Afghanistan, art of resistance

The ‘Victory’ in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN.  Dasht-e-Qala, Northeast region. Northern Alliance troops marching. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Dasht-e-Qala, Northeast region. Northern Alliance troops marching. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

The following article was written by Demian Vokši and it makes me happy it is first published here on Middle East Revised.

In the heat of the race for the 2016 US presidential election primaries, Jeb Bush – brother of the former US president George W. Bush, admitted that he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he had been in his older brother’s shoes. [1] Faced with overwhelming outrage over such a confession, he tried to point out that Hillary Clinton would have done the same, and then tried to dump the blame for the Iraq catastrophe on Obama but damage was already done.

The upheaval over his statement was huge and the degree to which the sentiment is controversial is telling a lot: a US presidential candidate, even a republican one is esentially comitting professional suicide by admitting his support for the 2003 invasion. Such is the legacy of Iraq- an illegal war built on a foundation of lies, resulting in an estimated half a million civilian deaths, destabilizing a whole country and pushing it towards a civil war which resulted in the birth of the so called ‘Islamic State’.

But for all the outrage which is being made about Iraq, it seems that its older brother, the War in Afghanistan is getting none of it. The Afghanistan war, spearheaded by the United States and later led by NATO has been perceived legitimate by almost everyone who cared to comment about it, and has been supported by virtually all of the top players on the global political scene.

In the Afghanistan- Iraqi tandem, the Afghanistan war is seen as, how Tariq Ali had put it in his 2008 essay, the „Good War“ [2], a legitimate and legal older brother of the failure that is the War in Iraq. Such a reasoning is inherently flawed- it ignores the geopolitical context of the invasion, it downplays the histories of Afghanistan and the very important neighbouring Pakistan, and it creates space for making the same mistakes in Afghanistan which were made in Iraq- mistakes which are already in the process of repeating themselves.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. 2001. Refugees living in the ex Russian embassy compounds.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. 2001. Refugees living in the ex Russian embassy compounds. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

To explain Afghanistan we would have to go back to in time. The initial reason for the invasion were the terrorist attacks of 9/11 after which the US commenced Operation Enduring Freedom by bombing Afghanistan extensively in order to eliminate terrorist training camps. In order to succesfully operate in Afghanistan the US had to secure the cooperation of Pakistan. On the surface it would seem that Pakistan, a long term US ally, would not object to the US operations in Afghanistan but the reality is that the Taliban were basically an extension of Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, especially its secret service ISI, had been a major player in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. Although the horifically inept Afghan Communist Party had kickstarted the Mujahideen rebellion in Afghanistan by rash and not particularly thought out implementation of land and social reform (even Soviet officials suggested a more gradual implementation) thus pulling the Soviet Union into Afghanistan to protect the interests of its ally state, the US and Pakistan had exploited that chain of events to the best of their abilities.

The US has supplied Pakistan’s ISI with military equipment and money, and ISI has channeled those resources to fuel the Mujahideen rebellion in Afghanistan. The US logic behind this was obvious- to hurt the Soviet Union and give them its own Vietnam, and the Pakistani logic was that if Afghanistan fell in Soviet hands, the Soviet Union would be just a step away from its long time wish – a warm water port, possibly in Pakistan itself.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. The river. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. The river. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

After the Soviet withdrawall, the US lost its interest for Afghanistan, and Pakistan was now unable to control the warring fractions of the Mujahideen which engaged in a civil war across the country. Therefore it turned to the new rising force, the Taliban. The Taliban were largely groomed in Pakistan’s Madrassas – Islamic seminaries.

The students in those Madrassas (and the word Taliban literally means students in Pashto) came from the Afghan refugee population and the local Pakistani population- poor families unable to support all of their children would often send their sons to Madrassas because the Madrassas would not only grant them education in a country with an underdeveloped educational infrastructure, but would also house and feed them during their stay thus relieving the family of that burden.

Thus, the rise of the Taliban in the 90’s (although they had already been active in the 80′) was navigated by Pakistan as a way to stabilize Afghanistan, to lead it out of the civil war phase and to ensure that the country is calm enough so Pakistan can go on with the new energy deals which would connect it with the rest of Central Asia, whose infrastructure would have to go through Afghanistan. The need for such energy deals has been a vital interest for Pakistan who to this very days still suffers from energy reductions.

Meanwhile the US mainly kept away from the issue of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It even tried to dissuade Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Mujahideen leader of the opposition to the Taliban, from putting up a fight. He refused to surrender. Only after several Al Qaeda operations against US targets in the 90’s, had the US started to cooperate with Massoud and his Northern Alliance.

AFGHANISTAN. . Southeast region. On the road to Tora Bora refugees escaping from the conflict areas. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. . Southeast region. On the road to Tora Bora refugees escaping from the conflict areas. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan (one of the three states, together with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which has recognized the Taliban led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) had to turn its back on its most succesful foreign policy, at least oficially, and had lent its help to the US, and the NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The US started a bombing campaign designed to rout the Al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan and to end the Taliban support for the terrorist organization. Interestingly, in October 2001, not long after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban had offered to hand Osama bin Laden to a third country under conditions that the US stop their bombardment and that they offer proof that bin Laden is guilty of the 9/11 attacks. Bush turned the offer down. [3] The invasion went underway, and was soon enough taken over by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by NATO forces with the goal of combating Taliban and Al Qaeda forces and rebuilding the country.

Almost 14 years later ISAF concluded Operation Enduring Freedom on December 28, 2014 with not much accomplished. After the initial show of force and establishing its presence in the whole of the country, NATO, led by US forces had been caught in a lenghty and tiring assymetric warfare with the Taliban forces. The number of the Taliban fell from the inital estimate of 40 000 fighters, only to rise again in recent years.

AFGHANISTAN. Kalakata front line, Northeast region. A Northern Alliance soldier jumps out from the truck bringing him to the front line. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Kalakata front line, Northeast region. A Northern Alliance soldier jumps out from the truck bringing him to the front line. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

Their number in 2015 is estimated to be 60 000 in Afghanistan and there are more of them in Pakistan. Accordingly, although the number of Taliban attacks fell during the initial years of the NATO operations, they have risen again in 2013 and especially in 2014. [4] The reasons for the spike in attacks can be attributed to the fact that the Taliban were simply waiting for the foreign forces to leave and were starting to intensify their attacks when the US withdrawal was underway.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) consisting of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have proved time and time again to be not particularly cohesive [5], have been described as generally unprepared [6], are plagued by corruption (especially the police) and desertions. The number of ANA troops fell from 184 839 in February 2014 to 169 203 in November 2014 with the complete number of ANSF forces being 34 000 people short of the 325 000 projected goal for the end of 2014. [8]

An incompetent army, low on numbers and morale rings dangerously similar to the American  project of disbanding the army and building it from scratch in Iraq, only to see that army being blasted away by the forces of the ‘Islamic State’ again and again. The danger is only amplified in Afghanistan which has an unpleasant tradition of being utterly unmanageable by any unprepared invading or even domestic force since Alexander the Great, and then through the British wars, the Communist period, the Soviet invasion, Mujahideen civil war and lastly the US/NATO invasion.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. Chicken street. The woman showing me a drug prescription. 2001.

AFGHANISTAN. Kabul. Chicken street. The woman showing me a drug prescription. 2001. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

Although Operation Enduring Freedom has ended, NATO forces have mantained a presence in Afghanistan through the new Resolute Support Mission devised to advise ANSF. The US have also started Operation Freedom’s Sentinel devised to root out the remnants of Al Qaeda form Afghanistan [9] although Al Qaeda has not been a significant force in Afghanistan for years now and has since started a number of other branches including one in Iraq (which has evolved into the ‘Islamic State’), and in the Arabian Peninsula (which has, among plentiful other activities, managed to pull off an attack in January this year in Paris, targeting the magazine Charlie Hebdo). Such a lasting commitment in Afghanistan also goes against Obama’s promise of a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan by the ond of 2014, later prolonged to 2016.

With the US desperately chasing remaining irrelevant Al Qaeda members in Central Asia so it could somehow justify the immense civilian deaths, the 14 year long strain on the economy and the, if seen in the light of recent Taliban successes and gains, failed attempt to eradicate radicalism from Afghanistan, the game has transferred into other parts of the world.

Terrorism has gained a globally distributed network, and new centres from which it can operate. The US was not particularly opposed to negotiating with the Taliban when it has not had an interest in Afghanistan so why should it be difficult to negotiate now? After all, the Afghan government is already negotiating peace talks with Taliban leaders [10], and considering all of the US support for the most repugnant dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, the Afghan government-Taliban cooperation is not really something that impossible to imagine being supported by the US.

In the end, the War in Afghanistan has proved to be a particularly gruesome child of the imperialistic Wolfowitz doctrine and the knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks which could have been handled much better. In fact, it could not have been handled worse. Its enduring legacy is 20 000 dead civilians [11], almost 2 000 000 refugees [12], and a country not much better than it was to begin with, with a dangerous tendency of turning to worse. Iraq’s older brother, the „Good War“ has proved itself not to be so good in the end.

[1] http://time.com/3853505/jeb-bush-iraq-war/

[2] http://newleftreview.org/II/50/tariq-ali-afghanistan-mirage-of-the-good-war

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/14/afghanistan.terrorism5

[4] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50111#.VWoKGu_a9TQ

[5] http://rt.com/op-edge/178404-afghanistan-shooting-security-soldiers/

[6] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/afghanistans-army-still-unprepared

[7] http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/12/afghanistan-s-3-6billionpoliceproblembrokensystemsandcorruption.html

[8] http://www.stripes.com/news/casualties-desertions-spike-as-afghan-forces-take-lead-1.332504

[9] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/12/29/meet-operation-freedoms-sentinel-the-pentagons-new-mission-in-afghanistan/

[10] http://www.wsj.com/articles/taliban-afghan-officials-to-meet-for-peace-talks-1424335356

[11] http://www.costsofwar.org/sites/default/files/Direct%20War%20Death%20Toll%20in%20Iraq,%20Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%20since%202001%20to%20April%202014%206%2026.pdf

[12] http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-refugees

• • •

//all photos © Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos//

For more on Demian Vokši and his writing, contact him at demian.voksi@gmail.com.

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