The multinational, NATO-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, undertaken in response to the terrorist attack by the islamist organization Al-Qaeda who were said to have been harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban government, has developed into a disastrous quagmire. Not only has it proven impossible for the imperialist powers of NATO to actually control events in Afghanistan and prevent continuous attacks on their soldiers as well as on the institutions of the newly planted government of Hamid Karzai, but the presence of NATO forces has greatly strengthened both the force and popularity of the Taliban.
The Taliban itself was mostly a Pakistan-based Pashtun organization, appealing to religious sentiment to form a coherent force, which drove out the extortionist warlords of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani and others from the Afghan lands. However, their religious and anti-modernist inventions of tradition with regard to the demands of islam in Afghanistan itself quickly made them not only a byword for deepest obscurantism and religious fanaticism internationally, but also made them intolerable for the Afghan population themselves. Various warlords continued to combat them, while the Afghan people were waiting for an opportunity to rid themselves of all the different forces attempting to subjugate them altogether. However, all experience has shown that all peoples prefer the devil they know to any foreign invader, even if the latter operates under the flag of supposed liberation of the people involved, and Afghanistan also proves this rule true. The Taliban are now stronger than ever, since the devastation wrought by the imperialist forces has caused many an Afghan villager to join the forces of religious illusion, which at least provides the benefits of suggesting a kind of heavenly justice where no earthly order or control can be found. It has also strongly repudiated the foreign occupation of the country, unlike the few imported Afghan liberals which mostly appear as collaborators to a harrassed population seeking peace. The Taliban moreover have a reputation for resisting corruption, as many islamist movements do, and Karzai’s government has been nothing if not corrupt.
What then is the purpose of occupation? Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy in Afghanistan and Pakistan himself has stated the following: “First of all, the victory, as defined in purely military terms, is not achievable, and I cannot stress that too highly. (…) What we’re looking for is the definition of our vital national security interests”.1 Holbrooke recognizes the impossibility of victory even as thousands more soldiers are sent into the country, many pulled out of the other failed American adventure in ‘nation-building’, Iraq. But what then are these national security interests Holbrooke speaks of? Indeed the American government feels aggrieved because the spectacle of the terrorist attacks on New York City itself, heart of the empire of capital, was according to them planned and undertaken from the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the least developed areas on earth, where old feudal ties and religious barbarism are still strong. The weakest of all attacking the strongest of all in their own base is an example to the world of a kind that the American empire cannot afford.
Yet that is not all. For although enthousiastic American military press articles would have us believe that the fight against their shadowy enemy of Al-Qaeda has achieved major victories with the elimination of some of their top leaders, this is of itself a sideshow. Indeed, the US shows little interest in even bothering with finding Osama Bin Laden, despite this renegade son of the Saudi elite having been depicted as the veritable puppetmaster of ‘international terror’ and the anti-Christ of Western morality for years; by which is meant that prolongation of his very existence after his attack on New York City would be a continuous loss of prestige on the part of the United States and the wealthy nations in general. If they are willing to accept that loss now, what then keeps them in these barren lands?
There are several considerations. The first here is the fact that Afghanistan is the primary producer in the world of opium. That addictive soporific that British imperialism used to destroy the Chinese empire has now turned against its manipulators: the highly addictive drug heroin is produced by means of opium, and heroin is considered a serious blight and instability problem in the Western nations, where great wealth allowing purchase of exotic drugs goes together with great despair and alienation making that purchase desirable. The Taliban, who do not desire any illusions other than their own brand of religious fanaticism, had actually succesfully wiped out much of the opium production in 2001.2 The newly installed pro-Western government in Afghanistan however has not been so successful, since the warfare in Afghanistan has destroyed most opportunities for growing regular crops – indeed, Afghanistan now again produces 92% of the world’s opium, representing half the annual product of the country.3 The Taliban of course have recognized this situation, and are now supporting the opium growers, whom they ‘tax’, providing their main source of income for warfare against the occupiers. Since they no longer attempt to repress the only viable crop in the drought and war-ridden countryside of Afghanistan, this has greatly increased the fervor for islamism on the part of the Afghan farmers. Of course, the effects of opium on Afghanistan’s own institutions can be foreseen: if mighty China’s celestial bureaucracy, the oldest and strongest on earth, could be torn apart by the corruption due to opium within the span of a few decades, what resistance then could former warlords, now government officials, offer to the bribery of the drug trade? The imperialists’ weapon of old is now undermining their very efforts at providing a modern and capital-friendly structure to Afghanistan’s institutions. Yet they dare not give up on it, not just because of the great amount of government and police officials in the United States who are parasitic upon the drug trade and depend on its continued yet ever-failing ‘war on drugs’, but also because if they cannot even determine what crops Afghan farmers shall sow, then this is truly an admission of total defeat in the effort to control Afghanistan’s economy. Indeed, the various invading powers have even had to resort to the ignominious weapon of counter-bribery, but this has mostly failed. This should come as no surprise since local production prices come to about thirty-three dollars from an acre of wheat, and between five hundred and seven hundred dollars from an acre of poppies.3
Karzai’s weakness has also left Afghanistan as wracked by class and ethnic differences as it ever was, meaning that any attempt at ‘nation-building’ by the NATO forces is going to be an exercise in futility, comparable to the game of whack-a-mole. The corruption inherent in the newly installed government has mostly benefited the local landlords, who exploit the share-cropping opium farmers and at the same time take bribes for normal government functions. Many of these landlords are the same people who operated as warlords in the pre-Taliban phase of recent Afghan history. Moreover, the forces from the north, many of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik descent, are angry about the weakness of the resistance against the Pashtun Taliban, who are their old enemies in the struggle over Afghanistan’s agricultural land as well as smuggling routes. Karzai himself is a Pashtun, but few of his ethnicity support him, and it is likely that the old Northern Alliance will reform – an alliance of northern forces that combated the Taliban in the days of their reign. This alliance will challenge Karzai, whose loyalty to their interests they doubt. This year new elections for the presidency of Afghanistan are to be held, and if the northern candidate wins, this means the internal strife in Afghanistan will come even closer to a boiling point, which neither bodes well for the peace of the area and its supposed defenders nor for the Afghan people.
Then there are as ever the considerations of the ‘cash nexus’. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan had a very differentiated and high import tariff system, which used high valuations of the currency to determine its quantity in a given case. The Taliban’s hold over the country was not strong enough to fully enforce this, and indeed effective tariff rates were significantly lower. Nonetheless this formed a significant source of non-drug income, in particular since many smugglers used Afghanistan to import goods which were subsequently re-exported illegally to Pakistan, a country which also has significant protectionist measures and is very reliant on income from its foreign trade.4 Under the current regime, these tariffs have been significantly lowered, accession to the World Trade Organization is pursued, and further attempts are planned at reducing transport costs and indirect taxes on exporters, mainly in the hope of attracting foreign investment. The importance of export from a poor country like Afghanistan is easy to underestimate: the warlord Achmad Shah Massoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, received his main income from taxing the production and export of gems from the mines of the Panjsher Valley in northern Afghanistan, which produce among other things valuables such as lapis lazuli and emeralds.5 Massoud was killed by the Taliban shortly before the attack on New York City of September 11, 2001.
Also of importance concerning trade is the strategic location of Afghanistan: oil and gas-rich countries of Central Asia suffer from poor location and lack of connections to world ports, and Pakistan in particular has aimed at causing a pipeline to be created through Afghanistan, which would connect the Central Asian states with its own ports in Beluchistan by means of Herat. Both the Pakistani and American government as well as such companies as UNOCAL had in fact been negotiating this pipeline just before the events following the Taliban occupation and the Al-Qaeda attacks disrupted the plans. At the same time, the Pakistan-supported Taliban had greatly reduced the costs of transport and security in Afghanistan, which enhanced trade, particularly the above-mentioned smuggling into Pakistan itself. This undermining of Pakistan’s own financial basis, as mentioned very dependent on its transit location, is an activity of Pakistan’s own security forces, which consider their own government to be pro-imperialist and wish to replace it by a religiously inspired resistance regime.5 In the case of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, such neo-Mahdist regimes garner much legitimacy from the lack of legitimacy of the alternatives, in particular the existing and prior state bureaucracies, which have mostly been predators on the extremely poor peasant populations of both countries. The removal of the Taliban by the Western forces has destroyed the safety of the roads that prevailed in most of Afghanistan, which in turn drives local farmers even more towards opium production. Marketing of wheat on the international market legally is now much more difficult than marketing of opium is illegally, even if little of the market price in the West of heroin is captured by the Afghan farmer. Foreign capital, including Chinese mining interests, has however certainly expressed interest in developing Afghanistan’s own gas fields as well as the significant resources of iron ore and coal the country possesses. The USSR had spent hundreds of millions on exploration of these resources when they occupied the country, and if only safety could be guaranteed for capital movements in and out of Afghanistan, it is quite likely that American and other foreign companies shall endeavour to absorb Afghanistan into the world market as well.6
A deal with the Taliban, therefore, seems the most beneficial option for the Western interests. If the Taliban can be appeased and counted on to provide, or at least not disturb, the ‘security’ needed for foreign investment, and in turn the Taliban do not hinder the development of capitalism in that country, then imperialism shall have cleared the way once again for capital’s adventures in foreign shores. The degree of foreign capital’s vulnerability to extortion by the many local landowners, warlords and so forth does not make this likely, however. More likely, the NATO forces shall be forced to withdraw sooner or later after having to deal with the Taliban on the latter’s terms, and much shall be as it was before in Afghanistan. The tens of thousands of dead Afghans and the loss of men and prestige on the part of the Western empires will be the only ‘result’ of the Afghan expedition.
1.Associated Press article, Feb. 18, 2009.->
2.“Opioids in Afghanistan”. http://www.opioids.com/afghanistan/index.html. ->
3.Anderson, J.L. “The Taliban’s Opium War”. The New Yorker (July 9, 2007).->
4.“Afghanistan: Trade Policy and Integration”. World Bank report. http://go.worldbank.org/ORI5Y663A0. ->
5.Rubin, B. The Political Economy of War and Peace in Afghanistan. Council on Foreign Relations, 1999.->
6.Daly, J.C.K. “Analysis: Afghanistan’s untapped energy riches”. UPI article, Oct. 24, 2008. Also: “Ahadi: Afghanistan’s Economic Fortunes”, interview by Greg Bruno. Council on Foreign Relations, Apr. 15, 2008.->