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The Regional Alternative to Escalation in Afghanistan

Children Afraid of the Night

by VIJAY PRASHAD

More US troops are being prepared for Afghanistan. The President charged them with (1) defeating or degrading the Taliban; (2) building the Afghan National Army. We have thrown in our lot with Hamid Karzai’s government. Its association with warlords is uncontestable (his own brother is an opium kingpin). Our enemy is the Taliban, which recruits a family each time we accidentally kill one civilian. And we have offered the coldest shoulder to the forces of progress, like the former parliamentarian Malalai Joya (one of the first acts of the Karzai government in 2002 was to ban the communists, and he has himself refused to create the kind of political parties that might undermine warlordism). Obama’s enunciated goals seem impossible. Departure in 2011 is a chimera; it is thrown like magic to assuage those with anxiety about a long-term commitment. Withdrawal will be silenced by the monstrous anger of guns.

The United States-NATO Occupation has ill-defined signposts, and those that are defined will be difficult to reach. There is a better alternative to escalation, which is to make the stability of Afghanistan a regional responsibility, and to withdraw in a very timely fashion. The regional partners with the greatest stake in the stability of Afghanistan, such as Iran, India, Pakistan, China and the various Central Asian republics, will not begin a genuine process if the US-NATO Occupation persists. Why would the Chinese or the Iranians get their hands dirty if this means that their work will reward the US with military bases at Bagram and Kabul? A prerequisite for their entry into the process is the withdrawal of the US, and a pledge that no permanent military bases will remain in the region. This is not a marker that the US is willing to put on the table. It is committed to empire. Obama said at West Point, "We have no interest in occupying your country." That is true if the definition of occupation is a 19th century one. But a 21st century occupation is conducted via military bases and extra-territorial privileges, by free trade agreements and dispensations for certain corporations. The high walls of the bases and the hum of the drones is enough to distort the fine sentiments in Obama’s phrase.

When the Taliban was in power (1996-2001), the regional states formed the Shanghai Cooperation Alliance (it was the Shanghai Five in 1996, and by 2001, the SCO). The members included the various Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, Russia, and China with observer status for India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia. The SCO was formed to create trust on the borders of the new Republics, which were once part of the USSR, and China. In July 2001, the SCO acknowledged that the "cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremisms is the instability in Afghanistan." They pledged to work together to undermine the Taliban, and the various political Islamists in the region. It was to be a long process, but not one without possibility. None of the neighbors wanted to see the Taliban emirate exported; they had national interests at stake. And they had influence over a landlocked country whose only ally was Pakistan, itself beholden to China for diplomatic cover and much else. Pressure could have come, but time did not permit.

A few days after 9/11, elements in the Taliban reached out to the US. They wanted political cover to turn over Osama Bin Laden, and to save their own emirate. This was an important opening, but the Bush administration decided to snub them. In mid-October, the Taliban’s no. 3, Haji Abdul Kabir told reporters. "We would be ready to hand [Bin Laden] over to a third country" if the bombing ended. Once more, Bush demurred. It was not his style to negotiate. This is when the Afghan war was lost: not at Tora Bora but at a press conference at Jalalabad. If the US had taken the Taliban up on this offer, Bin Laden would have been in custody in a third country and tried in an international court. Instead, the US backed one group of nasty warlords (the Northern Alliance) against the Taliban, throwing to the wind the progressive forces within Afghan society. The SCO was also disregarded. This was a costly mistake.

The SCO continues to have influence in the region. This summer, the Taliban leadership sent a letter to the SCO, asking it to intervene against the Occupation. These are the leaders of the insurgency on the ground, not the "moderates" who decamped to Saudi Arabia for a Mecca meeting with their funders and the Karzai government (as reported in Asharq al-Awsat in October 2008). Those who went to Mecca, such as Mullah Mohammed Tayeb Agha and Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, are not linked to the Taliban resurgence (indeed, its spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied that they spoke for the Taliban). On the other hand, the letter to the SCO came from the Quetta Shura Taliban, the inner sanctum controlled by Mullah Omar. Since September 2009, the Quetta Shura has been trying to play up its "nationalist" credentials, including distancing itself from al-Qaeda, whose own regional leaders have continued their tirade against nationalism of all kinds. Mullah Omar’s Eid message on September 19 called the Taliban "a robust Islamic and nationalist movement," a statement that earned a rebuke from the leading Salafi cleric, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The Salafis worry that the Taliban will go the way of Khalid Meshal’s Hamas. No division of the umma, the Muslim nation, for the hard-core jihadis. There is daylight between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Which is why it reached out to the SCO. Of course the SCO is sitting on its hands, but it is able. The regional solution will be difficult, given that it would have to scrub off the effects of thirty years of warfare. The SCO is not going to welcome the Taliban with open arms and hand over Kabul to Mullah Omar. After 2001, the US welcomed the warlords into Kabul, handed them the keys to the kingdom and gave them a tacit amnesty for their grievous crimes (even making Ahmed Shah Masood, a ghastly warlord, the nation’s icon). Such a positive fate does not seem to be on the horizon for the Taliban. It will come above ground with much less fanfare. The Taliban and the warlords obviously command a following in Afghanistan (something that was not true in the 1970s). Thanks to US, Saudi and Pakistani funding and assistance, the warlords and the Taliban have become a social force and have to be combated politically. The US and the Saudis cannot broker their entry into the political process. But the SCO has a better chance.

Right after the Taliban fled in 2001, the US convened a "donor’s conference" in Bonn, where Europe, Japan and the US gathered to promise money for the reconstruction of the country. No one invited the SCO players. This has not changed. Europe, Japan and the US, the countries with the least legitimacy in Afghanistan are the ones calling the shots. Rather than conference calls with Brussels (the NATO headquarters), and Paris and London, and Kabul (with the shaky government of Karzai), the Obama administration should have called a political conference of the SCO, to see what it would have taken to hand over the Afghan imbroglio to them. The SCO met in Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) on November 24 to discuss the problem of the region, and made all kinds of suggestions. None of these are operational till the US-NATO withdraws from Kabul. China is the only power in the region with the wealth and expertise to genuinely rebuild Afghanistan (people might criticize its development policy in Africa, but mark this: Chinese investment enters countries in Africa without IMF-type conditionalities and Chinese engineers and managers live in modest conditions, not creating the kind of high-overhead NGO lifestyles of the European and US humanitarian workers).

India and Pakistan have competing interests in Afghanistan. Their Cold War is fought between their Afghan proxies. If the SCO were responsible for the situation, India and Pakistan would be forced to work together. India’s sober reaction to the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and to the two bombings of its Kabul embassy have shown the Pakistani civilian leadership that it is prepared to negotiate in a serious fashion. On December 2, the Indian government announced, for the first time in decades, that it would begin to withdraw troops from Jammu and Kashmir. The moment is nigh for the Pakistani civilian leadership to put itself at the center of diplomatic discussions in the region, to isolate the ISI and the Pakistani military who have otherwise defined Pakistan’s Afghan policy. But an escalation is going to set this backwards: more bloodshed in the northern borderlands of Pakistan will inflame the population, and it might set in motion a forward policy not only into Afghanistan but also its twin, Kashmir. If all this happens, I fear for the future of South Asia. In a decade it will resemble West Asia. Both broken by empire.

The US media has portrayed the escalation of the Occupation in a very simplistic fashion: either the US solves the problem, or the Taliban returns. This is a false choice, one that assumes that only the US can act, the White Knight riding in to save the world. America is not exceptional. Others are ready. But they don’t want to act unless they have a commitment that the US is not going to use their blood and treasure to build its empire.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

A shorter version of this article will run this Saturday in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.