This Saturday thousands marched against the war in Afghanistan. This week we’re posting extracts from The Case for Withdrawal published by Verso. This is the final extract of five by author Tariq Ali.

Nato’s Goals

It need hardly be added that the bombardment and occupation of Afghanistan has been a disastrous‚Äîand predictable‚Äîfailure in capturing the perpetrators of 9/11. This could only have been the result of effective police work, not of international war and military occupation. Everything that has happened in Afghanistan since 2001‚Äînot to mention Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon‚Äîhas had the opposite effect, as the West’s own intelligence reports have repeatedly confirmed. According to the official 9/11 Commission report, Mullah Omar’s initial response to Washington’s demands that Osama bin Laden be handed over and al Qaeda deprived of a safe haven was “not negative”; he himself had opposed any al Qaeda attack on US targets.[23] But while t he Mullah was playing for time, the White House closed down negotiations. It required a swift war of revenge. Afghanistan had been denominated the first port of call in the “global war on terror,” with Iraq already the Administration’s main target. The shock-and-awe six-week aerial onslaught that followed was merely a drumroll for the forthcoming intervention in Iraq, with no military rationale in Afghanistan. Predictably, it only gave al Qaeda leaders the chance to vanish into the hills. To portray the invasion as a “war of self-defense” for NATO makes a mockery of international law, which was perverted to twist a flukishly successful attack by a tiny, terrorist Arab groupuscule into an excuse for an open-ended American military thrust into the Middle East and Central Eurasia.

Herein lie the reasons for the near unanimity among Western opinion-makers that the occupation must not only continue but expand‚Äî“many billions over many years.” They are to be sought not in the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, but in Washington and Brussels. As the Economist summarizes, “Defeat would be a body blow not only to the Afghans, but”‚Äîand more importantly, of course‚Äî“to the NATO alliance.”[24] As ever, geopolitics prevails over Afghan interests in the calculus of the big powers. Th e basing agreement signed by the US with its appointee in Kabul in May 2005 gives the Pentagon the right to maintain a massive military presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity, potentially including nuclear missiles. That Washington is not seeking permanent bases in this fraught and inhospitable terrain simply for the sake of “democratization and good governance” was made clear by NATO’s
Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the Brookings Institution in February 2009: a permanent NATO presence in a country that borders the ex-Soviet republics, China, Iran and Pakistan was too good to miss.[25]

More strategically, Afghanistan has become a central theater for reconstituting, and extending, the West’s power-political grip on the world order. It provides, first, an opportunity for the US to shrug off problems in persuading its allies to play a broader role in Iraq. As Obama and Clinton have stressed, America and its allies “have greater unity of purpose in Afghanistan. The ultimate outcome of NATO’s effort to stabilize Afghanistan and US leadership of that effort may well affect the cohesiveness of the alliance and Washington’s ability to shape NATO’s future.”[26] Beyond this, it is the rise of China that has prompted NATO strategists to propose a vastly expanded role for the Western military alliance. Once focused on the Euro-Atlantic area, a recent essay in NATO Review suggests, “in the twenty-first century NATO must become an alliance founded on the Euro-Atlantic area, designed to project systemic stability beyond its borders”:

The centre of gravity of power on this planet is moving inexorably eastward… The Asia-Pacific region brings much that is dynamic and positive to this world, but as yet the rapid change therein is neither stable nor embedded in stable institutions. Until this is achieved, it is the strategic responsibility of Europeans and North Americans, and the institutions they have built, to lead the way… security effectiveness in such a world is impossible without both legitimacy and capability.[27]

The only way to protect the international system the West has built, the author continues, is to “re-energize” the transatlantic relationship: “There can be no systemic security without Asian security, and there will be no Asian security without a strong role for the West therein.”

These ambitions have yet to be realized. In Afghanistan there were angry street demonstrations against Karzai’s signing of the US bases agreement‚Äî a clear indication, if one was still needed, that NATO will have to take Karzai with them if they withdraw. Uzbekistan responded by asking the United States to withdraw its base and personnel from their country. The Russians and Chinese are reported to have protested strongly in private, and subsequently conducted joint military operations on each other’s territory for the first time: “concern over apparent US plans for permanent bases in Afghanistan and Central Asia” was an important cause of their rapprochement.[28] More limply, Iran responded by increasing export duties, bringing construction in Herat to a halt.[29]

There are at least two routes out of the Khyber impasse. The first and worst would be to Balkanize the country. This appears to be the dominant pattern of imperial hegemony at the moment, but whereas the Kurds in Iraq and the Kosovars and others in the former Yugoslavia were willing client-nationalists, the likelihood of Tajiks or Hazaras playing this role effectively is more remote in Afghanistan. Some US intelligence officers have been informally discussing
the creation of a Pashtun state that unites the tribes and dissolves the Durand Line, but this would destabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan to such a degree that the consequences would be unpredictable. In any event there appear to be no takers in either country at the moment.

The alternative would require a withdrawal of all US forces, either preceded or followed by a regional pact to guarantee Afghan stability for the next ten years. Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, and, possibly, China could guarantee and support a functioning national government, pledged to preserve the ethnic and religious diversity of Afghanistan and create a space in which all its citizens can breathe, think, and eat every day. It would need a serious social and economic plan to rebuild the country and provide the basic necessities for its people. This would not only be in the interests of Afghanistan, it would be seen as such by its people—physically, politically, and morally exhausted by decades of war and two occupations. Violence, arbitrary or deliberate, has been their fate for too long. They want the nightmare to end and not be replaced with horrors of a different kind. Religious extremists would get short shrift from the people if they disrupted an agreed peace and began a jihad to recreate the Taliban Emirate of Mullah Omar.

The US occupation has not made this task easy. Its predictable failures have revived the Taliban, and increasingly the Pashtuns are uniting behind them. But though the Taliban have been entirely conflated with al Qaeda in the Western media, most of their supporters are driven by local concerns; their political evolution would be more likely to parallel that of Pakistan’s domesticated Islamists if the invaders were to leave. A NATO withdrawal could
facilitate a serious peace process. It might also benefit Pakistan, provided its military leaders abandoned foolish notions of “strategic depth” and viewed India not as an enemy but as a possible partner in creating a cohesive regional framework within which many contentious issues could be resolved. Are Pakistan’s military leaders and politicians capable of grasping the nettle and moving their country forward? Will Washington let them? The solution is political, not military. And it lies in the region, not in Washington or Brussels.


[23] The 9/11 Commission Report, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, 333-4, 251-2.
[24] “Must they be wars without end?”
[25] “Afghanistan and NATO: Forging the 21st-Century Alliance,’’ February 29, 2008; transcript available at
[26] Paul Gallis, “NATO in Afghanistan,” CRS Report for Congress, October 23, 2007.
[27] Julian Lindley-French, “Big World, Big Future, Big NATO,” NATO Review, Winter 2005.
[28] Rubin, “Proposals for Improved Stability in Afghanistan.”
[29] In response to Karzai’s pleas, Tehran proposed a treaty that would prohibit foreign intelligence operations in each country against the other; it is hard to see how Karzai could have signed this with a straight face.

Afghanistan: Time to Go | Protest 20 November

STW flyer Stop the War Coalition, CND and the British Muslim Initiative have called a demonstration against the increasingly bloody, expensive and failing war in Afghanistan.

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