The Other "Good War"

“OneTwoThree: F-” — the Beatles

“What’s that spell?”– Country Joe and the Fish

“There came a voice from over the sea…” — Percy Bysshe Shelley

As the full imperial dimensions of current administration policy become clearer, helped along by the recent promulgation of a new “national security” policy that calls explicitly for a new imperialism based on military dominance, opposition to the planned war on Iraq is mounting across the globe (except in Congress, where the Democratic leadership has once again sold out, ignoring the overwhelming message sent by the huge grassroots mobilization of recent weeks).

In the context of Iraq, it has become acceptable, even respectable, to say that the emperor is aptly garbed for a naked power grab. To this day, however, few are willing to criticize the war in Afghanistan. In fact, some self-proclaimed spokespeople for the antiwar movement have recently suggested that the “left,” which is to say the peace movement, the global justice movement, and most of the progressive grassroots activists in the country, still handicaps itself by its opposition to that war. The official story remains that, whatever has come after, the war on Afghanistan remains the one shining success in the “war on terrorism.”

One year later (the bombing started on October 7, 2001), many of the results are in, and it’s about time for a critical look at some of those “successes.”

The war increased the threat of terrorism. Last fall, those who were “prematurely antiwar” predicted that it would. At the time, very few agreed; after the sudden collapse of the Taliban and the stories about Afghans welcoming their bombers with open arms, almost no one did. More recently, the argument has found support from a different quarter: the FBI and the CIA. According to the June 16 New York Times, “Classified investigations of the Qaeda threat now under way at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States … Instead, the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area.”

Further, middle-level al-Qaeda operatives used the opportunity to strengthen contacts with other Islamist groups in the region, thus increasing the pool from which future terrorists will be drawn. The war allowed them to draw other Islamist groups, hitherto focused on domestic political questions, into the world of terrorist networks committed to attacks on the United States. According to one official quoted, “Al Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps. What we’re seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come.”

And, of course, the war didn’t result in the apprehension of Osama bin Laden or others high in the al-Qaeda network, who could possibly have been extradited had the United States deigned to offer evidence to the Taliban — according to reports in the British press (Daily Telegraph, October 4, 2001), an extradition deal had been worked out, only to be quashed at the last minute by Pakistan’s dictator Pervez Musharraf, presumably at the behest of the White House, which didn’t want to lose its casus belli. So, it seems, the war put an end to the best chance of catching those high-level leaders.

Many innocents were killed. Initial concerns about civilian casualties were generally dismissed amid claims that the bombing of Afghanistan was the most restrained and precise in history, Christopher Hitchens even accusing U.S. forces of being “pedantic” in their restraint. In fact, as in other recent U.S. bombing campaigns, the initial narrow targeting was broadened as air defense was destroyed. As the small store of pre-determined targets was exhausted, the country was divided into “kill boxes” where pilots were to attack “targets of opportunity.” A policy of cavalierly attacking military or supposed military targets right in the heart of heavily-populated areas was part of the reason that, at a conservative estimate by the Project for Defense Alternatives, the Afghanistan war killed at least four times as many civilians per bomb as were killed in the war on Yugoslavia. Although the difficulties of estimating civilian casualties from the bombing are formidable (largely because the U.S. government, with its customary indifference to the effects of its wars, refuses to do a study), all serious estimates conclude that over 1000 died — recent studies by the Guardian newspaper, reported on May 20, 2002, indicate a possibility of up to 8000 actually killed by the bombs.

These concerns quickly gave way to the much graver threat of disruption of humanitarian aid. Over 7 million Afghans were directly dependent for survival on aid, which was disrupted for September, October and part of November first by the threat of bombing and then by the bombing. The precipitous collapse of the Taliban in mid-November meant that the United States stopped bombing most of the country, so that aid deliveries by international organizations were rapidly restored, narrowly averting a catastrophe. That disruption did have noticeable effects, which have finally been assessed: according to the same Guardian survey, “As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention. They too belong in any tally of the dead.”

The United States installed a puppet regime, throwing democracy out the window. The “loya jirga,” or grand council, that selected the current interim government of Afghanitan, was peopled from the start with delegates selected by the United States, mostly representatives of the regional warlords, with a small sprinkling of Afghan expatriates (mostly from the United States) and “technocrats” to give it some aura of respectability. Representatives from the 1.5-million-strong Watan Party, successor to the PDPA (which ruled Afghanistan until 1992), were not allowed into the jirga.

According to Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, delegates to the loya jirga, “We delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process. A small group of Northern Alliance chieftains decided everything behind closed doors.” Since former monarch Zahir Shah, the most popular candidate for interim president, was unsuitable for U.S. interests, “the entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government,” they said. At that point, most delegates, aware that the warlords held all the military power and fearing for their lives, silently went along.

Perhaps the high point was the sudden declaration by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (former consultant with Unocal) that Zahir Shah was stepping down — something that the octogenarian former king was apparently unable to say for himself. After that, the confirmation of the United States’s handpicked (likely in October or November 2001) candidate Hamid Karzai (former consultant with Unocal) was swift and sure. And any lingering doubt about Karzai’s freedom of action should have been ended by the news that U.S. Special Forces were acting as his praetorian guard.

The U.S. government has shown little concern for the rights of women in Afghanistan. Given the Bush administration’s lack of concern for women’s rights in the rest of the known world, including the United States, this should, of course, be no surprise. But the extent of this indifference is striking. Notwithstanding the expressed commitment to building infrastructure for women’s education and health care, both shamefully neglected under the Taliban, the Bush administration has been so stingy as to block $134 million in Afghan humanitarian aid, citing domestic economic problems (the money is less than 50 cents per American). Of that, $2.5 million was for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Ritu Sharma, president of the advocacy group Women’s Edge, described that $2.5 million, earmarked to build women’s centers across Afghanistan, as a “question of life or death for the ministry and Afghan women.” So far, the United States has contributed a mere $120,000 to it — about one-tenth the cost of a single cruise missile.

The U.S. government has done little to alleviate the extreme humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, let alone to rebuild the country. To take one index, U.S. contributions through UNICEF for Afghanistan have been less than a third those of Japan — even though it was the United States that played a huge role in creating the crisis, through its decade-long support for various mujahedin factions as well as through the bombing campaign last fall. At the Tokyo conference on reconstruction of Afghanistan in January 2002, a mere $4.5 billion was pledged, a derisory $300 million of it from the United States — not nearly enough to address Afghanistan’s needs. Driven largely by the perceived lack of concern from the U.S. government, donor countries have in fact not even followed through on these minuscule pledges. So shamefully negligent has the United States been in fixing its mess that today, as winter approaches, 6 million Afghans — a larger number than before Sept. 11, 2001 — are once again on the brink, dependent on humanitarian aid to get through the next months.

On every test of justice and of pragmatism, the war on Afghanistan fails. Worse, every one of these aspects, from an increased threat of terrorism to large numbers of civilian deaths to installation of a puppet regime is due to play out again in the war on Iraq. In fact, though it has been little noted, the sanctions regime has made Iraqis dependent on centralized, government-distributed food to survive and relief agencies have already expressed their concerns about the potential for a humanitarian crisis once war starts.

We, and the Iraqi people, can do without any more “successes” in the war on terrorism.

RAHUL MAHAJAN is the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas and a member of the Nowar Collective. His book The New Crusade: America’s War on Terroris April 2002, Monthly Review Press) has been described as “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism.” He is currently writing “The U.S. War Against Iraq” for Seven Stories Press. More of his work can be found at He can be reached at