"I WOULD say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan… We’ll know it when we see it", said Richard Holbrooke, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jim McGovern, Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts put it another way: "I have this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that we’re getting sucked into an endless war here". Whatever way you put it the eight-year war in Afghanistan is a nightmare. The death toll of Afghani people has already topped 1,000 last year. Forty-four US soldiers died in July, 45 in August – more than any other months in the war to date – while 79 British troops have died in 2009 up to 16 September. What are these people dying for? That is the question being asked with ever greater urgency. US president, Barack Obama, seemed sure during his election campaign. In contrast to George W Bush’s needless "war of choice" in Iraq, he said, Afghanistan is "a necessary war": to destroy al-Qaeda, make the US safe, bring democracy, fight against corruption, promote women’s rights and stamp out opium production. He promised to increase troop numbers to 68,000 this year – all but 4,000 are in place. There are now 100,000 US and Nato troops there – 9,000 from Britain.
What was called a presidential election took place on 20 August. The extent of the rigging and violence was breathtaking. In president Hamid Karzai’s home province, Kandahar, where his younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, chairs the provincial council, over 350,000 votes were recorded. Western officials estimate that only 25,000 people actually voted. Around 800 fake polling stations were set up by supporters of Karzai, who also took over a further 800 legitimate polling centres to stuff the boxes with votes. For what it’s worth, the preliminary totals gave Karzai just over three million votes (54.6%), with second placed Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, on 1.6 million (27.8%). Just after the election, Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan hailed the vote as "a bad day for the Taliban and a good day for the people of Afghanistan". Obama called it the most important event in Afghanistan this year. He may be right, of course, but not for the reasons he meant. The massive vote rigging and growing public scepticism have compelled the UN-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission, which has to ratify the result, to order a recount of 10% of the vote. If a recount brings Karzai’s total down to 50% or below this would trigger a run-off between him and Abdullah. Phillippe Morillon, head of the EU observer team, said that 1.5 million votes (27%) were suspect – 1.1 million for Karzai, 300,000 for Abdullah, the rest for other candidates.
Recounting could months; with winter settled, a second round could be delayed until April 2010, leaving the prospect of months of increased political volatility and uncertainty. It would further undermine the case made by the Obama, Brown, Merkel and Sarkozy administrations for the military intervention. Effectively, the election authorities have a month to sort something out: call a destabilising, divisive (and rigged) run-off, stitch up a deal between Karzai and Abdullah, or announce that Karzai won after all. Whatever happens will be dirty politics, with the western powers up to their necks in the filth. Karzai was installed as president by the US in 2001. He won the inaugural presidential election in 2004 and was feted the world over. He now resides in a palatial fortress in the centre of Kabul, presiding over what The Economist calls the "spread of narco-corruption". He keeps some scary company. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, arrived back in Afghanistan a week before the election to back Karzai. It is said that he was responsible for killing 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war in 2001 and executed people by crushing them under bulldozers.
Karzai did deals with Marshal Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik warlord heavily implicated in drug trafficking, and Abdul Karim Khalili and Mohammad Mohaqeq, two Haraza warlords. Ironically, Karzai’s campaign adviser was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamist who welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996! The election has exposed the Afghan political system as completely rotten. What none of the heads of states with troops in Afghanistan are prepared to admit – from their comfortable offices and homes – is that the presence of foreign armies is the main source of tension and conflict. The systematic use of air power to minimise Nato casualties exacerbates this because it causes massive Afghani civilian deaths. US and Nato supremo, General Stanley McChrystal, says this strategy has changed. A few days after making that claim, however, a US air raid against two fuel tankers taken by the Taliban – called in by German forces – led to 125 deaths, the majority of them civilians. A UN official asked the pointed question: "One day you are building a bridge and the next day you call in an airstrike that kills civilians. What kind of message does that send?"
The political establishment and mass media deal in simplistic caricatures. The right-wing commentator, Nicholas Kristof, is basically correct when he points out: "Some Taliban are hardcore ideologues, but many join the fight because friends or elders suggest it, because they are avenging the deaths of relatives in previous fighting, because it’s a way to earn money, or because they want to expel the infidels from their land – particularly because the foreigners haven’t brought the roads, bridges and irrigation projects that had been anticipated". In other words, it is not the simple good-versus-evil formula rammed down our throats. In contrast to the rampant corruption of the regime, Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, even wrote that, despite its brutality, the Taliban "allow people to file formal complaints against local Talib leaders". Time is running out for Obama with 61% saying the conflict is going badly and 51% that the war is not worth fighting – up to 70% among Democrats. Increasingly, Obama has to rely on backing from the Republicans, dangerous when he faces such strong opposition over his healthcare plans and economic policy.
In Britain, Eric Joyce resigned as parliamentary private secretary to Bob Ainsworth, defence secretary, on 3 September, saying that he could no longer justify the growing casualties by saying the war helps prevent terrorism. Even this staunch New Labour loyalist could stomach the lie no longer. There is mounting anger at the rising death toll of young soldiers, at the neglect of injured soldiers and their struggle for financial assistance, as well as the substandard equipment they are sent into battle with. And for what? To prop up a completely corrupt regime. As for the people of Afghanistan, they are caught between the Nato occupation, Taliban insurgents, warlords and drug-trafficking gangsters, in one of the world’s poorest countries, almost two-thirds of which is too dangerous for aid agencies to reach. It would be naïve to believe that the withdrawal of troops would immediately bring peace to Afghanistan. But they have to be pulled out. They are foreign fighters in occupation. The more troops that are sent in – the logic of Obama’s position and the demand of McChrystal – the greater the resistance. By all the criteria set by Obama, Afghanistan is a failure. Al-Qaeda has not been destroyed. It has moved to Pakistan, a potentially greater source of instability in the region. Corruption and drug trafficking is endemic, funding the Taliban as well as many in and around Karzai’s palace. Women’s rights are crushed by all the warlords, Islamists and insurgent forces.
Afghanistan has been ripped apart by 30 years of war and intervention by major world powers. US-backed mujaheddin fighting against Russian forces became the Taliban regime. Today, we are eight years into the Nato occupation. Given that terrible legacy, developing a free, united country is a long-term goal, a dream even. Tragically, the people of Afghanistan – and the troops sent there, too – are living in a nightmare conjured up by capitalism. We must do all we can to hasten the withdrawal of troops and make links with the workers and poor of Afghanistan, struggling in socialist solidarity to rid the region of imperialist intervention.