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Afghanistan: The 'good war' exposed

The Taliban originated in the chaos that engulfed Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet occupation in 1988. The resistance to the Soviets had included both local tribal leaders and foreign Islamist guerrillas, such as Osama Bin Laden, who were supported by the CIA and ISI (Pakistani secret service). These latter two agencies also encouraged a huge expansion of heroin and opium production. After their victory, the US left Afghanistanis without money or support and the country effectively fell apart as rival warlords seized territory.

From 1994, the Taliban emerged as an Islamic army, trained through madrassas (religious schools: “taliban” means “students”).They promised to bring back traditional Qu’ranic law and order. It was largely based on the Pashtuns, an ethnic group dominant in the south and east of the country.

Osama Bin Laden left Afghanistan at the end of the Soviet occupation to pursue his goal of creating a force, “al-Qa’ida”, to expel all non-Islamic forces, including the US, from Muslim territory. With the formation of the Taliban government, he returned. This later led to Afghanistan becoming the first target of George Bush’s “War on Terror” after 9/11.

At this point, the Taliban had little popular support and could not resist the US invasion. They agreed to evacuate Kabul and return to the south or border areas with Pakistan. The US then installed Hamid Karzai, a CIA agent formerly in the Taliban government, as dictator. It appeared as if the US had got the swift victory Bush needed.

Many in the West were reluctant to oppose the US invasion because of the Taliban’s reactionary regime, epitomised in their atrocious record on women’s rights. Some feminists, as well as prominent figures like Cherie Blair who called it “a noble cause”, actively supported the occupation. This was even true of many feminists within Afghanistan, while others, like the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), called for the US to leave but for all the other occupying forces to remain under the auspices of the United Nations.

Actually, the occupation, far from liberating Afghan women, has been a catastrophe for them. Today, most women must wear a full-length burka or risk being attacked or raped. Surveys show that 80 per cent of marriages are forced, leading to widespread depression in women, which is so severe that 250 suicides were reported in the first six months of 2007.

While schools have theoretically opened their doors to girls, in truth they are discouraged from attending, and in some areas Mujahideen militiamen kidnap and rape them on their way to school. As a result, only 20 per cent of girls are enrolled at primary schools, and a paltry 0.5 per cent at secondaries, according to research by Oxfam.

Far from doing anything to prevent this horrific oppression, US strategy has been to support Northern Alliance warlords, whose practices are just as oppressive to women as the Taliban.

Women’s supposed equal participation in government has been exposed as a sick joke by Malalai Joya, a female member of parliament who has repeatedly spoken out against the domination of warlords and the role of the US. In May 2006, she had bottles thrown at her and received threats of rape and assassination. A year later, she was suspended from parliament after calling it a “zoo”. In an interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now, she explained her frustrations with the situation:

“Right now, more than 90 per cent of the people are poor, and more than 40 per cent are jobless. Under the nose of US and eyes of troops, Afghanistan is one of the biggest producers of opium. And there is more violence against women.”

The crushing grip of the occupation

The situation of women is just one example of falsely portraying the Afghanistan war as “the good war”, a war fought for human rights. The idea of Afghanistan as a failed state without infrastructure, in need of modernisation, has been used to maintain liberal support and to encourage countries that opposed the Iraq war to keep pouring in troops and resources.

In fact, the country has gone backwards under occupation. The 2008 UN Development Report showed a worsening in basic indicators since 2001, including a fall in life expectancy that now stands at just 43.1 years. Only 31 per cent of the population now have access to clean water.

The relatively low level of resistance to the invasion was due not only to war weariness but also to hopes that US money would reconstruct the country. Very little reconstruction has actually happened. There are several reasons for this: first, the difficulties of administering aid in a war zone, which reflects the absurdity of the idea of attacking and rebuilding a country at the same time.

In addition, the money has not been forthcoming to anywhere near the extent hoped for. Of the $20 billion promised by all countries, only $8 billion has materialised and much of this actually went on maintaining the occupation.

Another issue is that the reconstruction is generally run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who siphon off huge amounts of money to pay their employees. For example, in Kabul, the standard rent for a house for a foreign NGO worker, with a wall, a watchman and a defended garage, ranges from $2,000 to $10,000 a month. The average income in Afghanistan is less than $30 a month; while in an NGO office in Kabul, the wage bill for one foreign worker will be larger than that for 20 Afghans working in the same office.

Some NGOs, including USAID, contract out regeneration to profit-making companies. There have also been allegations of NGO workers actually stealing money and taking bribes.

The resistance has grown since 2004 when it became increasingly clear that the US-led occupation, far from bringing security, was leading to more chaos and destruction. The resistance has generally pledged allegiance to the Taliban for the simple reason that they are the main force that has consistently opposed occupation. They have also restrained any tendencies towards Pashtun chauvinism and called for all Muslims to fight together. This means a more united resistance that does not face the terrible ethnic divisions seen in Iraq.

The Taliban now controls huge areas of the country. Since 2006, their influence has spread beyond the Pashtun regions. They have checkpoints just 15 miles from Kabul and control both Kandahar and the roads between these two main cities. They also control roads to Pakistan in the east and may be in a position to take the road from the north, which would allow them to cut off food and fuel to the capital.

Their influence is such that, according to the Observer, the official Afghan government entered secret “peace process” talks with the Taliban, which are sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain. This seems to relate to a wider strategy of driving a wedge between the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida and, as the French Prime Minister FranÁois Fillon put it, “separating the international jihadists from those who are acting more for nationalist or tribal motives”.

The task of taking on the Taliban falls to around 65,000 troops, a number that falls far short of the 500,000 the Afghan Minister of Defence says are needed. Given these deficiencies, the USA’s main tactic is the bombing of villages, which has indiscriminately killed a large number of civilians. Although these deaths have never been accurately counted, the devastation caused by bombing is frequently witnessed by UN inspectors.

As the bombing has spread to villages in the north, even Karzai’s government, dependent as it is on Northern Alliance support, has been forced to condemn it. The government even demanded that the US ask for approval for each bombing, which it will clearly never do. Therefore, it is not just the government’s control that is under threat but also its relationship with its own US backers. With each bombing, hatred of the occupation grows and bolsters support for anyone resisting it.

Another crucial element in the strengthening of the Taliban is the situation in Pakistan, particularly in the regions that border Afghanistan where the central government has little control. This is the area which gave Bin Laden and many others sanctuary after the US invasion, with space for training camps and scope for local recruitment.

Pakistan’s role in the region

Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, spoke out against Islamic extremism and portrayed himself to the US as the only bulwark against it. However, he did little in practice to control the Taliban, particularly as support from Islamists was essential to the Pakistani Army.

For four years, the Taliban were allowed to operate virtually undisturbed in Balochistan. Local organisations assisted them in carrying out further attacks, as acknowledged in Musharraf’s biography In the Line of Fire where he writes; “Al Qa’ida provided the money, weapons and equipment and the local organisation provided the manpower and motivation to actually execute the attacks.”

As this became clear, the Pakistani government came under increasing pressure from the US government to suppress these groups. Musharraf responded in 2007 with his attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad, and bombings and attacks in the border regions. However, this was far from enough to take control and the region remained a huge safe area for the Taliban.

The US has now decided to take a tougher stance and, for some months, has been allowing its army to pursue the Taliban over the border for the past few months. For example, in July, American forces repeatedly attacked a Pakistani army post on the border and killed all 11 soldiers in it. Now, with the election of Obama, who advocated this in pre-election speeches, this tactic will become official government policy and will intensify. It is likely to lead to huge resistance and potentially there is a real danger of civil war in Pakistan.

As with Iraq, the forces in Afghanistan are in a quagmire. In both cases, the imperialists are reluctant to withdraw as it would mean not only humiliation but an enormous, potentially fatal blow to US world dominance. In Afghanistan, this is because of the country’s strategic importance, occupying a central position bordering Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Every day that occupying troops remain in Afghanistan the country falls further into chaos and bloodshed. In this context, anti-imperialists must unequivocally call for the immediate withdrawal of all occupying troops. We must give unconditional support to all those taking actions against the occupying forces, even where we oppose their religious, political or social views and their treatment of women.

If workers and progressive movements absent themselves from the resistance because of these differences, the Taliban will be strengthened as the only force consistently fighting the hated occupation. This would guarantee that they take control of the country when the occupiers are finally forced out. On the other hand, if workers and progressive forces join in fighting against the occupation  and show themselves to be the best and most militant fighters  they can come to the head of the resistance and be the ones to liberate Afghanistan.


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