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

Bush and Karzai

Political Failures

True, there was a sense of relief in Kabul when the Taliban’s Wahhabite Emirate was overthrown. Though rape and heroin production had been curtailed under their rule, warlords kept at bay and order largely restored in a country that had been racked by foreign and civil wars since 1979, the end result had been a ruthless social dictatorship with a level of control over the everyday lives of ordinary people that made the clerical regime in Iran appear an island of enlightenment. The Taliban government fell without a serious struggle. Islamabad, officially committed to the US cause, forbade any frontal confrontation.[5] Some Taliban zealots crossed the border into Pakistan, while a more independent faction loyal to Mullah Omar decamped to the mountains to fight another day. Kabul was undefended; the BBC war correspondent entered the capital before the Northern Alliance. What many Afghans now expected from a successor government was a similar level of order, minus the repression and social restrictions, and a freeing of the country’s spirit. What they were instead presented with was a melancholy spectacle that blasted all their hopes.

The problem was not lack of funds but the Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous process‚Äîaiming to construct an army able to suppress its own population but incapable of defending the nation from outside powers; a civil administration with no control over planning or social infrastructure, which are in the hands of Western NGOs; and a government whose foreign policy marches in step with Washington’s. It bore no relation to the realities on the ground. After the fall of the Taliban government, four major armed groups re-emerged as strong regional players. In the gas-rich and more industrialized north, bordering the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum was in charge with his capital in Mazar-i-Sharif. Allied first to the communists, later the Taliban, and most recently NATO, General Dostum had demonstrated his latest loyalty by massacring two to three thousand Taliban and Arab prisoners under the approving gaze of US intelligence personnel in December 2001.

Not too far from Dostum, in the mountainous north-east of the country, a region rich in emeralds, lapis lazuli, and opium, the late Ahmed Shah Massoud had built a fighting organization of Tajiks, who regularly ambushed troops on the Salang Highway that linked Kabul to Tashkent during the Soviet occupation. Massoud had been the leader of the armed wing of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami, which operated in tandem with an allied Islamist leader, Abd al-Rabb Sayyaf (both men were lecturers in Sharia law at the law faculty of Kabul University in 1973, where these movements were incubated). Until 1993 they were funded by Saudi Arabia, after which the latter gradually shifted its support to the Taliban. Massoud maintained a semi-independence during the Taliban period, up to his death on September 9, 2001.[6] Massoud’s supporters are currently in the government, but are not considered one hundred percent reliable as far as NATO is concerned.

To the west, sheltered by neighboring Iran, lies the ancient city of Herat, once a center of learning and culture where poets, artists, and scholars flourished. Among the important works illustrated here over the course of three centuries was a fifteenth-century version of the classic Miraj-nameh, an early medieval account of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven from the Dome of the Rock and the punishments he observed as he passed through hell.[7] In modern Herat, the Shia warlord Ismail Khan holds sway. A former army captain inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ismail achieved instant fame by leading a garrison revolt against the pro-Moscow regime in 1979. Backed by Tehran he built up a strong force that united all the Shia groups and were to trouble the Russians through- out their stay. Tens of thousands of refugees from this region (where a Persian dialect is the spoken language) were given work, shelter, and training in Iran. From 1992 to 1995, the province was run on authoritarian lines. It was a harsh regime: Ismail Khan’s half-witted effrontery soon began to alienate his allies, while his high-tax and forced conscription policies angered peasant families. By the time the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, support had already drained away from the warlord. Herat fell without a struggle, and Ismail was imprisoned by the Taliban, only escaping in March 2000. His supporters meanwhile crossed the border to Iran where they bided their time, to return in October 2001 under NATO cover.

The south was another story again. The Pashtun villages bore the brunt of the fighting during the 1980s and 90s.[8] Rapid population growth, coupled with the disruptions of war and the resulting loss of livestock, hastened the collapse of the subsistence economy. In many districts this was replaced by poppy cultivation and the rule of local bandits and strongmen. By the early 1990s, three militant Sunni groups had acquired dominance in the region: the Taliban, the group led by Ahmed Shah Massoud from the Panjshir Province, and the followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once Pakistan’s favorite, who had been groomed by the Saudis as the new leader. The jihad was long over, and now the jihadis were at each other’s throats, with control of the drug trade the major stake in a brutal power struggle. Under Benazir Bhutto’s second premiership, Pakistan’s military backing for the Taliban proved decisive. But the overthrow of the Mullah Omar government in the winter of 2001 saw the re-emergence of many of the local gangsters whose predations it had partly checked.

Anointment of Karzai

Washington assigned the task of assembling a new government to Zalmay Khalilzad, its Afghan-American pro-consul in Kabul. The capital was occupied by competing militias, united only by opposition to the toppled Taliban, and their representatives had to be accommodated on every level. The Northern Alliance candidate for president, Abdul Haq of Jalalabad, had conveniently been captured and executed in October 2001 by the Taliban when he entered the country with a small group from Pakistan. (His supporters alleged betrayal by the CIA and the ISI, who were unhappy about his links to Russia and Iran, and tipped off Mullah Omar.) Another obvious anti-Taliban candidate was Ahmed Shah Massoud; but he had also been killed‚Äîby a suicide bomber of unknown provenance‚Äîtwo days before 9/11. Massoud would no doubt have been the EU choice for Afghan president, had he lived; the French government issued a postage stamp with his portrait, and Kabul airport bears his name. Whether he would have proved as reliable a client as Khalilzad’s transplanted proteÃÅgeÃÅ, Hamid Karzai, must now remain an open question.

Aware that the US could not run the country without the Northern Alliance and its backers in Tehran and Moscow, Khalilzad toned down the emancipatory rhetoric and concentrated on the serious business of occupation. The coalition he constructed resembled a blind octopus, with mainly Tajik limbs and Karzai as its unseeing eye. The Afghan president comes from the Durrani tribe of Pashtuns from Kandahar. His father had served in a junior capacity in Zahir Shah’s government. Young Karzai backed the mujahideen against Russia and later supported the Taliban, though he turned down their offer to become Afghanistan’s ambassador to the UN, preferring to relocate and work for the oil company UNOCAL. Here he backed up Khalilzad, who was then representing CentGas in their bid to construct a pipeline that would take gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.[9]

After his appointment as interim president, the Saudi daily Al-Watan published a revealing profile of Karzai, stating that he had been a CIA pawn since the 1980s, with his status on the Afghan chessboard enhanced every few years:

Since then, Karzai’s ties with the Americans have not been interrupted. At the same time, he established ties with the British and other European and international sides, especially after he became deputy foreign minister in 1992 in the wake of the Afghan mujahideen’s assumption of power and the overthrow of the pro-Moscow Najibullah regime. Karzai found no contra- diction between his ties with the Americans and his support for the Taliban movement as of 1994, when the Americans had‚Äîsecretly and through the Pakistanis‚Äîsupported the Taliban’s assumption of power to put an end to the civil war and the actual partition of Afghanistan due to the failure of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s experience in ruling the country.[10]

Karzai was duly installed in December 2001, but intimacy with US intelligence networks failed to translate into authority or legitimacy at home. Karzai harbored no illusions about his popularity in the country. He knew his biological and political life was heavily dependent on the occupation, and demanded a bodyguard of US Marines or American mercenaries, rather than a security detail from his own ethnic Pashtun base.[11] There were at least three coup attempts against him in 2002-2003 by his Northern Alliance allies; these were fought off by the ISAF, which was largely tied down in assuring Karzai’s security‚Äîwhile also providing a vivid illustration of where his support lay.[12] A quick-fix presidential contest organized at great expense by Western PR firms in October 2004‚Äîjust in time for the US elections‚Äîfailed to bolster support for the puppet president inside the country. Karzai’s habit of parachuting his relatives and proteÃÅgeÃÅs into provincial governor or police chief jobs has driven many local communities into alliance with the Taliban, as the main anti-government force. In Zabul, Helmand and elsewhere, all the insurgents had to do was “approach the victims of the pro-Karzai strongmen and promise them protection and support. Attempts by local elders to seek protection in Kabul routinely ended nowhere, as the wrongdoers enjoyed either direct US support or Karzai’s sympathy.”[13]

Nor is it any secret that Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has now become one of the richest drug barons in the country. At a meeting with Pakistan’s president in 2005, when Karzai was bleating about Pakistan’s inability to stop cross-border smuggling, Musharraf suggested that perhaps Karzai should set an example by bringing his sibling under control. (The hatred for each other of these two close allies of Washington is well known in the region.)


[5] Pakistan’s key role in securing this “victory” was underplayed in the Western media at the time. The public was told that it was elite Special Forces units and CIA “specialists” that had liberated Afghanistan; having triumphed here they could now be sent on to Iraq.

[6] Massoud had been a favorite pin-up in Paris during the Soviet-Afghan war, usually portrayed as a ruggedly romantic, anti-communist Che Guevara. His membership of Rabbani’s Islamist group and reactionary views on most social issues were barely mentioned. But if he had presented an image of incorruptible masculinity to his supporters in the West, it was not the same at home. Rape and the heroin trade were not uncommon in areas under his control.

[7] The stunning illustrations were exquisitely calligraphed by Malik Bakshi in the Uighur script. There are sixty-one paintings in all, created with great love for the Prophet of Islam. He is depicted with Central Asian features and seen flying to heaven on a magical steed with a woman’s head. There are also illustra- tions of a meeting with Gabriel and Adam, a sighting of houris at the gates of Paradise, and of winebibbers being punished in hell. European scholars have suggested that an early Latin translation of the poem may have been a source of inspiration for Dante.

[8] Afghanistan’s ethnography has generated a highly politicized statistical debate. The six-year survey carried out by a Norwegian foundation is prob- ably the most accurate. This suggests that Pashtuns make up an estimated 63 percent of the population, along with the mainly Persian-speaking Tajiks (12 percent), Uzbeks (9 percent), and the mainly Shia Hazaras (6 percent): WAK Foundation, Norway, 1999. The CIA Factbook, by contrast, gives 42, 27, 9, and 9 percent respectively. The tiny non-Muslim minority of Hindus and Sikhs, mainly shopkeepers and traders in Kabul, were displaced by the Taliban; some were killed, and thousands fled to India.

[9] The CentGas consortium, incorporated in 1997, included UNOCAL, Gazprom, Hyundai, and oil companies from Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Pakistan. In late 1997 a Taliban delegation received full honors when they visited UNOCAL headquarters, hoping to sign the $3.5 billion pipeline contract. According to the Sunday Telegraph (“Oil Barons Court Taliban in Texas,” December 14, 1997): “the Islamic warriors appear to have been persuaded to close the deal, not through delicate negotiation but by old-fashioned Texan hospitality. Dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, Afghan waistcoats and loose, black turbans, the high-ranking delegation was given VIP treatment during the four-day stay.” The project was suspended in 1998, as the Taliban were split on whom to award the pipeline project to: Mullah Rabbani preferred the offer from the Argentine company Bridas, while Mullah Omar was strongly in favor of the American-led deal. But US-Taliban contacts continued till mid-2001 both in Islamabad and New York, where the Taliban maintained a “diplomatic office” headed by Abdul Hakim Mojahed.

[10] BBC Monitoring Service, December 15, 2001.

[11] The late Benazir Bhutto made the same request for American protection on her return to Pakistan, but in her case it was vetoed by Islamabad.

[12] Barry McCaffrey, “Trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” US Military Academy Memorandum, West Point, New York, 2006, 8.

[13] Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: the Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 60. The corruption and brutality of the newly established Afghan National Police is also widely credited with turning the population against the Karzai government.

Excerpts from The Case for Withdrawal, ed. Nick Turse (Verso 2010). Tomorrow’s excerpt will be Tariq Ali: Mirage of the Good War – New Inequalities.

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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