The case for getting out of Afghanistan

THE U.S. and NATO occupation of Afghanistan is into its eighth year, with no apparent end in sight. The invasion, dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom,” began in October 2001 with the stated aims of capturing Osama bin-Laden, destroying his al-Qaeda network, and removing the Taliban from power. The war was presented as the first phase of an open-ended “war on terror” that was going to take on not only al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks, but an arc of states in the Middle East and elsewhere that represented, in the words of President Bush, an “axis of evil.” To sell the war, Washington and a pliant press presented the invasion as a war to liberate Afghans, and in particular women, from the yoke of the Taliban’s Islamic despotism.

While the Taliban was removed from power fairly quickly, the occupation itself has turned out disastrously—both for the people of Afghanistan and for the occupiers. Kabul, the seat of the U.S.-backed puppet government of Hamid Karzai, has no authority beyond the city’s suburbs. Where the growing Taliban insurgency is not in control—bolstered by the rising resentment over civilian casualties caused by incessant and increasing bombing campaigns—the country is divided between corrupt warlords, whose armies are trained and supported by the United States. These warlords—under whose power Afghanistan quickly became the largest producer of heroin—are as brutal and as oppressive, particularly toward women, as their Taliban predecessors.1

“Afghanistan is once again staring down the abyss of state collapse,” writes Ahmed Rashid, a critic who supports the war, “despite billions of dollars of aid, forty-five thousand Western troops, and the deaths of thousands of people. The Taliban have made a dramatic comeback, enlisting the help of al Qaeda and Islamic extremists in Pakistan, and getting a boost from the explosion in heroin production that has helped fund their movement.”2

Yet if there is one point of agreement between Republicans and Democrats, and even sections of the antiwar movement, it is that the U.S. war on Afghanistan is the “good war”—a legitimate response to the September 11 attacks, mainly aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice—unlike the occupation of Iraq, which is viewed, even by sections of the Washington establishment, as unnecessary, illegal, and based on lies.

The incoming Obama administration has vowed to escalate the war in Afghanistan with an infusion of more troops. As these changes take place, the antiwar movement must broaden its horizons to take in not only opposition to the war in Iraq, but also to the occupation of Afghanistan. This article, by examining the roots of the U.S. invasion and occupation, will make the case that the antiwar movement must question not only the methods, but also the motives behind the war in Afghanistan. Many of us rightly saw the invasion of Iraq as part of a strategy for the U.S., in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to assert its role as the sole unchallenged global superpower, by seizing a bridgehead in the strategic center of world oil production. There is no logical reason to separate Afghanistan from this assessment of U.S. strategic interests.

Afghan lives don’t count 
When Afghan president Hamid Karzai offered congratulations to Barack Obama on his election victory, Karzai also issued a demand: Once he’s taken office, Obama must stop Western troops from causing civilian casualties.3 This is a burning topic among Afghans. The toll of civilian casualties, along with other aspects of the occupation, has led more and more Afghans to conclude that Western forces should leave.

Civilian casualties have gone up because the war has intensified. Advances by the Taliban and other insurgents have led the U.S. and its NATO allies to respond with a massive increase in bombing. The escalation began in the second half of 2006, when the U.S. made 2,100 bombing strikes—compared to 88 in Iraq during the same period.4 Then in 2007, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Afghanistan doubled. Most of these are U.S. bombs. By 2008, the tonnage of bombs dropped in June and July, was about equal to all of those dropped in 2006.5 The increased bombing reflects a military doctrine based on light ground troops combined with overwhelming air power.

Most U.S. bombing takes place when Western forces come under fire from insurgents, and the soldiers call for “close air support.”6 It’s a variation on the tactic of “search and destroy,” which was pioneered in the Vietnam War. The idea is to send out the soldiers as bait to draw out and expose the insurgents—and then to use the American technical advantage to strike them from the air. Such attacks account for two-thirds of Western-inflicted civilian deaths.7 Attacks since July caused a string of tragedies. Dozens of civilians died in each case. The most gruesome incident was the bombing of a wedding party on August 22 in the western province of Herat. Tribal elders and the Afghan government said that not a single Taliban died in the strike, while ninety-five civilians were killed—including fifty children and nineteen women.8

Incidents like these have started to tip Afghan opinion against the occupation. According to the Christian Science Monitor, recent “high-profile attacks are bringing anti-American sentiment to an all-time high.” An Afghan law professor told the Monitor:

“Afghans by and large still support the troops, but after these recent incidents more people are starting to change their minds.” While there has been no recent poll, a November 2007 study by Environics found that 52 percent of Afghans want the troops out within the next three to five years…. The approval rating of the U.S. role in Afghanistan dipped from 68 percent in 2005 to 42 percent in 2007, according to data collected by Charney Research.9

The decline in Afghan public support is a very serious development for the future of the U.S. intervention. But it also reveals that civilian deaths, by themselves, are not decisive in shifting Afghan opinion, because Taliban attacks actually account for a majority—55 percent—of reported civilian casualties.10 Afghans, however, generally don’t express the same outrage toward Taliban tactics as they do toward Western ones. In December 2008, an Afghan correspondent wrote:

Last week an international convoy hit and killed a civilian on a highway just outside of Kabul. By the time I got there, the locals were rioting, throwing stones and other things at the police. However, just the day before, a Taliban suicide bomber had struck a busy roundabout near the U.S. embassy, killing four civilians (and no one else). I got there quickly and some people were quietly scrubbing the blood off the walls.  No riots, no protests, nothing!11

Taliban tactics are connected to civilian deaths in two different ways. First, the Taliban started to take up suicide bombing in 2003,12 which often results in civilian casualties even when Western forces are the main target. Second, the Taliban and their allies also take refuge among civilians, according to Western sources, at moments when they know that Western fire may be imminent. Some analysts doubt whether the Taliban deliberately use human shields, since they also depend on civilian support.13 During the Taliban’s resurgence since their initial defeat in 2001–02, most of the Taliban’s new recruits have come directly out of the civilian population—and stay near home when they fight—so the Taliban may just be operating in proximity to civilians because that’s where they spend most of their time.14

In any case, Taliban tactics send a different message to Afghans than Western tactics do. Taliban tactics demonstrate that they’re willing to die to expel the foreign troops, while Western tactics show that Western forces are willing to kill Afghans in order to avoid exposing themselves to harm. The contrast between these two messages is insulting to Afghans, and it undermines the very pretext for the Western presence—the idea that foreign troops are necessary to bring Afghans the humanitarian help they need. How can Western motives be humanitarian when the foreigners clearly care more about their own lives than they do about the lives of Afghans?

Western tactics don’t really show that politicians and commanders care most about “their own” soldiers’ lives, either. They really show that previous antiwar movements have made the warmakers more sensitive to Western public opinion than to Afghan public opinion. It’s a strategic, political decision to spare Western soldiers’ lives with tactics that kill Afghans. U.S. and NATO ground forces are dying at the highest rate since the war began—with 253 killed in the first ten months of 2008—but U.S. pilots are killing Afghan civilians at about three times that rate.15

The bombings are not the only thing that is turning Afghans against the occupation. Routine detentions, invasive searches, and torture, also play their part. Since the invasion, hundreds of men, “and even some boys, have been arrested by the U.S., imprisoned, tortured, and in a few cases, killed.”16

U.S. bombs send a message to all Afghans—partly thanks to video footage distributed by the Taliban, who have overcome their aversion to displaying human images. What seemed to anger Afghans most following the bombing of the Herat wedding party was that U.S. officials started by denying that any civilians died and claimed that seven Taliban were killed. Once they were embarrassed into making an additional investigation, officials finally admitted that thirty-three civilians were killed, but stuck to the original unsupported claim that there were insurgents among the dead. In this incident, as in others, U.S. officials expressed regret for the loss of civilian lives while still claiming that the U.S. attack was fully justified.17

U.S. attacks have now spread into neighboring Pakistan. General David Petraeus visited Pakistan in early November and heard the objections of Pakistani politicians to U.S. attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas—where dozens more civilians have been killed by about twenty attacks in the past few months. Petraeus listened, and then went on to Afghanistan where he affirmed that U.S. attacks on Pakistani soil were “hugely important.”18

The growing resentment toward the U.S. presence doesn’t mean that everybody is joining the resistance. Some hold out hope that the occupation can change to become humanitarian. Others who now oppose the occupation don’t want to join forces like the Taliban. Thousands have indeed joined the Taliban, however, in the past three years. Interviews with new recruits reveal a high proportion joined because they personally knew people who had become collateral damage in the war.19

The basic question is now posed quite clearly in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Should Western troops stay or get out? More and more noncombatants are beginning to agree with the central war objective of the Taliban—Western forces must leave.

The question of withdrawal is not posed in the U.S. with anywhere near the same level of clarity or urgency. In order to do that, we’ll need to look at some Afghan history to expose why Western troops are really there. This record shows whether U.S. actions really match the professed humanitarian objectives, including the defense of women’s rights. The record also shows how much, and how little, the intervention has to do with al-Qaeda. And it shows what’s been constant in the calculations of top politicians—a concern for pipeline politics and the pursuit of strategic imperial position.

Peculiarities of Afghan development 
Afghanistan is not the product of a national movement of people who considered themselves to be Afghans. It was created in 1893, under British auspices, as a buffer state between the Russian Empire to the north and the British Empire to the south. People of several different language groups were thrown together—but also divided from members of their own groups who lived outside the borders of Afghanistan. This includes Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north, who are still tied today to people in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Western Tajiks have close connections to Iran. Most important for recent events are the people who speak Pashto—the Pashtuns—who number eleven million in Afghanistan and twenty-two million in neighboring Pakistan. Comprising more than 40 percent of the Afghan population, Pashtuns are the country’s largest ethnic group.

A key feature of Afghanistan is the weakness of its central state. In its efforts to conquer the region, the British suffered severe military setbacks at various times and quickly came to understand this fact. As historian Raja Anwar writes:

From 1842 to 1919 [after which Afghanistan became independent], every Afghan Amir was dependent on British grants, stipends and privy purses. While the purchase of the Afghan rulers was never a problem, the hardy Pushtun people, nurtured on ancient and individualistic tribal traditions, were outside both their circle of influence and their comprehension. It took the British a long time and much sacrifice and suffering to understand the fundamental difference between the Afghan rulers and the Afghan people.20

Lacking the strong centralizing influence of direct colonial rule, Afghanistan developed into two separate economies and two separate social worlds. The central state developed some urban commercial classes that were based on tax revenue from the transit trade, mostly from goods transported from a neighboring country through Afghanistan into a third country. These urban classes had practically no economic interaction with people in the countryside—who were not even taxed. City people also developed along their own cultural lines, which related them to cultures in the outside world.21

In contrast, people in the Afghan countryside seldom became aware of their connections outside their local areas. Some were farmers, many were nomadic herders, and their social connections were made largely through tribal and kinship relations. Much of Afghanistan retained pre-capitalist, tribal and feudal social relations up into the second half of the twentieth century.22 Blood feuds were an accepted custom. Though some traditions of communal land use remained, in those areas where feudal relations predominated, tribal chiefs, who were also military leaders, had come to own most of the land and the water supply (for which they collected fees); and they lent money to fellow tribesmen at usurious rates.23 Afghanistan remained a predominantly rural agricultural and handicraft society with very little modern development. The country received Russian aid and investment in various civilian and military projects starting in the 1950s, when Afghanistan drifted more closely into the Russian orbit. Nevertheless, on the eve of the Soviet invasion in 1979, thirteen of fifteen million Afghans were landless, and Afghanistan only had 40,000 industrial workers, 60,517 motor vehicles, and 20,851 telephones.24

A Cold War battleground
In 1978, a military coup, led by two formerly competing factions of the small Afghan pro-Soviet communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), toppled the regime of Sardar Daud Khan, a Pashtun nationalist and reformer who himself had taken power in a 1973 coup that toppled the Afghan monarchy. Though Daud had at first collaborated closely with one of the PDPA factions, he began soon to shift Afghanistan away from its allegiance to the Soviet Union and toward Pakistan and the United States. This was no revolution: The coup was a purely military affair, led by a middle-class party devoted to alliances with sections of the Afghan urban and military elite, and depending on Russian support, to achieve its aims. It had no base among either workers or peasants in the countryside.25 Moreover, it had a completely overblown idea of what could be achieved through control of the central state.

The new regime initiated the strongest intervention into the countryside that the Afghan state ever attempted. A national-minded, but relatively small, layer of the urban middle class and intellectuals had set itself up as progressive reformers who sought to elevate the condition of the backward countryside—and to integrate urban and rural life with plans hatched in the cities. There was plenty of oppression in the countryside to be liberated from—women were kept in second-class status, and millions of landless people of lower tribal status were kept in check by landowners (mostly tribal chiefs) and mullahs (local Muslim clergy). But the new government had no clue about how any of this worked. Their land reform policy, decreed without any prior planning or foresight, was typical, “implemented by blundering and often brutal officials from the city who dropped into the countryside by parachute,”26 and who sought “with a few orders from the center and a policy of ruthless brutality to eliminate any actual or potential centers of opposition.”27 Their arrogance and violence provoked a general uprising of the countryside against the central authority. When it became apparent that the regime, internally rife with competing factions, was losing its grip, the Russians decided to invade.

In the summer of 1979, before the Russian ground invasion, President Jimmy Carter authorized secret assistance to arm and organize the opponents of the regime.28 But grass-roots resistance to the regime was already in full swing. The Russians and their clients were stirring discontent in much the way that the current occupiers do—by repressing resistance in a way that killed civilians, and by turning against entire groups when the groups became bases of insurgency.29 By aiding the insurgency, U.S. planners saw an opportunity to bleed their Cold War adversaries with no risk of American casualties. “The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border,” said National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, “I wrote to president Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving the U.S.S.R its Vietnam war.”30

The U.S. supported Afghan insurgents via its connection with Pakistan, which was a long-term U.S. military client. Pakistan’s army and its military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), took American and Saudi money to arm Islamist militias to fight the Russians. The Pakistani dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq supported the Afghan insurgency in order to project Pakistani power into Afghanistan. But royalists and Afghan nationalist insurgents wouldn’t do, since they would be too independent of Pakistan. Zia nurtured the Islamist strand in the army and ISI, and they promoted Afghan resistance on a religious sectarian basis. They armed seven groups of mujahideen, Islamist fighters who, with ISI help, marginalized or simply killed the leaders of other resistance forces. The CIA fully approved the policy.31

The Reagan administration expanded the investment to billions of dollars in the 1980s, making it the most expensive, and most overt “covert” operation in U.S. history. The CIA and ISI built up, for example, the militia of a ruthless fanatic named Gulbaddin Hekmatyar (famous for his supporters throwing acid into the faces of women who refused to wear the veil), who spoke excellent English and often turned his guns on rival militias. Through the 1980s, Hekmatyar was the ISI’s favored client, but today he leads an army that’s fighting the NATO occupation in Afghanistan’s east, just south of Kabul.32

It was in the 1980s that a rich Saudi citizen, Osama bin-Laden, got his start as a financier and organizer of Islamist militants. The Saudi presence, which was coordinated with the U.S., helped gather Islamist fighters from around the world. Some of them became al-Qaeda in 1988.33

To everybody’s surprise, the U.S. strategy actually succeeded in driving the Russians out in 1989. At that point, the mujahideen turned against each other and did not take the capital city, Kabul, until 1992.34 The physical destruction of Kabul dates from 1993, as rival militias pounded the city with rockets and artillery. In the process, these former and future clients of the U.S. killed 10,000 civilians as they battled for supremacy.35 The leaders did not really aim to build a national state, but instead aimed to enlarge their spheres of influence by building on their sectarian and ethnic bases. The destruction of the capital city reflects the forces’ social base in rural Afghanistan, where urban life was seen as corrupt and the central state was seen as the prime source of oppression. These traits, of course, the mujahideen shared with the Taliban, the force that would supplant them within a few years.36

As the mujahideen turned against each other in the early 1990s, they also turned against the United States. The events of 1991 accelerated this shift. The breakup of the Soviet Union brought about the independence of predominantly Muslim republics in Central Asia, so the Islamists no longer needed U.S. help there against the godless communists. The other key event of 1991 was the U.S. Gulf War against Iraq. Islamists like bin-Laden were enraged that Saudi Arabia would accept U.S. protection against Saddam Hussein, whose army had invaded Kuwait the previous August. Bin-Laden’s closest Pashtun allies, Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, also denounced the Saudi alliance with the U.S., although they had recently been on the Saudi payroll. The Saudi government expelled bin-Laden, who ended up in Sudan, a country that opposed the U.S. in the Gulf War. From then on, the U.S. was bin-Laden’s main enemy, but al-Qaeda got its start—as people like Hekmatyar also got their start—as collaborators with the U.S. in the anti-Soviet war.

Afghan civil war and Caspian pipeline politics 
The Taliban rose on the ruins of Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Their origin lies in the destruction of everyday life in the countryside during the anti-Soviet war. A society that was built on extremely local relations was suddenly blasted apart by warfare in the 1980s, and millions of people became refugees, both within Afghanistan but also moving into Iran and Pakistan. The place was flooded with guns, and traditional forms of authority broke down.

In place of the local tribal notables, there arose a new category of warlords who claimed tribal or ethnic leadership and enforced their local control with the help of private militias. This new warlord class overlapped with the bigger warlords of the U.S.-backed mujahideen. With thousands of young men under arms—and no longer engaged in direct production—the rural economy became a cash economy. The warlords directed the peasants to plant opium to pay for the militias.37

This regime was a living hell for most people, and it got worse when the warlords turned on each other following the Soviet withdrawal. Education broke down, in both its traditional and modern forms. After 1978, there were no regular schools in the Pashtun south, but tens of thousands of religious schools—madrassas—sprang up in the refugee areas along the Pakistani border, funded with money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.38 A new generation of Pashtun boys was thrown together from different tribes in the madrassas, away from traditional tribal authority.39 That’s where the first generation of Taliban leadership was created.

The Taliban’s ideology, drawn from both Saudi and Pakistani sources, asserted the supremacy of sharia, or Islamic law. But this didn’t set them apart from Afghanistan’s mujahideen or other warlords—who also tried to legitimate their power by an appeal to this or that version of Sharia law.

What set the Taliban apart is that they believed that Sharia superseded traditional tribal law, which they viewed as un-Islamic. This was their way of explaining why the rule of tribal warlords was illegitimate.40 The Taliban’s conservative social program was one thing—which we’re pretty familiar with, since the Western press has taken care to recite what the Taliban prohibits, such as toothpaste, marbles, cigarettes, dancing, music, kite-flying, wrapping paper, U.S.-style haircuts, jobs for women, and school for girls.41 But they are only somewhat more repressive than the warlords. Both the Taliban and the mujahideen sponsored Saudi-inspired religious police.42

The key to the Taliban’s eventual victory was their success in establishing a monopoly on armed force. They disarmed the warlord militias, and civilian deaths dropped. The oppression of women was reinforced, but rapists were punished.43

Most important for attracting military and financial support, the Taliban reestablished commerce. Aside from the opium trade, the warlords raised money by setting up armed checkpoints to extract transit taxes. And they also simply looted whomever they pleased. The Taliban protected property with severe punishment, and they took down the roadblocks. As a result, they got the endorsement of the business class. Some of the Taliban’s first major support came from the Pakistani trucking industry, which wanted to be able to ship things between Pakistan and Turkmenistan without being robbed or taxed to death.44 Taking down the roadblocks also lowered the price of necessities, which helped produce a public view that the Taliban might be awful, but they were preferable to the warlords.

In the early 1990s, a genuine civil war had broken out inside Afghanistan. Intervention by Russia and the United States had set up the conditions for this civil war, but now it had a life of its own. The war’s key precondition was the breakdown of traditional authority in the countryside. The major parties in the ongoing civil war—first the warlords, and then the warlords plus the Taliban—are both products of this breakdown of traditional authority. In the anti-Soviet war, the countryside defeated the city, and these two reactionary rural forces rose to try to fill the power vacuum.45 The warlords’ power is based on strongmen who appeal to tribal or ethnic solidarity. The Taliban, on the other hand, are centered around the rural clergy—the graduates of the madrassas who are known as mullahs. Yet in an important respect the Taliban do not break from the traditional shape of inter-ethnic conflict in Afghanistan. They are still overwhelmingly restricted to one ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who probably still form 90 to 95 percent of their membership. To the extent that they have recruited among non-Pashtuns, they have done it by extending their sectarian networks—of mullahs who agree with them.46

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. took no interest in the accelerating destruction of Afghanistan, even though the contending forces had been unleashed by the CIA’s policy of backing the region’s radical Islamists. U.S. policy toward Afghanistan was never really about Afghans. It was about the U.S. position on the global chessboard. In the early 1990s, the CIA’s focus thus moved north to take up the hunt for oil:

After the Soviet Union’s collapse the CIA’s Directorate of Operations moved into the newly independent, former Soviet republics. Among other objectives the CIA sought to thwart Iranian ambitions in Central Asia.… Oil-rich republics along the Caspian Sea opened their vast energy reserves to foreign corporations. American firms sought a piece of the action.… [T]he CIA’s officers “were all over Ukraine and Central Asia, going in just as fast as we could, finding new opportunities,” recalled Thomas Twetten, then chief of the [CIA’s] Directorate of Operations….
But the CIA ignored Afghanistan and its civil war.47

The oil and natural gas of Central Asia, which are part of a wider reserve in the Caspian Sea area, are especially important to the future of the global economy because they are undeveloped and thus have the potential of rapidly expanding output. The Department of Energy predicts a 171 percent increase in Caspian oil production from 2005 to 2030, and potentially an even greater expansion of gas production.48 Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has thus supported the region’s repressive governments in hopes of prying them away from the influence of Russia:

Although first triggered by the commercial instincts of American oil firms [following the collapse of the Soviet Union], interest in the area’s energy potential soon came to be seen by U.S. officials as a vital strategic matter. Washington promptly began working to foster the emergence of robust, economically viable states in the non-Russian space of the former Soviet Union. American policymakers saw these nations both as a bulwark against any future Imperial Russian superpower and as one means to reduce U.S. dependence on oil supplies from the Middle East.49 [Author’s emphasis]

The great powers may have lost sight of Afghanistan during the early years of the civil war, but Afghanistan’s neighbors never did. In particular, Pakistan’s president, Benazir Bhutto, began to take note of this new group around Kandahar after 1994. Like those in the trucking industry, she realized that the newly independent Central Asian states would welcome new markets to the south. If they were going to connect to Pakistan, they would have to go through Afghanistan. Pakistan thus switched its support from Hekmatyar to the new religious movement that promised to get the goods through. The Saudis gave money and advice about how to set up repressive religious institutions, and by the time the Taliban took Kabul in 1995, they had tanks and heavy weapons.50

Taliban victory also raised the hopes of the Clinton administration, whose pipeline plans coincided with Benazir’s—for a portion of Central Asian oil and gas to come south through Afghanistan and bypass Russia and Iran.51 The Clinton administration didn’t care who won the civil war, as long as the place could be stabilized. That’s why Zalmay Khalilzad, the neoconservative Afghan-American, was helping California’s Unocal and the CIA in negotiations with the Taliban—even before they took power—about gas and oil pipelines that would run from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.52 Khalilzad, of course, later became George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN after overseeing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington’s indifference at the time to the repressive nature of the Taliban was expressed by one U.S. diplomat in 1997 who remarked, “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco [the consortium of oil companies that controlled Saudi oil], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”53

From civil war to September 11
Things, of course, didn’t work out as Clinton, Khalilzad, and Unocal hoped. The Taliban didn’t completely stabilize Afghanistan. They never defeated the warlords in the north—the future Northern Alliance—who kept up a fight from the 5 to 10 percent of the territory they still controlled.54 Back then, the U.S. wasn’t supporting the Northern Alliance, whose major patrons were Russia, Iran, and India. The Russians were trying to disrupt the Taliban’s ability to support Islamist militants in places like Chechnya, and India was trying to undermine Taliban rule because it represented a major extension of Pakistani regional influence.55

By 1999, however, U.S. diplomats “privately made clear to Russia and Iran that the United States had no objections to the covert arms those countries supplied Massoud [the Northern Alliance leader].”56 The U.S. was in the middle of a slow turn against the Taliban, not just because the Taliban had failed to create stability, but because of its close connection to Osama bin-Laden. Bin-Laden had returned to Afghanistan in 1996 when the U.S. pressured Sudan to expel him.57 Hostility to the Taliban sharpened in August 1998 when al-Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. retaliated with cruise missile attacks against a supposed al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan (which turned out to be deserted) and against a supposed chemical weapons factory in Sudan (which turned out to be a major pharmaceutical plant).

Today, the polarization between the U.S. and the Taliban seems bound to continue as long as the U.S. occupies Afghanistan. But before the fall of 2001, it’s not clear that the Taliban considered the U.S. to be its enemy. Already under U.S. sanctions since the African embassy bombings, the Taliban didn’t want to face the same kind of isolation that the Sudanese regime had faced. In fact, the Taliban saw benefits of collaborating with the U.S. as late as 2000–01. After the Taliban imposed a ban on opium poppies in 2000, Bush’s State Department announced in May 2001 that the U.S. would reciprocate with a $43 million grant.58 British journalist John Pilger also suggests that, in those months, the Taliban may have seriously considered kicking bin-Laden out.59

The Taliban and al-Qaeda were close collaborators, and military allies against the Northern Alliance, but their interests weren’t identical. The congressional 9/11 Commission Report on the September 11 attacks documents that the Taliban knew that al-Qaeda was planning some kind of attack against the United States in 2001—and opposed it:

Although bin-Laden’s top priority apparently was to attack the United States, others had a different view. The Taliban leaders put their main emphasis on the year’s military offensive against the Northern Alliance.… They certainly hoped that this year’s offensive would finally finish off their old enemies, driving them from Afghanistan. From the Taliban’s perspective, an attack against the United States might be counterproductive. It might draw the Americans into the war against them, just when final victory seemed within their grasp.
There is evidence that [Taliban chief] Mullah Omar initially opposed a major al-Qaeda operation directly against the United States in 2001.60

The “Pearl Harbor moment”: Hunting bin-Laden, or pursuing a grander strategy? 
The Bush administration’s decision to go to war against the Taliban clearly had something to do with al-Qaeda’s attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But what exactly is the connection?

If retaliation against al-Qaeda had been the central U.S. objective, U.S. actions would have taken a different course than they did. In the week following September 11, the administration formulated a list of demands, including the handover of bin-Laden, and authorized the chief of Pakistan’s ISI to convey the demands to the head of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Omar. When the ISI chief reported back that Omar’s response to the demands was, in the words of the 9/11 Commission Report, “not negative on all these points,” the U.S. ignored the prospect of future talks.61 The Bush team was determined to invade and would not be deterred by the prospect of a peaceful capture of top al-Qaeda figures. In October 2001, the administration brushed aside a public Taliban peace initiative:

After about a week of bombing, the Taliban offered to hand over bin-Laden, provided the U.S. stopped their attack and presented them with evidence that he was responsible for 9/11. This was rejected by Bush:

“There’s no need to negotiate. There’s no discussion. I told them exactly what they need to do. And there is no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty. Turn him over.… Now, when I said no negotiation, I meant no negotiation.”62

The U.S. may have been going after bin-Laden—as any world power would have done after an attack like September 11—but the conduct of the war shows that this goal was clearly subordinate to the goal of occupying Afghanistan. The U.S. was setting out to occupy strategic points in the Middle East and Central Asia that would cut them into the oil and gas and cut their imperial rivals out. By all accounts, Iraq was actually the favored target. Regime change in Iraq had been official U.S. policy since Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, and George Bush’s neoconservative group took office in 2001 with a special focus on Iraq, a focus that continued even in the days after September 11.63 The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center provided an excuse to open a broad war that would include Iraq, but only after an initial operation in the direction of al-Qaeda—in Afghanistan.

In this way, the September 11 attacks provided the key pretext for the aggressive re-assertion of U.S. power around the world. The Bush administration came into office looking for such a pretext. Many of the administration’s officials and advisers were members of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC)—including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Zalmay Khalilzad. Wolfowitz co-authored a September 2000 PNAC paper that outlined methods for building military capacity for multiple interventions, declared that this “transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.”64 September 11 provided the neocons with their “Pearl Harbor moment,” and they quickly seized the opportunity to put military force into motion, even if Afghanistan wasn’t the place they had been thinking of invading to begin with.

The administration, however, recognized that Afghanistan held some strategic importance in its own right. Despite the rhetorical break from the Clinton era, there was substantial continuity of regional policy from Clinton to Bush. Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, notes that “George W. Bush had been highly critical of Clinton’s foreign policy during the 2000 presidential campaign, but he quickly embraced his predecessor’s strategic endeavors in the Caspian Sea region once in office.”65 The Afghanistan operation allowed the U.S. to plant forces not just in Afghanistan but in the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This unexpected access, which had been sought sinceµ the Clinton administration, put U.S. forces on Russia’s doorstep, on both sides of China, and—following the invasion of Iraq—on both sides of Iran.

They’ve since been kicked out of Uzbekistan, and the Russians have advanced against Georgia on the other side of the Caspian—so the permanent U.S. foreign-policy planners have renewed their determination to hold onto Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton’s UN ambassador and a top contender to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of State until Hillary Clinton got the job, wrote earlier this year that the U.S. must be prepared for an Afghan war that lasts longer than U.S. direct involvement in Vietnam—fourteen years.66

The regime the U.S. installed 
From the fall of 2001, it was clear that al-Qaeda was not the central objective in the anti-Taliban war. Aside from the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the other two most commonly stated objectives of the war were humanitarian assistance and the defense of women’s rights. The U.S. choice of allies, however, and the nature of regime the U.S. brought to power, actually demonstrate that the contempt for Afghan welfare within the U.S. policy elite is just as constant as their pursuit of imperial advantage. The record of their conduct shows that the main purpose of the war was the occupation itself, and the installation of a new regime that owes its existence to the U.S.

The strategy in the opening round of the war was to use U.S. air power, combined with the ethnically-based militias known as the Northern Alliance. These are basically warlords of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, which is a Shiite minority. In other words, the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan’s unfinished civil war on the side of the gangster warlords against the sectarian clergy. The warlords had been losing, and the U.S. made them win—for now.

The U.S. awarded positions of power as spoils of war. The Ministry of Defense went to a Tajik general, Muhammad Fahim, who excluded all other ethnicities from any real power in the army. The Ministry of the Interior went to Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek general who celebrated the victory against the Taliban with the ethnic cleansing of half of the one million Pashtuns who lived in the north. In the West, longtime Iranian client Ismail Khan took over as governor of Herat and set about persecuting the Pashtun minority. Women in Herat were also subject to intensified oppression, and began to commit suicide by self-immolation in the hundreds.67

Back in Kabul, major influence over the judiciary went to Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a sectarian fanatic who had been a mentor to Osama bin-Laden, and who gave his name to the al-Qaeda group in the Philippines. Under Sayyaf’s direction, Karzai appointed a chief justice who filled up Kabul’s jails with women for offenses such as refusing to consent to an arranged marriage. The chief justice also reinstituted the Taliban religious police and renamed them the Accountability Department.68 Sayyaf now lives outside Kabul, and he’s a pro-U.S. parliamentary deputy. He regularly enters the suburbs in order to rob people and rape women.69 Sayyaf’s main qualification to be an ally of the U.S. is that he is one of the few Pashtun leaders of the Northern Alliance, and he opposes the Taliban.

Under the new regime, some girls have been able to go to school, and a handful of women sit in parliament. But the balance sheet on women’s fate in the new Afghanistan has big negatives alongside the positives. One Afghan feminist activist told journalist John Pilger in 2007:

We, the women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the west following 11 September 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official enemy of America. Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not unique, and we have resented the silence in the west over the atrocious nature of the western-backed warlords, who are no different. They rape and kidnap and terrorise, yet they hold seats in Karzai’s government. In some ways, we were more secure under the Taliban. You could cross Afghanistan by road and feel secure. Now, you take your life into your hands.70

The warlord factions that count themselves as U.S. allies have also played out their rivalries, and their oppression of Pashtuns, with the rape of women and children.71

To head up the warlord government, the U.S. appointed Hamid Karzai. He was not a warlord himself, but he had a relationship to the U.S. going back to the anti-Soviet war, and he was another Pashtun who had turned against the Taliban.72 Karzai was not the most prominent anti-Taliban Pashtun. Others had bigger followings, but the U.S. did not promote their leadership because their connection to independent political bases could embolden them to act independently of the United States.73

The U.S. method of finding allies meant that the war essentially restored warlord rule by excluding the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group—except for Karzai, who stands at the top with no base of his own. And of course, these aren’t really allies. They’re clients.

How the new regime works 
The regime of Karzai and the warlords is dysfunctional by any measure. Afghanistan is not just poor but unequal. It has developed into a class society where most people barely scratch out an existence, while warlords, politicians and U.S. contractors have become wealthy as a result of the burgeoning opium trade, which reopened in 2002 with tacit U.S. consent; customs and tolls on the transit of goods; direct patronage from foreign governments to various Afghan factions; and foreign aid.

The export value of the opium crop is about $4 billion—an amount equal to half the size of Afghanistan’s licit Gross Domestic Product.74 Official Western sources say the Taliban are the main beneficiaries, but they probably take only $100 million. Seventy to 80 percent of gross profits go to traffickers and their civil and military protectors.75 Farmers, of course, don’t make much more money than they get for food crops, but opium is the only crop that buyers will pay for in advance.76

The profit thus goes to the warlords, big and small, and to their brothers or cousins in the government or security forces who run interference for the family business.77 At the local level, the connection between the traffickers and their official protectors was cemented by the way the CIA “demobilized” warlord militias in the countryside following the Taliban’s retreat. The smaller warlords became the police chiefs, while the militias kept their weapons and joined the force.78 In the terms that are used by foreign-policy wonks and the military, these U.S. allies—the drug lords—make a living by keeping whole regions “lawless” and “insecure.”

The second major source of revenue, the tolls on the transit trade, is also controlled privately by the people who control the guns. Regional warlords get the revenue for their regions, and local warlords get the revenue from local roadblocks. The total annual revenue is more than half a billion dollars, which exceeds the budget of the central government.79 The tolls on domestic transport, abolished under the Taliban, have driven up food prices that were already high because of crop failures.80

The third major source of wealth, direct foreign payments to Afghan faction leaders, is difficult to trace or to quantify. It’s important, however, to the country’s political balance of power. Northern warlords such as General Dostum, Atta Muhammed, and Sardar Muhammed Daud have received support from Russia and Uzbekistan, while Ismail Khan is a long-term client of Iran’s. Muhammad Fahim, who crafted the Tajik-dominated Afghan National Army, is the client of Russia, India, and Iran. When the anti-Taliban war began in 2001, the CIA and Pentagon became a major patron to the warlords, big and small. Sayyaf, for example, received $100,000 from the CIA at the opening of the war.81 Pakistan has covertly aided the Taliban, and support for the broader insurgency comes from Islamist sources around the world.82

The fourth and last source of wealth in Afghanistan is official foreign aid, which itself comes into Afghanistan in two distinct streams. A sizable chunk of it, as much as 40 percent, bypasses the government in neoliberal fashion and goes straight to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—which are overwhelmingly managed by foreigners. A significant part of this money that enters Afghanistan thus also leaves quickly, since it goes into the bank accounts of NGO managers in the Western contractors they employ.83 According to one study, most reconstruction money to Afghanistan ends up in the hands of U.S. corporations:

A report issued in June 2005 by the non-profit organization Action Aid reveals that much of the U.S. tax money earmarked to rebuild Afghanistan actually ends up going no further than the pockets of wealthy U.S. corporations. “Phantom aid” that never shows up in the recipient country is a scam in which paychecks for overpriced, and often incompetent, American “experts” under contract to USAID go directly from the Agency to American bank accounts. Additionally, 70 percent of the aid that does make it to a recipient country is carefully “tied” to the donor nation, requiring that the recipient use the donated money to buy products and services from the donor country, often at drastically inflated prices. The US far outstrips other nations in these schemes, as Action Aid calculates that 86 cents of every dollar of American aid is phantom.84

The rest of foreign aid goes to the state, and people get control of it through their connection to the state. Some income comes directly from skimming government funds, and some comes from using the power of official positions for extortion. In 2006, Christian Parenti wrote this description:

The government…has become a classic rentier state: an institution designed to capture revenue rather than deliver services and facilitate economic growth…. The government’s thirty-two ministries are massively overstaffed, with employees usually earning a mere $30–$100 a month.…

Not surprisingly, they use their positions to demand bribes and peculate public funds. The modus operandi of the ministries is to deny access, deny permission, deny responsibility and sabotage those who might be effective at their job—in case they start capturing more of the aid flow.…

Five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Kabul has only three hours of electricity per day and unsanitary and inadequate drinking water. The healthcare system is nonexistent or run by foreign NGOs, and primary schools lack teachers. The government undertakes almost no public works; there is no food-safety system or program of agricultural extensions; state-owned industries—such as coal mines, gas works, cement factories, the national airline with its half-dozen planes, a chain of old hotels and several massive granaries—receive little or no investment.
To pay taxes in Kabul one must first bribe the tax collector! No bribe and your taxes (which will be stolen) won’t be registered as paid.”85

These four major streams of wealth explain how the U.S. has bought itself clients in Afghanistan.86 Condoleezza Rice can scold the Karzai administration for “bad governance”—and Barack Obama can say in the presidential debates that Karzai needs to be persuaded to serve his people—but the regime’s corruption is a product of the objective of the U.S. war. The U.S. set out to construct a client state, and nobody should be surprised if it operates by extortion, patronage, official corruption, and permanent insecurity. There is no other way to create a systematic alignment to a foreign power such as the U.S. except by reinforcing the way the local elite maintains the local disparities in wealth.

Afghanistan runs like the mafia because that’s the way imperialism is done. What’s more, Afghanistan is run like a set of competing mafias, relations that are perpetuated by an imperial competition between great powers to back one faction against the others. These crimes are built into the very foundation of Afghanistan as a buffer state, and the crimes have become more acute and devastating as the great powers have devoted more and more attention to it. The past thirty years of escalated foreign intervention have made the situation for Afghans worse and worse. Thirty years ago, many knew nothing of the outside world, but now they’ve gone through two imperial invasions, the Soviet and the American, and they’ve been introduced to international jihad. They didn’t have a cash economy, but now more than one out of seven of them are engaged in the opium business—and one out of twenty-seven is addicted.87 And thirty years ago, most were able to produce just a bare subsistence, but now one-third of Afghans—nine million—are facing acute food shortage this winter.88 This kind of deterioration serves as yet another sign that the real motivation of foreign interventions has had nothing to do with looking out for the welfare of Afghans.

Barack Obama and Plan B for the war

As the Bush era nears its end in 2008, American power lies shattered. The U.S. Army is overstretched and broken, the American people are disillusioned and rudderless, U.S. credibility lies in ruins, and the world is a far more dangerous place.89

So writes journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book on Afghanistan. His purpose is not to oppose the war, however, but to improve it, urging, for example, that Washington learn from the British Empire how to better administer its occupations.

Like Rashid, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, and pro-war liberal politicians as Barack Obama, have long called for putting more resources into the war. They are fully committed to the U.S. project of maintaining Afghanistan as a strategic client state. The main criticism is not that the war was a bad idea, but that it was attempted on the cheap—on the way to the war that the Bush team really wanted to have, in Iraq. The supposed flaw in the “light footprint” war strategy was not just its use of air power to make up for a small number of foot soldiers. Critics also fault the refusal to take up “nation-building,” which starts with building up the power of the state. The plan of Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was to keep the central state weak and to employ the warlords as a second set of surrogates for Western power. But they didn’t count on the Taliban and their allies making a comeback on the basis of opposition to the plan—capitalizing on people’s hatred of the warlords, their fury over civilian casualties, and their disgust at government corruption.

Since the first major resurgence of armed resistance in 2006, the Taliban and its allies have gained ground at the expense of the smaller warlords. By September of this year, it was “almost impossible to drive an hour south, east or west of Kabul without hitting a Taliban-allied check post.”90 According to a December 2008 report published by the International Council on Security and Development, the Taliban now have a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country, up from 54 percent in November 2007.91

Obama’s proposals represent a continuation of changes that are already underway in the post-Rumsfeld era. Obama is calling for an increase in U.S. troop levels from about 30,000 in the past year to as much as 50,000 in the next couple years, a buildup that has already begun.92 With this bigger “footprint,” he’s also calling for an increase in development aid, and peace talks with insurgents who are willing to recognize the Karzai government.

The first part—more troops—sounds like more war, while the second part—peace talks and humanitarian aid—sound like a plan for peace. They are all, in fact, parts of a single new war strategy. The Taliban have advanced largely at the expense of the smaller warlords in the South and East. The developing U.S. plan is to start from the Western-backed central state and build authority outwards to replace the warlords in those areas where the resistance has been able to advance. That doesn’t mean replacing the big warlords of the Northern Alliance, who are so influential in the regime and who haven’t lost nearly so much ground to the Taliban.

Development aid—the nation-building aspect of the plan—would go as a reward to local strongmen who collaborate with the war effort and pledge loyalty to the central government. This idea for state-building bears some similarity to what Benazir Bhutto had in mind to extend full state control over Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As the Nation noted after her return to Pakistan in the fall of 2007, “For the tribal areas she will advocate force against those who spread religion by violence but development, autonomy and democracy for these who don’t.”93 Her party and its allies continue to profess this strategy of incorporating ungoverned territory through co-optation. In 2008, the Bush administration promised $750 million over the next five years for Pakistan to use as “development money” to buy some war allies in FATA. “But Christine Fair, a regional specialist at the Rand Corporation, has argued that such a plan is ‘four years too late,’ given the degree to which radical forces have taken control of the region. ‘I’m not sure who we would spend it on,’ she said at a recent briefing.”94 Not to be outdone, Joe Biden and Barack Obama cosponsored a bill in July 2008 to raise nonmilitary aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over the next five years.95

On the Afghan side of the border, the U.S./NATO operation is also stepping up efforts to win over “war allies”—that is, clients and stooges—with targeted development aid. James Smucker wrote in 2008 that the area south of Kabul

is fast becoming a litmus test for the U.S. military’s new and improved counter-insurgency campaign.

That means added urgency and stress on the work of a 75-man U.S.-North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led Provincial Reconstruction Team—or “PRT.”…

Indeed, with wealthy al-Qaeda and Taliban financiers waiting in the wings to lure these same young men to battle with pay and promises of martyrdom, the ability of the U.S. military and NATO to engage Afghanistan’s youth in activities and employment is seen by many in the U.S. military as key to quelling the insurgency in Afghanistan.96

Obama agrees with the new approach. In a speech earlier this year he

spoke of the “need to integrate all aspects of American might,” calling for “a broader set of capabilities, as outlined in the Army and Marine Corps’s new [post-Rumsfeld] counter-insurgency manual”—the one written by Gen. Petraeus. “To succeed, we must improve our civilian capacity. The finest military in the world,” he said, nevertheless “cannot counter insurgent and terrorist threats without civilian counterparts who can carry out economic and political reconstruction missions—sometimes in dangerous places.” Obama pledged to “strengthen these civilian capacities, recruiting our best and brightest” and “increase both the numbers and capabilities of our diplomats, development experts, and other civilians who can work alongside our military.”97

Liberals thus envisage a vast expansion of operations on the model of the PRTs, which integrate military action with development projects. Any attempts at “nation-building” are to be shaped by the policy’s central aim—to extend the authority of the central state. Old clients are to be forced into fully subordinate relationships, and new clients are to be found where the old ones don’t cooperate. The promise of patronage is always to be coupled with the threat of violence, so the iron fist will keep coming down against those who don’t accept the occupiers’ terms.

If some of the potential clients are now fighting on the side of the Taliban, that’s what peace talks are for. U.S. officials are not for talking to the central leadership of the Taliban, which rejects the legitimacy of the Karzai government and the role that the big warlords play in it. A member of the Taliban’s leading council recently reiterated their own refusal to enter peace talks.98 Karzai may want to talk to Mullah Omar, but in the U.S. view, peace talks are for the small fry. They’re supposed to split the resistance.99 The offer of peace talks could also be calculated to dampen antiwar voices in the West, including among NATO allies that face more domestic resistance to the deployment than the U.S. does.

Like the plan to reward war collaborators with targeted development contracts, peace talks form part of the new war strategy. The objective of the war has not changed. It’s not humanitarian assistance to Afghans, or the liberation of women, and it’s only loosely connected to the hunt for al-Qaeda. The objective is still the occupation itself. The U.S. aims to stay in this strategic location. In 2005, the U.S. got Karzai to sign a “declaration of strategic partnership” that gave the U.S. the right to maintain a permanent military presence in the country.100

No doubt Obama will burnish the new war plan with humanitarian rhetoric, but the war is actually obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid. As early as a year ago, almost half of Afghanistan had become “no-go” areas for aid and development workers.101 Most NGOs, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, refuse to enter contested areas under armed protection for fear of being associated with the occupiers. Obama may bolster the direct U.S. government provision of aid in order to replace NGO efforts, but such a militarization of aid would show that the real aim is to keep the war going.

Nothing Obama can say will make it the case that foreign troops are really there to benefit Afghans. The colonialist conceit of “nation-building” is that development must be contingent on a devastating invasion and military occupation; as if a country cannot develop without being forced under the yoke of a great power. Yet this so-called nation-building is based on the denial of national sovereignty—surely the starting point of any real nation-building—and includes the use of devastating firepower (which requires the rebuilding in the first place) to defeat all forms of resistance to that denial. The issue is not merely that there is corruption and waste, or that not enough aid is being given, but that the entire project is based on enhancing American control and promoting American interests and not those of the Afghan people. All such imperial projects are accompanied by flagrant profiteering and corruption. The disastrous consequences of the occupation are not mistakes to be rectified, but evidence of what colonial occupations are like, and why they should be opposed.

Many Western soldiers are drawing this conclusion from their own experience, and their testimony will play an important role in building an effective antiwar movement.102 This war was never worth one drop of these soldiers’ blood. The real nightmare, however, belongs to the Afghans. During the anti-Soviet war, the Reaganites made a joke that they were fighting the Russians down to the last Afghan. That’s still the value that U.S. imperialism puts on Afghan lives.

  1. Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), 115.
  2. Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (New York: Viking Penguin, 2008), xxxviii.
  3. Candace Rondeaux, “End civilian deaths, Karzai tells Obama,” Washington Post, November 6, 2008.
  4. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 365.
  5. Human Rights Watch, “Troops in contact: Airstrikes and civilian deaths in Afghanistan,” September 2008, 4, 7.
  6. Ibid., 4.
  7. Anand Gopal, “Afghan civilian death toll undermines U.S. support,” Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 2008.
  8. Gareth Porter, “Fears of blowback nixed airstrikes in 2004,” Inter Press Service,
  9. Gopal, “Afghan civilian death toll undermines U.S. support.” Opinion polls, however, generally overstate support for the government, in part because pollsters don’t travel to provinces where the Taliban has the greatest support. See Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 36.
  10. Thom Shanker, “NATO tries to reduce civilian casualties,” New York Times, September 17, 2008.
  11. Anand Gopal, e-mail to author, December 8, 2008.
  12. Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, 108–09.
  13. Marc Herold, “Truth as collateral damage,” Guardian, October 22, 2008.
  14. Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, 34–35.
  15. On the death toll among Western forces, see “1,002 foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001,” AFP, October 27, 2008. On the “kill ratio,” see Seumas Milne, “Civilian dead are a trade-off in NATO’s war of barbarity,” Guardian, October 16, 2008.
  16. On the range of abuse inflicted by the occupiers against ordinary Afghans, see Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 63–82.
  17. “Afghanistan: U.S. attack kills 37,” Associated Press, November 5, 2008.
  18. “Petraeus says Afghan tribes could help fight Afghan militants,” Associated Press, November 6, 2008.
  19. Graeme Smith, “Talking to the Taliban,” Globe and Mail, March 22–28, 2008.
  20. Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan: A First-Hand Account (New York: Verso, 1988), 15–16.
  21. Barnett Rubin, “The political economy of war and peace in Afghanistan,” 1999,
  22. Gérard Chaliand, Report from Afghanistan (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 19, 22–26.
  23. For a discussion of Afghanistan’s social relations, see Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan, 84–85, 125–40.
  24. Ibid., 135, 84–85.
  25. Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan, 89.
  26. Chaliand, Report from Afghanistan, 37.
  27. Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby, Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2000), 122.
  28. Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (New York: Verso, 2002), 207.
  29. See Chaliand, Report from Afghanistan, 39, and Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 126.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 165–66.
  32. Ibid., 166–67, 202.
  33. Ibid., 204.
  34. Ibid., 211–37.
  35. Ibid., 262–63.
  36. Rubin, “Political economy of war and peace.”
  37. Ibid.
  38. Rubin, “Political economy of war and peace.” See also Coll, Ghost Wars, 180.
  39. Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, 40, 44.
  40. The Deobandi school of Islam, which gave the Taliban its training, preaches the priority of pan-Islamic connections over tribal loyalties. See Peter Marsden, The Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan (London: Zed Books, 1998), 79.
  41. Coll, Ghost Wars, 333.
  42. Ibid., 297. See also Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 23–24, 144–45.
  43. Coll, Ghost Wars, 282–83, 292.
  44. Ibid., 285, 291.
  45. Rubin, “Political economy of war and peace.” See also Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, 16, 39–40.
  46. Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, 43–45.
  47. Coll, Ghost Wars, 265.
  48. Michael T. Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), 116.
  49. Ibid., 123.
  50. Coll, Ghost Wars, 290–92.
  51. Ibid., 305, 330.
  52. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 226. See also Coll, Ghost Wars, 304–05.
  53. Quoted in Phil Gasper, “Afghanistan, the CIA, bin-Laden, and the Taliban,” International Socialist Review, November–December, 2001, 34.
  54. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 87.
  55. Barbara Crossette, “U.S. and Russia ask harsh sanctions on Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 8, 2000. See also Coll, Ghost Wars, 345.
  56. Coll, Ghost Wars, 464.
  57. Ibid., 332.
  58. Robert Scheer, “Bush’s Faustian deal with the Taliban,” Nation, May 22, 2001.
  59. John Pilger, “The good war is a bad war,” January 9, 2008,
  60. The 9/11 Commission Report (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2007), 251.
  61. Ibid., 333.
  62. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 50–51.
  63. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 64–65.
  64. “Rebuilding America’s defenses: Strategy, forces and resources for a new century,” September 2000, Project for the New American Century, 51. Available at
  65. Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, 125.
  66. Richard Holbrooke, “The Next President: Mastering a Daunting Agenda,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008, 21.
  67. On the army of Tajiks, see Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 201–02. On ethnic cleansing, see Rashid, 94–95. On Pashtuns and women in Herat, see Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 106, 114, and 144.
  68. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 145–46.
  69. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 215.
  70. John Pilger, “The good war is a bad war.”
  71. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 115.
  72. Ibid., 124. Coll, Ghost Wars, 461.
  73. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 89–90.
  74. UN World Drug Report, 2008,
  75. On the Taliban’s opium income: Jason Straziuso, “Ignoring poppies to keep peace,” Associated Press, May 7, 2008. On others’ income: Barnett Rubin, “More misleading talking points on drugs in Afghanistan from UNODC, U.S.G, etc.,” April 13, 2008,
  76. Rubin, “Political economy of war and peace.”
  77. Barnett R. Rubin and Jake Sherman, “Counter-Narcotics to Stabilize Afghanistan: The False Promise of Crop Eradication,” Center on International Cooperation, 2008, 17.
  78. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 204.
  79. Kolhatkar and Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan, 109.
  80. Alistair Scrutton, “Food crisis competes for Afghan ‘hearts and minds’,” Reuters, September 29, 2008.
  81. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 206, 215.
  82. Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, 86–88.
  83. Toby Poston, “The battle to rebuild Afghanistan,” BBC, April 10, 2006.
  84. “#11: The Scam of “Reconstruction” in Afghanistan,” Project Censored top censored stories for 2008,
  85. Christian Parenti, “Taliban rising,” Nation, October 12, 2006.
  86. Some profits are also generated by regular capitalist enterprises. Afghanistan’s industries are largely extractive—natural gas, coal, salt, and gems, although there are also cement and cotton factories. The biggest enterprises are controlled by warlords. See Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 187.
  87. Barnett R. Rubin and Jake Sherman, “Counter-narcotics to stabilize Afghanistan,” and Tan Ee Lyn, “Drugs undermine Afghan efforts to rebuild,” Reuters, May 7, 2008.
  88. On the food crisis, see Carlotta Gall, “War and drought threaten Afghan food supply,” New York Times, September 18, 2008.
  89. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, lvii.
  90. Kim Barker and Aamer Madhani, “Would mini-surge tame Afghanistan?” Chicago Tribune, September 3, 2008.
  91. “Struggle for Kabul: The Taliban advance,” International Council on Security and Development, December 2008,
  92. On recent and near-term troop deployments: Anthony Cordesman, “Why the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan,” Asia Times, October 1, 2008. On long-term requests: Nancy Youssef, “Top U.S. commander warns that Afghan war could get worse,” McClatchy newspapers,
  93. Graham Usher, “Benazir Bhutto’s defining moment,” Nation, October 29, 2007.
  94. Jason Motlagh and Jim Lobe, “The ‘war on terror’ moves East.”
  95. Chris Good, “Obama joins Sens. Biden, Lugar on bill to triple Pakistan aid,” July 15, 2008,
  96. Philip Smucker, “Mission creep in Afghanistan,” Asia Times, February 1, 2008.
  97. Liliana Segura, “The sounds of silence and equivocation: Obama and torture,” CounterPunch, February 11, 2008.
  98. Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban not talking peace,” Asia Times, November 25, 2008.
  99. See also David Whitehouse, “When peace talks are really a war strategy,” Socialist Worker, October 30, 2008.
  100. Tariq Ali, “Afghanistan: The mirage of the good war,” New Left Review 50, March–April 2008.
  101. Nick Meo, “Leaked aid map of Afghanistan reveals expansion of no-go zones,” London Times, December 5, 2007.
  102. See, for example, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz, Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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