Victim of the global hegemon
Following Trump’s cancellation of talks, Yassamine Mather looks back at the disaster that is Afghanistan.
After months of discussion between the US government and the Afghan Taliban, at a time when everyone was expecting a ‘peace agreement’ to be signed involving not just those two parties, but the Afghan government - whose absence in crucial parts of the discussions had been remarked upon - suddenly on September 6 Donald Trump first cancelled the tripartite gathering to sign the deal and then announced that the negotiations had been cancelled. The US president had tweeted that he was going to meet Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and senior Taliban leaders on September 7. However, he cancelled the ‘secret’ meeting at his Camp David retreat after the Taliban admitted it was behind a recent attack that killed a US soldier.
Then on September 10 Trump announced that he had sacked John Bolton, his national security advisor, because of major disagreements regarding foreign policy issues, relating to Iran, North Korea and - most significantly - Afghanistan: “I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House” (although, of course, Bolton himself claimed that he had offered to resign the previous day). According to the latest version of events, it was Bolton who had talked Trump out of signing the agreement, due to be finalised in time for a visit from Taliban leaders to Camp David, close to the anniversary of 9/11.
The first point to remember is that the talks were not quite so secret as Trump claimed. Of course, we do not know every detail of the proposed deal, but from the information provided by reporters who have followed a series of meetings between the two sides in Qatar, and from journalists who have interviewed representatives of both sides on a regular basis, it is possible to draw some conclusions regarding several aspects. For example, the US would withdraw 5,400 troops within 20 weeks, in return for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would never again be used as a ‘base for terrorism’. The Taliban, which is now in control of more territory than at any point before the 2001 US-led invasion, had refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government until a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops had been finalised.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the recent history of Afghanistan, which last month celebrated 100 years of independence. The Anglo-Afghan treaty of August 1919 marked Britain’s removal of Afghanistan from ‘protected state’ status, allowing King Amanullah Khan to come to the throne. The dynasty he set up was finally overthrown following allegations of corruption, in a time of poor economic conditions following the drought of 1971-72. Mohammad Daoud Khan seized power in a non-violent coup on July 17 1973.
However, Daoud Khan’s attempts as prime minister to implement economic and social reform failed abysmally and in April 1978 the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew his government - Daoud Khan, along with members of his family, were killed. The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, supported by the Soviet Union, and the PDPA with its two factions remained in power until April 1992.
The PDPA implemented a series of secular reforms, abolishing religious and traditional laws. As well as introducing women’s rights and banning forced marriages, the PDPA imposed compulsory unveiling, the cutting of beards and the discarding of traditional costumes - measures which were largely supported in towns and cities, but brought the PDPA into direct conflict with powerful traditional forces in rural areas. However, at the end of the day it was the party’s economic and land reforms that united its opponents.
The process for modernising Afghanistan’s economic infrastructure followed the USSR’s plan for all such states: the ‘non-capitalist road to development’. The Soviet Union sent advisors to oversee the building of the infrastructure, as well as beefing up the Afghan army and security forces. Presumably following Soviet advice, the government launched a campaign of violent repression against its opponents. On the other side, the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were financing and arming tribal leaders, war lords and religious forces against what they called a Soviet-supported ‘godless’ regime.
In 1979, 24 out of the 28 Afghan provinces were aflame. The central government was clearly losing control in the face of a well organised and well equipped armed uprising. The Soviet Union became directly involved in the conflict in December 1979, sending in 100,000 troops in support of the PDPA regime.
By this time US support for the traditional mujahideen had entered a new stage - the US and Saudi Arabia spent billions of dollars arming them, with direct help from Pakistan’s security forces. It was the CIA that provided surface-to-air missiles to groups that later became the Taliban and al Qa’eda.
Civil war was taking its toll and, given the larger number of casualties as well as international pressure in the approach to the final demise of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev gave orders for Soviet forces to withdraw in 1989. The PDPA regime lasted another three years. In 1992 Islamist forces captured the capital and executed Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah.
During the Afghan civil war of 1989-96 various foreign powers intervened. Pakistan’s security forces worked in tandem with its close allies, while the Saudis were backing a number of mujahideen parties and factions. Meanwhile, Iran’s Islamic Republic was supporting other Islamist forces. As for the US, it was preparing its own regime-change alternative. All attempts at achieving some form of deal and a coalition government failed.
At this time the Taliban - a movement originating from religious schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan - was gaining support for its campaigns against corruption and calls for ‘pure Islamic values’. By 1994 they were in control of a number of provinces in southern and central Afghanistan, aided undoubtedly by Pakistani forces. Just a couple of years later they held sway over three quarters of the country, where they enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia law.
All that ended with the US invasion of 2001. Although Afghanistan had given refuge to America’s main ally in the civil war - a certain Osama bin Laden - president George W Bush decided that the Afghan regime, instead of Saudi Arabia, should be punished for the horrific events of September 11 2001 (bin Laden was, of course, Saudi-born).
The fact that, 18 years on, the war waged by the global hegemon against tribesmen in Afghanistan is still continuing is one of the most unbelievable stories of the 21st century. The continuing conflict and the unbelievably large number of people who have lost their lives in bombing by the Taliban, or in US air raids have been features of the continuing devastation and destruction of the country.
In recent years the cycle of violence has become so familiar to anyone following these events that we have almost become immune to the relentless killing. Afghan citizens are often slaughtered, a gathering having been identified by US military intelligence as a Taliban meeting - bearded men wearing traditional Afghan costumes having come together. The US command, having ‘analysed’ this data, is apparently convinced that this is a political-military gathering and orders drones or military aircraft to bomb the place to smithereens. Then it turns out that this was actually a wedding, funeral or some other innocent gathering - yet more ‘collateral damage’ in an endless war. The Taliban publicise such events and retaliate by bombing civilians in Herat or Kabul. Following every single one of these ‘mistakes’ by the US military, the Taliban recruit yet more volunteers for battle, for suicide bombing, in their struggle to impose Sharia law.
To add to an already terrible situation, Islamic State is also moving into Afghanistan. For example, the bombing of a Kabul wedding in August, which took the life of 63 guests, was claimed by the Salafi group.
Of course, the war in Afghanistan (as in Iraq) was not supposed to end up like this. Both the UK and the US dispatched hundreds of technocratic ‘experts’ to help ‘reconstruct’ the countries. Yet they were as ignorant of the actual situation as their political and military masters. Conferences have been organised since 2001 by both US and UK military and political institutions to work out the reasons for failure - and indeed the failure of occupation and ‘reconstruction’. Yet no one seems to ask the obvious question: what was the purpose of these two regime change wars? Why were these two countries to be punished for 9/11?
On the 18th anniversary of September 11 2001 we might celebrate the sacking of John Bolton, the neoconservative warmonger who wanted an expanded US military presence. But, with an unpredictable US president and continued US intervention in an unstable region, the future of Afghanistan and indeed the Middle East as a whole seems as bleak as ever.