by The Spark
Before taking office, Barack Obama pledged to wind down the war in Iraq and redouble efforts to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. “As president, I will make the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be,” he said in a major foreign policy address in July 2008 during his electoral campaign, promising to finally defeat and destroy “all of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, while supporting real security in Afghanistan.”
Obama also promised to help the Afghans build their own government institutions to keep order: “I will focus on training Afghan security forces and supporting an Afghan judiciary…[to] sustain their own security.”
Lasting peace, Obama assured his audience, would depend on not only defeating the Taliban but helping “Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up.” He added, “We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narco-terrorism.”
He went on to emphasize: “This is a war that we have to win.”
Judging from the lack of news coverage in this country about Afghanistan, one would assume that Obama’s strategy had worked, that the war was won and all the U.S. troops were out. After all, the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the war on October 7, 2016 came and went without a mention, in sharp contrast to the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 one month before. And neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had anything to say about the Afghanistan War during the electoral campaign.
They have a lot to hide.
After two terms of the Obama presidency, the war in Afghanistan is not only raging, but escalating, and the U.S. occupation and Afghan government forces are losing control of increasing amounts of territory. This deteriorating situation led Obama to announce that he was keeping 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of his term, as well as ramping up the air war, bringing in B-52’s to pummel the country.
In his address last July announcing this decision, Obama reiterated that the U.S. was in Afghanistan in order to stop terrorism… again: “…we can’t forget what’s at stake in Afghanistan. This is where al Qaida is trying to regroup. This is where ISIL continues to try to expand its presence. If these terrorists succeed in regaining areas and camps where they can train and plot, they will attempt more attacks against us.” In fact, the biggest source of terrorism was U.S. imperialism itself, by often starting terrorist groups for its own purposes, and then by carrying out imperialist wars that provide fertile soil for terrorism to spread.
Obama did offer dubious assurances that the U.S. had made progress after 15 years of war. He claimed that it had built up the Afghan military: “For the second year now, Afghan forces are fully responsible for their own security.” Of course, if that were really true, there would be no need to bring in U.S. troops and step up the bombing.
And he said that the U.S. has improved the situation for the Afghan people, with an elected government, more schools and better public health care. Not mentioned was the fact that the elections were fraudulent and the government was dominated by warlords, or that more people were dying in unending war, and that millions of people have been forced from their homes in a worsening refugee crisis. What Obama didn’t come back to were his earlier promises about the economy, especially since narcotics remains a pillar of the Afghan economy and production is greater than ever.
Obama indicated that there was a way out of the war, through a negotiated settlement: “I will say it again — the only way to end this conflict and to achieve a full draw-down of foreign forces from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”This, too, is not new. The U.S. has been holding out the hope of negotiations for a long time. But no real negotiations have ever taken place.
In other words, the U.S. is trapped in a quagmire, a war without end.
Obama’s dilemma, that is, the dilemma of U.S. imperialism, appears to be similar to what a half century ago Lyndon Johnson privately confided that he faced in Viet Nam: “I can’t get out. I can’t finish it with what I have got. So, what the hell can I do?”
Terrorism and its Creators
The war, the terrorism, the quagmire – all that is a creation of U.S. imperialism’s involvement in Afghanistan going back four decades.
The U.S. first intervened in Afghanistan in order to use that country and its peoples as a proxy against the U.S.’s superpower rival at the time, the former Soviet Union. The Afghan government, which was part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, had become unstable, with internal rivalries and social unrest. In mid-1979, the CIA tried to increase that instability by funneling aid to small groups of Islamic fundamentalists or mujahideen that opposed the Afghan government.
To bolster the Afghan regime, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Its aim was to prevent political instability from developing on its borders. It also tried to contain the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which was threatening the neighboring Soviet republics. But the Soviet intervention backfired. It galvanized opposition to the regime and drove the population into the arms of the Islamic fundamentalists, who presented themselves as liberators in contrast to the brutality of occupying troops. The CIA helped to arm, finance and train the fundamentalist militia to fight against the Soviet troops. It also recruited foreign fighters and organized them into terrorist groups to fight against the Soviet troops. Ten years later, the last Russian troops withdrew, defeated, at the end of a war which had led to more than a million deaths.
The U.S. had given the Soviet Union “its own Viet Nam,” as one U.S. official boasted. But there was “blowback” from this war. Terrorist groups, like al Qaeda, funded or even created by the CIA to fight against the Russians, went on to carry out attacks in many places, from Saudi Arabia to Kenya to the United States.
There was also tremendous “blowback” inside Afghanistan itself. Afghan warlords, or commanders as they were called, came to dominate each valley and district in Afghanistan. They used the arms and money that they had received from the U.S. to build up their own militias and armies. They preyed upon the Afghan population, engaged in various rackets, including drug smuggling, while invoking religious zealotry as a cover. The poisonous ideas of “holy war” and the exaltation of the cult of martyrdom that had been previously limited to a few, isolated pulpits in Afghanistan, were spread throughout the land. With Afghan schools destroyed by the wars, millions of Afghan boys in refugee camps were educated across the border in Pakistani madrassas, or religious schools, where they were fed an extreme, violence laden form of Islamic fundamentalism in text books paid for by Washington.
The departure of Soviet troops in 1989 did not bring peace. The rival warlords continued to fight to drive out the Afghan government that had been supported by Soviet troops. At the same time, these warlords began to struggle amongst themselves for power. After the Afghan regime fell in April 1992, the struggle intensified. Unstable conglomerates of local and regional chiefs carried out another bloody civil war.
To restore order, U.S. imperialism’s client states in the region, the Pakistan military and the Saudi Arabian monarchy, created the Taliban in 1993-94 with its own brand of virulent religious fundamentalism. Former fighters in the mujahideen and young men in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan were recruited into the Taliban. Over the next two years, the Taliban fought to impose its rule over the competing warlords. The Taliban held out the hope of ousting the much-hated warlords and mujahideen and provide a sense of order and security, thus gaining popular support. It also gained the allegiance of many local warlords and strongmen, who kept their own fiefdoms. By September 1996, the Taliban controlled Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and began its reign. But it was never able to defeat all the warlords and mujahideen, as former enemies who had fought each other during the civil war banded together to form the Northern Alliance.
For the next five years, the Taliban imposed a dictatorship over a poor, backward country left in ruins and bled white by several wars. But the Taliban was never able to extend its rule to the north, which remained under the control of the Northern Alliance.
A Factory for War and Insurgency
This was the situation in Afghanistan when U.S. imperialism invaded the country after the 9/11 attacks.
The U.S. invasion was a spectacular show of U.S. force aimed at demonstrating to the world that the U.S., as the only super-power, was still to be feared. U.S. policy makers probably chose to invade Afghanistan because it appeared to be a pushover. One of the poorest countries on earth, largely rural with the population scattered in small impoverished villages, Afghanistan had already been devastated by 22 years of war and destruction, thanks to previous U.S. interventions. Moreover, the Taliban didn’t even control the whole country and the U.S. could rely on the militias of the Northern Alliance to do most of the fighting.
When the U.S. invaded, Taliban resistance crumbled. In a matter of weeks, the U.S. declared victory, with U.S. forces suffering minimal casualties. But by driving out the ruling Taliban, the U.S. military got rid of a state apparatus that had kept a semblance of order in the country.
The U.S. proceeded to put together a new government and a new army for Afghanistan, a completely artificial creation, which owed its existence to the U.S. occupation. At the head of the government, the U.S. anointed Hamid Karzai, who came from a prominent family based in the south of the country, from which the Taliban sprang. But he had been out of the country for years. U.S. special forces and the CIA had to sneak him in during the fighting. The U.S. granted the warlords of the Northern Alliance top positions in the new ministries, with their control extending down to the local governments. Their militias became the basis of the new Afghan military.
The warlords used their positions to smuggle, plunder, rob and rape, cloaking themselves in brutal religious fundamentalism. The Karzai family and the warlords competed with each other to extend their fiefdoms, as well as to get their hands on money pouring in from the U.S. invaders. They began to salt away in bank accounts in such places as Switzerland, Dubai and the U.S.
The Taliban had not at all been destroyed. Those who made up the Taliban had simply returned home or crossed the border into Pakistan and continued their existence underground. The U.S. and its Afghan allies set about rooting it out.
This campaign could only mean a new war against the Afghan population. When a village was suspected of harboring Taliban, or other insurgents, it was bombed. Entire villages were destroyed by “surgical” strikes. U.S. forces carried out night raids, assassinations and mass arrests, filling prisons and detention centers, including the massive ones at the U.S. Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul and the Kandahar Air Base in the south, where they often carried out systematic torture. Some “high value” prisoners were shipped out to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This “war on terror” backfired on the U.S. occupiers. Former Taliban and other warlords began to take up arms against the Afghan government and the U.S. authority. And because the fighting had left the economy in a shambles, with so many people having lost their land and often their families, it provided a ready mass of people with no other prospects than to join up with local guerrilla commanders.
The population, once again, was caught in the middle of the war.
Over the next several years, as the fighting spread, the U.S. gradually added troops and stepped up the bombing. The U.S. war provoked a response throughout the country. Between 2005 and 2006, the U.S. military reported that the number of armed insurgent attacks nearly tripled, and then increased again the following year.
U.S. imperialism faced the very forces that it had created and turned loose in Afghanistan: the Taliban, terrorist groups, and the warlords and mujahideen. U.S. imperialism got caught in a quagmire of its own making.
When Obama came to office in 2009, he moved to implement his pledge of winning the war in Afghanistan. He instituted a temporary surge of 100,000 U.S. troops and another 50,000 foreign troops to wrest control from the assorted fighters of the Taliban and other armed groups that were hostile to the U.S. occupation. After the surge, the U.S. was supposed to gradually withdraw troops and hand over the running of the country to the Afghan government, army and police with the goal of eventually getting out of Afghanistan completely.
At the heart of the surge was the much advertised counter-insurgency program, which was supposed to protect the population from the insurgents and provide them with security. But the surge ran up against the same problems as before. More U.S. attacks, more U.S. air strikes only led to rising violence and more anger against the U.S. occupation forces. Where U.S. troops were able to gain control, all they did was drive the resistance underground.
This was illustrated by the largest offensive of the war, involving 15,000 U.S. and Afghan troops, in one impoverished district, called Marjah, in the heart of the insurgency in Helmand Province in the south. This offensive was presented as a kind of show piece and was covered by the international news media. It was supposed to provide a positive example of what the surge could accomplish, an example that would then be taken up elsewhere. But from beginning to end, the U.S.’s Marjah offensive was a complete debacle. U.S. troops weren’t able to completely oust the Taliban and other rebel forces from Marjah, despite furious fighting. Neither were U.S. troops able to install a functioning local government. In fact, the local government that the U.S. did install was something of a joke. U.S. General Stanley McChrystal called it a “government in a box” – or instant local government. In reality, the man the U.S. military flew in to serve as governor hadn’t lived in the country for 15 years. The U.S. housed him in a local military base. He was completely out of touch with the population and universally despised. After six months, the U.S. military quietly removed him. Soon after, he was found murdered. After the last U.S. troops were withdrawn from the area in 2014, the Afghan forces that they had left behind lost full control. Efforts by U.S. special forces to retake the area in January 2016 failed.
A big problem U.S. forces faced during the surge was how to protect themselves from their own Afghan allies, Afghan police and soldiers. These attacks became so common, they were known as “green on blue attacks.” In 2012 alone, 50 U.S. soldiers were killed by their so-called Afghan allies in the army and police. This was another indication of the depth of the opposition to the U.S. occupation.
The Afghan Government and Military
The U.S. military began to draw down its force in 2011. The U.S. occupation was supposed to hand the reins of government and security over to the Afghan government, military and police. But the fact that the Afghan government, military and police were dominated by warlords, strongmen and mujahideen meant that there wasn’t one government or one armed force or one police force.
This was illustrated by the way the national elections were conducted. These elections were presented by U.S. authorities and the news media as an important step for the government to gain legitimacy, not to speak of democracy. But the elections were little more than contests between different strongmen, warlords and wealthy Afghan contractors for the U.S., who fought each other for control of the various polling stations in order to stuff the ballots. One estimate that came out of an independent audit of the 2014 presidential election found that as many as three million fraudulent ballots were cast. (New York Times, August 23, 2014). Out of the 2014 election emerged a permanent government crisis. Neither of the two top candidates ceded: Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abudullah each charged the other (rightly) with fraud. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power sharing arrangement, which meant both sides were immediately at each other’s throats, fighting over the spoils that could come with political power.
In interviews by Anand Gopal, a reporter for the New Yorker (March 31, 2014), ordinary Afghans expressed their disgust and anger about the elections and the politicians: “When we work in our farms, the Taliban come and shoot at the police. Then the police come and harass us and don’t let us work. And you want to talk about elections?” said one farmer.
“It doesn’t matter whom I vote for,” said a woman. “My husband died in the civil war. I owe thousands of dollars. Who’s going to help us? Not any of these people.”
“They all do it for show, for their own power,” said another woman. “And we suffer for it.”
Warlords and strongmen associated with the government run a dizzying array of different Afghan army units, Afghan police, as well as many irregular militias, personal bodyguards and other armed groups. They fight not just the anti-government forces, but almost as often each other. Most are paid for by the U.S. or other international organizations, and claim to have more fighters than they do in order to collect extra money. A recent investigation commissioned by the Afghan government found that approximately 40 per cent of the 350,000 Afghan military and police did not exist, and the researchers said that the share might even be higher. In a report released in April, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concurred: “Neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist, how many are in fact available for duty, or by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.” Throughout Afghanistan, lists of troops and police officers are filled with fake names, or names of officers killed in action, but not officially declared dead. But the warlords at their head still collect their salaries.
Those army units that do exist are coming under more intense fighting. In 2015, over 7,000 Afghan soldiers were killed, a 35 per cent increase over the year before. Casualties have mounted quickly since then. From March to August 2016, about 4,500 Afghan soldiers were killed and more than 8,000 wounded. This has been accompanied by much higher desertion rates. This means that the army and police can’t bring in new recruits fast enough to replace those they are losing. And there are reports of army and police units that simply do not fight. Over the last two years, the city of Kunduz, the fifth largest city in the north, has fallen twice to hostile armed groups that associate with the Taliban. Both times, large Afghan armies of 15,000 soldiers collapsed in front of a few hundred fighters. Only heavy U.S. bombing and Afghan army units led by U.S. special forces were able to take back control of the city both times, leading to more atrocities. In 2015, during the battle to retake Kunduz, the U.S. Air Force repeatedly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital for more than an hour, killing 42 staff and patients and seriously wounding another 43.
Many of these forces not only extort money from the population, but often abuse them with impunity. According to a report in the New York Times(September 20, 2015), U.S. soldiers were instructed by their officers to ignore the sexual abuse of boys on U.S. military bases by Afghan police officers. One marine told his father that at night, he could hear the children screaming. Commented Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain, “…we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did – that was something village elders voiced to me.” One of the main reasons why Taliban and other insurgents were able to overrun Kunduz twice is that the army units in the city are notorious for raping and keeping sex slaves. It’s not surprising that anti-government fighting forces can rally people to their cause.
For several years, the U.S. government has tried to work out some kind of settlement to the war, with periodic announcements about possible negotiations. In January 2013, it was reported that the Taliban set up an office in Doha, the capitol of Qatar, available to pursue diplomatic conclusion to the U.S. occupation. This year, there were supposed to have been two negotiating sessions between representatives of the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban. But the problem is that the Taliban is not one centralized organization. What U.S. officials and the news media call “Taliban” is many different fighting groups, irregular militias and armed gangs. Taliban officials who agree to negotiate have no authority over many of the armed groups in the field, especially given that in the field the “Taliban” – whatever it is – continues to make gains against the U.S. and Afghan forces. These gains are “a strong indication that the insurgents want to pursue a military strategy regardless of the politics,” one Western official told the Guardian (October 18).
Neither can U.S. imperialism win, nor can it negotiate a political settlement that would allow it to leave.
A Destroyed Country
In his speeches and statements, Obama always tried to point out the “benevolent” aspects of the U.S. war and occupation. But in reality, all that remains is warring warlords, strongmen and militias that are fighting each other.
In 2008, Obama promised to “grow the Afghan economy from the ground up” – in the middle of decades of war. In fact, U.S. officials have presided over an economy that has been destroyed, that functions largely on the basis of corruption and drug trafficking.
Corruption serves a political purpose for the U.S. occupiers: it buys loyalty. “Employ money as a weapons system,” General David Petraeus wrote in 2008. “Money can be ‘ammunition.’” Considering that in some years, the U.S. war budget for Afghanistan was over 60 billion dollars per year, U.S. money literally drowned the Afghan economy, whose GDP is estimated to be about 12 billion dollars. Loyalty was bought in every aspect of the military operation, from buying the loyalty of militias, to the building and supplying of the massive U.S. system of military bases throughout the country.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, claimed that it was helping to rebuild the country. And indeed, the Pentagon and the State Department’s USAID financed the rapid construction of schools, clinics, public buildings, water wells. But those buildings and wells were never finished, or never used. Today, remnants of empty buildings – “ghost schools,” “ghost clinics” – dot the Afghan landscape. The projects were nothing but excuses to funnel billions of dollars to warlords and contractors tied to the regime. Much of this cash, garnered on a colossal scale, ended up in banks and real estate in the Gulf emirates, especially Dubai. This rampant corruption is typical of what happens to countries during imperial wars, like the U.S. war in Viet Nam in the 1960s and 1970s.
Not surprisingly, U.S. financial operations to buy loyalty backfired. Not only do Afghan military contractors openly pay off the insurgency for safe passage of their trucks, but Afghan warlords re-sell their U.S. supplied weapons to the insurgency. The U.S. occupiers are financing and supplying the people they are trying to defeat.
In 2008, Obama had also vowed to stop Afghanistan from becoming a “narco-state,” preventing the cultivation of poppies that are turned into opium and heroin, while substituting other crops.
According to the 1986 U.S. State Department report, opium is “an ideal crop in a war torn country since it requires little capital investment, is fast growing, and is easily transported and traded.” And that is exactly why it was introduced into Afghanistan by the American CIA and mujahideen warlords in the 1980s, as a way to finance the war. Under CIA tutelage, production in Afghanistan rose so quickly, by 1984 it supplied 60 per cent of the U.S. market for heroin and 80 per cent of the European market. In neighboring Pakistan, the number of heroin addicts went from near zero in 1979 to 1,300,000 by 1985. After the Taliban took power in the late 1990s, it succeeded in eradicating poppy production almost completely, for which in May 2001, the Bush administration awarded the Taliban regime 43 million dollars in humanitarian aid. But after the U.S. invaded in October 2001, production of the poppy once again exploded from 180 tons to a monumental 8,200 tons in the first five years of the war, as various warlords used it as a form of enrichment and a way to finance their operations. And production has continued to increase ever since. In 2016, the United Nations estimated that opium production was actually 43 per cent higher than the year before and that Afghanistan grows about 80 per cent of the world’s opium – thanks to U.S. interventions and wars.
Recently, John Spoko, the U.S. Special Inspector General, decried opium production for “undermining the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.” But the fact is that opium is by far the most important source of income in the country, outside of the U.S. occupation and other foreign spending, the very definition of a narco-state.
In his speech in July, Obama dared claim that Afghanistan has made gains in public health. “Dramatic improvements in public health have saved the lives of mothers and children,” said Obama. No, there are no improvements in public health in this country in which the U.S. has been involved in devastating wars over the last 40 years. As for “saving lives”: in just the last 15 years, the U.S. Air Force has carried out tens of thousands of bombing missions and air strikes, wreaking enormous havoc amongst the civilian population. All one has to recall is the bombing of stationary oil tankers in 2009 in Kunduz province, that killed more than 100 civilians, including many children, or the many bombings of homes and villages during weddings. As for the ground war, during most years, the U.S. special forces carried out round-ups of civilians on an average of 40 per night, often killing and maiming civilians in the process.
Bush and Obama promised repeatedly to fight against terrorism. In reality, their wars spawned an infinite amount of terrorism and violence. They promised to provide security in Afghanistan. Their wars destroyed the country.
The Human Toll
There has never been anything like an accurate count of how many Afghan people have been killed during this latest war. As a matter of policy, the U.S. military does not keep a tally of how many people it kills. Neta Crawford, a professor at Boston University and a co-director at the Costs of War project, estimates the Afghan toll over the last 15 years at 111,000 killed and 116,000 injured. But, she adds, these estimates are of only direct deaths from the war. The Physicians for Social Responsibility put the estimates at around 200,000 casualties from 2001-2013, or about 1,400 people killed per month – which the group acknowledges is probably low, given the incompleteness of its observations.
More than four decades of war have displaced more than seven million people out of a population of 30 million, both inside and outside the country. Hundreds of thousands more are being driven from their homes because of the worsening war. Just in the past two months, according to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, 600,000 were displaced from their homes by conflict due to the worsening war and violence.
Other governments are beginning to force refugees to return to Afghanistan. These include the governments of Pakistan and Iran, which house three million supposedly “illegal” Afghan refugees, who are facing harassment by police and other officials in order to drive them out. Many being forced to leave have lived in those host countries for decades. Early in October, the European Union brokered a deal with the Afghan government. The EU offered four years of foreign aid, under the condition that Afghanistan will accept the refugees that the countries of the European Union want to ship back to Afghanistan, resulting in tens of thousands of repatriations. Many of those returning spent decades in their host countries, including many people born there who are now adults with children of their own.
Millions with no place to live in Afghanistan will be forced to pitch tents at the edge of existing camps, make new settlements and crowd into already overcrowded villages, since few of the returnees can go back to their original homes, often in war-torn areas that they left decades ago. Many will not even be able to receive the little amount of cash from the United Nations agency, the International Organization for Migration, because of funding shortfalls. And given the lack of jobs of any kind, most won’t be able to get work either.
This is what four decades of U.S. imperialist intervention and war in Afghanistan have brought to the people and the country! The U.S. has turned Afghanistan into a totally devastated concentration camp.
The article above is taken from the November-December 2016 issue of Class Struggle, a magazine produced by the US Marxist group Spark, here.