Issue 258 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
|The west's new friends in Afghanistan|
The war in Afghanistan has solved nothing, says Chris Bambery, who looks at the instability and threats of further war in the region
As Bush strikes out it can only deepen resentment against the US
'If Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden were to disappear tomorrow, the United States would still have potential terrorist threats from a growing number of groups opposed to perceived American hegemony.' So argued Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism, a report by the US National Commission on Terrorism published in June of last year. The same report stated, 'Because groups based on ideological or religious motives may lack a specific political or nationalistic agenda, they have less need for a hierarchical structure.' It argued that these groups 'operate in the United States as well as abroad. Their funding and logistical networks cross borders, are less dependent on state sponsors and are harder to disrupt with economic sanctions. Their objectives are more deadly (than terrorist groups of a decade or two ago).'
Writing in the Irish Times (14 November), Vincent Browne points out that in all the various US reports on terrorism there is no attempt to explain why the US might be targeted, adding, 'And the reasons appear straightforward: the presence of American troops in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia; the historic injustice perpetrated on the Palestinian people, an injustice reinforced daily with the might of American arms; the sanctions on Iraq and the frequent bombings of that country; and above all, the perception that America is at war with the Islamic world. That perception will have been reinforced hugely by the bombardment of Afghanistan. Even after the fall of Kabul, America seems more vulnerable.'
An international war on 'terrorism' is an elastic concept. Washington is free to choose who it decides is labelled a terrorist. In his 20 September address to Congress Bush declared, 'From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.' He added that that while the 'crusade's' initial target was al-Qaida it did not end there--'It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.'
As Bush strikes out it can deepen the resentment against the US. The 11 September attacks on Washington and New York have created a benchmark which every existing and future terrorist group will want to measure up to. The US global military build-up will also present more and more tempting targets.
The US intervention in Afghanistan is the most recent chapter in its attempts to overcome the historic legacy of defeat in Vietnam. But it is still not ready to return to those days before the fall of Saigon when it was prepared to commit ground troops at will. So the US relied on the Northern Alliance to provide the foot soldiers while it used air power to secure their advance. The nightmare in Washington, and in London, is that a future regime in Kabul can, like Frankenstein's monster, turn on its former allies. As Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent (14 November): 'I have a ghostly memory of writing this story before, not about the Taliban but about the KLA in Kosovo, a guerrilla army which was partly funded by drugs and which, once its political aspirations had been met by Nato's occupation of the Serbian province, went on to become 'terrorists'' (our former foreign secretary's memorable description) inside Macedonia. True, Nato's wheel of fortune moves in mysterious ways but it's not difficult to understand how our allies--praised rather than controlled-follow their own agenda.'
Afghanistan is of obvious strategic importance at the junction of south Asia, central Asia and the Middle East. One of the results of the 1990-91 Gulf War and US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo was to leave behind a substantial and permanent US presence. The Gulf War left behind large US bases in Saudi Arabia and three other Gulf states. The US has a military presence in four of the Balkan states including the sprawling Camp Bondsteel complex in Kosovo. Will US bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and, possibly, Afghanistan become permanent fixtures? The US seems to have a strategy of extending its military presence into new strategic areas to offset its perceived competitors.
The US bases that are being established in post-Soviet central Asia will not be dismantled with this war, and these will now circle the world from Japan to China's western border. The Russian resistance to the building of the national missile defence shield has been broken by a deal which borders on bribery and which gives Putin western backing for his bloody colonial war in Chechnya.
But this extended US military presence has also created a backlash. Bin Laden cited the presence of 20,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia as justification for al-Qaida attacks in the first video he released after the initial bombing of Afghanistan. In Somalia the US believed that their presence could somehow forge rival warlords together in a process of 'nation building.' The reality was that the US had to beat an undignified retreat after popular resistance grew, culminating in the death of 18 US soldiers as the rival warlords united against their unwelcome presence. That experience must weigh heavily on the minds of politicians and military chiefs in Washington and must, in part, underlie the reluctance of Bush to commit ground troops to Afghanistan on a long term basis.
Nato's war in Kosovo was justified in terms of the rights of nations to self determination. Yet the global coalition against 'terrorism' Washington has pieced together justifies the suppression of nationalist groups by each of its member states. So the US is rushing military aid to the Philippines to counter separatist Muslim guerrillas in the south of the archipelago. The Chinese ruling class has been given a free hand, similar to that given the Russians in Chechnya, to act against the Muslim separatists in its westernmost province (where already 20 groups have been banned and many hundreds of people have been arrested in the past months).
US intervention in former Yugoslavia was carried out through Nato because this was the means Washington decided was best to impose its military leadership on its European allies following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the US chose to act through the United Nations as the best means to bribe and coerce virtually every state across globe, and thus to establish its global hegemony. Now the war in Afghanistan is being waged by a loose and flexible coalition. States are judged on the basis of whether they are with Washington or against it. Those who fall into the latter category fall into Donald Rumsfeld's little list of 37 rogue states which are 'legitimate' targets for US military action.
From the beginning of the war on Afghanistan there has been open talk in Washington of targeting Iraq. Having created such a military build-up in the region there is an almost inexorable logic to this. Whatever his fate Osama bin Laden may lose militarily but still come out on top politically. His attacks on US support for Israel and for the corrupt rulers of states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt caught an echo across a vast region. The US war on Afghanistan will have added to the bitterness felt there by millions. They too can draw the connections over the fact that precisely as Kabul fell the US and its multinationals secured global agreement at the Qatar World Trade Organisation summit for trade liberalisation.
The way the west reported opposition to the war in Afghanistan's neighbour, Pakistan, complied with racist stereotypes that this was an irrational hatred of the west whipped up by 'mad mullahs'. The reality is that Pakistan is a country where 85 to 90 percent of the state budget is devoted to paying interest on its debt to the west and for the military, leaving almost nothing for anything else. The masses in that country know that the west was happy to lend money to corrupt politicians and military dictators, leaving the populace to pay it back. There is, as a result of this, effectively no free state education in Pakistan. That is why children increasingly attend religious schools, the madrasas. The US is now so worried about the Pakistani state losing control of its nuclear arsenal to Islamic fundamentalists that it has a carefully laid plan to try and forestall this by seizing the nuclear warheads itself.
The US planned that the Northern Alliance would at most capture Mazar-e-Sharif and perhaps Herat. The Northern Alliance promised Washington it would not enter Kabul. The US Secretary of State Colin Powell had assured General Musharraf of Pakistan that the Northern Alliance would not take Kabul, that it would not set up a government there and that instead the United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, would piece together a coalition government. Musharraf had signed up to the 'war on terrorism' and had given the Americans use of Pakistani airbases on the basis of that promise. Syed Saleem Shahzad reports in Asia Times Online (14 November), 'The quick retreats of the Taliban from Mazar-e-Sharif and the dramatic withdrawals from the capital Kabul and Jalalabad have exploded like a bombshell among Pakistani military decision makers at general headquarters in Rawalpindi and at the Foreign Office in Islamabad.
'The developments are in stark contrast to what the Pakistani intelligence services had reported to President General Pervez Musharraf--that the war would drag on much longer and that Pakistan would maintain a strong bargaining position with the US and its allies over the composition of a new Afghan government.' He adds, 'Sources say that on the news of the fall of Kabul an emergency meeting was convened in Rawalpindi, headed by General Yusuf, the vice-chief of army staff.'
Sections of the Pakistani military are considering allowing sections of the Taliban, operating openly as such or under a new banner, to fight a guerrilla war from the Pakistani tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, home of 10 million mostly Pashtun people. The former director-general of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, retired lieutenant-general Hamid Gul, was a key supporter of the Taliban. He said, 'Now pro-Indian and pro-Russian Northern Alliance forces will enter into the Pashtun stronghold of Jalalabad, which borders Pakistan. Pakistan will be forced to play a role in extending support to a group, and in the present circumstances the Taliban would be the only choice.'
Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique Selig S Harrison argues that, while Musharraf is a frontman acceptable to the US, 'the real power in Islamabad is General Muhammad Aziz, who played a key role in the 1999 coup as deputy army chief of staff under Musharraf, and has now been promoted to corps commander in Lahore. Musharraf is an Urdu-speaking refugee from India with no indigenous base in Pakistan. General Aziz speaks Punjabi, the language of Pakistan's dominant Punjab province, and is a leader of the Sudhan clan, a tight brotherhood of 75,000, with a strong martial and religious tradition, in command of the Poonch district of the Pakistani controlled part of Kashmir.'
Aziz was the man behind the invasion three years ago of Indian controlled Kashmir. After the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan he also directed Pakistani military activities in that country. He set up two networks of Islamic fundamentalists. Harrison argues that 'the most important was Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is primarily Pakistani in membership but has a substantial component of Afghans who are, in effect, part of the Taliban secret police, helping to crush opponents of the TaIiban. Another was Harekat-ul-Ansar, the group responsible for the hijacking of an Indian airliner in January 2000. The US designated the Harekat a terrorist organisation in 1997 and attacked its Afghan camps as part of the 1998 cruise missile assault against Bin Laden's infrastructure in reprisal for attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.'
In the course of the 1970s and 1980s the old British educated military elite was replaced by a more rural and middle class officer corp which was more receptive to Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan's involvement politicised them further. Added to this is a profound anti-Indian nationalism. Pakistan wants a stable client state in Afghanistan which leaves it clear to face up to its main rival, India. The idea of what Islamabad perceives as pro-Russian and pro-Indian factions gaining control in Kabul is one the military dread.
Further east, prior to 11 September, the west was audibly relieved that affairs in Indonesia seemed to be on the mend. Events since then have changed that. Bush's crusade has thrown that country back into deeper instability because of the large Muslim population and the growing anger against the war.
There are strong voices in Washington demanding action against Iraq. Bush's national security adviser told CNN at the end of November that Iraq should not be indifferent to what was happening in Afghanistan: 'We have said for a number of years that Iraq is a threat to its neighbours, to its people, to the region and to American interests. We didn't need 11 September to tell us that he [Saddam Hussein] is a threat to our interests. We'll deal with that situation eventually.'
Washington has declared a war that could easily develop into one that targets whole regions of the globe. Once again there is a logic at work which is similar to that which underlay the US build-up in Vietnam once the Kennedy regime decided it had to draw a line in the sand there. Wesley Clark, the US general who commanded the Nato forces in the war on Yugoslavia, in an interview in the Financial Times in early October said as much: 'There is an old expression: "I have a hammer, find me a nail." If terrorism were a problem that could be solved by a hammer, we would have hammered it out a long time ago.'
Bush--backed up by Blair--looks set to keep on hammering. If that is a depressing prospect let's end on a note of real hope.
Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism filled a vacuum largely created by the failure of a left in the Third World that had hitched its fortunes to those of Moscow and Beijing. One of the consequences of the rising anti-capitalist movement was its growing presence in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Anti-capitalist conferences and protests were not, and are not, just a feature of the west as the likes of Clare Short would have us believe. They have taken place in Johannesburg, Beirut, Dacca, Bangkok and Jakarta. Within that a new left is beginning to emerge. It too feels that together with their comrades in Genoa and Seattle, on the anti-war protests in Rome, London and Athens they are marching together in destiny.