AFGHANISTAN: A new colonialism?

Issue 

BY SEAN HEALY

While the relentless bombing of Afghanistan hasn't resulted in the quick collapse of the Taliban regime that Pentagon officials hoped for, the negotiations are well under way on the regime which will, at the point of US bayonets, replace that headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The United Nations is reportedly working to finalise the composition of a "national unity government", which would include the Northern Alliance, a coalition of anti-Taliban Islamic fundamentalist groups and others based among the minority ethnicities in the country's north, and the exiled former king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

The UN is concerned, however, that US bombing raids may cause the quick collapse of the Taliban's frontline, some 40 kilometres north of Kabul, allowing the Northern Alliance to quickly take the capital before its plan is fully in place.

According to comments made by European diplomats in Iran, UN officials have sought and gained an agreement from the US to slow its bombing raids on Taliban positions to prevent such an outcome.

Regardless of how soon the deal is struck, the UN looks set to play the major role in Afghanistan's post-war dispensation, probably overseeing the new government for a period of at least 12 months and possibly longer.

Under one version of the plan currently being circulated among Western governments, a UN-supervised government would be headed by 12 representatives of Afghanistan's various ethnic groupings, with a rotating, figurehead presidency and a mandate to organise a loya jirga, a council of tribal and religious leaders, to determine the country's future.

A UN-appointed representative, likely UN special envoy for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, would hold ultimate responsibility during the "transition period".

One reason why the UN will be given such authority is a lack of faith by Western governments that any Afghan political force is capable of enforcing law and order.

An October 22 policy paper released by British foreign secretary Jack Straw says both the Northern Alliance and Zahir Shah have "limited appeal" among Afghans and that they would be "unlikely to form a stable and durable government on their own".

But another reason for the UN's likely prominence lies in what is emerging as the Western plan for the country.

'Nation-building'

After initial hesitancy among Bush administration officials, the invading powers look set to commit themselves to what they call "nation-building" in the country.

While "nation-building" has a nice ring to it, especially for a country torn to pieces by 20 years of war and misrule, what it is likely to mean is less the rebuilding of shattered infrastructure and more the building of a structure for stable, capitalist rule.

This was certainly the pattern of UN administrations in Cambodia, from 1991-93, and in East Timor since 1999.

In East Timor, the most recent example of UN "nation-building", the priorities of the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) were clear from the first months.

Among the earliest visitors to the newly independent country were economists from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Together with UNTAET, they drew up an economic strategy identical to that which has failed in many poor and underdeveloped countries: the public sector would be sidelined in favour of private investors and poor farmers' demands for land reform would be ignored, while economic development would be export-driven, based on selling cash crops, such as coffee, on volatile international commodities markets.

Solidifying a stable domestic political elite, through the creation of a Transitional Council, a court system and various other government institutions, was also a high priority.

Meanwhile, the rebuilding of schools, health facilities, even shelter for those whose homes had been burnt down by the withdrawing Indonesian military, has proceeded at a snail's pace.

In Cambodia, the UN sought to impose a similar economic model, while simultaneously seeking to bolster pro-Western, pro-market political parties against the left-leaning Cambodian People's Party.

In both countries, the presence of highly paid UN staff and attached aid workers also warped the national economies. In Cambodia, for example, the number of prostitutes increased from 6000 in 1991 to 20,000 in 1992, largely due to demand from UN staff.

This "nation-building" pattern will surely be repeated in Afghanistan: the construction of a commodified system of land tenure and a coterie of client politicians, so that Western companies can build a pipeline from oil-rich central Asia to the sea, is likely to take precedence over rebuilding the bombed-out market places of Kabul and Kandahar.

Rehabiliting colonialism

If the Western powers get their way in Afghanistan, such UN-style "nation-building" could be the wave of the future. Colonialism, it seems, after decades of ignominy, might be on the comeback trail.

Certainly, direct colonial rule over certain poor countries by the UN is gaining in popularity among Western financial commentators. The Wall Street Journal has run two columns in quick succession advocating just such an outcome.

On the October 6 issue of the WSJ, author Paul Johnston noted that "the nearest historical parallel [for the "war on terrorism"] — the war against piracy in the 19th century — was an important element in the expansion of colonialism. It could be that a new form of colony, the Western-administered former terrorist state, is only just over the horizon."

Nine days later, the opinion page's own editor, Max Boot, weighed in, arguing that the "most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role" and suggesting that once it had dealt with Afghanistan, the US should "impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul".

On the other side of the Atlantic, the London Financial Times' influential columnist Martin Wolf argued on October 10: "If a failed state is to be rescued, the essential arts of honest government — above all the coercive apparatus — must be provided from outside."

The idea is also finding some echo in official circles. In a speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London on October 22, Jack Straw set the West's post-war plans for Afghanistan in the context of a much broader doctrine for nation-building in "failed states".

But this too, like much of Western foreign policy in the Third World, might turn into yet another case of imperial overreach.

For a start, there are not a few "failed states" in the world; there are many, and their numbers grow every year.

Moreover, since the ending of most instances of direct Western rule in the two decades after World War II, states have not "failed" because the West has abandoned them. Rather, Western governments actively sought to replace colonial administrations with neo-colonial ones, stacked with local clients who would stay loyal to the great powers.

This interference has even intensified over the past two decades, under the guise of IMF supervision of poor countries' economies.

More than 90 countries have been forced into IMF-drafted structural adjustment programs since the early 1980s, programs which give the Washington-based fund the power to control even the minutest aspects of government policy — all in the name of "nation-building" and "good governance".

But neo-colonialism has proved to be just as much a disaster as direct rule. It has been the enforcement of just such policies on poor countries which has caused their states to "fail".

Afghanistan is a case in point: the country has been wrecked by successive client regimes funded by the CIA and its Pakistani ally.

In another part of the world, the collapse of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surely the most spectacular though unreported case of a "failed state", is directly attributable to the actions of the former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, whose military was armed by the US and whose coffers were filled by the IMF.

If "new-style" UN-administered colonial regimes follow the same policies as their pre-war colonial, or post-war neo-colonial predecessors — subjugating their charges to the interests of the Western corporate elites — then these too will fail and with predictable, disastrous consequences.

From Green Left Weekly, November 7, 2001.

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