Socialist Worker

Afghanistan: only halfway through the river of blood

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 1779

'Top of the world, Ma!' shouts James Cagney at the end of the movie White Heat, just before he blows himself to smithereens. George Bush could cry the same now, having seen the Taliban crumble beneath US air power.

There seems nothing to prevent the US using its vast military strength to impose its will where it chooses. As military analyst John Pike put it to the Guardian, 'You add air power and microwave for three minutes and, hey presto, you've got a new regime.' Certainly the Taliban's fall has taken place more quickly than I had expected. The fact that the Taliban were in control of most of Afghanistan's cities and could only defend these with large concentrations of troops made them highly vulnerable to attack from the air.

Thus when the US Marines landed near Kandahar an armoured column was sent to attack them. It was wiped out before it could get close. A Pakistani who fought with the Taliban told the Observer, 'I came to fight the Americans but they just killed us from the air.'

The aerial bombardment helped to erode many Taliban fighters' highly conditional allegiance to Mullah Omar's regime. Patrick Cockburn commented in the Independent: 'It has been the strangest war, decided mainly by defections. Afghans had seen the first bombs come down and had concluded that the United States and its local ally, the Northern Alliance, must win. Nobody here likes to bet on a loser.' Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist, spoke to the Guardian about the main ethnic group in southern Afghanistan:

'The Pashtun are traders and businessmen. They calculate time, necessity and value. This may mean switching sides. There's constant trading and constant battle. They coexist, and the cycle persists.'

With the collapse of the Taliban's brutal but effective central authority, the cycle has turned towards political fragmentation. Power has shifted back to the local warlords who tore Afghanistan apart until the Taliban's victories in the mid-1990s.

This suggests a miserable future for the wretched people of Afghanistan. This won't bother the Bush administration. Having asserted US supremacy, it is quite happy to leave others to clear up the mess. If Tony Blair is stupid enough to want to send British troops to lead a 'stability force', let him.

The US's rulers have their eyes on other targets. They want, in the first place, to finish off the leadership of Al Qaida and the Taliban. It remains to be seen how long this will take and at what price. But the US administration also wants to flex its muscles worldwide. As the Financial Times put it, 'Some foreign policy observers believe US domination will encourage Washington to use its military as an instrument of diplomacy by other means.'

It seems increasingly likely that Iraq will be the next target in this 'fight for civilisation'.

The Bush administration has completely failed to prove any connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and the attacks on New York and Washington. So it has fallen back on the spurious argument that Saddam is building 'weapons of mass destruction', even though close US allies like Israel and Pakistan are known to have developed nuclear weapons.

The plan is apparently to repeat the Afghan formula, with US air power and special forces backing up the Kurds of northern Iraq and the Shia Muslims in the south against Saddam while US troops seize the oilfields near Basra. Other countries are also in the frame, including Somalia.

There is clearly an element of revenge in these choices. Bush's father was widely criticised for not 'finishing the job' and toppling Saddam at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The US was forced humiliatingly to withdraw from Somalia. From its point of view, what the Bush administration is doing has a certain barbarous sense. Having frightened everyone with this show of US military superiority, it is planning to settle old scores.

In the process, however, it is feeding the hatred of the US that made 11 September possible, and creating the conditions for more catastrophes in the future.

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Sat 15 Dec 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1779
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