Afghanistan: Fools rush in...

"How the British came to believe that the Afghans would accept an invasion by their Sikh enemies, or the rule of a [...] 'superannuated puppet' who had on more than one occasion been ejected from the country, remains unexplained."

(From Afghanistan, a New History, by Sir Martin Evans, British diplomat in Kabul before the first Afghan War of 1839-42)

It was quite amusing to hear the reports on the radio that a column of American tanks was advancing on Kandahar. Since this glorious advance only took place after Kandahar had surrendered, this must have been the most painless "triumphal advance" in the history of warfare!

This little incident is a good example of the kind of surrealism that has characterised this campaign from the beginning. Predictably, the Americans are shouting victory as loud as they can. But as old Hegel once observed, words of triumph mean much or little, depending on the seriousness of the conflict and the thoroughness with which it has been fought out, and they will not be listened to with patience on the lips of somebody who is seen not to have done what he has promised to do.

Despite all the triumphalism, the real situation becomes clear if we ask ourselves concretely what has been achieved?

Thus far the American imperialists have achieved the following:

  1. Overthrown the Taliban regime with little cost to themselves, but without putting anything more stable in its place.
  2. Unsettled Pakistan and brought nearer the possibility of the Afghan conflict spilling over the frontier.
  3. Alienated India and aggravated the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which could lead to a new war.
  4. Created serious instability in Saudi Arabia, which put in danger the future of the Saudi royal family.
  5. Undermined and weakened "moderate" Arab regimes everywhere.
  6. Alienated both the Israelis and Palestinians and increased the tensions between them.
  7. Threatened Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and even Iran, and then done nothing about it.
  8. Provoked a wave of anti-American feeling throughout the Moslem world and thus strengthened Islamic fundamentalism.
  9. Increased the risk of new terrorist attacks on the USA and its citizens and property outside its borders.

And finally,

  1. Allowed the Russians to get back into Kabul.

This is not a list that should give much comfort to those in Washington who still possess a little intelligence.

Short-sighted

After September 11, US imperialism blundered into a war with no clear strategy or aim. The leadership of the most powerful country on earth is the most stupid and short-sighted in history. Bush intended to display the might of American imperialism, but has only succeeded in aggravating all the contradictions. In reality what the Afghan adventure showed was the limitations of American power.

It is always impossible to calculate accurately the bloody equation of war and to predict precisely the outcome. Trotsky thought that the Second World War would be over quickly. But war has its own logic which is impossible to determine beforehand. The same is true of the war in Afghanistan. Here - despite all their military might - the American imperialists are in a difficult situation. Even if they achieve their formally declared war aims - which they have not done - they will ultimately lose, because by their actions they have destabilised the entire region.

So far the Americans have managed to avoid getting involved in a war on the ground - something they fear as much as the Devil fears holy water. They have let others do their fighting for them. But this strategy has its own problems. The Northern Alliance will take money from the Americans, but will not necessarily do what the Americans want. In addition, the Taliban, although wounded, has not been destroyed, and can make a comeback later on, as disillusionment with the new government in Kabul sets in - as it inevitably will.

The situation in Afghanistan is peculiar, inasmuch as the Taliban regime was a regime of black reaction. There was nothing progressive about it. We pointed out in advance that the idea of the Taliban being invulnerable was a myth, and that they had lost most of their support among the population. The swiftness of the fall of Kabul was in part a reflection of internal dissolution, particularly after Pakistan withdrew support.

These religious reactionaries promised to defend Kandahar to the death, but after a taste of American bombing have obviously decided that discretion is the better part of valour. They have surrendered Kandahar - but not to the Americans. Instead, in the best Afghan tradition, they have had a friendly conversation with some local Pushtoon war-lords, most of whom were fervent Taliban supporters yesterday and have now decided to swap the Koran for a fat wad of greenbacks. Such behaviour was entirely predictable. And tomorrow they can change their minds again, if the fancy takes them, or the dollars run out.

In the meanwhile, why risk getting yourself killed when all the fuss can be settled over a cup of green tea? They soon arrived at a friendly agreement with the "enemy" that Kandahar should be surrendered on condition that the Taliban's lives should be spared and that mullah Omar should enjoy the benefits of an amnesty that would allow him to have a peaceful retirement in which to meditate on the sinfulness of this life, while drawing a comfortable pension from his old friends the transport mafia and the drug barons. What a neat solution! What reasonable person could object?

But the objections soon came thick and fast. In Washington, where the "deal" over mullah Omar fell like a thunderbolt, the planners were in a state of dumb and incoherent disbelief. Rumsfeld's usual suave mask slipped as he struggled for words to answer the questions of the journalists. When Washington finally got its act together, it was ferociously implacable. No deal whatsoever was acceptable to America that did not entail handing over mullah Omar and bin Laden bound hand and feet for "justice".

Doubtless mullah Omar anticipated this reaction and has long ago slipped out of the city. The US marines will find little there except the rubble of buildings demolished by their own air force. As a matter of fact, even on this little matter, the US imperialists have shown themselves to be of very poor judgement. Feelings of vindictiveness and petty personal revenge ought not to play a part in war or diplomacy. What did it matter to the Americans if Omar lived or died, as long as they had firm control of the situation?

The Pushtoon war lords, from their own point of view, were quite right. Why accept unnecessary losses if a fight can be avoided so cheaply? But the Americans - who were not doing much fighting - were determined to fight to the last drop of other people's blood. Their pig-headed arrogance has convinced them that they now have to play the role of the avenging angel. That is a recipe for prolonging the war and giving it an even more bloody character, a result that must sooner or later end in American casualties - just what Washington would like to avoid.

A 'broad-based government'?

The Americans are exerting heavy pressure to secure the establishment of a broad-based government in Kabul, representing all trends and ethnic groups except the die-hard Taliban. They hope that the presence of Zahir Shah, the 87 year-old former king, will be sufficient to secure the allegiance of the Pushtoons. But history shows that the Afghan people do not like foreign puppets, as the quote that prefaces the present article points out.

That particular puppet was murdered and the British troops who backed him were skewerd by Afghan tribesmen. A similar fate may await the aged ex-king, if nature does not intervene first. And it is quite possible that the shock of the transition from a luxurious residence in Rome, complete with gold taps in the bath, to a shattered city where few buildings are left standing and clean water is difficult to come by, no matter what type of taps are used, will be enough to give nature a push.

The king, who left Afghanistan in 1973, has no army to base himself on. He will be a mere figurehead with no real power - other than what the American army can give him. This is not much of a base for Washington to lean on. The only armed force in Kabul is the Northern Alliance, who will exercise the real control - until they begin to fight among themselves. Neither Russia nor Iran want Zahir Shah to play a key role. Putin has made it clear that he does not want any ex-Taliban elements in the government - in direct contradiction to the position of America and Pakistan. To make it absolutely clear that Moscow will not tolerate Pakistani interference, Putin has declared that "the Indian voice must be heard". This is more than a smack in the eye for Pakistan. Indirectly, it is a challenge to America. It shows that the Russians want to get back their influence in New Delhi, taking advantage of America's opportunist flirtation with Islamabad.

Even if the Americans succeed in cobbling together a coalition government - which is possible, at least temporarily - it will be powerless to do anything to solve the frightful problems that confront a shattered country that lacks even the most basic institutions or infrastructure. After two decades of war, most of the doctors have left and 85 percent of the teachers have either emigrated or been killed. In 1993, 60 percent of power lines did not work. After the depradations of the Taliban and American bombing, the situation now must be far worse. The central bank is printing paper afghanis without any real backing. The stage is set for an explosion of inflation and a further collapse of already low living standards.

No amount of American aid will serve to stabilise the situation. Afghanistan, in its ruined state, is a bottomless pit into which billions of dollars could be poured with little or no effect. Moreover, since the "broad-based" government contains many different groups and individuals, everyone will extend an open palm, expecting to see it full. Not very much will ever be seen by the poor people of Afghanistan, who will soon learn to hate the government and its foreign backers. And in Afghanistan, political opposition swiftly expresses itself in the language of Kalasnikovs.

To compound America's difficulties, Russia is already interfering to back its friends in the Northern Alliance and block the entry of former Taliban in a broad-based government. Despite all the public smiles and hand shakes, the interests between Russia and the USA in this region are antagonistic. Hence the speed with which Moscow dispatched its men - at least a hundred armed men from the strangely named Ministry for Emergency Situations - to Kabul. The excuse was that they were being sent for "humanitarian" purposes. Naturally! Aren't they all? But the real reason is clear to all but the blindest of the blind.

Even without interference from outside powers (not just Russia and America, but Iran, Pakistan and India - all of whom are backing their favourites), the Northern Alliance is in any case a very unstable coalition of disparate groups and individuals: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, which will tend to clash. The old leader Rabbani has been sidelined, which threatens to split the Tajiks into the supporters of the ex-President and those of the murdered general Ahmed Shah Masoud. On the other hand, the Uzbek leader general Dostum has said he will not recognise the government. The Pushtoons feel they have been discriminated against.

Under such circumstances, the idea that an unstable and divided government in Kabul could manage to control the country and establish anything like stability, is a nonsense. In order to keep some kind of control over the situation, the Americans and their allies will have to station troops in Afghanistan for some time. As The Economist points out: "Foreign troops, coupled perhaps with Afghan forces, may well be required to maintain order in Kabul and other cities wrested from Taliban control". But that is just what the Russians attempted to do twenty years ago, with the result we know. What this means is the occupation of Afghanistan under another name. The stage is thus set for a conflict that can drag on for years. This perspective will not be substantially changed even if bin Laden and mullah Omar are captured or killed.

Ferment in Central Asia

The Americans are still facing considerable difficulties both inside Afghanistan and on a world scale, especially the Middle East, which has been destabilised by their actions. Inside Afghanistan there is no stability. The so-called broad based government cobbled together under American pressure will not last long. Already the Uzbek leader Dostum has refused to collaborate with it. There is no possibility of such a ramshackle coalition establishing its rule over all Afghanistan. It will have enough problems maintaining itself in power. That can only be done on the basis of outside military support. That means that the USA and its allies (mainly Britain and probably Turkey) will be left holding the baby. And this is some baby!

The whole of Central Asia is extremely unstable. American imperialism, by its clumsy intervention in Afghanistan, has further aggravated this instability. The Financial Times (30/ 10/ 01) described Central Asia as "a region plagued by poverty, deteriorating health care and social services, serious environmental degradation and authoritarian governments."

There are explosive contradictions everywhere which act as the seeds for future wars and conflicts. Islam Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, is authoritarian and corrupt, and very unpopular. The opposition Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was linked to Afghanistan, where their guerrillas had bases. But by, in effect, supporting him, the Americans have added to the internal contradictions. Karimov has ambitions to dominate the whole region. There are 25 million Uzbeks out of the total population of 57 million in Central Asia.

In particular, there are tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which are mirrored inside Afghanistan in the conflicts between Dostum and the Tajiks within the Northern Alliance that surfaced even during the recent fighting. Together with the greed of the imperialists to possess the oil and gas of Central Asia and the Caspian, this is an explosive mixture.

It is inevitable that the ruling clique and the military elite of Pakistan will soon be manoeuvering to get back their lost positions in Afghanistan, posing as the champions of the Pushtoons. But by interering in the affairs of their neighbour they will further destabilise the situation and create the conditions for the war to spread to Pakistan itself.

Feet of clay

The long period of economic upswing, together with the division of the world between US imperialism and the USSR, provided the material basis for this relative stability in world relations. The reason why they could get this so-called peace was because the balance of terror between mighty Stalinist Russia on the one hand and mighty American imperialism on the other. But now everything has changed. The emergence of US imperialism as the sole major world power has created an unprecedented world situation.

A new balance of forces has been developing over the past decade. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union the two super powers, the USA and the USSR balanced each other out and this provided a relative stability to the world situation. There could have been no question of the USA daring to attack Iraq or bomb Yugoslavia. The disappearance of the Soviet Union as a super power has allowed the United States to emerge as the sole world power and given it the confidence to develop a more aggressive foreign policy.

Now this imperialist arrogance has been increased to the nth degree. The war in Afghanistan represents a new twist in the world crisis of capitalism. America is the mightiest imperialist power in world history. It holds in its hands the most diabolical and sophisticated means of destruction. Yet it stands on feet of clay.

US imperialism has waged more wars than anyone else - mainly against small weak countries that cannot fight back: Libya, Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua. They waged a bloody and destructive war against Vietnam for 13 years, which they lost through the opposition of the masses in the USA and the collapse of the US army in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, US imperialism is preparing to intervene everywhere. Having given the government of Colombia 1.3 billion to fight the guerrillas, it has now increased its military aid to the government of the Philippines from $2 million a year to over $100 million. This is only the start. George W. Bush, who was elected on an overtly isolationist ticket, is now preparing to intervene militarily against Iraq, or Somalia, or Sudan - or almost anyone else whose name he can remember.

Bush is considerably more stupid than Clinton, who, apart from personal affairs, was extremely cautious. His successor in the White House apparently is not inclined to adventures of the Monica Lewinsky variety, but is a far more dangerous kind of adventurer. Having achieved the great feat of capturing Kandahar (with Afghan troops), he now imagines that he is all-powerful. He thinks he can do anything. But he has some painful lessons to learn.

"Fools rush in...."

Ever since Vietnam, the Pentagon has been opposed to committing American troops to a ground war. But sooner or later this is unavoidable, because they cannot achieve their objectives by air power alone. Colin Powell, who is a former general and a bit more perceptive than George W. Bush (which is really not difficult), believes that America should only intervene when it has overwhelming force and an exit strategy. Given the colossal firepower of US imperialism, this is an extraordinarily timid position. That it should be put forward by a man like Powell - who is obviously grooming himself for the White House - reveals the deep fears of the strategists of US imperialism of the consequences of future American involvement in foreign adventures. It shows an awareness of the limits of the power of US imperialism. However, this does not seem to have penetrated the skull of the present President of the USA.

In Afghanistan, America has neither overwhelming force nor a coherent exit strategy - that is, a fallback position for getting out if things start to get rough. More sober-minded people are already sounding a warning - and not only Powell. A British admiral recently warned the Americans that the position in Afghanistan is still very fragile. To say this is only to state the obvious. But Bush cannot see what is obvious. In general he only sees what he wants to see. Words of triumph are clearly inappropriate here, because the Americans have yet to fight anybody. The real hostilities in Afghanistan have yet to commence.

Anyone with a memory will recall that the problems for the Russian army came after they thought they had conquered the whole country through overwhelming military power. Now the Americans have the same delusion. It is not a question of the Taliban alone. If it were just that, things would be a lot simpler. But the Americans are making new enemies all the time.

Such is the fragmented nature of Afghan society, that by interfering in government, the Americans will necessarily alienate those sections who believe they have not got what they deserve. This has already happened with Dostum. More importantly, the Pushtoons were not seriously represented in the horse-trading in Bonn, and the Pushtoons, apart from being the biggest national group, are the main base of the Taliban. Thus, the possibility emerges of an anti-American bloc, of which the Taliban will be only one part. The main driving-force will not be religious fanaticism but Afghan and Pushtoon nationalism and the traditional hostility to foreign domination, even if it is exercised through a puppet government in Kabul.

Despite the bragging and boasting from Washington, the fact remains that the Americans have still not achieved their declared goals: bin Laden and mullah Omar remain at liberty, and the Taliban forces, though they have abandoned the cities, have not been destroyed. The television shows pictures of Northern Alliance troops allegedly hunting for al Qaida bases in the mountains. But the pictures show cheerful NA soldiers firing aimlessly at mountain-sides. Good television, but hardly serious combat.

The Economist (1/ 12/ 2001) confirmed what we have been arguing for some time:

"Another reason for American caution is that the usefulness as a fighting force of the Northern Alliance' mixture of Tajiks, Uzbeks and others [....] may now be drawing to an end. In the country's southern half, dominated by the Pushtoon ethnic group to which the Taliban leaders belong, it is still much less clear who America's natural allies are."

Having gained their main objective, the Northern Alliance troops will not be eager to risk their lives fighting their way through tunnels in the Pushtoon south, where they will be seen not as liberators but foreign aggressors. If the Americans want bin Laden, they will have to go and get him themselves. This will not be an easy task. The Americans think that bin Laden is based in the Tora Bora mountains near Jalalabad, which they are bombing. But nobody knows where bin Laden is. The whole area is full of tunnels, and there are numerous mountain paths leading to Pakistan whereby their quarry could escape.

According to reports in the serious press, bin Laden possesses very good intelligence about American intentions and has even been able to move his men out hours before US bombing attacks. If so, then a large part of the effect of the bombing will be lost.

Thus, despite all the efforts of the Americans to avoid committing troops on the ground in Afghanistan, sooner or later they will have to do so. So far they have showed extreme caution. The US tank column mentioned at the beginning of the article has halted before Kandahar and has not entered the city. Evidently even Kandahar is not yet entirely under control. But in the mountains and villages of the Pushtoon lands the situation is far worse. John Pike, of Global Security, a Washington defence consultancy, reckons that the Pentagon is preparing to fight on until the Spring.

The prospect of having to do some real fighting as opposed to dropping bombs from a great height is concentrating at least some minds in Washington. Having kept the British out till now, there are signs that "America's best friend" will at last be invited to the party. This suggests that fighting is on the order of the day. When it comes to casualties, as opposed to TV coverage, British troops (or any others) are most welcome to participate. Tony Blair is delighted. He has been impatient to send the British army into Afghanistan to show that Britain is still a force to be reckoned with. He has forgotten the old proverb: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."