According to the opinion polls, the great majority of Americans supported the war on Afghanistan, seeing it as a War on Terror and appropriate response to the 9-11 attacks. Many, if not most, have come to see the war in Iraq as something distinct from, even unrelated and counterproductive to, that Terror War receding from public memory, eclipsed by the Mesopotamian mess. It has become respectable, even mainstream, to question the propriety of the attack on Iraq. Cindy Sheehan has had a lot to do with that. But Afghanistan, while a largely forgotten conflict reported in the back pages of your newspaper, remains Bush’s good war.
That war, to point out the obvious, is ongoing and taking a mounting toll. From October 10 to December 31, 2001, a mere 12 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan as the Taliban regime collapsed like a house of cards. Since then the figure has increased each year, as Operation Enduring Freedom has morphed into Operation Keep Our Friends in Power:
(Add to these 57 Germans, Spaniards, Canadians, British, and other Coalition forces.) In 2003 and 2004 the figure grew by just one percent each year, but the 2005 figure so far is 42% over last year. This month alone, 14 American and 17 Spanish troops have died in Afghanistan. If the trend continues, the 2005 toll will more than double last year’s. Some call it a “forgotten war,” but the Afghan conflict is not winding down and will probably regain more of the spotlight alongside the other failing counterinsurgency effort in the region.
The ever more exacting Afghan conflict is justified as follows. The 18,000 U.S. troops and their NATO/Coalition allies must continue to hunt down al-Qaeda remnants, to prevent them from organizing more terror attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere. They must continue to fight Taliban remnants too, because the Taliban hosted al-Qaeda and is thus a terror threat as well. They must indeed fight all forces taking up arms against the new regime midwifed by the U.S., which includes the weak central government under the puppet Hamid Karzai and the hodgepodge of warlords who enjoy broad autonomy within their fiefs. Such forces oppose “freedom” in Afghanistan and somehow threaten our freedoms in the U.S. If they win, Afghanistan will once again become a base for international terrorists. That’s the basic reasoning, and underpinning the good war, it’s rarely questioned. But let’s do so now.
Why was Afghanistan attacked, anyway? The Bush administration immediately after 9-11 announced that it “would not distinguish” between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. The immediate implication apparent to all was that the U.S. would attack the Afghan state (most of which was under Taliban control) if the Taliban regime failed to turn over bin Laden. But there was a broader signal here that any government deemed to have a too-intimate relationship with any group defined by the U.S. State Department as terrorist would be considered a fair target for U.S. attack. It eventually became clear to anyone paying attention that the Bush administration wanted even more to target Iraq, Syria and Iran, using as a pretext not any ties to al-Qaeda or groups meaningfully threatening the U.S. but to groups like Hizbollah and Hamas actively hostile to Israel. The administration sought to conflate the Taliban and al-Qaeda not only in preparation for the Afghan campaign but future campaigns rooted in part in this argument that states supporting anyone deemed “terrorist” would face U.S. wrath.
But there were flaws in this reasoning, noted by some of us at the time. For one thing, the whole nature of the Taliban/al-Qaeda link has rarely been examined. By default the public imagines that the Taliban was intimately involved in the 9-11 attacks, because it allowed bin Laden to operate camps in Afghanistan. But the Taliban claimed that it closed down the camps in 1998, and restricted bin Laden’s communications, and it should be pointed out in any case that bin Laden had operated those camps with U.S. encouragement during the 1980s. In other words the Taliban, perhaps the most primitive regime on the planet in 2001, hadn’t in its dealings with bin Laden sought to provoke Washington but merely to continue a longstanding relationship forged during the anti-Soviet war.
Surely the ties between the Afghan movement and bin Laden’s motley group were cordial; Mullah Omar took one of bin Laden’s daughters as one of his wives in 1998. But did the Taliban know that Arabs trained in these camps were planning to hijack U.S. airplanes and attack the Twin Towers and Pentagon? Had they known that, wouldn’t they have anticipated that the U.S. would quickly respond with ferocity? Maybe. But this scenario requires that we believe that the regime in Kabul willfully risked its own existence, and the Sharia-based social order it had been at pains to create, in order to help a Saudi guest vent his anger at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia by attacking the world’s most powerful country. It requires us to believe Mullah Omar & Co. were either stupid or crazy.
The Taliban came to power after bin Laden’s arrival (from Sudan, which had expelled him at the request of the U.S., in May 1996); he was not their invited guest, and indeed initially aligned himself with anti-Taliban Afghan forces. But then he ingratiated himself with the Talibs by helping to finance their barebones regime, which received aid only from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and (in the form of funds to encourage the eradication of opium) the U.S. Yes, the U.S., while declining to recognize the Taliban government, enjoyed a working relationship with it. On numerous occasions, U.S. diplomats met with Taliban representatives to discuss the opium issue, the problem of al-Qaeda, and (following the al-Qaeda attacks on the East African U.S. embassies in August 1998) the possible extradition of bin Laden to the U.S. Newly declassified State Department documents show that a top advisor to Omar in talks with a U.S. official attached to the embassy in Pakistan months after those attacks indicated that the Taliban leadership was divided on the issue of bin Laden’s presence, but concerned that his expulsion would produce a revolt against themselves. He hinted that the U.S. could resolve the issue by arranging for bin Laden’s assassination or by killing him with a cruise missile.
Meanwhile representatives of U.S. private industry (most notably, Afghan-American neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, former special envoy to Afghanistan and now U.S. ambassador to Iraq) entertained Taliban officials while discussing the construction of oil pipelines through Afghanistan from the Caspian to the Indian Ocean. Khalilzad indeed in October 1996 argued in a Washington Post op-ed piece that Washington should cultivate ties with the Taliban which he argued “does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran.” He did so at the time as a Rand analyst; he also had credentials as a State Department official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations although during the Clinton years he was a consultant with Unocal, the U.S. oil company interested in Afghan pipeline construction.
Even in mid-2001, after the 1999 missile attacks on al-Qaeda bases conducted in retaliation for the East Africa embassy bombings, the U.S. government didn’t see the Taliban as a terrorist enemy but as a potential partner in attaining common goals such as reducing opium poppy cultivation. Even after 9-11 some top officials including Donald Rumsfeld were disinclined to attack Afghanistan, declaring there were “no good targets” there, whereas there were lots in Iraq, which had no connection to 9-11 or al-Qaeda. They soon came around to agreeing that the Iraq attack would have to be preceded by a more easily justifiable attack on Afghanistan, and by giving the Taliban an ultimatum it could not accept (turn over bin Laden to U.S. authorities and a non-Islamic court without even producing evidence of his connection to the attacks, in violation of the Pashtun custom of protecting guests) made the brief anti-Taliban war inevitable. In other words, what would strike the U.S. public as an eminently reasonable attack on al-Qaeda’s patron would be the righteous entrée into an ambitious assault on the status quo throughout what the neocons call the “Greater Middle East.” It was a wonderful opportunity to begin to implement the neocon program for regime change. But it like the Iraq war required disinformation and selective vilification.
The American people were not told that the Taliban had come to power, not to serve as an adjunct to anti-American terrorism, but to restore a kind of law and order to a nation in a state of civil war since 1978. The overthrow of the last secular, pro-Soviet leader in 1993 had brought the Northern Alliance to power, and a new reign of Islamist terror and murderous infighting. The Northern Alliance had been (and is) no less committed to Islamic fundamentalism than the Taliban; from the point of view of the average American the ideological differences are small. But the Taliban acquired a reputation in Afghanistan for greater integrity and piety and hence was able in a very short period of time to gain control over 90% of the country. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI, a cousin of the CIA) welcomed this development; so did Pakistan’s prime minister and Khalilzad, in the aforementioned editorial. Surely they realized that the average Talib was merely a Pashtun Sunni fundamentalist attempting to preserve the rather medieval traditional social structure, not an international terrorist hell-bent on provoking the United States. Indeed, the Taliban sought cordial ties with the U.S. While it harbored bin Laden, its rank and file apparently felt some resentment of the Arab jihadis’ presence, and some important Taliban leaders even favored expelling them. Such people probably had no idea about the 9-11 plot. So when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, targeting the Taliban, the latter understandably asked, “Why us?”
Quitting the cities in 2001, often in response to tribal leaders’ appeals and in the interest of reducing civilian casualties from U.S. bombing, the Talibs blended back into the landscape. Since then, some have reemerged as a guerrilla resistance movement. In 2005, the Taliban “remnants” in Afghanistan seek to recover the former status quo, which was arguably no worse than the present regime. Yes, it applied the Sharia mercilessly, rather like America’s long-time Saudi allies; it beheaded women convicted of adultery or fornication in Kabul’s soccer stadium. But there was apparently less rape under the Taliban. Yes, it mandated the burqa. But the burqa has been around for a very long time and the current regime hasn’t discouraged it either. It’s by no means clear to me that the Taliban is less savory than the current rulers, accused by human rights groups of trafficking in women and boys and profiting from the flourishing opium trade. The Karzai regime has been courting some Taliban members, encouraging them to cooperate with the government. This itself tells you that the ideological gap between the two is slight, even as the U.S. sponsors the former while continuing to vilify the latter. The Taliban now stands for Pashtun resistance to an Uzbek/Tajik dominated pro-U.S. polity, drawing not upon popular sentiment in favor of terror attacks on the U.S. but the age-old desire for Afghan independence. Actions against them today don’t avenge the 9-11 attacks but rather -- especially when they involve civilian “collateral damage” -- simply encourage Muslim hatred from the U.S. from Morocco to Malaysia.
Al-Qaeda was dispersed by U.S. and Coalition forces, although no one seems to have any idea how many al-Qaeda members were in the country, how many were killed by bombs, and how many successfully fled. Most commentators assume that actions attributed to al-Qaeda these days are the work of copycat groups, or at least not coordinated by a central command in Afghanistan. So while the Bush administration can claim victory over al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it must confront a less centralized morph whose actions may receive some guidance from a fugitive headquarters or more likely just receive some praise in a statement attributed to bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri after the fact. The fact that these two are still at large, able to pontificate and influence Muslim minds, shows that the Afghan campaign as specifically anti al-Qaeda operation was less than a total success.
But back to the Taliban. I don’t how one joins it. I don’t know if they issue membership cards. My sense is that it has always been a loose-knit organization and that the U.S. press is prone to depict all current militant resistance to the status quo as somehow of Taliban (or Taliban/al-Qaeda) inspiration. (This is a simple model, rather like the model applied to Iraq, in which Baathists supposedly head up what is in fact a complex multifaceted insurgency.) I do know that fighters of the Hizb al-Islami (the Party of Islam), headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are a major force in the “insurgency”. These should not be conflated with the Taliban. They had nothing to do with 9-11 and have not been close to al-Qaeda. They oppose the Karzai-warlord government for opportunistic and nationalistic reasons but had they ever really threatened the U.S., one must ask why 80% of the CIA largesse dispensed to the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s went to this very group!
Hekmatyar built his career on anticommunism, his debut murder being that of a Maoist student leader in the 1970s. For years he was the CIA’s main man in Afghanistan; in 1987 he even launched rocket attacks on Soviet Tajikistan at their request. During the years of Northern Alliance hegemony (1993-96), he was for a time prime minister -- recognized as such by the Clinton administration. When the Taliban took power, he fled to neighboring Iran. After the U.S. toppled the Taliban, he returned, revived his movement, and after contemplating support for the Loya Jirga process opted to fight the new regime and its foreign sponsors. Thus he has entered into a tactical alliance with the Talibs. Many of the recent lethal attacks on U.S. forces were staged by Hekmatyar, not the Taliban or the even less significant al-Qaeda leftovers. Why? Because those forces invaded his country, and made him think: “How do they differ from the Soviets they helped us drive out?”
One of the least reported episodes in the post 9-11 “terror war” was the Hellfire missile attack, launched from a Predator spy plane in May 2002 in an attempt to kill Hekmatyar. This was undertaken, not by the U.S. military, but by the CIA. It was the first instance in which, post 9-11, the U.S. targeted for assassination someone without even an alleged 9-11 connection but rather with a long history of cooperation with the U.S. The murder attempt failed, but reminded the warlord, if he needed to be reminded, that cooperation with U.S. imperialism has its rewards and rebellion its serious consequences. Now it seems Hekmatyar, Mr. Blowback, is on a roll, raising that U.S. death toll month by month, capitalizing on the hostility many Afghans (Pashtuns in particular) feel towards the present regime. Whether or not that hostility is warranted or not really isn’t the issue. The issue, rather, is why U.S. forces not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan as well are fighting to defend client regimes from groups that have never attacked the U.S., had nothing to do with 9-11, have worked cooperatively with the U.S. in the past, and have evident bases of support. In both instances the Bush administration insists that if those attacking U.S. forces now succeed in driving them out and setting up their own regimes, those regimes will encourage “terrorism” targeting the U.S. or its allies (notably Israel). It doesn’t matter if they’re some variety of Islamist (Sunni or Shiite, there being many forms of Islamic fundamentalism within these categories) or secularist (e.g., Baathist). If they’re opposing the U.S.-sponsored governments, they’re not “for” but “against” the U.S., hence terrorists, hence whether or not they have anything to do with 9-11 they are enemies that U.S. forces will have to confront for a generation or more.
Again, that’s the basic reasoning, articulated with some candor by Condoleezza Rice who told troops in Afghanistan last May that “We are going to build a different kind of Middle East, a different kind of broader Middle East that is going to be stable and democratic and where our children will one day not have to be worried about the kind of ideologies of hatred that led those people to fly those planes into those buildings on Sept. 11.” Who’s going to build this new Middle East (or what the neocons call the “Greater Middle East” so that they can include Afghanistan)? U.S. troops, by gosh, and that means taking on any Baathist, Shiite al-Sadr follower, Sunni jihadi, or random father/brother sworn to avenge a “collateral” death, who stands in the way of that “different kind of Middle East.” Thus we stray further and further from 9-11 and al-Qaeda and closer and closer to a general war on the Islamic world. That is to say, a war on a wide spectrum of the Muslim world that doesn’t want or trust the USA to “build a different” version of itself, and doesn’t agree that 9-11 gave the Americans a divine commission to do so. War on Shiite Iran, mostly Sunni (but politically secularist) Syria -- wars with evolving varied pretexts on targets that share nothing in common with al-Qaeda except a Muslim character.
The “good” war on Afghanistan if it ever appeared otherwise has long since acquired the character of a neocolonial exercise. Donald Rumsfeld has as much as admitted such in declaring last October, “The Soviet Union took 200,000 or 300,000 troops, I believe, and attempted to subdue Afghanistan, and they lost the war. We had less than 20,000, and we won.” In other words, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is another, simply more successful, effort to “subdue” the country and impose a U.S. (rather than a Soviet) model of governance. But the victory the defense secretary claims is hardly in the bag.
If as seems likely the key figure now in the anti-Karzai/U.S. insurgency is Hekmatyar, who shared with his Iranian hosts a general hostility to the Taliban and al-Qaeda until 2001, the anti-insurgency effort undertaken by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan is not at this point primarily a response to bin Laden’s forces. It’s an effort, explainable in traditional geopolitical terms, to secure the eastern boundary of an empire that will embrace pipelines feeding Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf petroleum products to destinations approved by the evolving U.S. corporate state, dotted with permanent military bases. (These bases aren’t only in the newly-conquered lands, but in former Soviet Central Asian republics that after 9-11 provided base-use rights to assist in the initial -- Afghan -- phase of the “War on Terror.”) The Muslim world can only see U.S. actions as those of arrogant infidels exploiting the 9-11 tragedy, and even look with some satisfaction at what’s become a two GI per week death toll. Well over 3000 Afghan civilians have been killed by these troops, an eye for an eye perhaps in some minds, revenge for the 3,000 lost on 9-11. That makes no sense of course; the Afghans had nothing to do with 9-11. The retribution principle more validly applies to the actions of those mourning the “collateral” deaths of innocent family members. Last month in Kunar province U.S. strikes killed 17 civilians. Surely they all have relatives honor-bound to avenge their deaths. Thus they too, like their counterparts in Iraq, join the “enemy.”
Just as in Iraq, the stated motives for the attack and occupation were not the real ones. The continuing war has not made Americans safer, or finished off al-Qaeda. (It has, if one wants to find some productive consequence, sparked the revival of opium poppy cultivation following the Taliban’s successful suppression of the crop, and flooded Europe with cheap heroin.) It has fanned anti-U.S. sentiment around the world (most notably, in Pakistan). And like the invasion of Iraq, it has resulted in body counts rising significantly over time. It is not the good war to posit next to the thoroughly discredited one. Designed to serve as preface to the general assault on Southwest Asia, it’s a complete farce in itself. The Loya Jirga of July 2002 was, as I put it at the time, a joke. The upcoming parliamentary and local council elections September 18 won’t produce a “democracy” but merely validate the position of the warlords whose hand-picked candidates will surely dominate the government. A woman candidate for parliament in Jalalabad told Human Rights Watch, “I feel frightened. I am not afraid of Al Qaeda, I am afraid of commanders who are candidates.”
Doesn’t that say it all, though? The warlords brought back to power in late 2001 -- bloody fundamentalist misogynistic thugs real cozy with the Special Forces and CIA -- frighten her much more than the few Arab terrorists on the border of her Texas-sized country. Yes, she has an opportunity to run for office. Maybe she even attributes that opportunity to the Americans, although women served in government before the Northern Alliance came to power in, and acquired unprecedented status under the secular Soviet-backed regimes from 1978 to 1993. But she’s afraid of those the U.S. has revived to replace the officials once feted by Khalilzad on his Texas ranch. The American media will pronounce next month that Afghans courageously went to the polls, democratically enabled by American sacrifice. We’ll see images of long lines of sex-segregated voters heroically defying the bad guys’ call for an election boycott. We won’t be told that desperate poverty, illiteracy, patriarchal authority, and fundamentalist religious authority make it impossible for people to genuinely debate issues and cast a vote that could produce anything other than a continuation of the neocolonial status quo.
Now you’d think that that the warlords and Karzai’s apparatus, battle-hardened as they are, triumphant as they were against the Soviet army, would not require all these foreign forces to protect them against the ragtag rebel factions. President Bush would like you to suppose that the Afghan people are united in support for the “democratic” government, so why the need for U.S. and NATO soldiers to keep dying to protect it? Maybe the mother of one of the 14 dead this month should demand an audience with Bush and confront him with this question.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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