The USA’s new vice-president, Joe Biden, has announced that Washington is conducting a “strategic review” on Afghanistan with a view to setting “clear and achievable” goals.
The Guardian reports a senior Nato official present at Biden’s briefing as saying Washington’s emphasis on Afghanistan was shifting to “being much more realistic”, adding: “It doesn’t need to be a democracy, just secure.”
In his election campaign, Barack Obama pledged to withdraw US troops from Iraq (something that the Bush administration had already committed the USA to, in the deal it signed last year with the Baghdad government), but said that the military resources freed from Iraq would be redirected to war in Afghanistan.
There must be some possibility that Obama was playing “fake right”, seeking to rope in voters who would run scared from any candidate who seemed militarily “soft”, rather than making a determined commitment to more warfare in Afghanistan. Maybe the troop “surge” which he is expected to organise for Afghanistan will be aimed to secure the conditions for an orderly rundown of the US military presence rather than increased warfare to get control over Afghanistan for the US and its allies.
But maybe not; and maybe a “surge” aimed at getting conditions for a US military retreat will develop its own contrary logic, drawing the US into more and more war. Functioning bourgeois democracy in Afghanistan is a very remote goal; but “security” there, in any comprehensive sense, is remote too.
It is hard to see how anything but bad could come out of an increased US war effort. When the US invaded Afghanistan after the 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda attack on New York and Washington, the Taliban regime fell quickly. There is no reason to suppose that the rejoicing in the streets of Kabul at the Taliban’s fall was insincere. Kabul’s population has increased by two-thirds since the Taliban were ousted.
Seven years on, however, Afghanistan is still in chaos, and the chaos is getting worse rather than better. The Taliban has revived, and is now frequently able to stage attacks in Kabul itself.
Afghanistan has always been resistant to foreign conquest — from the British in the 19th century to Russia in 1979-88. More: the country has never really had an effective central government. Even if there was a nominal king or paramount chief, the real authority in most of the territory was local clan leaders.
However widely hated the Taliban was, there were reasons making its revival likely. In 2002 a lot of its forces just retreated over the border into Pakistan, where the Taliban had first been recruited and established.
The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, drawn by British colonialists, has never had much force on the ground. The Pashtun people straddles the frontier. The frontier areas of Pakistan have never been solidly under the control of its central government, and today are almost entirely controlled by the Taliban and other warlords.
Short of conquering a large chunk of Pakistan, the US could never hope to do more militarily than push the Taliban back temporarily. The US has been bombing those areas of Pakistan; this policy fails to defeat the Taliban, but simultaneously antagonises (and drives behind the Taliban) the local population, and makes the Pakistani military (in any case much honeycombed with Islamists of various stripes) even more reluctant to cooperate effectively with the US against the Taliban.
And then the new government installed in Kabul by the Americans has been notoriously incapable of securing effective civil administration or winning wide popularity. For its Afghan allies the US relied on a congeries of non-Pushtoon Islamist groups, which already before 2001 held sizeable areas of northern Afghanistan outside Taliban control. The new president installed under US auspices and still in office, Hamid Karzai, was chosen because of his Pushtoon ethnic origin and his family’s close links with the old monarchy, but now US officials openly decry the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Karzai administration; and anyway the Pushtoon areas were always likely to distrust a Kabul government dominated by groups based among the northern peoples.
International aid funds have been insufficient, and when they have arrived, have been siphoned off in corruption and luxury projects benefiting only a tiny minority of the population. Most of the country remains economically dependent on opium smuggling; the US alternates between militant declarations about stamping out the trade, and resigned acceptance that it cannot put any economic alternatives in place.
“Security” in the sense that it would be understood in, say, Europe is probably unattainable in any assayable future. Increased US warfare not only fails to defeat the Taliban, but does not even wear it down; rather, it seems to work more to drive people behind the Taliban, out of resentment against the foreign bombers.
A return to power for the Taliban would not be a lesser evil even than the present chaos, but is by no means a necessary result of a US withdrawal. The people who have moved to Kabul since the Taliban fell would be minded to resist, and Afghanistan now has an 80,000 strong army.
That an Islamist group is dominant in one or another area, even large area, of Afghanistan, does not necessarily mean that it is well-placed to conquer the whole territory. After Russian declared its war against the Islamist resistance unwinnable and withdrew in 1988, it took four years before Islamists ousted the rump Stalinist regime from Kabul, and another four years before the Taliban took the capital. The Taliban never conquered the whole country. Local Islamist-warlord rule without US bombing is not obviously a worse option than local Islamist-warlord rule with US bombing.
As far as we know, talk of a working-class alternative within Afghanistan has no grip. There must be a fair number of wage-workers in Kabul now. In 1988-92, even with the rump Stalinist regime in Kabul, AWL supported defence of the cities, with their slightly better social conditions, against being overrun by the Islamist militias which controlled the Afghan countryside; surely we would do similar now. But there is no concentrated industry, and little labour movement.
A great deal depends on Pakistani politics, and the development and activity of the labour movement in Pakistan. But there is little reason to suppose that Obama’s surge, even tempered by Biden’s “realism”, will help that.