Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Graveyard of Empires: Time to Get Out of Afghanistan

Sunday the independent Wikileaks site released tens of thousands of classified American documents from its war in Afghanistan, dating from the early years of the war under President Bush through the first year of the war under President Obama. The documents were released in advance to three major news organizations, including the New York Times, which published some of them along with an analysis on Monday. The leaked documents show a war failing to meet the stated objectives of its masters. They show a history of attacks on civilians in Afghanistan and in the border regions of Pakistan, and document an insurgency strengthened in response to these attacks. They also show the collusion of Pakistan's secret police with the Taliban, despite the stated U.S. alliance with the governments of Pakistan, both with the military dictatorship of Musharraf favored by President Bush and the civilian government that followed favored by Mr. Obama.

Also on Monday, news of an alleged attack, not yet confirmed by the American military, in which a NATO attack in southern Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of over 50 civilians, including at least half women and children.

The United States attacked Afghanistan in retribution for the 9/11 attacks: Al Qaeda was based there, guests of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the regime so-called The Taliban that had unified the country in 1996 after smashing the rule of the warlords. A few years earlier those mujahedeen warlords, financed and aided by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran, had defeated the pro-Communist government that had ruled since 1978; that government was backed by Soviet troops for a decade.

In 2001 the U.S. smashed the Taliban government, and greatly reduced Al Qaeda's presence in the region. Though it assassinated, killed in battle, or captured much of Al Qaeda's leadership, it failed to capture -- or prove that it had killed -- the top two Al Qaeda leaders including Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban government was dispersed and replaced with a corrupt puppet regime under Hamid Karzai that controls only a fraction of Afghan geography and relies heavily on so-called "Coalition" military forces (aka U.S. and tiny contingents of allies) and factions of the Mujahedeen warlords to keep a fading semblance of order in the country. Claiming he would finish the task set aside by George Bush when he decided to attack Iraq instead, Obama was elected pledging to deepen the war in Afghanistan by refocusing on the nation-building and terrorist-elimination that was clearly floundering two years ago. But the war has continued to flounder, despite changes in tactical facades, and support for the Taliban insurgency has risen along with the Afghan civilian casualties. Karzai has been revealed to be embarrassingly corrupt and unpopular. Obama has been further embarrassed by the spectacle of the crazy head of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, calling for an unwinnable war to end.

The above Soviet solidarity poster from the 1980s lauds the secular Afghan state it was then engaged in propping up. When Afghan Communists seized power in the late 1970s, they changed the national flag to a red banner and instituted land reforms and women's equality laws that provoked an insurgency. The first of several coups d'etat to rock the Communist government changed that red flag to the modified Afghan tricolor shown in the poster. (Today's flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Karzai's government, is the same tricolor with a different crest.)

The video below is a fascinating bit of documentary evidence filmed toward the end of the Soviet occupation. The secular bureaucrats interviewed are fascinating to me: their commitment to their progressive revolution is clearly expressed. But they seem somehow isolated from the country rising up around them, and the windswept desolation around them seems more than a little metaphorical.

The Soviets withdrew as the Soviet Union itself was collapsing upon itself. The war that the Soviets were unable to win proved some kind of last straw. No matter how much the Afghan Communists and the Soviets tried to build some kind of national unity compromise in Afghanistan, reaching out to conservative and tribal elements, the military forces of Islamic insurgents aided and financed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia were closing their grip.

Like the domino theory in reverse, the Soviet "empire" collapsed, with only a few world holdouts against the restoration of market capitalism. These were countries like Cuba and Vietnam who had fought their way to their versions of socialism through the crucible of conflict with the United States.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many opponents of the war in Vietnam argued that not only should the U.S. get out of the war and bring its troops home, but that the Vietnamese Communists deserved to win; deserved to transform their country. Not only was the U.S. war inflicted on the Vietnamese people immoral, but the cause of America's enemy was just in and of itself.

And here's a problem for many progressives today. No matter how unjust the American occupation with all its civilian casualties seem to be, many argue there is that matter of Al Qaeda and the brutally repressive Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. Here's the sad truth: the seeds of disaster that is today's Afghanistan were sowed by British colonialism in the 19th century. They have been nourished by thirty years of foreign intervention in thirty years of civil war. They've been nourished by India and Pakistan using Afghanistan as a covert battlefield for the unfinished wars between them. They've been nourished by conservative Islamic fundamentalist evangelists. None of these outside forces -- British, Russians, Americans, Saudis, Indians, Pakistanis, or Arab Salafists -- can fix the broken nation they've created. The Afghan people must have self-determination, even if it means a government that seems backward and repressive by outside standards. It can only be Afghan people themselves who liberate their country from fundamentalism, from tribalism, from poverty, from dependence on the drug trade. An earlier generation of Afghan secularists sought military solutions to advance their cause, to ultimately tragic effect. But perhaps there is a new generation of Afghans who will find a way to temper any resurgent Taliban government from repeating its tragic excesses.

This month an analyst for the American Enterprise Institute thinktank made this statement: "We don't need more troops, we need more time to let our strategy work," he said. "Afghan troops and security forces are not ready to take over. A premature withdrawal would be disastrous. President Obama should renounce the July 2011 withdrawal date." But American troops have been at it for nine years, longer than any other war in U.S. history. Things will not get "better" in a few more months or a few more years. Things will only get worse.

Almost 3,000 innocent American civilians died in an unprovoked attack on 9/11. If, as reported above, yesterday 50 innocent Afghan civilians died in an unprovoked American attack, and the week before that a handful died in a predator attack, and the month before that a few more were killed, and as revealed by Wikileaks many many more in the years before that, how many of these attacks add up to 3,000? Is the goal of the U.S. to equal Al Qaeda in its savagery against innocent civilians? The U.S. has already proved its brutality with the entire Iraq adventure. Setting aside for our argument about the Afghan conflict the unknown thousands (millions?) of Iraqis who have lost their lives since 2003, how many Afghan (and Pakistani) civilians must pay the price for 9/11? And if Americans care only about American lives and not the lives of other human beings, how many American soldiers must be sacrificed to avenge those 3,000 civilians? How deeply must the American economy be ruined by unlimited military spending to make up for the crushed steel of 9/11?

What the Wikileaks documents represent is the handwriting on the wall. Osama bin Laden on the loose or not, the U.S. must get out of Afghanistan. It must end a war and occupation that is only prolonging human misery, not ending it. Barack Obama was elected in part because of his pledge to end the Iraqi occupation, even if only gradually. He has attempted to assuage his critics with vague mutterings about beginning to draw down U.S. presence in Afghanistan next year, at the same time as other members of his government like Hillary Clinton talk about needing years more to achieve American goals. But Obama is wrong: American troops need to come home now, just like in Iraq. Here is the ugly truth: resurgent Taliban rule cannot be worse than what is happening now, because the U.S. is already party to terrorism against the Afghan people. There is no Afghan N.L.F. to transform social relations in Afghanistan, but an optimistic reading of history shows that human beings have a great ability to liberate themselves when left to their own devices. Freedom will come to the common people of Afghanistan, but it will never arrive in crates of guns from abroad.

U.S. Out of Afghanistan Now!


  1. Thank you for this informative article. The most enlightening I've read so far.

  2. You're welcome. Thanks for stopping by, nothingprofound!