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 third of five extracts by author Tariq Ali.

New Inequalities

Also feeding the resentment is the behavior of a new elite clustered around Karzai and the occupying forces, which has specialized in creaming off foreign aid to create its own criminal networks of graft and patronage. The corruptions of this layer grow each month like an untreated tumor. Western funds are siphoned off to build fancy homes for the native enforcers. Housing scandals erupted as early as 2002, when cabinet ministers awarded themselves and favored cronies prime real estate in Kabul where land prices were rocketing, since the occupiers and their camp followers had to live in the style to which they were accustomed. Karzai’s colleagues, protected by ISAF troops, built their large villas in full view of the mud- brick hovels of the poor. The burgeoning slum settlements of Kabul, where the population has now swollen to an estimated three million, are a measure of the social crisis that has engulfed the country.

The ancient city has suffered cruelly over the past thirty years. Jade Maiwand, the modernized “Oxford Street” cut through the center in the 1970s, was reduced to rubble during the warfare of 1992-1996. An American- Afghan architect describes how Kabul has been relentlessly transformed

from a modern capital, to the military and political headquarters of an invading army, to the besieged seat of power of a puppet regime, to the front lines of factional conflict resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of its urban mass, to the testing fields of religious fanaticism which erased from the city the final layers of urban life, to the target of an international war on terrorism.[14]

Yet never have such gaping inequalities featured on this scale before. Little of the supposed $19 billion “aid and reconstruction” money has reached the majority of Afghans. The mains electricity supply is worse now than five years ago, and while the rich can use private generators to power their air conditioners, hot-water heaters, computers, and satellite TVs, average Kabulis “suffered a summer without fans and face a winter without heaters.”[15] As a result, hundreds of shelterless Afghans are literally freezing to death each winter.

Then there are the NGOs who descended on the country like locusts after the occupation. As one observer reported: “A reputed 10,000 NGO staff have turned Kabul into the Klondike during the gold rush, building office blocks, driving up rents, cruising about in armoured jeeps and spending stupefying sums of other people’s money, essentially on themselves. They take orders only from some distant agency, but then the same goes for the American army, NATO, the UN, the EU and the supposedly sovereign Afghan government.”[16]

Even supporters of the occupation have lost patience with these bodies, and some of the most successful candidates in the 2005 National Assembly elections made an attack on them a centerpiece of their campaigns. Worse, according to one US specialist, “their well-funded activities highlighted the poverty and ineffectiveness of the civil administration and discredited its local representatives in the eyes of the local populace.”[17] Unsurprisingly, NGO employees began to be targeted by the insurgents, including in the north, and had to hire mercenary protection.

In sum: even in the estimate of the West’s own specialists and insti- tutions, “nation-building” in Afghanistan has been flawed in its very conception. It has so far produced a puppet president dependent for his survival on foreign mercenaries, a corrupt and abusive police force, a “non-functioning” judiciary, a thriving criminal layer, and a deepening social and economic crisis. It beggars belief to argue that “more of this” will be the answer to Afghanistan’s problems.

An Afghan surge?

The argument that more NATO troops are the solution is equally unsustainable. All the evidence suggests that the brutality of the occupying forces has been one of the main sources of recruits for the Taliban. American air power, lovingly referred to as “Big Daddy” by frightened US soldiers on unwelcoming terrain, is far from paternal when it comes to targeting Pashtun villages. There is widespread fury among Afghans at the number of civilian casual- ties, many of them children. There have been numerous incidents of rape and rough treatment of women by ISAF soldiers, as well as indiscriminate bombing of villages and house-to-house search-and-arrest missions. The behavior of the foreign mercenaries backing up the NATO forces is just as bad. Even sympathetic observers admit that “their alcohol consumption and patronage of a growing number of brothels in Kabul… is arousing public anger and resentment.”[18] To this could be added the deaths by torture at the US-run Bagram prison and the resuscitation of a Soviet-era security law under which detainees are being sentenced to twenty-year jail terms on the basis of summary allegations by US military authorities. All this creates a thirst for dignity that can only be assuaged by genuine independence.

Talk of “victory” sounds increasingly hollow to Afghan ears. Many who detest the Taliban are so angered by the failures of NATO and the behavior of its troops that they are pleased there is some opposition. What was initially viewed by some locals as a necessary police action against al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks is now perceived by a growing majority in the region as a fully fledged imperial occupation. Successive recent reports have suggested that the unpopularity of the government and the “disrespectful” behavior of the occupying troops have had the effect of creating nostalgia for the time when the Taliban were in power. The repression leaves people with no option but to back those trying to resist, especially in a part of the world where the culture of revenge is strong. When a whole community feels threatened it reinforces solidarity, regardless of the character or weak- ness of those who fight back. This does not just apply to the countryside. The mass protests in Kabul, when civilians were killed by an American mili- tary vehicle, signaled the obvious targets:

Rioters chanted slogans against the United States and President Karzai and attacked the Parliament building, the offices of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations, diplomatic residences, brothels, and hotels and restaurants that purportedly served alcohol. The police, many of whom disappeared, proved incompetent, and the vulnerability of the government to mass violence became clear.[19]

As the British and Russians discovered to their cost in the preceding two centuries, Afghans do not like being occupied. If a second-generation Taliban is now growing and creating new alliances it is not because its sectarian religious practices have become popular, but because it is the only available umbrella for national liberation. Initially, the middle-cadre Taliban who fled across the border in November 2001 and started low-level guerrilla activity the following year attracted only a trickle of new recruits from madrasas and refugee camps. From 2004 onwards, increasing numbers of young Waziris were radicalized by Pakistani military and police incursions in the tribal areas, as well as devastating attacks on villages by unmanned US “drones.” At the same time, the movement was starting to win active support from village mullahs in Zabul, Helmand, Ghazni, Paktika, and Kandahar provinces, and then in the towns. By 2006 there were reports of Kabul mullahs who had previously supported Karzai’s allies but were now railing against the foreigners and the government; calls for jihad against the occupiers were heard in the north-east border provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.

The largest pool for new Taliban recruits, according to a well-informed recent estimate, has been “communities antagonized by the local authorities and security forces.” In Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan, Karzai’s cronies‚Äîdistrict and provincial governors, security bosses, police chiefs‚Äîare quite prepared to tip off US troops against their local rivals, as well as subjecting the latter to harassment and extortion. In these circumstances, the Taliban are the only available defense. (According to the same report, the Taliban themselves have claimed that families driven into refugee camps by indiscriminate US airpower attacks on their villages have been their major source of recruits.) By 2006 the movement was winning the support of trad- ers and businessmen in Kandahar, and led a mini “Tet offensive” there that year. One reason suggested for their increasing support in towns is that the new-model Taliban have relaxed their religious strictures, for males at least‚Äîno longer demanding beards or banning music‚Äîand improved their propaganda, producing cassette tapes and CDs of popular singers, and DVDs of US and Israeli atrocities in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.[20]

The re-emergence of the Taliban cannot therefore simply be blamed on Islamabad’s failure to police the border, or cut “command and control” links, as the Americans claim. While the ISI played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to power in 1996 and in the retreat of 2001, they no longer have the same degree of control over a more diffuse and widespread movement, for which the occupation itself has been the main recruiting sergeant. It is a traditional colonial ploy to blame “outsiders” for internal problems: Karzai specializes in this approach. If anything, the destabilization functions in the other direction: the war in Afghanistan has created a critical situation in two Pakistani frontier provinces, and the use of the Pakistan army by Centcom has resulted in suicide terrorism in Lahore, where the Federal Investigation Agency and the Naval War College have been targeted by supporters of the Afghan insurgents. The Pashtun majority in Afghanistan has always had close links to its fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan. The present border was an imposition by the British Empire, but it has always remained porous. It is virtually impossible to build a Texan-style fence or an Israeli wall across the mountainous and largely unmarked 1,500-mile frontier that separates the two countries.


[14] Ajmal Maiwandi, “Re-Doing Kabul,” presented at the London School of Economics, July 11, 2002.

[15] Barnett Rubin, “Saving Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, January-February 2007.

[16.] Simon Jenkins, “It Takes Inane Optimism to See Victory in Afghanistan,” Guardian, August 8, 2007.

[17] S. Frederick Starr, “Sovereignty and Legitimacy in Afghan Nation- Building,” in Fukuyama, ed., Nation-Building Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, 117.

[18] Barnett Rubin, “Proposals for Improved Stability in Afghanistan,” in Ivo Daalder, et al., eds, Crescent of Crisis: US-European Strategy for the Greater Middle East, Washington, DC: The Brookings Institute, 2006, 149.

[19] Rubin, “Saving Afghanistan.”

[20] Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, 42, 69.

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

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.

More information…