Afghanistan - A bloody war in defence of a failed regime

Oct/Dec 2009

While the electoral process for the re-election of Afghan president Karzai has turned into farce - albeit a potentially dangerous one, due to the considerable amount of ballot-rigging involved - all the indicators coming lately from Afghanistan show that, contrary to past western optimism, the war is getting more bloody than ever.

Despite the "surge" of US troops which followed Obama's election, with 17,000 soldiers sent in April, and despite the deadly extension of the war into the Western Frontier Province of Pakistan - or, maybe, precisely because of all of this! - casualties among the occupation forces soared to their highest monthly level since 2001 in July and August (respectively 76 and 77). So much so that in all the main western countries involved in the military occupation, a majority of public opinion has now shifted against the war.

As to the number of Afghan casualties, for which no-one has ever kept any statistics, it is not hard to imagine that it must have increased too. The fact that one "incident" alone - NATOS's bombing of a few hijacked petrol tankers in Kunduz province, on September 4th - claimed 150 victims, speaks for itself!

Over the past months, this deterioration of the situation has been acknowledged by western military and civilian authorities, in a string of pessimistic assessments and contradictory statements.

On the American side, the newly appointed head of the US forces in Afghanistan, general Stanley McChrystal, declared to the Wall Street Journal, in August, that the insurgents were getting the upper hand and that 10,000 more troops would be needed to "secure" the southern province of Kandahar alone. In statements to the US Congress, the same McChrystal argued later that many more tens of thousands of troops (the figure of 40,000 was mentioned as a working hypothesis) would be required from the US and other NATO countries - just to buy enough time to build the Afghan army and police into working order and avoid a defeat for the regime, which would be damaging for the imperialist powers.

In Britain, major-general Nick Carter, who will take the command of NATO's forces in southern Afghanistan in October, declared to the BBC that "time is not on our side. In contrast to this euphemism, his colleague and newly-appointed head of the British army, general David Richards, caused a considerable stir by declaring that, in his view, the British army would have to remain in Afghanistan for the next 40 years!

Only Brown stood out among these gloomy commentators, first during his surprise visit to Helmand, at the end of August, by hailing the "progress" made, and then, two weeks later, by announcing plans to halve British troops in Afghanistan within 3 to 5 years. But then, the election campaign is on in Britain and Brown has every reason to try to leave Afghanistan out of it.

The Canadian and Italian governments also announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan within the next two years. However this was not due to an optimistic assessment of the Afghan situation, but rather in response to the hostile reaction of their respective public opinions following a sudden increase in casualties among their troops.

The on-going rise of the armed resistance

Today it is estimated that the so-called "Taliban" has an active presence in 80% of the country, up from 54% in 2007. This activity has recently spread to areas previously considered relatively "safe", partly due to the activities of the occupation forces.

For instance, the province of Kunduz had been, so far, one of the regular trading posts with the outside world, due to little armed activity and the proximity of the border with Tadjikistan - so much so that its capital played the role of financial centre that Kabul was unable to play for security reasons. However, this has changed over the past few months, since the US army started bringing more and more of its supplies by road via Russia and Tadjikistan, instead of using the increasingly unsafe routes from Pakistan. As a result, armed groups have begun to organise in Kunduz, specifically to target convoys of western supplies - whether for resistance purposes or for criminal reasons, or for a combination of both.

Another case is Helmand, as a result of the joint large-scale offensive carried out by British and US troops during this summer - the so-called operation "Panther's Claw". Being suddenly faced with a large concentration of nearly 20,000 western troops with heavy airborne equipment, an unknown number of local armed groups seem to have simply slipped out of Helmand into the neighbouring provinces. As a result, terrorist attacks have taken place in the so far relatively quiet capital of Nimruz province, which borders Helmand on the west, while a significant resurgence of armed activity was taking place in the eastern part of Kandahar province, on the other side of Helmand.

The armed groups opposing the occupation are usually described collectively as "Taliban" and portrayed as a homogeneous force, forming a more or less loose network of armed groups, which would somehow be co-ordinated by a relatively centralised command structure manned by former cadres of the defunct Taliban regime. For the western governments this is a convenient way of explaining away their failure to make any progress on the ground, by giving credit to the idea that they are confronted with an enemy which is well-organised on a national level. This is all the more convenient, because it allows western governments to claim, for the sake of public opinion, that this war is still the continuation of the punitive 2001 invasion against the Taliban regime, in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, and that it must carry on until the remnants of this regime are eradicated once and for all.

Except that this way of describing the anti-occupation groups is very far from reality. There are certainly cadres from the old Taliban machinery who remain active in the country, although many have already been absorbed by Karzai's regime, while most of the others seem to have chosen to live in exile, in Pakistan or in the Gulf countries. But the vast majority of the armed resistance is split into a galaxy of more or less rival groups, each with its own agenda, which are not particularly willing to accept any kind of collective discipline. And although Islam is the common religion of these groups, religion is not necessarily their main reason to exist and their version of Islam is not necessarily more reactionary than the version which is predominantly accepted among the rural population. Their atomisation does not mean, of course, that there is no co-operation ever between them. But it does mean that they do not form a homogeneous force which can be equated in any way to the former Taliban regime.

For a long time it was claimed that the need of these groups for funding required them to operate within a relatively centralised framework. This thesis was based on the assumption that their main source of funding was drug-trafficking, which would require their integration into an organisation extending beyond the limits of their respective fiefdoms. However, more and more evidence has been produced lately showing that this was not the case. So much so that, in June this year, Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke, has officially announced that the US would no longer support the opium eradication programme because, he said, it does not "reduce the amount of money the Taliban get by one dollar.

The evidence available shows that, in reality, each armed group raises its own funding, to some extent from various criminal sources of income, including ransom, but above all from the racketeering of Afghan contractors paid by foreign aid. So, while, according to Oxfam, 40% of all foreign aid to Afghanistan returns to the west in the form of salaries to western consultants and procurement from western companies, something like 25% goes straight into the pockets of the resistance in the form of protection money paid by contracting companies operating in Afghanistan - a vast source of income for the needs of armed groups using unsophisticated weapons, as is the case of most of the Afghan groups. And on this basis, local groups organised around one or a few villages, behind a local strong man, can supply themselves with weapons and everything they need for their armed operations.

However, some groups are organised on a larger scale, but they are not necessarily associated with the old Taliban. One of these is the Party of Islam, led by the old Islamic warlord Gulbbudin Hekmatyar, a former protégé of the Pakistani secret services during the Russian occupation, one of the leading warlords during the pre-Taliban era and a determined enemy of the Taliban after they came to power. Its fiefdom covers a large part of Kunar province, on the Pakistani border and stretches through Laghman province towards the suburbs of Kabul. Another such group is that of Jaluddin Haqqani, in the Khost and Paktia provinces, also on the Pakistani border, but south of Kabul. Haqqani shared exactly the same political career as Hekmatyar until the Taliban came to power. Then unlike Hekmatyar, he joined them and was appointed to various official posts. Just before the 2001 invasion, Haqqani went into exile in Pakistan, where he put together a militia of supporters and brought it back into his native Paktia province to fight the western occupation. In any case, both Hekmatyar and Haqqani are above all Pashtun nationalists and their objective is far more to promote their own political ambitions as Pashtun leaders, than a return to the Taliban regime.

Other armed groups have emerged simply because a local strong man had fallen out of favour with Karzai's regime. A journalist writing for the Wall Street Journal mentions, for instance, the case of Ghulam Yahya. A former commander in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, he was mayor of the northern town of Herat until 2006, when Karzai decided to replace him with one of his loyal supporters. Yahya went back to his ancestral district, where he organised a large and well-armed militia and declared UDI from Kabul. From then onwards, Yahya was described officially as a "Taliban". But while Yahya is undoubtedly a brutal warlord whose methods are not very different from that of others, the WSJ journalist who visited his district found that none of the social backwardness characteristic of the Taliban could be found there: girls' schools were open and none of the restrictions imposed on youth by the past Taliban regime applied.

If, indeed, the resistance groups are so fragmented and uncoordinated, why have the western forces failed to contain them? The only possible answer is that no matter how much the population may hate the armed gangs who tax them endlessly and brutalise them, they must hate even more the well-equipped western soldiers who treat them as "collateral damage" when their bombs destroy their houses due to a "lapse" in intelligence!

Karzai's ethnic warlords and reactionary bigots

It is against this deteriorating backdrop that the cynical charade of what the western powers no longer dare to call a "democratic" presidential election, took place, on August 20th, exposing once again the corruption and isolation of the puppet regime they have maintained in power ever since the early days of the invasion.

Already, this election should have taken place before the end of president Karzai's tenure, on May 21st. However, due to the lack of "security" - or to put it more accurately, due the fact that the regime only controls a small part of the country - it was decided to postpone the ballot by 3 months, till August 20th. Maybe this postponement also had a lot to do with Karzai's very low ratings in opinion polls, since he seems to have devoted considerable effort to winning new supporters during this 3-month respite.

Karzai probably thought that his standing among the country's largest ethnic minority - the Pashtuns, who represent 42% of the population - would not be enough this time to win the election, especially as this same minority is also the main base of support of the various groups which are fighting the occupation. In addition, out of his two main rivals, both former prominent members of his government, Ghani was a well-known Pashtun and Abdullah had support among both Pashtuns and Tadjiks (who represent just under 30% of the population).

In any case, in the run-up to the postponed elections, Karzai went out of his way to secure the support of ethnic warlords from non-Pashtun minorities.

Probably the most obscene episode in this horse-trading was Karzai's wooing of Shia fundamentalists from the Hazara minority (which represents 9% of the population and is the only ethnic group with a Shia tradition) - especially of the most prominent among them, Mohammad Mohaqiq and Karim Khalili.

In March this year, responding to Shia clerics' demands, Karzai signed a "Shia personal status law" applicable to Shia families only. This law was such a reactionary step backward, especially concerning the status of women, that it caused Afghan women to come out into the streets in protest. As a result, western governments had no option than to demand that the new law should be amended. At the end of July, well in time for the planned election, a "revised" version of this law was enacted. But the new version was hardly amended. It stripped Shia women of most of the rights they had under the Afghan constitution. It deprived them of any right over their children; it gave a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands; it forced a woman to get permission from her husband in order to be able to work; it even allowed a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying "blood money" to the family of his victim if she was injured as a result of the rape.

It was only after this law was duly enacted, that Mohaqiq declared his support for Karzai's candidacy, while Khalili joined his presidential ticket as one of his two vice-presidents. At the same time, their two parties were promised 5 portfolios once Karzai was re-elected.

For the other vice-presidency, Karzai chose another warlord , this time a Tadjik, with a long record as a ruthless militia commander - Mohamed Fahim. Fahim's claim to fame was, among other things, to have been the head of the security service of the pro-Moscow regime during the Russian occupation, before joining the anti-Russian guerilla army just in time to participate with them in the occupation of Kabul. Subsequently, he occupied the same position, first under the post-Soviet regime and then within the Northern Alliance, the coalition of mostly non-Pashtun militias which fought the Taliban regime in the north-east of the country. After a spell as Defence minister under Karzai, he was discharged in 2004, partly due to his refusal to disband his militia, but probably mainly because of his personal prestige among the emerging army. Nevertheless he was given the honorific title of marshall for life and remained outside of mainstream politics in his northern fiefdom, while his men were regularly accused of all sorts of trafficking, racketeering and smuggling.

The last, and probably most outstanding of the associates chosen by Karzai in this election, is Rachid Dostum, an Uzbeck warlord, who made a specialty of changing sides at the "right" time: first, as a general of the pro-Russian regime, then by switching sides to join the anti-Russian guerillas; and then, as a strong man in the post-Russian regime, by joining ranks with the Taliban against his previous allies; and finally by turning his coat again, against the Taliban and joining the Northern Alliance. In all these periods of his existence, Dostum managed to build a reputation for gratuitous cruelty. So much so that, after a spell as Karzai's army chief of staff, he became the only warlord to be threatened with prosecution as a war criminal. But all that has been finally forgotten. Early in August, Karzai allowed Dostum to return from his exile in Turkey without risking arrest. In return, Dostum has become a "convinced" campaigner for Karzai among his own Uzbek constituency.

In addition to this list of non-Pashtun warlords, it should be said that the most prominent among Karzai's existing associates are not all that different. His own brother used his official position at the head of the Kandahar provincial assembly to build himself a fiefdom which is frequently exposed as connected to drug-trafficking. His minister of Energy, Ismael Khan, is a well-known Tadjik warlord whose own fiefdom is centered around the western town of Herat and who was only co-opted into government to avoid a possible rebellion in this area. Besides, many of the governors appointed by Karzai in the country's Pashtun-dominated provinces, are just local warlords whose loyalty could be bought without Karzai taking too much risk.

Did these unsavoury characters have such a popular appeal that they could actually produce votes for Karzai? Certainly not. But they control armed men, whether legal or illegal, allowing them to ensure that ballot boxes were filled with the "right" ballot papers, regardless of voters' choices. Besides, in case of a backlash caused by too much ballot-rigging, these warlords could be an insurance policy against the risk of an ethnic coalition of the non-Pashtun minorities against Karzai.

The regime's corruption backfires

It was therefore entirely predictable that the August 20th election should be even less "democratic" than the first election won by Karzai, in 2004 - in so far as the word "democratic" makes any sense at all, in the context of a war in which the population is caught in the cross-fire between the western forces and the guerilla groups fighting the occupation.

Even before the election took place, the registration process, which indicated 17 million potential voters out of a population of about 30 million, was marked by some extraordinary results. For instance, in Kandahar province, the fiefdom of Karzai's brother, the 1,080,000 registered voters hardly tallied with the estimated whole population of 1,057,500 (including children) produced by the Central Statistics Office for 2008-9. Likewise, in the most conservative southern and eastern provinces, a curious phenomenon was observed - there were more women than men among the registered voters, whereas everywhere else there was more or less twice as many men as women!

On election day, 75 attacks were officially recorded in 15 provinces (out of 34), resulting in 50 civilian deaths. Turnout collapsed from 70% in 2004 (probably a gross overestimation at the time) to around 30%. In Helmand province, estimates varied between 5 and 10%. So much for the British army succeeding in "winning heart and minds" in its own stronghold!

But even this abysmal turnout concealed a much worse reality. As reports began to arrive from Afghanistan, more and more evidence of fake voting began to accumulate. In Helmand, even the provincial governor expressed his surprise on TV at what he described as a "high turnout" - considering the circumstances, of course. His surprise was due to the fact that many of the polling stations had simply been closed down after coming under rocket or mortar attack. How the ballot papers had reached the ballot boxes was a mystery. But it was not just in Helmand that such mysteries arose.

In Kandahar province, for instance, a New York Times journalist reported that, in one district, all the polling stations had been closed during the whole day by henchmen sent by Karzai's brother. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, 23,900 ballot papers were sent from that district to Kabul, all in Karzai's favour. Another New York Times journalist reported similar occurrences in several districts around Kabul, where the local MP was said to have organised the stuffing of ballot boxes with pro-Karzai ballot papers. In one polling station, for instance,12 ballot boxes were already filled just one hour after opening time, with a claimed total of voters of over 5,500. A week later, a re-examination of the voting record showed that only 600 people had actually voted. Even then, after a recount, the result still showed 996 votes for Karzai and 5 for two other candidates!

According to the Election Commission timetable, the results of this election - and that of the elections to the provincial assemblies which were held at the same time - were supposed to be finalised at the latest on September 17th. But at the time of going to press, they are still far from ready for publication. The problem is simply that the complaints of vote-rigging concern no less than 10% (around 2,500) of all polling stations. The Election Complaints Commission considers that, out of these, the 691 most serious cases could potentially deprive Karzai of the absolute majority he needs to be elected without a second round. Although Karzai claims to have won 54% of the votes against Abdullah's 28%, this result is widely contested, not just by Karzai's rivals but also by western representatives. Thus the head of the EU monitoring commission declared in his public report on the election that 1.1m of the 3m votes cast by Karzai were "suspect".

Imperialism is fanning the flames

No wonder all the reports available show the deep disgust of the population for a regime which only exists thanks to the foreign troops, and whose corruption and parasitism are increasingly intolerable.

Nevertheless, the western governments have obviously been wrong-footed by these developments. They certainly knew that Karzai's regime was corrupt to the core: not only did this corruption not bother them, but they actually fed it, in all sorts of ways. However, it is one thing to know about this corruption, but it is quite another to be confronted with a population whose anger threatens to erupt because of it. As a result, the occupation authorities have given conflicting signals. Some official US advisors who were in favour of endorsing Karzai's election fell out publicly with others who were against it - and this was duly reported by the media. Some diplomats suggested that a solution might be for Karzai to invite his two main rivals, Abdullah and Ghani to form a coalition government. Except that, by that time, Abdullah, who probably smelled blood, was so busy fanning the flames of discontent against Karzai and his regime - that Karzai turned the suggestion down and threatened to dismiss the Election Complaints Commission.

At the time of writing, the Election Commission is said to be preparing to organise a second round between Karzai and Abdullah for the 3rd week of October, regardless of the actual results. By the same token, this could be a convenient pretext to stop any further investigation by the Election Complaints Commission and prevent Karzai's large-scale vote-rigging from being further exposed. Whether this will satisfy the many discontented remains to be seen, though.

While a second round may be the only remaining option for them, it is exactly what the western powers (and probably Karzai himself) wanted to avoid. The danger is obviously that it could provide a focus for the general discontent against the regime to express itself, regardless of what Abdullah actually represents - which is certainly not better than Karzai. And to counter such a challenge, the strategy that Karzai is most likely to use is to call for an ethnic vote, hoping that this will prompt the Pashtun elders, strong men and warlords to mobilise their resources to support him. But in Afghanistan's ethnic powderkeg, this is risking an explosion within the already explosive situation created by the war. If the corruption of the western puppet regime finally backfires, increasing the flow of recruits to the anti-occupation forces, the responsibility will lie entirely with the western governments who decided on the invasion in the first place.

As to the Afghan population, the only option on offer for those who want to fight the catastrophic situation created by the war and the corrupted regime which presides over it, is to join Islamic forces which are pursuing their own reactionary agenda - forces which, in fact, are just as much deadly enemies for the population as the imperialist powers which occupy the country. There again, the responsibility for this situation rests entirely on the policy of the imperialist powers in this part of the world, over the past four decades. And this is why all imperialist forces should leave now, before they cause even more damage in a country which has already suffered far too much.