Afghanistan: The new quagmire

Christian Parenti is the author of The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, and The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq. Currently a contributing editor at the Nation magazine, Parenti has visited Afghanistan many times during the occupation and is working on a book about war, climate change, and failed Helen Scott, associate professor of English at the University of Vermont and editor of The Essential Rosa Luxemburg, interviewed him at the end of August 2008.

WHAT DOES the occupation of Afghanistan look like?

THE OCCUPATION of Afghanistan is a totally hopeless mess. The government is totally corrupt, made up of fundamentalist warlords with retrograde politics who are up to their necks in drug lucre and totally incompetent in any technical sense. This is a result of the “Bonn process” [named after the 2001 Bonn Accords] after the U.S. invasion that cobbled together the government and rushed elections to the loya jirga [grand council] in which the warlord class was allowed to monopolize power. This was the poison pill. Even leaving aside the politics of American invasion and occupation, once these figures were entrenched, there was absolutely no way that the government could function. Even if millions of dollars were given to a government of this constitution, it is never going to be used to lay roads, turn lights on, build post offices, because those in control are all wildly corrupt, and they hate each other.

Until recently, the main anticorruption tsar was a guy who had done time in Nevada for selling heroin to an FBI agent. This is the nature of the people who run the parties that are in the government. They have so much blood on their hands, having committed horrific human rights abuses. They are up to their necks in the drug trade—they all own land and extract taxes from tenant farmers who produce opium poppies. That’s the situation. It doesn’t matter how many troops are sent, or how many NGOs go there. It’s a hopeless situation. From the beginning, it has in many ways been more hopeless than Iraq because there has never been a functioning state in Afghanistan controlling the entire territory. Even though it is an old state—it declared itself a sovereign state in 1748—Kabul’s writ has never extended across the whole territory. So this project of building a coherent and compliant state is ridiculous.

WHAT ARE the historical roots of this crisis?

THE SITUATION is bad for many reasons. The primary thing to understand is that the U.S. went into Afghanistan not so much because of the Unocal gas pipeline but so as to get to Iraq. And they went to Iraq for the obvious reasons: to control the oil, directly, so firms could get rich from the oil, and indirectly, for the geopolitical importance of making the U.S. military the security force in the gulf, the source of oil to which Russia and China would be turning. The reason they had to go through Afghanistan was because there was this relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda that could not be ignored. Wolfowitz advocated going straight to Iraq on September 13, 2001, but this was seen as untenable. The only way to secure support from world and domestic opinion, to cobble together a “coalition of the willing,” was to go into Afghanistan first. They followed Rumsfeld’s theory of “light, fast warfare,” imbedding Special Forces with the warlords of the Northern Alliance, bombing and driving the Taliban out, and then, as quickly as possible, creating a government that on paper looked functional.

WHO ARE the Northern Alliance?

THE WARLORDS of the Northern Alliance stem from the former mujahideen, the CIA- and Saudi-funded, Pakistani-managed jihad that fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. But many of the roots can be found in the 1970s opposition to the government of Mohammed Daud Khan, who overthrew King Zahir Shah in 1973 with the help of the nationalists and communists. These Islamic opposition parties have been fundamentalist and thoroughly brutal, bigoted, and corrupt from the very beginning. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the perfect example. He got his start at the University of Kabul in the late 1960s terrorizing women students and battling it out with the two main factions of the Communist Party (the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan), the Khalq and the Parcham, and the smaller Maoist party. Daud came down heavily on Hekmatyar, who fled to Pakistan where he received arms and training.

WHAT’S IT like to live in Afghanistan today?

FOR MOST people, the government in Kabul is far away. The political power that the average Afghan relates to is the warlord of their particular area. This is a new force, involving fragments of the old landlord class mixed with elements of middle-class politicized students of the 1960s who chose fundamentalist Islam over progressive nationalism or socialism. In some ways, the warlords are just the old landlords that used to run the country—except they are more armed—but there has been a reconstitution, a mixing in these new forces.

As for human welfare, Afghanistan ranks third from the bottom of the UN’s index of human development. In other words, it has some of the highest rates of illiteracy, child mortality, and disease. Life is very hard in Afghanistan. Most of the country has been in the grips of drought. Farmers go into debt to moneylenders, then repay them by selling off their daughters as child brides. Life is very, very rough. So the average person lives without electricity, without running water, in total poverty, trying to scrape by the best they can in total isolation from Kabul. In the cities, it is pretty much the same way, but with not as clear subordination to armed landlords. It is not an exaggeration to describe conditions in Afghanistan as something like feudalism: powerful armed landlords control tenant farmers and extract their money, but not just to get rich and not in the capitalist sense of accumulation for accumulation’s sake. Many of these warlords could retire and live off investments in Dubai, but they don’t. What they’re really engaged in is conflict, status struggles with the landlord in the next valley, continuing their feuds over who is the baddest, heaviest big man in the region. So that’s what life is like.

CAN YOU talk about the conditions for women in particular?

THERE WAS a significant increase in liberties for many urban women after the ouster of the Taliban. The Taliban are very retrograde fundamentalists. In Kabul, women gained the right to take off their burqas, and many did and continue not to wear them. But the gains have diminished as the country sinks deeper into crisis and people retreat into desperate solutions. Men in families encourage their women to cover themselves, not always from a deep ideological commitment, but from the sense that things are getting crazier and crazier. And a lot of people out there feel an affront to Islam and see it as a provocation not to cover. So women are covering up more and more.

In the major cities, there is a class of women who have horribly, badly paid government jobs, who go unveiled in their jobs and on the streets. But many of them are now forced to work as prostitutes, having one or two “boyfriends” or clients, with whom they rendezvous for a fee equal to their monthly wage. Herat, in the West, which is more developed than any other region, is under the control of Ismail Khan, an old warlord with ties to Iran; conditions there for women are better than in other areas, so too in the north a bit.

Most women live in the countryside, where things haven’t changed much. Politics are very local. The fall of the Taliban meant the top Taliban guys disappeared while the local “commander” simply switched sides. Now that the occupation is falling apart, those local heavies are switching back. For a woman, it’s the same set of circumstances before and after.

ONE OF the other spoken goals of the occupation is drug eradication. Has that happened?

THERE HAVE been some reports of a small decline in poppy production. But these figures are not accurate, and even if there has been a slight decline, so what? Afghanistan still supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium poppies. Of the UN figures that confirmed a decline, one in particular was totally unbelievable: that Nangarhar province, which I know well, is poppy free. This cannot be the case, because large parts of the province are under Taliban control.

In 2007, I interviewed poppy farmers in southern Nangarhar. This is how “eradication” works there: When the government comes in to destroy poppies, the farmers and drug lords negotiate with the police. They threaten violence, then offer to pay a bribe to the police commanders. Eventually the cops agree. In exchange for a bribe, the cops will burn down only one small field in front of cameras, but leave most of the crop to be harvested. They reach a deal: “Take this field, I’ll pay this money, you leave us alone. You get your photo opportunity, we get to eat. Nobody gets killed.”

IS SUPPORT for the Taliban on the rise?

Yes. The Taliban are seen as less corrupt than the government. Their austere form of political Islam appeals to poor people being shaken down and abused by judges and police. The Taliban is an ethnic as much as a religious movement—the Pashtuns make up 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population and dominate the southern half of the country; they also live in eastern Pakistan. So, many Pashtun farmers support the Taliban due to links of kinship, tribe, and ethnicity. There are no Tajik or Uzbek or Hazara Taliban. The Taliban is about the Pashtun reclaiming what they see as theirs, and they want to subordinate other groups.

Also, in terms of Afghanistan’s Tajik-dominated government (Karzai is a Pashtun but most of the powerful men in the government are not), we’re seeing a drift toward fundamentalism. They have moved to ban Indian soap operas on television. They plan to execute a young journalism student who criticized Islam.  So you could say this is the Talibanization of even their opposition.

HAVE THE recent upheavals in Pakistan, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the removal of Musharraf, had much impact on Afghanistan?

I HAVEN’T been back since these events, so I have no on-the-ground reports. But the first thing the new coalition government did was placate the Pakistani Taliban: they backed off, allowed them to entrench themselves further in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border. That has coincided with more attacks, and the Taliban getting stronger on both sides of border, closer to Kabul. Not that Musharraf had been doing a better job, but lots of money was going to fighting the Taliban. Most of the money was stolen by the Pakistani officer class, or diverted into the nuclear program and into the face-off with India.

WHAT WILL be the consequences of the promised “surge” of troops into Afghanistan?

IT WON’T make any difference; this is purely for domestic consumption. Anyone who knows the situation knows it’s hopeless, but all the people connected to policy on the American side don’t have the success of the mission as their primary goal. Their main goal is success of their career in a one-year rotation or a four-year rotation. Obama says what sounds good in the moment and then will hope to pass it off to the next guy.

As in Vietnam, so in Afghanistan. Imperialist wars like this operate at two levels simultaneously: the logic of global domination and the rivalries between capitalist states, and the desire of the major capitalist states led by the U.S. to control any and all challenges be they socialist or just not fully obedient. That’s the underlying drive. But the prosecution of the war is carried out by career bureaucrats who are compartmentalized in entities like the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and what they’re doing is their little job for one year and trying to get promoted. And usually the best way to get ahead is to say everything is getting better. If you really care about America controlling the whole planet, if you are a true imperialist, you would probably want to say, “Excuse me this is not working; it’s bullshit” but this won’t help your career. A pathological reproduction of occupation sets in. Everyone is pretending that it’s going to work because they are only there for a while. Everyone really knows it’s not going to work. Just like the war in Vietnam; it’s not going to work.

WHY DOES Afghanistan continue to occupy the position of the “good war” for so many—even of those who are critical of the war on Iraq?

CONTRARY TO [what] some 9/11 conspiracy theorists [believe], there really is an organization and ideology, al-Qaeda, which was given sanctuary by, and has close ties to, the Taliban. It was from Afghanistan that they attacked the U.S.—this really happened. This is completely different from Iraq. If you look at the circumstances of the Afghan war in an ahistorical fashion, it’s a just war. Country A harbors terrorist movement B, which attacks country C. Does country C therefore have the right to retaliate against country A? The answer seems to be “yes,” if seen as an abstract logical problem.

But if you put the war in its real historical context, it loses all legitimacy because Afghanistan was destroyed, in large part, due to the marauding and terrorism of a CIA-, Saudi-, and Pakistani-funded mercenary army: the mujahideen.  The CIA and ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) favored the most fundamentalist and reactionary factions within the mujahideen, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami. The more moderate nationalist elements within the mujahideen, like Massoud, got less money.

Seen in its full historical context, the abstract rationale does not work. But in this country, we never discuss anything in its historical context, so people feel the war is just.

HOW WILL the conflict with Russia and the U.S. over Georgia impact the situation in Afghanistan?

I DON’T think it will change the situation too much. Afghanistan and Georgia are both part of an emerging network of bases and an antimissile system that are designed to pin down Iran and protect Israel. The biggest base in Afghanistan is near Shindand in Herat province. People don’t get out there; I haven’t got out there. But it is a listening post for missile signatures out of Iran. The Reagan-era dream of Star Wars didn’t work. The anti-Scud missile technology of the first Gulf war does work and actually if you surround Iran with sophisticated bases you could catch missiles and take them out. Afghanistan is crucial because it is on the western border of Iran. Georgia is also preparing to host a piece of that system. Georgia is about pipelines owned by Western consortiums, a major shareholder being BP; it has the only east-west route not controlled by Russia. This is all about trying to isolate and contain Russia.  But I don’t think Russia will try and destabilize Afghanistan. I think they want to see a stable Afghanistan. They do not want to see the spread of Islamic fundamentalism into the Central Asian republics or into Russia proper.

The Russians have played an interesting role in Afghanistan. A lot of the cargo used by the U.S. military is flown by small Russian helicopter firms—known as “jingle air.” They are named after old Pakistani trucks painted and decorated with skirts of jingling chains in imitation of old elephant chains and so nicknamed “jingle trucks.” The helicopters that supply the bases in Afghanistan are old Russian ones flown by Russian veterans using the same routes as twenty years ago, so nicknamed “jingle air.” This is the wreckage of the Soviet occupation. 

THIS HAS been a record year for civilian and military casualties. How many are caused by the United States?

In one sense, it’s all bankrolled by the United States. The government in Kabul has no authority; it’s not like Iraq sitting on oil reserves and millions in banks. Ninety-five percent of all income is from foreign donations. The other 5 percent is from taxing the jingle trucks that cross the border. It is all dependent on U.S. support. The moral responsibility is on the occupying powers no matter who pulls the trigger. But it is important to also understand the nuances: The U.S. is not blindly carpet-bombing; there are strict rules of engagement that drive the troops on the ground crazy. But U.S. troops regularly kill civilians by mistake. The most recent case in Herat is just one in a long line of wedding parties and farmhouses that have been bombed from the air. No army can fight a counterinsurgency among a civilian population and not regularly kill, maim, humiliate, and mistakenly imprison civilians.

WHAT ARE the presidential candidates promising for Afghanistan?

I DON’T need to repeat it; everyone’s heard it. “This is the central front in the war on terror. We have to win this one.” The point is that Afghanistan was the way into Iraq and now it’s the way out. The Democrats’ performance of concern around Afghanistan is a way of covering their tracks in preparation for some sort of disengagement/de-escalation in Iraq. It’s about saving face, looking tough, while losing one war and pretending to win another. But the fact of the matter is, both wars are lost.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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