From Rambo to Mad Max: Mission Creep in Afghanistan

At the end of the 1988 Hollywood film, Rambo III, the eponymous hero leaves his Mujahedin comrades fighting the Russian army; just before the credits roll the film dedicates itself to the “gallant people of Afghanistan”. What a curse! The following year the Russians withdrew from their decade-long occupation, no longer willing to pay the price in rubles and blood of nominal control of the country without meaningful strategic benefit. But, far from achieving any ‘peace’ Afghanistan became a hot spot where the changing imperialist physiognomy of world capitalism was demonstrated as it morphed from a long-standing rivalry between two cohesive blocs to more ‘free-market’ murder and destruction.


The ‘Reagan Doctrine’ had long legitimized support for organizations pitted against the ‘Evil Empire’; in his recognition that “the struggle of the Afghan people represent[ed] man’s highest aspirations for freedom” he dedicated the Columbia space shuttle launch of March 1982 to them. So, with strong support - primarily from the CIA and the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency), and also from China and various Arab states - the Mujahedin had been able to grow a substantial challenge to the Russian military. Contraction from Eastern Europe had allowed the Russians to divert armaments to the Najibullah regime they left behind in Afghanistan. The Mujahedin and the regular Afghan army had each been trained by their respective patrons and were battle-experienced, and by the time the Najibullah government fell in 1992 the country was in a full-blown and well-armed civil war. With the Russian presence removed, the Americans lost interest in the country, save only for an unsuccessful CIA buy-back program for unused Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Essentially, the US left the Afghans to their fate, as they had the Iraqi Kurds in the early’70s. The difference this time was that there was no one in the role of a Saddam Hussein with an unchallengeable military force capable of crushing all internal opposition.

The Mujahedin warlords fought each other and the central Afghan state for dominance; together they reduced the population to penury and to a state of lawlessness. It seems that it was in response to this situation that the Taliban emerged under Mullah Omar in late 1994 as a military force; prior to that time only a handful had been involved in the conflict with the Russian or the Najibullah forces, the majority being young madrasa students in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Taliban success in dominating most of the country was linked to their uncompromising attitude to the warlords’ gangs which gave them popular support. After capturing a massive weapons stockpile, they became a serious force that by September 1996 was able to capture Kabul. They were then able to set up a government and dismantle the previous state apparatus. Under their regime, a new ruling ideology, supposedly based on Sharia law, was developed and became notorious for its brutality and misogyny; a ‘pacification’ of sorts became normalized.

The indifference of the major imperialisms towards Afghanistan did not insulate it from the socio-economics of the global state of the capitalist system. The vipers in this nest have only multiplied—and magnified the suffering of the people in that country through their murderous rivalries. Nothing new in that perhaps, but the acceleration of social retrogression in the world shows itself starkly. Already by the turn of this century Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world (3.6 millions), most being displaced to Iran and Pakistan; in 2001 alone, another million were added. Add drought, destroyed infrastructure, cold and continuous fighting and you have one of the greatest social disasters of the late 20th / early 21st centuries. But the appalling consequences of this situation were uncontained.

Afghanistan’s geographic position, and the ideologies and hostilities of contending factions threatened to spread instabilities into all the surrounding countries and others far beyond. With the two military super-powers out of the way, Afghanistan opened up as a free-fire zone for lower-tier imperialist rivalries such as those of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and of India and Pakistan, Most of the Central Asian states became involved in support of corresponding cross-border ethnicities: thus Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan armed and financed tribes that came together in the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. It was not only contiguity that drew in the concerns of other capitalist states. In the 1980s the ISI had been involved in programs to radicalize and import Muslims from all parts of the world to come to Afghanistan to fight the Russians; Osama Bin Laden was one of those who trained them. One legacy of this activity was the creation of a conveyor belt of recruitment and training for the later terrorist organizations that are active today on an international scale.

Neither the US nor Russia had had any interest in Afghanistan’s economic development in the way they might have had in the 1960s. Nonetheless, in the ‘90s, there were proposals that would have contributed to some kind of infrastructure: various Western consortia looked at constructing oil pipelines across the country; Benazir Bhutto’s government wanted a new highway to link Pakistan directly to the central Asian states. Smugglers, transportation mafias and state bureaucracies were all interested but the success of any such project depended on ensuring the pacification of Afghanistan.

Woven through the social, political and economic dynamic is opium production. During the Russian occupation, with CIA help, the warlords built up poppy cultivation as a means of generating income and facilitating its export into the central Asian republics. During the collapse into civil war, the warlords encouraged it even more to compensate for their income shortfalls after the Russians left and American finance dried up. During the Taliban’s reign, production continued to rise until a July 2000 diktat from Mullah Omar declared it to be ‘un-Islamic’. In one year, production fell to near zero and the UN acknowledged it to be the most successful anti-drug program ever. However, the October 2001 American-led invasion in association with the Northern Alliance brought even more economic devastation that again pushed many farmers to turn to opium production. Since then all parties have had a direct and substantial interest in the opium economy: the Karzai government continues to protect its production; and after its ejection from power, the Taliban has turned again to approve and tax opium production to generate finance for its resurgence. Organized crime, inside and outside Afghanistan, is always interested.

In a country that by 2004 was ranked socio-economically as 173rd out of 177 countries by the United Nations, farmers are not going to turn their backs on this cash crop. And yet, the insane logic of this system continues to grind out bizarre outcomes. There is now a plentiful supply of opium in storage and the price to the farmer has fallen, while the local wheat price is about twice the world market price. The Taliban have had to agree to farmers buying the Karzai government wheat seed. Yet with an already desperate shortage of opium-based medicines in the developing world being worsened by increases in cancer and HIV/AIDS incidence, an alternative market offers itself. Indeed ICOS (the International Council on Security and Development, previously the Senlis Council) put forward ‘Poppy for Medicine’ proposals in June 2007. However, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board limits such activities. The pharmaceutical companies do not comment publicly on these proposals. Whatever else, big pharma and the international drug cartels share an interest in maintaining appropriate volume/price support for their respective segments of licit and illicit opiate markets – and to avoid counter-productive cross-market dilutions. In this social and economic mess where weaponry is plentiful, drug money magnifies the power of any group to contribute to the mayhem.

Interest Renewed

American interest strengthened after Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998. The subsequent October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was justified by the US in the aftermath of 9/11 as an attack on the Taliban-governed country that was providing a haven for Al-Qaeda. After a few weeks the Taliban were defeated in the face of tie-up between the US forces and the Northern Alliance which was a confederation of tribal units. By December, the Northern Alliance was telling the US military that Bin Laden was holed up in the caves in the Tora Bora Mountains. Whether or not that was true is moot; but it did succeed in pushing the US in deeper. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon told the world that the mountains hid many secret, deep, bomb proof, hi-tech and well-equipped bunkers from which Al-Qaeda could launch its attacks on the democratic world. Thus the US justified its use of the most powerful non-nuclear bombs – ‘daisy-cutters’ –to soften up the area before Afghans and American troops were sent in to penetrate Bin Laden’s lair. This neo-con sci-fi fantasy was just that, a fantasy; a rerun of the 1976 game where Russian strategic nuclear capability had been vastly over-estimated by Donald Rumsfeld and Team B (comprising Paul Wolfowitz and others) to justify massive increases in military expenditure. Far from there being facilities appropriate to a James Bond movie set, there were just dark caves used as arms dumps. If he had been there, Bin Laden had moved on. Nonetheless the propaganda and the step-up of the American onslaught was a watershed and the repercussions were global.

Over the following months, several threads in the thinking of the American bourgeoisie wove into a new policy: their huge sense of superior military capability over all other forces; their sense of domination in Afghanistan itself after having routed the Taliban; their interpretation that the Northern Alliance was the basis for a new Afghan state; their recognition of the general population’s positive attitude to the Taliban’s exit. The reassessment had several aspects including: to remain in Afghanistan; to pass responsibility for leading the international force to NATO in the guise of the ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force); to build a new centralized state apparatus; and, of course, to introduce ‘democracy’. Moreover, their interpretation of events in Afghanistan was to feed into their expectations of an invasion of Iraq. Central was the idea that they could create at will a central state authority and in line with that thinking the tribal leaders were marginalized: this was a particularly stupid move as the tribal leaders were the only ones with some sort of control over social organization, dispute resolution and with more or less effective policing systems for any general policy, Thus, while the military situation exploded the social situation imploded.

In the context of a desperate population facing dreadful material hardships, the Taliban was again able to present itself as a defender of the people against the actions not only of the ISAF and the forces of the Karzai government, but also of the growing forces of a new breed of mercenary thugs – the Private Military Contractors (PMCs), such as Xe Services (before its name-change, Blackwater), DynCorp Ltd, MPRI and Kellogg Brown and Root – who participate in a $100 billions global mercenary market that has mushroomed since the 1990s. The PMCs provide a career-extension for ex-military personnel of all ranks – CACI provided half the interrogators at Abu Ghraib; MPRI has 300 retired US generals on its books – and are active at all levels in ISAF with their managements well-connected to the Pentagon. The stated US mission is to win a war, but the finances of the PMCs are better served by deterioration in the situation. Obama’s surge publicly commits more US troops to the war in 2010 but rarely highlighted is the associated increase in PMC manpower. Estimates vary, but it is likely that two-thirds of the US military commitment to Afghanistan this year will be mercenaries.

Their appalling treatment of the population played right into the Taliban’s hands. And to re-equip itself for its resurgence, the Taliban declared that the opium game was not so ‘un-Islamic’ after all as it is only the kafirs in the West that use it; the common use of marijuana by Moslems is proscribed. The Taliban resurgence is another reminder for the population that fortunes can change: the friends and foes of today can easily be the foes and friends of tomorrow. They have to deal with the realities of life in this insanity. And the insanity does not stay in Afghanistan. The porosity of its borders with so many other states facilitates the movement of material, men and ideology in both directions. All countries fear the kind of blowback that Pakistan experiences as the fundamentalists turn on their erstwhile backers when it suits; the Taliban has even challenged the ISI... And if India was complacent about the consequences of supporting the enemies of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the 26 November murderfest in Mumbai also shows how easy it is to repay the gesture.

The American mission in Afghanistan has evolved in face of the substantial changes in the military-political situation; it has been obvious for years that the ISAF was not going to fulfil its early objectives. As this article is being written a conference, bringing together the ISAF member-states and the Karzai government, is meeting in London to reassess policy and has concocted a new two-fold strategy: militarily, they intend that the Afghan army surge along with the American forces; politically, they agreed to create a huge slush fund to be used to bribe low-level ‘reconcilable’ Taliban fighters into changing sides or, at least, not fighting against the US.

Chips in a Poker Game

There are no enduring ‘sides’ here. All involved parties have shifting alliances and antagonisms inside and outside Afghanistan.

Take some current matters involving India, Pakistan and China – all of whom have been active in Afghanistan. India is concerned that Pakistani compliance with US policies will give them an advantage in future negotiations on Kashmir; Pakistan is not cooperating to enable India to identify the Indian ‘handlers’ of the terrorists that carried out the 26 November murders in Mumbai. China has built up substantial military and industrial ties with Pakistan, developing fighter aircraft and building deep-water harbour facilities for them; India and China are involved in consortia to build pipelines to transport Myanmar oil and gas back to China – but they still have outstanding territorial disputes in Sikkim, Assam and elsewhere. The disputes between these three nuclear powers have led to open fighting in the recent past, and they all have proxies in the Afghan conflict.

Ironically, the US and Russia have found some common interest on their old Afghan battleground. The Russian rulers are all for the containment of the fundamentalist instabilities so, while they are not happy about the US military base in Kyrgyzstan, they are content to allow 4000 American military flights annually through their airspace to facilitate US operations in Afghanistan. Medvedev said he discussed this with Obama during his first visit to Moscow: ‘Without close cooperation there will be no success in this area.’ Such agreement between the American and Russian administrations augurs badly for local populations. An Old Refrain: ‘destroy it in order to save it’

In the 1960s, national economic development in the old colonial countries was the mantra, and it had a certain credibility. Some grew; most didn’t. The social bankruptcy of the world capitalist system today is starkly shown in Afghanistan where imperialisms, arms, drugs, mafias and fundamentalists rule the roost and the population is utterly impoverished. The people of Afghanistan must be thunderstruck by the improvements the new London plan will give them. Maybe they’ll climb back up the rankings: to 172nd, perhaps?

In this part of the world, warfare is conducted with every weapon imaginable – attack helicopters, missile-firing drones controlled from halfway across the planet, AK47s, improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, knives and rocks. There’s no shortage of manpower: the domestic economic situation has ensured that the American military was able to fulfil all its recruitment targets; the refugee camps, the madrasas, and international jihadi mobilizations provided the man- and child-power for the Taliban resurgence.

No wonder the current American commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal describes Afghanistan as ‘this tremendously complex Mad Max, utterly devastated society …’ Seemingly oblivious to the American role in creating the ‘post-apocalyptic’ society he sees around him, McChrystal goes on to say that Afghanistan ‘[has] got to be repaired, and I don’t know if we can fix it. But we can’t ignore it.’ Ominous words.

The imperialist imbroglio will not stop with Afghanistan. Western military operations are already rolling on to yet another desperately poor country to continue the war against ‘terror’: military ‘advisors’ are already working with government forces to ‘stabilise’ the situation. It is now Yemen’s turn to meet Mad Max.


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