The bombs and missiles fired at Afghanistan have not brought very much ’lasting good’ to the poverty-stricken masses. This war killed almost 5,000 civilians and destroyed what was left of the country’s infrastructure.
Afghanistan, after years of wars and in its fourth year of drought, is now labelled by the World Bank as "one of the poorest, most miserable states in the world". Children are traded for bags of wheat.
The fall of Kabul last November marked the end of the ruthless and reactionary Taliban regime. The collapse of the Taliban, however, has given way to warlordism, banditry and extortion. "The overwhelming impression is that warlords, not the central government, hold sway", commented the International Herald Tribune (27 March). The warlords, whose armies acted - and to some extent still act - as proxy US forces, try to set their own agenda. These warlords "are now refusing to disarm and accept the writ of the country’s fledging interim government. They are even defying the Americans". (Wall Street Journal, 16 January)
Once again US imperialism, which armed and financed these gangs, has created forces that are out of its control. As long as the US is using unsavoury warlords to pursue its interests, other neighbouring states and powers will do the same, which tends to speed up the process of disintegration. Already, at the beginning of this year, the CIA warned in a classified report that Afghanistan could once again fall into violent chaos if steps are not taken to restrain competition for power among rival warlords and to control ethnic tensions.
Since then, the situation has become worse, partly due to the policy and military strategy adopted by US imperialism. The US is supplying the warlords with arms and cash to hunt down and kill what is left of the Taliban, but this only exacerbates warlordism. One Northern Alliance leader said to the Financial Times: "The US is faced with a problem. On the one hand, it wants to disarm the warlords. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to disarm them, as it doesn’t know when it will need them again". (20 March) So while the US is paying an Afghan who joins their ’special forces’ $200 a month, a civil servant in Kabul, paid by the United Nations Development Programme, earns only $28 a month.
Afghanistan’s interim government, controlled by a faction within the Northern Alliance and the Tajiks (an ethnic group accounting for one-fifth of the population), has little power or authority beyond Kabul. Hamid Karzai, the administration chairman, is more like Kabul’s mayor than a head of state. He can travel more safely abroad than in his own country. Karzai, a puppet of US imperialism, has become increasingly isolated even within his government. He has no army behind him, unlike the capital’s rival warlords.
The killing in February of Afghanistan’s aviation minister, Abdul Rahman, was part of the present struggle for power and influence. The mass arrests following an alleged coup plot at the beginning of April and the bomb attack against the defence minister a couple of days later are other examples "highlighting the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan". (The Independent, 9 April)
The culture of the Kalashnikov
Different warlords and commanders, many of them heavily involved in the drugs trade, fight each other in order to ensure that their voices will be heard at the loya jirga, a consultative council of nearly 1,500 delegates due to be opened in June by the deposed king, Zahir Shah, who has postponed his return because of fears of an attack. The loya jirga intends to elect a new transitional government. That government, in turn, aims to write a new constitution and prepare for a general election. Nevertheless, it is the power of the gun that will decide. The culture of the Kalashnikov is not easy to break, as has been shown in Somalia and other countries turned into arms bazaars by imperialism.
Whatever new government is formed will find it difficult to exercise any kind of power beyond Kabul or the other major cities. Never in Afghanistan’s bloodstained history has there been a government able to control this huge country. The countryside and the mountains have always been out of reach.
The present government is not the first to find itself in a position where its tax-raising powers are severely limited: "Outside the capital, the national government’s writ is undermined by local power-brokers who exact taxes and use the cash for their own ends". (Financial Times, 26 February)
In fact, the government, according to the finance minister, is only able to finance 3-4% of its budget from domestic resources. The rest has to be financed by aid or subsidies from abroad.
It is a welcome change, of course, that women can resume their studies and girls are allowed to go to school. Tens of thousands of displaced Afghans in Iran and Pakistan have also started to move back, hoping that there is a beginning of an end to years of wars and suffering. Afghanistan is in desperate need. Life expectancy is 46 years; one in four children dies of disease by the age of five; 80% of the population is illiterate and most of the rural population has no access to electricity, safe water or health care. The World Bank estimates that over seven million Afghans remain at risk of starvation. The task of rebuilding Afghanistan is gigantic and will not be accomplished on the basis of capitalism and imperialism.
Only a small fraction of the money promised by Western imperialism has trickled in. Of about $1.8bn in foreign aid pledged in January, only $360 million has arrived. Most of that money has been spent on public salaries, while dozens of urgent development projects have not yet begun. Afghanistan has been promised $4.5bn in foreign aid over the next five years. The US, which spent billions of dollars pulverising the country, is contributing a meagre $296 million for reconstruction. At the same time, US imperialism demands that other countries should do the work of ’peace keeping’, while saying that they will ’assist’ in forming a national army and police force. The World Bank, United Nations and the Asian Development Bank estimate that Afghanistan’s humanitarian and reconstruction requirements may total $20bn over the next decade. So, even if all the money promised actually reached Afghanistan, there would still be a long way to go before the conditions for a stable and modern country were built.
Moreover, it is very unlikely that all the money promised will benefit the local economy. Of the billions spent in Somalia, most were swallowed up by the military and the aid organisations. Barely 4% found its way into the local economy.
The fact that no country seems interested in taking over responsibility from Britain for the 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force, let alone expand the forces or their mandate beyond Kabul, illustrates three things. First, that Western imperialism is not very optimistic about Afghanistan’s future. Second, that US imperialism, in particular, is extremely reluctant to be dragged into a situation that could degenerate into a civil war (this is why the US has asked Britain to take over fighting its ground war in Afghanistan). Third, that it is one thing to win a war, another to win peace and stability.
This artice first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales)