by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 11, Muharram, 1432)
A non-descript country like Afghanistan has become the epicenter of global change sending not one but two superpowers into the dustbin of history.
A non-descript country like Afghanistan has become the epicenter of global change sending not one but two superpowers into the dustbin of history. At a superficial level, it seems unbelievable that the dirt poor Afghans, many still living in the Stone Age, would be able to humble the self-proclaimed superpower backed by most of its allies in the west and east, but this is what is happening.
The inevitable US defeat in Afghanistan has enormous implications not only for the region but global politics itself. America’s crusades may be coming to an end. Should Washington persist with such folly, it will be digging its own grave. Uncle Sam is already too sick and weak to stand following blows delivered by the intrepid Afghans. They are once again proving that when God wants to punish someone, He sends them to invade Afghanistan. It is more than likely when Americans are finally driven out, they will return to America that looks nothing like the brash power they knew in 2001.
While America’s military surge in Afghanistan is going nowhere, it received another blow with the death on December 13 of Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the disgraced General Stanley McChrystal and his successor General David Petraeus represent US military muscle, Holbrooke was its tough diplomatic face. He honed his murderous skills in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta where a genocidal policy was unleashed in the 1960s that led to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese but ultimately failed to pacify the VietCong. A similar scorched-earth policy and extra-judicial killings have been launched in Afghanistan, no doubt with the same disastrous results. Holbrooke, however, reveled in his reputation as a “bully” and was dubbed the bulldozer. It seems the bulldozer, stuck in the Afghan quagmire, had an engine blowout.
Despite the hypocritical messages of condolence from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari, there were sighs of relief in both capitals. Many officials on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border did not even want to meet him. He was treated as a pariah.
But Holbrooke is a mere footnote in Afghanistan’s long tortuous history. The Afghans have been in a state of war since April 1978. They faced the Soviet invasion of December 27, 1979 resulting in the death of some 1.2 million and millions of others were maimed. Before the Russians were forced to retreat, they left behind an estimated 10 million land mines scattered throughout the country that continue to kill thousands of Afghan civilians each year.
The US invasion launched in October 2001 was based on a false premise: to destroy al-Qaeda and capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of 9/11. While he is accused in the Western media of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, the American FBI has not charged him with this offense. The number of people accused of masterminding 9/11 is long, including Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, Muhammad Atta and a host of others. Anyone disliked by the Americans is tarred with this accusation.
The problem in Afghanistan is much larger than the question of 9/11. Neither the US nor its allies are leveling with their people that are fed up with the war and its related costs both in terms of human life as well as finances. Under pressure from generals and other right-wingers that seem to be riding high, US President Barack Obama has been bullied into abandoning his own stated policy of troop draw down starting in July 2011. While the date is not cast in stone, this was based on the assumption that there would be significant progress toward curtailing the Taliban-led insurgency as well as training Afghan police and army. Neither objective has been achieved and will not be realized in the near or even distant future.
The real problem in Afghanistan is the lies spun about the reason for the continued presence of US-NATO troops. It has nothing to do with al-Qaeda — the Americans created and nurtured it for decades, and in any case there is no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan anymore. Talking about the presence of 45 al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, as Bob Woodward does in his latest book, Obama’s Wars, hardly justifies the presence of 150,000 foreign troops and an equal number of mercenaries at a cost of some $1 trillion so far. The real reasons for western troop presence in Afghanistan are twofold: access to Central Asian oil and gas, and Afghanistan’s immense mineral resources estimated at $3 trillion. Naked greed not the high sounding humanitarian reason to “save” Afghan women from the clutches of the Taliban that do not allow them to go to school, is the reason for US-NATO continuing troop presence. No such argument is advanced vis-à-vis US ally Saudi Arabia where women are just as oppressed.
The Americans say they are prepared to include the Taliban in a power-sharing arrangement with Karzai provided they agree to allow the Americans a share of the loot. This means the indefinite presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil, The Taliban are not willing to accept this. They completely reject the notion that Americans should decide who rules Afghanistan.
In fact, they see no reason to negotiate with Karzai because they view him as an American puppet. The Taliban are willing, and have said so, to negotiate directly with the Americans with certain conditions. They want a firm deadline for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The Americans are skirting around the issue and as they announced at the NATO conference in Lisbon (November 19-20), they have set a tentative deadline of 2014. But this is unlikely to be met unless the situation changes drastically: either the Taliban are defeated or wiped out (highly unlikely); or the Americans and their allies are no longer able to afford the costs (highly probable).
Not only are the Taliban active in 97% of the country, they also have the support of the people. A clear majority of Afghans want foreign troops out of the country. No army has ever defeated a people’s insurgency unless the majority is slaughtered. The Americans and their allies are quite capable of this — their very presence in North America came as a result of the genocide of Native Peoples — but it is a very different ball game in Afghanistan.
Several factors work against US-NATO victory. First, the Afghans are born fighters and have never tolerated foreign presence on their soil. They are not about to change their habit because of the Americans. Second, unlike many other places, Afghanistan is not a target rich country. There is nothing of value that the Americans can bomb to scare the Afghans into submission. It is dirt-poor and Afghans have lived in their mud hovels for centuries. America’s bombing of mud villages has been one of the most powerful recruiting tools for the Taliban. Third, like the Soviet Union before it, the US economy is also in terminal decline. The Americans waged earlier wars for profit. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost trillions of dollars. American cities and infrastructure are crumbling, the list of poor and homeless is growing exponentially and while the Federal Reserve Bank cannot print dollars fast enough, there is a limit to how much it can churn out without its negative consequences crushing the people further.
As unlikely as it may sound, the Afghans are about to consign another superpower to the dustbin of history. Some important lessons are in order for the Islamic movement. First, a movement does not needy fancy weapons but a strong ideology to confront a foreign enemy. Second, material prosperity is a hindrance to waging a successful campaign against foreign invaders. Most Afghans are poor and live a very humble life, thus their requirements are low, making them resilient. Third, and most important is the presence of charismatic leadership that is clear about its ultimate goal. While the Taliban may be grouped around Mulla Umar, their lack of long-term vision may yet frustrate the establishment of a truly Islamic State in Afghanistan that would be a model for other Muslims. Islam is not merely about restrictions — don’t do this or that — but to create an environment in which people’s collective taqwa manifests itself.
It is in this area that the Taliban need to work hard even as they continue to battle foreign troops in their country. The internal challenge is even more difficult than the military challenge posed by alien invaders of their land. They will ultimately be judged by the kind of just system they establish in society rather than the military victory they achieve over the US.