After a predictable defeat, the nightmare continues

Mike Phipps reviews The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold, by Tariq Ali, published by Verso

“The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American Empire,” writes Tariq Ali. “The speed with which Taliban forces stormed the country was astonishing; their strategic acumen remarkable. A week-long offensive ended triumphantly in Kabul. The 300,000-strong Afghan army crumbled. Many refused to fight. In fact, thousands of them went over to the Taliban.”

It was a predictable defeat, he argues, and perhaps a turning point.  “In a period when the US has wrecked one Arab country after another, no resistance that could challenge the occupiers ever emerged.” Now the US and Britain have been humiliated.

It’s a harsh judgment, which may induce some discomfort in those who hoped for something progressive to come out of the west’s intervention against the brutal Taliban. But Ali knows this subject well and covered it in his 2002 book The Clash of Fundamentalisms.  

It is there that he recounted in detail the history of the US’s funding and arming of the most reactionary fundamentalist elements in Afghanistan during the Cold War. He described how the ex-President of Afghanistan, the secular communist Najibullah, was dragged from a UN compound by the conquering Taliban in 1996, killed and strung up naked for public display, with his genitalia hacked off and stuffed in his mouth. “To the best of my knowledge,” he wrote then, “not a single leader or leader-writer of the West registered a dissenting opinion. Clash of civilisations?”

Over the nearly twenty years since this was written, the US failed to build anything that might redeem either its funding and arming of the Taliban or its mission to overthrow it. While billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks that housed US soldiers, and food and clothing were regularly flown in, a huge slum grew on the fringes of Kabul, as the poor gathered to search for pickings in dustbins.

Afghanistan’s army had long been infiltrated by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment. Meanwhile opium production increased dramatically, and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market. One in ten young Afghans are now addicts.

In 2019, the Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers, a 2,000-page internal report commissioned by the US federal government examining the failures of the war in Afghanistan. General Douglas Lute, the ‘Afghan war czar’ under Bush and Obama admitted, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we’re undertaking.”

The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan is a collection of Tariq Ali’s writings covering that era, starting with a call for “Soviet Troops Out of Afghanistan!” It was a recognition of the fact that the 1979 invasion “would bring a horrific counter-reaction and wreck the region for decades.” As Ali rightly predicted in 1980, Afghanistan would become the front line of the Cold War, encouraging all those who favour greater global interventionism from the USA.

The Soviet presence fuelled an anti-occupation resistance which the US was only too happy to arm and train – not because the world’s greatest superpower had an alternative vision for the country, but for more cynical reasons. “It would be difficult to claim,” wrote Ali in 1983, “that US interest in contemporary Afghanistan is motivated by anything other than a desire to see the Soviet army held down by tribal warriors and humiliated before the entire Third World.”

The resistance the US helped build used the legitimacy of its quest for liberation from the Soviet occupation to spread and entrench its extreme ideology. The Taliban had the further advantage that its “deracinated fanaticism” cut across pre-existing tribal, ethnic and religious loyalties. In a civil war-torn country which craved security, its authoritarian and repressive governance initially had a degree of support, although the price paid in terms of civil liberties and women’s rights in particular was sky-high.

This movement was facilitated by both the US and Pakistani intelligence services. Unsurprisingly, the influence of the Taliban blew back into Pakistan itself, turning previously academic disputes among Muslim sects into murderous conflicts. By the 21st century, the Taliban would also be at war with its US sponsors.

Here’s an interesting story you may have missed: in 2000, Pakistan sent a football team to play a friendly against Afghanistan. “As the two teams faced each other in the stadium at Kabul with the referee about to blow the opening whistle, bearded security forces entered and announced that the Pakistani footballers were indecently attired. They were wearing normal football shorts, whereas the Afghans were dressed in surreal long shorts which came down well below the knees… The Pakistani players were arrested, their heads were shaved and they were all flogged in public while the stadium audience was forced to chant verses from the Koran.”

With the Western invasion following 9/11, the Taliban’s defeat was inevitable. But Ali is right to note that the “Northern Alliance backed by the West is marginally less religious than the Taliban, but its record on everything else is just as abysmal.” That included executing defenceless prisoners, raping men and women and heroin marketing, “making a mockery of Blair’s claim that this war is also a war against drugs.”

By 2007, six years into the NATO mission, insurgents were in control of some twenty districts of Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, it soon became clear that “the new transplanted elite would cream off a bulk of the foreign aid and create its own criminal networks of graft and patronage.”

The President’s younger brother became one of the richest drug barons in the country.  Meanwhile, for the people, nothing was built or done. The mains electricity supply was worse than five years earlier. And that is more or less how things stayed for the next 14 years.

For Tariq Ali, this was not due to a lack of money or will: the entire Western state-building project itself – “aiming to construct an army able to suppress its own population but incapable of defending the nation from outside powers; a civil administration with no control over planning or social infrastructure, which are in the hands of Western NGOs; and a government whose foreign policy marches in step with Washington’s” – bore no relation to the realities on the ground.

Under Obama, things got even worse. The war spilled further into Pakistan – in 2009 Pakistan’s army forcibly removed 250,000 people from the Orakzai district of the country and put them in refugee camps. Meanwhile, the huge extension of drone warfare pursued by the Obama Administration resulted in very high rate of civilian fatalities. Clearly fraudulent elections cemented in place the institutional corruption.

Amid the details of the long conflict, we should not lose sight of the fact that the entire basis of the US-led ‘war on terror’ was fraudulent. If 9/11 were really the issue, why was no action taken by the US against Saudi Arabia, the country from which most of the terrorists hailed? Instead it was Afghanistan and Iraq that were pulverized, their citizens bombed and tortured, their museums looted, their infrastructure destroyed. Nobody has ever been held accountable for these war crimes and probably nobody will be.

It did not stop there. Libya was bombed and the state collapsed. Much of the Sahel was taken over by ‘refugee militias’ and the French sent in troops. Terrorist attacks continued in the West and civil liberties were curtailed. Whistle blowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange were witch-hunted. Perhaps the West’s defeat in Afghanistan will lead to a pause in this long offensive.

But for Afghans, things are likely to get a lot worse. If the return of the Taliban wasn’t bad enough, Western sanctions – war by other means – are crippling the country further. According to the bipartisan US think tank CSIS, over 18.4 million people need humanitarian assistance and more than 30% of the population are facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity. At the same time, financial institutions are refusing or delaying the transfer of funds to humanitarian agencies out of fear of contravening sanctions and anti-terror legislation.

This phenomenon of “over-compliance” in the aid sector has become so widespread that many countries under broad-based sanctions regimes suffer from financial exclusion and face serious obstacles to accessing basic healthcare and essential goods.

The human consequences in Afghanistan are calamitous. One analyst noted: “Hospitals in the capital of Kabul are running out of vital supplies, including diesel fuel to produce oxygen for COVID-19 patients and dozens of essential drugs. Staff, unpaid for months, still show up for work while struggling to make ends meet at home.”

Given that 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from foreign aid and 75% of its public spending was funded by foreign aid grants, sanctions will push the economy to the brink of collapse and hugely intensify the country’s catastrophe, which is precipitating a refugee crisis.  Already the economy has contracted by 40% since August, with the overseas assets of the Afghan Central Bank suspended and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund having also suspended financial support.

So while the US has been forced to withdraw, its interference in the life of Afghanistan continues, via sanctions, drone strikes – like the one that killed ten members of the same family, including seven children, in August – and other covert operations. Afghanistan’s long nightmare is set to continue.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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