by Zia Sarhadi
The US went into Afghanistan to get rid of the wicked Taliban, capture Usama bin Ladin, destroy al-Qaeda, restore law and order, and bring peace to the war-torn country. Amid much fanfare the Taliban were vanquished, thanks to massive aerial bombardment using 15,000-pound bombs fancifully described as “daisy cutters”, and local warlords who were paid US$200,000 each late last year to abandon the Taliban.
The payout has now been confirmed by the Washington Times, a rightwing paper published in the US capital that is a staunch supporter of the “war on terrorism.” Yet the news from Afghanistan is anything but comforting. On February 6 Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, urged the security council to provide additional troops to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Kabul to the rest of the country.
When the US-backed, Russian-armed Northern Alliance troops first entered Kabul on November 13, their leaders insisted that they would not allow foreign forces on Afghan soil. They soon changed their minds, but still only wanted a limited contingent of about 1,000 troops confined to Kabul. Now they have changed their tune. Even Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister of Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai has reversed his stand, calling for at least 20,000 foreign troops “to restore law and order” in Afghanistan. The Taliban, we were told, had no support in the country; if only the US would help the opposition forces to dislodge them, the people would welcome their “liberators” with open arms: then everyone would live happily ever after. This fairy-tale scenario is now falling apart in the harsh realities of Afghanistan.
Fighting is going on between various warlords in different parts of the country, not least in the north-east, where deputy defence minister Uzbek warlord Abdul-Rashid Dostum’s forces have been fighting the Tajik forces of general Fahim, the defence minister. On February 6 it was reported that in fighting near Taloqan Dostum’s forces had killed Ghulam Khan, senior aide to Ahmed Shah Masoud, the late Northern Alliance commander. In Paktia, Bacha Khan, a drug-smuggler who waas appointed governor by Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan ruler, has been rejected by the local council and his forces driven out of Gardez, the provincial capital.
It was these developments that forced Brahimi to plead with the security council, citing increasingly vocal demands by ordinary Afghans, members of the interim administration, and even warlords, for the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to other parts of the country. “We tend to agree and hope that this will receive favourable and urgent consideration by the security council,” he said.
No less serious has been the effect of the fighting and the lawlessness on humanitarian relief efforts, which have been disrupted because the security of food convoys cannot be guaranteed. At present food is being delivered to a few designated points — Kabul, Jalalabad, Qandahar, for instance — but the rest of the country, especially the rural countryside, is suffering badly. People have been forced to eat grass and tree leaves – if they can find them. Livestock has been decimated by the three-year drought and consequent lack of grain. Thousands of people are already dying of disease, cold and hunger; children are the most vulnerable.
The situation is further complicated by the trigger-happy behaviour of the American troops, who seldom venture out of their heavily fortified compounds in Qandahar, Gardez and Khost. When they do, it is to use massive force against civilians, killing them in large numbers. This is what happened at Hazar Qadam on January 24, when hundreds of troops burst into a religious school at night and slaughtered 19 people while they were asleep; another 27 were arrested, accused of being Taliban or al-Qaeda supporters. It was later discovered that they were Karzai supporters who had been sent to the area to disarm local people.
After another incident, the US said on February 10 that it would investigate allegation that its troops had beaten and physically abused allied Afghan troops after arresting them on suspicion of being Taliban supporters.
A pattern has emerged to the American troops’ behaviour: as soon as they hear about some Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters anywhere, they bomb the place and kill as many people as possible; only later do they bother to try to find out whether or not the information was accurate.
A similar slaughter was perpetrated on December 20, when 65 Afghan tribal elders from Khost were killed after a tip-off from Bacha Khan, the opposing warlord, that al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were heading towards Kabul. The tribal elders were on their way to attend Karzai’s investiture ceremony. At first the Americans denied having killed any tribal elders. When the news spread, the Americans promised to investigate. Since then, they have admitted to killing 12 people; presumably the rest have come back to life. The fact is that Americans do not care about Afghan lives; only their own lives are precious, and must be protected — even if it means killing hundreds of Afghan civilians in the process.
Meanwhile the situation in Qandahar remains precarious. Forces loyal to the hated governor, Gul Agha, are locked in combat with various tribes, who refuse to hand over their weapons. Gul Agha relies heavily on American assistance: American planes bomb villages opposing the governor’s authority, leading to even more resentment in the local population. It must be borne in mind that Qandahar was the Taliban’s stronghold; most of their supporters have simply melted into the countryside. They like neither the Americans nor Gul Agha, whose immoral and perverse behaviour they object to.
But it is the Americans’ failure to capture Usama bin Ladin and Mullah Omar that is driving them crazy. US president George Bush made a great fuss about getting Usama “dead or alive.” He even announced a US$25 million reward for anyone capturing or killing him: an enormous sum in Afghanistan; yet both Usama and Omar have eluded the American cowboys.
US government, military and intelligence officials are growing increasingly frustrated, USA Today reported on February 6, but Bush has tried to shrug the issue off. Speaking in Pittsburgh, he said: “Oh, I know the news media likes to say ‘Where’s Usama bin Ladin?’ He’s not the issue. The issue is the international terror.”
But Bush had made Usama the focal-point of his campaign, claiming that the US would “smoke him out”. If he was not the issue, why put a $25 million reward on his head? and why launch a war on Afghanistan?
The longer the Americans stay in Afghanistan, the more difficult it will prove for them to leave because they will be dragged into the inter-tribal quagmire. There is already evidence of this happening. Meanwhile, Afghan resentment at US heavy-handedness is increasing. The Americans may yet discover that it is relatively easy to enter Afghanistan but very difficult to get out.