expected... ‘The raid was a success from the intelligence point of view… But our men were surprised by the amount of resistance they ran into. The speed with which the Taliban launched a counter-attack came as a bit of a shock. They fought like maniacs, we didn’t expect that’."

At the 24 October Pentagon press briefing Rear Admiral Stufflebeem, describing the Taliban as "tough warriors", admitted that he was "a bit surprised at how doggedly they are hanging on". The next day, 25 October, USA Today reported Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as contradicting Bush’s call to get Bin Laden ‘dead or alive’ when he told that paper that it was "a very difficult thing" to capture or kill him. Hours later, Rumsfeld was forced to retract his statement and tell that day’s Pentagon press briefing that ‘I think we are going to get him’.

While the bombing campaign’s limits and the fierce resistance met on the ground have led to some hesitation in putting large numbers of US ground troops into Afghanistan, this does not mean that the Bush government will abandon its attack. Given the necessity to maintain its international prestige and standing, and the domestic pressure for revenge after September 11, the US government will have to pursue its campaign for some time yet.

Simultaneously the refugee crisis within, and on the borders of, Afghanistan has dramatically worsened. The television pictures of the Pakistan authorities using lathis (long batons) and warning shots to prevent refugees crossing the border have caused more questions to be asked in the West as to who are actually being targeted by the US and its allies. Indeed The Times in London has reported that "Pakistan has struck a deal with the Taliban to deport thousands of Afghan refugees to camps inside Afghanistan… Among the first to be deported were 25 families who had entered Pakistan illegally near the closed Chamen border" (24 October). On top of this callous brutality towards refugees fleeing the US aerial assault there are increasing civilian casualties as bombs hit ‘wrong’ targets or ‘mistakes are made’. The use of anti-personnel cluster bombs are also increasing public doubts about the war.

Additionally, within the US it is becoming increasingly clear that there has been a fairly wide-ranging attack using anthrax spores. Undoubtedly this has enormously added to the anxiety among the US population and re-enforced support for Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’, albeit with questioning as to why postal workers were initially not protected. It is noteworthy that, so far, the US authorities have not ruled out the possibility that this particular attack is the work of US right-wing extremists, as was the case with the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. On the other hand, that wing of the Bush administration that wants the current military action to be extended into a renewed war against Iraq has seized upon the anthrax attack as a further argument for their policy.

The problem of a post-Taliban vacuum

AFTER SOME HESITATION the US has given limited air support to the Northern Alliance forces trying to recapture Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The BBC has reported that these bombing raids, and others on Taliban positions encircling the important Bagram airbase, are being targeted on the non-Afghan, foreign volunteer units within the Taliban’s forces. One of the reasons for this tactic is the hope of getting some Afghan Taliban units to split away. As the chief BBC correspondent commented, ‘wars in Afghanistan are mainly won by forces switching sides’. But this tactic is now meeting public criticism from the Northern Alliance whose foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, told a 25 October press conference that its forces would not attack the Taliban unless the US increased its bombing.

But the US strategy appears to be to allow the Northern Alliance to increase the pressure on the Taliban, while still working to prevent them becoming the sole beneficiaries of a Taliban collapse. London’s Financial Times reported that "the United Nations (UN) has reached an understanding with the US that air strikes against Taliban front-line positions will be contained until arrangements are in place for a UN-led transitional authority… The US-led coalition is said to understand the need to prevent the opposition Northern Alliance from advancing on the Afghan capital until a political framework is ready to be put in place. Meanwhile diplomatic pressure is being applied to the Northern Alliance" (25 October). It is still not clear how far the Northern Alliance forces will actually be able to advance against the Taliban forces and, in the event of a successful offensive, how far the US will let them go. US strategists understand that Kabul’s capture by the Northern Alliance would not provide a stable new regime and, at the same time, would enormously increase tensions with Pakistan, a country whose geographical position makes it a key member of the US coalition.

The stepping up of the US attacks is also with the view of gaining firm footholds, including airfields, inside the country before the onset of the severe Afghan winter slows down military operations. The chief of Britain’s defence staff, Admiral Boyce, told an interviewer that the coalition’s immediate military target is to secure Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat as ‘safe cities’ (Financial Times, 25 October). But this would not mean a quick end to the war. Interviewed later Boyce warned, "the war could last three or four years" (The Times, 27 October).

Notwithstanding the repeated reports detailing the Northern Alliance’s appalling record wherever they hold power, the Western powers’ main doubts regarding the Northern Alliance concerns their narrow basis among the Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities, and their closeness to Russia. On 21 October the UN officially reported that, last year, the Northern Alliance-controlled areas of Afghanistan saw a nearly threefold rise in heroin production. While there was no official Western comment on this news, despite the Bush government’s ‘war on drugs’, if the Northern Alliance leaders do not play ball with the US there is every likelihood that they would be ruthlessly exposed in the world’s media.

Faced with this choice the Northern Alliance’s President of Afghanistan, Rabbani, claimed that they would not impose an ethnically narrow based post-Taliban government. ‘Every Afghan’, he said in a 24 October interview, ‘should have the right to participate’ but the monarchy should not be restored. However, all the international players and Afghan factions are manoeuvring to position themselves for a future government.

At the same time that Rabbani was giving his interview a jirga (conference) of Pashtun exiles, tribal leaders and warlords was taking place in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss Afghanistan after the Taliban. The chair of the jirga, Gilani, a former Mujahideen, called for the exiled king, Zahir Shah, to be elected head of state. But the Washington Post reported suspicions by Zahir Shah supporters that the whole event was being promoted by Pakistan for its own ends. No one from the king’s newly created Supreme Council for the Unity of Afghanistan attended and his grandson stated that the king did not sanction it. One of the king’s key supporters in Pakistan accused Gilani of ‘using the king’ for his own ends. These conflicts are not simply the result of personal rivalries, it also illustrates how a "post-Taliban Afghanistan could easily end up being Balkanised into separate regions under the control of different ethnic groups" (Financial Times, 24 October). Indeed The Times, reporting on US and British government discussions, said that "the temporary partitioning of the country is emerging as one potential solution" to any quick collapse of the Taliban (26 October).

Parts of the Northern Alliance are Mujaheddin whom the CIA trained and financed in their counter-revolutionary war during the 1980s. The Taliban, despite the CIA’s earlier funding of bin Laden, represented the interests of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This was one reason why the Western powers continued to recognise the Northern Alliance as the government after they were driven out of Kabul. For a time sections of the US ruling class contemplated working with the Taliban in order to build an oil pipeline from the former Soviet republics towards the Arabian Sea. A US oil company, Unocal, actually signed a contract with the Taliban regime, but the combination of the Taliban leadership’s hostility to the West and the continuing civil war led to Unocal abandoning this $2 billion project in 1998. Now it is questionable whether a pipeline following such a route could be made secure from attack.

While representing different ethnic groupings, the only policy difference between the original Mujaheddin in the Northern Alliance and the Taliban is that, while their leaders are personally more corrupt, the Northern Alliance allow women to be educated and have not banned recorded music, films and television.

The twists and turns over exact US policy towards the Northern Alliance are a reflection of the dilemma which the US is in. The US ruling class have been debating what their objective should be in Afghanistan. Their problem is not just a result of the country’s complex ethnic mix, it is also because of the conflicting interests of the neighbouring ruling classes, all of whom are pushing their own interests, and those of the big imperialist powers. While the Russian capitalists will be pleased if a Taliban defeat leads to a lessening of Taliban-backed Muslim insurgency in the former Soviet republics bordering Afghanistan, Moscow will not be so happy if the US succeeds in gaining a permanent position within this region.

The debate over the future shape of Afghanistan is also part of the wider conflict within the US ruling class and imperialism generally over whether to widen the war to other targets, particularly Iraq. Despite the concentration on the immediate action within Afghanistan, this question will not go away.

Enforcing the ‘coalition’ at home

HAND IN HAND with the military attack entering a new stage has been a stepping up of the US-led coalition’s propaganda. This was also a response to signs that, in a number of Western countries like Italy, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, a significant anti-war movement has begun to develop.

One of the propaganda campaign’s main tasks is to prepare US opinion for the probability of substantial casualties. Steadily, there is a drive to harden the population and secure backing for tougher action. Thus, in the USA the support for military action in Afghanistan has been rising since September 11, something which has been aided by the anthrax attack.

Step by step there are attempts to condition the population in Western countries to accept, or tolerate, new repressive measures. This has been especially the case in the US, Britain and Germany where new security measures have either already been rushed into law or are in the process of being prepared. Already, existing US laws have been used extensively to seize people, mainly of Arab origin. The Washington Post reported that US Attorney General John Ashcroft was "unapologetic about the arrests and detention of nearly 1,000 people nation-wide in connection with the September 11 investigation. FBI officials have said that fewer than ten of the detainees are suspected of having substantive ties to the hijacking plot". (26 October) The FBI even started a discussion on whether to extract information or confessions from prisoners by "using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those employed occasionally by Israeli interrogators, to extract information. Another idea is extraditing the suspects to allied countries where security services sometimes employ threats to family members or resort to torture" (International Herald Tribune, 22 October).

Outside the USA, the increase in questioning in other countries has provoked a renewed propaganda drive by many governments supporting the coalition. In Italy Berlusconi, after seeing the size of the up to 500,000 strong October 14 anti-war march in Perugia, called a pro-war demo for November 10. But these government campaigns have aims far wider than simply securing backing for the current offensive; they are part of an effort to roll back the growing opposition to capitalist globalisation.

One of the main political effects of September 11 has been to give Bush, Blair and other leaders a powerful weapon in terms of the ‘war on terrorism’. Sweeping aside their past history in sponsoring and creating terrorist groups, including bin Laden himself, these governments have commenced a massive drive to create an association linking criticism with the war to support for killing 6,000 people in the World Trade Center. The issues are put starkly: ‘those who are not with us, are against us’.

Anyone who questions the bombing in any way is suspect. Governments attempt to link any criticism with support or ambiguity towards the World Trade Center attack. In this spirit the British Labour Party’s parliamentary manager (Chief Whip) told a Labour MP who had dared to question the war policy and ask for a free parliamentary vote on the bombing that he would have to follow Blair’s line as "war is not a matter of conscience… It is government policy that we are at war!… I am not going to have a dialogue with you about that. It was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938". (Mail on Sunday, 21 October)

Now the CIA has been given an extra $1 billion to conduct what is officially called "the most sweeping and lethal covert action" (The Guardian, London, 22 October) throughout the world. What we are seeing is the launching of a new-style ‘cold war’ under the banner of ‘fighting terrorism’. In the first cold war there was an attempt in the West to demonise and isolate those challenging capitalism by tying them to the crimes of Stalinism, the totalitarian elite that ruled the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Today’s new cold war replaces the old demon, Stalinism, with terrorism and will use the terrible image of a passenger plane hitting the World Trade Center again and again. This campaign will aim to exploit fears about terrorism to prevent questioning of what Bush and co’s real war aims are and to cut across the developing radicalisation against the effects of capitalist globalisation and economic crisis.

‘Anti-terror unity’ masks clash of interests

EVEN THIS CAMPAIGN however cannot hide the fact that the coalition is divided, with each of the major powers seeking to further its own interests. Top US government advisor and hawk, Richard Perle, has made it brutally clear that the US, not the coalition, decides how the war will be pursued. What we have seen since September 11 has been an attempt by the US government to seize the initiative, both militarily and politically, in world affairs and reinforce its domination. At first, the Bush administration was moving towards a simple unilateralist foreign policy as seen in its rejection of the timid Kyoto Protocol on the environment. Now, after September 11, the Bush government is, in effect, saying, ‘we are not isolationists, you can join our coalition, but we reserve the right to do what we want to do’ and the war in Afghanistan is only the start.

This idea has been clearly stated in the US press. The Washington Post argued that the idea that any action must also preserve the present coalition is "a recipe for paralysis, advanced by those who oppose any forceful US action outside of Afghanistan or against any terrorist organisation other than al-Qaida". This editorial went on to argue its position clearly: "The solidarity of so many nations with the US also should help in the vital battle for public opinion in the Muslim world. But, as the Afghan campaign continues and other targets in the war against terrorism develop, it will be worth remembering a caution offered the other day by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. ‘There is no single coalition in this effort’, he said. Instead there should be ‘a number of flexible coalitions that will change and evolve’. He added: ‘Let me re-emphasize that the mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission’." (22 October)

Thus, in practice, the US, supported by Britain, has side-stepped the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This is despite the fact that NATO, for the first time in its history, declared that under Article Five of its Treaty, the September 11 attacks were an assault on every country in that alliance. The Bush administration did not want to have its hands tied by NATO and insisted that it alone ultimately decided what happened.

But the last weeks have not simply seen the US acting to strengthen its own role; other powers are also using the situation to extend their muscle. The ruling classes of Germany and Japan are taking further steps to free themselves from the foreign policy and military constraints imposed after 1945. Steadily since 1998 the German Social Democratic-Green coalition has been trying to accustom German opinion to a renewed military role, something the Christian Democrats would have found much, much more difficult. While German troops may now be involved in offensive combat missions for the first time since 1945, the change in Japan is taking place more slowly. However in recent weeks, new laws have been passed which allow the Japanese ‘Self Defence Force’ to take further steps towards undertaking military action outside Japan.

Notwithstanding the talk of the coalition’s breadth, there are many tensions within it. The coalition is not a partnership of equals and this is not only seen in the US government’s attitude to NATO. The private meeting of the British, French and German leaders hours before the October 19 European Union (EU) summit made clear what the strongest EU powers feel about their ‘European partners’. The other ‘big’ EU country, Italy, was clearly excluded because of the damage Berlusconi’s attack on Islam had inflicted on the US-led coalition. The ‘pre-meeting’ was a public confirmation of what was already seen in the EU treaty drawn up at the EU’s Nice summit last year, namely a consolidation of power around the largest nations. This display of big country arrogance could reinforce the opposition to the Nice treaty in Ireland, where it has already been rejected once in a referendum, and increase tensions among other, especially smaller, EU countries. It could also have an effect on Poland’s proposed entry into the EU, as doubts and opposition are already developing within that country.

Immediately, however, the war’s most destabilising effects have been in Pakistan and in the Middle East, especially Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Britain and the US are increasingly concerned about a number of countries. The Guardian reported that the British government "delayed announcing its decision to deploy British troops for ground operations in Afghanistan because of growing internal tensions in Gulf states" (25 October). Hours later that same day the British defence minister was sent to Oman to try to get the Sultan to agree to British troops currently exercising in that country being sent directly to fight in Afghanistan. The Sultan of Oman, like all other Arab rulers, has been reluctant to risk provoking domestic unrest by publicly allowing Western troops to use his country as a staging post for the attack on Afghanistan. So the compromise is that some of the British troops now in Oman will be moved onto ships in the Arabian Sea and from there be sent into Afghanistan.

The Arab masses view the war on different levels. There is the widespread feeling that the US has continually supported rotten, corrupt elites in order to better exploit the region’s resources. Then there is the US government’s double standards towards the Israeli government, most recently the US refusal to specifically condemn the Israeli government’s assassination policy. Following the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi the US government, while calling for an end to Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, demanded that the Palestinian authority hand over the killers to Israel. But there was no US call for punishment of those who ordered the Israeli army to carry out the assassinations of over 60 Palestinians in the last nine months.

The decline of secular nationalist movements and of the region’s ‘communist’ parties, due to the failed policies of their leaders, opened the way for a growth of Islamic political movements, movements that saw foreign domination in religious terms rather than as the imperialist grip of the most powerful capitalist nations. This is one of the main factors in the worldwide Muslim reaction against the US and British attacks.

However, in Pakistan the military ruler, Musharraf, does not simply fear a public movement from below, he is also seeking to defend the state from its major rival, India. In response to increased Indian shelling of Pakistan positions in Kashmir, the New York Times reported Musharraf’s warning that Pakistan was "not a small country", and could retaliate against Indian attacks (24 October).

Imperialism will not ‘re-build’ Afghanistan or secure stability

IT IS AGAINST this background that the coalition has been debating what to do with Afghanistan. This is not simply a search for a credible alternative to Taliban rule, but also a continuation of the contest (called ‘the Great Game’ in the nineteenth century) between both neighbouring and world powers for influence and power within this region. Thus Putin, only hours after discussing with Bush the need for a ‘broad-based’ government, flew directly from China to Tajikistan to discuss with the Tajik President Rakhmonov and Rabbani of the Northern Alliance. They agreed that the Northern Alliance was the ‘legitimate government’ which could not be ignored and, while not closing the door to Pashtun involvement in a wider government, declared that the idea ‘that the Taliban movement must not be represented in the future leadership is well founded’.

The US and its allies have no solution to offer the Afghan people. It is highly significant that they do not even pay lip service to any idea of a democratic government in Afghanistan or mention restoring the rights that Afghan women previously enjoyed before both the Mujaheddin and Taliban took over. In the coalition’s propaganda there are no calls for the Afghan people to overthrow all the reactionary warlords and decide their own future. Instead, the US hopes to get warlords to break with the Taliban and simply switch sides. Any idea of elections is left as something for the medium-term future at best, perhaps after a period of UN colonial rule. The nearest thing to democratic rule that the US-led coalition mentions is the convening of a ‘loya jirga’ (council of elders), a gathering of feudal chieftains and warlords that by its very definition is not elected and would be reactionary and exclusively male.

For all the coalition’s talk of replacing ‘failing states’ and ‘nation building’ the West’s record has been dismal. Whether it is in Somalia or Bosnia they have been unable to achieve their stated goals of rebuilding.

Bosnia’s fate is instructive as it was a reasonably developed country and where warfare did not last anywhere as long as the fighting in Afghanistan. In the six years since the Dayton accords ended the Bosnia war, and despite $5bn in aid, only 100,000 of the 1,400,000 Bosnian refugees have returned home. The ethnic divisions have not been overcome. Bosnia’s population largely lives in ‘ethnically cleansed’ cantons and its ‘economy’ is dominated by gangsters running smuggling and prostitution rackets. In the current situation of an unfolding economic crisis ‘failed states’ like Bosnia cannot be rebuilt by capitalism. This concrete example shows that imperialism will not be able to rebuild Afghanistan.

Indeed imperialism has, so far, made only the most limited verbal promises to the Afghan people. As the refugee crisis mounts in Afghanistan there is no comment from Bush, Blair or any other coalition leader. There is no call for Pakistan and other neighbouring states to open their borders to refugees. Indeed, it was the US that earlier had demanded that neighbouring states close their borders with Afghanistan.

The fate of the Afghan refugees, along with increasing reports of civilian casualties, will strengthen the questioning of the war aims. As fighting unfolds, however, and if there are more terrorist attacks like the current anthrax poisoning in the US, there can also be a rise in support for the war.

Generally, there is a polarised mood in Western countries. Certainly the twists and turns of events will produce swings in the anti-war movement’s strength. But the longer the conflict continues the concrete question of what alternative policy should be advanced will come to the fore.

Such a policy will have to answer the questions asked both in the neo-colonial world and in the developed world.

In Italy and Greece, unlike most other countries, the initial anti-war movements have included large numbers of workers alongside students, pacifists, older activists and Muslims. If the anti-war movement is to broaden out it needs to have a programme that appeals to the wider sections of working people, a policy that clearly states opposition to the September 11 attacks that killed thousands of ordinary working people, fire-fighters and other rescue workers. It must explain the hypocritical character of the imperialist powers which have repeatedly supported and used terrorism when it has been in their own interests.

The opposition in many neo-colonial countries to the attacks on Afghanistan reflects the deep hostility towards the major imperialist powers that has developed over recent years. The early 1990s dream that countries could follow the ‘Tiger’ path to development and higher living standards ended with the 1997 Asian economic crisis. This has led, within many countries, for an increasingly desperate search for an alternative way to develop society and free the mass of the population from poverty and insecurity. In this situation, the role of socialists arguing for the building of an independent workers’ movement that fights for socialism is becoming more and more urgent.

The Afghan war, and the increasing questioning of the Western leaders’ policies, is taking place against the background of a developing international economic crisis. Daily, more news comes out indicating the likely depth of the economic recession that has begun. There are continual announcements of massive job cuts by the biggest companies. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that the current worldwide total of 160 million unemployed will rise in the next 14 months by 15% as 24 million workers lose their jobs by the end of next year.

The experiences of the coming months will lead more and more working people and youth to question and come into opposition to capitalism, the system which breeds poverty, regular crises, terrorism and war. Events are preparing the way for socialism once again to be widely seen as the only alternative to the barbarism of capitalism.


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