The tragedy which is the history of Afghanistan was lost in the wake of 9/11. From that moment, in the eyes of a West now baying for revenge, it was a country reduced to nothing more than a terrorist base and training camp run with the blessing of a regime that gave new meaning to the word evil. Yet before 9/11 those same terrorists had won the paternal affection of government apparatchiks in Washington as a band of courageous liberation fighters who, with ‘our’ help, had successfully forced the Soviet Union to abandon a country it had invaded in order to add to is evil empire at least according to Reagan and the coterie of right wing zealots who formed his administration back then.
But to understand why Afghanistan was and remains so important to US strategic interests is to understand the role it has played throughout its history in the global struggle for empire and hegemony waged by the great powers. This mystical land, occupying a strategic location along the ancient Silk Route between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, has been the subject of fierce rivalry between global empires since the 19th century, when the then British and Russian Empires vied for control of the lucrative spoils to be found in the subcontinent of India and in Central Asia in what came to be known as the ‘Great Game.’ The British desired to control Afghanistan as a buffer against Russian influence in Persia (Iran) in order protect its own interests in India, which at that time was the jewel in the crown of an empire that covered a full third of the globe. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought during this period. The first saw the complete annihilation of a 16,000-strong British army in 1842, the second resulted in the withdrawal of British forces in 1880, though the British retained nominal control over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This control lasted through to 1919, when after a third Anglo-Afghan war the British signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi, heralding the beginning of complete Afghan independence from Britain.
In terms of its development, Afghanistan remained untouched by the industrialisation that swept through the subcontinent at the time, as the British mercantile class set about the wholesale plunder and exploitation of India’s human and natural resources. By contrast, Afghanistan’s value to both the British and Russian Empires was solely strategic, which, along with a paucity of natural resources and rough, mountainous terrain difficult to traverse, combined to retard the country’s economic development. A primitive agrarian economy predominated in Afghanistan, supporting a feudal system of control that has continued in the countryside in one form or another right up to the present day, with self-styled warlords wielding power of life and death over those who live under their control.
That said, there was a point in Afghanistan’s tortured history when the future looked bright, when a determined effort to lift the country and its people out of backward agrarian feudalism almost succeeded.
It began with the formation of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) back in the sixties, which opposed the autocratic rule of King Zahir Shar. The growth in popularity of the PDPA eventually led to them taking control of the country in 1978, after a coup removed the former Kings’ cousin, Mohammed Daud, from power.
The coup enjoyed popular support in the towns and cities, evidenced in reports carried in US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, no friend of revolutionary movements, reported at the time that ‘150,000 persons marched to honour the new flagthe participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.’ The Washington Post reported that ‘Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned.’
Upon taking power, the new government introduced a program of reforms designed to abolish feudal power in the countryside, guarantee freedom of religion, along with equal rights for women and ethnic minorities. Thousands of prisoners under the old regime were set free and police files burned in a gesture designed to emphasise an end to repression. In the poorest parts of Afghanistan, where life expectancy was 35 years, where infant mortality was one in three, free medical care was provided. In addition, a mass literacy campaign was undertaken, desperately needed in a society in which ninety percent of the population could neither read nor write.
The resulting rate of progress was staggering. By the late 1980s half of all university students in Afghanistan were women, and women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants. In John Pilger’s ‘New Rulers Of The World’ (Verso, 2002), he relates the memory of the period through the eyes of an Afghan woman, Saira Noorani, a female surgeon who escaped the Taliban in 2001. She said: “Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go where we wanted and wear what we liked. We used to go to cafes and the cinema to see the latest Indian movies. I tall started to go wrong when the mujaheddin started winning. They used to kill teachers and burn schools. It was sad to think that these were the people the West had supported.”
Under the pretext that the Afghan government was a Soviet puppet, which was false, the then Carter Administration authorised the covert funding of opposition tribal groups, whose traditional feudal existence had come under attack with these reforms. An initial $500 million
was allocated, money used to arm and train the rebels in the art in secret camps set up specifically for the task across the border in Pakistan. This opposition came to be known as the mujaheddin, and so began a campaign of murder and terror which, six months later, resulted in the Afghan government in Kabul requesting the help of the Soviet Union, resulting in an ill-fated military intervention which ended ten years later in an ignominious retreat of Soviet military forces and the descent of Afghanistan into the abyss of religious intolerance, abject poverty, warlordism and violence that has plagued the country ever since.
It is a point worth emphasising, however. Contrary to the ‘official’ history of the period, the mujaheddin did not arise in response to a hostile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The truth is that the Soviet Union intervened at the request of the Afghan government in response to the instability being wrought by a US funded and armed insurgency.
To the question of why the US would arm, fund and train an insurgency comprising religious fanatics in Afghanistan, the answer is simple: namely for the same reason successive US administrations have armed, funded and trained insurgents and death squads in any part of the world where progressive, secular and left-leaning governments and movements have attempted to institute social and economic justice: to halt the spread of a good example.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, three years after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the US began a reach for global hegemony which continues to this day and which lies at the root of the occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the entire world knows by now that what Iraq has that the US needs and covets is huge, easily accessible deposits of oil. With regard to Afghanistan, just like the British and the Russians back in the 19th century, its strategic location provides the answer. The demise of the Soviet Union meant aht the huge deposits of crude oil located in the Caspian Basin were now up for grabs. What US energy corporations required was a pipeline to transport this crude to the nearest ‘friendly’ port from where it could be shipped out. Iran wasn’t an option, which left Afghanistan as the only viable alternative; the proposed pipeline to pass through and on into Pakistan to the port of Karachi, lying on the coast of the Arabia. In 1996 a high level Taliban delegation flew over to meet with Unocal executives at their headquarters in Houston, Texas, to discuss the laying of this pipeline through Afghanistan. The Governor of Texas at the time was none other than George W Bush. Despite ruling a country in which women were stoned to death for adultery, in which men were tortured and had their limbs amputated for misdemeanour crimes, in which music and television was banned, in which it was illegal for girls to attend school, these high-ranking representatives of the Taliban were given the red-carpet treatment put up in a five-star hotel and even accorded a VIP visit to Disneyworld in Florida. However, after they left it was felt that they could not be trusted and the plan for the pipeline was shelved.
With 9/11 came the opportunity the US Oilocracy was waiting for, their long-held desire for a pipeline through Afghanistan undoubtedly adding impetus to an invasion mounted to clear the country of former US allies like the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Four years on and Afghanistan’s onerous distinction as the largest producer of heroin in the world is all that has been achieved, with the remit of the beleagured and US-installed Kharzai government running no further than Kabul.
Ultimately, the swamp of hatred, obscurantism and religious fanaticism out of which Osama Bin laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban emerged in Afghanistan was a US creation. The US armed, funded and trained large numbers of men as a proxy army during the Cold War. The barbarity and savagery inflicted on the people of Afghanistan as a result was a price worth paying, just as the savagery and barbarity being inflicted on Iraq is a price worth paying.
The tragedy for Afghanistan, for its people, is that the future could have been oh so different.
JOHN WRIGHT lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He can be reached at: Jscotlive@aol.com