Despite eighteen months of relentless bombing, the US has failed to turn Afghanistan into a democratic paradise with groceries in every shopping plaza and a McDonald’s at every street corner. This is frustrating for US president Bush, who has been trying to present Afghanistan as the “model” to be replicated in Iraq to usher in democracy, after his planned assault on the country. Now Afghanistan no longer appears on Bush’s cue-cards.
Even Hamid Karzai, the US-installed president of Afghanistan, has failed to elicit any further response from the Americans. During his visit to Washington on February 27-28 he pleaded in vain for them to interest themselves in his miserable country. Karzai was given a dressing-down by senators when he tried to paint a rosy picture of the situation in Afghanistan. He was grilled as if he were an employee of the US government by members of the senate foreign relations committee, who growled at him as he tried to convince them that things are not as bad as media reports make them out to be. Senator Chuck Hagel (a republican) warned Karzai that if he told the committee everything was going well, “the next time you come back, then your credibility will be in question.”
Less than a week earlier, on February 22, a meeting was held on Afghanistan in Tokyo to follow up an earlier one in Tokyo a year earlier (January 21-22, 2002, soon after Karzai was installed as head of a transition government). The purpose was to secure additional funds to disarm the various militias that have turned Afghanistan into a hell-hole of banditry, robbery and rape. Such high-sounding phrases as “disarm, decommission and reintegrate” (DDR) were heard in Tokyo for dealing with the militias. There are several problems with this: little or no money is forthcoming, although four billion yen have been promised specifically for this task. The most powerful militias will not demobilize just because the Americans tell them to, unless they have an alternative source of income; Karzai has no power to enforce his writ: he is virtually a prisoner in Kabul, and even fears for his life.
The strongest reason against disarming is that there is no security for anyone. In a society steeped in lawlessness, a gun is too often the only way to defend one’s life and honour. This was not the case when the Taliban ruled: whatever one’s opinion of them, they maintained law and order and nobody dared molest women. Many Afghans miss the Taliban era now. The pathetic state of American-occupied Afghanistan can be gleaned from the fact that there is no police force, nor the government’s promised army of 70,000; only 1,800 have been recruited so far. There are tens of thousands of armed militiamen all over the country. While the government promises each soldier the equivalent of US$50 per month, militia chiefs pay $120. They also provide housing and other help. The warlords use this power to levy their own taxes on goods and people. There is not one but several governments in Afghanistan; every warlord is a government unto himself.
In addition to the heavily-armed militias, several other factors are also contributing to instability in Afghanistan. The presence of 10,000 American troops and thousands of other foreign forces is intensifying resentment among a people known for their independence. American arrogance and shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy is also aggravating the situation of a people who have already endured decades of suffering. The level of poverty is so high that even the Washington Post admits that people are forced to sell their daughters in order to feed the rest of the family (February 23).
Of the US$4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo last year, only $1.8 billion have been delivered; this may sound a lot for a country like Afghanistan, but is not. Everything has to be started from scratch: roads, buildings, chairs, desks, telephones, electric cables, the lot. The money delivered so far is barely enough to pay the warlords to buy their loyalty, and for the salaries of government employees. There are no funds for reconstruction and, therefore, little prospect of more employment. Before the onset of winter, hundreds of thousands of Afghans trekked back into Pakistan to escape hunger and cold. Hospitals and towns in Pakistan near the Afghan border are flooded with Afghan refugees.
The grinding poverty and lack of central authority have again revived poppy cultivation (the Taliban had eradicated drugs in the country). America’s favourite warlords have restarted the business because farmers can get much more cash selling drugs than they can get by growing grain. Afghanistan’s drug-production is up by 18 percent, according to UN figures; in reality it may be much more, because many areas of the country are inaccessible. With Karzai virtually imprisoned in Kabul, the rest of the country is divided between warlords. In the northeast, the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum fights daily duels with Muhammad Atta, a Tajik. Civilians are the main victims; worse, women are no longer safe. Uzbek and Tajik warlords are the main culprits, but people have no one to turn to for redress. Who should they look to: Karzai, who cannot rely even on his own defence minister, Muhammad Fahim, for protection, or the warlords whose militias are responsible for these atrocities?
And then there are the trigger-happy Americans, who bomb remote villages because someone tipped them off about the dreaded Taliban or al-Qa’ida. The Americans have a standard answer when they commit such crimes: “we know nothing about it but will investigate.” This is what happened on February 12 in Helmand; a village was bombed, killing 17 civilians, most of them women and children; the Americans just shrugged the episode off. Nor is this an isolated case; there have been repeated assaults on civilians all over the country. The Americans’ attitude is illustrated by a statement that an American soldier made to the Kansas City Star on March 2 about the Afghans: they are “farmers by day, Taliban by night” (so presumably it is all right to kill them). Another soldier from the US army’s much-touted 82 Airborne division has complained that Afghanistan is beginning to look like Vietnam.
Resistance to occupation is intensifying; hardly a day passes without some incident somewhere. On February 22 a bomb exploded near Khost in Paktia province, blowing up a vehicle carrying American soldiers; 10 were reportedly killed and several injured. Immediately the Americans called for aerial bombing of the area, killing a number of civilians. Night letters, posted on mosque doors or in the marketplace, have become common. People are warned not to assist the occupiers. Even Kabul is no longer safe, despite the presence of thousands of foreign troops. Outside the capital the situation is so grim that aid workers have abandoned their posts and fled. A number of former mujahideen commanders and the Taliban and Arab mujahideen are regrouping to resist the Americans. The best-known of these are Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. The latter was placed on the Americans’ list of “terrorists” last month. When he heard about it, Hikmatyar said he was glad that Bush (he referred to him as the “modern-day Pharaoh”) does not consider him a friend.
The resistance has turned into a typical guerrilla-type war. The mujahideen operate in small units, attack, harass and then melt away among the people. It is clear that there is considerable support for the resistance, otherwise the Americans might have had some success in capturing the fighters. Instead, even militias supporting the government are becoming resentful about the cavalier manner in which the Americans throw their weight about. “There’s no end to this,” a soldier with the US army’s 82nd Airborne division complained as his platoon searched a village for weapons. “We could spend another month down here easy and still not find anything. Is there a method to this madness?” Probably not; as another soldier said, “It’s called hide-and-go-seek.”
American soldiers are learning about the harsh realities of Afghanistan on the ground, but this is lost on the warriors in Washington, sitting in their comfortable offices plotting distant wars and deciding how the rest of the world should be governed and by whom. One thing, however, has become clear: it is not possible to bomb a country into modernity, nor turn it into a democracy. America’s planned attack on Iraq will further exacerbate Kabul’s dilemma; Afghanistan has already fallen into the black hole and everyone is turning away because the looming catastrophe in Iraq has diverted resources there. This has increased resentment in Afghanistan on two counts: first, humanitarian aid has declined sharply in the last few months; second, there is a growing feeling everywhere that America is against them and against Islam. Washington’s warriors have done nothing to dispel this perception.
“If the US attacks Iraq, southern Afghanistan will be very dangerous,” said Abdullah Lali, a military commander in Qandahar who is loyal to the government. “Groups will reorganize, saying that Islam is being attacked by the Americans.” Khan Mohammad, Qandahar’s chief military officer, expressed surprise at the recent fighting: “It is a guerrilla fight now. The enemy can’t fight in groups. They will attack us, create problems and escape. The enemy is not destroyed. It is a big concern for us because we don’t know how this kind of fighting will end.”