For the people of Azizabad, a small village in western Afghanistan, the dark early morning hours of August 22, 2008 suddenly turned into a nightmare of devastation and death. As villagers slept, U.S. forces attacked—first with guns, then air strikes. By the next morning, according to UN investigators, over 90 people had been massacred, including 60 children and 15 women.
The U.S. military initially claimed they had hit a “legitimate” Taliban target, that only 5 to 7 civilians were killed—so-called “collateral damage”—and the other 30 to 35 dead were Taliban militants. These were lies.
Journalists who traveled to the village reported: “At the battle scene, shell craters dotted the courtyards and shrapnel had gouged holes in the walls. Rooms had collapsed and mud bricks and torn clothing lay in uneven mounds where people had been digging. In two places blood was splattered on a ceiling and a wall….The smell of bodies lingered in one compound, causing villagers to start digging with spades. They found the body of a baby, caked in dust, in the corner of a bombed-out room.” Survivors “described repeated strikes on houses where dozens of children were sleeping, grandparents and uncles and aunts huddled inside with them.” (New York Times, September 8, 2008)
“Does this look like it fits a Taliban fighter?” one resident told NPR (August 27, 2008), holding up a tiny shoe and a woman’s torn veil.
This was the third major massacre of Afghan civilians by U.S.-NATO forces this summer alone. Since 2005, between 2,700 and 3,200 civilians are estimated to have been killed by U.S and NATO forces, whose attacks and bombing raids are escalating. And all this is just the latest example of the enormous suffering the U.S.-NATO war on Afghanistan has inflicted since it was launched seven years ago on October 7, 2001.
The U.S. military has since been forced to back off of its initial claims about Azizabad, and is supposedly conducting an “investigation.” But one thing the U.S. rulers—and Bush, McCain and Obama—have not backed off of is the biggest lie of all: That the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan is a legitimate war of self-defense launched in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and that the central goal is preventing future attacks on the U.S. And now there are calls, including from Barack Obama, to send thousands of more troops to Afghanistan.
Not a “Good War” Gone Bad
One thing that’s not been up for debate in the Presidential campaign is Afghanistan: both candidates (not to mention George W. Bush) agree on the urgent need to escalate – and win – that war. This stance has overwhelmingly gone unchallenged – even by most who opposed the invasion of Iraq. But the war in Afghanistan is not the proverbial “good war,” now gone bad. It was an unjust, imperialist war of conquest and empire from the start. And it continues to be an unjust, imperialist war of empire today.
The war in Afghanistan was never simply a response to 9/11. It was conceived of by the Bush administration as the opening salvo in an unbounded war for greater empire under the rubric of a “war on terror.” This war’s goal was to defeat Islamic fundamentalism, overthrow states not fully under U.S. control, restructure the Middle East and Central Asian regions, and seize deeper control of key sources and shipment routes of strategic energy supplies. All this grew out of over a decade of imperialist planning, strategizing and intervention. And from the beginning all of it was part of an overall plan to expand and fortify U.S. power—to create an unchallenged and unchallengeable global imperialist empire.
All this is shown by what the U.S. rulers were doing—and planning—in these regions and globally during the decade of the 1990s, including in Afghanistan itself. It can be shown by the plans the U.S. had for destabilizing, perhaps overthrowing, the Taliban government of Afghanistan even before 9/11. It can be demonstrated by the actual discussions and decisions taken by the Bush regime in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and by the U.S.’s war objectives in Afghanistan and the Middle East as a whole, which it is still pursuing. And it can be shown by the U.S.’s conduct of the war and the impact it has had on the people of Afghanistan.
1990s: A Decade of Planning and Strategizing for Greater Empire
The “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan emerged from a decade of planning, strategizing, and struggle among the U.S. rulers over how to expand and strengthen their grip on the planet.
The 1991 collapse of the social-imperialist Soviet Union was a geopolitical earthquake. Suddenly the U.S. rulers found themselves no longer facing a rival nuclear-armed, imperialist empire. They called it a unique “unipolar moment,” where the U.S. faced no major rivals to its global pre-eminence. But in the wake of the Soviet collapse, they faced new and daunting challenges—the possible rise of new rivals (Russia, China, the European Union or some combination thereof), massive economic shifts brought about by the Soviet bloc’s collapse and the acceleration of capitalist globalization, destabilizing problems in the oil-rich Middle East, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a growing number of impoverished, war-torn, or fragmented states (so-called “failed states”) whose collapse could unravel the U.S.-dominated global order.
Right after the Soviet collapse, a core of imperial strategists—the neoconservatives or neocons—began arguing that the U.S. should lock in this unipolar world and prevent any rivals from emerging to challenge the U.S.
This was articulated in the Defense Department’s 1992 “Defense Planning Guidance”—written by Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby and Zalmay Khalilzad under the direction of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney—all later top officials in the Bush II administration. This document argued that the U.S. should insure “that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territory of the former Soviet Union” and that the United States remain the world’s predominant power for the indefinite future. The Defense Guidance envisioned accomplishing these far-reaching objectives by preemptively attacking rivals or states seeking weapons of mass destruction, strengthening U.S. control of Persian Gulf oil, and refusing to allow international coalitions or law to inhibit U.S. freedom of action.
The Clinton administration had sought to strengthen and expand U.S. economic, military and political power around the world—including through military aggression in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Balkans.
But for the neocons, this wasn’t nearly enough. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American and one time advisor to the Unocal oil company, was a key player in the neocon offensive. Later he would become a top official in the Bush regime—including as ambassador first to Afghanistan following the U.S. occupation, and then to Iraq. During the 1990s, Khalilzad condemned the lack of a “unifying concept” in the Clinton global vision, and argued for focusing on preventing others from having “hegemony over critical regions,” including the Persian Gulf.
Over the decade of the 1990s, this core in the ruling class continued to flesh out and fight for this vision—in numerous research papers, think-tank seminars, opinion pieces, and efforts like the “Project for a New American Century” and the “Clean Break” policy paper written for Israel’s leadership. Along with this global strategizing, they led a growing chorus demanding more aggressive action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, including overthrowing it, as well as increasing efforts to take action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. All this, again, was years before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Afghanistan—Great Power Rivalry and Energy Pipelines
During the 1990s, Afghanistan was one focal point of U.S. efforts to strengthen its grip on global energy sources and military-political supremacy. Afghanistan sits at the very heart of the Eurasian land mass. In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor in the Carter administration, argued, “A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions…. About 75 percent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well…Eurasia accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s GNP and about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.” (Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, New York, 1997)
Following the Soviet collapse, relations in the region were shifting rapidly. Five Central Asian Republics—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—formerly part of the Soviet Union were unmoored and up for grabs.
As A World to Win magazine analyzed in 2001: “As the Soviets retreated in the early 1990s, the U.S. imperialists thus embarked upon a policy to replace Soviet influence over the Central Asian countries with their own, to connect them into the world market and to break up the Russian monopoly over the pipelines to that market. They also set out to build an alternative to the Persian Gulf region as a key energy supply in order to reinforce the U.S.’s dominant global position. One of the key aspects of this was, of course, preventing Russia from re-emerging as a major rival in the region. The pipeline the U.S. needed had to cross through Afghanistan to Pakistan to the open seas in order to freely access the Western market.” (“A History of the Imperialist ‘Great Game,’” A World to Win, 2002/28) The U.S. also sought to weaken and isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran by preventing pipelines from being built through Iran—a natural bridge to the Persian Gulf—and by surrounding it with hostile states. This was another reason the U.S. initially supported the Taliban in Afghanistan—it served as a “Sunni buffer” on Iran’s eastern border.
Gaining control of Afghanistan was seen by the Clinton administration as a crucial element of this strategy. So in 1996, when the Islamic fundamentalists of the Taliban seized power, after four years of bitter civil war following the overthrow of the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime, the imperialists supported them in hopes they could stabilize Afghanistan and partner with the U.S. The Bush administration initially continued to maintain ties with the Taliban—approving over $40 million in financial aid in May 2001.
Turning Against the Taliban
But even as they were approving this aid, and before September 11, 2001, the U.S. was also turning against the Taliban regime, including by planning to destabilize and possibly overthrow it. One such plan hit Bush’s desk on September 10.
The U.S. rulers’ concerns had nothing to do with the reactionary, theocratic nature of the Taliban, which mainly represented the feudal classes and tribes of Afghanistan’s largest nationality, the Pashtun. Instead, they were concerned that the Taliban was becoming a dangerous opponent, standing in the way of the U.S. regional agenda and global plans.
First, a civil war continued to smolder in Afghanistan, which the Taliban proved unable to stamp out. This made it impossible to go forward with plans for building an oil pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Second, the Taliban’s actions and this ongoing instability were fueling radical Islamic fundamentalism, which was increasingly viewed as a key problem by U.S. strategists. This was driven home to them by the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The U.S. blamed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which were based in Afghanistan. (The Clinton administration launched cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda camps after these attacks.)
These growing tensions led the U.S. to begin building covert anti-Taliban networks in Afghanistan as early as 1997. This included providing millions of dollars in aid to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and dispatching secret teams to work with them. (The Taliban leadership was reportedly ready to turn bin Laden over to the imperialists or at the very least have him leave the country until the U.S.’s 1998 missile strikes convinced them they too were a target of the imperialists.)
Such planning was stepped up after George W. Bush came to power. Before September 11, 2001, there were sharp divisions within the Bush regime over whether to focus on non-state Islamist “terrorists” like al-Qaeda or states such as Iraq. But plans to step up attacks on al-Qaeda and destabilize the Taliban regime—perhaps even overthrow it—were being developed and debated. In his book Bush at War, Bob Woodward reports that in April 2001—5 months before the attacks of September 11—plans were in the works to begin arming the Northern Alliance. By July, proposals were put forward to not only roll back al-Qaeda, but to eliminate it and “go on the offensive and destabilize the Taliban.” Although the divisions within the Bush team had not been resolved, this plan was approved on September 4, with $125-200 million given the CIA to implement it. It was placed on Bush’s desk by National Security Advisor Rice on September 10 as a secret Presidential Directive, awaiting his signature.
LARRY EVEREST is the author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda (Common Courage 2004), a correspondent for Revolution (www.revcom.us) and a contributor to Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney (Seven Stories). He can be reached via www.larryeverest.com.