by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13 2003-10, Sha'ban, 1424)
Even two years after the Taliban’s removal from power, the hapless Afghans continue to suffer under a reign of terror; the perpetrators are none other than the US-backed warlords ensconced as ministers or wearing pompous titles such as commander. Rape, robbery, and murder and the bloody-mindedness of the US occupation forces have turned almost every Afghan into an anti-American fighter. Ruthless military action has also exposed the hollowness of America’s claims to be bringing freedom and prosperity to Afghanistan’s people. Those familiar with America’s true nature were not taken in by such self-serving claims, although reality was obfuscated by the western media, who were blinded by hatred of the Taliban and continued to advertise America’s alleged benevolent intent. Two years and many dead Afghans later, the same media are now admitting that things are not going so well in Afghanistan after all.
A joke making the rounds of Kabul’s cafes these days goes something like this: "What is worse than being ruled by the Taliban? Being liberated by the Americans!" It is clear that America can destroy but cannot build; it can win a battle using its enormous firepower, but cannot win a war or hold the gains it got from winning the battle; and although it can inflict enormous casualties on others, it has no stomach for suffering any itself. Afghanistan has been turned into a patchwork of warlord-controlled fiefdoms; the writ of the US-backed Hamid Karzai does not extend beyond Kabul. He bears the title of president but, even in the capital, exercises little control or authority.
Last month Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing, accused several ministers of ordering 30 homes in Kabul to be bulldozed to build palatial residences for themselves. The occupants – women and children – were still inside their homes when the bulldozers went in, supervised by police chief Basir Salangi. Other culprits included defence minister Mohammed Fahim, education minister Yunus Qanuni and central bank governor Anwarul Haq Ahadi. While Kothari called for these officials’ dismissal, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative for Afghanistan, chastized Kothari for naming names. Karzai, however, tried to distance himself from the scandal: his spokesman said at a press conference in Kabul on September 15 that a commission would be formed to investigate the allegations. Salangi was dismissed on September 18, but none of the others was touched because Karzai depends on them for protection.
The warlords are raking in money from every conceivable source: they levy taxes on goods passing through their territory, take huge sums from the Americans as bribes for their "loyalty", and make millions through poppy cultivation. The UN Drugs Control Programme (UNDCP) estimates that under the Taliban Afghanistan produced only 16 percent of the world’s opium supply; now that proportion is up to 72 percent. Drugs account for nearly US$1.2 billion in revenues for the warlords; America is clearly a major drug pusher. By contrast reconstruction work has faltered, with only one percent (US$192 million worth) of scheduled work completed to date, according to CARE, an American relief organization. The eight-page brief, jointly authored with the Centre on International Cooperation (CIC), says that Afghanistan’s stability and reconstruction are threatened by violence, especially against aid workers, the rise of a "neo-Taliban" movement, and drug-trafficking by regional warlords. While little of the $4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo in January 2002 has been forthcoming, CARE’s own estimate is that Afghanistan requires $20 billion in the next four years if its people are to have a reasonable chance of rebuilding their lives. Given America’s propensity for violence rather than rebuilding, there is little chance of additional money being forthcoming in the near future.
Then there are the gross abuses of human rights by warlords. On September 13 the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) released its second report, confirming that abuses, including summary executions, arbitrary detentions and the use of unofficial prisons by warlords, are increasing all over the country. In the four months since June, 634 violations of human rights have been recorded; they include rape, lynching, illegal detention, torture, illegal occupation and destruction of public and private property. "There is no rule of law, [and] the police that are responsible for the rule are themselves violators and are acting against the law," Nadir Nadiri, an AIHRC spokesperson, said. Nearly half of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces are now considered "high risk" areas, according to CARE. This is illustrated by the dramatic increase in attacks on civilians: in the summer of 2002, the ratio of armed attacks outside Kabul to inside the city was approximately 2:1; this past summer the ratio rose to 7:1, says CARE’s report.
It is in this atmosphere of uncertainty that the Taliban appear to be making a comeback. They are not only regrouping but also beginning to mount major attacks against the US occupation forces, as well as Afghan soldiers. During August and September fierce battles raged in Zabul province, where hundreds of US troops, backed by massive air power, were involved in operations against the Taliban. There is increasing evidence that the Taliban now enjoy widespread support in the countryside. This turn-around has occurred because of the heavy-handedness of American troops and local warlords. Taliban commanders now openly talk about their strategy of grinding down the Americans in a long-drawn-out guerrilla war similar to the resistance against the Soviet occupation, as David Rohde reported in the New York Times on September 12. Quoting Hajji Ibrahim, a Taliban commander, Rohde said that the group’s aim is to tie down the US in Afghanistan and force it to spend huge sums on responding to limited attacks that draw American forces "here to there, here to there." Ibrahim predicts confidently that the US, sapped by a slow, costly and grinding conflict, will abandon Afghanistan after two or three years. Given the spreading resistance in such provinces as Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Oruzgan and Qandahar, the Taliban may be nearer to achieving their objective than appears at the moment.
The US is relying on two additional props for support: NATO troops inside Afghanistan and Pakistani troops operating along the border with Afghanistan. Germany, which has 1,800 troops in Kabul with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), wants to venture into Kunduz. Pakistani troops have already carried out many raids in the volatile tribal belt at the behest of the US. On September 3 some 25 Pakistan army helicopters landed at the remote Bannu airport, bordering North Waziristan agency. Soon, hundreds of trucks were seen heading out of the airport towards the Afghan border. Local observers reported that Pakistani troops were involved in attacks against Taliban positions inside Afghanistan. While the Americans dare not confront the Taliban or al-Qa’ida directly, they use proxies to wage their war. Because the Taliban and al-Qa’ida enjoy widespread support among the tribal population, Pakistan is putting its hand into a hornets’ nest. In an interview published in the Toronto Star on September 19, Pakistani president general Pervez Musharraf said that Pakistani troops would soon mount further operations in the tribal area to help the US. At the same time he also asked for more financial handouts.
Antagonizing its own population when there is already widespread resentment in Pakistan against US policies is not a sound policy. Successive Pakistani rulers, however, have pandered to the US’s wishes instead of respecting those of their own people; this widening gap between the rulers and the ruled will ultimately lead to a social and political explosion that will cost the country dear. The Afghans are not only disillusioned with the Americans but thoroughly fed up with their brutal tactics and those of their paid agents. They may be poor, but the Afghans have a way of exacting revenge; they do not take kindly to humiliation. Those who get on the wrong side of them pay a high price. While the Americans, caught between Iraq and Afghanistan, may soon abandon both, Pakistan will be left on the scene to pay the price for its rulers’ folly.
Foresight and wisdom have never been Pakistani rulers’ strong points. It would be unrealistic to expect any from a military ruler like Musharraf either, but what is truly astonishing is that no Pakistani ruler is prepared to accept that America is not a trustworthy, reliable friend.