Afghanistan: Slipping into a quagmire

By Michael O'Brien, Socialist Voice November 2001

It's a month into the war in Afghanistan and it is clear that all is not going to plan for the US-led coalition. They seriously underestimated the type of resistance that would be put up by the Taliban regime and realise that a drawn out and costly war is on the agenda.

The much publicised parachute drop of US Special Forces in Kandahar was designed as a morale boosting and propaganda exercise. However, it has been revealed that the troops were forced to retreat after 23 minutes such was the intensity of the gunfire.

Likewise, advances being made by the Northern Alliance have often been quickly reversed. The repeated loss of helicopters due to 'bad weather' is becoming less and less credible.

Nevertheless the weather will be an issue with the onset of the severe Afghan winter where many of the mountain passes essential for transport will become completely blocked with snow prolonging the war well into 2002.

The other crucial difficulty facing the US is with what are they to replace the Taliban. There is no one force or individual with the authority to rule over Afghanistan. As it is, no national consciousness exists but rather local tribal consciousness.

The Northern Alliance is drawn from former Mujahideen cut-throats belonging to various minorities as opposed to the Taliban, which is made up primarily of the Pashtun majority.

The key differences between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban apart from the ethnic make up and their attitudes to western imperialism are that the NA is more corrupt in terms of heroin production but does allow women to receive an education! Their heroin production has recently increased three-fold according to a UN report. So much for the US war on drugs!

Taliban grip still strong

Recognising their need to get a Pashtun element in any future ruling arrangement, the CIA has resorted to sending bribes and cell phones to 'more progressive' members of the Taliban ruling elite with a view to getting them to switch sides. This and efforts to send in Pashtun opponents of the Taliban to rally opposition have come to nothing. If anything, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has a firmer grip on power and the liquidation of internal opponents has been stepped up.

Ultimately, if the creation of a national government made up of Northern Alliance and Pashtun (including former Taliban) opponents of Mullah Omar with a figure head role for the former king proves to be unstable, the partitioning of the country with a permanent UN or US military presence would be the preferred outcome for the coalition.

'Collateral damage' equals human suffering.

The publicity campaign has gone awry, particularly outside of the US. The hitting of civilian targets including hospitals and the Red Cross centre in Kabul and the use of cluster bombs, which are essentially air launched land mines, combined with the news evidence of maimed civilians, including children, have fed a growing anti-war feeling in Europe. However, that is not to say that there are many who are opposed to the bombing but are in favour of a ground invasion that would take the Taliban head on as has been indicated in polls in the UK.

Naturally, the shock of 11 September is still felt most in the US. This combined with the anthrax scare and a pro-war media onslaught has led the majority to give support to the bombing.

This mood, in part engineered by the US establishment, means that abandoning the campaign or bringing it to a close without getting Bin Laden and overthrowing the Taliban is off the agenda. When US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the idea that the capturing of Bin Laden might not take place it got so much media attention that he was forced to later re-state that Bin Laden would be captured 'dead or alive'. The US establishment will bank on this public backing in the event of them needing to send in regular ground troops in significant numbers.

In terms of the anthrax scare, the claims that they in fact originate with far right groups in the US who are seeking to forment an anti-Arab hysteria have not been ruled out by the US establishment itself, although the more extreme war mongers want to link it to Iraq in an effort to broaden out the war and bring down the Saddam Hussein regime.

Destabilising the region

Regardless of Iraq, the war is already having international repercussions in the region. A serious breach is opening up within the Pakistani state. While General Musharaff has managed to purge the army of Taliban sympathisers, his own secret service remains beyond his control. Elements within the secret service who worked with the Mujahideen in the 1980s and helped establish the Taliban in 1994 are facilitating thousands of pro-Taliban volunteers in crossing the boarder along with military equipment. Taliban volunteers are drawn from throughout the Muslim world, where among sections of the youth there are illusions that the regime in Afghanistan is taking a principled anti-imperialist stand.

Regimes traditionally ardently pro-West are feeling vulnerable and in cases like Saudi Arabia and Oman are distinctly uncomfortable about having US or British troops on their soil.

Consequences in the West

In the West, the economic consequences will be two-sided. There will be a dividend for those in the arms industry, however it will ultimately be a drain on resources. But this will only minimally offset the crushing impact of the most serious global economic downturn in decades. Expenditure on domestic security along with legislative change has implications for the workers' movement as well as future anti-globalisation protests. In the US, a full scale assault on civil liberties, particularly directed at Arab immigrants, is already underway.

What future for the Afghan peoples?

However, the people of Afghanistan are feeling the severest consequences of the war. While lip service is being paid to the idea of economic aid to develop the country after the war, a cursory look at the state Bosnia remains in to this day reveals the hollowness of Western promises, especially considering that Bosnia was relatively advanced compared to Afghanistan. Gangsterism is rife in Bosnia and only a tiny fraction of the refugees have returned despite the recent economic boom in the West.

Justice will not be served for the victims of the 11 September atrocity by the continuation of this war. Recent history has shown that despotic regimes can only be overthrown from below by ordinary people.

We have the positive examples of Indonesia, the Philippines and Serbia. The negative experiences of the Gulf and Kosova wars have shown that such regimes aren't toppled from above. Bin Laden and the Taliban must be brought to account. This, however, is a task for the ordinary people of Afghanistan.

The overthrow of the Taliban would pose the question of what type of society needs to be built in Afghanistan. The illusion of economic development in line with the Asian Tigers was buried four years ago when the economic meltdown began in South East Asia.

The rapidly developing world recession hammers home the point that capitalism be it domestic or global cannot offer a way out of the barbaric living conditions. Only on the basis of socialism can the resources of the region can be utilised to lift people to an economic level worthy of human beings and thereby bring to an end the religious obscurantism that oppresses the lives of the poor, especially women.

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