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The Surge to Withdrawal


I. Crisis.

Kabul sprawls like an injured lion. Its population has increased four-fold to 4.5 million over the past ten years. War refugees, fleeing the countryside for the relative safety of the citadel, find themselves in permanent slums (“Kabul Informal Settlements” in the bureaucratic argot). These slums (such as Chamane Babrack, Bagrami, Parwan Du, and Charahi Qambar) sit on hillsides or on the edges of Kabul, bursting with people whose lives have been measurably worsened by the ongoing conflict. The UN’s High Commission on Refugees and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation squabble over definitions: which family has been displaced by war, and who is an economic migrant. These distinctions mean little to the 5.7 million people who have been displaced by the insecurity occasioned by the ten-year war. A friend who works in one of the UN agencies in Kabul tells me that matters have reached a crisis point. He has used the term “crisis” four times over the past few years.

The idea of Afghanistan as “crisis” has a lineage that stretches back at least to 1818. The British thrived on the idea of Afghanistan as ungovernable, since it gave them license to meddle in its internal affairs under the pretense of establishing governance. The Afghans would have none of it, and even at the high-point of British power, in the 1850s, the Marquess of Dalhousie had to admit that relations between Afghans and the British were as “sullen quiescence on either side, without offence but without goodwill or intercourse.” Intrigue between the powers meant that the Afghans could be disregarded, as they were from the 1810s into the present. Dalhousie’s senior, Lord Ellenborough wrote in his diary in 1829, “I feel confident that we shall have to fight the Russians on the Indus, and I have long had a presentiment that I should meet them there, and gain a great battle. All dreams, but I have had them a long time.” That dream became reality a hundred and fifty years later. The U. S. and the English rushed into action in 1979 when the Soviets invaded, beginning a secret war that created Bin Laden and foisted the Taliban upon the desperate Afghans (the National Archives in Britain released some files this week that reveal details of this secret war). The idea of Afghan anarchy was sufficient for the West to either intervene with force or to disregard the well-being of the people.

That disregard has become catastrophic in itself. The UN reports that most of the 7.3 million Afghans who now rely on emergency food assistance will not be able to access it (largely because pledges to the World Food Program have declined as a consequence of the world credit crisis). Food riots are to be expected in the short term.

II. Withdrawal.

Over the past two years, the issue of civilian casualties had bedeviled the relationship between the U. S.-led coalition and the Karzai government. Pressure from tribal elders as much as from the beleaguered human rights community in Afghanistan made it impossible for Karzai to any longer ignore the harsh techniques of warfare used by the technologically superior U. S.-NATO forces. Aerial attacks (some by drones) had wreaked havoc among the population, with civilian casualties (poorly recorded in the best circumstances) on the uptick. The focus of attention became the “night raids,” used routinely by the Coalition to pick up suspected insurgents. Over ten months last year, the “night raids” themselves accounted for the deaths of 1,500 civilians. Reporting that number the United Nations notes, “U. S. night raids are by far the largest cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.”

President Karzai has refused to sign the Strategic Partnership document with the United States until the NATO forces stop using “night raids.” “NATO-led ISAF forces have killed Afghan civilians for no reason,” said Karzai’s office. The pressure on Karzai not to bend on this issue is one of the main levers to eject NATO-U. S. troops from the region. A similar problem with extra-territorial protection of U. S. troops led to their ejection from Iraq. The United States prefers to depart hastily from Afghanistan as well rather than allow its armed forces to be accountable to an occupied people, or even to international law.

Rules for withdrawal were set in the 19th century. The British discovered early enough that technological superiority would surround them with dead bodies but not political victories. Their withdrawals took place through manipulation of the internal political dynamics in Afghanistan, using people like Dost Muhammed when it suited them, and tossing them aside when it no longer did. The Soviets opened up negotiations with the mujahidin before they departed as well (documented in Artemy Kalinovsky’s new book A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan). They hastened across the Amu Darya, abandoning the country into a catastrophic civil war (1992-1996) that killed more people than during the Soviet invasion itself. It was out of this chaos that the Taliban emerged as a kind of demented stability.

Over the course of the past year, the United States and the Afghan government have tried to cut a deal with the Taliban. Burnt by the United States after Mullah Omar’s representatives reached out in the days after September 11, the Taliban have been suspicious of any opening. Tayeb Agha, Mullah Omar’s spokesperson for the past decade, was key to the current discussions, and would have brought that healthy suspicion from the past to the forefront. In late December, the Afghan Peace Council’s international advisor, Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, announced that six or seven Taliban members and their families had departed South Asia for the emirate of Qatar. There they were going to set up a liaison office, a “post-box” to open direct discussion with the United States, mediated through the increasingly important regime of Qatar. It is to be seen what will come out of these negotiations: at a minimum the Taliban want Afghans imprisoned in Guantanamo to be released into Afghanistan as well as the departure of the foreign forces, while the U. S. and NATO are eager for the creation of “conflict-free” zones in the country. The gap between the two is going to take considerable confidence to bridge.

III. Politics.

The use of Qatar is significant. It indicates that the United States, and perhaps the Taliban as well, want to sideline the government of Pakistan from these negotiations (there is a suggestion from some who know that the assassination of the Afghan grandee Burhanuddin Rabbani last year might have been carried out with the collusion of Pakistani intelligence). All signs indicate that this withdrawal will simply be a repeat of the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89 and the British withdrawal a century before that. It will abjure the region, and play one favorite against another, leaving the country to the mercy of a bloodbath.

Over the past decade, the United States and NATO have worked with almost deliberate intent against a regional solution. The creation of the idea of “Af-Pak” turned out to be a dangerous illusion. It seems, in retrospect, a convenient way to allow drones to attack civilian areas in northern Pakistan rather than to consider Afghanistan’s future in terms of its neighborhood. The United States brought too much global baggage to Afghanistan. Chinese economic clout entered the country in the extraction and trade sectors, but the Chinese were never brought in as political actors. Iran has considerable influence in western Afghanistan, but the U. S. antipathy to Iran (partly drawn through Washington’s confluence with Israel) made it impossible to allow Tehran to play a central role in Afghanistan’s stabilization. India’s close relationship with the backbone of the educated middle class and hence the State bureaucracy (including Karzai, who studied in India) would have made its role crucial. Instead, the Bush administration forged a nuclear deal with India that angered the Pakistanis; the quid pro quo for the nuclear deal was for India to vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. Relations between Pakistan and India soured, and that between Iran and India entered their lowest point. The potential for any regional dialogue was compromised by the itch of the Great Power.

The United States wanted the Afghanistan endeavor to be a joint venture between the G7-NATO and the Afghans, with the Pakistanis and the Central Asian states playing the doormat. The Bonn meeting (December 2001) and the Tokyo meeting (January 2002) set the parameters: NATO would provide the guns, and the G7 would open their wallets. It was a deliberate snub to the regional powers. Russia, China and the Central Asian states had already been involved in a campaign against the Taliban in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The Bush administration disregarded the SCO, and took the G7-NATO route. Last year, Obama tried to open up dialogue with the SCO, but in a ham-handed way: the U. S. wanted to have a directive role in the SCO, bringing in Turkey, India and Pakistan as well as offering its leadership over the SCO. The SCO was loath to become another Organization of American States or an Asian offshoot of NATO. Despite Hillary Clinton’s trips to Dushanbe and the U. S. Congress’ removal of sanctions against Uzbekistan, it seems unlikely that any rapprochement with the SCO is on the cards.

The habits of imperialism forestall a genuine dialogue with and about Afghanistan. The United States will exit Afghanistan in the next few years. None of its promises of health and well-being, democracy and women’s rights will be realized. These failures cannot be placed on the culture of Afghanistan, for the country had been far along the road to its own kind of modernity by the 1960s. Fingers of blame for the catastrophe of Afghanistan in its most recent phase must point directly to the capitals of the G7, with the longest finger vibrating toward Washington, DC.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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