The tragedy which is the history of Afghanistan was lost in the wake of 9/11. From that moment, in the eyes of a West now baying for revenge, it was a country reduced to nothing more than a terrorist base and terrorist training camp run with the blessing of a regime that gave new meaning to the word evil. Yet before 9/11 those same terrorists had won the paternal affection of government apparatchiks in Washington as a band of courageous liberation fighters who, with ‘our’ help, had successfully forced the Soviet Union to abandon a country it had invaded in order to add to its evil empire ¬- at least according to Reagan and the coterie of right wing zealots who formed his administration back then.
But to understand why Afghanistan was and remains so important to US strategic interests is to understand the role it has played throughout its history in the global struggle for empire and hegemony waged by the great powers. This mystical land, occupying a strategic location along the ancient Silk Route between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, has been the subject of fierce rivalry between global empires since the 19th century, when the then British and Russian Empires vied for control of the lucrative spoils to be found in the subcontinent of India and in Central Asia in what came to be known as the ‘Great Game.’
The British desired to control Afghanistan as a buffer against Russian influence in Persia (Iran) in order protect its own interests in India, at that time the jewel in the crown of an empire that covered a full third of the globe. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought during this period. The first saw the complete annihilation of a 16,000-strong British army in 1842, the second resulted in the withdrawal of British forces in 1880, though the British retained nominal control over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This control lasted through to 1919, when after a third Anglo-Afghan war the British signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi, heralding the beginning of complete Afghan independence from Britain.
In terms of its development, Afghanistan remained untouched by the industrialisation that swept through the subcontinent at the time, as the British mercantile class set about the wholesale plunder and exploitation of India’s human and natural resources. By contrast, Afghanistan’s value to both the British and Russian Empires was solely strategic, which, along with a paucity of natural resources and rough, mountainous terrain difficult to traverse, combined to retard the country’s economic development. A primitive agrarian economy predominated, supporting a feudal system of social relations that has continued in the countryside in one form or another right up to the present day, with self-styled warlords wielding power of life and death over those who live under their control.
There was a period in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, however, when a determined effort to lift the country and its people out of backward agrarian feudalism and develop the country’s economy was attempted. The failure of that attempt is directly linked to the current conflict, and provides yet another salutary lesson into the role of Western intervention and imperialism as a major destabilising factor throughout the developing world.
The communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was formed in 1965 in opposition to the autocratic rule of the country’s then King Zahir Shar. They helped to overthrow the regime in 1973 in a coup led by Mohammed Daud, the king’s cousin. In the years following Daud sought to distance himself from the PDPA and from the Soviet Union, which was Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner and source of aid throughout the 1970s. In 1978, when Daud’s intention to purge the army of its communist officers and cadre became known, he himself fell victim to a coup staged by the PDPA with support from the Afghan army.
The coup enjoyed popular support in the towns and cities, evidenced in reports carried in US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, no friend of revolutionary movements, reported at the time that ’150,000 persons marched to honour the new flag and the participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.’ The Washington Post reported that ‘Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned.’
Upon taking power, the new government introduced a programme of reforms designed to abolish feudal power in the countryside, guarantee freedom of religion, along with equal rights for women and ethnic minorities. Thousands of prisoners under the old regime were set free and police files burned in a gesture designed to emphasise an end to repression. In the poorest parts of Afghanistan, where life expectancy was 35 years, where infant mortality was one in three, free medical care was provided. In addition, a mass literacy campaign was undertaken, desperately needed in a society in which ninety percent of the population could neither read nor write.
The resulting rate of progress was staggering. By the late 1980s half of all university students in Afghanistan were women, and women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants. In John Pilger’s ‘New Rulers Of The World’ (Verso, 2002), he relates the memory of the period through the eyes of an Afghan woman, Saira Noorani, a female surgeon who escaped the Taliban in 2001. She said: “Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go where we wanted and wear what we liked. We used to go to cafes and the cinema to see the latest Indian movies. It all started to go wrong when the Mujahideen started winning. They used to kill teachers and burn schools. It was sad to think that these were the people the West had supported.”
Be that as it may, the government’s crude attempt to impose its reforms on the countryside and dismantle the feudal structure, which dominated life there, proved deeply unpopular and opened the door to US covert support and funding of opposition tribal groups. This covert support began under the Carter administration.
An initial $500 million was allocated, money used to arm and train the rebels in the art of insurgency in secret camps set up specifically for the task across the border in Pakistan. This opposition came to be known as the Mujahideen (those engaged in jihad), and so began a campaign of murder and terror which, six months later, led the Afghan government in Kabul to request the help of the Soviet Union. What resulted was an ill-fated military intervention which ended ten years later in an ignominious retreat of Soviet military forces and the descent of Afghanistan into the abyss of religious intolerance, abject poverty, warlordism and the violence that has plagued the country ever since.
It is a point worth emphasising, however, that contrary to the official Western history of the period, the Mujahideen did not arise in response to a hostile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but rather the Soviet Union intervened at the request of the Afghan government in response to the instability being wrought by a US funded and armed insurgency.
To the question of why the US would arm, fund and train an insurgency comprising religious zealots in Afghanistan, the answer is simple: namely for the same reason successive US administrations have armed, funded and trained insurgents and death squads in any part of the world where progressive, secular and left-leaning governments and movements have attempted to institute social and economic justice: to halt the spread of a good example.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, three years after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the US began a reach for global hegemony which continues to this day and which lies at the root of the occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan. With regard to Afghanistan in particular, just as with the rivalry between the British and the Russians back in the 19th century, its strategic location is the primary reason for the presence of Western troops. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the huge deposits of crude oil located in the Caspian Basin were now up for grabs. What US and Western energy corporations required was a pipeline to transport this crude to the nearest friendly port from where it could be shipped out. Iran wasn’t an option, which left Afghanistan as the only viable alternative; with the proposed pipeline to pass through and on into Pakistan to the port of Karachi on the coast of the Arabian Sea.
In fact so important was this pipleline to the US that in 1996 a high level Taliban delegation flew over to meet with Unocal executives at their headquarters in Houston, Texas, to discuss its construction. The Governor of Texas at the time was none other than George W Bush.
Despite ruling a country in which women were stoned to death for adultery, in which men were tortured and had their limbs amputated for misdemeanour crimes, in which music and television was banned, in which it was illegal for girls to attend school, these high-ranking representatives of the Taliban were given the red-carpet treatment, put up in a five-star hotel and even accorded a VIP visit to Disneyworld in Florida. However, after they left it was felt that they could not be trusted and the plan for the pipeline was shelved.
With 9/11 came the opportunity the US ‘oilocracy’ had been waiting for to achieve their long-held desire for a pipeline through Afghanistan. It was an opportunity that undoubtedly added impetus to the invasion that was mounted to clear the country of former US allies like the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Eight years on and Afghanistan’s onerous distinction as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, and the largest producer of heroin, is all that has been achieved, with the writ of the beleagured and US-installed Kharzai government running little further than Kabul.
The current summer offensive in Helmand, designed to clear the Taliban in advance of elections in the autumn, has to be seen in this light. Simply put, it constitutes a desperate attempt by the US and British governments to salvage some sort of victory in a war that was lost as soon as it began eight years ago. In the process lives are being sacrificed and families torn apart. More importantly, as more and more civilians are killed by US, British, and NATO forces, support for the Taliban increases. The latest such outrage occurred in May, when a botched US airstrike killed 147 villagers in Farah province during fighting between US forces and the resistance.
Another question that needs to be asked is who exactly are the Taliban? It has become a received truth that they are comprised exclusively of Islamic fundamentalists from mostly Pakistan, motivated by nothing more than a hatred of modernity and a desire to reprise the regime which they presided over previously. However, evidence points to the fact that this picture is far from accurate.
Anand Gopal is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who has written extensively on the so-called global war on terror. In a recent article titled ‘Who Are The Taliban?’ he described today’s Taliban as ‘an umbrella organisation made up of many different groups fighting the Afghan government and Western forces’. Some of these groups, he states, certainly do espouse the doctrine of global jihad commonly ascribed to the Taliban. However, an increasing number are Afghans fighting for national liberation.
Interestingly, Gopal cites in his piece a statement by a NATO intelligence officer, confirming that “Al Qaeda has not been able to hijack the [Afghan] insurgency the way it did in Iraq.”
As to how much support the Taliban enjoys among the Afghan people, Gopal writes: ‘Support [for the insurgency] is heavily tied to ethnicity. The insurgents are predominantly Pashtun and enjoy more support in areas where Pashtuns live, namely, the south and east. They find little favor with other ethnic groups. Some rural Pashtuns view the insurgents – especially the Taliban – as a lesser of two evils compared with the Afghan government.’
He then quotes from a report by Matthew Du Pee, a researcher on Afghan affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who writes: ‘One of the most important things to an Afghan, especially in the context of the last 30 years of open warfare, is personal security. The central government and to a degree NATO/Coalition forces have failed in this regard. The Taliban, in the view of ordinary Pashtuns, is the only entity able to impose law and order.’
With a growing resistance movement able to inflict increasing casualties on Western troops, combined with a lack of popular support among the civilian population for their presence, the only viable option is withdrawal. What might follow such a withdrawal is of course open to question. What we do know is that nothing will be achieved by continuing to follow a futile policy of military occupation which history reveals has zero chance of success.
The sooner all Coalition troops leave Afghanistan the better it will be for all concerned.