Meet the New Boss – Afghanistan: Return of the Warlords

After the rapid and decisive victory of US forces over the Taliban, the Bush administration promised a new dawn for Afghanistan. However, four months later, events are not going as promised. Various tribal leaders are hell-bent on settling old scores, and in the process have brought lawlessness to whole sections of the country.

Despite its enormous military might and ability to swiftly defeat the Taliban, the US has become embroiled in new military battles in an attempt to eradicate all the remaining pockets of al Qaeda forces and resolve the brewing conflicts that divide Afghanistan. Why hasn’t the US or UN been able to restore peace? Whatever happened to liberating women? What are the real solutions to Afghanistan’s problems?

Liberation Warlord-Style

The US has entrusted its interests to the proxy regime of Hamid Karzai. Forced to rely on US military support and UN intervention, Karzai’s government lacks a real standing army or any significant base in Afghan society. Meanwhile, militia bosses, often hostile to the interim government, continue to consolidate local power outside Kabul. Outbreaks of ethnic violence and inter-warlord struggle have spread to several provinces, including Gardez, Khost, Mazar-I-Sharif, and Bayman.

The only check to these destabilizing tendencies has been the international “peacekeeping” forces, led by the British, which are confined to Kabul. Despite Karzai’s pleas to expand the peacekeeping forces to other parts of the country, almost all the various powers sponsoring the force are unwilling to make such a commitment – an implicit admission that the situation is unstable and dangerous.

Karzai also faces internal opposition to the Kabul government. There is enormous anger that the new political settlement gives too large a role to the Taliban’s old adversaries – the Tajiks – and too small a role to the ousted militia’s own ethnic group, the Pashtuns (Time, 3/4/02). A reflection of these brewing tensions was the mid-February assassination of Abdul Rahman, Karzai’s aviation minister and an important figure in the new interim government, in mid-February. US strategists fear that Karzai himself could be assassinated if not adequately protected.

The new government continues to implement harsh sentencing laws. Adulterers will still be stoned to death, “but we will use only small stones,” Judge Ahamat Ullha Zarif explained. This will give the condemned a chance to escape (“if they are able to run away, they are free”), so long as they have confessed to their adultery. “Those who refuse to confess their wrongdoing and are condemned by a judge will have their hands and feet bound so that they cannot run away,” added Zarif. Public executions will also continue: “The Taliban used to hang the victim’s body in public for four days. We will only hang the body for a short time, say 15 minutes.” (The Guardian, 1/31/02)

Outcomes of the War

The sustained bombing campaign by US forces has had a devastating toll. According to the independent calculations of University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold, there have been nearly 4,000 civilian casualties in the war thus far.

While the US spent over $2 billion a month for the war, it has only promised $320 million in non-military aid to Afghanistan. This falls way short of what will be needed to prevent serious humanitarian catastrophe. According to UN estimates, one half of Afghan children are undernourished. Commenting on the lack of Western aid, a diplomat in Kabul told the Financial Times: “The response so far is absolutely scandalous. It is discouraging people and it’s worrying what is going to occur in terms of the international response.”

The US claims that its war has been “the most accurate in the nation’s history.” The so-called “smart bombs” have missed their targets on numerous occasions, destroying villages and centers of the UN and Red Cross.

Recently, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was actually forced to admit that US Special Forces botched a raid in the village of Khas Uruzgan. In the raid, 21 were killed and another 27 were captured and brutally beaten. They were mistaken for Taliban supporters, when in reality they were loyal forces of the new government. The CIA, recognizing the mistake, paid $1,000 to each family in reparations – apparently their estimation of the market price on life in Afghanistan.

No Stability

Bush did not even go so far as to promise democracy in Afghanistan. When the Taliban’s defeat appeared imminent, the UN and US made overtures to Zahir Shah, the ex-king, urging him to restore a monarchy. There is no arrangement for elections to be held, locally or nationally, to elect a democratic government of Afghanistan. Instead, the deal worked out by the UN and different warlords call for a Loya Jirga, a council of unelected tribal leaders and warlords, to choose a new government in June.

If past UN interventions in Serbia, Kosovo/a and East Timor tell us anything, it is that a new bureaucratic and dictatorial regime designed to crush any internal opposition will emerge, resting on a newly created national army and relying on patronage from US and UN. In essence, the tyrannical rule of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban has been replaced with the tyrannical rule of Karzai’s autocratic regime in Kabul, and the rule of tribal leaders in other regions.

The US intervention in Afghanistan has proven incapable of delivering peace and stability to Afghanistan. The drug trade banned under the Taliban has now resurfaced as Afghanistan’s primary industry. The political vacuum opened up by the US bombing has given way to lawlessness and warlordism throughout the country. The removal of the Taliban has reinforced tensions between nearby regional powers such as Russia and Iran, who are scrambling to defend and extend their influence in Afghanistan. The conditions of poverty and desperation that gave rise to Islamic Fundamentalism in the first place have not improved. If anything, they have worsened.

This is sowing the seeds for widespread hatred of the bankrupt policies of US imperialism and its chosen puppet regime. Until a mass movement of the Afghan peoples can overthrow their oppressors, and build a new economy and system based on their mutual interests as poor farmers and workers, then no solution is possible. The US intervention is determined to ensure this does not happen.

A War for Women’s Liberation?

Despite spending its first months in office attacking women’s rights by restricting access to abortion, the Bush administration declared itself the liberator of Afghan women after 9/11. In fact, it was the US that armed and funded the Islamic Fundamentalist Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s (from which the Taliban, Northern Alliance, and Karazai all came from), which established gender apartheid in Afghanistan.

The US actually supported the Taliban’s rise to power because it saw them as a force for “stability.” As recently as 1997 the US state department courted representatives of the Taliban to discuss future plans to build a Central Asian oil pipeline.

After 9/11 the Bush administration transferred support to the Northern Alliance, a group of reactionary Islamic fundamentalist warlords, who ruled Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, infamous for their repugnant history of rape and pillage and their introduction of Sharia law.

In reality, little has changed for Afghan women since the defeat of the Taliban apart from a few token adjustments. When asked about the new situation for Afghan women, a leader of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women) said, “From one hand, we see that women and people in general, for example, listen to music, or women will not wear the burqa, or men are shaving their beards. But on the other hand, people are very much concerned about the future. Especially women, they still don’t feel secure or really free.” (Radio Free Europe 11/16/01).

She also explained that women’s liberation couldn’t be secured in the conditions of immense poverty and economic hardship that are now faced by the vast majority of Afghans. She said: “We must not be deceived that, OK, now we will listen to music. How can I listen to music and how can I enjoy that music when I am afraid in the next moment of what will happen to me?”

The truth is that the US government is not interested in women’s rights in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, for the millions of women in Afghanistan, the US victory has not been theirs.

Justice #29, March 2002