Remarks like this sparked exchanges with McCain over exactly when Al Qaeda established itself in Iraq. While Obama had the better of this exchange the puzzle remained: surely the Al Qaeda leadership left Afghanistan shortly after the toppling of the Taliban and there have been no Al Qaeda training camps there for many years? Al Qaeda’s leaders and bases are now in Pakistan – and are very probably some distance from the border. The fighting in Afghanistan is against a resurgent Taliban, with Al Qaeda playing a very minor role.
Following 9-11 the Bush administration vowed to destroy Al Qaeda but only succeeded in getting it to withdraw to Pakistan. Pakistani police action has been far more effective at capturing senior Al Qaeda operatives than NATO military action. Rounding up the remnant of Al Qaeda central in Waziristan – said to number just 140 fighters – is a problem for the Pakistani government and security services. A Kabul government dependent on NATO can do nothing to dissuade the Waziris from giving shelter to Al Qaeda. Quite the reverse, it makes the hospitality obligatory.
So why in the West still in Afghanistan? ‘West’ here means NATO as well as the US. Actually it’s a question that several NATO countries are beginning to ask ahead of the NATO meeting in Bucharest in April which is meant to review progress. The US and Britain urge a bigger effort while some states have contributed nothing and others, such as Germany, have insisted that their troops remain in quiet northern provinces.
Listening to Joop Scheffer, NATO’s Secretary General, justify the alliance’s presence to a Brooking audience on February 28 ‘mission’ creep was evident. The ‘war on terror’ was passed over fairly quickly with greater emphasis on building democracy, though Scheffer warned that it would be unrealistic to expect this tribal society to become a Western democracy any time soon. Warming to his theme Scheffer urged that Afghanistan was strategically vital. He reminded his audience that the country has a border with China and lies on Russia’s southern flank. In the 21st century, he insisted, we had to take the defence and control of energy resources very seriously and Afghanistan lies athwart potential transportation routes from central Asia.
While this candor about imperialist objectives is refreshing it does nothing to strengthen the legal justification for a continuing occupation.
Neither NATO nor US ground forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001. This was the work of the Northern Alliance, with the approval of Pakistan and help from US airpower and special forces. The US dollar, stronger then than now, played an important role in purchasing changes in loyalties. The US role depended on the collaboration of Russia. Iran and Pakistan, with the use of Uzbeki and Tajik facilities and China’s blessing. Without the ‘group of six’ – none of whom are NATO members - the whole operation would not have been possible.
A Security Council resolution in December 2001 supplied UN cover for the removal of the Taliban and endorsed the despatch of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which at first was meant to last no more than six months and to be confined to area around Kabul. The objective was destroy Al Qaeda facilities, this being a goal that China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan could all agree on. Subsequently the Karzai government requested aid from the occupiers - but then, the Karzai government was established by these same occupiers, so this only furnishes a circular justification.
The ISAF now operates under the terms of the UN Security Council 1776 (2007) which declares that its task is to ‘root out terrorism’ and that Afghanistan remains ‘a threat to world peace’. For much of the period 2002 to 2006 there was little terrorist activity and renewed Taliban attacks in the last year or two are to be explained by the protracted occupation of the country. NATO commanders are well aware that the term Taliban now covers a loose alliance of those opposed to the occupation and the government. The British and other NATO forces know full well how weakly-defined the Taliban are and have entered local agreements with the Taliban on several occasions. In 2005 Abdul Hakim Monib was on the NATO want list of Al Qaeda commanders; by 2007 he was governor of Uruzgang province.
All this being the case it has to be asked whether the mission is still valid, even on its own terms. It is striking that those with real knowledge of the country say that the NATO presence is as illegitimate by most Afghanis and has destroyed Karzai’s credibility. Rory Stewart, who has been living and working in Afghanistan for several years, explained this in Prospect magazine, published from London, in January. Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who has also been living and working in Afghanistan, explained to Bill Moyers in a mid-February edition of his TV Journal, that government officials are widely seen as robbers and crooks. Stewart and Chayes are not radical critics of Western policy but, unlike Samantha Power – a liberal interventionist and one of Obama’s advisors – they have enough real knowledge of the country and region to see that the NATO mission is self-defeating. It is also wrong, as Tariq Ali and Patrick Cockburn have urged, because the Afghani people need to reach their own solutions.
Let’s return to Obama’s problem. The job he wants is that of running the US empire and in order to win it he has to run a gauntlet of demented imperialist attack dogs. What he can, and to some extent does, argue is that a US military wind down from exposed positions is very much in the US national interest. He has urged withdrawal from Iraq on these grounds and he’s right. So why not make the case for Afghan withdrawal too? The country has much less oil and many fewer terrorists than Iraq.
If the US and NATO forces were withdrawn the likelihood is that the Afghan government would need to come to a new understanding with regional and tribal militias. Some of the latter might have ties to the Taliban, but they don’t want to see it – still less Al Qaeda – running the country again. The seven million refugees who have returned since 2001 will scarcely favour the Taliban even if they would like to see a less corrupt administration.
If the Afghan government felt that it could not handle the situation it might call for help on Pakistan, Iran and Turkey – three countries with historic ties to different sections of the Afghan population. Help from this quarter would be much less compromising than accepting it from the NATO-led occupiers.
What I’m talking about here is an enlightened US policy which grasps that imperial missions breed resistance and danger in a region that has a long tradition of hostility to uninvited foreigners, especially if infidel.
Robin Blackburn is the author of Age Shock: How Finance Is Failing Us (2007), a comprehensive account of risk and social insecurity in the age of financialization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org