Afghanistan - Is Labour's hidden war turning into another quagmire?

Jul/Aug 2006

In the first week of July, following the death of five British soldiers in Afghanistan over the previous weeks, British army officials warned that many more casualties were to be expected. This was the first official admission that the reinforcements sent by the government to Afghanistan were to be involved in actual warfare and not in some kind of "peace-keeping" or "reconstruction" effort, as had been more or less the official line so far.

It should be recalled that after the deployment of an additional 1,950 British soldiers, at the end of last year, the government announced in January that another 3,300-strong contingent would be specifically allocated to the southern province of Helmand, as part of an expansion of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on the ground. Ministers stressed that, meanwhile, Britain would take over control of ISAF, in accordance with its rotating system of command.

At first, last January, the then Defence minister, John Reid, did not wear kid gloves in the Commons. Having thundered loudly that he "made no apology for sending more troops than originally planned, he added that although this was not a "counter-terrorism mission, it would help prevent Afghanistan from "falling back into the clutches of the Taleban. According to Reid, therefore, all the talk about "democracy" being built in Afghanistan, especially since the October 2004 presidential election and the installation of Hamid Karzai's western-backed regime, had been nothing but hot air! Wasn't Reid now explicitly admitting that there was a civil war going on, which was serious enough to threaten the west's puppet regime, therefore warranting the sending of more troops?

But this was not the line Blair wanted publicised, especially against the backdrop of the catastrophe which was developing in Iraq. Hence, presumably, the unusual comment made subsequently by, International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, explaining that "if people try to take on these forces, then they will respond. But they are not going there, as John said, to wage war. They are there to help support a process of reconstruction, to ensure there is security. Short of a public rebuttal, this was certainly the closest, that any government minister could get to correcting Reid's militaristic comments, while appearing to endorse them!

Since then, the government has gone out of its way to minimise the significance of this increased military commitment. Reid himself has had to water down his stance, adding a touch of anti-American demagogy to it, into the bargain. So, for instance, during a visit to British troops in Kandahar, last April, he spelt out at a press conference that "unlike US forces in other parts of Afghanistan, we are in the South to help and protect the Afghan people construct their own democracy." This was a rather strange statement, given that the main purpose of the latest British deployment is to take over from US troops which have been engaged in permanent warfare across the south of Afghanistan over the past two years, particularly in Helmand province!

At the same press conference Reid went on to say that "we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction. Protect the reconstruction? If it was not for the dire consequences of the military occupation for the Afghan population, such a statement would be laughable. Not only because the nominally huge amounts allocated by Western donor countries for reconstruction purposes have already been notoriously syphoned off by the Afghan strong men and their western mentors, for all sorts of purposes, mostly military and private, which have nothing to do with the needs of the Afghan population nor with the reconstruction of the country's destroyed infrastructure. But also because, while this Labour government has already announced that its military occupation of Helmand province will cost the Treasury at least £1bn - which is likely to be a wild underestimation, as is usually the case in such matters - it has only allocated the grand total of £87m for reconstruction. If there was any doubt on this issue, the comparison between these two figures shows where Labour's priorities are!

What the government does not say

However the precise purpose of the British military deployment has remained a well-guarded secret, at least in the official statements issued by ministers.

Fortunately, the US military are not so coy about their little (or big) secrets. In May, they announced with plenty of fanfare what they described as the largest ever ground offensive against "Taleban" forces. This so-called "Operation Mountain Thrust" was designed to uproot all insurgent forces from the south-eastern part of the country, by staging simultaneous attacks on their bases in the four provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan, thereby preventing them from slipping away to a neighbouring province.

By the end of May, Afghan security forces were boasting of having killed over 140 insurgents and having injured or arrested a similar number, while suffering only 8 casualties on their own side.

The second phase of this operation began on 15 June. According to US military spokesman Colonel Tom Collins, it will eventually involve over 11,000 troops, including 3,500 from the western-trained Afghan National Army, 2,300 US soldiers, 2,200 Canadians and - surprise, surprise! - 3,300 British soldiers.

So these are, after all, the real terms of engagement assigned to the latest British contingent sent to Helmand province: to hunt down any insurgents they can aim their guns at and, no doubt, a good number of civilians in the process.

The truth, that the government won't admit to - because it does not fit in with its "democracy building" fairy-tale - is quite simply that the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating rapidly over the past year. In January this year, the preamble of the latest Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan was already exposing this deterioration when it stated: "Four years after US forces ousted the Taleban from Kabul, Afghanistan faces an increasingly violent insurgency in southern and southeastern areas, while in the rest of the country regional military commanders - warlords - further entrench themselves by subverting the political process and controlling the country's drug trade." Since then, the deterioration has accelerated. In late June, US general Eikenberry explained to a House of Representatives committee how Taleban forces had reconstituted themselves: "We are seeing enemy forces now operate in formations of 40 to 50 fighters, they are demonstrating better command and control, and they are fighting hard (..) The enemy we face is not particularly strong, but the institutions of the Afghan state remain relatively weak. This situation is enabling the enemy to operate in the absence of government presence in some areas of the country"

In fact, the "some areas appears to be an understatement. In Helmand province, for instance, a report published around the same time by the European-based "Senlis Group", notes that "effectively, the central Afghan government has authority in just two Helmand towns (..) In the other district centres, district governors have only a few policemen to secure the district municipal offices" And, in fact, according to this same report, not only is the authority of the central administration confined to these two main towns (which are nevertheless the targets of regular terrorist attacks) but the northern part of the province is entirely controlled by the insurgents who operate there virtually openly, to the point of having put their own administrations in place. Much the same can be said of the other three provinces targeted by "Operation Mountain Thrust". The report adds that guerilla activity has also developed dramatically in Nangarhar province, which is only a few dozen miles from the capital, Kabul.

But south-eastern Afghanistan is not the only part of the country where insurgent forces have regrouped. Various reports have noted that the same process was taking place alongside the Iranian border, in areas where the Taleban never had much presence or influence so far. The insurgency has also spread to central Afghan provinces, such as Wardak, to the west of Kabul, where attacks against heavily-guarded convoys travelling along the Kabul-Herat main road are occurring daily. Meanwhile, in the north-eastern part of the country, entire areas have been taken over by guerilla forces formed by some of the old mujahedin factions of the 1980s, which were not invited into, or have refused to join, the political process. More to the north, alongside the border with Tajikistan, the German contingent occupying the area has also reported a 100% increase in guerilla activity over the past year.

Judging from these reports, therefore, insurgent forces seem to be able to operate freely in many areas and more or less in most of the country's provinces. From our vantage point, it is impossible to tell whether this renewed insurgency is a coalition led by the former Taleban, as US and British officials claim, or whether, as seems to be more likely, it is a collection of factions, each acting for its own territorial (or/and political) interests. But whichever is the case, their existence and continuing activity has reached a point where they may become a threat to the regime led by Hamid Karzai in Kabul, thereby compromising the plans of his imperialist minders.

The insurgency - a by-product of the occupation

In the rural areas and small towns, the insurgents have been resorting to the same terrorist methods against the population used in the past decades by other fundamentalist guerilla groups. Anyone working for the central administration and NGOs, whatever his or her job, is a legitimate target. So-called "night letters" - i.e. leaflets distributed under cover of the night, warning those collaborating with the "enemy" of drastic retribution - are frequent occurrences. Checkpoints are set up on roads, partly to control the movements of the population and raise "taxes" on its day-to-day activities, but mostly to demonstrate the guerilla's ability to police the population - i.e. provide the basis of a state machinery capable of maintaining law and order and putting down potential opponents. In short the major part of the insurgents' activity is devoted to harassing the population, in order to secure its loyalty (or at least its neutrality) and strengthen their grip on the territory they control.

Nevertheless, despite being at the receiving end of this constant harassment, the population seems to be offering a certain level of active support to the insurgents, judging from their growing numbers and the ease with which they manage to melt into the landscape. And this is hardly surprising given the corrupted and parasitic nature of Karzai's regime and the record of his western allies.

Indeed, for the poor farmers, there is not necessarily very much to choose between the "legal" looting of local resources orchestrated under the auspices of the central administration and the "illegal" taxes raised by the insurgents. On the contrary, while an underpaid police force is willing to turn a blind eye to the racketeering of numerous gangs in return for bribes, the insurgents make sure, at least, that they have no competitors in the area. The poor may not like their methods, but, compared to the official institutions, they may even appear as being "honest".

As to western forces, their methods are in no way different from those of the insurgents, except that their ability to cause casualties and damage is far higher. From the point of view of those carrying out the attack, there may be a difference between the suicide bombing of a military convoy and the aerial bombing of a village suspected of sheltering insurgents. But from the point of view of those who are at the receiving end of these attacks, the only difference is measured by the number of civilians killed and injured. And using such a measure, the terrorism of the western forces is probably far more lethal for the population than that of the insurgents.

Moreover, the "reconstruction" of public infrastructure which had been promised by the invaders has still to materialise after five years of occupation. Apart from the rebuilding of a handful of roads linking the country's main towns, for purely military reasons, nothing has been done in the areas which might improve the lives of poor farmers. No collective irrigation works has been undertaken, the promised water pumps were never delivered and, anyway, the energy needed to operate them is not available. Afghanistan remains among the poorest countries in the world - in 3rd or 5th position from the bottom, depending on the method of ranking - and its rural areas are poorer still.

The reasons for the discontent of the rural population are best illustrated by the poppy "eradication" campaign which is being carried out at present across the country by the occupation powers and their local agencies.

The hypocrisy of the west's "war on drugs"

By and large Afghan agricultural production is confined to subsistence farming, whereby farmers produce just enough (and sometimes, not enough) for the consumption of their family and immediate communities. The only cash crop available in most areas is the opium poppy, which is why large numbers of farmers grow poppies on a plot of land.

Of course, this production has been strongly encouraged by local warlords for whom the poppy trade and above all the trade of its derivatives, opium, morphine, heroin, etc., was highly profitable. Poppy production reached a new record high during the over two decades of civil war which preceded the Taleban's rule, when the opium business became the warlords' main source of income in order to buy weapons. In the last years of the Taleban regime, poppies were banned. But as soon as the regime fell, production resumed and has now again reached a record high - which, in and of itself, is testimony to the corruption and paralysis of the regime. Today, poppy production still represents, by very far, the largest single source of income for the country's economy.

No-one can question the lethal potential of opium or heroin. And Blair himself made full use of the public's emotive response to the drug issue, when, back in 2001, he had the nerve to justify the invasion of Afghanistan by alleging that "90% if not more of the heroin consumed in Britain came from Afghanistan - an assertion that many experts disputed. But for the western powers to claim the high moral ground on the drugs issue is all the more ironical given the past (and probably continuing) involvement of western state agencies in drug-trafficking, including in Afghanistan. After all, wasn't it the CIA itself which contributed to the development of poppy production in the country, in the 1980s, when it got its regional ally, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence, to help with the smuggling of drugs out of Afghanistan and of weapons into Afghanistan, for the benefit of the fundamentalist factions fighting Russian troops?

Needless to say, if western governments have embarked on this poppy "eradication" campaign today, it is not for the sake of the health and welfare of the world population, but for political and military reasons. Otherwise, would the western occupiers tolerate the fact that so many top officials of their puppet regime are notoriously linked to the drug trade? Controlling poppy production means in effect, controlling the main source of income that could provide a potential insurgency with the funds needed to buy weapons and equipment. It also means controlling who, among the population, is allowed the "privilege" of cultivating a plot of poppies. Rather than "eradicating" the opium trade, the western forces are really trying to "regulate" it, for their own strategic benefit.

Predictably, therefore, this "eradication" campaign, has been carried out without the slightest concern for the interests and livelihood of the poor farmers. The case of farmers in Nangarhar province, reported by the Senlis Council report quoted earlier, seems typical: "The majority of farmers who eradicated their poppy fields have said that the ensuing compensation was completely inadequate and unrealistic. Farmers were given unfamiliar seeds for crops that they had no knowledge of how to cultivate. Other seeds were for crop varieties incompatible with Afghanistan's climate, and which required inaccessible inputs, such as high phosphate fertilizers."Helmand province is traditionally one of the country's largest producer of poppies. But even before re-occupying it, British forces have already left a bitter track record. Back in 2002, British officials managed to convince a number of Helmand farmers to give up poppy production in return for an indemnity equivalent to about a third of the trade value of their harvest. However, no money was ever paid and four years later, the British government still owes these farmers around £13m - equivalent to 15% of the total "reconstruction" funding allocated by Blair for the province!

Since then, opium "eradication" in Helmand has been carried out by a combined force comprising around 1,000 Afghan army and police units with "embedded" US and British advisers, a 500-strong local militia and a contingent of "experts" provided by a US-based "private military company" called Dyncorp. But, says, the Senlis Council report: "There are widespread allegations that the poppy eradication process is corrupted at many levels and that wealthy individuals are being exempted from eradication. According to farmers, the eradication teams only eradicate fields where the farmers or owners could not pay a 'ransom' (..) There are strong indications that the farms belonging to powerful people are not being eradicated whilst the poor farmers' livelihoods are being destroyed. In other words, crop eradication plays into the hands of the local strong men. What can be expected from such a policy? By reducing poor farmers to even worse poverty, it can only push them either to seek the protection of local strong men, in order to be allowed the "privilege" to grow at least some poppies - which may well fit the designs of the occupation authority, but exposes the justification for this whole exercise - or else, to turn to the insurgents for support and revenge. So, in the rural areas at least, this "eradication" process is, just like the west's regular bombings, an effective recruiting sergeant for the insurgents.

The Kabul riots - the shape of things to come?

Guerrilla activity is confined, by its very nature, to rural areas. But Afghan towns have seen terrorist attacks virtually since the very beginning of the occupation. Initially, some of this terrorist activity reflected the rivalries between warlords, who were bidding for a more prominent role in the new regime. Some ministers were shot by the armed militias which supported other ministers, although this did not prevent the media from blaming these incidents on "remnants of the Taleban regime" or on Al-Qaeda!

Five years on, these rivalries seem more or less settled - although, for how long remains an open question. A large number of warlords have been already been co-opted into Karzai's state machinery, at every level, and they are now busy making as much as they can out of their positions. Others are still being co-opted, such as the new head of the Kabul police whose appointment by Karzai, in June, caused a scandal, because of his association with the kidnapping of three UN workers, in late 2004, not to mention all kinds of other criminal activities!

In any case, today, the terrorist attacks which are on-going in Kabul as well as in most of the main cities, are probably primarily due to insurgent groups fighting the occupation, which may or may not have links with the rural guerilla insurgency.

The existence of these armed groups feeds on the same kind of popular discontent as in the countryside - the shocking neglect and incompetence displayed by the occupation authorities and their puppet regime. Five years after the invasion, still only half of Kabul's population has access to drinking water. The same goes for electricity. And where there is electricity, it is intermittent. There are almost no jobs and those who manage to find one are paid such low wages that it is impossible to make a living. The collective infrastructure is virtually non-existent. The schools are so over-crowded that they have to operate a 3-shift system to cater for all school children. Even then, the existing buildings are not large enough and have to be supplemented with tents, despite the scorching weather.

Meanwhile, the armed gangs of the regime, under the uniforms of the new Afghan police and army, parade in the streets. Many of them were recruited from the ranks of the warlords' militias. They are brutal and arrogant towards ordinary people, but totally ineffective when it comes to preventing criminal activities. As to the westerners, military or not, they seem to live in a luxury which can only be felt as an insult by ordinary Afghans.

However, the discontent of the urban population expresses itself in other ways than by swelling the ranks of insurgent guerilla and terrorist groups. For instance, despite the built-in limitations of the western-sponsored "democracy", it was already apparent in the last general election, when the turnout in the capital dropped by nearly a third, down to just over 50%.

But on 29 May, this discontent suddenly exploded onto the streets of Kabul. The trigger was a road accident in which a US army truck collided with civilian vehicles on the outskirts of the capital, killing several passengers. Surrounded by angry bystanders, US soldiers shot their way through the crowd, killing a number of civilians, up to 30, according to some television reports.

This was the last straw. Groups of demonstrators gathered in various parts of the capital, swelling quickly into thousands. They went on to attack military and police checkpoints first, which were duly burnt down, and then governmental and NGO buildings, a TV station, and more or less anything related to the authorities and their western backers. During the riots themselves, which lasted the whole day, both the Afghan and foreign forces, remained invisible - which probably says something about the number and anger of the demonstrators. It was only the next day, once the dust had settled and every thing had gone back more or less to normal, that the police dared to stage a series of random punitive raids, arresting 140 youth, according to the figures released by the Interior ministry.

Karzai was quick to blame the riots on "provocateurs", immediately followed, although in more cautious terms, by a US army spokesman. But the size of the protest, the largest ever since 2001 in Kabul, makes this claim laughable.

However, these riots came as a reminder of the fact that large concentrations of urban and working class poor, such as exist in Kabul, could also represent a serious threat to the regime put in place by the west - and, in fact, much more of a threat than the armed guerilla groups, which may be a nuisance to the huge military machine of the west, but can be stamped out, or at least contained. Not so for the urban poor, who cannot be dispersed or isolated and whose numbers provide them with an almost unlimited capacity to resist, even against the most repressive regime.

Of course, such resistance would be ineffective if it did not have political objectives and parties to organise it. From Britain, it is not possible to know what political forces are present and active on the ground in Kabul. Many reports mentioned hand-written political slogans on makeshift banners during the Kabul riots, some of them clearly inspired by fundamentalist groups, others against the corruption of the regime and the western occupation. TV footage showed demonstrators carrying portraits of the deceased Massoud, a fundamentalist mojahedin leader from the 1980s, who was apparently murdered by a Taleban agent.

If the political scene is entirely dominated by fundamentalist forces which have nothing to offer to the population except another form of dictatorship, then the future is bleak for the Afghan poor. But there are large numbers of youth in this population and some of them may want to make the conscious choice of breaking, once and for all, from the past decades of civil war and warlordism, in order to build a future free of social exploitation and free of any kind of oppression, whether in the name of religion, or in the name of western-sponsored "democracy".

In the meantime, the western powers are confronted not only with increasing guerilla activity, which could develop into a generalised guerilla war against their forces, but also with a powder keg developing in large urban centres like Kabul, where the population has every reason to have had enough of the present state of affairs, and may feel that it has nothing to lose by taking on the western invaders and their puppets.

The western coalition only managed to put together a regime which, because it could not be democratic towards the population, had to be based on an alliance of interests between warlords. In and of itself, this means that the very basis on which this regime rests is fragile and that it will not survive long without the military machines of its western sponsors.

Beyond all the talk about the "war on terror", the "war on drugs" and other similar excuses for western public consumption, the only real objective of the imperialist powers in Afghanistan is to ensure that this country, which is at the interface between three politically volatile regions which are vital for imperialist profits - the Middle-East, South-East Asia and Central Asia - remains firmly under their control. To achieve this objective, the imperialist powers know only one method - armed repression against the population. But the more they resort to such methods, the more oil they pour on the flames they have created themselves. This is why Afghanistan looks increasingly like yet another quagmire produced by today's imperialist world order.

In any case, the British working class has every reason to oppose the great power game which is being played out against the Afghan population by Blair's government and its allies. As Marx used to say to British workers about the occupation of Ireland, "a population that oppresses another one cannot be free. The same applies to the oppression of the Afghan (or Iraqi, for that matter) population by the British army. The working class should have nothing to do with it!