Afghanistan: "The Marines have landed"

Wednesday, 28 November 2001
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"The Marines have landed and the situation is under control." This kind of headline was very common in the 1930s, when the USA had a habit of intervening with tedious regularity in the territory of small states in Central America. Now history seems to be repeating itself - but with a difference. The marines referred to here are, of course, American. While the US marine corps is grabbing the headlines of the world press, a couple of hundred British marines are kicking their heels on the outskirts of Bagram airstrip, while a couple of thousand of their comrades are kept hanging around on army bases in Britain, unloved and unwanted, while Tony Blair fumes in impotent humiliation.

"The Marines have landed and the situation is under control." This kind of headline was very common in the 1930s, when the USA had a habit of intervening with tedious regularity in the territory of small states in Central America. Now history seems to be repeating itself - but with a difference.

The marines referred to here are, of course, American. While the US marine corps is grabbing the headlines of the world press, a couple of hundred British marines are kicking their heels on the outskirts of Bagram airstrip, while a couple of thousand of their comrades are kept hanging around on army bases in Britain, unloved and unwanted, while Tony Blair fumes in impotent humiliation.

George W. Bush, in what he perceives to be his moment of glory, does not wish to share the honours with anyone else. The "special relationship" with Britain is forgotten. The centre stage must be occupied by the transatlantic Caesar. All the world must gaze in admiration. He appears to imagine that everything in Afghanistan is over except the shouting. And he is already looking around for a new target. It does not take much intelligence to see which target he has in his sights.

"Saddam Hussein must do this, and Saddam Hussein must do that." This is the language of ultimatums that invariably signals a war. The fact that Iraq - like Afghanistan - is supposed to be a sovereign state matters not at all. And if Saddam Hussein will not do as George W. Bush wills? What then? "He'll find out," mutters the American President, darkly. Threats, ultimatums, menaces. This is the style of George W. Bush - the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.

Over the past few weeks, George W. has developed quite a sense of his own importance. "Now they must all sit up and take notice of me!" He seems to be muttering to himself. But he does not see that, even as he speaks, dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.

The situation in Afghanistan - notwithstanding the presence of the US marines - is not under control. It is, in fact, in a state of uncontrollable and growing instability. Under heavy pressure from Washington, the Northern Alliance has agreed to go to Germany to participate in a conference on the setting up of an "interim government". No-one doubts that this conference is completely unrepresentative. Most serious observers are sceptical about the prospects of these talks: "Most experts believe that the conference will be an exercise in futility," says the Asia Times, "as it will take place without Taliban representation".

The Northern Alliance, which controls the only fighting force on the ground capable of fighting the Taliban to some extent, is confronted by a handful of American stooges, "led" by an 87-year old man who has not set foot in Afghanistan since 1973. It is hoped that the presence of this geriatric relic will prove irresistible to the Pushtuns. But Zahir Shah has no more credit among the present generation of Afghans than the clique of money-grubbing exiles who have spent the last ten or twenty years intriguing in Peshawar. To add to Washington's difficulties, former president Burhanudin Rabbani has stated, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, that he does not want to se a UN-backed interim coalition governing Afghanistan.

It is always unwise to try to skin a tiger before he has been killed. While rival politicians and warlords squabble in Bonn about the composition of a hypothetical "interim government", bloody events are unfolding in the country they are attempting to carve up between them. The latest events show that the Taliban is still far from dead. From the very first we pointed out that the Taliban's hold on power was not so strong as many in the West supposed. We said that the Taliban's invulnerability was a myth. This was shown to be correct far more quickly than we imagined. But now we see the other side.

The old myth of the Taliban's invulnerability has recently been replaced by another, even more unsound, myth: that the conquests of the Northern Alliance show them to be a formidable fighting force. In actual fact, the swift advance of the Alliance was due to the fact that the Taliban, in most cases, withdrew without a fight. In recent days, however, we have seen a very different picture emerge. In those places where the Taliban put up resistance: like Kunduz, Kandahar and Maidan Shah, they have shown that they are quite capable of giving their enemies a bloody nose.

As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that the Northern Alliance is not the effective fighting force many believed it to be. As soon as the Taliban forces staged a counter-attack in Maidan Shah, the Alliance forces scattered like a disorganised rabble. It is true that later on the Taliban stopped fighting, but this was as a result of a deal, not a military victory. A similar deal put an end to the bloody siege of Kunduz in the north, but only after the defending forces, although severely bombed by the Americans, had inflicted considerable damage on the Alliance. This is a warning of what is to come.

It has now emerged that the Alliance has been receiving more active help from the Russians than Moscow has been prepared to admit in public, and that the Indian army has also been involved. The London Evening Standard reported on November 23:

"The reverses suffered by the Northern Alliance fighters suggest how much they have relied on the air support of American B-52 bombers and US Navy fighter-bombers. On the ground they have received tanks, personnel carriers, ammunition, spares and fuel from the Russians. It has even been suggested that some guns and tanks have been manned by Russian mercenaries. Some 300 special forces under the command of a brigadier from the Indian army have been training and advising Northern Alliance forces since the summer.

"It is now believed that Russians and Indians wrote the rudimentary fire plans or even directed the final advance on the key towns of Mazar-i-Sharif and Pul-i-Khamri. The Russian government bought 50 new T-55 series tanks from the Ukrainian army and shipped them via Uzbekistan to the Alliance forces for their offensive on Mazar and Kunduz."

The participation of Indian troops must have caused alarm in Islamabad. And the Americans will be watching closely the activities of their Russian "allies" who have now succeeded in installing themselves in Kabul, after a delay of ten years - one of those little ironies in which Afghan history is so rich. Doubtless this is one other reason why Washington has rushed its troops into Afghanistan.

Kandahar, like Kunduz, has suffered terrible punishment from the air. Yet the defending forces have shown considerable courage and resilience. This morning it was announced that US warplanes had bombed a compound "near Kandahar" where the Taliban were supposed to meet. But one of their so-called smart bombs has again destroyed a Northern Alliance position. And the Taliban have yet again stated that Mullah Omar is still alive. In fact, the Americans have no more idea of his whereabouts than those of bin Laden.

The fact that Kandahar is still holding out, despite the terrible damage inflicted by repeated air strikes is causing consternation in Washington. It was not supposed to be like this. One blast of the trumpet, and the walls were supposed to fall, allowing the US marines to stage a triumphal entry into the Taliban stronghold, preferably dragging Mullah Omar on a chain for the benefit of CNN news. But nothing of the sort has happened. According to the latest reports, Mullah Omar has gone into hiding, having handed over control of operations in Kandahar to his deputy. This is the most frustrating outcome for America. To take Kandahar and lose their principal prey would be like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.

There can be no doubt that Kandahar will eventually fall, though not before inflicting serious casualties on the enemy. There are reports of a strong force of the Northern Alliance advancing on the city from Kabul. The Americans are attacking it with bombers and cobra helicopters from the Fifth fleet. They have also established a forward base near the city. But it is clear that there is a good deal of theatre in the latest US activities. They make a lot of noise about victory, but real victory still eludes them. When this fact becomes clear to the people of the United States, the results will not be very pleasing to the man in the White House who promised what he could not deliver.

The resistance in Kandahar must be giving the Pentagon serious food for thought. It should be remembered that the Taliban is fighting under the most unfavourable conditions. They are not at all equipped to fight a conventional war of fixed positions against the US army. Their most effective weapons (apart from the 300 or so Scud missiles, which they have not yet used) consist of ancient lorries with heavy machine guns attached to them. The destruction of such an enemy should be child's play for the mightiest military power on earth. Yet they do not appear anxious to attack Kandahar, protesting that "this is not our intention".

The Americans claim to have practically destroyed the enemy's command structure. So how can they continue to resist? There is only one explanation. Napoleon explained long ago that morale is a decisive factor in war. Whereas the Taliban in the north were in hostile territory, inhabited by non-Pushtun peoples: the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, whom they had brutally oppressed, they are now fighting on their home ground, with their backs to the wall. They have nowhere to retreat to.

The message was rammed home by the bloody events in the north. Having persuaded a large number of Taliban troops to surrender to save their lives, it is now clear that their captors have no intention of respecting the deal. The recent massacre of prisoners at the fort of Quali Janghi is conclusive proof of this. It is alleged that the prisoners staged an uprising, having smuggled weapons into the prison. The first question is how they got hold of the weapons. Were they not searched and disarmed by the Northern Alliance? This seems extremely unlikely.

Even if it were true that the prisoners had risen, such a desperate action, with no real prospect of success, can only be explained in one way. Only men convinced that they were going to die and therefore had nothing to lose would have taken such a step. The argument that these were all religious fanatics, anxious to become martyrs, does not make sense, for in that case, why did they surrender in the first place? No. These men resorted to a desperate action because they believed their deaths were already guaranteed. And they must have had good reason for believing this.

We can never know the truth of this, because the prisoners - all 500 of them - were slaughtered to the last man. Dead men, as we know, tell no tales. What we know for certain is that the prisoners were bombed from the air by US planes, despite the fact that they appear to have had hostages. The Americans assure us that the hostages were killed, including at least one CIA agent. What a CIA man was doing in the prison is not known, nor can it be known now, since if he was not killed by the prisoners, he was certainly killed by American bombs. However, the question remains as to why the prisoners would choose to kill a hostage who would only be of use to them alive.

The slaughter of 500 prisoners, most of whom must have been unarmed, is contrary to all the laws of war. The Red Cross has already expressed its deep concern that the terms of the Geneva Convention were violated. But the reaction from Washington shows that the leaders of the civilised world were not displeased by the result of their handiwork. Donald Rumsfeld could scarcely conceal his glee: "Our hope," he said, "is that they will be imprisoned and dealt with as people who have caused mass murder in the world." (My emphasis - AW) Well, they have indeed been "dealt with". And since Rumsfeld has expressed not one word of concern, let alone regret, one must assume that this war crime (for that is what it is) has his wholehearted support.

This latest incident - coming hard on the heels of the humiliating exclusion of British troops from Afghanistan - will further sour relations between Washington and London. Beneath the thin veneer of solidarity, there are growing disagreements on how to proceed. As the Evening Standard reports:

"Privately [British] ministers are furious that the US is not reining in its proxy fighters and there was incredulity among some when US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to embrace the idea of the foreign fighters being wiped out." And this was before the massacre at Quali Janghi.

The reality is that US imperialism is determined to exterminate its enemies. The Independent (November 21) explains:

"In effect, while denying that it would condone killings or massacres, the US is giving the Northern Alliance a free hand to deal with its enemies as it will. We have seen too often how brutally it can behave."

It appears that Mullah Omar had agreed to the surrender of Kunduz if the Alliance guaranteed that non-Afghans fighting with the Taliban would not be killed and if the surrender were witnessed by representatives from the United Nations. But all promises were subsequently broken. There are well-documented reports of the Northern Alliance shooting down Taliban soldiers who were trying to surrender. Refugees who witnessed the killings near Kunduz described how a group of Taliban troops who were walking towards Alliance positions to surrender were surrounded and shot on the spot. The figure of those killed is unclear but was anything between 150 and 300.

In Kunduz, there have been reports of Arab Taliban suicide fighters killing themselves and their attackers by blowing themselves up. Yet a large part of this bloodshed would have been avoided if the Americans and their Northern Alliance proxies had agreed to allow the Taliban to surrender in return for their lives. By their actions, the US policy makers have revealed the truly brutal nature of American imperialism, its callous indifference to bloodshed and suffering, and the complete hypocrisy of all the talk about "humanitarianism".

The trouble is that such atrocities will have serious consequences - and not positive ones for the Americans. It will harden the minds of the Taliban, not soften them. It will intensify the desire for revenge. And it will confirm the Taliban fighters in Kandahar and elsewhere in their belief that they must not expect mercy but must fight to the death. This is what is stiffening the resistance of the Taliban and encouraging them to hold out against all the odds.

There are other reasons why Kandahar continues to hold out. So far, the besieging forces are mainly made up of local warlords - divided into three separate factions. This rabble - more akin to bandits than a coherent force - is guided by the prospect of loot and what they can grab when the Taliban falls. Such people are unlikely to want to risk their lives in serious combat. They are more like a pack of vultures waiting for the American bombs to do the hard work of killing, thus allowing them to pick the corpse clean.

The Americans have so far enjoyed the luxury of letting Afghans do the fighting for them. But as time goes on, and the field of operations moves south and east to the Pushtun areas, the enthusiasm of the Northern Alliance troops will cool off. This is one reason why the Americans have finally decided to send in their own troops. President Bush warns his fellow Americans that casualties are inevitable. But they do not really comprehend the seriousness of the message. Surely this will all be over by Christmas? From such unreasonable optimism only bitter disappointment can flow.

Even when Kandahar falls - as it must - the war will not end but only continue on a different plane. The latest reports confirm what we have predicted earlier. The Taliban and Al-Qaida forces are regrouping in the hills and mountains. They are dug into inaccessible caves and tunnels, of which there are at least a thousand, ironically built with CIA funds at the time of the war against the USSR. These bunkers, specially built to resist bomb blasts, are full of weaponry: grenades, guns, rocket launchers. The Taliban are establishing contacts with the local Pushtun leaders, convincing them that their country is once more being overrun by foreign infidels. The ground is being prepared for a prolonged guerrilla war.

The Americans are preparing to send their troops into these remote areas, where they will come into contact with a hostile population. It will not be easy to distinguish between Pushtun guerrillas and civilians. They admit that they do not have the intelligence they require to find bin Laden or Mullah Omar. They face a long, hard winter in Afghanistan.

All eyes are now focused on the political scene and the attempt to cobble together an "interim government". But this is easier to say than to do. The different factions, ethnic groups, tribes, clans and warlords are divided by conflicting interests, traditional enmities and deep suspicion. In its haste to get a solution and get out of Afghanistan, Washington is leaning heavily on all the participants. But American bullying will not solve the problem, and will make it worse.

There is an old proverb: "Marry in haste and repent at leisure." What we are witnessing in Bonn is an attempt to organise a shotgun wedding between reluctant partners. Any government that results from this will be inherently unstable and will break down, causing a more violent and volatile situation than before. The only hope of keeping the rival factions in line is through the presence of American troops for quite a long time.

After more than two decades of war, Afghanistan is a deeply fractured society. As someone recently said, it is not a state but a geographical entity. This tragic situation has been brought about mainly by the interference of foreign powers who have treated the country as a theatre for the pursuit of their selfish interests. The present situation is no different. The interference of American imperialism in the affairs of Afghanistan will solve nothing, but will only usher in a new period of bloodshed, suffering and instability. The losers, as always, will be the ordinary people.