The U.S. in Afghanistan: Eight Years and Counting

The United States invasion and occupation of Afghanistan entered its ninth year in October, and the majority of Americans now oppose the war. So far it has failed to achieve U.S. objectives, and it is likely the Obama Administration’s expansion of the war will compound the failure.

Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar — Washington’s principal enemy leaders in the Afghan war — are not only alive, free and still taunting the White House after all these years, but appear to believe they now have the upper hand in Afghanistan.

Bin-Laden’s purpose has always been to draw the United States ever deeper into armed conflict with Islamic society in order to degrade America’s image, undermine its economy, and gain recruits. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan played directly into al-Qaeda’s hands, as will Washington’s effort to widen the Afghan conflict, especially as it stabs into Pakistan and alienates its masses of people in the process.

So far the two wars launched by President George W. Bush have cost the U.S. the antagonism of much of the Muslim world, serious erosions of its own democracy and reputation, and over a trillion dollars. Even if the wars end soon, says Nobel Prize economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, the overall expenditure — including everything from long term care for severely injured troops to interest on the war debt — will exceed $3 trillion, enough to end world poverty and hunger.

Speaking about Afghanistan this summer, President Barack Obama declared: “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” Many war opponents argue that it is indeed a war of choice, and that international police work would have been far more successful and just.

We’ll discuss this later in the article, along with the fact that the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, and for that matter the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, need not have occurred had Washington taken less warlike actions in the key year of 1978, as well as 2001 and 2003. The fact that the U.S. has intervened deeply and for long periods over the past 31 years in a civil war in poverty-stricken, virtually pre-industrial Afghanistan, is probably not understood by many Americans.

Upon assuming office, President Obama instructed the Pentagon to devise a winning strategy for Afghanistan. Within weeks the White House agreed to a new war plan submitted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that was supposed to lead to a U.S. victory. In March, Obama expanded the Afghan war when he heeded a Pentagon request and ordered 21,000 more U.S. troops to join the battle.

Several months later, however, McChrystal reported that the situation has deteriorated to the point where the war — ever more clearly displaying its neocolonial aspect — “will likely result in failure” within a year unless his forces increase by a minimum of 45,000 troops and a maximum of 80,000.

Obama has been engaged in “rethinking” war strategy since receiving the general’s verdict several weeks ago. He is expected to soon decide whether to deploy a larger number of additional troops to join 68,000 American fighters already scheduled for Afghanistan and about 50,000 NATO soldiers. This total presumably includes the 13,000 troops Obama also deployed without informing the American people, until the Washington Post broke the story in mid-October.

The White House is investigating two options for continuing the conflict — both of which would intensify the war and spread it more deeply into Pakistan. As briefly summarized by The Economist Oct. 17 they are “manpower-intensive counter-insurgency (COIN), which aims to win over the Afghan population and build a stable government; and counter-terrorism, which seeks to deal narrowly with threats to the West, mainly through air strikes or raids by Special Forces.”

McChrystal, who appears to be supported by top Pentagon brass, backs COIN, which includes a counter-terrorism aspect as well as “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, an effort that utterly failed when tried in Vietnam, and will fail in Afghanistan. Vice President Joseph Biden and some other administration advisers back the lower intensity counter-terrorism option without greatly expanding the number of troops or engaging in “nation building.”

If McChrystal’s minimum request is accepted it means a combined U.S.-NATO force of over 160,000 troops, not including scores of thousands of “contractors” doing duties previously performed by soldiers until recent years.

Scott Ritter, the former UN chief weapons inspector who testified before the war that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had this to say about McChrystal’s request for more troops in a article Oct. 29:

McChrystal operates under the illusion that American military power can provide a shield from behind which Afghanistan can remake itself into a viable modern society. He has deluded himself and others into believing that the people of Afghanistan want to be part of such a grand social experiment, and furthermore that they will tolerate the United States being in charge. The reality of Afghan history, culture and society argue otherwise. The Taliban, once a defeated entity in the months following the initial American military incursion into Afghanistan, are resurgent and growing stronger every day. The principle source of the Taliban’s popularity is the resentment of the Afghan people toward the American occupation and the corrupt proxy government of Hamid Karzai. There is nothing an additional 40,000 American troops will be able to do to change that basic equation.

At this stage the U.S, NATO and their Afghan forces enjoy at least a 12-1 advantage in troop strength against the opposing forces, not to mention air power, drone attacks and an enormous technological, logistics and communications advantage. This increases to 20-1 if McChrystal’s minimum kicks in — and that’s evidently still not enough to defeat the insurgency. The latest word from the White House and Pentagon is that the new strategy may devolve to holding Afghanistan’s 10 largest cities and leaving the countryside to fend for itself, except for air strikes.

Our guess is that Obama will view the issue politically, as well as militarily, and being an inveterate centrist will try to merge both positions, increasing the number of troops but fewer than McChrystal desires. No one knows for sure, but he is intentionally creating suspense to magnify the importance of his eventual plan.

The Washington Post reported Oct. 26 that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently conducted theoretical war games to examine “the likely outcome of inserting 44,000 more troops into the country to conduct a full-scale counterinsurgency effort aimed at building a stable Afghan government that can control most of the country. It also examined adding 10,000 to 15,000 more soldiers and Marines as part of an approach that the military has dubbed ‘counterterrorism plus.’”

Complicating the situation, Washington’s hand-picked Afghan leader, President Hamid Karzai, is presiding over a thoroughly corrupt government and an alienated population. His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is a drug lord and wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, who has been on the CIA’s payroll since the beginning of the war, along with innumerable warlords and disreputable officials. The UN has ascertained that last August’s elections were so fraudulent, mainly by far from Karzai’s side, the a run-off election was set for Nov. 7 between the incumbent and his independent rival, Abdullah Abdullah, M.D., who won 30.5% of the vote.

On Nov. 1, Abdullah — who had long been associated with the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance, for which he was a deputy foreign minister at one time — announced his withdrawal from the second round voting. He attributed his decision to the refusal by the government and election commission to accept his recommendations for changing balloting rules to prevent foul play.

The Obama Administration has been far more critical of Karzai than Bush, and it is said to have preferred a Karzai-Abdullah power-sharing arrangement to Karzai alone. Since Abdullah withdrew without calling for an election boycott or public demonstrations on his own behalf, he may yet end up associated with the new government in some fashion.

Even though the election affair has not transpired precisely the way Washington wished, it will have little impact on White House war plans. President Obama, who heretofore identified Afghanistan as the main danger, not Iraq, now says the danger has spread to Pakistan as well — an unanticipated but logical result of the Bush wars. The tribal areas of Pakistan are the target of increased U.S. air power, missile attacks, pilotless drones, and Special Forces engagements.

The Obama Administration is exerting heavy pressure on the Islamabad government of President Asif Ali Zardari, and investing another $7.5 billion in new aid, to intensify efforts to crush al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban (which was only formed in 2007) and other groups in the mountainous western section of the country. This has created increasing anti-American sentiment among the masses of people in Pakistan who think Zardari is a virtual puppet of Washington. In a public opinion poll last August, some 60% of the Pakistani people view the U.S. as the greatest threat to their country compared to India or al-Qaeda.

In order to prevail in Afghanistan — or in Af-Pak, as the two-front war is described — President Obama evidently is considering a major compromise with the Taliban. Associated Press reported Oct. 9 that “President Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future,” both locally and in the central government. In addition the White House and Pentagon will seek to bribe the Taliban to stop attacking U.S. troops, as was done with the Sunni resistance in Iraq, by inducing former opponents to get on Washington’s payroll. The Pentagon is putting aside $1.3 billion to pay Taliban effectives who wish to “reintegrate into Afghan society.”

Most Americans have little understanding of what’s going on in Afghanistan, and no knowledge of the complex events that led up to President Bush’s bombardment and invasion in October 2001, weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The fact is that today’s war in Afghanistan is one of several disastrous consequences of U.S. interference in Afghanistan starting in 1978.

Land-locked, rugged, Texas-sized with a population of about 29 million, and strategically located where the rich geopolitical resources of the Middle East and Central Asia converge, Afghanistan gained independence from colonial Great Britain in 1919. A monarchy was established in this desperately poor country until overthrown by a military coup in 1973. Another coup took place in April 1978, this time led by left forces and military officers determined to enact reforms to “bring Afghanistan into the 20th century.”

The resulting ruling group, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), set about introducing modernizing reforms, including laws conferring equality upon the country’s oppressed women, and improving the lot of working people and subsistence farmers. The law granting rights to women was observed in Kabul and some big cities, but usually ignored elsewhere in territory controlled by the warlords and Islamic fundamentalists.

The PDPA’s immediate establishment of closer relations with the neighboring Soviet Union set off alarm bells in Washington, which feared Moscow would gain an important pawn in the Cold War geopolitical chess game. Within months President Jimmy Carter and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski decided to subvert the new leftist regime by “secretly” aiding right-wing warlords and ultra-orthodox religious groups who were beginning an armed struggle to overthrow the PDPA government.

The planning was fully operational by mid-1979. Working with the Pakistani intelligence agency over the years, the CIA poured a minimum of $8 billion into the coffers of warlords and fundamentalist fighting groups. By early 1979, CIA operatives started training the mujahedeen (the collective name of the Muslim fighters) at camps it set up in Pakistan, then in Afghanistan itself. The U.S. also supplied them with sophisticated arms (such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles), military advisers, and logistical information for the next decade.

Writing in Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, journalist-author Ahmed Rashid said the training camps “became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism.” In the words of William Blum in his book, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, “The war had been a rallying point for Muslim zealots from throughout the world…. Thousands of veterans of the war… dispersed to many lands to inflame and train a new generation of terrorists ready to drink the cup of martyrdom.”

Among the recipients of U.S. largess and support in the mid-1980s was Osama bin-Laden and his new group of mostly foreign fighters in Afghanistan that by 1988 was formally titled al-Qaeda. (The name means, “the Base,” a reference to their training camp.) Bin Laden — the scion of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family — also received support from Pakistan and from sources in Saudi Arabia.

By the summer of 1979, the right wing rebel forces were becoming a serious threat to the Kabul regime, which eventually requested that Moscow send troops to defend the regime. One year and nine months after the PDPA took power, the Red Army began arriving in December 1979. (We specify the exact time period because the Western mass media often suggest that deep U.S. involvement began after, not at least a half year or more before, the arrival of Soviet troops, and rarely mention their presence was requested by the Kabul government.

As Brzezinski bragged many years later, Washington’s plan from the beginning was to create conditions that would oblige the Soviet Union to become militarily involved in Afghanistan’s civil war, and suffer the same fate as the U.S. in Vietnam in the earlier 1970s. It worked. In time the Red Army found itself sinking in the quagmire that earned Afghanistan the title “Graveyard of Empires.”

For the next several years following the arrival of Soviet troops, the White House — now occupied by the rightist Reagan administration — continued to build up the rebel forces, many of which had fought each other before the 1978 coup. In time they were joined by up to 40,000 jihadist recruits from over 40 countries in the Muslim world. During the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan began to cynically describe the warlords and fundamentalist armies as “freedom fighters.”

Moscow began to withdraw in 1987 and completed the project by early 1989. The left wing government held on until it was brutally crushed in 1992. The subsequent four years of civil war between the various rebel forces — in which up to 65,000 people were killed in Kabul — resulted in a Taliban victory in 1996. The earlier reforms were quickly abolished, particularly those freeing women, and a draconian form of Islam was imposed throughout the country. The Taliban — which is a national organization as opposed to international al-Qaeda, was formed in 1994 by Mullah Omar and consisted of the most orthodox Afghan jihadists. The name Taliban means “religious students.”

The consequences of the Carter/Reagan intervention in Afghanistan made it possible for 19 Al-Qaeda operatives armed with box cutters to hijack four airliners to attack symbols of U.S. military and financial power in Washington and New York in the late summer of 2001.

The political reasons behind 9/11 included opposition to America’s support for the suppression of the Palestinians; anger over the 1991-2003 U.S.-UN sanctions that caused over a million Muslim deaths in Iraq, half of them children; Washington’s manipulative intervention in Middle East since the end of World War II; and the Pentagon’s stationing of troops in Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Even after the 9/11 tragedy, the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan need never have occurred. It was a result of Bush’s bizarre decision to define the attack as a declaration of war against the United States instead of a gross criminal act by a small non-state organization of perhaps up to 1,000 active adherents only partially based in Afghanistan and largely composed of non-Afghans.

The rational alternative — worldwide police work, sanctions, homeland defense and other stringent measures — would certainly have been more successful against al-Qaeda, and far less costly for the United States, than eight years of fruitless war. Bush spurned this alternative not because war was a “necessity,” as the Obama Administration alleges, but to pursue neoconservative imperialist objectives for obtaining hegemony in the region under Bush’s banner of an endless “global war on terrorism.”

Further, just before the invasion, Taliban leader Omar told the U.S. he would turn over bin-Laden to a third country if Washington didn’t attack Afghanistan, as Bush was about to do. Mullah Omar had one condition: he asked the White House to provide evidence that the al-Qaeda leader was actually guilty. Bush’s response: “There’s no need to negotiate…. There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty.”

As the American attack started, CIA teams were already on the ground in Afghanistan, once again paying off their old retainers, the warlords, with thick packages of $100 bills to intensify the civil war against the Taliban in concert with the invading Americans. At least $70 million was distributed in the first months of the war, mostly to the Northern Alliance, the big loser for power in Kabul in the ’90s.

Bush followed the Afghan adventure with a second war of choice in March 2003 — the transparently unjust and illegal invasion of Iraq. It turned into a costly stalemate but 120,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, and the Iraqi people continue to suffer mass privation and pain.

Afghanistan is not Washington’s “good war,” though it is now characterized in that fashion not only by the Republican right wing but by President Obama and many Democrats who were critical of “Bush’s” Iraq war. These are often the same “peace” Democrats who supported their own party’s unjust three-month bombardment of Yugoslavia (Serbia) in 1999. Obama was viewed as a peace candidate in the elections because he was critical of the Iraq war, though he nonetheless always voted as a senator to fund both wars, and made it clear he wanted to fight in Afghanistan.

Now that a Democratic president is directing the war, Bush’s campaign against Afghanistan for regime-change and long-term U.S. occupation has become a new type of “humanitarian intervention.” This has gravely weakened the American antiwar movement, which is largely based on Democratic voters, but may not be permanent. Many Democrats of the Vietnam era eventually turned on President Lyndon Johnson after two or three years to the extent that he could not run for reelection. Then, again, that was during a decade-long period of mass movements for social change in America, as opposed to the conservative reaction that has basically continued for some 30 years.

In our view, as we wrote in 2001 just after the invasion: “If any brutal right-wing regime deserved to be overthrown by its own people, the Taliban is the perfect choice. But for the imperial superpower to arrogate the task to itself, with its planes, missiles, self-interest and hypocrisy, bodes ill for the long-suffering Afghan masses and the region in general. Indeed, this projection of U.S. military power deeper into strategically important Central Asia brings Washington closer to its goal of hegemony over the neighboring Islamic former Soviet republics, now discovered to be awash in oil and gas reserves.”

Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. Speaking to a military audience recently, he sounded rather like his predecessor when he declared that fighting the war was necessary because “those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.” So far, Obama’s troop buildup has inspired more attacks from the Taliban and other oppositional forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the situation can only get worse in proportion to the number of U.S. troops sent to the region.

What is Washington’s actual mission in the Af-Pak war? In a statement May 19, Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command, declared that “The mission is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and other transnational extremists.”

This evidently is why President Obama is widening the war in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. But is this necessary? The White House acknowledges that there are at most 100 members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan at this point, but indicates that more have been driven across the border to Pakistan, without specifying how many.

Is it up to 500 perhaps? Could it be high as 1,000 adherents to al-Qaeda and other “transnational” extremists? For some reason the Pentagon doesn’t say, though it certainly must have a good estimate. In Afghanistan there are many thousands who are associated with the Taliban and similar groups, but these organizations operate strictly within their own borders, as does the Pakistani Taliban, and in no way have threatened to attack the United States.

Does it really require the killing of many hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, trillions of American dollars, and the fixated attention of our entire society to deny al-Qaeda a possible safe haven where they can plot to attack the United States? Wouldn’t it be better and far less costly to rely upon international police work, high technology surveillance, tight homeland security, sanctions if absolutely needed, and other means short of war, fair and foul, at Washington’s disposal?

Can it plausibly be denied that this would have been the better alternative in 2001, given the disastrous failure of Bush’s wars? In our opinion the answer is of course not, and it’s the better alternative in 2009 as well. What’s to prevent the Obama Administration from accepting this non-military alternative today, now that the neoconservatives are out of power? Two reasons present themselves: politics and international policy.

In terms of politics: Obama and the Democratic Party would rather wage these self-defeating wars than to be accused by the know-nothings of “cutting and running,” of being “weak on defense,” and of “lacking patriotism.” They fear these right-wing attacks will cost them elections in today’s highly conservative America, so instead of fighting back politically they bend the knee further to militarism and war.

In terms of international policy: Since the end of World War II — and particularly after the implosion of the USSR and the socialist camp two decades ago — the U.S. has functioned as the world’s dominating hegemon based on its willingness to use overwhelming military strength to extend its economic and political parameters throughout the world. A large number of Americans have been duped into believing it’s all being done to spread democracy and to keep people safe from the terrorists.

What has this gotten America lately? The U.S. is a declining superpower in deep economic difficulties. The recession, foreclosures and unemployment are crushing tens of millions of American families. Even without a recession, economic inequality is rampant; government social services are primitive; the civil infrastructure is becoming a shambles; the healthcare system remains a wreck, although a relative improvement may be forthcoming; and our political system, where the choices are confined to the right and center, needs an overhaul.

Meanwhile Washington’s wasting a trillion dollars a year on past, present and future wars “to save the world” (the $680 billion Pentagon budget Obama just signed is only part of it).

Antiwar critic Andrew Bacevich, a fairly conservative former Army officer and currently a professor and author of several important books on the military and U.S. policy, wrote an article in Commonweal Aug. 15 that contained a couple of paragraphs that fit in here:

“If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: ‘Come home, America.’ The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on ‘the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.’

“Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking — in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three. Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril. That Barack Obama should fail to realize this qualifies as not only ironic but inexplicable.”

We profoundly agree with this quote except for “inexplicable.” Obama has a number of attractive qualities, but he is a centrist in a political party of the center/center-right — an improvement over the competing mass party of the right/neocon-right/far-right, but hardly the politician to lead the struggle Bacevich suggests. Just getting him to avoid widening the unnecessary Af-Pak war any further, much less ending it, is daunting enough.

A majority of the American people want an end to the war, including a large majority of Democratic Party voters — and Obama says he is susceptible to public pressure. The problem is that the Democrats, who constitute the base of the U.S. peace constituency, left the movement in droves after their party won the elections. They don’t want to publicly protest Obama’s actions when he is under continual Republican attack on everything but the war.

This could change as the war continues and casualties mount, but it will have to be a major change with millions of people out in the streets demanding peace. Until then, the informal coalition of Republicans who vigorously uphold the war and “peace” Democrats who won’t stand against it will provide the White House with the public support it needs to continue the war indefinitely.

The U.S. decision to support the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in 1978 ultimately changed history in ways very costly to the peoples of the region and the United States. We dread to imagine the unintended consequences that will emerge from President Obama’s continuing display of American imperial hubris in the Af-Pak war.

Jack A. Smith is the editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Jack.

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  1. Wingnut said on November 5th, 2009 at 5:54am #

    Excellent report… thanks author and publisher.