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The Fall of Kabul

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Events inside Afghanistan are moving quickly. So quickly that it is difficult to keep up with the lightening changes in the situation. The fall of Kabul came more quickly than anyone could forsee. Washington hoped that it would be able to hold back the Northern Alliance's advance until it had succeeded in putting together a coalition of non-Taliban forces (read: American stooges) to take over the country. However, in war, events cannot be directed like an orchestra under the conductor's baton. Alan Woods explains how this affects the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

Events inside Afghanistan are moving quickly. So quickly that it is difficult to keep up with the lightening changes in the situation. Yesterday at 5.30 pm, I left my unfinished article on the advance of the Northern Alliance with the following paragraphs:

"The US would like the Northern Alliance [NA] to inflict a military defeat on the Taliban, but not to take over the government, since this would pose a serious risk of inter-ethnic conflict (as it did last time) and provoke Pakistan. That is why they are trying desperately to prevent the NA from entering Kabul. But this may be easier said than done.

"War has a logic and a dynamic of its own, which often escapes the control of the generals and politicians. The soldiers of the NA are thirsting for revenge after the murder of their leader Masoud. They must be angry and frustrated at the long wait and the lack of decisive military backing on the part of the Americans. They will also be euphoric at the rapid pace of their advance. These are not well-disciplined American troops, but really a kind of tribal militias led by local war lords. It is not at all clear that they can be prevented from entering Kabul at this stage of events."

This morning, history has completed my article for me. Kabul has fallen. The forces of the Northern Alliance are already inside the city, and although it is claimed that the bulk of their troops are being held back in the suburbs, there is no doubt who is now master of the city.

Washington hoped that it would be able to hold back the Northern Alliance's advance until it had succeeded in putting together a coalition of non-Taliban forces (read: American stooges) to take over the country. However, in war, events cannot be directed like an orchestra under the conductor's baton. The American bombing - despite its desultory character - has obviously made a suitable impression on the minds of a number of Taliban commanders in the north. In the good old Afghan tradition, they have decided to change sides, encouraged by the prospect of death and American bombs behind them and that of loot and American dollars before them.

The swiftness of the collapse of the Taliban has surprised observers. Writing in the Evening standard (November 13, 2001), Robert Fox comments:

"The collapsing of the Taliban forces in and around Kabul was swift and unexpected. Until the end of last week they were putting up steady fire from their various positions in the villages around Bagram some twenty miles to the north. Last week Dohar television showed scenes of jubilant Taliban fighters coming back from the north for a spot of rest and recreation, shouting that the Americans could send all the B52s they want but the Taliban would continue to resist.

"Late yesterday the Taliban commanders posted a ring of T55 and T62 tanks on the rising ground beyond the northern suburbs preparing to counter-attack the latest incursions of the Northern Alliance. Within hours they had gone, leaving their positions and then abandoning the city. The Taliban made no attempt to defend it. Only a few desperate Arab fighters of bin Laden's al-Qaida network appear to have attempted a last stand - and their bodies now litter the street."]

War is the most complicated of all equations, said Napoleon. This war is certainly no exception. The situation in Afghanistan continues to produce unexpected twists and turns on a daily basis. It will continue to do so. With surprising swiftness, the Taliban's front line in the north has collapsed, not so much because of the strength of the Northern Alliance, but as a result of the inner weakness and disintegration of the Taliban regime and its army.

The main turning-point was the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif. This was important for a number of reasons. As a crossroads, in a country with hardly any other basic transport infrastructure, it plays the role of an important communications hub, controlling access to the north of the country. Its capture also promises to open up a land "bridge" to the border with Uzbekistan, making it easier to bring in military supplies. It would also, potentially, facilitate the deployment of ground troops in greater strength than the small numbers of American and British special forces known to be inside Afghanistan. The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif created a domino effect and undermined the confidence of the Taliban forces in the north.

On November 11, the Alliance was almost unopposed in re-capturing Taloqan. This was an important psychological victory, since the town used to house Alliance headquarters, until the Taliban took it last year. By November 12, the Alliance was fighting for control of the important western city of Herat. By Monday, Northern Alliance fighters made rapid advances capturing Herat and moving in on the central town of Bamiyan and Kunduz in the north. In Herat the local population staged an uprising against the Taliban and apparently drove them out. Groups of Afghans stormed the prison in Herat late on Monday, liberating around 1,000 prisoners, according to one Iranian radio station.

The fall of Herat potentially opens the way to Kandahar, the southern stronghold of the Taliban, 300 miles to the south. One report on Monday suggested Zaranj and the province of Nimruz, east of Kandahar, had also fallen. Al-Jazeera television, the Qatar-based satellite channel, reported that Northern Alliance forces have captured an airport at Kandahar, The claim could not be independently verified, but if it is correct, it would represent a very serious blow for the Taliban, since Kandahar has always been a Taliban stronghold.

These victories boosted the morale of the Northern Alliance and established an unstoppable momentum in the drive to Kabul. The alliance troops encountered little resistance as they emerged from their positions at Bagram, north of Kabul, and marched across no man's land. Resistance to the Northern Alliance in Kabul itself was sporadic, suggesting that most of the Taliban forces had left the city beforehand. The Guardian of November 13, 2001 reported:

"While some Taliban fled before the city was abandoned, others had mounted a rearguard action and engaged the alliance in heavy fighting on the Shomali plain about 25 miles north of the capital. Taliban soldiers and their allies - Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and others - were rushed up to block the Alliance's advance along the New Road into Kabul. The Taliban ringed the city with tanks."

The advance of the Northern Alliance has been swift and spectacular. In four days, it has expanded its share of territory from 10% of Afghanistan to more than 40%. But now things are more complicated. The territory conquered so far is mainly populated by the minority nationalities: Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. But now the Northern Alliance has entered the Pushtoon heartland. The country is now effectively partitioned, with the Alliance in control of the north and the Taliban dug in in the south.

The Taliban forces have fallen back to Kandahar where their main strength is concentrated. But it is not clear how long they can hold on to that position either. After the fall of Herat, there are reports that the Iranians are sending arms and equipment to their Shiite supporters there, with the intention of opening up yet another anti-Taliban front. The enemies of the Taliban are closing in on all sides.

However, although the fall of Kabul represents a set-back for the Taliban, it does not yet signify the end of the conflict. Even if the Taliban are driven out of all the cities, this will not necessarily mean the end of the war. The opponents of the regime - who will be many - can resort to a guerrilla war which can drag on for years. Moreover, the new regime in Kabul will not take long to reveal itself as corrupt and repressive. The stage will be set for a new downward spiral into violence, war and inter-ethnic strife.

America and the Northern Alliance

The mood in Washington upon learning that Kabul had fallen to the Alliance was one of total surprise and disorientation. With Northern Alliance soldiers on the streets of Kabul, the White House and the Defence Department offered only brief comments, while the State Department offered no reaction at all.

"We've seen reports, we are evaluating the reports, and at the moment the situation on the ground is very fluid," White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo told AFP. The fluidity of the situation around Kabul was also emphasised by the Defence Department, which refused even to confirm that elements of the Northern Alliance were inside the city. "We cannot confirm that at the moment," said Pentagon spokesman Major Tim Blair. A Pentagon spokesman admitted the fast-developing situation presented those involved in Afghanistan with "some diplomatic questions that have to be addressed". That is an understatement!

At first sight, the spectacular victory of the Northern Alliance should have been the occasion for rejoicing in Washington. In fact, the US military are happy, since the present situation seems to reduce the need for the deployment of American soldiers on the ground - a prospect which they found less than appealing. But the reactions in the State Department and the Pentagon are diametrically opposed. Not for the first time, diplomacy and the military are speaking a different language. The masters of US foreign policy are not celebrating the fall of Kabul. They look upon the victory of the Northern Alliance with deep foreboding.

From the outset, the Americans have had an ambiguous attitude towards the Northern Alliance. Initially, they saw the possibility of using the NA as cannon fodder to reduce the need to use American troops on the ground, and entered into negotiations with them. But immediately complications set in. The Pakistan regime, which had backed the Taliban consistently for years in the hope of turning Afghanistan into a client state, has been secretly participating in the war against the Northern Alliance. The Alliance is mainly composed of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities, but contains few of the majority Pushtoon nationality that lives in southern Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border.

Islamabad understands only too well that a government based on the Northern Alliance will be backed by Russia, Iran and India and is not likely to be friendly to Pakistan. The installation of such a government in Kabul would be the kiss of death for Pakistan. For the past two decades the Pakistan ruling clique has been manoeuvring to get control of Afghanistan, spending vast amounts of money to back the Mujahedeen and then the Taliban, and ruining Pakistan in the process. To end up with its hands empty after all this time would be a bitter blow indeed. For Musharraf, it could also mean a coup and the loss of liberty - or worse.

Having reluctantly bowed to US pressure and abandoned their Taliban allies, the Pakistanis furiously objected to any suggestion that the Northern Alliance should take power in Kabul. The Americans were forced to break off negotiations with the men in the North. But as the bombing campaign dragged on without achieving any significant results, and the prospects of a bloody and protracted war on the ground loomed large, minds in Washington became wonderfully concentrated. Negotiations with the NA were hastily reopened, despite all Pakistan's objections.

As a gesture of good will (and because they were running out of targets to bomb), the Americans started to bomb Taliban positions in the north, mainly in Mazar-e-Sharif and to the north of Kabul. The half-hearted nature of this bombing caused considerable discontent on the part of the NA commanders, who loudly complained of the Americans' lack of commitment to the serious business of bombing. Washington hoped that the anti-Taliban coalition would be joined by a "southern alliance" of Pushtoon tribes - led by American stooges. As Donald Rumsfeld, America’s secretary of defence, put it on November 11, "It’s time for the southern tribes to get active." But despite the generous amounts of dollars which were doubtless on offer, there were no serious takers. America’s efforts to foment a rebellion against the Taliban in the south were completely ineffective. One American stooge, Abdul Haq, was captured and killed by the Taliban on October 26. Another, Hamid Karzai, had to be rescued from southern Afghanistan by an American helicopter.

So in the end, the Northern Alliance had the stage to itself. The sudden advance of the NA army after weeks of relative inactivity took the Americans by surprise. Washington had been frantically signalling to its "allies" to halt their advance. The Americans are now extremely worried about reaction from Pakistan, which has been adamantly opposed to the Northern Alliance controlling Kabul and has persuaded the Bush administration to adopt a similar stance. After meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in New York on Saturday, Bush said he would "encourage our (Afghan) friends to head south...but not into the city of Kabul itself." Formally, the NA leadership has agreed not to enter Kabul and to keep the bulk of its army outside the city. But in practice this is merely a gesture to keep the Americans quiet. Even if they wished to stay out of Kabul it is doubtful if they would be able to get their soldiers and field commanders to obey.

"Armed bodies of men"

The capture of Kabul has fundamentally altered the balance of forces. It has upset the Americans' plans to install a puppet government under the former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah. During the second world war, when Churchill proposed that the Pope be included in the anti-Hitler alliance, Stalin asked ironically: "How many divisions does the Pope have?" The same question could be asked by the Northern Alliance of the king.

Lenin pointed out long ago that the state is armed bodies of men. The Taliban "state" - insofar as one could call it that - was maintained on the basis of terror and the inertia of the masses. Now it has collapsed. With the withdrawal of the Taliban, there is a power vacuum in Kabul which must be filled. The Alliance (with the Russians' active encouragement) have stepped into the vacuum and are at present the only ones who can fill it. All the manoeuvres of the Americans to cobble together a "broad based government" have failed.

America favours an arrangement under which Zahir Shah would act as a figurehead, pending a traditional Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, of Afghan leaders to agree on a new head of state and government. But they cannot agree even on the composition of the council that would arrange the Loya Jirga. Pakistan, which has a large ethnic-Pushtoon population of its own, wants to see some "moderate" elements of the Taliban represented. But that is unacceptable to Russia, as well as to Iran, which is also suspicious of allowing Zahir Shah any role.

A recent press report commented: "A senior aide to Zahir Shah complained that despite repeated assurances from the alliance's Europe-based diplomats, its leaders inside the country appeared to have lost interest in the plan for a post-Taliban regime. The alliance leaders inside the country have either become too proud by the recent developments or they are really too busy," one close associate of the former king told AFP requesting not to be named. He said Zahir Shah was waiting for a statement from anti-Taliban commanders in the newly-captured Afghan strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif to pledge their support to the former king as the country's possible post-Taliban leader. We are in contact with them inside the country," he said, reached by telephone in Rome, where the former king has been living for 28 years after he was toppled in 1973.

These remarks were made before the capture of Kabul. They are even truer today than yesterday. Early last month, Zahir Shah agreed with the Northern Alliance to form a so-called Supreme Council for National Unity of Afghanistan to find an eventual replacement for the ruling Taliban. But now things have changed. Having conquered Kabul by force of arms, the Northern Alliance will be in no hurry to negotiate a compromise deal with the king or anyone else. Here again we see the limits of the power of US imperialism. After learning of the fall of Kabul, Washington's chief spokesperson Donald Rumsfeld said he still hoped for a government of national unity, but added - what was obvious - that the final decision would ultimately rest with those who fight on the ground. "We don't have enough forces in the ground to stand in their way," Rumsfeld pointed out. "I mean, they're going to make the decision." Indeed they will!

The 87-year old king, Zahir Shah, who was supposed to be the pivotal figure in Washington's plan, is still sitting comfortably in Rome. The squabbling "opposition" groups in Peshawar are still squabbling. And, as the English proverb goes: "Possession is nine tenths of the law." Now that the Northern Alliance are installed in Kabul with arms in their hands, who will get them out again? The unfortunate Zahir Shah will have a long wait before the telephone rings in his Rome residence. But perhaps he will be better off if it never rings at all.

The Northern Alliance's record

It is possible that the swift collapse of Kabul with virtually no resistance was the result of behind-the-scenes dealing between both sides, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition. According to a report in The Financial Times, quoting senior Iranian officials, the Taliban in Kabul had approached the Northern Alliance, offering to hand over the capital peacefully in exchange for a role in a future government. The offer would include surrendering some Arab Taliban fighters but the proposed deal would not involve bin Laden, said the Iranian officials. The Taliban in Kabul did not appear to have the authority or the capability of delivering bin Laden given that he is probably not even in the city.

Whatever the truth of these reports, once they occupy the city, the Northern Alliance troops will behave as one might expect. Initially many residents of Kabul have welcomed the troops from the north. According to some reports, small crowds of Kabul residents lined the streets in the north of the city to cheer the arrival of the Northern Alliance forces, chanting "Allah o Akhbar (God is Great)" as the opposition troops chanted back the same.

Other reports present the same picture:

"The BBC's World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, who entered Kabul on foot before the Northern Alliance forces, reported seeing huge crowds gathered in the city shouting death to Pakistan! and 'death to the Taliban!' Others shouted 'Down with the Taliban!' and 'Welcome the Northern Alliance!'." (Evening Standard, November 13, 2001)

The mood in Kabul is not really surprising. The Taliban were hated by the masses who will be glad to see them go. If the occupying forces were Americans the attitude may have been different. But the newcomers are at least Afghans and Moslems, even if they speak a strange language. The main thing is that the bombing will cease, and after seeing the city change hands so often, most of the people are probably indifferent about their new masters as long as there is peace and bread.

But how long this will last is another matter. The troops from the north will extract a terrible revenge on their enemies. The first targets have been the foreign volunteers - the "Arab Afghans" who appear to have been slaughtered without mercy. But matters will not stop there. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara soldiers have entered Kabul as conquerors and have many scores to settle.

The Northern Alliance is a ramshackle coalition of disparate groups and war lords drawn from the national minorities - mainly the Tajiks and Uzbeks whose territories lie in northern Afghanistan. The only thing which holds them together is hostility to the mainly Pushtoon Taliban and the government of Kabul, from which they were driven a few years ago.

When the regime of Najibullah, bereft of Soviet support, collapsed in 1992, the capture of Kabul by Mujahedeen forces, who make up the bulk of the present-day Alliance led to terrible bloodletting and chaos that led to the emergence of the fundamentalist Sunni and Pushtoon-dominated Taliban. The US-based Human Rights Watch recently documented abuses by the Northern Alliance and the Taliban over the past years. Before the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, three Alliance groups "all engaged in rape, summary executions, arbitrary arrest, torture and disappearances", it reported.

In March 1995, Tajik forces went on a rampage in Kabul. The US State Department said the forces of Ahmad Shah Massood, Alliance defence minister until his assassination in September, "went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women". In May 1997, Uzbek troops commanded by General Abdul Malik Pahlawan captured and executed about 3,000 Taliban soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif. Francesc Vendrell, UN envoy for Afghanistan, recently admitted that some Alliance commanders "should be held accountable for war crimes rather than be allowed to run a government."

Little has changed since the mid-1990s. The Uzbek leader, Rashid Dostum, is back in his old stronghold of Mazar-e- Sharif close to the border with Uzbekistan. Ismail Khan, a veteran Mujahedeen Tajik, may now have retaken control of the north-western city of Herat, while the bulk of Tajik forces are holding the north-east and advancing on Kabul with the Shia Hazara fighting to regain north-central Afghanistan.

The explosive ethnic mixture is a finished recipe for a new chapter of atrocities and blood-letting. The United Nations has received what it calls "unconfirmed reports" of summary executions, civilian abductions and looting in Mazar-e-Sharif after it was retaken by opposition forces. "We know this is happening, but we don't know the scale," said UN spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker.

The war is not over

While using the Northern Alliance as its proxy fighters, the Americans have all the time been scheming to keep them out of Kabul. Now Washington's hand has been forced. The fall of Kabul is clearly a turning-point in the war, but the war is not over yet. This is well understood by serious observers. They have still not succeeded in eradicating the al-Qaida terrorist network or tracking down Osama bin Laden. This will be easier said than done, as The Economist Global Agenda (November 12, 2001) pointed out:

"Even if they occupy Kabul, that would still leave Taliban forces in control of more than half the country. It might still prove impossible to achieve the first aim of American military action-the capture of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist hiding somewhere in Afghanistan, and the dismantling of his al-Qaida network."

Throughout the entire history of Afghanistan, the central government in Kabul has always been weak. But over the last twenty years, the country has been deeply divided as the result of the interference of foreign powers. Whoever is in power in Kabul will not make much difference to this situation. Real power will be in the hands of regional warlords. The most likely prospect now is that the country will revert to chaos and civil war. This represents a deadly threat to the entire region, beginning with Pakistan.

The only way to avoid this is for the Americans to step in and establish a protectorate, backed by US bayonets. But this means that America will find itself ensnared in a chaotic and violent country for a long time. This they would prefer not to do. A western-led force would offend Muslim sensitivities. They will therefore try to involve their stooges, such as Turkey and other "neutral" countries.

Robert Fox correctly comments: "The Taliban forces may be in retreat, but it is too early to say that they are beaten." (Evening Standard, November 13, 2001) The same newspaper reported that "Taliban military commanders had been planning a withdrawal for weeks, even before the US-led air campaign began." And it goes on:

"Important assets including armour and heavy weapons have been hidden in mountain bunkers and caves and supplies of fuel, water and food have been stored in locations far from the towns and cities. Although the main Taliban column leaving Kabul was heading for its traditional stronghold of Kandahar, it was unlikely that it would stop there. A number of fighters would be pulled back to mountain hide-outs. But the majority of the 50,000 or so men under arms would quietly return to villages and rural areas. Pushtoon chiefs control most of the rural south and tribal areas bordering Pakistan and thousands of Taliban fighters will simply melt away into these areas. Women and children were sent to refuges in Pakistan at the beginning of the campaign against terrorism. A number of high-ranking Taliban figures are also here. Mullah Omar and Arab and other foreign volunteers loyal to bin Laden are also likely to remain in the mountain redoubts they occupy. Omar and his military leaders will retain a command structure that will direct a guerrilla war against the Northern Alliance and foreign troops. The tactics will follow those used so successfully against the Soviets."

The main thing that has escaped the attention of the western media is that, by avoiding a battle, the Taliban have escaped with their military machine virtually intact. In abandoning the cities, they can regroup for a protracted guerrilla war, they can melt into the civilian population on both sides of the border with Pakistan and wait for a suitable moment to renew hostilities.

"You cannot know how much we want the Americans to come in. our fighters long for it. They are desperate to kill the people who have been bombing our homes, women and children. The north is not important to us. Not even Kabul. But the mountains, the valleys, even the deserts of the south are our land and if the Americans want it they will have to fight us for it. They cannot use the Northern Alliance for this; they will have to do it themselves and we will be ready. We have weapons and our men are the best of fighters. We could call each one a commando. The Russians were brave soldiers, and they didn't hesitate to fight us. They, too, had planes, helicopters, missiles, but we beat them. The Americans think they can win with technology, but how good is it? Can they trace Mullah Omar?"

These words of Shazad Khan, a Taliban leader and member of the Jalalabad provincial assembly, quoted in the Evening Standard (November 13, 2001) are the clearest indication that the withdrawal of the Taliban from Kabul does not mean the end of the war but only a new stage in a protracted and bloody conflict. The present situation will give rise to many new contradictions. The fragile agreement that holds the Northern Alliance together will not long survive the defeat of the common enemy. Discontent will grow among the Pushtoons on both sides of the frontier. In any case, the future of Afghanistan and its neighbours will not be a tranquil one.

Grim implications

The Americans imagine they can control the situation, but this is clearly not the case. As the Independent correspondent in Peshawar put it: "The US is attempting to lay down the law in Afghanistan from 20,000 feet up in the sky. Lip service is the best sort of obedience they can hope for."

The Americans - as usual - have succeeded in alienating everybody and pleasing nobody. The Northern Alliance have correctly accused them of not doing enough to help them. They will now claim that they have taken Kabul through their own efforts (which is not strictly true, but what does it matter!), and are beholden to nobody. They will be confident enough now to try to dictate terms to the Americans, on the principle: "What we have, we hold". Even if the Americans finally succeed in putting together some kind of "government of national unity", the Northern Alliance is sure to occupy a key position in it, since they hold the guns.

US officials said they believed they had won the agreement of Northern Alliance leaders to remain outside Kabul until they reach a political agreement on a future Afghan government. But the story on the ground is very different. As usual in the serpentine politics of Afghanistan, the leaders of the Northern Alliance say "yes, we agree" and then carry on doing whatever they like. In any case, even if the leaders were sincere, it is not likely that they could control their own forces.

The leaders of the Northern Alliance are keeping up the pretence. A senior commander insisted that his main military units were being held back: "We have not allowed our Mujahedeen to enter the city. We have only sent police forces," commander Gul Haider explained. However, AFP journalists witnessed up to 1,000 soldiers, police and National Guard flooding into the city several hours later once a key checkpoint had been opened. Tony Blair was only telling the truth when he admitted that the US military and the opposition Northern Alliance in Afghanistan were not as closely co-ordinated as it might appear: "We are not tracking them place by place or city by city," Blair said. "We are an adviser, but we are not necessarily giving them the goals they have to achieve."

This is diplomatic language for: "We do not control them and they are doing whatever they please."

If the Northern Alliance are not particularly grateful to the Americans, the Pakistanis are beside themselves with rage at the sight of their old enemies the Northern League, setting up shop once more in Kabul. And the State Department, like the man on the flying trapeze, is caught dangling uncomfortably in the middle. This is the reason for the glum faces at the State Department.

They will grumble about the Northern Alliance, but what can they do about it? The only way they can alter the situation is by intervening with ground troops. But that is just what they are trying to avoid.

Meanwhile, with its military machine virtually intact, the Taliban can resume hostilities whenever it thinks the time is ripe. Thus, nothing has been solved, and America is in much the same situation it found itself in on September 11. Whatever they do now will be wrong. They cannot pull out, proclaiming victory, because very soon Afghanistan will be in an even bigger mess than before, and America will be blamed for it by everyone.

Worse still, they cannot pull out of the region because of the looming threat to Pakistan. There is a distinct possibility that, if the Afghan civil war goes on, it could spread to Pakistan, with the most terrible consequences. The prospect of Pakistan, a nuclear power, falling into the hands of hostile forces is America's worst nightmare. Therefore, although they are not too keen on general Musharraf's regime, they are stuck with it. They must sink or swim together.

The implications for Pakistan are particularly grim. It is an irony of history that the Pakistan ruling clique, and especially the ISI, actively promoted the destabilisation of Afghanistan in the 1980s with the argument that, in its long conflict with India, Pakistan required "defence in depth", which would, they claimed, be provided by Afghanistan. Now the exact opposite turns out to be the case. As a result of the light-minded adventurism of the Pakistan ruling clique which imagined it could play the role of a regional super power and thus compete with India, the destiny of Pakistan is now inextricably linked to that of Afghanistan.

With the fall of Kabul and other cities, there will be a stream of refugees, many of them Taliban fighters and supporters, to Pakistan. Despite all attempts by the authorities to keep them out, the porous nature of the frontier and the chaotic state of the Pakistan administration, will render this ineffective. Many will get through and establish themselves in Pakistan, where they will find shelter and support from the fundamentalist organisations.

The regime of Musharraf is very unstable. Sections of the ISI will blame both him and the Pakistan army for not supporting the Taliban. The possibility of a coup is implicit in the situation, although the CIA will do all in its power to shore up Musharraf.

Pakistan itself is an extremely fragile state composed of many different nationalities, among them, the Pushtoons, who are also the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Taliban are based on the Pushtoons. The convulsions in Afghanistan are causing ferment in the Pushtoons in Pakistan's North West Frontier province which lies on the frontier with Afghanistan. This represents a serious threat to the future of Pakistan itself.

The United Nations

The so-called United Nations has played a pitiful role in all these events. Those sorry "Lefts" who have been demanding that the UN intervene have entirely missed the point. The UN has now become just one more front for the activities of US imperialism. Its sole function in the present conflict has been to say "amen" to whatever Washington's says or does. That is why Tony Blair is now calling for the UN to take charge of the situation. After the fall of Kabul, Bush and Blair are calling on the services of Kofi Annan to persuade the leaders of the Northern Alliance to do what the Americans want. The UN secretary-general said he hoped to call a meeting of Afghan representatives within days to negotiate the future of Kabul. But what is there to negotiate when the Northern Alliance are already masters of the house?

Kofi Annan has also missed the point. The diplomatic process is now lagging behind military developments. That is in the nature of things. In the last analysis diplomacy depends upon force, not the other way round. The time for talking is over. The future of Afghanistan is being settled on the ground in blood and fire.

The Americans will be hated by the defeated and unloved by the victors. The truth about the bombing of the last few weeks will gradually emerge. The nonsense about "smart bombs" has once again been exposed. The Americans have bombed targets such as a village on the Northern Alliance side, killing civilians, and a Red Cross warehouse (twice). The weekend before the fall of Kabul, a US air strike destroyed a large UN food convoy that was being delivered to civilians in Afghanistan's central plains, according to a UN spokesperson. 22 trucks with 330 metric tons of aid on the way to Bamyan (in central Afghanistan) were hit by shrapnel. Eighty per cent of the food was damaged, and rendered unusable.

Defence experts say that the Americans have been dropping highly dangerous ordnance on Afghanistan that could have devastating effect on people's health in that beleaguered country and also in Pakistan. A leading military expert told the leading Pakistan English daily Dawn that since October 7 the United States Air Force has been raining down depleted uranium shells at targets inside Afghanistan, especially against the Taliban front lines in the north.

"There is widespread radiation in many areas that could adversely affect tens and thousands of people in the two countries for generations to come," he said.

Exposure to radioactive contamination from depleted uranium, or DU, is known to cause lung cancer, leukaemia, the blood cancer, and birth defects as has been the case in the two countries where the Americans and their allies have used this weapon in recent years - Yugoslavia and Iraq. "DU causes slow death," said a medical doctor.

US-led NATO air force bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, using DU shells, to drive away Yugoslav forces from one of its provinces - Kosovo - where the pre-dominant population is Albanian. When a weapon made with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through and then erupts in a burning cloud of vapour.

The vapour settles as dust, which is chemically poisonous and also radioactive. But far more deadly than this vapour will be the political inheritance of America's Afghan adventure.

The Americans do not want to be involved in Afghanistan, but really have no choice in the matter. They must do something to limit the damage. The question is: what? If they do not want to commit ground troops, they will have to back one or other of the factions in Kabul. But this is also a highly risky tactic. Apart from the obvious risk that Afghan puppets have a nasty habit of not doing as they are told, this would guarantee an intensification of fighting between the rival factions, with unpredictable consequences. As always, the interference of outside powers merely makes the instability in Afghanistan worse.

Thus, the imperialists are sinking deeper and deeper into the mire. This is the price that must be paid for being a super power in the epoch of capitalist decay. They are watching helplessly while the instability caused by their own actions is spreading through the whole region. India is trying to sit on the sidelines, but will also be affected, as the recent unrest among its Moslem population indicted. Likewise, a continuation of the war in Afghanistan will threaten to destabilise the regimes of Central Asia.

Last but not least, the situation in Iran is moving rapidly in the direction of revolution. The recent demonstrations in Teheran and other Iranian cities had nothing to do with football, but were a result of a deep social and economic crisis which is stoking the flames of discontent among the youth and the workers. The realisation that the election has solved nothing, and that the reform is nothing but a fraud, is preparing the way for an explosion.

A revolution in Iran would necessarily be a workers' revolution, and moreover, it would be directed against both capitalism and fundamentalism, it would change the whole correlation of forces throughout the region. Once it is aroused, the immense power of the Iranian proletariat will be unstoppable. Its effects would immediately be felt in Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the neighbouring countries - Turkey, Russia, Central Asia.

The war in Afghanistan has solved nothing and has greatly increased the instability throughout the region. The risk of new terrorist attacks on the USA and her allies is now greater, not less, than before the 11th of September. And with every day that passes there will be new shocks and convulsions. Sooner or later, these shocks will provoke revolutionary movements. In one country or another, the ice will be broken.

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