There are now almost as many US and allied troops in Afghanistan as there are in Iraq — 100,000 in Afghanistan, including 62,000 Americans, and 120,000 in Iraq.
For the present those troops in Afghanistan have one overriding immediate aim: to try to make Afghanistan’s presidential election on 20 August look plausible.
That it should actually be plausible is more or less ruled out. In a country dominated by warlordism and traditional hierarchical allegiances, votes measure not democracy but who is best at doing deals with power-brokers.
But 2004’s presidential election looked plausible, with a 70% turnout. The 2005 parliamentary election looked passable, with 55%.
Ahmed Rashid, author of several relevant books — Taliban, Descent Into Chaos, and Jihad — says in a recent interview:
“This election has sucked up all of the energy of the Obama administration... There’s a total preoccupation by the US military and the civilian side to make sure that these elections go through... It will suck up the oxygen from development and from reconstruction”.
The Americans, says Rashid, fear “a drastically low turnout of under 30 percent. If it’s under 30 percent, there will be appeals by almost everyone to say that this is not a legitimate election, and that we’ll need another election”.
They also fear a result on the first round that is close enough to require a second-round run-off. “If there is a run-off, you will have this critical six to eight weeks [until October, when the run-off would be held] in which there will be accusations, charges, countercharges, a vacuum of leadership. It will be a very tricky political situation. Anything could happen in that period. There could be assassinations and the Taliban will step up their campaign. Internally, there could be a constitutional deadlock”.
The US government is open about its low opinion of the sitting president, Hamid Karzai, but desperately hopes that he wins a clear victory with a plausible vote.
Why might the vote slump from 70% in 2004 to below 30% now? Rashid says that it is because of increased Taliban power.
“The Taliban have gone from saying they’ll block the roads to cut off voters from the voting stations, to saying they’d chop off the fingers of anyone with ink on their fingers [a sign that a person has voted]... They’ve said that [they will] attack the polling stations. None of these things were done last time. They were not strong enough in 2004 to attack polling stations, and they let the elections happen”.
When the Taliban ruled in the capital, Kabul, 1996-2001, they were widely hated, and never able to extend their rule to the whole of the country.
When the US bombed Afghanistan, after the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre on 9 September 2001, the Taliban quickly fled from the advancing troops of the Northern Alliance (Afghan warlords backed by the USA). On all evidence, the celebrations by the people of Kabul as the Taliban fell were genuine. Kabul's population has increased sizeably since then. The USA's announced plan was that aid from rich countries would rebuild and restabilise Afghanistan.
So what went wrong? Why do we think Workers' Liberty and Solidarity were right in 2001 to oppose the US-led war, despite our total opposition to the Taliban? Why is the Taliban so much stronger now?
Part of it is to do with developments in Pakistan, but much is to do with US policy in Afghanistan.
Out of the relatively small amount of non-military assistance that was sent to rebuild this bombed-out country, almost half wound up as profits for big contractors like Dyncorp, Louis Berger Group, and KBR. They were building substandard schools and roads, and clinics with no doctors. There was much talk about "nation building". More literal "building" — of decent schools, roads, and clinics — would have been better.
Arrogantly supposing that after a quick blast of US military force, every country in the world will just naturally gravitate to a US-model market economy, the US military bombed lavishly, killing many civilians. They forgot that Afghanistan has always resisted foreign conquest, whatever the benign promises of the conquerors, and has never really even had effective central government.
Obama has talked about a different approach, but it is unlikely to be more than bits of "too little, too late". Even assuming the election goes as the USA wishes, what will the US troops sent to Taliban-dominated provinces like Helmand do then? Retreat and let the Taliban take over again? Or try vainly to establish permanent US military rule in the area, "fronted" by a few pliant Afghans?
Karzai says he wants to negotiate with the Taliban if he wins the presidential election. Rashid thinks that is possible.
"Many of the Afghan Taliban, the commanders and rank and file, are fighting for a whole variety of reasons that have nothing to do with global jihad, Al Qaeda, or even wanting to seize power. A lot of them are fighting because they're fed up with the lack of progress in their areas because of the destruction caused by American bombing. A lot of them may be getting paid by the Taliban. All sorts of things.
"These are the sort of categories that people today call the 'moderate Taliban'. They're not necessarily moderate, but they are people who are fighting for local grievances that could be addressed..."
It is not likely to happen, though, because the Taliban's first demand is for a timetable for withdrawal of US troops; the USA will not agree; the Taliban, feeling themselves stronger, have little incentive to retreat on that demand; and Karzai depends a lot on US support.
Malalai Joya, the most outspoken of the few women elected to Afghanistan's parliament in 2005, says: "Like many other Afghans, I risked my life during the dark years of Taliban rule to teach at underground schools for girls. Today the situation of women is as bad as ever. Victims of abuse and rape find no justice because the judiciary is dominated by fundamentalists. A growing number of women, seeing no way out of the suffering in their lives, have taken to suicide by self-immolation...
"Some say that if foreign troops leave Afghanistan will descend into civil war. But what about the civil war and catastrophe of today? The longer this occupation continues, the worse the civil war will be".
In many other situations, this argument that a civil war following occupation will only be worse the longer the occupation continues is an evasion, a device to avoid thinking about awkward facts. In this case, the balance of evidence, from the last eight years, is that it is probably true.
The troops should withdraw from Afghanistan. Socialists in Britain should give maximum solidarity to the women's movement and other democratic forces in Afghanistan, and solidarise with the defence of the cities against rural-based ultra-Islamists