Imperialism out of Afghanistan

FRFI 164 December 2001 / January 2002

The US and British governments say they do not know when this war will end or where it will end. The retaliatory attack was launched by the US and Britain on 7 October. After one month 7,000 bombs and missiles had been dropped on Afghanistan. Reports from Pakistan said 1,500-2,000 civilians had been killed by the bombardment. Four US airmen were killed in accidents. Two million people, trapped in the central highlands, faced starvation. 115,000 Afghan refugees had been added to those previously displaced. On 9 November Northern Alliance forces took Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban and on 13 November they entered Kabul. Captives were killed, between 500 and 600 were massacred in Mazar. Britain and the US share responsibility for this war crime, as TREVOR RAYNE shows.

Since 1979, when the US and Britain backed the counter-revolutionary war against the Afghan government, 2.5 million Afghans, 10% of the population, have been killed. 6.3 million Afghans, 30% of the people, are refugees. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance have served imperialism in this destruction.

The Taliban proved unreliable accomplices and had to be removed. Now Britain and the US suspect the Northern Alliance will not ensure a docile Afghanistan. One hundred British soldiers have occupied Bagram airbase north of Kabul and 6,000 more are on standby. US, German, French, Italian, Canadian, Australian and Turkish troops are ready to take up positions across Afghanistan. Northern Alliance commanders, ungrateful to those who bombed the way to Kabul clear for them, said they did not want more foreign troops in Afghanistan. US bombers continued to pound Taliban-held areas. US Secretary of State Rumsfeld and BBC reporters anticipate the massacre of ‘foreigners’ captured with the Taliban. The hunt for Bin Laden ‘dead or alive’ is on as Afghan bounty-hunters scour the caves. CIA agents are being brought out of retirement due to a shortage of trained torturers. It is like the setting of a post-apocalyptic film – Mad Max maybe. The United Nations is being drafted in to piece together, from these bleeding fragments of a country, the semblance of a government acceptable to the US and British states.

Precarious world in peril
This war is described as ‘asymmetrical’ – it is disgusting: the richest country pitting its terrifying military might against the poorest most ruined people on Earth in the name of defending civilisation. The insurance cost of the World Trade Centre is $75 billion, two and a half times the size of the Afghan economy. Just one US B-2 bomber costs ten times the Taliban’s entire $83 million a year budget.

The war is taking place in the context of a deteriorating world economy. The speculative credit boom that fuelled record stock markets and sustained US economic growth in the 1990s ended with the fall of the US high-tech NASDAQ index in March 2000. Crises that gripped Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998 and Brazil in 1999 foretold the events to come. From August 2000 to August 2001 US industrial production underwent 11 successive months of contraction; output fell 5%. The decline of the Japanese economy accelerated from a 3% reduction in Gross Domestic Product during the first quarter of 2001 to an annualised rate exceeding 10% GDP contraction in the second quarter. Industrial production in the European Union is falling and estimates of annual economic growth are barely above zero. Repeated interest rate cuts indicate panic. With the world economy in such a precarious condition, any unforeseen event could tip the entire international capitalist economic structure into crisis. In Afghanistan imperialism is demonstrating that it will not tolerate any defiance nor any development that turns its economic crisis into a political crisis.

Bush’s and Blair’s initial stated objectives were the capture or killing of Bin Laden, destruction of al-Qaida and defeat of the Taliban. Later objectives were given as the creation of a successor regime to the Taliban and the prevention of ‘unexpected consequences’ of the war in, for example, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Imperialism cannot proclaim its real aims: they have to be camouflaged in myths and lies. The real objectives are: territorial control; access to raw materials, fuel and labour; opening of markets for goods and capital investment. As the war unfolds these objectives appear from behind the talk of a ‘War on Terrorism’. The US ruling class intends to be the main beneficiary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and to have strategic power in Central Asia.

From 11 September to the end of October Blair flew 50,000 miles, equivalent to two circumnavigations of the globe. These diplomatic sorties are part of the war. Noam Chomsky described Blair as ‘the attack dog’ of the US. In 1999 Blair was the most strident advocate of a NATO ground invasion of Kosovo. Now Blair is straining at the leash to get 6,000 British troops into Afghanistan. Blair has done more than any other statesman to ensure that the US-led assault on Afghanistan goes unimpeded by international criticism. To describe the war as ‘Bush’s War’ is misleading.

The British Labour government prevents the isolation of the US and provides legitimacy to the US-led war. This allows the US greater freedom to kill and maim. Blair has tried to present the war as limited to Afghanistan. This is necessary for support from the European Union and to tame Middle Eastern states’ opposition. Significantly, Blair visited Syria and British Foreign Secretary Straw visited Iran, two countries opposed to the war that senior US officials could not visit because the US classifies them as ‘terrorist states’.

Among the promises made and bribes offered, the fruits are visible: for the first time US forces gained access to bases in the former Soviet Union, in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are being assessed for more US bases. Pakistan has allowed its airspace to be over-flown and two airbases to be used by US forces. It has been offered $1.95 billion in aid. Turkey has offered its army and received $10 billion from the International Monetary Fund to re-finance its debt.

Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations released $528 million of the USA’s $2 billion debt to the UN and informed the Security Council that US self-defence could involve actions beyond Afghanistan and al-Qaida. The Security Council asked Britain to chair the committee overseeing sanctions on those countries not co-operating with the ‘anti-terror’ campaign.

Thus far, of the coalition, only the US and Britain have taken part in military actions. The British government said it would put its entire military capability at the disposal of the USA. Blair authorised the use of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean for US bombers. France offered 2,800 troops, Germany 4,500 troops, Canada 2,000 troops, Australia 150 Special Forces. Numerous ships have been offered. Turkish Special Forces have been assigned to the Northern Alliance and Japan has revised its constitution to allow its armed forces to act other than in self-defence. Germany has abandoned its post-1945 policy of refusing to send troops abroad except on peacekeeping exercises.

Unprecedented military superiority
On 13 September the US Congress voted for $20 billion for ‘sustained’ retaliation, bringing the US annual defence budget to $350 billion. Of the world’s ten biggest arms spenders the US spends more than the other nine combined. Such an arsenal so far in excess of any other is unprecedented. In the words of one US General, ‘You don’t think we’re going to spend all this money on the military and keep it parked in the garage, do you?’ The US ruling class intends to assert global hegemony by force. The British ruling class uses its alliance with the US to elevate its status in the world – to punch above its weight. Britain has one of the most practised armies in the world. The Labour government intends to use this prowess, and British industry’s ties to the US military industrial complex, to take the lead in shaping the European defence force. To this end Blair hosted the 4 November mini-summit in Downing Street.

In the 1991 Gulf War Iraq suffered 200,000 dead, the imperialists 157 dead: a killing ratio of more than 1,000 to one. No imperialist troops were killed in combat in Yugoslavia in 1999. Since the Vietnam War US political and military commanders (and combatants) have sought to make combat as risk-free as possible. The more risk-free, the easier it is to wage war and the more frequently it can be waged.

The US military is using a strategy of ‘overwhelming force’ as it did against Iraq. It seeks to subdue the foe physically and psychologically by its awesome firepower, like the Nazi blitzkrieg.

The Financial Times describes ‘Network-centric warfare’ combining electro-optic imaging with intelligence gathering from multiple sources, information management and computers. In frozen terrain infrared sensors will detect contrasting human body warmth. ‘The Pentagon has tried to cut "sensor-to shooter time – the period between detecting and firing at a target – to ten minutes;"’ the time it took for Iraqis to wheel out a Scud missile, fire it and wheel it back under cover again. The electronic sensors identify a target by ‘image changes, vehicle movements, tyre tracks’ etc. Thus villages, hospitals, Red Cross warehouses and trailers of refugees have been bombed: high-tech trigger happiness.

The 11 September attacks coincided with the launch of Britain’s biggest military exercise since the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war. Swift Sword was based on a scenario where an imaginary invader is repelled from Oman’s oil fields. Since 1945 the British military has mounted 98 separate overseas interventions, almost one third have been in the Middle East where two thirds of the world’s oil reserves are located. Caspian Basin and Central Asian oil and gas reserves are being contended over by US and British oil multinationals, Russia and China. US domination of this region would ensure that China, Western Europe and Japan become dependent upon the US for fuel imports. China would face US bases to its west.

Northern Alliance
Opposition to the secularisation of Afghanistan preceded the 1978 revolution. After the revolution that opposition was galvanised, armed and funded by the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and others. Outside powers have long used internal divisions in Afghan society to promote their own ends. The forces that overthrew the remnants of the revolutionary government in 1992 included the Northern Alliance. They ruled Afghanistan until 1996 when the Taliban replaced them. 50,000 people were killed in Kabul during internecine fighting between 1992 and 1996. The female literacy rate fell to 5% during 1992-6; rape and mass murder were commonplace.

When Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan in 1989 Pakistan, Iran, India, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and then Russia all supported their favourite warlords, usually following ethnic allegiances. Russia and Iran have given particular support to Northern Alliance factions while Turkey has backed the faction led by General Dostun, an Uzbek with a home in Turkey. Russia, with US and British agreement, supplied the Northern Alliance with 50 tanks to supplement the 30 they already had for the advance on Mazar and Kabul. Pakistan invested in the Taliban and is keen to see either former Taliban or Pashtuns, from whom the Taliban recruited, in the new so called ‘broad based’ government. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan; they also live in Pakistan. Pakistan fears a new hostile neighbour to its west, Afghanistan, in addition to one to its east, India. The meddling in Afghanistan will not end with the Northern Alliance entrance into Kabul or with any defeat of the Taliban. Afghanistan’s factions will find ready sponsors for their battles and the sponsors will find serviceable villains to promote their interests.

Moral outrage and subservience
Many left and liberal commentators seem to have lost their reason amid visions of the 11 September attacks – but it is not so. Either enthusiastically like Christopher Hitchens, or with ‘regret’ like Polly Toynbee, they support the US-led war. After the Northern Alliance capture of Kabul, Hitchens wrote, ‘Well, ha ha ha, and yah boo. It was obvious from the start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was obvious that defeat was impossible’. The Guardian 14 November 2001. Toynbee hurrahed for Blair, ‘He promised to take on the world. And I believed him…he declared war not just on terrorism…but on poverty, tyranny and injustice…this (speech) will stand as a moment British politics became vigorously, unashamedly, social democratic’. The Guardian 3 October 2001. Elsewhere Toynbee stated, ‘That is the heart of the matter – liberal democracy and its pursuit of happiness (and pleasure) versus an ascetic nihilism that seeks only happiness in heaven.’ Hitchens concluded ‘…there are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect too.’

Toynbee and Hitchens stand with the US and British governments in defence of their ‘niceness’ and their ‘pleasures’. These are pleasures and a life-style stolen from billions of people around the globe. The Pentagon views the rout of the Taliban as a model to be repeated elsewhere, combining overwhelming force with local allies. Only an imbecile would encourage these hoodlums in their methods. Where next – Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Colombia – before comfortable liberals get queasy. Imperialism is in crisis; it is more dangerous than ever. Wherever there are forces that rise up to resist imperialism, that refuse its bribes and mobilise with the oppressed we must support them. There can be no prospect of human progress; no possibility of peace until imperialism is defeated. m

Bomber Short
The first Secretary of State for International Development has developed an enthusiasm for soldiers and war. In 1991 Clare Short resigned from the Labour Party front bench because she opposed its support for the war on Iraq. Now Clare Short is a cabinet minister and enjoying the power this affords her; far better than those years she spent on the left.

Short was appointed as minister in 1997. She supported the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, called journalists who questioned the war ‘carping’ and said opponents were appeasers who would have given the Nazis victory had they been around at the time. Short saw soldiers as playing a humanitarian role in distributing aid in Kosovo. That these same soldiers were part of a force that had destroyed the country and thus necessitated the aid was convenient to Short if not to the intended recipients. To dress British soldiers up as some kind of aid agency is a valuable propaganda tool and disguise for their military mission.

Little wonder then that, in October, Short reared up when real aid agencies called for a halt to bombing Afghanistan so that supplies could get through to people facing starvation. ‘It is not a real alternative; it is emotional. It is emotion among people in London, in Birmingham, in Islamabad,’ said the minister. She has never had any time for the ‘emotion’ of her Birmingham constituents – having failed to support either the Burnsall strikers or Satpal Ram. Short refused to give evidence to a parliamentary committee on the scale of the humanitarian disaster looming in Afghanistan and dismissed complaints about the use of cluster bombs. She took it upon herself to enter into the spirit of Labour’s enforcers by attacking Alan Simpson MP in the House of Commons for criticising the war. Come November Short said it was ‘regrettable’ that the US military command had not already deployed ground forces to channel ‘humanitarian convoys’ in to Afghanistan.

What kind of development minister is one who supports bombing, destruction of towns, maiming and killing of civilians, the young and the old and then claims to be saving lives? With all the zeal of the convert – a left Labour cabinet minister.