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The war that won’t go away

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Kevin Ovenden looks at the problems for the US and Britain in Afghanistan
Issue 1800

THE GREATER the chaos in Afghanistan, the more assorted US and British generals seem compelled to proclaim a victory. ‘The war is all but won,’ announced Brigadier Roger Lane last week. He is the commander of British troops in Afghanistan, the biggest combat deployment since the 1991 Gulf War.

His evidence? The fact that his marines had stumbled upon some abandoned munitions in a deserted cave in south eastern Afghanistan. Seven days before he spoke guerrillas in neighbouring Pakistan launched a rocket attack on US troops who had crossed the border.

The marines, we were told, were going to put an end to all that with a ‘substantial offensive’ to ‘mop up remaining Taliban and Al Qaida forces’. Now, with US and British commanders still without a clue where the Taliban’s forces are, we are asked to believe that ‘victory’ is in sight.

It all sounds remarkably similar to the proclamations by Russian forces occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s as they failed to destroy elusive forces and had little control beyond the major towns.

Afghanistan today combines the brutality of colonial occupation with the kind of mayhem that followed the Russian withdrawal, when rival warlords fought to control the country. A dozen competing leaders swear loyalty to America while jostling among themselves for spheres of influence.

Twelve people were killed two weeks ago when fighting erupted around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif between fighters loyal to General Abdul Dostam and his rival, Atta Mohammed. At the end of last month 300 rockets rained down on the town of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, killing or wounding over 100 civilians.

The town had escaped the US bombing campaign relatively unscathed, but in four hours residential areas and a hospital were blown to pieces. The barrage was ordered by Pacha Khan Zadran. The US-approved interim government appointed him governor of the town in January. But he was forced to withdraw after opposition from its inhabitants. After the rocket attack US troops stationed on the hill overlooking Gardez could be seen joking with one of Zadran’s brothers, according to Rory Carroll of the Guardian.

The US military says it is up to the central government of Hamid Karzai to deal with the problem. The minister for tribal affairs in that government happens to be Zadran’s cousin.

The atrocity in Gardez is the latest example of how US and British forces are supporting those warlords who are closest to the fractured government in the capital, Kabul, against their opponents. Another came last week, and it showed the immense problems facing the US in its efforts to control Afghanistan through regional strongmen.

The New York Times and NBC News reported how the CIA fired a missile from a drone aircraft in an attempt to kill Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He was the US’s favourite leader of the Islamist opposition to Russia in the late 1980s.

It channelled arms to him in an effort to bring the whole movement under the control of the US and its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Support continued after the Russian withdrawal. At the end of the Gulf War CIA agents seized Saddam Hussein’s arsenals in southern Iraq. They airlifted the weapons to Hekmatyar rather than allow them to be used in the popular uprising against Saddam.

They feared it was led by Shia Muslim Iraqis who favoured links with Iran. Hekmatyar fled to Iran after the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996, returning to Afghanistan only last month after the Iranian government expelled him. He then turned against the foreign occupiers and their client regime, saying, ‘While foreign troops are present, the interim government does not have any value or meaning.’

So the US government is now trying to kill a man who it supported when ten years ago he lay siege to rivals in Kabul, killing 25,000 civilians. His main rival from 1992 is also on the US’s enemy list. Meanwhile promised aid to Afghanistan barely trickles through.

One consequence is that opium production, according to the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, has ‘resumed at a relatively high level’ after ‘the considerable decline recorded in 2001’. The chaos and suffering are feeding opposition to the US presence among ordinary Afghans who shed no tears for the fall of the Taliban. Noor Ahmed, whose brother was killed in the rocket attack on Gardez, told journalists: ‘The Americans talk about the Taliban and Al Qaida. What is Al Qaida to me? This is my home, my children, my land, and it is all in danger because of these fighters who are with the Americans.’

The problems facing the US and Britain are mounting in Afghanistan, even before Bush extends the ‘war on terror’.

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