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Deepening catastrophe in Afghanistan

The Nato occupation of Afghanistan is facing growing resistance after almost five years. Jonathan Neale looks at the crisis facing US and British troops in the region

Issue No. 2019

Jonathan Neale

Jonathan Neale


The British, US and other Nato troops in Afghanistan are losing. How has this happened?

Immediately after 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan. At that point it was not politically possible for them to send in US ground troops. They had to rely on the Northern Alliance, an ethnically based opposition to the ruling Taliban.

But Afghans had been through 23 years of civil war and Soviet invasion. They had seen over a million killed and as many maimed.

Many had once been willing to die for the Communist dream or the Islamist resistance. But the leaders of both sides had behaved with such cruelty and greed that most now believed in little but survival.

Few people were prepared to fight for the Taliban. The Northern Alliance troops would not fight either. The US could bomb heavily. But they could not take the capital Kabul.

The US, Pakistani intelligence and the Taliban came to an agreement late in 2001. The Taliban would evacuate Kabul. In return, all Taliban leaders would be allowed either to return to their villages in the south, or take refuge in Pakistan.

The agreement was kept. The US installed a government in Kabul, led by Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun-US CIA agent with family roots near Kandahar.

Resistance

Many commentators then said that the Afghans, with their long history of resistance to imperial invaders, would fight back. They didn’t. People wanted peace above all else. And they were promised reconstruction.

But little money was allocated - and government ministers were deeply corrupt. What outraged Afghans was the corruption of international NGOs and charities.

The majority of homes in Kabul had been destroyed in the civil wars. The poor still sleep in the ruins. Those with houses can rent them to foreign aid workers for £1,600 a month, in a country where £2.60 a day is a normal wage.

The Taliban did not have strong public support in 2001. They do now. The reason is that they are the only organised political force to call for resistance to the occupation.

The Northern Alliance, and the other political forces, know people are fed up with the occupation. They will not go south to fight the Taliban. Divide and rule is not working.

The Taliban units now fighting in the south are not some strange fanatics. They are the local people rising up in arms. When the television says 400 Taliban have been killed, all they mean is that men, women, and children are being heavily bombed.

Nato now has 20,000 troops in a country of 25 million. They cannot hold. Nato commanders on the ground have now said that they cannot hold without substantial reinforcement.

Uprising

But no government except the British is prepared to send more troops. Every politician knows the political consequences of serious troop losses there. Yet Nato commanders now fear an uprising in the major city of Kandahar itself.

Should this happen, the Taliban will probably gain control of an independent southern Afghanistan.

That would be the public defeat of the whole “war on terror”. To prevent this, the British and US governments will launch aerial bombing on a massive scale, as they did to Fallujah in Iraq.

Such a massacre won’t win. It would mean the fall of Karzai in Kabul and General Musharraf in Pakistan. It would also mean the death of tens of thousands. As always in modern war, most would be women and children. The occupiers may also be panicked into mass bombing of Iran.

It is our responsibility, as the members of the Western peace movements, to save our soldiers now dying to cover George Bush’s ass. More important, we must prevent a great atrocity. Bring the troops home.


Desperate situation facing troops

The only good road in Afghanistan circles the country, connecting the four main cities - the capital Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar.

Any government, or occupying army, must control that road and those cities.

Kandahar, in the south, is the second largest city and the home area for the Taliban. For weeks now, Canadian Nato troops have been in fierce fighting with the resistance in the western suburbs of Kandahar. The Taliban now have military control of parts of the suburbs.

Helmand is the province west of Kandahar. British troops were sent in there earlier this year to cover a US retreat. They set up one main base in Lashkargah, the provincial capital, and four other smaller bases. The British troops are now trapped, besieged in these smaller bases.

This is no longer a guerilla war. British troops face resistance units of several hundred men armed with rifles, machine guns, and rocket propelled grenades. The Taliban also say they have surface to air missiles that can shoot down helicopters and planes.

Money from growing heroin poppies pays for the weaponry. Poppies were banned when the Taliban was in power. They are now grown by poor farmers all over the country, and Karzai’s ministers are deeply involved in the trade. They will not be banned, whatever United Nations spokesmen say.

On many days British helicopters dare not land to relieve the smaller frontline “fire bases” in Helmand. In one recent case they could not land for 15 days.

Some day soon one of the fire bases may run out of ammunition - leaving British soldiers there to be killed.

British commanders on the ground want to withdraw all troops to Lashkargah. But that would mean losing control of the main road from Kandahar to Herat. The resistance will scent victory, and besiege the Lashkargah base.

Large Taliban units are now appearing in Ghazni, the province halfway up the road from Kandahar to Kabul.

The resistance now also control the whole of Kunar, in the north east, the first province the Russians lost control of in the 1980s.


Waziristan is heart of resistance

There is a long belt of mountainous country on the eastern Afghan border with Pakistan.

The Pashtun or Pathan tribes on both sides of the border have effectively been independent for several hundred years.

For 120 years the centre of resistance here has been the Pakistani district of Waziristan, on the border.

Since 2002 the Pakistani army has attempted to regain control of north Waziristan, where Osama Bin Laden is widely believed to be resident.

Several hundred soldiers have been killed as well as many more local people.

The Pakistani army has long had links to the Taliban, and is no longer prepared to fight.

Earlier this month the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with what the Pakistani press calls the “local Taliban” in north Waziristan.

This agreement includes the withdrawal of all Pakistani troops to a few forts, the end of all army checkpoints, the release of all Taliban prisoners, and the return of all captured arms and vehicles.

The Pakistani government will pay compensation for all the rebels they have killed, and for all houses and property destroyed. Foreign militants will be allowed to live safely in north Waziristan.

In return, the Waziri resistance agreed to stop running arms across the border to the Taliban. No one expects them to keep this part of the bargain.

Kim Howells, the British junior foreign office minister, has welcomed the agreement - since he can’t admit the scale of the defeat he has little choice.

The Pakistani army is not fighting anywhere else on the border either. The Taliban have safe lines for refuge and resupply. Last week they killed the provincial governor of Pakhtia, on the Afghan side of the Waziri border.

Jonathan Neale lived in Afghanistan in the 1970s. He is the author of What’s Wrong With America available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.


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Features
Sat 23 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2019
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