#84 - Afghanistan - The West's bloody quagmire: a threat to the whole region

February 2009


Last October, a respected American journalist published a lengthy report based on a tour he had just made through the Afghan hinterland. The title he gave to this report put in a nutshell the predicament faced by the imperialist powers after their 7-year occupation of the country: he called it "How We Lost the War We Won - journey into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan".

Indeed, back in 2001, western bombs and missiles precipitated the almost instantaneous collapse of the Taliban regime. At the time, Washington and London boasted endlessly about their "victory". But what "victory" was that, when the regime they were attacking had no heavy weaponry to speak of, and no air force at all? In fact, this was probably the easiest invasion ever carried out by the imperialist powers of any sizeable country in history.

Yet, more than seven years on, not only have the 70,000-strong western occupation forces failed to restore any sort of normality, whether politically or economically, but they have been losing ground steadily to the various insurgent forces opposing their presence. The fact that the "Senlis council" (renamed the International Council on Security and Development), an official body set up by western governments to monitor security and narcotics, now estimates that 72% of the Afghan territory is partly or totally controlled by anti-occupation forces, speaks for itself. And the military "surge" which is now under way, following Barack Obama's election in the US, looks unlikely to change much to this situation. Nor is it really meant to, in fact.

The fairy tales peddled by Labour ministers about the wonders of "reconstruction" in Afghanistan and their success in winning "the battle for hearts and minds", always rang suspiciously hollow. By now, however, these tales have turned out to be what they always were - cynical lies designed to cover up what was, in the first place, an act of criminal aggression against the Afghan population.

Today there is a consensus among the military top brass on both sides of the Atlantic, who consider that, on the basis of current trends, the western occupation of Afghanistan is facing the prospect of defeat. Not military defeat, of course, since the imperialist forces are not facing a fully-fledged army capable of booting them out. But defeat, nevertheless, because they are confronted by a deep and growing hostility from a majority of the population, which considers, rightly, that the western powers are responsible for the deteriorating situation and their growing hardship. This deep hostility, far more than any religious motive, has provided the insurgent forces with the recruits and material support they needed to expand their influence on the ground and make the occupation of the country increasingly costly for the imperialist powers, both economically and politically.

This is, by no means, an unprecedented development in the history of imperialism's brutal domination of the world. From Malaysia to Algeria, Angola and Yemen, the final collapse of the old colonial empires saw similar wars being fought, in which poorly-armed nationalist forces held out against heavily-equipped armies, thanks to the unwavering hostility of the populations towards the occupation forces. So too during the Cold War, when the world's most powerful army was finally unable to impose its rule over Vietnam, despite reducing a large part of the country to ashes.

What is being illustrated, once again, in Afghanistan, is that there is very little that imperialist military aggression can do against the hostility of a whole population, short of destroying it physically.

But the occupation of Afghanistan shows even more than that. It shows how every step taken by the imperialist powers to consolidate their oppressive stranglehold over the poor countries, eventually backfires on the perpetrators themselves. To the point where, what was supposed to be, initially, a relatively straightforward punitive operation against the Taliban regime, is now threatening the stability of a whole region, from the southern confines of the former Soviet Union, to the Indian subcontinent.

The main casualties, as always in the imperialist power games, are the populations themselves, and in every possible sense - physically, due to the human and material damage resulting from the war, socially due to the destruction of the social fabric it causes and politically, due to the reactionary nature of the forces which are thus propelled to the front of the political scene. In particular, resistance to imperialist aggression comes at an exorbitant price for the population, not only during the occupation itself, but long after. It should be remembered how, after the forced withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, the whole Indochinese peninsula slid into a prolonged disaster, which included the bloodbath of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, on-going civil war in Laos and catastrophic deprivation everywhere - a period from which the peninsula has still to recover.

But then, of course, imperialism can live with that. Or to put it more accurately, it can live with causing such catastrophes in the poor countries, as long as this does not undermine the worldwide system of exploitation and profiteering which feeds the capitalist classes of the rich countries. But, as we will show later in this forum, this is precisely the question mark which hangs over the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and one of the reasons for Obama's new "surge" in the Afghan war.

A by-product of imperial power games

But first, we have to set the scene for the events we plan to discuss in this forum.

Afghanistan occupies a particular place in the geography of that part of the world. It is surrounded by Iran to the West, Pakistan to the South and the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, to the North. In other words Afghanistan is a natural gateway between the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the huge land mass of central Asia and China. This explains why its territory has been the focus of fierce rivalries, from the days of Alexander the Great under the ancient Greek empire, to those of the 19th century when it became a major stake in the regional rivalry between the Czarist and British empires. It also explains why it took three Anglo-Afghan wars before the British empire finally granted Afghanistan its full independence, in 1919, albeit with much reluctance.

It was this strategic position and the determination of the British empire to protect its domination, which shaped today's Afghanistan, back in the 19th century. Its borders were drawn so that it would serve as a buffer zone protecting Britain's empire and sphere of influence from its Russian rival. In particular, the so-called Durand line, which defines Afghanistan's present border with Pakistan, was drawn so as to make the best of the mountainous terrain in order to minimise the troops required to defend it. But in the process, a sizeable part of southern Afghanistan was incorporated into British India.

As in other similar cases all across the British empire, no attention whatsoever was paid to the interests of the local populations. Some found themselves cut off from their traditional means of subsistence - such as seasonal pastures, or sources of fresh water, for instance. More importantly, entire ethnic groups were split two or three-ways by Afghanistan's artificial borders, something which remains to date an important feature of the situation in the country.

Today, the population of Afghanistan is estimated to be just over half that of Britain (33 million), on a territory which is about 2.5 times as large as Britain. But then, large parts of the country are uninhabitable, either because they are covered with ranges of very high mountains, or because they are semi-desert.

This population is, in fact, a complex ethnic patchwork in which every component has links with one or several neighbouring countries. The largest of the ethnic groups, the Pashtuns, who comprise just under 40% of the Afghan population, were split right down the middle by the Durand Line, so that they can also be found in Pakistan, where they represent roughly 15% of the population. Then come the Tadjiks, of Persian origin, who form just over 30% of the population, and are spread across a wide area of Central Asia, from Iran to the central Asian southern Republics and as far away as western China. The Hazaras are the third largest group, together with the Uzbeks. Both groups originate from eastern Asia, although through different filiations. The Hazaras have links with similar groups in Iran and Pakistan, while the Uzbeks are represented throughout central Asia. Finally there are many smaller minorities, such as the Balochs, who are also present in Iran and in Pakistan; the nomadic Aimaks, who are also present in Iran; the Turkmens, who also form the majority of the population of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, and quite a few others.

Finally, to make this patchwork even more complicated, the majority Muslim religion, is also split into a large number of rival sects, with the sects' boundaries corresponding sometimes to ethnic boundaries, but sometimes not. In particular, there is a long history of tension between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority, who comprise around only 20% of the population and in particular, against the Hazara Shias.

What makes this complex patchwork particularly important, is the fact that it has been, and remains, a fertile ground for rival warlords and politicians to build a power base for themselves and, therefore, a source of permanent instability. All the more so, since yesterday's colonial powers, just like today's imperialist invaders, have been especially active in seeking the favours of the rival ethnic and religious strong men, thereby boosting their profiles and fuelling the country's chronic instability.

A predictably easy invasion

Going on to today's occupation of Afghanistan, when the order to bomb and invade Afghanistan was issued by Bush, in October 2001, under the cover of UN Security Council resolution 1373, the country had been in a state of continuous civil war for 22 years already. A brief reminder of this period is necessary to understand what came after.

After the decade of Russian occupation came to an end, in 1989, the civil war carried on, this time against the regime which had been left in Kabul by the Russian army. When this regime was finally overthrown, in 1992, the past alliance between anti-communist Islamic factions imploded. Rival warlords vying for political power in Kabul resorted to whipping up ethnic or even tribal loyalties in order to back up their bids for power. A ruthless civil war followed which was only settled by the intervention of a new player - the so-called Taliban - who eventually managed to impose their rule over the other factions and to form a central government in Kabul, in 1997.

The success of the Taliban had little to do with ideology. Their main strength was precisely the fact that they appeared as a new force, freshly formed in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, which had had no involvement in post-1989 disaster - neither in the brutal power struggle around Kabul, nor in the ruthless racketeering that the other factions were imposing on the population. In addition, the fact that the Taliban vowed to unite all Pashtuns behind a single flag, also seems to have worked in their favour.

However, the Taliban were by no means a monolithic, nor even a very stable faction. They had managed to rally a coalition of Pashtun militias behind their banner, mostly at the expense of the other existing factions, but this did not make the strong men of these militias any more amenable to their discipline. As a result, and despite its repressive methods, even though the new Taliban regime was formally in control of a large part of the country, the basis of its power remained unstable, to the point of its being unable to bring the civil war to an end.

Between a third and half of the country remained controlled by non-Taliban Islamic militias. Some of these militias accepted Kabul's rule, albeit reluctantly, but only as long as the Taliban did not try to interfere with the way they ran their own fiefdoms. Others, mainly non-Pashtun militias regrouped in a coalition known as the "Northern Alliance", and carried on the fight against the new regime, from their stronghold in the north-eastern part of the country. Thanks to the funding and covert military aid it was already receiving from various regional and western powers, this alliance managed to push back the Taliban's repeated offensives.

On the eve of the 2001 invasion, therefore, the country was already exhausted by over two decades of civil war. Its infrastructure was barely functioning and its economy was virtually destroyed. The Taliban regime had no army to speak of, only a collection of militias, led by self-proclaimed commanders whose loyalty was largely a question of balance of forces. Nor did the regime have heavy weapons (eg., tanks) to oppose a full-scale invasion, except for some rusty remains left by the retreating Russian army. The military personnel and equipment it had, could, potentially, cause heavy damage to an occupation army, but certainly not stop an invasion.

On 7 October 2001, US and British navy task forces which had assembled off the coast of Pakistan launched the first long-range missiles against Afghan targets. Over the next week, all but one of the Taliban-controlled military airfields were wiped out of the map, together with all anti-aircraft defences. Then and only then did systematic bombing by the western air forces start, destroying every sizeable military facility.

Officially, only military objectives were supposed to be targeted. But even the British MoD's own account of the events mentions instances of airstrikes on residential districts and even on a Red Cross food warehouse! Of course, these were duly blamed either on malfunctioning guidance systems or on the Taliban themselves. Nevertheless, the same MoD account also mentions flows of refugees forming in several parts of the country. Obviously, these refugees were unlikely to have fled military targets only, meaning that the West was also targeting urban areas. Just as in Iraq, two years later, the invaders' strategy was to terrorise the population and cause panic, thereby disorganising the regime and pre-empting possible resistance from the population in the urban centres. This was indeed confirmed later when the first pictures of Kabul were released after its occupation by the US army, showing how entire residential districts had been turned into rubble.

While this carpet bombing was carrying on, the dangerous dirty work of fighting the Taliban militias on the ground, while they still had some strength and confidence, was left entirely to the Northern Alliance. Only when these militias were about to overrun strategic positions, such as the Palang tunnel, which controls one of the northern routes out of Kabul, or the capital's Bagram airport, did the western command send special forces to back them up. But this was only to take formal control of these positions so as to prevent the Northern Alliance from being able to use them later as bargaining chips.

All this explains why, over the 2 months in which the occupation was completed, western forces only suffered 12 casualties! Of course, no-one has ever ventured an estimate of the casualties among the Northern Alliance or Taliban forces, let alone an accurate count among Afghan civilians, during that period! The odds are, however, that they were much, much higher than the usually quoted figure of between 2 and 3 thousand.

To all intents and purposes, however, the Taliban regime collapsed under the bombs. But above all, it seems to have imploded under the flow of dollars that Washington offered to the regime's commanders and allied warlords. These bribes together with the obvious military superiority of the western forces, destroyed the fragile basis on which the Taliban regime rested. On 7 December, the Taliban's last significant stronghold, the southern town of Kandahar, fell without a fight, while the former officials of the Taliban regime went into hiding or exile.

Regime change... but not too much change

By the time Kandahar was occupied, the US had already organised a conference in Rome, with all the Afghan political forces which they could find, no matter how unrepresentative or reactionary, as long as they were willing to declare themselves supportive of the western invasion. Out of this conference came the Afghan Transitional Administration - a 30-member provisional government led by today's Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

In fact, Karzai is a political cocktail which encapsulates graphically the US government's convoluted strategy. He is a Pashtun as well as one of the head men of a rich clan traditionally connected with the former Afghan monarchy. During the Russian occupation, he was a top-level contact between the CIA and the Islamic resistance, while his brothers represented the interests of his clan in Washington. Later on, he was a member of one of the warring factions and joined the Islamic government formed in 1992 as deputy Foreign minister. When the Taliban rose to power, Karzai switched sides and joined the new regime. His involvement was so much valued that he was even offered the post of Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, although he was astute enough to turn down the offer, going into exile in Pakistan, where he joined the monarchist camp agitating for the return of King Zahir Shah to the Afghan throne, before throwing in his lot ostensibly with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the run-up to the invasion.

In short, Karzai was a seasoned politician and at the same time a typical Islamic warlord, with extensive western and CIA connections. He had been in every possible camp, except that of the pro-Soviet regime, and could, therefore, be acceptable to every and each one of the rival Islamic factions that made up the Afghan political landscape.

Of course, contrary to western boasts about reintroducing "democracy" in Afghanistan, the last thing that Karzai could claim to have, were "democratic" credentials. But what the hell! The Rome conference was precisely designed to provide him with the semblance of a consensus. And the following year, a loya jirga, or traditional grand council, was carefully handpicked by the occupation authorities to formally "elect" Karzai into office and reinforce his "democratic" appearance. Whatever the Afghan population may have thought of Karzai, this "democratic" parody was good enough for Bush and Blair.

The beginnings of the new puppet regime were not exactly easy. A number of ministers, including one of its vice-presidents were killed in terrorist attacks. One should perhaps add that this vice president, Haji Abdul Qadir, was the headman of a wealthy Pashtun family, which was said to be close both to the royal family and to the opium trade - which may well have been the reason for his murder. But in other cases, the attacks were clearly commandeered by factions which were already part of the Transitional Administration in a bid for more powerful positions.

Of course, the main problem of the US authorities was to get the country's numerous warlords to disband their militias and submit to the authority of their puppet regime. However, this proved to be far more difficult than Washington had probably expected. Even by 2005, after Karzai was elected president and a new parliament voted in, the militias remained as active as ever, regardless of the government's formal decision to disband them. Worse even, many of Karzai's ministers, not to mention his own clan, were the most prominent culprits in this respect.

Since the last thing the occupation authorities wanted was to risk an all-out confrontation with the warlords, they chose to co-opt more of them into the regime. The most powerful were offered portfolios or lucrative jobs at the top of the regime's administrative machinery. Others, like one of Karzai's brothers, were offered profitable positions as provincial governors. The result was, to some extent, to contain the activity of these militias within better defined limits, if only by integrating some of them into the new Afghan army and police, which were being formed, trained and equipped by Karzai's western mentors.

But there were not enough positions to accommodate every warlord and every militia commander, so this policy also led to a lot of discontent among those who were refused access to the perks of the regime. More importantly, none of this made much change for the population which remained at the receiving end of the militias' racketeering and brutal repression. Only, now, the general perception was that it was Karzai's puppet regime itself, which was really behind the exactions of the militias.

The "Taliban's resurgence"

The year 2005 is usually said to have seen the beginning of the "resurgence of the Taliban", to use the official language. And, indeed, this was the year when the number of casualties among western troops started to increase sharply for the first time since the beginning of the invasion.

However, it is necessary to qualify this official terminology. What is happening in Afghanistan in this respect is very similar to what happened in Iraq for a very long time, when labels such as "al-Qaeda" or "foreign terrorists" were used systematically to describe the armed forces opposing the occupation - and this, despite the fact that given the extent of this opposition, it was blatantly obvious that it could not possibly be organised by a loose shadowy network such as "al-Qaeda", nor blamed on "foreign terrorists" alone.

Much the same has been happening in Afghanistan, where the label "Taliban" is used by the western governments as a convenient cover-all both to explain away the rising opposition to the West's occupation and its puppet regime, and to justify resorting to more and more violence against this opposition.

From Britain, it is obviously difficult to know precisely what forces are behind the resurgence of terrorist attacks and ambushes since 2005. However, we can use the attempts made by some more conscientious journalists to find out more about the armed resistance. The picture they bring back of these so-called "Taliban" has certainly nothing to do with the cohesive organisation, solid underground cadre and well-defined political objectives, implied by western governments' propaganda.

Rather, the reporters describe a milieu of militia commanders who never quite gave up their armed activity and whose motives to keep it going these days is a mixture of religion and nationalism, together with the need to find ways to survive. Indeed, during the civil war years, the kind of gangsterism in which these militias are often involved today, whether it be racketeering or taking hostages for ransom, had become a "normal" way of making a living on the back of the population thanks to their being armed to the teeth. Since the western occupation, far from improving the material situation, has made it even worse, there is every justification in the view of these armed gangs to continue with their brutal practices. Not only are they nowhere near as homogeneous as usually described, but they appear to be particularly fractious, with differences between rival commanders often settled at gun point.

These militia commanders may or may not have held similar positions under the Taliban. But even if they did, this does not necessarily imply that they have any particular loyalty to some Taliban "central command" operating from Afghanistan itself, or from abroad.

For instance, as several reports have pointed out over the past two years or so, one of the main identifiable armed opposition groups is, in fact, a bitter enemy of the Taliban - an armed wing of the old Hezb-i-Islami (party of Islam), led by its founder, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. During the Russian occupation, this Hekmatyar was, for a long time, the favourite pawn of the Pakistani secret service, out of all the Islamic mujahedin commanders, and as such, he was also the recipient of a very large amount of CIA funds. After the Russian troop withdrawal, Helmatyar was prime minister of the Islamic government formed in 1992 and, as such, one of the main protagonists of the bloody fight for power which took place between the anti-communist militias. When the Taliban took over, he fled to exile in Iran, only to be expelled later, after he officially declared his intention to fight the western invasion. Since then, his group has claimed responsibility for a number of sophisticated attacks against officials of Karzai's regime, and against Karzai himself, including attacks right in the middle of Kabul's high security zone.

However, the precise pedigree of these resistance leaders, which is not, in fact, very different from that of the Islamic warlords sitting in Karzai's puppet government, does not really matter. Whether these leaders have a Taliban past or not, they are Islamic fundamentalists, for whom religion is a means to impose their rule on the poor. Their political agenda is clearly reflected in the methods they use to fight the occupation. For these resistance leaders, the Afghan people are merely expendable cannon-fodder, whose lives are worth nothing when it comes to demonstrating their own capacity to strike at those they consider as their enemies, even if the vast majority of the victims are actually ordinary Afghans.

What is important, rather, is that despite this political agenda which is, by now, well-known, such brutal thugs manage to find support and recruits among the population. And the fact that the anti-occupation resistance has increased significantly since 2005, is evidence not only of continuing success in this respect, but of an increasing success - a success which can only reflect the degree of despair and frustration which is felt by significant layers of population, because of the increasing deterioration in their situation caused by the occupation.

When the going gets worse

How has this resurgence of the armed resistance to the occupation been reflected in practice?

At present, about 70,000 western troops are officially deployed in Afghanistan. Of these 55,000 (including 23,000 US soldiers and 8,900 British troops) make up the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces, or ISAF. In addition, there are another 14,000 US soldiers operating under US command independently from ISAF, as part of the so-called "Operation Enduring Freedom", whose official aim is to find the former Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden.

These figures already include the 3,000 US soldiers just sent over this January by Obama. Another 17,000 are due to be sent in soon, in order to execute the so-called "surge" strategy which had been planned by Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, before Bush left the White House - which the same Gates will oversee now, since Obama has rehired him into the same post!

Over the past years, the occupation forces have been facing increasing problems. As mentioned before, the armed resistance is now said to have a permanent presence in 72% of the country. This is up from 54% at the end of 2007 - representing a major advance in just one year. Three of the four main routes in and out of Kabul are now subject to such frequent attack that they are considered unsafe for convoys, unless these convoys are heavily armed and escorted, including by air power. The only safe road is the one which goes north-west to Mazar-e-Sharif. Even the road leading to Bagram Airport where the main US air base is situated is subject to regular attacks.

This means that the insurgents have actually succeeded in creating a noose around Kabul and what is more, they operate with impunity from bases right inside the capital, as the many recent attacks inside Kabul prove.

Casualties among troops have reached an all-time high. The total for 2008 was 294. In 2007 the total was 232 - but compared with the first full year of the occupation, in 2002, when the total killed among invading troops was just 69, this is a huge increase. Of the 2008 total, 155 were American and 51 were British. The increase in the number of deaths among US troops is almost 50%, compared to 2007.

This is mostly due to the effective use of roadside bombs in a copy of what the insurgency has been using in Iraq. But there has also been a steady increase in the capabilities of the opposition militias over the past 2 years.

In April last year, there was yet another attempted assassination of president Hamed Karzai during a military parade. Then there was the dramatic and successful raid carried out by the insurgent militias on Kandahar prison in June which freed dozens of prisoners and which was followed by the seizure of several villages close to the city. On 7 July 2008, a suicide bomber detonated a large car bomb at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul killing 54 people and injuring more than 140. This embassy is in what was thought to be the most secure part of the city.

While the winter months usually see a fall in the number of attacks launched by insurgents, because they usually go south into Pakistan to escape the worst cold, such attacks more than doubled in January compared with the same period last year. Most recently, on the 11 February, 5 gunmen attacked the Justice Ministry in Kabul and a suicide bomber targeted the Education Ministry building. 27 people were killed and 30 were injured.

In Wardak and Logar provinces, which border on Kabul, and where the 3,000 US troops arrived in January, reports describe the insurgent militiamen as coming regularly into town on their motorbikes to do their shopping while openly toting their guns. Unlike the Afghan south, such as Kandahar, the provinces close to Kabul used to be free from a sizeable insurgent presence up until the last year or so. Today, the insurgents control 6 out of 9 districts in Wardak and 4 out of 7 in Logar. Parallel governments could be said to co-exist, and the occupation forces have been unable to stop the insurgents from operating quite freely.

According to one US source: "residents of Band-e Chak, the capital of Chack district say the local government made an agreement with the Taliban. They leave each other alone, so there is no fighting between the two sides ... sometimes when officials from Kabul visit, the Taliban leave and the district [government] puts a bunch of police in the streets and everyone pretends there is no problem."

The 3,000 US troops which have just landed in the provinces were actually meant to go to Iraq, until plans were changed last September. Their remit is to open up the access to Kabul and to "facilitate infrastructure development". More ominously, they are supposed to help create an "Afghan Protection Force" in Wardak province. Youths nominated by the elders are to be trained and given a uniform, and then they will be expected to provide neighbourhood security - apparently, to buttress an existing police force of 460 officers for Wardak's population of half a million. The fact that this will provide jobs is apparently welcomed by some of the population, but the probability of it somehow acting as an opposite pole of attraction to the insurgents who already operate in the province is not credible - especially since the population has not welcomed the advent of the US troops in the first place.

A no-win situation

The western troops have got themselves into a vicious circle in trying to deal with the insurgency. Right after the initial invasion was over and the guerilla war began against the occupation, the western militaries tried to wage war on the cheap. They call it "an economy of force". What this means is that they use air strikes as the main means of warfare against the guerilla militias and only small numbers of soldiers on the ground.

Therefore as a result, so-called "collateral damage" by which they mean the killing of civilians, is inevitable, (while western soldiers suffer the least casualties - in theory).

According to Human Rights Watch, "there has been a massive and unprecedented surge in the use of air power in Afghanistan in 2008. In response to increased insurgent activity, twice as many tons of bombs were dropped in 2007 than in 2006. In 2008 the pace has increased: in the months of June and July alone, the US dropped approximately as much as it did in all of 2006."

In 2006 for the sake of comparison, the figures HRW gives for civilians killed was a total of 116, in 13 bombings. In 2007, 321 civilians were killed in 22 bombings - more than double. But hundreds more were injured. Then in the first six months of 2008, 119 had already been killed in 12 air strikes out of a total civilian death toll, of 250. In fact there are many researchers who would put the number of civilians killed by air strikes as at least three times as high, because of deliberate under-reporting, delayed deaths and because any body found with a gun near it, is considered to be an insurgent and is usually not counted. In a country which has been in a state of war for 30 years, over 70% of the population admits to knowing how to use a gun and most people surely have one ... or more than one, if only for self-defence. So how many ordinary Afghans are killed and labelled as being resistance fighters, without having anything to do with a militia, is anybody's guess. But it must be very many.

The increasing number of civilians killed by air strikes is easily explained, anyway. As the fighting has escalated, the occupiers ground troops have become more and more reluctant to engage in fire fights. In fact whenever foot patrols see or hear "enemy fire" they are mostly too terrified to approach and immediately get their designated "tactical air controller" to call up an armed helicopter or warplane to bomb the place where they think the firing is coming from. It is only after everything has been blown to smithereens that they dare to approach. As it happens the royal brat, Prince Harry was given the job of tactical air controller when he did his 10-week publicity stunt in Afghanistan, in February last year. Gordon Brown said at the time that "the whole of Britain will be proud of the outstanding service he is giving" - but one could ask, instead, how many Afghan civilians were killed as a result. That would be an accurate measure of Harry's "outstanding service", not just to Britain, but to mankind!

Obviously it should be recalled that the guerilla forces have no air power themselves and by definition live and operate among the villages and farm huts. Far from using the civilian population as human shields, therefore, this is their only possible modus operandi given their obvious military disadvantage. But the Nato and US forces consistently deny that they have targeted civilians, even though they know that they cannot miss them with such blunt tactics, while at the same time they blame the armed resistance for civilian deaths, claiming they have taken shelter among ordinary people, leaving the brave imperialist pilots no option but to bomb everyone who happens to be in range, be they men, women or children.

As a response to the attacks in Kabul in the middle of last year, the US deployed a carrier battle group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea to provide even further air power in Afghanistan. But the more air strikes, the more civilian deaths and the more the population is pushed into the arms of the insurgency. Thus the vicious circle in which the civilian population is also trapped, more and more.

An increasingly crippled society

To give a brief social snapshot of the country's situation as a result of the war and occupation, we can begin by citing UN statistics. In fact the UN decided last October that Afghanistan was now the poorest of poor countries in the world: 20 million out of an estimated 26m population (their figure) live under the UN poverty line, while 5m are close to starvation and require food aid. But as Oxfam wrote in a memo to President Obama in January this year, over half of the country is no longer accessible to aid agencies.

When it comes to jobs and unemployment it is probably a little ridiculous to cite figures. An official unemployment rate was last calculated in 2005 and was then estimated to be around 40%. Today in many parts of the country it is probably more like 80%. But the threat of starvation remains, even for workers employed in what would be considered a good job. For instance an employee of the National Bank of Afghanistan in Kabul was quoted by an Afghan women's organisation saying that his monthly earnings were not enough to pay for his family's basic needs. So actually having a job is only partly a solution to combatting personal poverty.

The fourth in a series of annual national surveys conducted by ABC News and several other Western news agencies came out this February and gives some idea of the deteriorating situation. The number of Afghans who say the country is headed in the right direction has fallen from 77% in 2005 to 40% this year. The number who are more explicit and say it's headed in the wrong direction has increased from 6% in 2005 to 38% now. 25% say that attacks on the US or Nato/ISAF can be justified - which is double the number admitting this in 2006. And despite the British Foreign Office's claims of success in Helmand at rooting out opium production and transforming lives, 88% of those questioned by the survey in Helmand say today that they consider that it is acceptable to cultivate poppies and are totally against eradication programmes, even if 63% of Afghans as a whole told the survey that the opium poppy should be substituted with other cultivation.

Apparently the survey also found broad support for women's rights, with 92% supporting girls' schools and 91% in favour of women having the vote. 77% support women working outside the home and 69% would allow women to hold government office. In the south of the country this support for women's right si much lower - by 20 points and it is lower among men than among women, unsurprisingly.

The survey also picks up the unevenness of the so-called reconstruction of the country across the different provinces. For instance in the north-east, the economy outstrips security as the main complaint by more than a 2 to 1 margin whereas in the south it is security by 3 to 1. In the north-west, access to clean water is a big issue. 30% of the population as a whole still has a problem obtaining it. And while 85% in Kabul have access to electricity for at least part of the day, in neighbouring Wardak province only 13% have. Affordable food is also a much bigger problem in the West and North - for instance in Herat and Balkh.

The general findings of the ABC survey are replicated by a bigger annual "mood" survey done by the Asia Foundation - which questioned over 6,500 people as opposed to ABC's survey which was based on a sample of 1,534 Afghan adults in different parts of the country. The "mood" survey also identified security and the economy, especially the high prices of food - as people's biggest concerns, along with corruption.

It is not just corruption which deprives the population of necessities however. On the 12 February there was a protest in west Kabul against discrimination by the Ministry of Water and Energy. This January, for the first time, Kabul had begun to receive round-the-clock power supply thanks to a new power line from Uzbekistan. But, said the protestors, the network of electricity wires had been laid everywhere in the capital city except in the Hazara district of Dasht-e-Barchi. In fact, in Barchi, there are no state-run medical facilities, roads are unpaved, and other facilities are neglected.

In the Southern provinces, including Helmand, 630 schools have been closed, due to insurgent attacks, depriving 300,000 pupils of an education according to the Ministry of Education. This is in a country where education has already been set back severely by 30 years of war - so that literacy stands at 12.6% among females and 43% among males. These attacks, leading to 30 deaths, have increased against the same period last year. As a result the Ministry has been led to seek a compromise with the militias - agreeing to call the schools "madrasas", calling teachers "mullah" and accepting that girls should adhere to Islamic dress code. This allowed them to reopen 24 schools in Helmand, Ghazni and Kandahar provinces which had been previously shut by the insurgents. But none of the 19 schools reopened in Helmand over the past 3 months caters for girls! Today, of 6m students in the country, 35% are female but 1.2m school-age girls do not attend school at all, according to UNICEF.

Since the invasion in late 2001, £10.55bn of funding has been delivered to the Afghan regime. But one third of this is apparently not accounted for. The umbrella organisation for the plethora of NGOs operating in Afghanistan called Acbar, claims that there is widespread profiteering and corruption. Surprise, surprise. The biggest drain on the aid money is the big sums paid to foreign consultants, according to the head of Oxfam's Kabul office, who authored the Acbar report. He said that despite the fact that thousands of dollars have come and gone with very little impact, the salary of consultants remains between $200-300,000 a year each. Such a salary equates to about 200 times the amount paid to a local Afghan employee. More than 40% of aid goes back to donor countries in corporate profits - an estimated $6bn since the start of reconstruction 7 years ago. According to Acbar, profit margins for foreign contractors are sometimes as high as 50%. It also said that while the US spends about $100m a day on security in the country, the average expenditure for so-called "reconstruction" by all donor countries put together, comes to less than $7 a day! For instance, in 2007, the US provided $70m to the agricultural sector and $7bn to the security sector.

The war overflows into Pakistan

The consequences of the war and occupation of Afghanistan go far beyond the country's borders. In fact, this is not exactly new. Ever since the beginning of the Afghan civil war and the Russian occupation, massive flows of refugees have fled Afghanistan, to settle in camps in Pakistan and Iran. And even if there had been no other reason, this alone would have had a significant impact on both countries.

But, in addition, in the 1980s, the US government and CIA chose to use Pakistan as a channel for financing and arming the Afghan Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation. And this choice had important consequences for the political stability of Pakistan. Not only did it lead the US to increase its funding of, and support for, the Pakistani generals, at a time when the army had recently staged a coup to overthrow an elected government. But in addition, the US managed to give extraordinary importance and status to the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, turning it, to all intents and purposes, into a semi-autonomous state within the Pakistani state. Indeed, over the next decade, the ISI was given the responsibility of handling the enormous funds allocated by the US to finance the Afghan mujahedin, of picking and choosing who would benefit from this bonanza among the Afghan Islamic warlords and of training new recruits for these warlords. This was a job that the ISI generals liked a great deal. So much so, that they went on pursuing their own Islamic fundamentalist schemes subsequently - for Afghanistan, by helping to set up the Taliban, but also for Pakistan itself, by providing their support to a new breed of home-grown fundamentalist groups.

It should be said that the ISI and military establishment were not the only ones to embark on using Islamic fundamentalism - that is, the religious far-right - in pursuit of their political objectives. So too, did Pakistan's so-called "democratic" politicians. Thus, the Pakistan People's Party's prime minister Benazir Bhutto, endorsed the drive of the fundamentalist JUI to form a Taliban in Pakistan's refugee camps, by inviting this party to join her government. Later on, her successor, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz Sharif, went one step further by proclaiming the enforcement of Sharia law in order to gain the support of the Islamic Fundamentalist parties.

The demagogic wooing of Islamic fundamentalism by the Pakistani political and military establishment, the flow of Afghan fundamentalist refugees across the border and, above all, the combination of worsening living conditions in Pakistan with the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan, finally turned Pakistan into a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

The first spectacular manifestation of this change took place in July 2007, with a confrontation between heavily armed demonstrators occupying Islamabad's Red Mosque and the police, which left, officially, 75 dead, although the real death toll was probably much higher. Beyond the spectacular character of this event, what was particularly significant about it was that it was the first armed intervention by the fundamentalist factions in the country's main urban centres.

The brutality of the repression probably ensured that this confrontation would be the last for the time being. But it did not prevent the fundamentalist groups from raising their profile and gathering strength in the fiefdom they had chosen - the North West Frontier Province, along the Afghan border. There, a fundamentalist faction called TNSM (Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law) has been waging a ruthless war against the Pakistani state, using suicide attacks against the police and border guards. Its proclaimed aim was to impose its rule over the area, whether Islamabad likes it or not.

The activities of the TNSM and other fundamentalist factions in the province have already led to a series of failed attempts by the Pakistani army to regain control of the area. Tens of thousands of soldiers were sent in, with no result other than provoking an exodus of an estimated 200,000 inhabitants.

The latest outcome of this on-going fight, is an agreement passed earlier this month between the province's authorities, the TNSM and a few other similar fundamentalist outfits, whereby Islamabad has agreed to the enforcement of Sharia law in the Malakand division of the province, thereby recognising de facto the rule of these reactionary bigots over this territory. This agreement is all the more shocking as it follows a campaign by the TNSM aimed at preventing polio vaccination and at forcing girls' schools to close. As a result of this campaign, over 150 schools have been destroyed in the area.

The Pakistani authorities claim that in return for the enforcement of Sharia law, the fundamentalist factions have undertaken to allow girls to attend schools and to stop their terrorist activities. But who can believe their word? After all, this is the third similar agreement passed by Islamabad with these factions since 2007 and none of the previous ones has held for more than a few months.

Of course, the issue of Sharia law is no more than a pretext. Behind the ability of the Pakistani fundamentalists to mobilise troops against Islamabad, there are two powerful factors. One is the virtual collapse of the state administration in this remote area of the country, whether it be in the sphere of social services, health or the administration of justice. And the other factor, which is playing an increasing role these days, is the increasing threat of American drones hanging over the heads of the population, with missiles ready to be fired should their US overseers believe they have spotted what they call a "Taliban training camp". As it happens, just as in Afghanistan, any gathering can become a target for these trigger-happy overseers.

Obama's proclaimed determination to "go into Pakistan" and prevent the Afghan resistance from using the border area as a logistical base, means that the threat of US bombs and missiles is bound to increase in Northwest Frontier Province. Never mind the fact that this policy is certain to push even more Pakistanis into the arms of the fundamentalist factions. But what do the likes of Obama care? Sharia law is not threatening Washington, is it?

A threat to India and beyond

But the consequences of the Afghan war are not even confined to Pakistan. They have already spread far beyond, particularly into India.

Not that Muslim fundamentalism has become a particularly prominent force on the Indian political scene, although it does exist. But since the 1980s, the US-sponsored rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan has served as the main justification for the rising profile of Hindu zealots in India. And there is nothing to choose between the methods used by Islamic fundamentalists and those used by Hindu supremacists. One only has to remember the thousands of victims claimed by the anti-Muslim pogroms organised by the Hindu bigots over the past decades, in Mumbai or in Gujarat, for instance.

Of course, last November's terrorist attacks against Mumbai have helped to poison even more the atmosphere prevailing in India. Whether the perpetrators of these attacks were Pakistani, Indian, Muslims or whatever else, does not make an inch of difference, since the whole political establishment agreed to blame Pakistan and the ISI for it. But the cost of this convenient unanimity and for the resulting official furore against Pakistan, is bound to be paid for by India's Muslim minority and, more generally, by the poor Indian masses, who are commonly targeted by the Hindu zealots.

The truth is that the power games of imperialism have provided the Hindu supremacist forces with a credibility and, even, a respectability that they would never have been able to gain otherwise. And as a result, one of the worst Hindu bigots, the governor of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is likely to be the main contender for the post of Prime Minister in this year's general elections.

The impact of the imperialist power games in Afghanistan can be felt further afield still, throughout Asia, in just about every poor country where Islam has a significant influence. First in the list of countries affected are the three former Soviet republics along the northern border of Afghanistan. It is hard to know what the real impact of the conflict has been in these countries, where any form of opposition is driven underground by the regime's brutal repression. But it is a fact, for instance, that Uzbek volunteers have joined the ranks of the Afghan resistance in recent years. Given the connivance between these countries' dictatorships and Washington and the fact that Islamic fundamentalism appears to be the only visible form of challenge to imperialism in the region, it is bound to gain some influence in these countries as well. Just as it already has, in countries as distant from the war as Indonesia or the Philippines, for instance.

Imperialism's agenda

Are the imperialist leaders unaware of the destabilising potential of the war in Afghanistan for the whole region? Certainly not. The risks attached have been thoroughly documented by numerous NGOs and certainly by the US and British intelligence agencies. However, there is a built-in logic in the policy of imperialism which does not leave it that much elbow room, after all.

It should be remembered that the problem for imperialism was not, initially at least, the Taliban regime as such. After the Taliban came to power, in 1997, the Clinton administration went out of its way to try and establish a business relationship with it. After all, the inward looking nature of the Taliban regime was a guarantee that it would not have expansionist tendencies. If anything, it was rather a factor of stability for the region and, therefore, for imperialist interests - just as so many other dictatorships in the poor countries. Of course, Washington did use a combination of carrot and stick to deal with the new regime, as it does with any other similar regime. But, what the US government was seeking was not regime change, but rather a modus vivendi with the Taliban which would enable US companies to operate on the best possible terms in the region.

The Taliban were not opposed to this, quite the contrary. So much so, that the US oil major Unocal (now part of Chevron) embarked on a plan to build a $4.5bn pipeline across Afghanistan to bring oil from Uzbekistan to the Pakistani coast. Unocal assembled a task force comprising heavyweights such as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former US ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley and Ronald Reagan's former adviser on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to lobby for Washington's backing. The only real shadow cast over this plan was the apparent inability of the Taliban to settle the on-going civil war which was still raging in the north-eastern part of the country. But the project was still being actively worked on during the months preceding the invasion.

Then came the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. The Bush administration had to be seen to do something against the perpetrators at all costs. Invading Afghanistan, as a punishment for the Taliban's refusal to hand over bin Laden, probably appeared as an easy option for Bush's strategists and a convenient pretext. It was an easy option in that it did not appear to present real difficulties in military terms, while allowing Bush to pacify US public opinion - which was terrified by the possibility of a repetition of the New York attack. At the same time, it was a convenient pretext allowing the imperialist powers to set a foot in a part of the world where they no longer had reliable allies since the overthrow of the Shah's regime in Iran, in 1979.

Seven years on, the whole affair turns out to have been miscalculated in one respect at least: the US strategists underestimated the capacity of the Afghan population to fight the occupation. But once they had invaded the country, it was too late for the imperialist powers to turn back. Especially given the regional aftershock of the invasion and its consequences in neighbouring countries. Leaving Afghanistan at this stage would be showing a weakness that imperialism cannot afford to reveal, without the risk of having to pay a much higher price for it, one day in the future.

Besides, beyond the fake issue of terrorism and the search for al-Qaeda, an open issue remains to be settled. The collapse of the Soviet Union has opened new areas of expansion for imperialist multinationals. The oil reserves of the Caspian Sea, estimated to be anywhere between 100 and 250 billion barrels, are up for grabs and the oil majors are determined to take the lion's share of the loot out of the hands of the Russian oil conglomerates. It was not for nothing if the first personal envoy to Afghanistan appointed by Bush, was none other than the same Zamay Khalilzad already mentioned for his links with Unocal.

The odds are, therefore, that the old issue of the oil pipeline across Afghanistan and Pakistan, remains high on the imperialist agenda. Only for this plan to materialise, political stability must return, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Hence the steps taken over the past year, by the US and British governments, to enter into some form of negotiations with sections of the resistance forces, including former top figures of the Taliban regime. Hence, also, the determination shown by Obama not only to carry on with Bush's bloody agenda in Afghanistan, but even to escalate it by taking the war further into Pakistan itself. The two tactics are complementary, not contradictory - the carrot to bring the resistance leaders to the negotiating table and the stick to ensure that they cannot negotiate from a position of strength. Ultimately, what does it matter to imperialism what kind of regime remains in Afghanistan? A revamped version of the Taliban would do perfectly, as long as it is willing to toe the imperialist line.

All the hot air and scaremongering around the "war on terror" and all the fairy tales about "restoring democracy" and "rebuilding Afghanistan", finally really come down to yet another bloody imperialist venture aimed at boosting the profits of a handful of big multinational companies, just as in Iraq.

The fact that the official labour movement of the rich countries, particularly in Britain, proved unable, but above all unwilling, to oppose this imperialist aggression is a stain on the record of the working class movement which remains to be erased. This is why we have said and will continue to say that it is in the interest of the working class of this country to demand the immediate withdrawal of all western troops from Afghanistan.