Afghanistan: West's war far from over

December 1, 2013

Tony Abbott used one of the “surprise visits” to Australian occupation forces in Afghanistan, popular with Australian prime ministers, to announce on October 29 that Australia was withdrawing from the conflict.

Aside from offering the standard praise of the Australian soldiers’ prowess and virtue, Abbott made very little attempt to justify the 12-year long war and occupation. “Australia’s longest war is ending, not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that’s better for our presence here,” he said.

'War on Terrorism'

But making a “better Afghanistan” was not the original justification for the war. The 2001 invasion was justified as the US acting in self-defence after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. This was despite the attack being planned in Germany and the US and carried out by mainly Saudi terrorists in an organisation created, then cut loose, by the US.

Afghanistan was attacked on the flimsy basis that leaders of al Qaeda were sheltering there. Already ravaged by two decades of war, it appeared a soft target.

That the invasion was illegal was a moot point in a world where international organisations are servants of the big powers.

Abbott’s announcement of the Australian withdrawal came with fine print. Most of Australia’s 1500 soldiers will return before the end of the year, but Australian ambassador to Afghanistan Jon Philp told journalists in Kabul on November 6 that an Australian military contingent of up to 400 could remain in Afghanistan until “2015 and onwards”.

Australia’s contingent was always just a small part of the US-led force in Afghanistan, which now number about 100,000. US solders make up more than two thirds of this force. Britain provides about 10,000 soldiers.

The main contribution of the other 45 nations involved, including Australia, has been in giving the Anglo-American force an “international” appearance.

Abbott’s announcement was one step in the US's stage-managed “end” to the war, under which the US-led occupation of Afghanistan will officially be over by the end of next year.

However, Philp’s foreshadowing of Australian troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014 reflects US plans to extend the occupation in reality ― merely downsizing the occupation force.

Extending occupation

On November 24, an unelected Afghan assembly approved a draft “bilateral security agreement” (BSA). The assembly brought together representatives of the patchwork of often bitterly antagonistic warlords that are the basis of what passes for government in occupied Afghanistan.

The agreement was negotiated by President Hamid Karzai, the exiled former oil company executive brought back to Afghanistan by the invading US forces and installed to head its puppet government.

The BSA allows for an occupation force of 10,000 US and other foreign fighters to remain in the country until at least 2024, when the agreement will be up for renegotiation.

Before the assembly met, Karzai caved in to US negotiators on crucial areas of disagreement. He agreed that US occupiers would not be answerable to Afghan laws and that US-led forces would be allowed to keep raiding Afghan civilians’ homes.

Such raids have been responsible for a large number of civilian casualties.

US intransigence on these points shows their intention to continue the occupation beyond 2014. Since the agreement was approved by the assembly, Karzai irritated his US sponsors by declaring he would not sign it before presidential elections next April (in which Karzai is ineligible to stand).

The US response has been to threaten to withdraw all troops if the agreement is not signed by the end of the year. Karzai’s erratic stance toward the BSA and the US response reflect the puppet’s dilemma ― the need to distance himself from the occupiers to keep some support in Afghanistan, but aware that his survival (personal as well as political) is dependent on the US military presence.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is increasingly viewed by the US ruling class as a mistake. The vast commitment of human and financial resources has weakened US ability to wage war elsewhere ― illustrated by US President Barack Obama’s failure to win backing for a military intervention in Syria in August.

The 2001 invasion was part of a policy of greater projection of US military power by the neoconservative administration of then-President George W Bush. The policy was outlined in a September 2000 document by a right-wing think-tank ― the Project for a New American Century.

The September 11, 2001 attacks provided this justification to begin such an offensive.

The perpetrator of the attacks, Al Qaeda, ironically emerged as a result of previous US interference in Afghanistan. It was created in the 1980s with CIA support to coordinate an Islamic fundamentalist army to fight Soviet forces then occupying Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union somewhat reluctantly invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979, with the dysfunctional People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) regime being on the verge of collapse.

The US began arming the fundamentalists in June 1979 with the specific intention of drawing the Soviet Union into an unwinnable war. This task was made easier by the disastrous rule of the pro-Moscow PDPA.

After seizing power in an April 1978 coup, the Khalq faction of the PDPA set about massacring its rivals on the left ― the Sholaye Javid (Eternal Flame) movement and the PDPA’s Parcham faction ― before turning on each other.

The September 1979 transition between the rule of Khalq leaders Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin was accomplished by a shootout. Mass graves of the tens of thousands killed by the PDPA before the Soviet intervention are still being discovered in Afghanistan.

Arming fundamentalists

The Soviet Union began its occupation of Afghanistan by assassinating Amin, installing Parcham leader Babrak Karmal and forcibly uniting the two PDPA factions. The PDPA’s excesses were tempered and violence in the capital Kabul lessened.

However, the Soviet army’s response to the US-backed fundamentalists was to borrow tactics from the US war in Vietnam, in particular huge use of air power against rural areas in which the opposition had a presence. Outside Kabul violence increased exponentially.

The US, and other Western powers, responded by channelling more arms to the Afghan Islamists. It was in this period that al Qaeda was created by the CIA, with Saudi Arabia playing a major role.

The Afghan and foreign Islamist forces were based in Pakistan. The CIA worked closely with Pakistani intelligence in what became the biggest US covert operation of the Cold War.

The US plan to draw the Soviet Union into an unwinnable war exceeded expectations ― the human and financial cost was a major contributor to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

In a January 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, former US Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski gloated: “For almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralisation and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire …

“What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

In Afghanistan, things got worse. The last PDPA ruler, Mohammad Najibullah, remained in power, at least in the cities, after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. He wasn’t overthrown until 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The violence and disunity of the opposition was a factor. After Najibullah’s fall, the gangs of fundamentalists and drug runners turned on each other in a brutal civil war that levelled Kabul.

In 1996, the Taliban ― created from refugee youth educated in fundamentalist religious schools in Pakistan ― was installed in power by Pakistan, with tacit US approval. The warring factions were left in control of 15% of the country and united (to a degree) in the Northern Alliance.

Any hopes held by Afghans for a decrease in violence were dashed by the Taliban’s brutal and misogynist rule. The fate of Najibullah, who since 1992 had been taking refuge in the UN compound in Kabul, gave an indication of the Taliban’s methods: he was strung up with his testicles in his mouth in 1996.

Cinema, music and education for girls were some of the things the Taliban banned.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ― scion of a prominent Saudi family ― turned against the US and the Saudi government when his offer to “liberate” Kuwait from Iraq’s 1990 invasion was rebuffed. The US needed to set a precedent for post-Cold War military adventures so they had no need for proxies.

Scorned, al Qaeda began terrorist attacks against US targets.

In many parts of the Muslim world, fundamentalist veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan became part of the political landscape, for example playing a significant role in the violence that afflicted Algeria in the 1990s.

When the US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, they made common cause with the Northern Alliance. These warlords, drug lords and religious terrorists had devastated Afghanistan in their 1992-96 civil war, but were forced into an unhappy alliance by the threat of annihilation by the Taliban.

Empowering the Northern Alliance gangs meant returning Afghanistan to the type of violence that characterised the 1992-96 period. Added to this was the violence of the US-led forces’ air strikes and ground raids.

The Taliban have continued their abuses against the people in areas they control and carry out bombing attacks against civilians in areas they don’t. However, the violence of the invaders has won the Taliban new recruits.

The Karzai regime represents less a functioning state as a partial truce between antagonistic armed gangs. The gang with the most arms is, of course, the US-led occupation force.

The US chose Karzai as president because he lacked an armed gang of his own. Talk of US withdrawal no doubt makes him reflect on Najibullah’s gruesome execution.

Capturing 'terrorists'

The pretext of “getting” Bin Laden and al Qaeda members meant showering Afghanistan with leaflets offering bounties for “terrorists”. The occupation forces generally took in good faith allegations of terrorism made against captives by their bounty hunting captors.

As refugees flooded across the border into Pakistan, the US did the same, with the collaboration of the Pakistani state ― which did good business selling Afghans and foreigners fleeing Afghanistan to the US.

The US-run prison and torture centre at Bagram airbase outside Kabul, along with similar jails throughout Afghanistan, were quickly filled. The US set up a worldwide network of “black sites” ― secret CIA-run torture centres ― and illegal jails.

The centrepiece is the notorious prison and torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, whose location in a US naval base illegally occupying Cuban territory puts it beyond any legal jurisdiction.

At the same time, Pakistani intelligence granted al Qaeda's leaders refuge. When Bin Laden was extra-judicially executed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by a US military hit squad in 2011, the Pakistani government complained about the blatant violation of their sovereignty. The US, in turn, complained that the Pakistani state had blatantly ignored his presence.

However, the US and Pakistani intelligence and security establishments remain closely intertwined and both US complicity in hiding Bin Laden and Pakistani complicity in his assassination are possible.

What is certain is that within months of the 2001 US invasion, international Islamist terror groups had largely vacated Afghanistan. Furthermore, in Libya and Syria, the West has shown it is still willing to make alliances with violent Islamist groups even if ― as the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi by US-armed Islamists last year showed ― these alliances can be strictly temporary.

Abbott’s claim that the invasion and occupation was to create “an Afghanistan that’s better for our presence here” simply reflects how quickly the war's initial justification was made redundant ― forcing new ones to be created.

Making a better Afghanistan would not have been a hard task in 2001, given the wretched state of the country after the horrors of decades of war. However, the invasion and occupation did the opposite.

More suffering

Afghan feminist and anti-war activist Malalai Joya told US independent broadcaster Democracy Now! on October 3: “[The] consequences of the 12 years of occupation [by] US and NATO, unfortunately, was more bloodshed, crimes, women rights [and] human rights violations, looting of our resources and changing of our country into mafia state, as during these 12 bloody years tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed by occupation forces and terrorist groups.”

The November 2 article in the Australian headlined “Unsung heroes believe they leave a better Afghanistan” quotes an Australian soldier identified as Sergeant R saying: “I have seen Tarin Kowt grow from a town into … a city, and that is a good thing. If people feel safe, they gather.”

Afghan towns and cities have grown during the occupation and it is related to people feeling safe. However, rather than reflecting urban areas becoming safer, it reflects the exodus of people from rural areas fleeing war.

The October 29 Australian reported that during his “surprise visit”, Abbott claimed: “Oruzgan [the province where the Australian contingent is based] was still a poor and difficult province, but it now had 200 schools … and pre-natal care for 80 per cent of expectant mothers.”

In reality, after 12 years of the West’s “nation building”, Afghanistan has an illiteracy rate greater than 80% and the second highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world. It is true, however, that Oruzgan ranks below average in these respects compared with other provinces.

The Australian opined: “Much of that progress is down to controversial police chief Matiullah Khan.”

Matiullah Khan is controversial in the sense that he outdid most other Afghan warlords in corruption, banditry, drug running and human rights abuses, including massacres. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2010 on his “hit squads that killed stubborn farmers who wouldn’t hand over land, livestock, and in some cases, their daughters”.

Given the Taliban’s very public displays of misogynist violence, it was inevitable that liberating women would be used as a pretext by the invaders.

However, as Joya ― who was organising underground girls’ schools during Taliban rule ― constantly points out, women’s rights have worsened since 2001.

The ruling militias share the Taliban’s misogynist misinterpretation of Islamic law. A November 25 Human Rights Watch media release reported: “A working group led by the Justice Ministry that is assisting in drafting a new penal code has proposed provisions on ‘moral crimes’ involving sex outside of marriage that call for stoning.”

Added to this the return of the feuding warlords has meant an increase in women and girls being taken as war booty. Rapists have no need to fear imprisonment but their victims do.

But in one move towards gender equity, the Pajhwok Afghan News reported on October 30 an increase in adolescent boys being forced into sexual servitude.

If the aim of the occupation was to build a “better Afghanistan”, it is has clearly failed. Worse, despite the hype, the US plans for it to continue. A proper, definitive end to foreign occupation is an essential starting point to truly build a better Afghanistan.

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