Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop this war


With the US war, Afghans will once again bear the brunt of superpower brutality. Clare Fermont explains a history of tragedy
Afghans were forced to take up arms in the 1980s

Few people in the world have suffered more from foreign intervention than the Afghans. Their country was drawn up by Britain to exclude virtually all fertile land, creating a nation of poverty whose feudal lords would depend on foreign handouts. Caught between the British and Russian empires, the Afghans fought off the British colonialists in the 19th century, but at enormous human and economic cost. Well into the 20th century, Afghanistan remained virtually a feudal state.

After the break-up of the British Empire, Afghanistan became a battleground in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and in 1979 it was invaded by Russia. Since then foreign states have financed their armed proxies in endless battles to win influence in the country and control of energy supply routes. Millions of Afghans have been killed or maimed, and their country lies in ruins. Now Afghans are the prime target for the US's 'war' of retribution against international terrorism. The same western governments that backed, financed and armed the Taliban, which now controls most of Afghanistan, have decreed that their former ally is the greatest threat to civilisation the world has ever known.

Most Afghans have had to flee their homes many times over in the past two decades, and up to a quarter of the population are in refugee camps. Six million have left the country, and hundreds of thousands are now trying to join them. Their cities are mounds of rubble, and the few fertile areas are arid wastelands. Malaria, hepatitis and other diseases are rampant in the fetid ruins. Life expectancy has plummeted to 40 years. The currency is worth one 500th of its value of ten years ago, and the economy has collapsed. The crushing poverty and carnage, combined with three years of drought, have left 3 million Afghans starving and 6 million on the edge of starvation. Soon many will be cut off from any food supply by snow and will have little protection from the freezing conditions. In mid-September the World Food Programme said its food stocks--the only supplies keeping many Afghans alive--would run out by the end of the month. Everywhere is the smell and threat of death--by starvation, by armed militia, and now by US bombs.

Russian tanks invade
Russian tanks invade

Victims of the Cold War

When Russian troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the US threw its weight behind the Afghan armed military resistance (the Mujahadeen) and their 'holy Islamic war' against the 'infidel' invaders. It was not surprising that the Afghan resistance was fought under an Islamic banner. Real power still lay with the landlords--the lack of economic development meant there was no social basis for a 'social democratic' movement, let alone a socialist one. Out of a population of 20 million, there were a handful of industrialists, a few thousand students and at most 30,000 people who could be described as working class. The Islamic movement, for all its reactionary ideas, had a long tradition of fighting foreign oppression and promised to lead what many Afghans wanted--a war against the invaders.

What was more surprising, perhaps, was the support of an Islamic movement by the US, given that it was still reeling from the shock of the Iranian Revolution. But the Mujahadeen seemed to offer a chance to weaken or defeat Russia without risking a single US soldier. US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski persuaded President Carter to sign a secret directive to send covert aid to the Mujahadeen--then badly armed and organised.

Between 1980 and 1992 the Mujahadeen received over $10 billion 'aid' from the US and its allies, most in the form of weapons including US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Russia poured in $45 billion 'aid' to counter the Mujahadeen. All this 'aid' could have transformed Afghanistan into a prosperous land. Instead it sustained a ten-year conflict that left the country impoverished, steeped in violence and fractured along tribal lines.

US involvement went way beyond the $10 billion aid. In 1986 Ronald Reagan's deranged CIA chief, William Casey, persuaded Congress to provide US advisers to train their friendly 'freedom fighters'. The CIA also supported a longstanding initiative of Pakistan's military intelligence service, the ISI, of recruiting radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan. Once in Pakistan, these 'Arab-Afghans', as they came to be known--along with thousands of young Pakistanis and Afghan refugees--were sent to schools (madrassas) financed largely by Saudi Arabia, where they were intensively taught a puritanical form of Islam influenced by the Wahhabism of the Saudi ruling family. They were also given military training. They then perfected their skills by fighting alongside the Afghan Mujahadeen. Some 100,000 Muslims from around the world came into contact with the madrassas and the war in Afghanistan. None of the sponsors of the scheme seemed to consider the possibility that after the Afghan war was over the bitterness and military skills of these men might be turned on their own regimes or the US.

Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden

One of the foreign recruits was Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi student and the son of a millionaire with close connections to the Saudi royal family. The ISI, which worked closely with the CIA, had long been trying to persuade the head of Saudi intelligence to provide a Saudi royal to take a leading role among the Arab-Afghans. Bin Laden was the best they could find. 'To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan,' Bin Laden told a reporter in 1998, as quoted in Ahmed Rashid's excellent book, Taliban. 'I settled in Pakistan in the Afghan border region. There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and from all over the Arab and Muslim world. I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.'

From 1980 Bin Laden channelled US and Saudi money to the Mujahadeen. Part of his project was to spread Wahhabism among the Afghan Mujahadeen to undermine factions in Afghanistan that were hostile to Saudi and Western interests. With CIA money he built the Khost tunnel in 1986, a huge underground complex that served as an arms depot and as his training camp for Arab-Afghans. In 1989 he took over al-Qaeda (Military Base), the network of dedicated Muslims now blamed for the attacks in the US.

After the Russian withdrawal in 1989 Bin Laden became disillusioned with the faction fighting in Afghanistan and returned to Saudi Arabia. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he tried to persuade the Saudi royal family to back another jihad against Iraq. To his fury, the Saudi government chose to back the US, and allowed US troops to be stationed on the holiest land of Islam.

His anger with the US and the Saudi government eventually led to his expulsion from Saudi Arabia in 1992. He went to Sudan, where he continued training Afghan-Arab veterans and others outraged at the US victory in the Gulf War. In 1996 he was forced out of Sudan and returned to Afghanistan. In 1997 the same CIA that had raised Bin Laden to a position of power and influence over thousands of angry young Muslims tried to assassinate him. In 1998, after Bin Laden was held responsible for the bombings of US embassies in East Africa, the US retaliated by bombing Afghanistan and Sudan. Ever since Bin Laden has been the US's most wanted man.

The Taliban

The Mujahadeen had been a loose alliance of commanders and tribal chiefs, most of whom had a rudimentary religious education. Many were village-based mullahs who espoused a traditionalist strand of Sunni Islam and mobilised on a tribal basis. Others like Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, who were favoured by the CIA, represented a more radical element and were dubbed the new Islamicists. The Taliban emerged out of this current.

The new Islamicists came out of the madrassas in Pakistan and built a secretive, highly centralised political organisation whose cadres were urban and educated. They spoke out against the corruption and tribal ways of the mullahs, and promoted a vision of a modern unified state that would be guided by the purest Islamic principles.

In April 1992 a loose alliance of Mujahadeen seized Kabul. They split, and a group backed by Iran took control of the capital. A rival group led by Hikmetyar, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, bombarded Kabul, killing 25,000 people in a week.

By 1994 the Afghan state had virtually disintegrated. Foreign aid had long since stopped--the US and its allies who had so generously funded the war against Russia suddenly had no spare cash to help repair the damage. The country was divided into fiefdoms whose warlords continued to engage in a bewildering series of alliances, betrayals and bloodshed. Aid agencies had fled.

At the end of 1994 the Taliban swooped into villages to 'save' people from the warlords. Their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was seen as a Robin Hood figure, who promised to end abuses and corruption, and to establish a purer Islamic system. In two weeks the Taliban had captured Kandahar, the second largest city. Many Afghans, including former opponents of the new Islamicists, joined the Taliban believing they could unify the country and bring peace and justice.

The Taliban implemented a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). They too practised the Saudi Wahhabist version of Islam. They closed down all girls' schools, ordered women to stay at home behind blackened windows, and banned music, TV, videos, and most sports and games. In the next three months the Taliban took control of 12 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces. By 1995 they controlled west Afghanistan. As they fought bloody battles, often suffering major setbacks, they adopted the very tactics of repression they were supposed to be ending, and enforced Sharia ever more repressively. The Taliban, as well as the forces they were fighting, repeatedly carried out massacres of ethnic groups, and destroyed the property, crops and religious monuments of those they defeated. In 1996 the Taliban, still enjoying the support of the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, seized control of the capital, Kabul.

Every Afghan faction has been urged on in battle by foreign backers. The Taliban have been supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and, until 1997, the US. The anti-Taliban forces (the Northern Alliance), which now control a relatively small area of Afghanistan in the north, have been backed by Iran, Turkey, India, Russia, and four of the five Central Asian republics--Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. One factor driving these interventions has been the battle for the vast oil and gas riches of landlocked Central Asia, the last untapped reserves in the world.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 five independent states were created in Central Asia. Russia was desperate to keep a grip on what it views as its frontiers in Central Asia and to control the flow of oil through pipelines that cross Russia. Meanwhile the US was pushing forward proposals for pipelines that would bypass Russia and Iran. Its policy was summed up by the energy expert at the National Security Council: 'US policy was to promote the rapid development of Caspian energy... We did so specifically to promote the independence of these oil-rich countries, to in essence break Russia's monopoly control over the transportation of oil from that region and, frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply.'

From 1995 Washington backed the US company Unocal to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan across Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan. To make the deal, the US needed a government capable of holding on to power, whatever its politics or human rights record. So, within hours of the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996, the US announced it would establish relations with the new government in Kabul.

In 1997 the US changed tack. The former 'rogue' state of Iran was becoming increasingly pro-market, leading the US authorities to believe that the greatest threat to its interests in the region was not the Shi'a fundamentalism of Iran, but the Sunni fundamentalism of the Taliban. In particular, Washington feared that its fragile ally Pakistan was threatened by the Taliban's influence. So the US came up with a new energy strategy in 1997 which avoided the Afghanistan route.

Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey are all vying to transport Central Asia's energy resources, and most fear the impact of the Taliban on their own populations, as do the Central Asian republics.

No wonder, then, that there is so much support for making the Taliban pay for the attack on the World Trade Centre. As always, the people who will suffer will be the Afghans. Just the threat of US attacks has made half of Kabul's population flee and has given a green light to the Northern Alliance to step up their battle for territory, a battle they have previously waged using methods every bit as ruthless and sectarian as the Taliban's. If the US carries out its threats yet more Afghans will die. Who then will call for three minutes' silence for the latest defenceless victims of US foreign policy?

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