Victory in Afghanistan

16 August 2011

Debate over the 10-year-plus war in Afghanistan tends to focus on how and when it "can be won," obscuring the fundamental question of whether it was morally acceptable in the first place. Now as the US gets closer to consolidating its imperial presence in the region for decades to come, the high cost to the Afghani people continues to be ignored.

In March 2010, then the deadliest year yet for civilians in the almost decade long war, a United Nations Refugee Agency report on Afghanistan found that the prioritisation of “military or political objectives” over the needs of local communities was undermining basic human rights and exacerbating poverty. “Numerous decisions are made in fora and policy circles beyond Afghanistan and are often geared to meet short term objectives that have little to do with the safety and best interests of impoverished Afghans,” the report’s authors noted. “Few Afghans, and especially the poor, participate in, or influence, decisions that have major consequences for their security and well-being.” They advised, “It is time to listen to the voices of the poor who constitute the bulk of the Afghan people.”[1] In the same month, Save the Children reported “The world is ignoring the daily deaths of more than 850 Afghan children from treatable diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia, focusing on fighting the insurgency rather than providing humanitarian aid.” It seems reasonable to ask: in pursuit of what aims are these military and political objectives being prioritised and are Afghans continuing to suffer?

The world is ignoring the daily deaths of more than 850 Afghan children from treatable diseases [...], focusing on fighting the insurgency rather than providing humanitarian aid.

The question is rarely posed with any seriousness. For Council on Foreign Relations Fellow and Afghanistan analyst Stephen Biddle, typifying the majority of articulate opinion on the matter, the “biggest question” is “whether we can win and whether we’re winning.” The answer essentially splits supporters of the continuation of the war from those, including aspects of the peace movement, calling for some kind of withdrawal. In the latter case, critics oppose the war on the grounds of it being hopeless, futile and un-winnable. The invasion was a “folly”, a “mistake”, which has the US and NATO trapped in a “quagmire”.[2]

The quagmire discussion contains a simple lesson for similar endeavours in the future; the next time the most powerful military coalition in history attacks another country it should pick an easier target than Afghanistan, ravaged by 30 years of warfare and lying at the bottom of all indicators of human development. There are other lessons. US tactics in Afghanistan have been too mild: “the next time we need to deploy an army to defend ourselves, we need to annihilate the enemy” says the initiator of the CIA’s rendition program Michael Scheur. “If this is all the power that the American people have paid for over the past 30 years, since the end of the cold war, and this is the best we can do, it really is a shame. Any war can be won if you kill enough of the enemy and their supporters.” The US must “absolutely” be willing to “kill a lot of civilians.”[3]

Adopting a racism reminiscent of earlier colonial and imperialist ventures, much blame for the quagmire can be placed on the Afghans themselves. When the CIA has a number of “disputable members” of Karzai’s government on the payroll it is because “Mother Theresa can’t be found in Afghanistan.” “What is acceptable to the Afghans is different than what is acceptable to you or me or our people,” explains one Western official. [4] Part of the problem is that, “We cannot provide democracy if we desire it more than the Afghans.”[5]

There are also the curiously Afghan qualities to contend with, a people who “guard their privacy fiercely” and have a “ strong independent streak and ancient dislike of invaders”; comments made in reaction to Afghans’ uniquely negative opinions of bombings and house raids.[6] The Afghan National Army are constantly ridiculed for their failure to kill the Taliban with as much gusto as the occupying forces, then there is the cunning of the latter who, unlike the US, have a “cohesive strategy.” [7]

Such an unstable surrogate, willing to occasionally voice the concerns of the population, provides a problem for those hoping to steer Afghanistan in a way that benefits their interests.

Failing that there is Karzai, despised as an “unreliable partner” ever since he committed the sin of responding to domestic pressure and condemned civilian casualties. Such an unstable surrogate, willing to occasionally voice the concerns of the population, provides a problem for those hoping to steer Afghanistan in a way that benefits their interests. For Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, the answer is to treat Karzai “as a symbolic president” and to give him “the organizational “mushroom treatment” — that is, we should shut off the flows of information and resources directly to the national government.”[8] According to Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Afghanistan, the best solution would be installing an “acceptable dictator”, for which “We should think of preparing our public opinion.”[9]

As ambassador, Cowper-Coles had experience influencing public opinion, downplaying the disastrous effects of the war in order to justify its continuation; the “terrible dilemma” of “staying honest while knowing the brief from your client.” “As a professional public servant,” recounts Sir Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO, “you have to take the public line, you have to accentuate the positive, but you also need to give honest advice to your political masters.”[10]

Like other brave and principled statesmen, the former ambassador has waited until he left public office to become a vocal critique of the way the war is fought, taking a high-ranking position with BAE systems, unrelated to his role in ending an investigation into BAE’s corrupt deals with Saudi Arabia.

The mentality and hubris of imperialism permeates commentary and analysis. A contribution to the influential journal Foreign Affairs, titled “Defining Success in Afghanistan”, discusses the most effective way to politically organise the country in order to create an “acceptable option for the United States.”[11] An “acceptable option” for Afghans, to be decided by Afghans, is not mentioned. Similar discussions, adopting the same framework of understanding, are considered legitimate tasks for scholarship.

The treatment of Malalai Joya, possibly the most well known Afghan activist, who has spoken out with incredible bravery against the occupation and the warlords it empowers, is instructive. In a TIME magazine profile, American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes, “I hope in time she comes to see the US and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.” That is, a woman who has struggled against the Soviets, fundamentalist mujahadeen, warlords, Taliban and now US/NATO invasion and occupation, is insufficiently aware of the nature of oppression to comprehend the benevolence of her occupiers. In the Guardian, columnist Nushin Arbabzadah expresses amazement at Joya’s opposition to the US occupation because “without US intervention, Joya would not have been able to own a passport, let alone travel abroad.” Joya has a passport, is able to leave Afghanistan, and therefore should disregard what is happening to her country and be satisfied. Arbabzadah goes on to condemn the activist for criticising the parliament composed of warlords and human rights abusers; evidence of her lack of “pragmatism.” [12]

In invading and occupying the country, America is attempting to create a “stable Afghanistan that will no longer be a haven for extremists.” China on the other hand, “has a vision of Afghanistan as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.” The Chinese are exploiting American benevolence, “free-riding on the public good we offer,” which includes “struggling in a far-off corner of the world to exact revenge, to put down the fires of rebellion, and to restore civilized order.”[13] The historical analogues are not difficult to find. ——-

The US has “justified our commitment by saying the goal was eradicating Al-Qaeda. Yet Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in the country.”

Commentary and analysis is devoted almost entirely to tactical aspects of the war. In a typical example of the approach taken, an open letter to President Obama from a group of analysts, journalists and scholars outlines the war’s tactical mis-steps and failure to meet stated aims, which the President, presumably, needs only to be made aware of for the war to change course. [14] In a publication by a group of experts - The Afghan Study Group - the authors write that the US has “justified our commitment by saying the goal was eradicating Al-Qaeda. Yet Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in the country.” The United States “has only two vital interests in the Af/Pak region”, namely “1) preventing Afghanistan from being a safe haven from which Al Qaeda or other extremists can organise more effective attacks on the US homeland; and 2) ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into hostile hands.” They recognise, correctly, that “a decisive victory” in Afghanistan would not substantially hinder the capabilities of Al-Qaeda and “a US drawdown would not make Al-Qaeda substantially more lethal.”

Even if we ignore the vast amount of evidence that suggests otherwise and assume the US and UK are interested in reducing the level of terror in the world, the first “vital interest” makes little sense on practical grounds. According to a former deputy chief of the counterterrorist centre at the CIA:

“The operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a [physical haven], and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States. In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens. By utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters. A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States persists, but that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda’s role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless. These trends have been familiar to counterterrorist cognoscenti for years but have gone mostly unmentioned in discussion of Afghanistan.”[15]

The study group also argue that the “counter-insurgency war” in Afghanistan may “help spread conflict further into Pakistan,” as it is indeed doing, “destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States—and the world—which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan,” according to Pakistan specialist Anatol Leiven.[16] The current policies then, which are not only contrary to US “vital interests” but are worsening the situation, rest “on a flawed understanding of the strategic stakes” and a “mistaken belief” of the impact the operation can have on Al-Qaeda’s ability to attack the United States. For these reasons, the group argues, the current strategy should be abandoned.

There is maybe another conclusion that can be reached, when policies that are widely recognised to be failing to achieve, or even working contrary to, their stated objectives are continued and even escalated: that the stated objectives are false. It is then the role of those concerned with such matters to determine the goals and objectives, based on available evidence and the predictable outcomes of policy decisions. Instead, we have a war full of contradictions.

The CIA appears to be following a centuries old playbook for outside powers in Afghanistan.

Take, for example, reports that the CIA “appears to be following a centuries old playbook for outside powers in Afghanistan“ using “secret payments to multiple members of President Hamid Karzai’s administration.” “The CIA has continued the payments,” reported The Washington Post, “despite concerns that it is backing corrupt officials and undermining efforts to wean Afghans’ dependence on secret sources of income and graft.” The New York Times points out, the “subsidising” of corrupt individuals is an example of “the deep contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan”, as stated policies tend not to correspond with reality. [17]

Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Affairs at Harvard, observes that the killing of nine Afghan children by a helicopter gunship - “yet another public relations setback for the U.S. war effort” - “underscores the inherent contradictions in U.S. strategy.”[18] A British parliament enquiry into the war determined that the Government’s publicly stated goals were not being met, and “the core foreign policy justification for the UK’s continued presence in Afghanistan, namely that it is necessary in the interests of UK national security, may have been achieved some time ago, given the apparently limited strength of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.” [19] The UK Independent’s Johann Hari, commenting on US payments to insurgents to allow safe passage for supply trucks, observes, “the war is riddled with these moral contortions.” He adds, “We all know this war is un-winnable.” British politicians “keep the troops there, because they are too cowardly to admit their terrible mistake.”

Anyone who searches will have little difficulty encountering similar sentiments. Responding to these “contradictions”, it is not uncommon to read statements such as “What on earth are we doing?” by commentators who have the training, time and responsibility to find out.[20] ——-

Contradictions aside, the US and NATO are committed to continuing the war. At the beginning of this year, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed journalists that allied forces would be increasing their offensive against the Taliban, therefore “we must prepare ourselves for more violence and more casualties in coming months,” which will be “worse in 2011 than it was in 2010 in many parts of Afghanistan.” [21] This was accompanied by a 3,000 troop mini-surge in Kandahar and, under General Patreaus - “already the closest thing to an all-American hero…articulate, charming and driven” in the words of a Guardian editorial – a “loosening of the reins” and a “ramping up” of the air war and drone attacks, along with an increase in the despised raids by Special Operations Forces.[22]

According to Refugees International, these “International air strikes and night raids by U.S. Special Forces are destroying homes, crops, and basic infrastructure, traumatizing civilians, and displacing tens of thousands of people.” [23]

The “philosopher king” also aggressively expanded the use of armed militias - “community watch with AK-47s” in his words - which already had a record of abusing the local population; their use was soon condemned by a coalition of international and domestic NGOs. [24] The number of these “local self-defense groups” is now set to triple, bringing their total to around 30,000 as the US plans to withdraw around the same number by September next year. [25] The extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden has not slowed these tendencies.

Foreign donors are even going so far as withholding desperately needed humanitarian aid for fear this may be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the worsening situation.

Ensuring domestic pressures do not hinder the continuation of the chosen policies has required targeted manipulation of public opinion through country specific PR-strategies, attacks on media outlets, pulping books, misrepresenting casualties, paying Afghan media outlets to run friendly stories - a method replicated in Iraq - and providing positive assessments of the situation on the ground “solely intended to influence American and European public opinion,” the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office notes in its quarterly assessment. [26] Foreign donors are even going so far as withholding desperately needed humanitarian aid for fear this may be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the worsening situation; again, with dire consequences for ordinary Afghans.[27]

The more violent strategy is, as predicted, exacerbating a disaster for the local population. 2010 had already been the worst year for Afghan civilians since the war began. “More ordinary Afghans were killed and injured in 2010 than a year before,” records the Afghanistan Rights Monitor in their annual report. “And while US officials dubbed Afghanistan as their longest foreign war, Afghans have suffered it for 32 years relentlessly.” “Almost everything related to the war surged in 2010,” they note, “the combined numbers of Afghan and foreign forces surpassed 350,000; security incidents mounted to over 100 per week; more fighters from all warring side were killed; and the number of civilian people killed, wounded and displaced hit record levels.” [28]

Violence in 2011 has now reached levels considered the worst since the invasion and access for humanitarian organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross “has over the last 30 years never been as poor.” “The first two months of 2011 have seen a dramatic deterioration in the security situation for ordinary Afghans,” said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, calling the situation “untenable”. [29] An ICRC health coordinator observed, “The number of mothers coming in with children dying from easily preventable diseases such as measles or chronic diarrhea is staggering.” The International Displacement Monitoring Centre found, “At the end of January 2011, 309,000 people remained internally displaced due to armed conflict, human rights abuses and other generalised violence,” the highest number since 2005. [30] ——-

In the midst of this humanitarian disaster, almost a decade of military and political policies have left Afghanistan resembling a neo-colonial state: The country is garrisoned with military bases, containing a despised and heavily centralised regime with a hand-picked leader and regional fiefdoms run by warlords. Domestic power brokers and warlords have been empowered, enriching themselves and granting impunity for previous crimes. Like many clients, past and present, the ruling members owe their existence to foreign support. Efforts to enhance the authority of the group chosen to govern the country - “nation building” - are being combined with military actions to minimise or pacify opposition and resistance - “counter-insurgency”. In the latter case, the US and NATO are faced with an age old preoccupation for occupying powers: how to pacify and enforce a political solution on the domestic population. The technical intelligentsia have taken up this task, creating an industry around the study of Counter-Insurgency (COIN) doctrine.

The US and its partners are increasingly reliant on traditional tactics of colonial war.

The US and its partners are increasingly reliant on traditional tactics of colonial war, utilising local militia and mercenaries and gradually handing over frontline activities to native forces, whilst they unleash air power to pacify resistance.[31] Securing the authority of the regime in Kabul is a critical task, the success of which relies heavily on the police and army. The latter is understandably responsible for the single largest item in the US Defense Budget for 2011.[32]

In the case of the Police, according to a former Afghan Interior Ministry official, “Afghans wanted to develop the police as a law enforcement force, but American advisers, holding the upper hand because they also held the purse strings, pushed through training the police as a counterterrorism force instead.” Turning to the government, a Mclatchy News report finds more commitments to democracy as “the number of civilian advisers in the ministries suggests that either Afghans lack the ability to govern themselves or that the international community is trying to run the administration itself,” adding “Foreign advisers in the Interior Ministry appear to outnumber the senior Afghan officials they serve.” [33]

The British Royal Institute for International Affairs observes, “The ideas developed through the Bonn Agreement (2001-5) and continued through the Afghanistan Compact (2006-10) have focused on building a centrally governed state (sometimes defined as democratic) that has a monopoly on the use of force.” [34] The model pursued is termed ‘centralised-democracy’. “As first envisaged in the 2001 Bonn agreement and then codified in the 2004 Afghan constitution,” a group of scholars writing in Foreign Affairs note, “this approach places virtually all executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the national government. It has created one of the most centralized states in the world, at least on paper.” [35]

The US has spent over $50 billion to support this ‘democracy’ since the invasion. One analyst termed the investment “a shell game from which only Afghan warlords profit.” [36] Faheem Haider, analyst of Afghan politics at the Foreign Policy Association, says that the country is by now a “personal fiefdom for a handful of war lords and kingmakers.” [37] After the parliamentary elections last year, the Christian Science Monitor found many of the winners “belong to a new generation of Afghan warlords that has risen since 2001 and attained wealth and power through NATO security contracts and lucrative reconstruction deals.” The lower house is now “dominated by warlords and businessmen.” According to Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst in Kabul, “this generation is the harvest of the American presence.” [38] Far from a contradiction, it is sensible imperial policy to empower the most violent and powerful individuals in order to ensure obedience among the general population.

Discussing the nature of the Afghan government, Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker writes:

“Nine years into the American-led war, it’s no longer enough to say that corruption permeates the Afghan state. Corruption, by and large, is the Afghan state. On many days, it appears to exist for no other purpose than to enrich itself….the Afghan government does not so much serve the people as it preys on them. Last year, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the hundred-and-seventy-sixth most corrupt country out of a hundred and seventy-eight, surpassed only by Somalia and Myanmar. “It’s a vertically integrated criminal enterprise,” one American official told me.” [39]

Little wonder then that amongst ordinary Afghans “there is a growing belief that the pervasive insecurity is less a result of conflict between the government and its international allies, on the one side, and insurgents and al Qaeda on the other, and more a mutually reinforcing enterprise in which various armed actors collude in predatory and criminal behavior.” [4]

The use of aid to Afghanistan to serve political goals is well documented, with funds being diverted away from humanitarian aims to support the authority of the state and assist in pacifying the Taliban. One British study found recently that “a portion of British Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Afghanistan—legally mandated for poverty reduction—is being prioritised to meet foreign policy and security goals.” This “raises the question of whether current patterns of ODA expenditure in Afghanistan would be palatable [to] British taxpayers?” [41]

Those requesting humanitarian assistance have been outgunned “amidst the powerful reconstruction, state-building and stabilisation priorities of many of the major donors.” Moreover, “There are significant gaps in the data on funds channelled via military actors.” And as a result, “The real costs of building the security sector in Afghanistan remain largely untracked.” [42]

The co-option of humanitarian assistance has blurred the lines between aid-worker and agent of the occupation. In 2004, Médecins Sans Frontières withdrew from the country as a result of the increased risks and condemned the US for its role in placing humanitarian workers at greater risk.

Médecins Sans Frontières withdrew from the country as a result of the increased risks and condemned the US for its role in placing humanitarian workers at greater risk.

The despicable self-serving nature of numerous NGOs ostensibly in Afghanistan to alleviate the suffering of the domestic population is well documented. In many cases the large aid agencies act as little more than self-serving “rackets” and according to a former World Bank Director, “The wastage of aid is sky-high. There is real looting going on, mostly by private enterprises. It is a scandal.” [44]

The United Nations has also become an increasingly political actor, often supporting the aims of the occupiers. A recent report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) acknowledged, “The UN’s political role in many of the most-contested environments has placed it squarely in the Western camp, where it is viewed as a legitimate and prominent target.” [45]

The behaviour of the Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been particularly shameful. It was the UNODC that, back in 2000, pushed the Taliban regime to ban opium production in Afghanistan, dangling $250 million and international recognition as incentives; both were subsequently undelivered and the organisation instead pulled its operations out of the country.

The “successful” outcome of the ban was met with widespread acclaim from international narcotics experts. On the ground, the removal of a vital source of income for a large number of the population exacerbated what was already a humanitarian crisis. Soon after, the head of UNODC research was quoted as saying, “in drug control terms it was an unprecedented success, but in humanitarian terms a major disaster.” As one analyst noted, “The short-lived drug control ‘success story’ can enter history as one of the most blatant examples of a humanitarian crisis being consciously aggravated under the guidance of a UN agency.” [46]

The short-lived drug control ‘success story’ can enter history as one of the most blatant examples of a humanitarian crisis being consciously aggravated under the guidance of a UN agency.

In 2009, a UNODC report deliberately overplayed the Taliban’s reliance on drug production as a source of funding and attempted to absolve the US and its allies of any responsibility for the continuing insurgency. At a time when the US was debating troop levels and attempting to garner support for a continued presence in the country, the report’s executive summary stated that Afghan drug production, “is a major source of revenue for insurgents.” Deep in the report, one could learn that only 10-15% of the Taliban’s funding comes from the drug trade; about 4% of the country’s total revenue from opiate production. With farmers and the Taliban accounting for around 25% of the total revenue, Julien Mercille, a lecturer at University College Dublin, noted “the remaining 75% is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional power brokers and traffickers — in short, many of the groups now supported (or tolerated) by the United States and NATO are important actors in the drug trade.”

When Merceille asked the UNODC for the amount of drug income being absorbed by US-backed Afghan officials, the report’s supervisor gave a good indication of the organisations political loyalties and rigorous methods, responding, “We don’t do that, I don’t know.” [47]

At the beginning of the year, the UN also joined the US in pressuring Karzai not to investigate the previous year’s parliamentary elections, which were marred by “intimidation, insecurity, fraud and uncertainty” in the words of an Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit study on the process. The elections, which had a lower turnout than five years previous, “provided a catalyst for insecurity and violence, with key powerholders taking advantage of the lack of transparency in the process” resulting in a “growing gap between the government and the wider population.”

They also alienated the increasingly cantankerous Karzai, who claimed interference by the international community had resulted in less Pashtuns (Karzai’s ethnic group and the largest in Afghanistan) winning parliamentary seats. Regardless, despite the widely acknowledged problems, the UN and US were quick to dismiss the investigation arguing it was “high time to have a parliament,“ essentially giving international legitimation to a process that resembled “a rubber stamp on the control of established powerholders.” [48]

None of this, of course, does anything to undermine faith in the occupying powers commitment to helping Afghans, or in their unwavering support for democracy. Undeterred by the facts, a Guardian editorial states, “The strategy has been based so far on creating an Afghanistan that will most benefit local minorities - the more moderate, more literate and more tolerant populations - and women, who have very little power.” [49] This is worth contrasting with a statement of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, a US group connected with democratic and progressive movements in Asia:

“The Afghan people are capable of creating their own democratic future. Progressive groups and democratic parties in Afghanistan are fighting to reconstruct the peace and safety of their country, and more often than not, are forced underground for fear of their safety. Despite the repression from the U.S.-backed Karzai government, thousands of brave students and women have come out on to the streets of Kabul to protest the bombings and the continued war. It is from these forces that a larger progressive movement will emerge that could play a role in bringing real democracy to Afghanistan. If the United States continues the occupation, the space for progressive forces becomes increasingly limited.” [50] ———

The benefits of a client state in Central Asia are rarely discussed, lying outside the framework of US-NATO benevolence, but the rewards could be substantial. It is worth recalling that during the initial US-UK bombing strikes on Afghanistan, Taliban overtures to hand over Osama Bin Laden to a third country, on the condition evidence of his complicity in the 9/11 attacks could be provided (it couldn’t, because their wasn’t any), were explicitly rejected by the Bush administration. The US refused any form of negotiation, including pauses in bombing to facilitate talks, and the war aim soon switched to overthrowing the Taliban regime.

The subsequent invasion facilitated [...] a US/NATO military presence in oil and gas rich Central Asia.

The subsequent invasion facilitated, for the first time, a US/NATO military presence in oil and gas rich Central Asia. Historically, Afghanistan acted as a “buffer state” between the British and Russian empires in a struggle for influence in the region termed the “Great Game”. Today, Afghanistan’s strategic importance lies in its location as a land-bridge through which gas and oil from the Central Asian states can be transported to South Asia. Importantly for the US, influence in the country allows the diversion of energy transport routes around Iran, the natural supplier to the region and a political threat to US plans for control of the Middle East and Central Asia.

The proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which will transport energy from the Caspian to South Asia, bypassing Iran, was encouraged by the US during the early 1990s Rabbani warlord regime and later during the reign of the Taliban. On coming to power, the Taliban, were seen as “a possible tool in yet another replay of the Great Game - the race for energy riches in Central Asia”, according to former CIA station chief in Pakistan Milton Bearden. “Interest [from] several international corporations in oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan”, had increased incentives for supporting a force which could provide security for “trade routes and pipelines that would break Iran’s monopoly” in Central Asia, according to US scholar Barnet Rubin.[51] The pipeline was delayed but has recently been endorsed by the Afghan parliament. Construction will begin next year, and the completion date happens to correspond with the tentative date for the US withdrawal of troops. As one analyst has noted, there are still “many hurdles to be overcome before construction gets under way, not least the presence of Taliban militants along the Afghan section of the proposed route.” Notably, this includes Helmand and Kandahar, the latter being the scene of an intense US offensive last year and the pipelines last stop before Pakistan. A sufficiently pacified Afghanistan, with a suitably subservient leadership, could today serve the purpose desired during the 1990s. The pipeline, if constructed, would be an important step in the “consolidation of US political, military and economic influence in the strategic high plateau that overlooks Russia, Iran and China,” according to former Indian ambassador and political analyst M K Bhadrakumar. [52]

These objectives are occasionally articulated. In September 2007, Richard Boucher, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, stated: “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan so it can become a conduit and hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south… and so that the countries of Central Asia are no longer bottled up between the two enormous powers of China and Russia, but rather that they have outlets to the south as well as to the north and the east and the west.” The New America Foundation advised, “In a wider context, strategic opportunities converge in Afghanistan” and these include “expanding a lucrative market for U.S. investors and exporters.” [53]

Responsibility for protecting the new energy transport routes may become a task for NATO - the recently created ‘Emerging Security Challenges’ division includes “energy security” within its remit - as the world’s only military bloc desperately seeks a pretext to justify its existence. [54] The present war is itself a crucial testing ground: A victory, the New York Times acknowledged in an editorial, is necessary to shape “a meaningful mission for the alliance”. [55] However, according to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, NATO has other problems, as it becomes a “two-tiered” alliance between those willing to wage war and those less enlightened nations more interested in “humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks.” [56]

Vital to any future ambitions are the US/NATO military facilities which now dot the region. In Afghanistan itself, there are around 400 US and coalition installations, including camps, forward operating bases and combat outposts, essentially garrisoning the country. [57] Of particular note are the mega-base and prison at Bagram, undergoing extensive expansion, and the proposed $736 million US fortress embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. [58] The Washington Post reports, “Three $100 million air base expansions in southern and northern Afghanistan illustrate Pentagon plans to continue building multimillion-dollar facilities in that country to support increased U.S. military operations well into the future.” These installations will greatly increase “power projection capabilities”, in the terminology of the US Quadrennial Defence Review, and disrupt any economic or military cooperation in the region.

The invasion of Afghanistan came 4 months after the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organistan (SCO), which includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, and may eventually contain a military component. Since 2001, the US has acquired the use of former Soviet bases in the first two countries, rejecting SCO demands to put a deadline on their removal, and US/NATO troop deployments now occur on the borders of both Iran (which has SCO observer status and is practically surrounded by US bases and forces) and China.

Karzai recently confirmed the US is now pushing to secure the rights to permanent bases or “joint facilities” in the country.

Karzai recently confirmed the US is now pushing to secure the rights to permanent bases or “joint facilities” in the country. [59] It is an “unlikely set of conditions” that the current leadership in Kabul would not ask for a long-term US presence in the country, observes Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. [60] That’s not surprising, considering the extent to which the US dictates Afghan policy and the Karzai administration is reliant on the US for its survival.

General Petraeus recently stated: “I think the concept of joint basing, the concept of providing enablers for Afghan operations and so forth — frankly, similar to what we have done in Iraq since the mission changed there — would also be appropriate in Afghanistan.” The two invasions of the War on Terror, ostensibly launched for differing reasons, happen to have converging aims. In Iraq, a remarkable piece of popular protest may have prevented the Status of Forces Agreement, which requested permanent bases and preferential treatment for US investors. Similarly, in that other outpost of the War on Terror, the Colombian congress rejected US plans to house 7 military bases in the country; although it appears the US may be pursuing a “joint facility” strategy to secure some form of presence. It remains to be seen what will happen in Afghanistan, but the US is determined to stay. Patreaus followed his comments by stating, “it’s very important to stay engaged in a region in which we have such vital interests,” echoing comments made back in 2001, when Elizabeth Jones, the US assistant Secretary of State, noted that “when the Afghan conflict is over we will not leave Central Asia. We have long-term plans and interests in this region.” [61]

China and Russia have been watching developments closely and are reacting. Along with Iran, Russia is the primary candidate to be an energy supplier to the region, the two controlling around 50% of the world’s gas reserves. A rival to the TAPI, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline proposed by Tehran has stalled after India pulled out citing cost and security concerns, although analysts have argued pressure from Washington was the crucial factor. China, for its part, has developed a Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline, under an agreement that included a provision stating “Chinese interests” would not be “threatened from [Turkmenistan’s] territory by third parties”, a barely veiled reference to US military installations in the Central Asian state. Moscow and Beijing recently cooperated to bring Afghanistan into the fold of the SCO and reduce the administration’s reliance on the US and NATO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in May that an Afghan request for SCO observer status – coming closely on the heels of a four-day visit by the Afghan Foreign Minister to China - would be considered in an upcoming summit in June. Furthermore, he added that India and Pakistan had submitted applications to enhance their participation from observer to full member status. These developments are particularly worrying for Washington, which had a previous request for observer status denied and has desperately tried to steer Karzai away from such alliances.

The ultimate prize was articulated in the influential journal Foreign Affairs by S. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University and former adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush I: “The United States now has the chance to help transform Afghanistan and the entire region into a zone of secure sovereignties sharing viable market economies, enjoying secular and open systems of government, and maintaining positive relations with the United States.” Through “judicious leadership”, the US can be “the midwife for the rebirth of an entire world region.” Crucial to this goal is the securing of “new arrangements for access, including maintaining a rotating military presence in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan that can sustain long- or short-term deployments as needed and smaller forward-operating sites with quick strike capabilities elsewhere.” [62]

The geo-strategic developments go largely ignored, the focus instead on the presumably more realistic and believable goal of preventing a “terrorist haven”.

Of course, the geo-strategic developments go largely ignored, the focus instead on the presumably more realistic and believable goal of preventing a “terrorist haven”, which one must assume is going to make Afghanistan more terrorist-proof than Germany, Spain and the United States, where the 9/11 attacks were planned.

Commenting on the war, the Observer argues that since the invasion “it has only ever become harder to discern what victory might look like.” [63] The developments just discussed may give us some clue as to what a genuine victory, or a failure, would mean. ———

At the critical end of the mainstream spectrum, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert argues the US is at most guilty of setting unrealistic objectives in Afghanistan, “a form of deception that should be unacceptable in a free society.” [64] We can perhaps think of more serious forms of deception that apply in this instance, and many others, than inflated expectations. It should cause more concern when “critical” voices argue against the war because it has been “lost”, or is “hopeless”, or has unrealistic and “unachievable goals.” [65] This is the pragmatic opposition, increasingly widespread, and epitomised by Richard N. Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article titled “We’re Not Winning, It’s Not Worth It,” in which he argues the war effort should be stopped because it is “claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention and absorbing too many resources.” The cost to Afghans has evidently been bearable.

The war launched without a Security Council resolution, in direct contravention of international law, on the expectation it could have disastrous implications for ordinary Afghans and on grounds that were instantly recognisable as fraudulent, is now discussed solely within a win-lose framework constrained by the publicly stated aims. This was a well-intentioned but “bungled liberal intervention” that, the Guardian editorial writers lament, may lead to “a return to a pungent strain of isolationism.” [66] It appears they need not worry, as the bombs fall on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, as US Special Operations forces operate in 75 countries, and as over 1,000 US foreign military bases constitute “95 percent of all the military bases any country in the world maintains on any other country’s territory.” [67]

Assessments of whether the US and NATO can install a client regime are considered in terms of success and failure, perpetuating the principle that wars are as right as they are winnable. That the second War on Terror began with an act of international state terrorism is consigned to Orwell’s memory hole. The US and British commitment to reducing terror is unwavering, despite the Afghan and Iraq wars being launched on the expectation they would increase the terrorist threat to domestic populations. [68] With this context, it must be considered a remarkable victory for the US and NATO powers to have limited the debate within such narrow parameters.

The war is now widely considered to be reaching some form of conclusion. Discussing the prospects of negotiations with the insurgency, Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst with Al Jazeera, asks,“If the Taliban does eventually accept to sit down with Obama or Karzai envoys, the US needs to explain why it fought for 10 years only to help the group back to power.” Over the last 10 years, through pursuit of their “military or political objectives”, the US and its allies have done much to rectify the situation observed by a State Official in 1992, when he lamented the US had “precious few levers” in Central Asia. [69]


[2] See for example
[3] Asked whether the killing of civilians may create a recruitment tool for the insurgency, Scheur responds, “I was trained as a historian, and that is the most insane argument I think that I’ve ever heard.” The important part is “making the decision about whether America is worth defending,” against Afghans, in Afghanistan. Scheur’s remarks are revealing of the kind of mentality that permeates the upper echelons of the CIA. In a moment of sanity he argues, “The reality is that we’re fighting these people, and the number of people we’re fighting is growing, because of what the U.S. government does in the Muslim world. And until we accept that our support for the Saudi police state, our military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen, our support for the Israelis - until we understand that those policies are the main recruitment tools for the enemy, we will never get a grip on the size, the durability and the potential of that enemy.” He follows these comments with, “That’s not to say those policies are evil or wrong, it’s simply to look at the situation and understand what motivates your enemy.”



[11] Biddle, S. Christia, F. J.A. Thier, Defining Success in Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs July/August 2010
[17];; Commenting on corruption within the Karzai administration, Biddle, “one of the [United States’] sanest and most knowledgeable defense analysts”, argues: “You always have an inadequate partner in counterinsurgency. That’s why there’s an insurgency to counter. If the host government were good at this, we wouldn’t have to be involved in the first place. So you inevitably at least start with a partner that, by definition, has serious legitimacy problems—often involving corruption.” The logic is simple: when the US invades a country, hand-picks a leader and supports a corrupt regime into power - a “legitimacy problem” of its own - further military involvement in the country can be justified by this corruption, whilst the US continues to undertake policies that encourage corrupt practice.
[22]; Deb Riechmann, Coalition Ramps Up Air War Over Afghanistan, AFP, November 30, 2010
[23]; A recent UNHCR report found around half of the world’s refugees are a result of the wars in Afghanistan in Iraq
[28] The pursuit of policy goals having disastrous implications for the domestic population, as well as the rest of the world, is of course nothing new. The mujahadeen funded and trained by the US, Britain and Pakistan (amongst others) throughout the 1980s and into the early 90s tore Afghanistan to pieces and went on to export violence across the globe. Similarly, this increased domestic opium production and drugs flow out of the country, having disastrous effects in Afghanistan and back in the US. “I don’t think we need to apologise for this,” contends the former CIA director of the Afghan operation, Charles Cogan, because the “Soviets left Afghanistan.” As Mahmood Mamdani notes “the fallout was not unanticipated; the consequences were known.” The price paid by Afghans during this period is astounding. Mamdani writes: “Out of a population of roughly 20 million, 1 million died, another million and a half were maimed, another 5 million became refugees, and just about everyone was internally-displaced. UN agencies estimate that nearly a million and a half went clinically insane as a consequence of decades of continuous war. Those who survived lived in the most mined country in the world. Afghanistan was a brutalized society even before the American bombing began.” Mamdani, M. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.
[31] For a discussion of the use of aerial counter-insurgency by the British in the 1920s see
[32];; This was a boon for US-based Textron Marine & Land Systems, who won a contract worth $543 million over three years to supply and maintain 440 new armoured vehicles for the army. Regardless of the outcome, arms companies and private security firms can be counted amongst the victors of this war. One report on the 2011 budget notes that, “Driven almost exclusively by battlefield needs in Afghanistan, the budget devotes billions to accelerate production of Army and Air Force helicopters, which should help firms such as Boeing, Sikorsky and Bell Helicopter.
[35] Biddle, S. Christia, F. J.A. Thier, Defining Success in Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs July/August 2010
[40] Theros, Marika, and Mary Kaldor. “Building Afghan Peace from the Ground up.” New York: The Century Foundation, 2011. 59 p. (282 KB)
[41] Naysan Adlparvar. Development in conflict : the politicisation of British aid to Afghanistan / Institute of Development Studies (IDS), 2010
[44] See also,1518,348597,00.html
[51] Rubin, B. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Bearden, M. Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires, Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2001.
[57] See Turse, N. The 700 Military Bases of Afghanistan - Black Sites in the Empire of Bases, February 9, 2010
[58] Ackerman, S., U.S. Supersizes Afghan Mega-Base as Withdrawal Date Looms,, August 9, 2010. Saeed Shah. US to spend $1 billion on embassy expansions in Pakistan, Afghanistan. Christian Science Monitor.May 28, 2009
[61] cited in;
[64] Herbert’s article is important and worth reading in its entirety. It is the archetype of the liberal-pragmatic opposition to the war.
[65] For example: “The antiwar movement will need to confront the Patreaus and the war managers by showing Congress and the country that the US programs for winning the war in Afghanistan are dead as a doornail, that the war is lost and can’t be fixed.”
[68] Giving some insight into the extent to which the safety of the population at home is a foreign policy objective, a recent study by the London School of Economics and the University of Essex found “US military support for foreign governments encourages terrorist groups to attack Americans.”
[6] Fitzgerald, P. Gould, E. Invisible History; Afghanistan’s Untold Story, p.216, 2009.

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