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Afghanistan: The Victory That Wasn’t

Far from being a model for a “liberated” Iraq, Afghanistan shows how the U.S. can get bogged down Soviet-style.

For those worried that an American-occupied Iraq might become a quagmire, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld offered reassuring words on Valentine’s Day. The success story of U.S.-administered Afghanistan, he announced, will serve as a model for the new, “liberated” Iraq.

Operation Enduring Freedom—the rapid conquest of Afghanistan in October 2001—indeed showed that small numbers of highly mobile, electronically linked U.S. troops, using local mercenaries and devastating airpower, could swiftly crush a primitive opponent bereft of air or ground cover, with only minimal American losses.

The lightning campaign that overthrew the Taliban and dispersed al-Qaeda’s 300-odd fighters, as well as a score of other militant Islamic groups, was greeted as a triumph by the two driving forces behind President George W. Bush’s increasingly aggressive and unilateralist foreign policy: the Rumsfeld-Cheney Manifest Destiny crowd and militant Israel lobbyists, whose Grand Ayatollahs, Norman Podhoretz and Richard Perle, have been preaching “World War IV” against Islam. Kabul was the first step on a crusade against Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Tripoli.

Ask most Americans about Afghanistan, and they will tell you that George Bush overthrew the “evil” Taliban regime in a bloodless victory, liberated its people from feudalism and superstition, freed Afghan women, and brought democracy and good government to that benighted nation. Such is the rosy portrait promoted by the administration and ceaselessly amplified by the American media, which since 9/11 too often recalls the fawning Soviet media in the days of Chairman Leonid Brezhnev.

This image of “liberated” Afghanistan, where the natives abjure militant Islam and wave little American flags, is certainly what Donald Rumsfeld would like to see repeated in “liberated” Iraq. The problem is that this is a Potemkin-Village fantasy. In reality, Afghanistan today is a dangerous, seething mess that is probably dragging the 10,000 American occupation troops garrisoned there ever deeper into an ugly, bloody, low-intensity guerilla war: a dark portent of what may happen if the U.S. invades Iraq and makes it into a military colony.

To understand what is really happening in Afghanistan, go back to 1998. The mainly Pushtun Taliban, an obscurantist religious movement backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had brought order to war-racked Afghanistan and driven its bitter foe, the Russian- and Iranian-backed Northern Alliance, into the remote northeast. The Alliance, composed of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, was the rump of the old Afghan Communist Party that had been overthrown by the U.S.-backed mujihadin in the early 1990s. Led by the mediagenic Ahmad Shah Massoud, who had defected to the Soviets in the mid-1980s, the Alliance was armed by Moscow and Tehran. Its chieftans controlled 90 percent of the nation’s poppy-morphine-heroine trade.

Washington conducted secret talks with the Taliban from the time it seized Kabul in 1996 and began quietly providing the Islamic regime with a few hundred million dollars annually. The Clinton administration had two objectives: 1) a deal with the Taliban to allow the American Unocal oil company to build a pipeline from Uzbekistan south to Karachi, Pakistan; and 2) possibly using the Taliban, which hosted Islamic resistance groups from numerous nations—notably the neo-communist Central Asian states and Uigher Muslims from Xinjiang (Sinkiang), China—as a weapon against America’s then enemy number one, China.

Osama bin Laden, who returned to Afghanistan in 1998, was barely noticed by the United States, in spite of his calls for jihad against “Crusaders and Jews.” Bin Laden, who had extensive business experience, advised the Taliban’s unworldly rustics to reject Unocal’s pipeline deal in favor of a better offer from a Latin American consortium. Washington was furious and began contingency plans to invade Afghanistan. But U.S. aid continued to flow to the Taliban until May 2001, four months before the attacks of Sept. 11.

That horrifying and humiliating event caused the Bush administration to order an invasion of Afghanistan and, we now learn, a war against Iraq, though Baghdad had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. and Russia concluded an agreement to co-ordinate the overthrow of the Taliban.

Russia’s role in the campaign was decisive. Moscow delivered $600 million of tanks, artillery, helicopters, and armored vehicles to the Alliance and sent hundreds of technicians and “advisors” to flesh out its ranks. Troops from a Russian division based in neighboring Tajikistan donned new Alliance uniforms provided by Iran.

The Chief of the Russian General Staff, Marshall Kvashnin, was dispatched by President Vladimir Putin to direct the Alliance’s offensive against the Taliban. Alliance troops tied down entrenched Taliban forces, making them perfect targets for U.S. B-52 bombers and strike aircraft, which dropped 12,000 heavy bombs in a single month on the hapless talibs, who lacked any air defenses, and, accidentally, on sizeable numbers of Afghan civilians.

Pakistan, warned by Washington to turn against the Taliban or face financial ruin, greatly aided the campaign by using its crack intelligence agency, ISI, to bribe Afghan tribal chiefs with some $500 million in cash to ditch the Taliban and side with the Americans.

After resisting for weeks, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered his men to abandon Kabul and scatter to the mountains. Northern Alliance forces and their Russian commanders rolled unopposed into the capital, thus reversing, at least by half, the Soviet defeat in 1989. But the U.S. embarrassingly failed to attain its primary goal: capturing or killing bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Afghan mercenaries hired by the U.S. to flush out Osama bin Laden and about 100 fighters from Tora Bora allowed them to escape, doubtlessly for cash consideration.

Between 1,000 and 3,000 captured Taliban troops were massacred by Alliance leader Gen. Rashid Dostam, a pillar of the old Afghan communist regime and major war criminal. U.S. Special Forces allegedly watched or even supervised the massacres.

The Alliance took power in Kabul and immediately restored the drug trade. The Taliban had almost eradicated poppy production, the dirt-poor nation’s only cash crop. Under the Alliance, America’s new ally, production soared, according to UN and British anti-drug monitors, from 185 tons per annum to 2,700 tons. American DEA agents in Pakistan and Afghanistan were ordered to shut their eyes to the outflow of morphine base, which supplied 85 percent of Europe’s and 25 percent of America’s heroin. President Bush’s war on drugs had collided with his war on terror—and lost. Once again, as in Indochina and Central America, the U.S. found itself colluding in the drug trade.

The CIA produced an old Afghan “asset,” Hamid Karzai. Another “asset” (and old comrade in arms of this writer from the 1980s war against the Soviets), Abdul Haq, had been the CIA’s original selection to become leader of “liberated” Afghanistan. But Haq was captured and hanged by the Taliban. So Karzai was chosen. This suave, eloquent former government official proved a far more polished and compliant representative of U.S. interests than the impetuous, plain spoken, and too independent- minded Haq.

In his trademark green cloak, speaking flawless English, and saying all the right things about democracy, the evils of militant Islam, and women’s rights, Karzai proved a master of public relations. He was lionized by the U.S. media and quickly became the symbol of the “new” Afghanistan. The U.S. organized a national tribal council, or loya jirga, ostensibly representing a true popular consensus. In fact, delegates were bribed or threatened by the U.S. and the Alliance into appointing Karazai “interim” leader of what cynics called “Chevronistan.”

The affable Karzai, a Pushtun, was merely a figurehead. Most Afghans dismissed him as “mayor of Kabul.” Real power was held by a cabal of Russian-supported Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, Massoud’s old cronies, led by Gen. Mohammed Fahim, a former senior official of the dreaded communist secret police, KHAD, which tortured and murdered tens of thousands of Afghans in the 1980s, many by burning, freezing, electrocuting, skinning, and burying alive. So, in a keen historic irony, the portions of Afghanistan not under direct U.S. military control fell once again under Russian influence.

U.S. television featured clips of smiling Afghan children waving American flags, women casting off their veils, and Kabulis disco-dancing with joy over their liberation from the Koran-thumping Taliban. This writer, however, experienced a sharp sense of déjà vu, having seen it all before during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It took the Red Army less than a week to seize most of Afghanistan. Pravda and Moscow TV featured pictures of Afghan children waving little red flags and women burning their veils. Soviet agitprop churned out endless stories about the Red Army “liberating” Afghanistan from feudalism, Islamic medievalism, or bringing education, women’s rights, and prosperity to backwards Afghanistan—a shining example of what the Soviets could do for the entire Islamic world.

Moscow installed a puppet ruler in Kabul, Hafizullah Amin, protected by Soviet special forces, staged a bogus loya jirga, and tried to forge a government army. Up in the mountains, a few “terrorists” and “bandits” (anti-Soviet mujihadin) began resisting Soviet occupation forces. But it took two years before widespread armed opposition to the Soviets got under way. Even this resistance looked hopeless against the USSR’s military might. No one in the West cared about the Afghans’ struggle. But by 1985, a full-scale national uprising was underway, an epic struggle, backed by the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia that eventually drove the Red Army from Afghanistan and began the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Like the Soviets, U.S. forces quickly occupied Afghanistan. Like the Soviets, they installed a puppet regime. Americans also seem destined to discover, like the Soviets, that getting into Afghanistan is easy; the trick is getting out. Contrary to the upbeat administration propaganda being fed to the U.S. public about Afghanistan, the situation there continues to deteriorate.

Hamid Karzai is surrounded by 200 American bodyguards: his own people cannot be trusted. Karzai barely escaped being blown up last September. His vice president, warlord Hadji Kadir, an old friend and protector of this writer, was assassinated. Kabul is guarded by a force of international troops that recalls the western forces sent to defend the legations at Peking during China’s 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The rest of Afghanistan, save U.S. military bases and areas under Alliance control, is in chaos. Local warlords, drug barons, and bandits rule the ethnically fragmented nation—the same situation that created the Taliban in 1994.

Armed resistance against U.S. occupation forces and their allies is growing rapidly. Taliban forces have reformed and remain under the command of Mullah Omar, whom the U.S. continues to hunt. Al-Qaeda units are in action. Tribal fighters, angered by American bombings and the sometimes arrogant deportment of U.S. troops, are supporting the Taliban. Numbers of fighters from other militant groups, all mistakenly termed “al- Qaeda” by the Pentagon and U.S. media —have joined the resistance. Anti-U.S. mujihadin based just across the border in Pakistan’s wild Frontier Province, where bin Laden is probably hiding, routinely cross to attack U.S. troops.

Hardly a day now passes without small-scale rocket, mortar, mining, or sniper attacks on U.S. troops. Search and destroy missions conducted by U.S. forces against elusive mujihadin have proven expensive failures that alienate civilians. Recently, another old acquaintance of this writer from the 1980s, Pushtun warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyar, a former foe of the Taliban, proclaimed jihad against U.S. forces, calling for the liberation of Afghanistan from its newest foreign occupier. Hekmatyar, whom the CIA tried to assassinate last year, was the most successful and aggressive of the seven CIA-supported mujihadin commanders battling Soviet occupation.

There is a curious disconnect in news from Afghanistan. Behind a veil of tightly controlled reporting, the Pentagon and U.S. media admit only a handful of American casualties and claim constant success in sweep operations. But this writer’s old mujihadin sources, and field correspondents from Pakistan, Russia, India, and Iran, report rising U.S. casualties and loss of helicopters in fierce battles with Islamic militants and tribesmen.

Many U.S. combat casualties are described as accidents, and some “enemy” dead, as in a February battle, are actually civilians killed by U.S. bombing and strafing. In a major clash, Operation Anaconda in March 2002, U.S. forces were defeated and forced to retreat by the Taliban, losing eight dead and two helicopters. The Pentagon, however, described the clash as a U.S. victory. But such prevarications do not account for the major discrepancy between U.S. war reports and those from the region.

One thing is clear. A low-intensity guerilla war against the U.S. garrison is spreading, something that goes unreported by the U.S. media, which have largely forgotten Afghanistan. Afghans are a proud, xenophobic people who resent foreigners giving them orders. So far, wads of $100-bills dished out to tribal leaders have bought temporary co-operation, but the Soviets did the same, yet eventually found that they could no longer rent loyalty.

The Afghan invasion cost the U.S. at least $35 billion in direct costs up to the end of 2002 not including indirect expenses, such as wear and tear, munitions replacement, and naval deployments. Current operations are costing at least $2.5 billion per month, excluding bribes to warlords and funds for Karzai’s rump regime, which is seeking $37 billion in aid.

Add to these costs maintaining new U.S. bases in neighboring Petrolistans: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, and Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is surging. These bases were ostensibly created to “fight terrorism,” but they coincidentally happen to sit along the route of the U.S.-built and -financed pipeline that will bring oil down from the Caspian Basin south through Afghanistan to Pakistan and thence to the gas-guzzling West.

In another historic irony, Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to open a strategic corridor south to Pakistan and the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, so as to link, for the first time, all the Red Navy’s fleets and expand Soviet power into the oil-producing Gulf and across the Indian Ocean. President Bush appears to be adopting a similar strategy, only in geographical reverse.

The U.S. military, according to confidential sources, is planning for a permanent presence in Afghanistan and neighboring Central Asia “to combat terrorism.” The real mission is to dominate Caspian oil. But staying long in Afghanistan has always proven a grave error for all its invaders, from Alexander’s Macedonians to the Soviet Union. Perhaps the resourceful and ingenious U.S. will succeed in imposing lasting imperial control on Afghanistan. But given the upsurge in fighting and growing antagonism to America’s presence, it is more likely that the bellicose Afghans will once again launch a jihad against their latest “liberator.”

This renewed jihad will be a modest, low-intensity affair but one that bleeds the U.S. treasury and military. Osama bin Laden has said many times that the mighty U.S. can only be defeated and driven from the Muslim world by dragging it into a score of small but debilitating guerilla conflicts. Afghanistan is clearly the first. Iraq promises to be the second. “Liberated” Baghdad could soon look very much like U.S.-run Kabul, an island of western neo-colonial rule in a sea of disorder and violence. 


Eric S. Margolis is the author of War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan and Asia and a columnist, commentator, and war correspondent.

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