Iraq: War and reconstruction – The lessons of the Balkans, Timor and Afghanistan

Following its bloody conquest of Iraq, the US administration is now attempting to impose a ‘reconstruction’ plan on the broken country. But what does this mean for the working people of Iraq? Will they at last have democratic rights, real control over the oil resources and an end to poverty? Niall Mulholland looks at other examples of ‘nation building’ since the end of the Cold War.

War and reconstruction.

The lessons of the Balkans, Timor and Afghanistan

Bosnia – "We have lost all hope"

From 1992-1995, Bosnia Herzegovina suffered a bloody inter-ethnic war. Around 250,000 people died in the conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, as part of the process of the break-up of the Stalinist state of Yugoslavia and the disastrous restoration of capitalism.

Western powers intrigued in the Bosnia conflict for their own imperialist interests, including overseeing ‘ethnic cleansing’ crimes by one ethnic group against another. They did nothing to stop the massacre of 7,000 Muslims by Serb militias in Srebrenica and have allowed around 120,000 Serbs to be forced out of Sarajevo over the last decade.

The Dayton Agreement, imposed by the US, ‘ended’ the conflict in 1995. This was to be the first major test of imperialist ‘reconstruction’ since the end of the Cold War. The results however have been a nightmare for Bosnians.

The accords formerly created a new single state, but in reality it is partitioned between Serbs and Muslim Croats. The country is only held together by the NATO-led Stablisation Force, S-For, and is in effect run by the International High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, who has colonial style power over the people.

Ethnic tensions are still rife, nearly half the workforce is jobless, the economy is on its knees and international aid is being cut back. Bosnia remains the poorest country in Europe. Corruption and crime are endemic and ethnic ‘integration’ almost non-existent.

Right wing nationalist and ethnic based parties, despite growing disillusionment by voters with what they see as the failure of nationalist politicians to improve their lives, dominate politics. The present parliament of nationalists, with backing from ‘moderate’ parties, has pledged to introduce economic and social ‘reforms’. This means more neo-liberal policies that hit working people. The country is sold to Western corporations as a "cheap place to do business". Bombed out factories are sold for peanuts, salaries are low and the workforce highly educated.

Unsurprisingly, despair and cynicism reign amongst most Bosnians, especially the young. Many people have been driven from their homes or have emigrated. Out of the half million population of Sarajevo it is estimated only 100,000 to 150,000 lived there before the war. The rest are refugees from other areas. Little wonder a Sarajevo youth described how since the ending of the war, "We have lost all hope".

However working people are beginning to fight back against the rule of the Western powers and capitalist policies. Strikes against privatisations have taken place and, symbolically, protests against war in Iraq.

Kosova/Kosovo – "They give us generators instead of electricity"

Serbian ‘strongman’ Slobodan Milosevic’s 1998 campaign of repression of the majority Albanian population in Kosova, a ‘province’ of the former Serb dominated Yugoslavia, led to NATO intervening to prevent the conflict spreading and seriously damaging the interests of the powers. They claimed this military action was to "protect" Kosovans. The Milosvic regime was defeated in 1999 after weeks of devastating NATO air raids that cost many lives and great destruction.

US led imperialist forces occupied Kosova and set about trying to change the region to serve their interests. Under Michael Steiner, the UN Special Representative, an imposed viceroy in Kosova, the province is run along with right wing and corrupt Albanian parties. Parliament can pass ‘radical’ policies if it so wishes because all of its decisions have to be endorsed by the Steiner, who has the right of veto.

The country remains very poor and mainly agriculturally based. The economy is bankrupt and for many people going to the West is the only way to make a living. Reconstruction after the 1999 conflict has proven to be "haphazard". A Kosovan journalist remarked, "They give us generators instead of electricity and it’s the same with justice: all we get is complicated political arrangements."

Ethnic based and gangster violence is commonplace. After NATO’s victory over Serbian forces, the imperialist powers stood back and allowed the reactionary Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) to ‘ethnically cleanse’ tens of thousands of Serbs. The remaining minorities in Kosova are under constant threat as the 40,000 NATO troops in Kosova have proved incapable and unwilling to stop violent attacks on non-Albanian communities.

A virtual state of ‘lawlessness’ exists in many parts of the country, which is awash with arms. The Kosova Albanian parties are linked to criminals and deeply divided. The two main parties are the Democratic League of Kosova (DLK), of President Ibrahim Rugova, and the Democratic Party of Kosova (DPK), of Hashim Thaci, to which most of the old KLA leaders belong. Elements amongst the Western powers, weary of DLK’s cronyism and the DPK’s involvement in organised crime, are now backing a third force, the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AFK), which has won about 8% of the vote. The unsavoury Rumush Haradinaj, who has a criminal record in France and Switzerland and who also headed one of the KLA’s most ruthless anti-Serb factions, runs the AFK.

Such is the level of clashes between these gangsters members of President Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosova (DLK) have been murdered by ex-KLA forces that are connected to Haradinaj.

The parliamentary elections in November 2001 were followed by months of political crisis. Three separate ballots had to be held before the Kosova Assembly elected Rugova president. The elections revealed how the DLK, DPK and AFK have nothing to offer voters and could only try to out do one another with variants of Albanian nationalism. But this has the possibility of bringing the Albanian based parties into collision with the NATO run representatives.

Although in effect Kosova is run independently of Serbia, the official future of the country is uncertain. For all their previous talk about Kosovan democratic rights, the Western powers fear that to allow Kosova to become a fully-fledged independent state would act as a powerful impetus towards ‘Greater Albanian’ ambitions in the region and renewed conflict.

The West now views Albanian nationalism as a destabilising factor in the Balkans. An independent Kosova is regarded as a safe haven for organised crime and a focus for pan-Albanian ambitions to recover lost territory, especially in the precarious state of Macedonia.

The lessons of ethnic conflicts and Western imperialist meddling are clear. Only a common struggle of Kosova Albanians, Serbs and the other working people of the Balkans against reactionary nationalists and capitalism can bring about genuine self-determination and democratic rights, and the expulsion of imperialism from the region. After all, it was the masses of Serbia, not NATO bombs, that overthrew the authoritarian Milosevic in 2000. This brought about some real democratic gains, but in the absence of a socialist alternative, right-wing and pro-Western politicians have misruled since.

East Timor – "The usual UN two-tier society"

East Timor became a new nation last year (now renamed Timor Lorosa’e), after four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, Japanese occupation during World War Two and brutal Indonesian invasion from 1975.

Although a small island with a small population, the tiny nation has always had great strategic importance and considerable oil and gas resources.

Indonesian occupation would not have been possible without the assent of the US, which for 20 years armed and trained the Indonesian military forces fighting East Timorese pro-independence guerrillas. Around 200,000 Timorese (almost a third of the population) were massacred.

Following the late 1990s revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Suharto in Indonesia, the grip of Indonesia over East Timor weakened. In 1999 the UN stepped in with the backing of the big powers and formed a ‘protectorate’ in East Timor. The imperialist countries feared a popular revolt and aimed to contain the situation by channelling it along safe ‘constitutional’ lines. They were aided in this scheme by the ex-‘Marxist’ leadership of the hugely popular Fretlin (the Revolutionary Front for East Timorese Independence) that came to accept an imperialist dictated ‘solution’.

In August 1999 a UN referendum on the island’s future was held and showed overwhelming support for independence. However militias backed by the Indonesian military went on the rampage during which 10,000 East Timorese were killed and large parts of the infrastructure destroyed.

The UN oversaw the creation of a parliament that is dominated by Fretlin. Mari Alkatiri, the prime minister, is regarded as having "authoritarian tendencies".

Real power however has resided with the UN, which promised to "rebuild" the country. The international media regards East Timor as one of the UN’s "biggest success stories" but how does it add up for the poor inhabitants?

East Timor remains one of the world’s poorest countries. 90% of the people live off the land and annual income is a mere US$320 per head. Life expectancy for men is 49 years and 50 years for women.

The country’s main income today comes from ‘aid’ from the UN and loans from the World Bank. Personal expenditure by international aid workers and ‘peacekeepers’ provides a boost to the economy. But the East Timorese are not as ‘thankful’ as the Western agencies would expect. Popular anger at the failure to improve living standards reached a boiling point in 2000, when "angry demonstrators filled the streets of Dili [the capital] protesting not only the usual UN two-tier society but the UN administrators’ luxury cars and lifestyle" (Le Monde diplomatique, June 2002).

Rather than call for the island’s natural resources to be put into public democratic ownership to benefit the entire population, the Fretlin leadership went along with West’s insistence on handing away the lucrative gas and oil.

From 2004, offshore oil and gas fields are due to be exploited following an agreement between the UN, acting on "behalf" of the Timorese, and Australian government, which previously supported and aided the Suharto occupation and looting of Timor’s resources.

East Timor will "reap" only US$180 million a year from the gas shipped to Japan from the year 2006 – a tiny fraction of the expected bonanza. Furthermore the flow of gas will not bring any jobs to the island since the precious resource will be brought ashore in Australia. Rather pathetically, the East Timorese leaders are demanding the right to renegotiate an earlier treaty between Indonesia and Australia, to "assert the new nation’s rights over the fields".

The country also faces a huge refugee repatriation problem, ethnic differences and the possibility of renewed violence.

There will be no significant improvement in the lives of the Timorese under capitalist ‘independence’. In fact, the fate of the island is completely linked to the struggle for socialism by the working people of the region.

Afghanistan – "The smiling face of the Taliban"

Thousands of civilians died in late 2001, during the US war on Afghanistan. But the war was "worth it", or so the West said, were told, because following the collapse of the reactionary Islamic Taliban regime the lives of millions of Afghanis would be transformed.

Under the auspices of the UN, a Loya Jerga (a traditional assembly of tribal representatives) formed an ‘interim administration’ in June 2002. It is tasked with governing until 2004, overseeing the formation of a new national army and to prepare for elections.

In reality, the interim administration, headed by Hamid Karzai, and backed up by troops from the UN’s International Security Assistance Force, hardly controls the capital, Kabul, let alone the rest of the vast country. Fighting between local commanders for power and territory is especially common in the southern and eastern regions. Local militias now control the former regional strongholds of the Taliban and carry out arbitrary justice and persecute minorities.

The effort to fund and organise a national army has failed. Only 3,000 soldiers have been trained and many have since returned to work for their former warlord bosses. To make matters worse, opium production has soared since the end of the war.

Despite promises of huge foreign aid and ‘nation building’ by the Western powers, the economy and infrastructure in Afghanistan are in ruins and many of its people are refugees. Life expectancy is 46 years for men and 45 years for women.

The failure of imperialist rule in Afghanistan can be measured by the negligible change to the status of women. In Kabul and across the country the limited freedoms granted to women after the fall of the Taliban are being attacked anew. Slogans on walls throughout Kabul demand women to appear in public only when completely covered in burkas. The hated Taliban religious police have been abolished and replaced with the Ministry of Islamic Education! Whereas the Taliban violently forced women to abide by reactionary Islamic laws, the new ministry presses women to adopt the "national official dress", based on Islamic codes. The Ministry’s foot soldiers escort female "offenders" back to their homes where they reprimand the women’s husbands or relatives. Not surprisingly, women prefer to wear burkas rather than face constant harassment. Rina Amiri, a UN officer working in Kabul, calls the moral police, "the smiling face of the Taliban".

Many women are raped, especially among ethnic minorities such as the Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan. In many regions local chiefs or police officials who show just the same attitude towards women have replaced the Taliban. Elsewhere Taliban era officials are still in power.

Afghanistan’s strategic position means that it will always be fought over by the local and big powers. The Afghan poor will always be the victims of these power struggles. Only a movement of workers and peasants, linked to the working people of neighbouring countries, can show a way out from endless misery and imperialist domination.

The same can be said of Iraq, which now faces its own imperialist conquest. The real meaning of Western imposed rule has, even in these early post-Saddam Hussein days, already led many Iraqis to oppose the occupiers. US imperialism has secured control of Iraqi oil and allowed the wholesale sacking of the infrastructure, public utilities and even the priceless museum antiquities and libraries. The Whitehouse is now busy imposing a military regime on the country. But as the brave demonstrations against US rule have shown, including in Mosul, where at least ten anti-US demonstrators were shot dead by US troops on 15 April, the working people of Iraq will resist these actions. As increasingly will the masses of the region as US imperialism attempts to strengthen its writ.

A version of this article appears in the 17 April issue of ‘The Socialist’, newspaper of the Socialist Party (England and Wales)

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April 2003