Afghanistan: An inescapable quagmire

Karzai appointment will only deepen crisis

Abdullah Abdullah, the main challenger of Hamid Karzai in the Afghan presidential elections, announced on Sunday that he had decided to withdraw from the secound round of voting, which was scheduled for 7 November, ostensibly because all the conditions he had set for reform of the so-called ‘Independent’ Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan had been rejected. This decision was followed on Monday by the announcement, by this same commission, of the direct appointment of Karzai as President of Afghanistan. One of the official reasons given by the IEC for this decision was that “the presence of a single contender for the vote would have posed serious questions regarding the legitimacy of the presidency”. How the direct appointment of a candidate, without holding a new vote will be more “legitimate” is not clear. This electoral process, in terms of “legitimacy”, was a blatant failure for imperialism from beginning to end.

The impasse facing imperialism in Afghanistan is paralleled with a growing rejection of this war among workers and youth internationally. On the other hand, Obama administration is preparing for a possible new military escalation on the ground. Therefore, the US government and its imperialist counterparts wanted to use these elections in order to give the idea that democracy progressing in the country, and to legitimise their puppet regime. However, maybe giving the mask of democracy to a highly corrupted and discredited regime, and to a so-called “state” relying upon warlords, fundamentalists and opium trade barons a bit too ambitious a task. The way the electoral process was conducted, as well as its outcome, added to new scandals, such as the recent discovery about the CIA’s regular payments to Afghan president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, is a serious blow to imperialism’s authority.

Karzai and British Prime minister, Gordon Brown

Even before the elections were held, it was already quite clear that this electoral process would be far from ‘impartial’ and ‘democratic’, especially in a context of generalised violence, intimidation and foreign military occupation. The day of the election itself was “one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years”, according to Human Rights Watch. The general climate of violence and the lack of serious political alternative to the main candidates (the main challenger of Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, was a previous minister in Karzai’s government and linked to the rotten regime) resulted in an extremely low turn-out (38% according to official figures). In some areas and villages, virtually nobody went to the polls. The first results indicated a strong victory for Karzai, with 54.6% of the votes, and 27.8% for Abdullah. Karzai’s (from the majority Pashtun community, strong in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, where the Taleban a large presence) campaign was based on deals with different regional warlords and tribal chiefs from non-Pashtun minorities who are dominant in the North and West of the country, such as Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, Tadjik, Qasim Fahim or Hazara Shiite, Karim Khalili, all notorious for their legacies of slaughter, drug trafficking, crime and extortion.

Moreover, massive fraud rapidly revealed itself as the core of Karzai’s victory. On 30 September, Peter Galbraith, the top US official of the UN’s mission in Afghanistan, was fired, after having refused to take part in a cover-up of the fraud. This case was symptomatic of the growing divisions among the ruling class on how to deal with what everybody knew was a pure electoral masquerade. Day after day, increasing evidence of frauds was revealed -there were numerous reports of ‘ghost balloting sites’, which never opened but registered thousands of votes-, putting more and more pressure on the shoulders of the ‘international community’ to distance themselves from their previously enthusiastic statements and congratulations. US imperialism started to put intense pressure on Karzai to go for a second round of voting, which the Afghan president finally agreed to. Abdullah Abdullah resigning from the planned run-off then changed the situation. Abdullah was probably ready to close his eyes to some ‘irregularities’ in exchange of a political deal, giving him some influence the cabinet, but the failure to reach an agreement saw him playing the card of ‘integrity’, despite the fact that about 300,000 votes for Abdullah had been found ‘fraudulent’ after the first round as well.

Even without the resignation of Abdullah, if the second poll had taken place, the turn-out would have been much worse than the first round. The Taleban had announced that they would do everything they could to sabotage the poll. A secound round would most likely have been again dominated by violence, fraud and massive abstention. Whatever the chosen solution to resolve the crisis, the few remnants of credibility regarding the process were already burned. In these conditions, US and British imperialism finally chose the faster and easier way to finish this farce by pushing for the appointment of Karzai as the new President. But this will not change anything. The recent communiqué published by the Taleban is certainly not wrong when it says that, “it’s surprising that two weeks ago, the puppet-President Hamid Karzai was exposed in an electoral fraud” but that “he is now elected on the basis of the same fraudulent elections, with congratulations from Washington and London.”

These elections, rather than giving any credibility to Afghan political institutions, have only succeeded in triggering anger and distrust against the Afghan regime, and the blatant complicity of imperialism and United Nations in trying to cover up its manoeuvres. A president whose authority outside Kabul is only achieved though unstable alliance with warlords, combined with a huge rejection of the war in their own countries, is now the political background facing imperialist governments, combined with an increase in Taleban violence.

US anti-war protestors

Losing the war at home

The Afghan war is becoming exposed as an unwinnable, unpopular mess of atrocities for the US army and NATO coalition. The U.N. reported recently that the death toll of Afghan civilians is at almost 1,500 for this year alone, while September and October were the deadliest months for NATO troops since the invasion of the country, in 2001. The rising death toll during the last months has contributed to decisively breaking the public support for the war, particularly in Britain and in the US. According to a new poll published by Channel 4 News at the end of October, 48% of British respondents thought troops were not winning the war and that victory in Afghanistan “is impossible”, a huge increase, compared with 36% in August 2007. The same poll reveals that 62% wanted the troops to withdraw from Afghanistan “immediately or within a year”. In the US, at the end of August, a CNN poll. showed that only 41% of American people justified the war in Afghanistan. In Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and in every country with troops in Afghanistan, the majority of people also strongly favour withdrawal.

This sentiment is spreading more and more in the army itself. Joe Glenton, a British soldier facing the threat of being jailed for two years for refusing to return to fight in Afghanistan, is participating in demos and rallies against the war, calling for a complete withdrawal of the troops. He explained recently that, when returning to his barracks near Oxford, he feared a hostile reaction from his colleagues. Instead, he was applauded by fellow soldiers. “They were handshakes and a lot of pats on the back. Someone said I was saying what everyone else is thinking.” Significantly, the morale of the troops on the ground is at its lowest point since the beginning of the war, and disillusionment is spreading fast among the rank-and-file soldiers. There are reports of suicide attempts, anxiety and depression, with explosions of anger against officers, etc. The current mission in Afghanistan is considered as one of the main causes of the sharp increase in the number of suicides in the US army. Last year, 128 soldiers committed suicide, compared with 115 in 2007. However, the suicide rate so far this year is already on the verge of surpassing this number. “Many soldiers have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair, and just want to get back to their families”, was the observation of a British Artillery Captain in “The Times” newspaper. In the same article, a 37-year-old Sergeant from Detroit, asked if the mission was worthwhile, replied: “If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don’t. The only soldiers who thought it is going well work in an office, not on the ground. The whole country is going to shit.”

Indeed, as long as foreign imperialist forces, tribal leaders, warlords and reactionary forces like the Taleban are controlling the region and fighting for influence, this sentiment is essentially correct! All the futile arguments used to justify the war and occupation by the US and British governments have been reduced to dust. This war achieved absolutely nothing in terms of bringing democratic rights to the Afghan people. This is dramatically illustrated by the worsening situation regarding women’s rights. Recently, Karzai approved a disgusting and ultra-reactionary law for Afghanistan’s Shia community, depriving women custody of their children, forcing women to ask their husband for the right to work, and allowing a man the right to refuse to give food to his wife if she refuses his sexual demands. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan estimates that 87% of Afghan women are illiterate, only 30% of girls have access to education, one in every three women experiences physical, psychological, or sexual violence, and 70-80% of young Afghan women are forced into marriage.

Shia Afghan women protest new reactionary laws

Recently, a Pakistani infantry officer, commenting on the Afghan war, was pointing out: “The root cause of the insurgency is not religion but poverty.” According to him, a solution cannot be found without “identifying means of improving conditions for Pakistanis, Afghans, and Central Asian peoples whose chronically corrupt leaderships steal everything within their reach.” Indeed, the abject poverty facing the majority of Afghan people contrasts with the rich lifestyle of the corrupt economic and political Afghan elite. Moreover, the number of refugees fleeing the country has reached gigantic proportions -close to four million, according to the last estimations. Also, Afghanistan has become the biggest producer and distributor of opium on the planet – funding, among other things, the Taleban insurgency.

Winning the hearts and minds?

The growing hostility to the Afghanistan war internationally is accompanied by a growing hostility from the Afghan people themselves towards Western troops occupying the country. The French newspaper “Le Monde” said recently that, “The context of the evolution of the French troops in the East of Afghanistan is one of frank hostility from the local population. The conclusion of this reject is drawn since several months by French authorities, but tends to be hidden by the politicians in Paris, conscious of the growing doubts from the public opinion regarding the military involvement in Afghanistan.” This sentiment of hatred against foreign occupation was recently illustrated by protests against American troops initiated by students in Kabul. Hundreds of protesters clashed for two days with Afghan police in the capital, burning the American flag and effigies of President Obama.

In the absence of a real alternative, this deep opposition to the occupation has served to feed the recruitment basis for the Taleban, attracting endless recruits. The Taleban insurgency is not a unified and national movement with a centralised command, but is divided into different armed groups. Research by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) gives interesting indications about the influence of these groups: it says that 80% of Afghanistan now has a “permanent Taliban presence” and that 97% of the country has "substantial Taliban activity." But a new feature developing in the last months has been that their influence, until recently confined mainly to Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, is spreading to the North of the country as well, in areas traditionally considered as more ‘secure’, like the Kunduz Province. These facts are sufficient in themselves to show the total failure and the ongoing military defeat being experienced by imperialist forces.

The Financial Times recently underlined: “Since major NATO military operations started in Afghanistan in 2006, support for the insurgency has grown” This kind of statement coming from one of the most influential mouthpieces of capitalism reflects the growing divisions developing in the ruling class regarding debate on a possible deployment of new military forces and on how to get out of this mess without undermining the prestige and interests of US and British imperialism. Some strategists are now stressing the need to push for further “dialogue” and agreements with parts of the Taleban, by financing or integrating them into the State apparatus. But this could only lay the basis for further problems. The growing disaster of imperialism in Afghanistan has led the majority of big business strategists and journalists to play down the original “aims”of the occupation, and move towards minimal objectives. The “fight for democracy” has been transformed into “We do not have to create a Jeffersonian democracy” (Los Angeles Times, 10/05/2009) or “Forget Nation-building” (The Guardian, 10/05/2009), while the “fight against the Taliban and to protect Afghan people” has been transformed into “Nato forces cannot hope to secure the whole of Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force goal of protecting the population is unachievable in its entirety” (Mehar Omar Khan, cited in the Financial Times, 10/28/2009)

All these discussions have also revealed fractures in the so-called ‘unity’ of the NATO-coalition, with each state having its own agenda in terms of strategic interests abroad, as well as in terms of declining public support for the war at home. Speaking about the British costs of the war in Afghanistan, a senior Whitehall official said: “The costs of the war have risen to more than £3bn ($5bn) a year. Yet a deployment like this comes at a time of real pressure on public spending. Britain has a deficit of £175bn this year. The idea that there is a limit to what we can devote to this campaign is not something that should shock people.” What “shocks people” is obviously not the limits in the war budget, but, on the contrary, the unthinkable sums of money used for this war while public services and jobs are under threat under the cover of a so-called lack of money.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently agreed to send 500 more troops into Afghanistan, added to the already 9,000 troops present on the ground. The Spanish government made a similar decision, sending 220 more troops, raising their total to about 1,000. In the US, an intense debate on sending several thousand more troops, while a total of 68,000 are already on the ground. Barack Obama has been put under increasing pressure, on the one side from military officials and a section of the political establishment calling for more troops – General McChrystal spoke of an additional 40.000 -, and on the other side by the domestic unpopularity of the war. Indeed, a decision to send more troops could fuel discontent against the Obama administration and lay the basis for a renewal of the anti-war movement in the US. On 5 October, a poll showed that only 26% of Americans believe more US troops must be deployed. A political crisis in the Democratic Party could develop as well, as some Democratic leaders have come out against sending more troops, saying that there is no public support for such a move and that the Afghan army must take up a greater share of the burden. This proposed strategy, of an “Afghanisation” of the security forces, by recruiting and training more Afghan police and army, suffered a major blow with the recent killing of five British soldiers by a “rogue” Afghan policeman in Southern Helmand Province on Tuesday 3 November. This gives a new indication of the total disarray facing imperialism in Afghanistan. In this context, we will see an increase in opportunist stands against the war from establishment politicians in the next period. On Wednesday, the former British Labour Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, called for a withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan. This is not in any way a consistent opposition to the war, as Howells was a strong supporter of the war during his time as a foreign minister, between 2005 and 2008.

The pressure of the opposition to the war on Obama was illustrated by his first attendance, last Thursday 29 October, at a repatriation ceremony for the bodies of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan. But the crocodile tears of the politicians will not be able to reverse growing discontent regarding the sending of mainly poor and working class young people to die in an unwinnable war for the prestige and profits of the elite. A British Colonel responsible for the army recruitment recognised in the Guardian: “The recession has had a big impact on the numbers coming forward.” With the dramatic increase in unemployment caused by the recession, for the US and British governments the recession’s “lost generation” of young people are seen as perfect candidates to lose their lives on the battlefield.

Which way forward?

The imperialist intervention in Afghanistan has created an irredeemable mess. The occupation, supposedly for “democracy, peace and justice”, has only succeeded in bringing growing misery, mass killings of civilians, increasing the influence of religious extremism and bombings attacks, and last but not least, exporting the conflict into Pakistan, with disastrous consequences for the masses of that country as well. The occupation only exacerbates the chaos, and will lead to new conflicts, for power and influence, between warlords who have been considerably strengthened.

US imperialism is directly responsible for the devastation of the country. In addition, the monster they are fighting against at the present time is their own creation. Together with their Pakistani and Saudi partners, US imperialism has consciously promoted and financed the Taliban and religious fundamentalists in the past. This strategy was especially useful to fight against “Communist” forces in the 1980s. But since then, they have lost control of their own monster. The idea that they can now resolve the problem they have themselves created is a total illusion.

The cost of this war has reached an average of $3.5 billion a month. However, similar financial attention has not been paid to the struggle to survive which characterises the day-to-day life of the majority of people living in this country. This money, invested in destruction, could instead have been used to build thousands of schools, and hospitals, and to provide a decent life, with jobs and housing for all. This would be a far more efficient way to fight against the Taleban than with tons of bombs and thousands of helicopters, planes and soldiers. But this kind of plan doesn’t correspond to the interests of imperialism, looking only for a way to maintain and extend its influence in the region for economic interests.

An increase in troops will not bring any solution to the present situation, but only prepare the ground for new catastrophes and explosions of violence. The frustration and despair among poor and ordinary people, caused by occupation and poverty, with the absence of a genuine socialist alternative, feeds the ranks of religious fundamentalism. In the absence of an organised mass and democratic movement of the working class and poor, the anger spreading amongst the population could be used by Taliban, tribal chiefs and warlords and other reactionary forces which are only looking to further their own interests and have absolutely no alternative to offer to the present regimes. What is needed is a common struggle of the working and poor masses to assure their own security and to improve their living conditions.

This must be linked to the transformation of society along socialist lines. Indeed, more than ever, the situation in Afghanistan presents a choice between socialism and barbarism. Capitalism’s only way of solving problems is to create new ones, at the expense of the lives of millions. The only viable way forward is to build a mass movement in the region in order to get rid of the corrupted elite and their international big business backers. This struggle must be based on a programme which defends the right to self-determination for the different national and ethnic minorities, and which appeals to the international solidarity of the workers movement. This must be supported by the building of a powerful movement against war worldwide and of strong workers’ parties, arguing the case for an international socialist alternative against the misery of war and capitalism.

We Demand

  • Troops out of Afghanistan now! Stop the slaughter of civilians; let the Afghan people decide their own future!
  • No support for the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Karzai; for a mass struggle to remove reactionary regimes in Asia and in the Middle East!
  • For genuine democratic rights; stop the attacks against women’s rights
  • For the building of independent and democratic organisations of the workers and poor; for democratically organised, multi-ethnic workers’ defence forces
  • For a massive reconstruction programme in Afghanistan, under the democratic control of the masses; for public ownership of the gas, oil, and other key industries and resources
  • For the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government on a democratic socialist programme, as part of a socialist federation of South Asia, including Pakistan
  • Build a mass movement against the war! Don’t pay for the capitalist crisis! Spend money on jobs and public services, not on war and weapons!
  • For a socialist world, free from terror, exploitation and war

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November 2009