Afghanistan is No One’s War

A summary of events leading to the invasion of Afghanistan is helpful.

Following 9/11, the Taleban government said it would extradite Osama bin Laden if the U.S. could produce evidence against him. This is the approach taken by the courts of every Western country when extradition is requested.

The U.S. either could not or would not produce any evidence, yet it insisted the Taleban was behaving in bad faith and harboring criminals.

To this day, the public has not been given one genuine piece of evidence that ties bin Laden to 9/11. I’m not saying he’s innocent, only that there was no proof at the time Bush used him as an excuse to invade Afghanistan.

Bin Laden certainly did not like the United States, but was he in any way responsible for a great crime? How would his apparent happiness with events distinguish him from the group of Israeli spies in the New York area who were photographed, reported to police, and arrested (later being quietly deported) after dancing and shouting atop a truck as the World Trade Center billowed into flames? To this day, the FBI wanted-notice for bin Laden does not mention 9/11.

I am sure that with a real campaign of pressure – diplomatic, legal, and economic – America could have secured bin Laden’s extradition. Bush’s government didn’t really try. Invasion was an attractive option for many reasons. These include satisfying the bellowing, belly-over-the-belt types that are Bush’s natural constituency, doing something for Bush’s missing leadership credentials, gaining new influence over a nuclear and uncooperative Pakistan, building a long-planned trans-Afghanistan pipeline, and, importantly, preparing the way for an invasion of Iraq, something discussed and advocated for years before in Bush’s Neo-con crowd.

Afghanistan is an ancient, backward civilization with an average life expectancy of 45 years. Those who really know a lot about the country tended to say from the beginning that it was unrealistic for the U.S. to expect to make meaningful change there. This interpretation agrees with generally accepted principles of economic development, in particular the principle that social and political changes only come gradually with steady economic growth. One is tempted to say that the U.S. could have brought more genuine, positive change in Afghanistan and Iraq by dropping planeloads of dollar bills rather than bombs.

Although American military destruction in Afghanistan appears to have been less than in Iraq, this largely reflects the fact that there was little infrastructure in Afghanistan to start with, especially when compared with what existed in Iraq, once the Arab world’s most advanced country. Still, relative terms are what count here, and destruction in Afghanistan was considerable. Now that the financial costs of the two wars and the instability and risk of the occupations have proved much greater than anticipated, Bush is not able to execute even rushed, poorly-made plans for reconstruction. This is not a formula for long-term success even if you are a Neo-con visionary.

Making change there – beyond getting rid of bin Laden and the boys and removing the Taleban government – was never the American purpose, although it features heavily in all propaganda supporting the invasion as though it were a central purpose.

Canada’s Conservative government today plays a cover version of the same tired song, hyping a military mission supporting American withdrawal from its fiasco as a noble nation-building project. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper whom Bush affectionately now calls “Steve” – tries to distort the simple freakish fact that 30 Canadians died in the World Trade Center into a grandiose argument for spending billions on a delusional War on Terror. More Canadians than that die every month in traffic accidents on roads in the United States.

The U.S.-placed government in Kabul has a sensible and reasonable man as President, however he has almost no power, nor is there the prospect of his gaining any. The U.S. would have to re-conquer the country – a huge, ugly, and perhaps impossible job against the warlords who helped them the first time – if it really wanted to change things. The warlords who made a cheap American victory possible are the very reason the President can have no real power over the country, a vicious cycle if there ever was one.

But it is a misnomer to refer to an American victory, even a cheap one. In ancient lands, things, including guerrilla wars, move at a pace not understood by those blackberrying around Washington making presentations from notebook computers. Dispersing the Taleban so that the Northern Alliance could rule for a while is hardly victory. America and its allies now are trapped in an impossible situation. Other than wishing all opposition somehow would disappear, it is not even clear now what would constitute victory.

British commanders have told Blair recently that hostile activity in the area of the country they occupy has so increased that they cannot succeed without more troops and equipment. That comes as very unwelcome news to Blair whose popularity in Britain is even lower than Bush’s in America. More troops, more coffins, more money.

Jason Burke, a journalist with considerable knowledge of Afghanistan, wrote the following as part of a column in The Observer. It offers, in an off-hand, matter-of-fact way several realities of Afghanistan and the Taleban generally not appreciated in North America.

Walk out of the gates, past the bored British soldiers in their guardhouse, past the Afghan troops on the outer wall, past razor wire and take the dusty path through the ramshackle cemetery. Go past a new, whitewashed villa built for a local ‘businessman’ and on through the labyrinth of narrow alleys and traditional mud-walled homes and then turn left through a passage way and there you will find the scruffy bazaar of Lashkar Gah and the Taliban.

Two men, both bearded and wearing the trademark thick-coiled black turban, were sitting in the shade behind a friend’s workshop. They had agreed to talk to The Observer. ‘I am proud to be a Talib,’ said Fazl Rahman, 40. ‘Why should I deny it? Why should I be afraid?’

‘The foreigners are here for their own reasons,’ said his younger comrade. ‘If they were here to help us, everyone would be living better. But look.’ He pointed to the dirt street outside, the shacks, the sagging electricity cables, the thin trees that provide scant protection from the heat of the early afternoon sun and then waved his hand towards the camp a few hundred metres away, the longest-established British base in Helmand province. ‘All foreigners are our enemy,’ he says. ‘You are a journalist, so we don’t harm you. But if you were a soldier we would kill you. Afghanistan is the castle of Islam and the foreigners are destroying our religion.’

The Taleban, in other words, are easily found even near a British military base. They include the most ordinary-looking men. The American effort at building-up the country, if it ever was serious, is a failure.

Burke’s report suggests the Taleban cause strongly appeals to feelings against foreign occupation and in defense of religion. What Americans do not understand is that the Taleban is not a fixed organization but a fluid alliance of interests. The fierce mountain men of Afghanistan move back and forth between one alliance and another, depending on changing needs and advantages. The sad state of American achievement was demonstrated by recent bragging headlines about one old, crippled warrior chief changing sides, leaving the Taleban. Afghanistan is the land of ferocious (male) libertarianism if ever there was one, something you might think Americans, with all their rhetoric about freedom to bear arms against tyranny, would understand.

How can anyone influence the new explosion of drugs from Afghanistan? The economy is a shambles, and poor farmers can only make a living with poppies. Any aggressive effort to end the crop simply creates new opposition to the existing government. Anyway, there
is no effective central government to undertake this task. Even in Kabul the government’s authority remains weak. The government’s allies, the warlords, profit from poppies.

The technology and know-how of guerrilla fighting steadily improves in Afghanistan. Of course, it has always been so with guerrilla operations, the IRA, for example, having increased the deadliness of its efforts dramatically over the years. Iraq’s huge guerrilla movement is becoming adept at creating new devices and tactics, exporting them to Afghanistan, and an angry Iran is there to offer lots of help and encouragement. The U.S. knows this. That’s why it won’t stay for a great deal longer in Afghanistan. Even in Iraq, the American commander has referred already to plans for some withdrawal of troops despite being in the midst of murderous storm.

There is no reason to feel hopeful or idealistic about anyone’s role in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Iraq are neither wars in the traditional sense nor humanitarian projects. They are foreign occupations of people who do not want to occupied. The idea that you can successfully occupy a hostile land into peace remains a delusion of consultants on big expense accounts in Washington. Just ask Israel nearly four decades after the Six Day War.



John Chuckman lives in Canada.