Afghanistan: Sinking deeper

Obama's new war plans

"Well, there are warlords, and there are warlords."
—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, November 19, 2009, after being asked by an Afghan interviewer if the U.S. would continue to support the Afghan government after a “wide infusion of warlords” into President Hamid Karzai’s new cabinet*

BARACK OBAMA, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has taken ownership of the war he always said the U.S. should fight. In his first eleven months in office, he ordered troop escalations in Afghanistan of 21,000 and 30,000, to effectively double the U.S. fighting force—while military contractors will continue to outnumber those in uniform. The annual cost for the war is also set to double, from about $50 billion in 2005 to some $100 billion in 2010.

Obama ordered the most recent escalation because the war is not going well for the U.S. and NATO, in spite of the previous surge of 21,000 troops in March. “Ground combat engagements between U.S. troops and Afghan insurgents increased 55 percent since January. The number of air strikes by U.S. jets surged 39 percent from January through October. But the number of bombs dropped per month more than quadrupled, from 138 in January to 647 in October,” writes David Wood for Politics Daily.1 Yet the past two years, the Taliban and their allies have gained a foothold in every region that has a significant concentration of ethnic Pashtuns, spreading from southern and eastern regions into the country’s center and even the northern city of Kunduz. The insurgents have learned to avoid major engagements, where they are vastly outgunned. Operating at night, “undoing whatever the Americans accomplish during the day,” and often operating remotely with roadside bombs, the insurgents killed twice as many Western troops in 2009 as in the year before.2

If anything, the last surge turned larger numbers of Afghans against the war and fueled the resistance. Continues Wood, “The U.S. effort to push back the widening Taliban-led insurgency and to win the support of the population has been marred by repeated incidents in which Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in air strikes. In Kunduz province, for instance, as many as 83 villagers were killed in an attack in September by two U.S. F-15E jets.”3

On top of the death and destruction, Afghanistan—the fifth-least-developed country in the world—is mired in deep poverty. Of the country’s 27 million people, 60 percent or more live on less than $1 a day. “Life expectancy is 43 years; per capita income is $426; only 13 percent have access to sanitary drinking water; fewer than one in four are literate; [and] access to electricity is among the lowest in the world.”4

Meanwhile, American troop morale has “dropped sharply because of increased fighting and multiple deployments.” An Army survey found that the number of units reporting high or very high morale fell from an already low 10.2 percent in 2007 to 5.7 percent last year. Public support for the war dropped from 53 percent in April to 39 percent in September, reflecting the rise in casualties and costs—as well as the spectacle of a brazenly rigged Afghan election in August. Obama’s December 1 speech briefly boosted the approval rate, but a majority still opposed the war.5

To many listeners, Obama’s speech in December sounded jarringly similar to George W. Bush’s war speeches. With a rather sullen looking bunch of West Point cadets serving as props, he began by reminding everyone of the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001 (an event that the Taliban had nothing to do with), went on to insist that the U.S. is currently under imminent threat of more attacks, and claimed that such threats can only grow if the U.S. pulls back from the Afghan war effort. Obama repeated Bush’s lie justifying the original invasion—that the Taliban refused to hand Osama bin-Laden over for trial—and he closed by invoking the standard rhetoric about America’s commitment to “peace and security, justice and opportunity.”6

The rhetoric should be no real surprise. On the campaign trail, Obama consistently presented Afghanistan as the good war whose success was being thwarted by the diversion of resources to Iraq. “I said we needed to finish the job in Afghanistan,” he told an Iowa audience in 2007. “[I]t’s time to stop funding a failed policy, to remove our combat brigades from Iraq, and to increase our military, political, and economic commitment to Afghanistan.”7

The continuity between the Obama and Bush administrations reflects the commitment of both parties to ensuring U.S. dominance in the region, and the fact that outside propaganda about fighting the “war on terror,” Obama lacks any other credible cover story for fighting the war in Afghanistan. Obama’s ordinary supporters may have voted for him for his antiwar rhetoric; the ruling class expects him to act as the commander-in-chief of the world’s superpower. In this sense, Obama’s second escalation is a watershed event, demonstrating to all those who held illusions in the differences between the two parties on questions of foreign policy, that the Democrats, every bit as much as the GOP, are fully committed to American imperialism.

The new plan
Obama’s commitment of 30,000 more troops reflected a compromise among contending voices in the administration and the Pentagon, whose proposals for a troop surge ranged from 10,000 to 80,000. The plan also includes a request for NATO to provide an additional 7,000 troops beyond the current 42,000 deployed by NATO and other allies.

The plan more or less reflects the suggestions of General Stanley McChrystal, the current U.S. war commander in Afghanistan—to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, secure key population centers, and devote more resources to development—a continuation of the counterinsurgency strategy adopted after the first surge. The size of the surge, however, comes nowhere near what counterinsurgency doctrine claims would be required to defeat the Taliban—almost 600,000 troops. But that isn’t the plan. The aim is to “degrade” the Taliban’s power, not to defeat it.8

The new war plan contains a contradictory patchwork of initiatives: anathematize some warlords while depending on others; build the strength of the central government while promoting the autonomy of some local forces; build the Afghan National Army while arming independent tribal militias. Meanwhile, there is a plan to combine counterinsurgency methods with “counterterror” operations of the sort that have inflicted thousands of civilian casualties. There is a guiding thread, however, that ties together all of these measures. The administration is searching for a new mix of methods for indirect rule in Afghanistan because the old method—supporting Hamid Karzai and various warlords—is what allowed the Taliban to rise from the ashes after its defeat in 2001–02. “Indirect rule,” of course, is not a goal that any American president would articulate publicly.

Obama’s public emphasis, in fact, has been on the search for an “exit strategy,” with a vague promise to start pulling troops out in July 2011—though administration officials almost immediately indicated that this timetable was not firm. “There isn’t a deadline,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told CNN on December 6. “[S]ome handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time.”9

But even if he sincerely intends to withdraw the bulk of American fighting forces at some future date, the U.S. still aims to leave behind a client state that is dependent on, and thus to some degree loyal to, the United States. In the meantime, while no stable or reliable client has yet been shaped, the U.S. is committed to maintaining a heavy political and military presence.

Afghanistan is central to Washington’s regional plans. Central Asian states to Afghanistan’s north contain vast strategic reserves of gas and oil wealth. For this reason alone, the U.S. ruling class has an interest in building an Afghan client state. The location is also especially strategic, since it borders Iran and China, while Russia and India are near neighbors. This is why the U.S. intends to maintain a strong military presence, including permanent bases, in Afghanistan. In addition, there is the CIA station, set up in the western city of Herat with the permission of warlord Ismail Khan, to handle operations against Iran.

Finally, the war is also about preserving the credibility of the U.S. as the world’s hegemonic power—“Who is going to trust you again” if you leave without defeating the Taliban, complained Pakistan’s foreign minister.10 The U.S. cannot afford to let a diffuse rural insurgency force the withdrawal of the world’s most advanced military machine as long as the publicly-stated objective of the war is not won.

The old strategies and the damage done
The first Afghan government following the initial U.S. rout of the Taliban was the vice-regency of Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American neoconservative who ruled in collaboration with the CIA. The U.S. appointed Hamid Karzai as president to serve as Khalilzad’s front man in Kabul, while the CIA worked to subdue the countryside using a group of warlords recycled from the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s (lately re-christened the Northern Alliance). Petty warlords of the south, who had either been defeated or co-opted by the Taliban in the 1990s, started serving as U.S. proxy rulers in the ethnic Pashtun areas from which 95 percent of the Taliban are drawn.

The U.S. choice to rule four Pashtun-majority provinces—including the Taliban’s home province, Kandahar—was Gul Agha Sherzai, who had served as a CIA asset in the anti-Soviet war. A warlord described as “jovial and cruel” by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, Sherzai has been a major player in the opium trade, and used his new office to enrich his own tribe. He earned an “estimated $1.5 million a month for providing building materials, fuel, and other items” at drastically marked-up prices to the U.S. occupation force.11 Sherzai’s recent career is typical of Afghanistan’s new elite, which has made its fortune from the country’s two major sources of wealth—opium revenue and contracts from foreign military forces and NGOs. From the beginning, corruption was built into the U.S. scheme for running Afghanistan, as the CIA paid millions to warlords for their allegiance, promised them a cozy connection with contractors, and looked the other way as they revived the opium trade.

The rule of warlords like Sherzai, the corruption of the central government, and the mounting toll of civilian casualties from U.S. bombing, laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the Taliban in subsequent years. So did the composition of Afghanistan’s new army. Karzai’s first minister of defense, Muhammad Fahim, another CIA-favored warlord from the pre-Taliban era, filled the army’s officer corps with ethnic Tajiks, even though Pashtuns comprise the country’s largest ethnic group.

As the U.S. choice of Afghan allies set up conditions for the Taliban to return, the choices also revealed how cynical the bipartisan voices—Hillary Rodham Clinton’s among the loudest—had been to justify the war as a fight for women’s rights. For one thing, the U.S.-backed warlords have roughly the same views of women as the Taliban do. They and their militias are notorious as serial rapists. In areas far from the insurgency, forced marriages of girls younger than fifteen are still common, and wives have increasingly resorted to self-immolation to avoid abuse. What’s more, sexism is institutionalized from the top, from a court system sanctioned by Karzai that imprisons girls and women for disobedience, to a legal code that permits marital rape.12

Karzai gained some independence from the U.S. when official attention shifted toward the war in Iraq, and he succeeded in firing Fahim and in reassigning Sherzai to rule Nangarhar province—another future site of insurgency. The Northern Alliance became the parliamentary opposition.

By 2006–08, when the Taliban and its allies began to pose serious challenges to the U.S. and NATO, the Bush administration recognized that it could no longer simply leave the Pashtun countryside under the indirect rule of the despised warlords. The administration—which had hitherto refused to engage in “nation-building”—stumbled toward a new strategy of “counterinsurgency,” where targeted relief and development money would supposedly entice poor farmers and herders to the U.S. side of the war.

Candidate Barack Obama became a proponent of this “humanitarian” approach to the war. In the early months of his presidency, Obama articulated the most developed expression of a counterinsurgency doctrine that had gestated in the Bush administration under General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In his March 2009 speech announcing the first troop escalation, Obama sketched the outlines of a strategy in which a renewed Karzai administration, progressively cleansed of its corruption through the adoption of “good governance,” would extend its authority into the countryside and replace the arbitrary local rule of the warlords.

Compliant warlords, of course, would be allowed to incorporate their own forces into the new structure and sink their snouts into an enlarged gravy train of development money. The money would go to those who agreed to collaborate in the war against insurgent forces. The collaborators would also supposedly use the money to staff development projects with unemployed young men who might otherwise take up arms. Like the earlier scheme of indirect rule, this scheme would still involve chains of patrons and paid clients—but now the chains would stretch up from the rural grass roots to converge on the top client in Kabul and its chief patron in Washington.

The vision was as ambitious as anything contemplated by the Soviet-backed regime of the late 1970s and early 1980s—to strengthen Afghanistan’s traditionally weak central state to the point where it could, for the first time, govern most, if not all, of the country’s territory. Crucial to this scheme was a vast enlargement of the Afghan National Army (ANA) from fewer than 100,000 to some 240,000 soldiers, equal in size to France’s army. The U.S. would secure its own enduring role as Afghanistan’s indirect ruler by providing the bulk of the ANA’s training and funds. The deeply corrupt and beleaguered Afghan National Police, which suffers three times more casualties than the ANA does, would also be professionalized and enlarged from 93,000 to 160,000 with help from U.S. and NATO trainers.

Within months, this vision was punctured by political reality. For one thing, brazen corruption continued from top to bottom of the Karzai regime. At the elite end of the spectrum, there was the exposure in November by U.S. military intelligence that the minister of mines, Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, took a $30 million bribe to award a Chinese firm a $2.9 billion contract for the mining of copper in Logar province. Adel kept his job.13 More damaging to the U.S. image was the revelation in the New York Times that the president’s drug kingpin brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been on the payroll of the CIA since the U.S. invasion. But as spectacular as these instances seem, Patrick Cockburn pointed out in the Independent:

Corruption and mismanagement do not just mean that the police are on the take or that no contract is awarded without a bribe. It is much worse than that. For instance, one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomizing them.14

The key idea of Obama’s March plan—that the writ of the central government might be expanded at the expense of warlord power—ran up against Karzai’s plummeting popularity and his response to it: to court the support of warlords to win a massively fraudulent election in August. Tajik power broker Muhammad Fahim got back onto Karzai’s team as a vice presidential running mate. The notorious Rashid Dostum—who, at the beginning of the war, massacred Taliban prisoners and ethnically cleansed thousands of Pashtuns from the country’s north15—delivered Uzbek votes in return for influence in the new administration. In the south, Karzai made peace with Sherzai and other Pashtun warlords in order to pile up fictional votes in areas that are now controlled by the Taliban.

The war in Pakistan
As each U.S. war strategy has collapsed in Afghanistan, an ongoing radicalization of Pashtuns across the border has destabilized Pakistan. The driving force of the radicalization has not been an influx of Afghan Taliban fighters or al-Qaeda, but the support that successive Pakistani regimes have given to the U.S. “war on terror.” The war has caused thousands of Pashtun civilian deaths and effectively excluded Pashtuns—except for Karzai himself—from power. As a result, the central Pakistani government lost control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to a homegrown insurgency.

The Pakistani Taliban overturned the government’s own method of indirect rule in FATA, which had been to set up autocratic tribal chiefs (maliks) as clients of the central government. Insurgents have taken power by killing hundreds of the maliks and replacing them with sharia law courts. The Pakistani Taliban have learned to exploit poor Pashtuns’ class resentment of local landlords and tribal big shots. Earlier this year, the central government experienced some success in pushing back in the Bajaur Agency of FATA by arming tribal militias against the Taliban. In the Swat Valley of neighboring Northwest Frontier Province, a regular army offensive was necessary in May to recapture control from the Pakistani Taliban, in part because the area’s leading tribal figure was also the leading Taliban propagandist.

In the insurgent strongholds of North and South Waziristan, the infrastructure of tribal authority is already shattered, and the central government’s only option for reasserting control was to send in the regular infantry in an operation beginning in October. Reports indicate, however, that the offensive—aside from turning thousands of noncombatants into refugees—netted no Taliban leaders and killed fewer than 600 of the rebels, who were estimated at the beginning to number 10,000–15,000.16

The government launched its offensives under considerable pressure from the United States, but reports have suggested that the army has targeted Pakistan’s own enemies—the Pakistani Taliban—and left the Afghan Taliban of Mullah Mohammad Omar untouched. The Pakistani state, particularly its dominant institution, the army, has long regarded Omar’s Taliban as a means to defend Pakistani interests in Afghanistan against India’s.

Meanwhile, U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have accelerated under Obama. According to Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker:

According to a just completed study by the New America Foundation, the number of drone strikes has risen dramatically since Obama became president. During his first nine and a half months in office, he has authorized as many C.I.A. aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years in office. The study’s authors, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, report that the Obama administration has sanctioned at least forty-one C.I.A. missile strikes in Pakistan since taking office—a rate of approximately one bombing a week. So far this year, various estimates suggest, the C.I.A. attacks have killed between three hundred and twenty-six and five hundred and thirty-eight people. Critics say that many of the victims have been innocent bystanders, including children.17

Obama’s announcement that he plans to start pulling back U.S. troops in 2011 was directed at the American audience to allay domestic fears of a military quagmire, but the message received in Pakistan was different. As the New York Times noted, many “in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, argued that the short timetable diminished any incentive for Pakistan to cut ties to Taliban militants who were its allies in the past, and whom Pakistan might want to use to shape a friendly government in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal.”

Retooling the war machine
Obama’s latest strategy reflects growing distrust of the Karzai administration—and thus an indefinite delay in strengthening the power of the central government. “The administration…skeptical of Karzai, will ‘work around him’ by working directly with provincial and district leaders,” as McClatchy newspapers reported in November.18 “Administration officials,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, “are putting in place a new ‘monitoring and verification’ system that will judge whether the central government ministries and agencies are worthy of receiving direct U.S. aid. Officials emphasize that if the organizations don’t measure up, they won’t receive U.S. funds.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius commented: “The U.S. approach in Afghanistan now is a mix of national and local, government and tribe, top-down and bottom-up.”19

Obama’s new war scheme is thus beginning to look more fantastic than the previous one. Instead of replacing a dual system of indirect rule—Karzai plus the warlords—with a unitary system headed by Karzai, the U.S. is setting out to create a system of multiple imperial surrogates at all levels of government and outside it. The war is to become a management feat of an American “super-government” that sets the country’s real priorities behind the scenes, rewarding the compliant and punishing those who resist.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) is decomposing even as the U.S. is trying to breathe life into it. Plans for the rapid expansion of the ANA are being held back by an annual desertion rate that is 25 percent and rising, plus a 19 percent rate of absenteeism. The available combat force was only 46,000 in September 2009, less than one-fifth the size that military planners say is necessary—although U.S. officials inflated the number in 2009 to 93,000 by such tricks as counting the 9 percent of soldiers who are absent without leave. Analysts at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, have concluded that if current trends continue, the ANA will be unable to grow larger than 100,000 troops, because desertion rates will then equal recruitment rates.20 Soldiers often desert immediately after a payday so they can bring money back to their families. The ANA also suffers from its troops being largely illiterate and from their frequent role as guards on the perimeter of Western outposts—where they essentially serve as human shields.

The difficulties in training and motivating Afghan soldiers have forced U.S. planners to focus on a goal of enlarging the ANA to 134,000 in 2010, putting off the earlier target of 240,000 to a hazy future. As correspondent Anand Gopal commented in Socialist Worker in November, the flaws in the ANA can be traced back to the flaws in the regime:

[A]rmies are only as good as the political institutions that they are meant to protect. There is very little feeling of national identity in Afghanistan or deeply felt fealty towards the Afghan government. So the real question is whether the Afghan security forces would be able to stand on their own, minus the foreign army, and that is very unlikely.21

The slow growth of the ANA has forced planners to scale back their hopes for a major campaign of counterinsurgency-linked development aid in the countryside. Troops will focus on defense of major cities and the roads between them, and will continue to rely on “counterterror” strikes in the rural areas where the Taliban are based. Military officials told the New York Times that “they would maintain pressure on insurgents in remote regions by using surveillance drones and reports from people in the field to find pockets of Taliban fighters and to guide attacks, in particular by Special Operations forces.” The plan has been dubbed “McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country,” in recognition that Vice President Joe Biden has called for a drastically smaller but proportionally more violent military force to wage the war.

Officials contemplate an offensive in Kandahar province similar to the one in Helmand province that followed the last troop surge in 2009. According to commentator Nir Rosen, who witnessed the previous offensive, “The Helmand operation of July 2009 resulted in at best a stalemate for the Americans, with the Taliban merely slipping away, avoiding direct confrontation.” Afghan soldiers and police never took the lead and often refused to fight.22

Since the ANA’s problems can be traced to the political illegitimacy of the regime itself, U.S. military planners have become tempted to bypass the national state and directly arm tribal militias, roughly on the model of what the U.S. did in Iraq’s Anbar province. They have their work cut out for them in this project, since the authority of traditional tribal notables is even more degraded in Afghan Pashtun areas that it is in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Rolling the dice in the tribal game
Tribal authority structures in southern Afghanistan have suffered under two waves of destruction since the Russians invaded in 1979. The first came when the CIA and its Saudi and Pakistani allies cultivated a set of anti-Soviet warlords. Funded by opium revenue and powered by American weapons, the warlords organized along tribal lines, but pushed aside the traditional tribal leadership.

The second blow to traditional authority came from the Taliban, which arose in the context of brutal warlord rivalry following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops. Taliban ideology, following the South Asian Deobandi school of Islam, explicitly rejects the authority of customary tribal structures in favor of the group’s own interpretation of sharia law. According to Antonio Giustozzi, author of Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, the Taliban deliberately mix tribes together in military training, and their mobile units are also typically of mixed origin. In this, Taliban ideology reflects the hard recent experience of Pashtun life, which has been torn apart by armed groups organized along tribal lines.

The new U.S. strategy calls for precisely that—the formation of armed groups under the authority of tribal elders. The U.S. point man in persuading tribal elders to play this role is an expert at tribal warfare, none other than the warlord and former governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai. He recently hosted a meeting of twenty-five tribal leaders from eastern provinces that was

part of the battlefield push to lure local fighters and commanders away from the Taliban by offering them jobs in development projects that Afghan tribal leaders help select, paid by the American military and the Afghan government.

By enlisting the tribal leaders to help choose the development projects, the Americans also hope to strengthen both the Afghan government and the Pashtun tribal networks….

Afghan and American officials hope that the plan to make peace with groups of Taliban fighters will complement an American-led effort to set up anti-Taliban militias in many parts of the country: the Pashtun tribes will help fight the Taliban, and they will make deals with the Taliban. And, by so doing, Afghan tribal society can be reinvigorated.23

Bringing these people back to power will certainly not benefit ordinary Afghans, and could even result in new reigns of terror under a new set of warlords; one way that Taliban ideology diverges from tribal custom is that tribal codes endorse blood revenge. The CIA’s Phoenix program in the Vietnam War was designed to develop intimate contact at the Vietnamese grass roots—in order to uproot the insurgent “infrastructure.” The result was 26,000 assassinations and campaigns of persecution by the corrupt South Vietnamese government, with whom the CIA shared its intelligence. There is no guarantee that Obama’s tribal initiatives will bear such gruesome fruit, but it is best to remember how things turned out the last time the U.S. tried “counterinsurgency.”24

There is no guarantee that this plan will do anything except create more competing warlords and more armed and organized enemies of the occupation in the future, as a New York Times article noted, “The growth of the anti-Taliban militias runs the risk that they could turn on one another, or against the Afghan and American governments.”25

State-building and nation-building
The central core of Obama’s war plan amounts to a project of state-building—specifically to construct an army, police, and militias—with gestures at nation-building that are strictly subordinated to the war effort. These points should come as no surprise. The past history of colonial occupation has been that national identity and cohesion are not built by the occupiers (who are, as often as not, engaged in tactics of divide-and-rule) but through the actions and organization of the resistance to occupation. In his December speech, Obama himself backed off from the ambitious plans for Afghan reconstruction he had voiced just a few months before, acknowledging that such plans would require an open-ended commitment that he is now unwilling to endorse. With the American public battered by unemployment and skeptical of the war’s value, he declared that “the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.” With this declaration, he was also telling Afghans to expect fewer promises and more war.

A strategy of “whatever works” at various times and places—which appears to be the new vision of Obama’s war—does not build anything that could hold together should the U.S. leave. Unfortunately for Afghans, and for Americans opposed to the war, the current insurgency is not living up to the requirements of a national liberation movement that can build something that can hold together to replace the dominant role of the United States. Based as it is among a single ethnic group, and upholding a sharply sectarian version of sharia law that enshrines Pashtun cultural practices, the Taliban are limited to long-term harassment of foreign forces without a realistic prospect of winning most Afghans over to their side. As the country continues to fall apart, the best thing that the occupiers have going for them is the political weakness of the opposition.

In the end, the Obama administration may just be “managing failure.”26 The rising costs of the war, both financially and politically, make it unsustainable over the long haul. Financially, the war is not supportable in the wake of a severe economic crisis and the largest government bailout of Wall Street in its history. Politically, the war is unpopular domestically, and will become more unpopular—and troop morale continues to decline. Rather than containing the war, the surge is likely to escalate it, not just in Afghanistan, but also in neighboring Pakistan, where a backlash against the U.S. predator attacks is further weakening Zardari’s crisis-ridden, unpopular regime. The war the U.S. claims is necessary to stabilize Pakistan is in fact destabilizing it.

Finally, though the Taliban, as an overwhelmingly Pashtun-based movement, cannot present itself as a national liberation movement, and is incapable of militarily defeating the U.S., it can do the next-best thing, which is to prevent Washington from consolidating a stable client state in Afghanistan. At some point, the political cost of the war will make it untenable, and Washington, having spent much in blood (mostly of Afghans, but also of American soldiers) and treasure (mostly of American taxpayers) may be forced to leave the country known as the graveyard of empires without having achieved very much except the further destruction of the region. At best, what the U.S. can hope for is to settle not for victory, but something less than a total defeat, by splitting the Taliban and forming some sort of coalition with them as part of it. In the meantime, our job here is to build a principled opposition to the war that demands complete and immediate withdrawal.

* Hillary Clinton’s statement that “there are warlords and there are warlords” is from “Interview with Mujahid Jawad of Radio Azadi,”

  1. David Wood, “Afghan air war: More fighting, more bombs, and continued civilian casualties,” November 20, 2009,
  2. Nir Rosen, “Something from nothing: U.S. strategy in Afghanistan,” Boston Review, January/February 2010. For a regular count of Afghan war casualties, see
  3. Wood, “Afghan air war.”
  4. John Hanrahan, “There hasn’t been two seconds of intelligent discussion about living standards in Afghanistan,” Nieman Watchdog, December 3, 2009.
  5. “Report: U.S. troop morale down in Afghanistan,” VOA News, November 14, 2009. “Poll: Support for Afghan war at all-time low,” CNN, September 15, 2009, “Obama approval rating below 50 percent,” CNN, December 4, 2009,
  6. On the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the circumstances of the invasion, see David Whitehouse, “The case for getting out of Afghanistan,” International Socialist Review 63, January–February 2009.
  7. “Obama rejects ‘mindset of fear’ in foreign policy,” December 18, 2007,
  8. David Sanger, “Similarities to Iraq surge plan mask risks in Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 4, 2009.
  9. Mark Mazetti, “No firm plans for a U.S. exit in Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 7, 2009.
  10. “U.S. credibility and Pakistan,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2009.
  11. Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (New York: Viking Adult, 2008), 136.
  12. Lee Marzel, “Afghan women burn themselves to flee abuse,” Reuters, November 22, 2009. See also David Whitehouse, “The case for getting out of Afghanistan.”
  13. Joshua Partlow, “Afghan minister accused of taking $30 million bribe,” Washington Post, November 18, 2009.
  14. Patrick Cockburn, “Stealing money, selling heroin and raping boys—The very dark side of the Afghan occupation,” Counterpunch, November 13, 2009.
  15. Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 94–95.
  16. Saeed Shah, “Big Pakistan offensive has failed to nab any Taliban leaders,” McClatchy Newspapers, November 24, 2009.
  17. Jane Mayer, “The Predator War: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?” New Yorker, October 26, 2009.
  18. Jonathan S. Landay, John Walcott, and Nancy A. Youssef, “Obama plans to send 34,000 more troops to Afghanistan,” McClatchy Newspapers, November 23, 2009.
  19. David Ignatius, “Afghan tribes to the rescue?” Washington Post, November 22, 2009.
  20. Gareth Porter, “Afghan army turnover rate threatens U.S. war plans,” InterPress Service, November 24, 2009.
  21. Lee Sustar, interview with Anand Gopal, “From election fiasco to escalating war,” Socialist Worker, November 13, 2009.
  22. Nir Rosen, “Something from nothing.”
  23. Dexter Filkins, “Afghanistan using persuasion and paid jobs to disarm Taliban,” New York Times, November 28, 2009.
  24. González, American Counterinsurgency.
  25. Dexter Filkins, “Afghan militias battle Taliban with aid of U.S.,” November 21, 2009.
  26. Eric Margoulis, “Preaching peace, flexing muscle,” Toronto Sun, December 6, 2009.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story