Afghanistan - Caught between the west's on-going aggression and the rule of the warlords

Jan/Feb 2005

Afghanistan, the first victim of Bush's "war on terrorism", has been relegated to the backstage of the world political scene since the US and British governments invaded Iraq. When it has been mentioned at all by political leaders, it has been as an example of the alleged "democratic" wonders of western-engineered "regime change". Lately, the so-called democratic process in Afghanistan has even been portrayed as a blueprint showing a possible way out of the present Iraqi quagmire for the US-led imperialist coalition.

So, for instance, the presidential election held on 9 October 2004 - which resulted in the formal election of Hamid Karzai, a former warlord and CIA associate, who was originally appointed as interim president by the US-in December 2001 - was hailed in western capitals as marking Afghanistan's "return to freedom and democracy." Never mind the fact that this election was marred by widespread fraud, nor that the parliamentary elections, which should have been taking place on the same day according to the country's interim constitution, had to be postponed due to "concerns over security."

Indeed, just as in Iraq, this phrase - "concerns over security" - has become part of virtually every public statement issued in Afghanistan. But it is merely a hypocritical euphemism designed to conceal the reality on the ground.

The truth is that, more than three years after the first western bombs hit the country, on 7 October 2001, the war is still going on in Afghanistan, despite the "democratic" farce of the recent presidential election. The truth is that the country's so-called "democratic" regime only exists thanks to the funds and military protection provided by its western master minders, that this regime only rules over a tiny territory around the capital, Kabul, and that it is a dictatorship dressed up in a "democratic" cloak for the benefit of western public opinion. The truth, finally, is that, in addition to being subjected to military occupation and on-going acts of war by western forces, most of the country remains oppressed by the brutal rule of the many warlords and armed militias produced by the past 25 years of virtually continuous war, and torn apart by their rivalries - all this under the watchful eye of Washington and London, whose governments may have "concerns over security" today, but never had any concern for the price paid by the population as a result of their military ventures.

The forgotten war

Today, 9,000 soldiers of the NATO-sponsored "International Security Assistance Force" (ISAF), are based in Kabul and its immediate surroundings. Their task is primarily to protect western embassies and officials, Karzai's puppet administration and the Afghan privileged class. Even in Kabul, however, this heavy military presence has failed to prevent regular terrorist attacks, including in the centre of the capital itself. In addition, ISAF mans a few outposts in the north-east of the country, where Afghanistan's huge untapped natural gas reserves happen to be located: "peace-keeping" is all well and good, but minding the interests of western oil and gas majors is even better, as far as western governments are concerned!

Since the US agreed to hand over the control of ISAF to NATO, in August 2003, in order to prevent a number of participating countries from withdrawing their troops, all offensive military operations have been undertaken by an 18,000-strong force under US command involving mostly American soldiers. Unlike ISAF, these troops operate in an area covering roughly the southern and eastern half of the country. Officially, three years on, they are still busy hunting down Al Qaeda operatives and the remnants of the Taleban regime. But while Osama bin Laden and the Taleban leader mullah Omar have successfully escaped 3 years of a relentless manhunt, they have long ceased to be the main problem facing the US military.

In this part of Afghanistan, just as in Iraq, the US army is fighting a war of attribution against guerilla forces which seem to enjoy some support among the population, particularly around Baluchistan, in the south, and in the northern Hindu Kush mountains, alongside the Pakistani border.

The scale of the resistance to the western occupation does not appear to be comparable to that in Iraq, neither in terms of the forces involved, nor in terms of their military resources. But the guerrilla groups benefit from a mountainous terrain, with few roads or tracks that can be used by motor vehicles. The proximity of Pakistan's border allows them to disappear to the other side when necessary and the network of support they have in this country, among the over 2m Afghans living in Pakistani refugee camps and probably also the Pakistani fundamentalist groups, provides them with a logistical base for their operations in Afghanistan.

The difference with Iraq, however, is that because of Afghanistan's poor communications and the isolation of the areas in which they operate, the US forces do not have to continually watch their backs after every operation, in case of retaliation. Nor do they have to worry too much in these isolated areas about the western media poking its nose around as it does in Iraq. In fact, the few western journalists who have wandered beyond the sight of occupation and government forces have often been arrested and taken for questioning, like the British photographer Peter Juvenile, who was jailed twice last November, officially under suspicion of having had contact with the kidnappers of three UN employees.

The few accounts which have filtered through about the US operations against the guerilla forces are testimony of the level of blind brutality which is being used in this war, not so much against the guerillas themselves, but against the population. Being unable, most of the time, to engage directly with elusive guerilla groups, the US has made systematic use of heavy airborne weaponry. When a village is suspected of providing help or shelter to guerilla groups, it is simply bombed into the ground with all its population, using devastating 2000-pound bombs which leave no witnesses. And in the remote areas of Afghanistan, even more so than in Iraq, there is no-one to count the number of casualties.

For the US leaders, this is a war they can afford far more easily than the war in Iraq. Its very nature means that it has resulted in comparatively few casualties among US soldiers - just over 150 since the beginning of the war. And even if they still cannot produce the villains that they were meant to bring to justice by invading Afghanistan, they do not have to justify a large number of body bags in front of the US public opinion. In that sense, this is the kind of war that Washington can sustain for a very long time if need be.

What is significant, however, is that the number of US casualties has not been going down. On the contrary, the official figures provided by the US Department of Defence show a small but steady increase.

There is certainly no sign that the US general staff is planning to reduce its presence in Afghanistan: earlier in January, National Guard units were still being activated in the USA to receive 2-months training before being sent there for a 16-month tour of duty.

In fact, just as in Iraq, the US authorities have embarked on a programme involving the construction of 16 US airbases across the country, including a giant 37 square mile base near the south-western border with Iran. In addition, under the pretext of containing the explosion of opium production, which took place after the fall of the Taleban, a network of US Special Forces units are to be set up across the country under the cover of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Clearly the US army is in Afghanistan for the long haul. And the odds are that as long as it is there, bombing villagers and imposing its stooges on the population, the present guerilla war will carry on, if it does not gather pace by finding more recruits among a population which is increasingly alienated by the occupation and the terrible poverty to which it is subjected.

Two decades of warlord rule

But the guerilla groups that the US army is trying to reduce only play a limited, if not a marginal role in the west's "concern over security" in Afghanistan. The main cause of insecurity, for western personnel but above all for the population, is the rule of the warlords.

The reality of the situation in this respect was put in a nutshell by an article in last November's issue of the French monthly "Le Monde Diplomatique":

"As soon as you reach the suburbs of Kabul, the Afghan state disappears. There are only warlords. Their rule is absolute. They raise taxes and duties and boast of their ability to ignore any directive coming from central government. Even in the capital it is hard to know who is really in the driving seat: president Hamid Karzai and his government? Zalmay Khalizhad, the Afghan-American who was parachuted in by Washington as US ambassador? Or the international forces which patrol every district in town? The most wealthy part of the town has been 'bunkerised'. This is where foreign embassies are to be found. The US has even taken over Kabul's largest avenue, where they are building a huge building for the CIA."

The writer of this article provides the answer to his own question. In Kabul at least, those in the driving seat are the US authorities. But what about in the rest of the country?

There, the rule of warlords relying on armies of irregulars involving thousands of men, goes back a long way, to the 1980s, when the Soviet army occupied Afghanistan in an attempt to keep the country within the sphere of influence of the USSR. Most of today's most powerful warlords emerged as "commanders" in the struggle against the Soviet occupation, usually recruiting their militias from their own ethnic groups - whether Pashtun (the largest minority with 40% of the population) or, in decreasing order of importance, Tadjik, Hazara and Uzbek.

Some of these "commanders", like the Uzbek "general" Dostum, the ruler of the region surrounding the northern town of Mazar e-Sharif, and the Tadjik Ismael Khan, the "lord of Herat" in western Afghanistan, were officers in the army of the pro-soviet regime before defecting with their troops and weaponry. Others, the majority, took a leading role in the anti-soviet guerilla war, either out of conviction - often religious, but always anti-communist - or out of self-interest - because of the largesse which began to flow very early on from the US, via the CIA and the Pakistani secret services, and from Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf emirates.

Once the would-be "commanders" had access to funds which could buy weapons, it was not too difficult for them to find recruits. In a country whose entire economy was paralysed by the war, a weapon was an insurance against starvation, even if a dangerous one. It allowed the "mujaheddin" to use their prestige or, if necessary, naked force, in the name of Allah, to extract from the population of the territory they controlled far more than what they needed. Of course, the "commanders" and their lieutenants kept the surplus for themselves.

When the Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, in March 1989, leaving in Kabul a regime which had virtually no control over the country outside the main towns, the warlords consolidated their territories and tried to extend them as far as they could, using the heavy weapons left by the retreating Soviet army. The result was an on-going civil war across the country. This war reached a climax after the fall of the pro-Soviet regime, in 1992. The most powerful warlords - Dostum, Ismael Khan, the Tadjiks Rabbani and Masood, the Pashtun Hekmatyar and the Hazara Wahdat faction - fought a 4-year battle over Kabul in an attempt to establish their own rule over the country.

Meanwhile, the smaller warlords used the opportunities offered by the vacuum of power created by the battle which was raging around Kabul to develop prosperous rackets. Imposing "taxes" on traders or even ordinary travellers became a normal way of raising funds, together with smuggling goods towards Iran and Pakistan and drug trafficking. It was during this period that Afghanistan resumed its position at the top of the world league of opium producing countries.

The victory of the Taleban, in 1996, brought this bloody in-fighting to an end, but not the rule of the warlords. Although the regime of the Taleban was very rigid in some ways, it was far more loose in others. The Taleban's swift victory against the far more heavily armed militias of Dostum and Hekmatyar, for instance, was due to the fact that many of the lesser warlords whose men made up these militias changed sides at the decisive moment. But they only changed sides to become the pillars of the Taleban's regime in their respective fiefdoms. Having always used brutal methods to impose their control over the population, few of them were disturbed by the Taleban's methods. So long as they enforced the Taleban's feudal repression and were not considered as potential threats to their rule, these warlords were able to remain in charge, even though they now had to share part of their loot with their masters in Kabul and to refrain from indulging in drug trafficking.

The warlords co-opted into the puppet regime

When the US-led coalition started to bomb the Taleban's centres of power, in October 2001, it did not take long for the warlords to work out which side was going to win the war. They began to change sides again, joining the ranks of the Northern Alliance, which brought together Masood, Dostum and Ismael Khan. The last to abandon the Taleban were the Hazara and southern Pashtun warlords, who had to be bought with large sums in dollars by US envoys.

The first interim government formed under US auspices, in December 2001, reflected the balance of forces, but it also reflected the choice of the imperialist warlord to co-opt the Afghan warlords into the new regime. Outside the prime ministerial post, all the key portfolios went to the main factions of the Northern Alliance. Karzai, the prime minister, was himself a former Pashtun warlord from the south, who had sided with the Taleban for 3 years before going into exile and getting involved with the CIA-sponsored group formed around the deposed king Zahir Shah. His brother, however, had remained in the country to lead the family's clan, and still exercises, to date, unchallenged rule over a whole area close to Kandahar, in the south, where his militia is assisting the US forces to hunt down the guerillas.

Subsequently, the composition of the interim government has changed several times. But the role of the warlords has never really been reduced. If some of those appointed in 2001 were replaced by others, it was simply because the new appointees were considered more loyal to the coalition or less dangerous inside government than outside.

Throughout the past 3 years, this policy of enrolling the support of selected warlords has been even more blatant on the ground.

For instance, a Human Rights Watch briefing paper issued in September last year has this to say about the area surrounding the north-eastern town of Jalalabad: "Militia forces remain under the de facto control of military commanders, including Hazrat Ali, who cooperates with US and coalition forces operating in the area, and Haji Zahir, the son of Haji Qadir, a former mujaheddin commander and member of President Karzai's government who was assassinated in Kabul in 2002. Hazrat Ali's and Haji Zahir's commanders throughout the area operate criminal enterprises and continue to engage in numerous human rights violations, including the seizure of land and other properties, kidnapping civilians for ransom and extorting money.." And the same report added that during the election campaign, the henchmen of these two US allies were acting as de facto "election agents" for Karzai, by removing the posters of rival candidates from the walls of Jalalabad.

An even more striking case is that of the city of Herat. Following the fall of the Taleban, Ismael Khan took over control of Herat and proclaimed himself governor while setting up an estimated 25,000-strong armed militia. He was then co-opted into Karzai's government in an obvious attempt to separate him from his power base. When this failed, he was sacked and returned to Herat where Karzai appointed him governor, apparently under pressure from the US. But Khan went on defying the government, refusing to pay any income tax to Kabul and enforcing his own system of taxes on all trade to and from nearby Iran.

In August last year, four local warlords, who are even more feared for their bloody cruelty than Khan himself, joined forces to attack Khan in Herat. After a month of fighting, they managed to force him out of the city. Their victory was immediately hailed by US officials and a senior government official was quoted as saying: "It is vital to remove Ismael Khan. It is part of a complex and secret plan which I cannot divulge. (..) Yes, I regret the use of these other militia groups. But sometimes you have to do a little wrong in order to achieve a great good. Herat will be well administered under a technocratic government. We are engaged in a virtuous circle away from illegitimate fiefdoms towards a legitimate central authority and a secure, stable, free, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan."

If it was not for the fact that the population of Herat was made to foot the bill for this "secret plan" by being subjected to the rule of yet another crowd of thieves and torturers, what happened subsequently would make this statement laughable.

On 11 September last year, Khan was formally demoted as governor of Herat and Karzai appointed a new governor to replace him. Shortly afterwards, Human Rights Watch already noted that "Ismael Khan still controls some militia forces around Herat and it is unclear who holds real power in Herat." This was a euphemism. Before the end of the month, the head of the region's police, who had just been appointed by Karzai to replace Khan's police chief, had to flee for his life and return to Kabul after his escort was attacked by Khan's militia. But the ultimate irony came in December, when Khan was finally re-integrated into Karzai's government as Water, Mines and Energy minister - back to square one!

Entrenching warlordism

The policy of co-opting the warlords into the regime comes at a price, and not just in terms of Karzai's authority in Herat - although this is significant in and of itself, since Herat is the country's third largest city. For instance, in Mazar e-Sharif, Dostum's northern fiefdom, Karzai has been unable to appoint a mayor because the local militias had already appointed their own man. To counter-balance Dostum's power, Kabul appointed a powerful Tadjik warlord, general Mohammad Atta, as regional governor. But when Kabul decided to appoint its own man as chief of police, Atta moved in and put him under house arrest, no doubt to show that Kabul would not be able to call the shots above his head.

The problem faced by the occupation forces and its puppet regime in Kabul, is that its policy of playing one militia against another and co-opting warlords selectively into the regime, keeps backfiring without consolidating in any way the authority of the state. On the contrary, the power of the warlords has returned to what it was before the Taleban came to power, as is shown, for instance, by the fact that this year's production of opium in the country has almost reached its record level before the Taleban clamped down on it.

Today, unlike in the 1990s, the warlords are prevented from making a bid for central power by the western occupation. But this does not prevent them from paralysing the country's economy, oppressing the population and putting it to ransom.

Of course, the occupation forces have introduced a series of UN-sponsored programmes called "Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration" (DDR) which is supposed to facilitate the collection of heavy weapons and the reintegration of militiamen into civil life. But so far, according to the government's own figures, only 25,000 militiamen have gone through the DDR programmes - which is only a small proportion of the armed militiamen operating across the country.

Moreover, these fancy figures only conceal the real paralysis of the government. For instance, a big issue was made of the surrender by Dostum of 50 rusty Russian tanks and heavy artillery pieces in the hands of his men. But the government has been unable to get these weapons brought back to Kabul, so they remain in military bases controlled by Dostum's militias.

Likewise for the reintegration of militiamen into civilian life. The point is that once they have used the one-off payment given to them in exchange for their weapons and uniforms, there is no job for them to go to - except one, in the Afghan army and police. So that many of the 25,000 demobilised militiamen have re-armed, this time as "respectable" soldiers and policemen. And thanks to the influence of their former warlords, they just happen to find themselves in the same unit as others coming from the same militia.

No wonder the Afghan Human Rights Commission has found that 15% of cases of human rights violations are committed by the police, including many cases of torture such as the pulling of fingernails! This is also why, for instance, the 8th Army Corps, which is based in Mazar e-Sharif, happens to be dominated by Dostum's former militia - something that Dostum was well-placed to orchestrate while he was vice-Defence minister.

With the DDR programmes, the only difference is that, now, these militiamen have new uniforms and are paid by the government to carry out their looting at the expense of the population. In any case, these programmes are not likely to reduce the power of the warlords, particularly of the most powerful, but rather to entrench it at every level of the state machinery.

The "democratic" farce

Against the backdrop of the warlords' rule, whether imperialist or local, there can obviously be no democracy in Afghanistan.

The presidential election provided an unquestionable illustration of this. The whole charade began with the registration process. When Bush hailed the figure of 10.5m registrations which had been announced by stating that "a really great thing has happened in Afghanistan", he forgot to mention one "small" detail - that this figure was actually higher than the total 9.8m eligible to vote. The European Union-sponsored Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit went out of its way to try and find out what had happened. It found that out of 9 regions, 3 had more registered than eligible voters and in two of them, the excess was over 30%! The other 6 regions had over, or close to 90% of registrations, with one significant exception - the Central region which includes Kabul, where registrations were at only 64% of all eligible to vote. In other words, where the warlords had the least influence the registration level was the lowest, by very far. The implications were obvious: large-scale multiple registrations and vote buying.

Not that a regular registration process would have made this election more democratic, in fact. Indeed, the list of candidates did not give much choice to the electorate. Out of the original 89 would-be candidates, 70 were ruled out by the electoral commission, without it having to provide any justification. Given the conditions prevailing in the country, the prerequisites for being allowed to stand were already overwhelming for anyone who was not from a relatively well-off background or did not enjoy the support of rich backers and a significant election apparatus. Indeed each candidate had to present a university degree together with the photocopies of 10,000 registration cards and pay a non-refundable fee equivalent to more than 8 years' wages for a skilled worker ($1,000).

Of the 18 who were finally allowed to stand, 2 immediately withdrew their candidature in favour of Karzai's. Not surprisingly, both were awarded minor portfolios in the new government announced in December. Of the remaining 16, 10 were linked with "mujaheddin" factions, including the only woman candidate, 2 were royalists and 2 had fundamentalist links. Of all the candidates, only one dared to express publicly - and even then in very mild terms - his opposition to the western occupation.

But the ideas of the candidates did not really matter, because most of them never had a chance to express themselves. The use of the state television was monopolised by Karzai, while private cable television channels just happened to be suspended at that time, due to "viewers' complaints about their "anti-Islamic programmes". Holding public election meetings was effectively banned in most towns, including Kabul, except for the candidates favoured by the local militias.

Of course, on polling day, the predictable wide-scale fraud took place, involving multiple voting, intimidation, the confiscation of ballot papers by militiamen, etc.. This did not prevent the hundreds of western observers on the ground from declaring the election "democratic" - or, at least, this was what the occupation authorities, western governments and Karzai, claimed. They even dared to congratulate themselves about the fact that this had been such a "quiet" day. "Quiet"? Not for the 40 Afghan people who were killed on that day, including 25 by two American bombs dropped on their villages!

However, some observers, such as those of some human rights organisations, were outspoken in their condemnation of the fraud. It must have been indeed so blatant that, before the polling stations closed, 14 candidates issued a joint statement demanding a re-run. Of course, Karzai was not one of them, nor was the woman candidate, who was later duly rewarded for her silence with a portfolio in the December reshuffle.

In the end, after two weeks of counting, Karzai was proclaimed the victor with slightly over 50% of the vote, while his closest rival had only won 16% of the votes. Karzai had certainly achieved his aim, but contrary to what Blair boasted at the time in the Commons, "democracy" had nothing to do with it.

The next step in this stage-managed farce will be the parliamentary elections which have been scheduled (theoretically) for this Spring. Of course, this time, and this is Karzai's main problem and probably the real reason why these elections have been postponed, it will be impossible for him to stop local warlords from getting their own candidates elected and to form an anti-Karzai coalition in the future parliament. But whether this happens or not, one thing is certain: once again, the Afghan masses are unlikely to have the choice of voting for candidates who voice their interests in these elections.

The only thing imperialism is good at: destruction

Like in Iraq, western governments wasted no time after the invasion of Afghanistan before they started talking about "reconstruction". Grandiose figures for international aid were announced by the media. Schools and hospitals were going to be built, roads to be revamped, sewage systems to be installed, etc... Afghanistan was going to see at last the benefits of the capitalist market. But what has really been done over the past 3 years?

The same issue of "Le Monde Diplomatique" already quoted provides some insight in this respect: "In Kabul's bazaar, poverty impregnates everything: people in rags scrape a living out of nothing. Of course, there are the NGOs - around 2,000 western NGOs have offices in Kabul. They provide work for a section of the town's population, while at the same time parasitising it (..). The rewarding jobs, of course, are given to westerners or to Afghan exiles returning from the West. Local Afghans are left with the menial tasks - as drivers, guides, storemen, etc.."

Despite these jobs, a survey carried out by Afghan journalists shows that unemployment and low wages come second after security in people's preoccupations, and even in first place among the population of Kabul.

The truth is that in three years of occupation, absolutely nothing has been done to revive the economy in order to create jobs, for instance by embarking on a significant reconstruction programme. Even what was destroyed by the coalition's bombing in 2001 is still rubble. As to the roads, which are vital for the country's agriculture, they are still waiting to be mended.

In the mid-1980s, there were 100,000 industrial workers in the country, employed in 32 factories. Today, their number is down to 8,000 due to lack of energy and antiquated machinery. And, to date, there are plans to reopen only three factories in the north but no plans to rebuild power stations to replace those which have been damaged or destroyed in the 2001 bombing and over the previous decade.

What has happened then to the billions of dollars of foreign aid? Part of this money may have been absorbed for no useful purpose by some NGOs. But how much of it has gone to fund the expenses of the satellite agencies of the occupying countries? How much of this aid, like in Iraq, has gone to fund military activities under the pretext of being allocated to "security" purposes, like providing security guards for western bigwigs and companies? Not to mention the army of western "advisers" who get paid London City salaries in a country where senior civil servants earn not much more than $60 a month! And finally, how much of this money has been used by the occupation authorities to line the pockets of Karzai's ministers and officials, as a means of buying their loyalty? After all, isn't the corruption of Karzai's administration an open secret, just as the joint involvement of senior government officials and warlords is, in drug trafficking?

In addition to the dead, the injured, the destruction caused by the invasion and the extreme poverty to which the population remains subjected, three years of imperialist occupation of Afghanistan in the name of democracy and "fighting terrorism" have only resulted in reinforcing the ruthless rule of the Afghan warlords and their terrorism against the population. The imperialist powers have replaced the feudal rule of the Taleban with the rule of a corrupted Islamic state and fundamentalist warlords. They claimed that they would free the Afghan women from their enslavement under the Taleban, but only a minority of women, mostly among the middle and upper-classes, in Kabul and in the north, have seen any change, and even then, not that much of a change, because of the permanent threat of the armed militia.

Just as in Iraq, the invaders had no plans other than to destroy their target and impose their diktats on the population. However, they have only managed to re-ignite the powder keg which existed in the country before the Taleban. Last July, a British parliamentary commission, whose members had supported the western invasion, warned on its return from Afghanistan that the country was threatening to "implode". This is not an abstract possibility, but a very real one, given the increasingly obvious weakness of Karzai's regime and the entrenchment of the warlords' power. And in a region where national borders often split ethnic and language groups between two or three countries, the implosion of the central piece of the regional puzzle could affect the whole region with unpredictable consequences.

Instead of using its enormous resources to help in the building of a decent future for the population of Afghanistan, once again the capitalist system is threatening them at best with a future of poverty and oppression, and at worst with a catastrophe of historical proportions.

7 January 2005