Afghanistan - a bloody search for an elusive political settlement

Jan/Mar 2011

As it enters its 10th year, there seems to be no end in sight for the war in Afghanistan. Yet, just a few months ago, Obama was still claiming that US troops would start pulling out in July 2011 and it was taken for granted that the British government would follow his lead. Hadn't Liam Fox, the coalition's Defence Secretary gone on record, shortly after the last general election, to promise that he was determined to pull the troops out "sooner rather than later"?

However, last November, on the eve of the Lisbon NATO summit the official position had already switched to a much vaguer timetable. While US vice-president Joe Biden was still claiming that US troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014 "come hell or high water", the most senior British generals were rather more sceptical. And, in fact, while the 2014 "withdrawal deadline" was confirmed in Lisbon, not only did the summit make this deadline conditional on circumstances improving, but it also added that, in any event, "some" western troops were "likely" to remain in Afghanistan after this date, in a "training capacity" with the Afghan army, but also to provide "combat support", if and when necessary. Obviously, Obama and his junior partners in crime did not have a clue, let alone a plan, as to how, or when, they would be able to extricate themselves from the Afghan deadlock.

Not that the imperialist powers engaged in this war wouldn't prefer an end to it, for both political and economic reasons. Public opinion does not favour this war which is taking an increasing toll among the occupying troops, without any obvious justification. The cost of funding not only the war effort itself is escalating, but also the cost of the Afghan army and policeand the puppet institutions that have been put in place in order to shore up the occupation.

However, given Afghanistan's strategic position, just walking away from the war is not an option for the imperialist leaders, at least not without putting at risk their stranglehold over the whole region, nor, more generally, without undermining the fear that their military might inspire among the population of the poor countries. If they can help it at all, they will only walk away as a result of some sort of political settlement which is favourable enough to allow them to save face despite their military failure and to consolidate their grip over this part of the world. The question for them is whether, where and how, they can reach such a political settlement and, in particular, with which "partners".

The quick sands of the war

In the meantime, the war can only drag on while occupation forces slide deeper into what has been, for years already, a bloody quagmire. Each one of the recent years has illustrated this fact with an increased acuteness. 2010 was no exception.

Total NATO casualties during last year increased by 36% to 711. Other statistics released by the UN and the Pentagon, which cannot be suspected of overestimating the extent of the occupation forces' failure, speak for themselves. UN figures which cover the 10 months up to October last year, show that the typical number of insurgent attacks per month during that period was over 1,000 - often twice as many as in the same month in 2009 - while a Pentagon study admits to a 70% increase of "combat incidents" since 2009 and a 300% increase since 2007. As to civilian casualties of the war, for which there is no real attempt at keeping a reliable count, a UN estimate puts the figure at 6,000 for the first 10 months of 2010 - a 20% increase over comparable estimates in 2009 - with both figures likely to be huge underestimates.

Figures released at the same time by the Red Cross also show a comparable 21% increase in the number of injured civilians undergoing serious surgery during 2009, and a parallel rise in the number of internally displaced Afghans fleeing combat areas, with 400,000 refugees depending on the Red Cross for water supplies over the past year. And, since the Red Cross is far from being the largest or main provider of such humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, this probably provides no more than a glimpse of the reality of the refugee problem across Afghanistan.

The intensification of the war and the aggravation of its devastation reflect the deterioration of the situation on the ground for the occupation forces and the impact of their botched attempts at reversing this state of affairs.

The UN reckons that all but one of the 34 Afghan provinces have districts through which it is dangerous to travel due to insurgent activity. Those districts account for over 30% of the country's area, inhabited by over half the country's population. The UN has issued maps every six months, which the New York Times put into an interactive internet archive, showing the areas of the country where Afghan government forces and so-called non-governmental organisations could not move except with great risk. Those areas have been steadily enlarging since 2003, meaning the insurgents have been just as steadily enlarging their operational areas.

By January 2010, these areas included the largest part of the Southern and Eastern provinces - with the exception of small enclaves around a few cities. The UN has held back from releasing the most recent security maps from the summer of 2010, but, according to the New York Times, "those who have seen the maps say that the high and extreme risk areas have spread to the Northern provinces", which had been relatively free of high-profile insurgent activities so far.

Even Kabul, by far the most heavily-protected city in Afghanistan, is the target of on-going insurgent attacks, including some involving important logistical resources based in the capital itself, relying on intelligence originating from the highest spheres of the Afghan state machinery. For instance, on 11 January, in the most "secure" district of Kabul, a suicide attack targeted an anonymous mini-bus which "happened" to be carrying high-ranking officials from the Afghan National Directorate of Security, killing 4 of them. And this was the 3rd such attack in Kabul since the beginning of the month. In fact security in and around Kabul is so patchy that when, on 3rd December, Obama landed at the Bagram US military base, which is only a short car drive away from Kabul, army authorities decided that for security reasons he should stay in Bagram: they considered it too risky for him to be transported to the capital in order to meet the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, whether by armoured car or by helicopter!

Heavy-handed tactics fail and backfire

In order to regain ground, US occupation authorities chose to try to make a demonstration of strength in areas which had been considered for a long time as no man's land by occupation forces.

Operation Moshtarak, which began in February 2010, was described as the "largest military operation ever launched since 2001". It involved 15,000 troops - 6O% Afghan and 4O% American and British, with the Afghan army supposedly taking the lead. In US Command's official press releases, the operation was described as being aimed at the "city of Marjah, which has been for far too long an operational base for Taliban forces." Apparently, the US officers in charge of briefing the media must have been pretty ignorant of the Afghan scene. Otherwise, they would have known that Marjah was actually just a small village in the eastern part of British-occupied Helmand province, without electricity, running water or paved roads, which was surrounded by a district bearing the same name, with no more than 85,000 inhabitants, all told, living in mud compounds scattered over 125 square miles. But then, the US army top-guns probably felt that announcing a plan to bomb hundreds of impoverished farmers into the ground would not have sounded very dignified on the part of the world's most powerful army!

Come what may, Operation Moshtarak did, at first, what it was meant to do. Numerous farmers' compounds and villages in the Marjah district were bombed into the ground, before being swamped by a heavily armed force, of around 1 soldier for every 3 local people. Predictably, the insurgent groups were not crazy enough to risk being caught in a direct confrontation. Following a pattern, which had been the rule in every single high-profile operation conducted by the occupation forces since 2001, these groups merely slipped out into neighbouring districts, which immediately registered an increase in insurgent activity.

In the end, apart from alienating a large section of the local population and probably providing the insurgents with quite a few new local supporters, this operation had little to show for itself in terms of results. Initially, insurgents remained cautiously at a distance. But it did not take long before they resumed their activities, at first by using the usual "improvised explosive devices" against army vehicles and then, within a few months, by forming small, very mobile, guerilla units, to ambush occupation forces. By September, British troops were reported to be making "slower progress than anticipated in Helmand province", to use the euphemism of the occupation high-command. This was blamed on the emergence of insurgent activity in districts which had been considered "safe" so far. And although, obviously, the army top brass stopped short of saying more, there is good reason to suspect that this new insurgent activity was a knock-on effect of Operation Moshtarak!

The next step after Operation Moshtarak was meant to target another, more substantial, power base of the insurgent groups - the district surrounding the city of Kandahar, which had been a stronghold of the Taliban, in the 1990s. Operation Hamkari, as it was called, should have been launched in Spring 2010, but was postponed to July, before being really launched in mid-September. These delays had probably something to do with the fact that, this time, the occupation forces had to deal with a real "city", the second largest in the country, in fact, with an estimated population of 800,000. Resorting to air strikes in order to terrorise the population and force the insurgents to come out in the open, was not an option there - as the resulting bloodbath was bound to cause outrage both in Afghanistan and among the public opinion of the rich countries. Nor was it possible to saturate the city with soldiers, at least not without depriving large areas of Afghanistan of any substantial military presence.

When the operation was finally launched, it involved 30,000 troops, including a substantial contingent of British troops transferred from the "death-trap" of Sangin district, in Helmand province, after responsibility for it had been taken over by US troops. While the British government remained tight-lipped about the exact nature of British troop involvement, the US commanding officer in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, was less discreet, according to the Guardian, "he praised... British and US special forces... (for) capturing or killing four to six targets a day in an unprecedented intelligence-driven campaign." What Petraeus failed to say, however, was that this Operation Hamkari consisted in night raids, in which heavily-armed platoons broke into "targeted" houses while occupants were asleep, arrested all adult men and took them away to interrogation centres.

However, it became clear very early on that these raids failed to paralyse the insurgents' activity. Thus, during week 4 of the Operation, a series of bomb attacks hit the Afghan police in Kandahar city, leaving 13 dead and at least 30 injured, while two high-ranking officials of the regime, including the deputy mayor of Kandahar, were gunned down. What is more, all these attacks took place in broad daylight, despite a heavy military presence across Kandahar city. By mid-November, two months into the Operation, official figures showed that terrorist activities in the province had significantly increased compared to the period preceding the Operation: the number of assassinations carried out by insurgents had doubled and the number of victims of bomb and gun attacks had tripled! The whole thing was turning into a disaster.

In the meantime, the night raid technique used in Kandahar had become the preferred method used by occupation forces to fight the insurgents. According to Petraeus, who was the main mover behind this tactic, it was intended to disorganise insurgents by forcing them to remain constantly on the run. By late December, NATO released figures showing that 1,700 such raids had been carried out over the three months up to mid-December. While claiming that 80% of these raids had been carried out without a shot being fired, NATO boasted of the fact that 380 "insurgent leaders" had been killed or captured during these raids, 950 "lower-level fighters" had been killed and more than 2,400 captured.

However, at the same time as these figures were released, the NATO high-command felt it necessary to revise its instructions, ordering its troops to show more "care" in conducting these raids, while providing local communities with "necessary explanations". The fact was that these raids were generating a lot of anger among the sections of population affected by them. Human rights observers reported that in many cases the wrong people got arrested. One of them, quoted in a Financial Times report, noted: "Outrage over this practice is so high that it only takes one raid in a district to undermine all the other progress made in building goodwill, encouraging the rule of law, or stability."

Petraeus' "clever" tactic was therefore backfiring, like all those used in the past, by enlarging the insurgents' pool of supporters and potential recruits, without even beginning to reduce their fighting power.

Karzai's rotten branch

A major factor in insurgent resilience and the support they have in the population is, also, the widespread hatred and contempt for Hamid Karzai's regime - an artificial creation of the invasion which only survives thanks to the protection of the occupation forces.

Last July, one of Petraeus' advisers, David Kilcullen, summarised the western powers' problem with Karzai to Los Angeles Times reporter: "The absolutely critical thing we haven't done very well is come up with a political strategy to take an illegitimate government and turn it into a legitimate one." This could be described as the understatement of the year!

Submitted to a popular vote in 2004 and again in 2009, Karzai retained his presidential position. However, the fact that he was elected on both occasions had less to do with his popularity than to rampant fraud.

As to the Afghan parliament, which is supposed to hold Karzai and his government to account, it has in fact very little power. But even that little power is further reduced by the combination of widespread vote-rigging and government interference in the vote. In the most recent parliamentary elections, held on 18 September, 20 of the 25 parties that attempted to register were disallowed because the Afghan Ministry of Justice "didn't get to" their paperwork in time. The "independent election commission" (how "independent" and from whom, is anybody's guess!) disqualified about one candidate in ten before the vote, under various pretexts. Then it discarded almost one-quarter of the ballot papers as fraudulent before disqualifying another 10% of the elected candidates.

The result of this manipulation of the vote is that, as a whole, the newly elected Parliament can only appear as totally unrepresentative of the electorate. In particular, Pashtun deputies would make up only a small minority in the new Parliament, whereas 42% of the population belong to this ethnic group. In fact, in at least three Pashtun-dominated provinces, the elected Pashtun deputies are in a minority, largely due to the exclusion of Pashtun parties and candidates by the electoral commission. Fearing that the make-up of the new Parliament might expose its illegitimacy, Karzai has postponed its first sitting indefinitely - which, at the time of writing, 3 months after the election, has still to take place.

Far more even than its dubious electoral practices, it is the corruption of Karzai's regime which alienates the Afghan population. As the Washington Post put it, it is based on "crony capitalism that enriches politically connected insiders and dismays the Afghan populace." That, too, was produced by the occupation, by the flood of money sent into Kabul to bring in the military, build its bases, set up Karzai's government, keep it afloat, buy support for it and, allegedly, "rebuild the country".

In October of this year, when the US press tried to manufacture a scandal about the disclosure that $2m had been paid to Karzai's government over the previous year by Iran, Karzai petulantly explained that it had been used to pay for "presidential expenses" and he added that that US officials "do give us bags of money. Yes, yes, they do. Bags of it!"

Yes, bags and bags of US dollars, which - as one Congressional committee after another complains - have not been accounted for!

But then, this is only par for the course in a war which is dominated by corruption from top to bottom, with a steady flow of funds from the occupation forces to the Afghan army or to private security contractors, and from them on to the insurgents as protection money for allowing western supplies through. As a US intelligence officer recently said to an online newspaper: "It's the perfect war, everybody makes money."

The well-guarded areas in Kabul inhabited by government officials, their brothers, sons, cousins, brothers-in-law, etc., are opulent - as is "embassy row" and the government centre. Businesses, established with US money pouring into Afghan government coffers, are little more than conduits for diverting millions into personal accounts outside the country. Relatives close to Karzai and other figures in his government have drained the resources of the Kabul Bank and of the Afghan government to build multi-million dollar villas for themselves in Dubai - apparently preparing for a quick escape. The Kabul Bank is largely owned by Mahmoud Karzai, who used to run a restaurant in the USA and is also one of the president's brothers, and by Mohammad Haseen, brother of the first vice-president. Last year, the bank was effectively bankrupted by a steady flow of "loans" to the inner circle of the Karzai government - loans that no one expected to be paid back.

Beyond Kabul, Karzai's extended family and clan members have developed a web of more or less legal, or even totally illegal, but extremely profitable business operations, which all hinge on political appointments. Another of Karzai's brothers, Ahmad Wali, is probably the most striking example of this. A former restaurant owner in Chicago, he has managed to build a fiefdom of his own in Kandahar, where he has become the province's council leader as well as its undisputed strong man. In addition to having made a fortune in real estate at the expense of government-owned land, he was repeatedly accused of involvement in the drug trade and only avoided conviction thanks to president Karzai's personal intervention.

At a different level, the population is confronted with the corruption of the regime in the form of daily demands for bribes by every petty official. According to a UN report on corruption, "it is almost impossible to obtain a public service in Afghanistan without greasing a palm." The study found that one Afghan in two had been paying a bribe to a public official in the previous 12 months, at least once but usually multiple times. The average amount of a bribe - discounting the very large ones - was found to be $158, in a country whose GDP is $425 per head!

Short of being able to produce a presentable regime in Kabul, the imperialist powers boast of the progress they have made in building up the new Afghan police and army, claiming that, by 2014, these forces will be capable of keeping the country together and preventing it from sliding into chaos.

Western officials themselves have to admit that only 12% of the 150,000-strong Afghan National Army units are capable of operating autonomously - i.e. without the physical involvement of occupation troops and the NATO officers - and this is probably an optimistic assessment. Nevertheless, it is on this army, whose numbers will be more than doubled over the next 4 years, that western powers rely to take over responsibility in maintaining the stability of the country.

There are, however, a number of very big problems with these plans, which have a lot to do with the origins of this army, formed out of various components of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. As the backbone of this alliance was formed by Tadjik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic militias, the original officer corps of the Afghan army was dominated by these ethnic groups. And given the chronic cronyism which prevails in the army, as in the rest of the regime's institutions, this ethnic domination remains overwhelming, while most Pashtun recruits have been kept in low-ranking positions.

Likewise, as the main source of funding of the Northern Alliance militias during the years of the civil war against the Taliban regime was drug trading, this "business" has been carried over into the Afghan army when it was formed. And it seems that the efforts of the army's US and British mentors at eradicating these practices have been totally unsuccessful.

The result of all this is an army which is weakened by ethnic factionalism, whose officers are often more concerned with their illegal "businesses" than with their military duties and whose soldiers have a very confused idea of what military discipline really means.

But compared to the Afghan police, for whose training the British government boasts of being responsible, even the Afghan army would look like a model of discipline and professionalism. Unlike the army, whose core was initially formed by trained fighters placed under the authority of their former militia chiefs, the police was mostly formed from men off the street, without any checks being carried out on the recruits. For a long time, as a result, insurgent groups had a policy of sending members to join the police until such a time when it became possible for them to run away with a large enough cache of weapons and ammunition.

When access to weapons was eventually subjected to much stricter controls, the insurgents changed tack and went on to target isolated police stations in order to grab their weapons. Meanwhile terrorist attacks against police recruiting centres became systematic, thereby deterring many potential recruits. The only recruits who were not deterred were petty criminals, for whom joining the police was a way of expanding their criminal activities thanks to the authority, impunity and social status attached to a police uniform.

Criminal activities can achieve a considerable scale. An article published recently in the US journal Foreign Affairs, which was co-authored by none other than general David Richards, the British Chief of Defence Staff, gives an instructive example of the scale: "the border town of Spin Boldak, located south of Kandahar, serves as the gateway to and from northern Pakistan. It is controlled by its own generalissimo, Abdul Razziq. The thirty-something de facto commander of the 3,500-strong border police is said to earn an estimated $5 million-$6 million per month from his various border businesses." This, added to very low pay, has resulted in today's 100,000-strong police being better known for their systematic racketeering of the population than for their role in protecting Afghan citizens.

It should be added to this description of the dire state of the army and police that, whether through "business" connections or through the channel of family or tribal ties, the insurgent groups have managed to develop a web of close links at every level of these organisations. This accounts for the fact that the loyalties of the average police or soldier vary considerably depending on which enemy he is supposed to fight. But since the sentences for disloyal behaviour in front of the enemy are very heavy, the result is a very high rate of desertions in both organisations. Thus, in 2010, the rate of desertion is said to have been "only" 10% in the army (but this figure does not even take into account absences for as much as 6 months, which are not counted as AWOL) and 20% in the police!

Whatever the US and British authorities may claim, therefore, they cannot seriously believe in their plans to hand over the responsibility of guaranteeing the stability of Afghanistan to its police and army, at least in the foreseeable future - not any more than they can believe in the capacity of Karzai's regime to preside over this stability.

A political settlement, but with whom?

Since neither Karzai's regime nor the repressive apparatus they have equipped and trained can guarantee stability in Afghanistan, the imperialist powers cannot hope to bring an end to the war without reaching a political settlement with at least some of the insurgent forces.

However, the problem is made extremely complicated by the fact that these forces are extremely atomised and heterogenous, with all kinds of agendas which would be quite difficult to reconcile.

Indeed, contrary to the official line which has been peddled for so long by the western media and politicians, there is no such thing as a unified "resistance" which would be following a centralised "Taliban" leadership. Such a representation of the Afghan insurgency is undoubtedly convenient for the imperialist governments' propaganda, in order to explain away the fact that the world's most powerful armies have been held in check for nearly a decade, without making any progress. But it is pure fiction.

The reality is an extremely atomised insurgency, in which at least five sizeable groups can be identified. But probably the majority of insurgents actually belong to a galaxy of local groups, which have no particular allegiance except to the warlords who are their leaders, no particular political agenda, except to protect the parochial interests of these leaders and whose activity belongs at least as much to the realm of gangsterism, racketeering and drug trafficking, as it belongs to the realm of guerilla warfare.

Even the larger insurgent groups have qualitatively different objectives. What they have in common is their descent, one way or another, from the Islamic resistance funded in the past by the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, their allegiance to one version or another of Islamic fundamentalism and their determined opposition to Karzai's regime - and, therefore, to the occupation forces which are keeping this regime in office. But beyond this, some of these groups - like one of the two main splinters from the old Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb e-Islami - have national ambitions, aiming at political power in Kabul over a unified Afghanistan. Others, like the other main Taliban splinter group and the Haqqani network - are primarily Pashtun nationalists, whose aim is a "greater Pashtunistan", bringing together the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns within one single state. Others still, are primarily concerned with securing the domination of one particular ethnic group in a particular region.

So far, this atomisation has caused a considerable headache to the imperialist powers: how can they find partners who have enough political weight to make a negotiated settlement meaningful, thereby paving the way for a withdrawal of their troops?

The imperialist powers' search for partners in a political settlement, is nothing new. The initial formation of Karzai's government was based precisely on this idea, including the choice of Karzai himself, who had ties both with the old Afghan monarchy, through his family, and with the Taliban regime, through his tribal connections and business dealings. Subsequently, the imperialist powers had the same objective in mind when they imposed on Karzai to co-opt into his government the two most powerful of the anti-Taliban warlords, who had kept their distance up to that point - the Uzbek warlord Rachid Dostum and the Tadjik warlord of Herat, Ismail Khan.

However, this policy actually backfired. As the warlords joined Karzai, and their militias were either integrated into the army or disbanded, they also lost most of the credit they had enjoyed before, due to their association with an already discredited regime. As a result, the support given by these former strong men to the puppet regime proved to be of little use, since it did not stop the insurgency from gathering strength.

Subsequently, numerous attempts were made by the US and the CIA to organise contact with former dignitaries of the Taliban regime. Several meetings were organised in Saudi Arabia, under the auspices of the country's regime, involving former Taliban ministers, representatives of Hekmatyar's group and other lesser characters. But with no result, either because the participants proved to be determined to refuse any compromise short of Karzai's resignation or, in the case of the Taliban dignitaries, because they proved to be representing no-one else but themselves.

Therefore, recent announcements that the US and Britain were advocating discussions with "the Taliban" were hardly the breaking news which media soundbites claimed them to be. Contacts between the Haqqani network and US diplomats were reported by the Pakistani press, although they were immediately officially denied by the US State Department. There was, however, a hilarious development which shows how desperate the imperialist powers are to find insurgents willing to discuss with them. In November, the New York Times reported how British intelligence officers had spent a year cultivating a relationship with a man who pretended to be Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the 2nd highest-ranking figure in one of the ex-Taliban groups. Eventually the alleged Mansour was introduced to the US authorities, given quite a lot of money (according to the New York Times) and invited to attend three meetings in Kabul, until he was eventually unmasked by someone who had seen the real Mansour. As it turned out, the fake Mansour was merely a shopkeeper from the Pakistani town of Quetta, who had managed to con a gullible British Intelligence Service!

High stakes for imperialism

So, for the time being, the search goes on. Maybe other talks have been, or are taking place behind the scenes - diplomatic secrecy is a necessary instrument of the imperialist order. But what is certain is that Washington and London are on the lookout for even the slightest opportunity, and whoever might be willing. Forget about "the war on terror", the threat of al-Qaeda and the "danger to the world security" that were supposed to justify the war in Afghanistan. If they find some insurgent groups willing to talk with a view to reaching a negotiated settlement, they will go for it - even if these partners are unrepentant ex-Taliban or worse!

The problem for imperialism, though, is that not just any partner will do. Reaching a settlement with the main Pashtun ethnic warlords, for instance, would not resolve their problem, as it would almost certainly pave the way for ethnic conflicts after the withdrawal of the occupation forces. What imperialism needs is an assortment of partners who are willing to put their ethnic interests aside and guarantee both the stability and the territorial integrity of Afghanistan.

Indeed, this is the real stake for imperialism and one of the main reasons for its seemingly mad doggedness in digging its heels into this bloody quagmire. But why is the stability and integrity of Afghanistan so important for the imperialism?

Unlike in Iraq, there are no obvious economic gains to make in Afghanistan. The country has no huge oil reserves that might attract the greed of western oil majors. It may be true that the old project of a natural gaz pipeline linking the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan to India and Pakistan, for which the Taliban regime had signed a deal with the US Unocal oil company shortly before the invasion, may interest the oil majors. Yet, although this project has now been resurrected, with an agreement signed last December and funding from the Asian Development Bank (in which the US is the largest shareholder together with Japan), no international company has rushed to even take an option on the deal. This probably indicates that, on balance, it is not considered important enough to take the risk of a very long wait until Afghanistan is stable enough for the pipeline to become operational. As to last year's announcement by the US military authorities that a huge mineral treasure had been discovered in the Afghan mountains, it seems to have been no more than a short-lived propaganda stunt, aimed at pretending that, after all, there might be something for the US to gain in this war.

No, the real reason why imperialism has such a big problem with Afghanistan has everything to do with its strategic position in the world's most populated region.

Indeed, the geographic position of Afghanistan and its ethnic make-up means that it is a sort of regional ethnic hub. It should be recalled how Afghanistan came into existence in the 19th century, as a result of the rivalry between the British and Czarist empires. Because of the artificial nature of its origins, all its borders, whether to the west with Iran, to the north with the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia or to this east and south, with Pakistan, have cut across large ethnic groups. The resulting Afghanistan is a sort of melting pot of most of the region's main ethnic groups, each with its own language and its own version of Islam, which it shares with others outside Afghanistan. Not only does this mean that Afghanistan itself is an ethnic powder keg, which could explode one day or another, but it also means that any instability in Afghanistan could be exported physically to neighbouring countries, through ethnic channels.

Moreover, Afghanistan is squeezed between the spheres of influence - and, therefore, the rivalries - of the three main regional powers, namely Iran, Pakistan and India. And neither of these powers has ever been neutral in the events affecting Afghanistan - meaning that more instability in Afghanistan, especially along ethnic lines, would inevitably intensify the rivalries between this three powers and possibly result in conflicts.

For many years already, Pakistan has been the most obvious example of the consequences that instability in Afghanistan may have in neighbouring countries. Once imperialism's main regional pillar, after the downfall of the Shah's regime in Iran, Pakistan was used by the US as a go-between to arm and fund the anti-Soviet Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan - all the more willingly as the same funds and weapons received from the US and the channels of recruitment among Afghan refugees in Pakistan, could be used by the Pakistani Intelligence Service, ISI, to fight the Indian army in Kashmir. Subsequently, during the Afghan civil war which followed the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the same ISI used funds received from Saudi Arabia (and, therefore, ok'd by the US) to arm what was to become the Taliban militia. As a result, for a whole section of the Pakistani nationalists, both civilian and military, radical Islam became a legitimate political instrument - if not, for some, an instrument which could be used to serve expansionist ambitions, such as the annexation of the Pashtun part of Afghanistan, under the pretext of bringing together all Pashtuns within one single country. Then, after the 2001 invasion, the fact that Pakistan was turned into a logistical base for the invaders allowed the Pakistani Islamic far-right parties to gain credit. To the extent where, today, entire regions along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are ruled by militias linked to these parties. Moreover, the influence of these militias has now spread to the whole country, as is shown by the campaign of terrorist attacks which claimed over a thousand lives over the past year.

In other words, Afghanistan's instability has already largely contaminated Pakistan. Obviously, should Afghanistan become even more unstable, this would have immediate consequences in Pakistan - a country with a population six times larger than Afghanistan, and which is still, so far, a regional auxiliary of imperialism.

The other two regional powers are acutely conscious of these risks. This is why India, in particular, has been consistently supportive of the US policy in Afghanistan. But its influence in this country, which is mostly confined to the Tadjik ethnic group, is rather limited.

Iran, on the other hand, which has also supported Karzai's regime ever since it was formed, may have more effective means to help the imperialist powers resolve their regional riddle. Indeed, Iran has had a traditional influence over the western region of Afghanistan alongside their common border, particularly around Herat, Afghanistan's 3rd largest town. In addition, at least one of the main Afghan insurgent groups has some links with the Iranian state machinery, while Iran has the human resources required to implement a policy in Afghanistan, thanks to the one million or so Afghan refugees on its territory. Of course, if Iran was to provide some form of assistance to the imperialist powers in Afghanistan, it will undoubtedly demand in return some concessions as part of a wider settlement designed to end the partial economic blockade of the country by the US. But these are concessions that the US leaders may be willing to make at some point if they can be convinced that it is the only way to restore stability in Afghanistan.

In any case, the problems faced by imperialism in Afghanistan are the problems of its world order. They have nothing to do with the interests of the populations. In fact, before any political settlement can materialise in Afghanistan - if one ever does - Washington and London can be expected to go as far as they can in their present policy designed to make the Afghan insurgents, and by the same token the Afghan population, pay a high price for their resistance to the occupation and to the order that they want to impose on the country.

And this is why it is more important than ever to demand that all western troops should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan!