Seven Years in Afghanistan:From “War on Terror” to “War of Terror”

October 7, 2008. Seven years ago today the U.S. began the assault on Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban regime and produced the present mess. Abetted by U.S. bombing and commando operations, the Northern Alliance took Kabul on November 13, 2001. This was the initial U.S. response to 9-11, an assault on the U.S. by Saudi Islamist fanatics based in Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda attacks killed 3000 people. By March 2002 the U.S. bombing had produced that many Afghan civilian fatalities. This was just the beginning.

The invasion produced little change in the daily life of the average Afghan. Fanatical Sunni leaders who’d had a genuine social base and had been able to control 95 per cent of the country with minimal outside help were driven back to their villages. They were replaced by other fanatical Sunni leaders—those who had toppled the “leftist”
government in 1993, then been overthrown themselves by the Taliban in 1996. These Northern Alliance forces had been nurtured in the duration by India, Russia and Iran as their idea of the better bet among competing Islamist fundamentalists.

But in the seven years since, this collection of tribal-based warlords has been unable to stabilize Afghanistan—even though they’re propped up by tens of thousands of foreign troops who’re told that they’re there to fight terrorism and help create “democracy.”  Indeed, its hold on power becomes more tenuous every year, while a resurgent Taliban with no foreign government’s support exacts an ever heavier price
from the foreigners and their local allies.

According to the United Nations, 1,445 civilians were killed in the war from January through August this year—a rise of 39 per cent over 2007. At least 577 of these deaths were due to the actions of pro-government forces. Deaths from air strikes have tripled since 2006. “Mistakes by the US and Nato have dramatically decreased public support for the Afghan government and the presence of international forces providing security to Afghans,” declares Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Francesc Vendrell, a Spanish diplomat with eight years’ experience in Afghanistan, recently noted that civilian deaths at the hands of foreign forces have created “a great deal of antipathy” and the situation in the country is the worst it’s been since 2001. Members of the Afghan Parliament have staged a one-day walkout to protest the civilian casualties.

Puppet president Hamid Karzai has also protested the strikes and   their “collateral damage” in the last two years in fairly strong language. But hand-picked for his post by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in the Loya Jirga of June 2002, he is commonly known as the mere “mayor of Kabul.” Why should the U.S. pay any attention to his protests? His authority hardly extends beyond the city limits, and even Kabul has become insecure. Elsewhere warlords hold sway in virtually independent ethnic baronies, issuing their own laws and printing their own currency, filling their coffers with the proceeds of opium and human trafficking—activities the Taliban had effectively banned.
Opium poppy production had been effectively wiped out by 2001. Today Afghanistan supplies about 90 per cent of the world’s illegal opium. And then there are the sad continuities. The burqa, vilified before the attack as the symbol of Taliban misogyny, remains the normative female costume and leading political figures insist upon its use. Women are still imprisoned for refusing arranged marriages. The Supreme Court upholds death sentences for Christian converts. The Taliban stoned women to death for adultery and blasted away the buddhas of Bamiyan. It was undeniably awful. But it’s not at all clear that the current regime has made life better for most Afghans.
72 per cent (58 per cent of males, 87 per cent of females) were illiterate in 2000 and it’s doubtful the number has risen greatly as a result of the Taliban’s ouster. A 2005 report stated 50 per cent of males and 82 per cent of females remained illiterate, and the figures are higher in the rural areas. 80 per cent of the population are impoverished farmers, growing in order of  importance opium, wheat, fruits and nuts and grazing sheep. According to the online CIA  Factbook: “Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, agriculture, and trade with  neighboring countries. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. Criminality, insecurity, and the Afghan Government’s inability to extend rule of law to all parts of the country pose challenges to future economic growth. It will probably take the remainder of the decade and continuing donor aid and attention to significantly raise Afghanistan’s living standards from its current level, among the lowest in the world.” This does not sound like a liberated country.

The entire political class in the U.S., l Deocratic candidate Obama in the vanguard, , unites in proclaiming the war in Afghanistan the “good” war, the reasonable and appropriate response to 9-11. It’s seen as the foil to  the “strategic error” of Iraq. But how, at this point, is it connected to 9-11? The Taliban didn’t attack the United States. They sent envoys to talk to former State Department official, then UNOCAL executive Khalilzad about oil pipeline construction in the late 1990s. (Afghan-American neocon Khalilzad had actually editorialized in the Washington Post in favor of the Taliban!) While not recognized by the U.S. government, it received U.S. funds from Colin Powell’s State Department in 2001 to eradicate opium poppy production. The U.S. drove the Taliban from power to affirm the principle that it would not distinguish between terrorists and the regimes that harbor them. Maybe that sounded good at the time, macho and simple, but that mentality and policy has produced an expanding disaster.

The Taliban is Not the Same Thing as al-Qaeda
To review some history: the Taliban did not create al-Qaeda or invite it into Afghanistan. The U.S.-led effort to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s boosted young Osama bin Laden into prominence, as an anticommunist CIA ally. The U.S. establishment of bases in Saudi Arabia in 1990 turned him against the U.S. and Saudi regime, and ultimately resulted in his return to Afghanistan before the Taliban even took power. The Taliban allowed his presence, and the operation of his training camps, although it apparently sought to restrain his activities after 1998. It’s not at all clear that Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders were in on al-Qaeda’s 9-11 plans. (Wasn’t their principal international backer, aside from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia? And haven’t Riyadh and al-Qaeda been mortal enemies since 1990?) But they paid the price for not capitulating to Washington’s demand immediately after 9-11 that they turn over bin Laden to U.S. authorities. That would have meant turning their backs on the Pashtunwali honor code (requiring hospitality and protection of guests), the same honor code operative in North and South Waziristan (in Pakistan) which the U.S. administration either does not understand or provocatively exploits to create pretexts for widening war.
So in late 2001 the U.S. and allies overthrew the Taliban, a secondary goal, while botching the primary goal which was to annihilate al-Qaeda. The multinational, primarily Arab al-Qaeda forces were bombed and driven over the border into Pakistan. No one seems to have any idea about how many al-Qaeda members were in Afghanistan in late 2001. Bush administration references to “tens of thousands” have been questioned by intelligence specialists. We may be talking, in fact, about hundreds, some of whom, including bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, clearly got away and continue to lead a very flexible and loosely structured movement of militants inspired by, but only tenuously connected to, bin Laden’s isolated circle. That movement has bourgeoned globally as a result of U.S. actions that seem virtually calculated to incite Muslim outrage.

The War Spreads to Pakistan
Nowhere is this the case more than in Pakistan. The flight of al-Qaeda and Taliban members into Pakistan, and Washington’s blithe expectation that Pakistan could or would force the local people to fight them and cooperate in their suppression, has produced the predictable blowback. There is now a substantial Pakistani chapter of the
Taliban, while those in Pakistan most disposed to cooperate with Washington meet with the contempt of their own people who see the U.S. as a vicious anti-Muslim bully.

Pakistanis have long perceived the U.S. as Israel’s enabler, as the backer of dictators in power in Muslim countries, as the heartless force behind the decade of sanctions on Iraq. But now they see the U.S. as an aggressor on their own soil. Because it is!  According to the New York Times, the CIA “has for several years fired missiles at
militants inside Pakistan from remotely piloted Predator aircraft.” There were three such strikes in 2007, over a dozen so far this year. One in June killed 12 Pakistani soldiers. Recent orders from President Bush now also allow the military’s Special Operations forces to conduct “raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission.” So in addition to drone attacks the Pakistani border faces commando raids supported by gunships. Highlights of last month’s provocations of Pakistan:

Sept. 3: 40 U.S. Special Operations Forces including Navy SEALs swoop down on the village of Musa Nika in Angoor Ada in South Waziristan, killing 15-20. First known ground assault of U.S. troops in Pakistan.
Sept. 8: U.S. drones attack a madrassa in North Waziristan, killing at least 23. (The next day George W. Bush announces that Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan are “all theatres in the same overall struggle.”)
Sept. 12:  U.S. drone strikes a home and a former government school near North Waziristan town of Miramshah, killing at least 14 and injuring 12. (Waziristan tribal leaders meet the next day and declare if attacks continue “we will prepare an army to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan” in cooperation with Afghan tribal leaders. Ahsan Iqbal, a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, declares, “If [this] continues, then Pakistan can consider pulling out completely from this war on terror.”)
Sept. 15: U.S. helicopters land near village in Angoor Ada, returned toward Afghanistan after troops or tribesmen fired warning shots.

Sept.17: U.S. drone attack kills 7, injures 3 in South Waziristan. This occurs just hours after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits Pakistan to assure military leaders the U.S. would respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Sept. 21: Pakistani troops and tribesmen open fire on two U.S. helicopters flying into Pakistani airspace from Pakistan, force them to retreat.

Sept. 24: Wreckage of U.S. spy drone found in South Waziristan; anonymous Pakistani military officials say it was shot down by tribesmen.

Sept. 25: Pakistani forces fire on U.S. helicopters along Afghan-Pakistan border; U.S./NATO claims choppers were within Afghan airspace.

Sept. 27: Two U.S. jetfighters enter airspace over Angoor Adda, Baghar and Momin Tangi area of South Waziristan for about 25 minutes.

Sept. 30: Tribesmen fire on four drones over North Waziristan; missile fired from drone strikes house, killing four and wounding nine.

Add to these the Oct. 1 U.S. drone attacks house in North Waziristan, killing at least 6. And the Oct 4 drone missile attack on a house in Mohammad Khel, North Waziristan, killing 20, reputedly including “Arab militants,” women and children.

Pakistani civilian and military authorities have repeatedly expressed their indignation of these violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty. On Sept. 20, in his first speech to Parliament since becoming president, Asif Ali Zardari warned, “We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism.” Earlier, Army  chief  Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had declared the attacks would not be tolerated, and soon after the commando raid of Sept. 3 Islamabad cut supply lines to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar explained, “we have stopped the supply of oil and this will tell how serious we are.” Although the suspension was temporary, it indicates a mounting sense of impatience.

“Reckless actions,” observed Kayani, “only help the militants and further fuel the militancy in the area.” Rand Corporation analysts are saying the same thing: the counter-insurgency efforts are in fact stoking the insurgencies. U.S. officials claim the attacks are all part of a legitimate “War on Terror.” But former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif no doubt speaks for most Pakistanis in averring that “it is unacceptable that while [supposedly] giving peace to the world we make our own country into a killing

“The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country,” says Kayani, “will be defended at all cost and no external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan.” National Security Advisor Mahmud Ali Durrani said on Sept. 21, “The bottom line is that the message is loud and clear and the Americans know it.” On October 2 Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani went so far as to declare, “These [drone] attacks are a form of terrorism.”

Yet “senior U.S. officials” have told the New York Times that (unnamed) Pakistani officials have approved ground raids. Is this not the arrogance of the rapist who insists he had his victim’s permission?

On the other hand, one unnamed government official quoted by National Public Radio isn’t bothering to suggest the U.S. has permission. “Definitely, the gloves have come off,” he declared, “This [Sept. 3 attack] was only Phase 1 of three phases.” While Mullen assures Pakistan the U.S. respects Pakistan’s sovereignty, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells BBC the U.S. will take whatever action necessary to “protect our troops” and  a Senate panel hearing Sept. 29 that international laws allow the U.S. to take unilateral actions inside Pakistan. What are the Pakistani people to make of these mixed signals?

Army spokesmen General Athar Abbas told the Associated Press Sept. 16 that field commanders have been ordered to fire on any forces crossing the border with Afghanistan. That plainly includes U.S. forces. A council of 3000 tribesman in South Waziristan enraged by the recent attacks then vowed to join the Pakistan Army to “take up arms against the US.” “We will take the war to Afghanistan to confront the Americans,” they vowed.

Meanwhile some forces angered at the U.S. aggression targeted the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, possibly because CIA agents and Marines were known to stay there. The blast on Sept. 20 produced the highest death toll (at least 54 including two U.S. military personnel) of a terrorist attack in Pakistan since 2001.  Some analysts attribute it to al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, although a hitherto unknown organization, Fedayeen Islam, claimed responsibility.
“We’re Not Going to Win This War”

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, al-Qaeda is largely defeated. Syed Saleem Shahzad, writing in the Asia Times, estimates there were only about 75 Arab fighters in Afghanistan as of April (many more Uzbek jihadis, however), and recent U.S. intelligence reports allude to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan only in passing. They depict Iraq as the most active al-Qaeda theater, and even there, the so-called “al-Qaeda in Iraq” is a homegrown copy-cat operation likely lacking operational ties to any international headquarters. It is a creation of the U.S. invasion, and in any case, on the decline for months.

The Taliban has regained control of much of the Pashtun south, and gets ever more sophisticated in its guerrilla tactics against the U.S. and NATO forces. ISAF and U.S. deaths have risen from 130 in 2005 to 191 in 2006 to 232 last year. This year’s toll, already at 236, sets a new record. (More U.S. troops—134—have died than in any prior year in Afghanistan.)

This year Taliban fighters bombed Kabul’s only five-star hotel, killing six; opened fire on an Independence Day observance in Kandahar, killing three; attacked a prison in Kandahar, freeing 400 inmates; unsuccessfully attacked Camp Salerno, one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan; and killed or wounded 31 French special forces near Kabul. According to RAND analyst Seth Jones, “It is generally accepted now across all [U.S.] government agencies that the situation in Afghanistan has significantly worsened and has become quite dire.” Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress recently, “I’m not convinced we’re winning it in Afghanistan.” That’s despite an increase in U.S. troop strength from 21,000 in 2006 to 31,000 today.

In a recent New York Times interview, newly appointed CENTCOM commander Gen. David H. Petraeus stated, “Obviously the trends in Afghanistan have been in the wrong direction, and I think everyone is rightly concerned about them…Certainly in Afghanistan, wresting control of certain areas from the Taliban will be very difficult… In both [Afghanistan and Pakistan], in certain areas, the going may be tougher before it gets easier.”

British officials present an even bleaker picture. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, British ambassador to Afghanistan, reportedly told the duputy French ambassador to Kabul François Fitou last month, “The foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse without them . . . They are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from the crisis, which will probably be dramatic… In the short term we should dissuade the American presidential candidates from getting more bogged down in Afghanistan . . . The American strategy is doomed to fail.” These are observations by a top diplomat of the nation most deeply invested alongside the U.S. in the Afghan War. He proposes replacing Karzai with “an acceptable dictator.” The top British military commander in Afghanistan agrees; Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith stated last week, “We’re not going to win this war.”
A recently completed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan is apparently so grim its contents won’t be made public.

Hard to believe that on May 1, 2003 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld confidently declared that “major combat activity” had ended in Afghanistan. Mission accomplished, the Bush administration frenziedly prepared to invade and occupy Iraq.

“The People Support the Taliban”

The dirty little secret suppressed by the mainstream press is that the Taliban, like it or not, has considerable popular support. Afghan senatorAbdul Wali Ahmadzai, who was captured and held by the Taliban two months, now says, “The important point is that the people support the Taliban. This is the main problem: now the people do not like the government and they support the Taliban.” Support for Karzai has plummeted due to corruption (including accusations credited by the State Department that Karzai’s brother is involved in heroin smuggling) and his association with the foreigners who continue to bomb the country. Aware of resurgent Taliban support, Karzai has urged Mullah Omar to return to the country (from his presumed sojourn in Pakistan); invited the Taliban to join the government; and sought the aid of the Saudis, the Talibs’ former ally, aid in arranging negotiations.
Meanwhile public opinion in the nations contributing to the occupation of Afghanistan is now overwhelmingly against continued deployment. Majorities or pluralities in the U.K., Canada, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Australia, Poland, and Spain all want out. Maybe they don’t see fighting Afghan resistance fighters as a “war on terror” but something more prosaic and depressing: an unwinnable counterinsurgency effort like the Algerian or Vietnam wars. Washington’s reported bid to take over sole command of the Afghan war, cutting NATO out of the command structure, will likely fuel European and Canadian opposition.

This war in Afghanistan’s not about avenging the 9-11 attacks or preventing new ones. It’s about killing local fighters, who fight not to create some “Emirate” from Indonesia to Spain or establish a base of operations against America as George W. Bush (shamelessly fear-mongering and exploiting Islamophobia) would have you believe. They fight to rid Afghanistan of unwelcome foreigners from Christian-majority countries that always seem to be attacking faithful Muslims for no good reason. Countries where, they’re told by their mullahs, cartoonists mock the Prophet and the Holy Qur’an. They fight to avenge the civilian victims—the wedding party celebrants, the madrassa students—of bombing attacks. In August a U.S. air strike in Herat killed 90, mostly women and children.

The guerrillas’ numbers seem to grow even as the U.S. and NATO announce more and more impressive Taliban casualty figures. They are not all veterans of the Mujahadeen struggle against the pro-Soviet regime of the 1980s. Some are too young to recall it; the median age in Afghanistan is 18. The new Taliban is largely the creation of 2001 invasion and the bombing campaign ever since. But President Bush sees them as terrorists enraged by the blessings of occupation, such as improved health care, education and transportation (the same things the Soviets said they were bringing in the 1980s). “Killers,” Bush declares, “can’t stand this progress.”

Today as this war enters its seventh year, there are 53,000 foreign troops including 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, backing up what is supposed to be a democratically-elected regime and training its military forces. The Afghan National Army is 76,000-strong and well-equipped with billions of dollars’ worth of M-16s, Humvees, jeeps and mortars. It has NATO behind it. Why can it not defeat a guerrilla army dependent on the drug trade and international black market in weapons? Why are there plans to vastly expand the Army in the next few years? Why must U.S. officials predict a presence of the “International Security Assistance Force” (ISAF) until at least 2014?

Maybe the effort’s not succeeding because the foreign forces do not understand the first thing about the society they’ve invaded, including the natural inclination of the people to want them out of their country. Maybe it’s not succeeding because the Taliban, however unpopular their religious fanaticism, in key areas commands greater respect from the masses than those who’ve signed on to the U.S. payroll. Maybe it’s not succeeding because in Afghanistan (like Iraq) scared soldier-kids shoot up civilians in a country they see as enemy, alien territory, inhabited by people whose languages and culture they don’t understand. A people whose lives don’t seem as precious as western ones, in a country the foreign soldiers don’t want to and shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s not succeeding because the Afghan Army it’s trying to create consists of people with conflicting loyalties who meet with the contempt of family and friends because they work with the invaders.

What began as a “War on Terror” with waves of bombing attacks on Kandahar and Kabul October 7, 2001 has long since become a War of Terror, inflicted on the peoples of Southwest Asia, generating and strengthening resistance movements (“insurgencies”), enraging local allies and even alienating regimes of Washington’s own creation. The Canadians and Europeans have long since tired of it. So have the American people, despite the failure of the corporate media to expose the Big Lies that Cheney and Bush continue to promote in order to justify their Terror War.

Despite the popular war-weariness, both presidential candidates while praising the surge in Iraq unquestionably support the expanding war in Afghanistan. The attack on Afghanistan, used by the neocons as the bridge to an occupied Iraq, has committed the entire political class to an impossible project. Barack Obama talks tough about strikes in Pakistan to shore up the Afghan effort. Once the hope of a wing of the anti-war movement, the senator from Illinois has shown himself as much a spokesman for imperialism as McCain or any other mainstream politician.  Seven years down the road, there’s no end in sight. No hope except for the “fool’s hope” that public opinion in the imperialist countries, plus the inevitable resistance of the Afghans to foreign control, plus the military judgment that the war is not winnable will bring this “good war” to an end.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: