Into the whirlwind - The first week of the war in Afghanistan

Alan Woods reports from Russia on the developments during the first week of the war on Afghanistan and particularly the way in which Russia is advancing her interests in the whole of Central Asia and the Caucasus on the back of the 'war on terrorism'. Woods also outlines the difficulties which the US will increasingly find in this campaign.

The world situation is unfolding with a kind of fatal inevitability. The general pattern corresponds fairly exactly to that which we predicted after the September 11 events. But as the process acquires increasing momentum, all kinds of cross-currents and uncontrollable eddies will emerge, with unpredictable results.

The planners in Washington imagine that they now have everything under control. Their airplanes have complete domination of the skies over Afghanistan, and are systematically pulverising their targets with no loss of American lives. The governments of the entire world have closed ranks around them. Even Russia and China. There are no dissenting voices. Opinion polls in the USA reveal massive public support for the Bush administration.

Yet this reading of the situation is extremely superficial. In general, despite their colossal technological prowess and military might, the American governing circles are distinguished precisely by their superficial grasp of the reality of world politics. They lack the centuries old experience of European diplomacy and behave like vulgar upstarts who believe that muscle power and a big bank account can solve all problems. This is a sure recipe for disaster.

In general, the US imperialists give the impression that they do not know what they are doing. In the few weeks since September 11, they have changed their declared war aims half a dozen times. This fact in itself suggests that they are about to stumble into a situation which they cannot control, and all the technology in the world will not help them get out of it.

Here in Moscow, I discussed the position with veteran Canadian correspondent Fred Weir, who is widely respected for his extensive and insightful knowledge of Russian home and foreign policy. He pointed out to me that the Soviet military had exactly the same idea as the Americans when they first went into Afghanistan in 1979. It was supposed to be a limited strike carried out by Soviet special forces to eliminate the Afghan leader Amin and install Babrak Karmal as a puppet of Moscow. It was never the intention to stay in Afghanistan after the assassination of Amin. One of the Soviet generals in charge of the operation told Fred Weir that they were confident that the well-trained Afghan army of 50,000 men could deal with any rebellion, and that they would be able to withdraw almost immediately.

Like the Americans now, they believed they were in full control of the situation. But things turned out very differently. They found themselves daily harassed by brigands who stole their equipment and shot at their troops. They had to retaliate. Then one incident led to another, and the whole infernal spiral commenced, which only finally ended with Russia's humiliating withdrawal in 1989.

The Russians blundered into Afghanistan, got stuck in a trap and paid a heavy price. Now the Americans are poised to make a similar mistake. The vast superiority of their weaponry and intelligence equipment, and their military successes in the Gulf War and Kosovo, has convinced them that they can succeed where Moscow failed. This is a serious mistake.

In the Gulf War they were fighting a conventional war in a terrain ideal for the massive deployment of troops and armour. In Kosovo, they were simply lucky that they could confine their activities to massive aerial bombardment, with no real risk of taking casualties. In both cases, the betrayal of Moscow handed their enemies to them on a plate. But this is very different.

The natural conditions in Afghanistan are not at all suitable for the deployment of a modern army. It is a land of rugged and impenetrable mountains, with almost no roads. Most of the year, the days are scorching hot and the nights freezing cold. There is a wind, which became known to the Russians as the "Afghanets", which blows in from the desert, carrying large quantities of fine red sand. The effects of this on the computerised equipment of the US army can only be imagined. Moreover, the hostilities have commenced in the onset of winter, when the conditions will make helicopter operations difficult, if not impossible.

But worse than the landscape and physical conditions is the human environment in which they will have to operate. They will enter a society, the social fabric of which has been badly fractured by long years of war. This is a country where, even in the most favourable circumstances, the central government never completely succeeded in imposing its writ throughout the country. There are many fault lines left over by history: ethnic divisions between Pushtoons, Tadjiks, Uzbeks and Khazars; religious differences between Sunnis and Shias and numerous sub-divisions and sects; tribal and clan rivalries, even among the dominant Pushtoons. These were always present. But particularly in the last decade, they have acquired an extremely venomous and explosive character. It is in this climate that Washington wishes to set up a government of national unity to replace the Taliban!

Moscow's manoeuvres

An apparently new element in the world equation is the firm support for America emanating from Moscow. Right from the start Putin has expressed virtually unconditional support for Washington and its "anti-terrorist coalition". So enthusiastic is he that there has even been speculation about Russia joining Nato. However, a closer examination shows that things are not always what they seem.

The terrorist outrage in America was most convenient for Vladimir Putin, whose support in the opinion polls was beginning to decline. Russia has been involved in a war in Chechya since 1999. The war was stepped up following a series of mysterious terrorist bombings in Moscow in September of that year. The authorship of these bombing has never been clarified. They were blamed on Chechen terrorists, but no Chechen group has ever claimed them, and it is widely believed by informed circles in Russia that the bombs were planted by the Russian secret services.

The second Chechen war has dragged on inconclusively, which says something about the appalling state of the Russian army. While there is no widespread public opposition to the war, the mood of the Russian population is decidedly unenthusiastic.

Therefore Putin saw the attack on the World Trade Centre as an opportunity. He has played his cards most skilfully and so far has extracted the maximum benefit, while in reality giving very little in return. Overnight, all western criticisms of Russia's actions in Chechnya have ceased. The "democratic" western media have fallen silent, and respected human rights organisations find that they are no longer welcome in the editor's office if they come with denunciations of Russian atrocities in Chechnya.

Suddenly, Vladimir Putin, who has systematically undermined democratic and trade union rights in Russia, has become a respected leader of western democratic civilization. The representatives of the World Bank and IMF are falling over themselves to help Russia's finances. Putin has seen that the Americans have thorn money at Pakistan and now would like a little of the same treatment. According to some estimates, in 2003, Russia will have to pay the trifling sum of nineteen billion dollars in debt repayment to the West - that is, the equivalent of Russia's entire state budget for that year. A little relief on this score would be welcome indeed. For are we not all representatives of western Christian values? And does not the Bible say:"And forgive us our debts?"

In an apogee of enthusiasm, Chaney, the chief American trade representative, publicly stated in Moscow that he hoped to get Russia into the World Trade Organisation early next year. This is news indeed! Before this, nobody seriously entertained the idea of Russia being admitted to the WTO in the near future - much less "early next year". How times change!

Some have even speculated about Russia joining Nato. But that is nonsense. The very idea that Russia would accept a unified military command that would potentially place its forces under American control is simply preposterous. Does anyone imagine that the Russians would accept the regular inspection of their military installations by foreigners? In any case, the expansion of Nato up to the borders of China would produce new tensions and dangers.

Moreover, the French and British who have so far played the leading role in Europe would not like to see themselves displaced by this particular giant. In fact, the real intention of Putin in speaking about Nato was quite different. What he actually said was that Nato must lose its military character and become just a political organisation. That is a most amusing suggestion. Nato - as Putin is well aware - is an aggressive military alliance under US control. If it were to disarm it would lose its very reason for existence. It would end up a toothless tiger like the United Nations. This would suit Russia very well. But, as the Russian proverb goes, no devil has ever cut off its own claws. The Nato spokespersons applaud politely - and carry on their business as usual.

What is Moscow giving away in exchange for all these favours? Putin has given a lot of verbal backing to the Americans - which has not been received in Moscow with universal support. But practical assistance is almost nothing. They may give some intelligence information. After all, they are tolerably well acquainted with Afghanistan. And they have lifted their objection to the US military's use of bases in Uzbekistan. But they have pointedly refused to allow the Americans to use any Russian bases. There is good reason for this reticence.

Despite all the talk of a united front and a warming of relations between Russia and America, the two sides are still deeply divided by a clash of interests on a global scale, and especially in Central Asia. Of course, it would suit Moscow for the Taliban to be defeated and driven out of power. But is would not suit the Russians at all for America to take control of Afghanistan and strengthen its position in Central Asia. Like all the rest of Russia, the regimes of Central Asia are deeply corrupt, with dictatorial regimes. Popular discontent, which can express itself in the outward form of Islamic fundamentalism, is ruthlessly crushed. But since Russia has very important economic and strategic interests in the region, it cannot afford to see them overthrown. Thus, Moscow's aims in the present conflict are clear: they want America to overthrow the Taliban, and they will make use of the situation to extract the maximum concessions from the West. But they do not want to see an increase in the US presence in Central Asia even temporarily. The Russians are well aware that once the Americans get a foot in the door, it will not be easy to get them out again. Therefore, despite all the rhetoric about "warmer relations", the conflict between Russia and America remains.

Even Moscow's "gesture" of removing its opposition to the Americans using Uzbekistan is more apparent than real, since Uzbekistan would probably have allowed the use of their bases anyway. The Uzbek regime is in serious trouble and facing an insurgency with Islamic guerrillas, who are being backed by the Taliban. It is a particularly vicious authoritarian regime and increasingly unpopular with its own people. The Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov has a tendency to arrest poor people who dare to speak out against his regime. This, of course, makes him a first-rate candidate for America's coalition of democratic forces against the Taliban.

The Russians, who have a far better understanding of the situation in Central Asia than the Americans, realise only too well the potential for destabilisation of the whole region, which fills them with horror. Partly in retaliation for the activities of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban have trained two or three thousand Uzbek guerrillas who are conducting a systematic war against the regime. These forces now control whole swathes of Uzbekistan. Last year Islamic guerrillas came close to the Uzbek capital Tashkent and killed at least 200 Uzbek soldiers. This event must have set the alarm bells ringing, not only in Karimov's palace but in the Kremlin.

The prospect of new Taliban regimes along its borders in Central Asia must fill the Russian ruling circle with dread. The whole area is vital to its interests - both strategic and economic. Karimov, increasingly desperate, hopes that the Americans will solve his problems for him, and Moscow is not reluctant to see this happen. What occurs the day after the Taliban are toppled is another matter altogether.

The fact is that the Russians are in touch with reality, whereas the Americans are not. They have yet to grasp the consequences of their intervention in Afghanistan. They are stirring up forces of which they have only a vague awareness, and which cannot be contained by high-altitude bombing. Like a cornered animal, the Taliban is showing its teeth. They have threatened Pakistan with war - which is an unreal prospect. They have also threatened Uzbekistan with war. This also is ruled out - in the sense of a formal military offensive. But to step up the infiltration of guerrilla fighters into Uzbekistan is entirely possible and indeed probable. Certainly, the Russians are taking the threat seriously.

The situation in neighbouring Tajikistan is hanging by a thread. Realising the danger, the Russians have stationed 30,000 regular troops - 10,000 of them on the border with Afghanistan. This border is long and porous. On the other side are the troops of the Northern Alliance, which Russia has been backing against the Taliban - together with Iran, India and the Central Asian republics. There is a strong rumour in Moscow that troops of Russia's 201st Motorised Rifle Division, stationed on the frontier, are participating in military action against the Taliban. These reports cannot be substantiated and Moscow denies all direct military involvement in Afghanistan, but they may well be correct. Moscow wants to give every possible support to the Northern Alliance, which it would like to see in a dominating position in any new government - in order to reduce American influence in the country.

Russia and the Caucasus

Meanwhile, there are signs that the Russians are taking advantage of the situation to press forward in the Caucasus. Everything we wrote on this subject in The New World Disorder has been shown to be correct. Two weeks ago, Moscow issued an ultimatum to the government of Georgia to hand over immediately all terrorists based on Georgian soil, or face the consequences. By terrorists, they have in mind the Chechen guerrillas who are based in Georgia, and who regularly cross the border to attack Russian soldiers in Chechnya. After years of fighting which have laid waste most of Chechnya, there are large numbers of Chechen refugees in camps across the frontier in Georgia. Among them there are undoubtedly a number of guerrillas. But the weak government in Tiblisi is in no position to do anything about this. They do not control the situation, and Moscow is well aware of this. Yet Russia delivers an ultimatum to Georgia, at a moment when the attention of the world is diverted by events in Afghanistan.

Not long ago, the Russians signed an agreement, brokered by the Americans, to pull out of Georgia (supposedly a sovereign state) the troops that remained there since the collapse of the USSR. Such a move does not suit Moscow's interests at all. They wish to tighten their grip on the Caucasus and Central Asia, not weaken it. And they have watched with growing indignation the spread of American influence in countries that they still regard as "our territory". The war in Chechnya is being fought to maintain the Caucasus under Russian control and keep the Americans out. They have managed to get Armenia on their side, but Georgia was persisting in trying to become a client state of the USA and even raised the question of joining Nato - something Moscow would never agree to.

The Americans have long been manoeuvring in the Caucasus and Central Asia to get their hands on the huge oil and gas reserves of the area and to reduce the influence of Russia and Iran, utilising the services of their Turkish allies and big US oil companies. Until recently, the tide seemed to be flowing in their direction. But the events of September 11 have thrown the process into reverse. Seizing the initiative, the Russians are putting heavy pressure on Georgia - a key factor in the equation. The Americans, preoccupied with Afghanistan and the famous "anti-terrorist coalition" have played right into Moscow's hands.

President Bush has stated that any country that harbours terrorists will be considered as a terrorist state and treated accordingly. Moscow took the President at his word and issued what amounts to an ultimatum to Georgia. And things did not halt there. Georgia is seriously divided along ethnic lines, with rebel republics being established in several areas, notably Abkhazia (capital Sukhumi) and Adjaria (capital Batumi). The Russians have been supporting the break-away republics as a means of putting pressure on Tiblisi. A few days ago, a UN helicopter was shot down over Abkhazia and its crew of observers killed. Subsequently, on Tuesday October 9, a group of Chechen and Georgian fighters raided a village in Abkhazia, killing 14 people. Abkhazian officials are claiming that Chechen and Georgian fighters have invaded the Kodor Gorge region of Abkhazia.

The build-up of incidents allows Moscow to make threatening noises. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters in Moscow: "Now it's becoming absolutely clear that the Georgian leadership either doesn't control the situation on its own territory or is manipulating the terrorists for its own goals." The stage is thus being set for a confrontation between Moscow and Tiblisi. It is not even excluded that matters could reach the point of a Russian invasion, though that seems unlikely. But at the very least, Moscow will use the situation to put unbearable pressure on Georgia to break its ties with America and move back into the Russian sphere of influence. The American "friends of Georgia" will shake their heads and look the other way. At the moment they have other - and bigger - fish to fry.

The temporary coincidence of interests between America and Russia will not last. They will come into conflict again and again. The present manoeuvres of both sides are like a game of chess on a global scale. Russia fears that it will be checkmated by America in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and moves its pieces accordingly. In the coming months and years the game will continue, with both sides trying to get an advantage. But this is no ordinary game, and every move will be accompanied with new wars, disasters and convulsions. Whichever side wins, the losers will be the poor people of the world. Neither group of gangsters has any interest in the deaths, the sufferings, and the agony of millions. Despite all the rhetoric about civilization, freedom, peace, humanitarianism and justice, the real motive is the lust for profit, and the strategic and military advantages which are merely the prior conditions for achieving the former.

America's dilemma

Despite their excessive confidence, the problems for the Americans have only just begun. It must not be forgotten that they have not yet achieved stabilisation in the Balkans, where new explosions are being prepared. Yet they are intent upon opening up, not just one new front, but several. So far, their bombing campaign is going well. They have inflicted considerable damage on the ground, with no loss of life on their part. The Taliban's airdefences were no great threat to begin with, but the use of high-altitude bombing renders them completely useless. The American air force has complete domination of the skies and now feels confident to carry out daytime bombing raids with total impunity. They intend to keep this up for days, perhaps weeks, until the Taliban's military infrastructure - and with it, all that remains of the civilian infrastructure also - is utterly destroyed. Only then will they consider sending in ground troops.

For the US army, this is quite good news. For the Afghan population it signifies a nightmare. The Moscow Times reported the words of a shop owner in Kabul:

"'Once again the dark storm is about to begin for us,' said vegetable vendor Jamal Uddin, shutting down his shop as the lights went out Tuesday night. 'We just sit in the dark, watching the sky, waiting to die.'" This is a very different picture to the sanitised versions presented on western television. Western public opinion is once again being subjected to the same old propaganda about smart bombs that leave innocent civilians unmolested. In practice, however, the American bombing campaign will destroy the last vestiges of semi-civilized existence in Afghanistan, killing many civilians and plunging what is left into conditions of indescribable misery.

The American generals and politicians persist in ignoring the real situation on the ground. For them it is merely a technical question. In Washington, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield cheerfully commented after the first day's bombing that the air strikes were so successful that US and British warplanes could fly at all hours with minimal concern about the threat to their safety (the safety of those on the ground was evidently not under consideration): "We believe now we are able to carry out operations more or less round the clock," he said.

And so the air raids will continue relentlessly, pounding Afghanistan into the dust. And all that the American and British pilots will have to worry about is a certain amount of lost sleep. All this will lull the west into a false sense of security. Their belief in the superiority of their modern weaponry, immense firepower and advanced technology, added to their conviction that they alone have right on their side, will further increase the impression that "we are in complete command of the situation" - until the situation takes control of them.

In reality, things are not so simple. Quite apart from the problems of war on the ground in a hostile environment, which we have already referred to, the attack on Afghanistan is stirring up problems all over the region and further afield. The plain fact is that the USA has no allies in this region it can trust. The support of the Pakistan regime is grudging and unstable. A prolongation of the war can lead to an explosive situation, which is why Musharraf has told the Americans in so many words: "What thou hast to do, do it quickly." Unfortunately, the task here posed is not of a nature that it can be done quickly. The unsettling effects for Pakistan, with its explosive ethnic mix and deep economic crisis, are only too clear.

To make matters worse, in order to obtain the support of Islamabad, Washington has been obliged to tilt its foreign policy towards Pakistan, and has thus caused grave offence to India. In the recent period, the USA was attempting to court India. When Clinton visited the area last year, he practically supported India against Pakistan on the thorny question of Kashmir. Now the Indians will suspect that the Americans have done a sharp about-turn and will have offered Musharraf concessions on the Kashmir question in exchange for his support over Afghanistan. This is typical of how imperialism treats the national question - using weak and oppressed nations as so much small change in their international dealings.

The Indians are furious at this betrayal, and although they will not protest too much in public, they will not be very enthusiastic about anything Washington asks them to do in future. Indian policy will incline more towards Russia, and thus further complicate US activities in the area. When the Taliban are overthrown, the Americans will discover that the Northern Alliance represents not Washington's interests, but those of Russia, Iran and India, which is why Pakistan is bitterly opposed to any suggestion that the Northern Alliance should participate in the government of Afghanistan. Thus, the stage is set for further conflict and upheavals after the fall of the Taliban.

The only way to keep the new government in power will be to maintain a strong American presence for an indefinite period of time. But a Kabul government that is kept in power by American bayonets will inevitably be seen as a puppet of foreign imperialism. Given the traditions of Afghanistan, and the fractured nature of Afghan society, this means further upheavals and a long-term guerrilla war, into which America can be dragged, just as the Russians were. This is a nightmare scenario for US military planners.

All sides in the present conflict have miscalculated. The Americans miscalculated when they built up the fundamentalists and bin Laden against the Soviet Union, imagining that they could control them. The Pakistanis made the same mistake and will now pay a heavy price for it. But the Taliban and bin Laden have also made a serious miscalculation (insofar as they attempt to calculate anything). They are under the delusion that it was they and their peculiar version of Islam that defeated Russia, and consequently, they could also take on America. This idea was expressed by Ahmed Sattar -an aide to the fundamentalist leader Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman - currently a guest in one of America's state penitentiaries: "If I can defeat the Evil Empire [the USSR], I can defeat anyone else".

In point of fact, the Afghan fundamentalists only succeeded in defeating the pro-Moscow government in Kabul because the Russians cynically abandoned it as part of a world-wide deal with America. Moscow cut off arms supplies while Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with America's blessing, continued to supply the mohajeedin forces. Similarly, the Taliban could never have succeeded in taking Kabul without the active support of Pakistan. Now that this support has been withdrawn, the Taliban's days are numbered. But that does not mean that the war in Afghanistan can be ended quickly.

From a military point of view, the present stage - which mainly consists of high-altitude bombing - is the easy part. Unfortunately, America's most highly publicised war aims cannot be realised through bombing alone. Sooner or later, they will have to commit ground troops. Then the hard part will begin. Although it will not be too difficult to drive the Taliban from the cities, it will not be so easy to root a determined guerrilla force from the mountains where they can shelter in caves and tunnels. Once the war on the ground commences, it can last a long time. And American losses are inevitable.

Reaping the whirlwind

The proverb says: "He that sows the wind shall reap a whirlwind". The source of the present mess is to be found during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when the USA deliberately united the different strands of Islamic fundamentalism, and armed, organised and funded them in the war against the Soviet Union. Even when the crimes of the Taliban became public knowledge, and people began to complain about America's complicity and its failure to condemn the Taliban, former US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski retorted: "What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"

In these few sentences are encapsulated all the stupidity, arrogance and shortsightedness that characterises the world-outlook of US imperialism. Now these words have come back to haunt them.

By their actions, the American imperialists will provoke a wave of instability throughout the entire region. They will heighten tensions between India and Pakistan, with dangerous and unpredictable results. They will further destabilise Pakistan and the states of Central Asia, as the shock waves begin to spread. And they will achieve precisely the opposite result to what was intended in the first place. In the words of Ahmed Sattar: "The American government doesn't get it. You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow. You can arrest him or put him on trial. This will end the problem? No. Tomorrow you will get someone else".

The roots of terrorism lie in the chaos that the market economy has created on a world scale, particularly in the last ten or twenty years. It feeds upon the masses of dispossessed and unemployed youths, like the thousands who have passed through the madrassas of Pakistan and end up in bin Ladens' camps. The poison of Islamic fundamentalism was fomented by US imperialism to further its own cynical ends. Thus, the responsibility for the whole wretched business must be laid firmly at the door of the capitalist system and the imperialists who sustain it by a combination of brute force and cynical manipulation.

How can the peoples of the world place any trust in these same capitalists and imperialists to solve the problem that was created by them in the first place? It is like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire brigade. Instead of putting out the fire, he will only pour petrol on the flames. And that is just what George W Bush and Tony Blair, his ventriloquist's dummy from London, are planning to do.

The working class and the world labour movement must place no trust whatever in the so-called anti-terrorist plans of the political and military establishment. We must oppose the present military adventure in Afghanistan, which will not prevent terrorism or help the Afghan people, but only lead to even greater instability, wars, death and suffering on a colossal scale. We must not accept the imposition of austerity measures, factory closures, wage restraint and sackings under the pretext of the world situation, nor any attacks on civil rights under the disguise of anti-terrorist legislation.

Only the working people of the world can put an end to the present nightmare, by taking power into their own hands, expropriating the giant corporations and financial institution that dominate the planet and create constant crises, misery and fear through their remorseless greed for gain. The only war that we are prepared to fight is for the socialist transformation of society, nationally and internationally. The only just cause is the cause of the people who create the wealth of society and are exploited for their labour. Only the working class has no interest in oppressing and exploiting other people. Let us trust only in our own forces!

The recent events have aroused an intense interest in world politics among people who previously took no interest in world events. It is necessary for activists in the Labour movement to cut across the lying and hypocritical propaganda of the government and the media and expose the real class interests that are the genuine mainspring of national and international politics. Armed with the ideas of Marxism, it will be possible to explain the real significance of events to an ever wider audience. The terrible shocks that are being prepared on a world scale will transform the consciousness of millions of people. What is required is the construction of a Marxist political alternative, a leadership that is capable of showing a way out of the crisis through the socialist transformation of society.