Afghanistan: Benevolent Occupiers and Irrational Natives

by Ross Eventon

The war in Afghanistan continues, with all the imperialist delusions that were at play in Iraq

First published: 12 April, 2013 | Category: 

Following a Freedom of Information Act request, The Independent recently obtained an internal assessment on the state of the war in Afghanistan from the Ministry of Defence.  The newspaper highlighted the report’s conclusion that the war is “unwinnable” militarily, but this is not a new evaluation among the governments of the occupying forces - the CIA, for example, are well aware, as a leaked classified assessment noted in 2011, that the war is “trending to stalemate”.  More revealing is the description of what exactly has been going on in Afghanistan over the past 12 or so years.  British troops are in Afghanistan, the authors write, to “impose an ideology foreign to the Afghan people,” namely, “Nato wished to build a democracy”.  It may seem an antiquarian exercise now, more than 12 years after the fact, but let’s return to the period when the political system was being imposed to determine the accuracy of this analysis.

In December 2001, two months after the bombing began, a group of Afghans selected by Washington met at Bonn, Germany.  Soon after, the old US allies of the Northern Alliance emerged from the meetings with over half of the positions in the newly formed government; the New York Times reported at the time, “The United States-led military campaign that began on Oct. 7... has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.”  According to polls taken by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission,  90% of Afghans wanted these people banned from public office and three quarters wanted them tried as war criminals; views one Guardian contributor pointed out weren’t “pragmatic”.  During the Loya Jirga that followed in 2002, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad - who “came to be known as "the viceroy", or the real president of Afghanistan,” quoting the BBC - ensured Karzai was unchallenged as presidential candidate, openly undermining the popular former-King Mohammed Zahir Shah.  Sima Samar, the interim Minister for Women's Affairs, told the BBC: "This is not a democracy, it is a rubber stamp. Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones." 


Two years later came the constitutional Loya Jirga, marked by threats and intimidation, a display of overt power politics by the warlords, and vote buying.   An International Crisis Group analysis of the constitution that emerged from this process, the text of which was imposed on Afghans by the occupiers (48% of delegates boycotted the vote and it passed only after “backroom dealing” between the UN and US), found it “would fail to provide meaningful democratic governance, including power-sharing, a system of checks and balances, or mechanisms for increasing the representation of ethnic, regional and other minority groups.”   “The charter” the Associated Press reported, “makes the president commander in chief of the armed forces, charges him with determining the nation’s fundamental policies and gives him considerable power to press legislation.”   A group of scholars writing in the journal Foreign Affairs noted the new arrangement placed “virtually all executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the national government,” creating “one of the most centralized states in the world, at least on paper.”  A report last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies discussed the unsuitability of this kind of political arrangement in a decentralised society like Afghanistan, and, without any hint of irony, mused, “perhaps this centralized system could work in a large authoritarian state.”  Only time will tell.

The constitution was commissioned by the Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission Lakhdar Brahimi who had a change of heart in 2011 when he wrote, “In hindsight, I am strongly inclined to say that we might well have spared the people of Afghanistan and ourselves the effort; the 1964 constitution, cleaned of its articles concerning the monarchy, could have served Afghanistan well for many years, allowing peace to take root and trust between former enemies to be reestablished”; one wonders what Afghans, now living under this system, might feel after reading that off-hand remark, which laments not so much the outcome as “the effort.”  But, as Brahimi must well know, such a constitution would not have facilitated the concentration of power in the hands of the individuals Washington wanted running the country; to give some idea of the constitution’s democratic credentials, high level Taliban members have hinted that, if they were to assume power, they probably wouldn’t need to change it very much. 

The Presidential election in 2004 was a foregone conclusion essentially undertaken for show, and included intimidation by US-backed warlords and electoral fraud; trends that have continued in subsequent elections, both parliamentary and presidential.  In rural areas, ‘governance’ and pacification were outsourced to warlords - often exploiting and exacerbating ethnic tensions - who ran these areas as their own personal fiefdoms, enforced by terror against anyone opposed to their rule; independent political organising was effectively suppressed.  According to Bob Woodward’s book, President Bush lauded the policy, calling it “one of the biggest “bargains” of all time.” 

How have these developments been interpreted by officials, journalists and experts?  To pick some examples:  “The allies, sought, with the support of many well-intentioned Afghans, to establish a near-perfect Western liberal democracy,” according to a senior western diplomat quoted by veteran journalist Sandy Gall in his book on the war.  “It seemed to be another case of wishful thinking,” writes professor of journalism at Stanford University, Joel Brinkley, “Western leaders wanted to build an Afghan state that looked just like their own.”  “We are trying to produce in Afghanistan this special democracy, this wonderful society that will be a glittering symbol of our ability to help the third world as we used to call it,” according to the Independent’s Robert Fisk.   Britain’s highest ranking military officer, General David Richards: The root of the problem was the attempt to “impose a Western style government on a country that never had it, and then singularly failing to teach them how to work it.”  “The western project in Afghanistan,” The Guardian’s Jason Burke tells his readers, involved, “the creation of a prosperous, stable democracy with significantly improved human rights for women and minorities.”  Brinkley quotes the President of the Human Rights Foundation, Thor Halvorssen, who says the political model “was doomed to fail” because “everything is impacted by the culture of the place where you are working.”  The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele argues it’s a religious issue: “The Taliban had less of a support base than Saddam Hussein. But with their failure to anticipate that western armies cannot remain popular for long when they invade Muslim countries, Bush and Blair are guilty of as great a folly as they were in Iraq.”

The delusion that we tried to install a democracy, and that Afghans subsequently rejected it, is central to the view that our inability to suppress the insurgency is down to some cultural deficiency on the part of the natives.  It would be underselling the point to say that this mentality is common among occupying armies.  Compare this position bemoaning the inherent unsuitability of Afghans for ‘democracy’ to the conclusion of Matt Waldman, a Fellow of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, who writes,  “So long as the root causes remain - especially a corrupt, exclusionary, unjust government, and the perception among some Afghans of an aggressive, self-serving foreign military presence - then the violence will continue.”  Both of these root causes are our direct responsibility, they undermine the self-serving argument that Afghans aren’t fit for democracy, and therefore, aside from occasional lip-service,  they must be ignored. 

Instead, when not berating the inadequacy of the local culture, analysts almost unanimously blame the persistence of the insurgency on the decision to invade Iraq - ‘we took our eyes off the ball’ - or Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.  The first reason is nonsensical. Commentators are never able to explain what NATO would have done differently to alleviate the grievances, other than having a larger troop presence.  When a troop surge did come, it was a disaster.  “The intensification of the international military presence from 2006 onward, meant to contain the insurgency, has had the opposite effect,” write Afghanistan experts Antonio Giustozzi and Niamatullah Ibrahimi, “with greater numbers of troops eventually presiding over an acceleration of the insurgency’s expansion.”  The re-emergence of the insurgency once the occupation set in was based on local opposition to the nature of the political arrangement we imposed on the country and was assisted by the decision to launch what amounted to an assassination campaign against Taliban members who wanted to lay down their arms.  Journalist Anand Gopal, in a report on the topic for the New America Foundation, notes how “foreign forces and their proxies pursued an unrelenting drive against former regime members, driving many of them to flee to Pakistan and launch an insurgency.  Once the Taliban leadership decided to stand against the Afghan government and its foreign backers, they were able to take advantage of growing disillusionment in the countryside.”  Again, compare this serious analysis with the assessment of General Richards - described by Gall as Britain’s “most-approachable, friendly, easy-going, bright, but when it matters, iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove general” - who says discontent began after the invasion when Afghans “began to get a little bored, disappointed about our inability to meet the promises we had made to them which were well intentioned but hopelessly ill-resourced.”  The local army and police - abusive and corrupt, and roundly hated for it - should have been bigger, Richards laments in hindsight.

(Interviewed by Gall, Richards reveals some other insights, although perhaps inadvertently, into what went wrong.  In his area of operation “our orders were not clear” and “in practice, we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques.  We absolutely knew it was not what we were there to do, and would not be helpful.”  The British military by no means holds the monopoly on brazenness.  Take former head of US operations in Afghanistan, General John Allen.  When the UN mission in the country pointed out that air fire had killed four times as many civilians as any other tactic, Allen responded by passing a new order that instantly reduced the number of casualties attributed to air strikes.  The four-star General made clear it was the exposure of this fact that drove his decision, not the killings of Afghans:  “It was probably a decision I could have made long before that and none of our forces were put at risk, or at greater risk because of this.”)  

The argument that Pakistan supports the insurgency in some way is no doubt correct, but, were the root causes removed, no insurgency would be able to survive on external support alone without the support our policies generate.  An investigation of radicalisation in insurgent controlled areas by the Department for International Development found although the use of a religious message by the armed groups has some resonance with the population, this is primarily because “it is couched in terms of two keenly felt pragmatic grievances: the corruption of government and the presence of foreign forces.”  Summarising the findings from interviews in the country, the report’s author concludes, “Given the absence of political parties and any viable opposition there is no other way for people to express their alienation from, and opposition to, current political arrangements. In this context the Taliban and Hizb-i Islami represent the only alternative power blocks capable of achieving political change.”

We have driven the Afghan population to the point where the Taliban needed to do very little to turn the political war, focusing on justice and security in their areas of influence.  Reforms that might serve to alleviate local grievances could risk undermining the authority of our client and are therefore off the table.  In any case, a threshold has been passed, the local population have rejected the government, and therefore the policy response is to further militarize the client regime and paramilitarize the countryside, increasing violence and terror until Afghans are broken down to the point where they accept “the current political arrangement”.  The result is a massive funding influx for the repressive and brutal security apparatus and the emboldening of the oligarchy who run the country, individuals like the head of the National Directorate of Security, overseer of a CIA-created organisation responsible for widespread torture, who himself is accused of maintaining a personal torture chamber whilst governor of Kandahar, where, one former official who worked with him claimed, prisoners would be “trussed like a chicken.” 

There are very good reasons why our clients in Afghanistan happen to be corrupt, reactionary and repressive.  Washington requires local representatives who are willing to make themselves subservient to external demands, willing to view the domestic population as an enemy, and willing to undertake whatever is necessary to crush resistance.  These locals, unsurprisingly, are generally the most reactionary members of the society, content to prostrate themselves before a foreign master and often relieved to have external enforcers protecting them from their fellow countrymen. In return, of course, they receive perks and kickbacks, power and wealth, which can be siphoned out of the country when things get too hairy.  Hence the installation of Nazi collaborators in Greece; wealthy landowners and Japanese collaborators in the Philippines; repressive, autocratic leaders in South Vietnam; murderous dictators in the Southern Cone; the brutal leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala during the first War on Terror; and on and on. 

Returning to the Ministry of Defence report, the authors consider the success of the withdrawal in Afghanistan “is likely to be judged on the same criteria as those used to objectively judge the Soviet transition”, which includes “the longevity and effectiveness of the incumbent central government”.  It is not difficult to find examples of the objective, morally-stunted individuals who judge criminal invasions this way, for whom the imposition of a such a regime can be judged a ‘success’ simply if it manages to survive.

What do Afghans think is going on in their country?  According to Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Michael O’Hanlon, “Many Afghans think that U.S. interest in their country is so great -- whether for military bases for operations in broader South and Central Asia or some other nefarious purpose -- that the United States would never scale back its commitment. That view”, he assures readers, “is bunk.”  The fortress embassy in Kabul?  The military prison, major special operations forces complex and operations centre for tactical fighter jets being installed at Bagram? The high-tech drone control facility being built at the base in Kandahar?  The $22 million centre for Special Forces operations being constructed by the company formally known as Blackwater? The $92 million Afghan ‘Pentagon’?  The $54 million Kabul headquarters of the Afghan Interior Ministry? The $102 million base for the army’s 201st Corps?  Mirages all, figments of the Afghan mind.  Astute observers of the war will have noticed that Afghans only ever ‘perceive’ they are being occupied, or, after every massacre of civilians, they may ‘come to view’ the foreigners as occupiers, hence massacres are a PR problem; when Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians, the Financial Times expressed their sympathy - for the occupiers:  “If Nato suffers another public relations disaster, triggering more protests and anti-western sentiment, a long-term commitment will become even harder to sell to the public in the US and Europe.”

The mistake Afghans make, the reason they talk such bunk, is they forget that we hold the rights to reality.  Here is Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan, speaking in 2011 before a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee:  “Most Afghans believe that we and America are there to seek some long-term military presence, some kind of neo-colonial, long-term hegemony over the area.”  But, it should go without saying, “They don't believe that rationally.”  Hence the serious observer and Afghan alike will ignore the comments, and their implications, made by two academics writing in the New York Times, who point out, “Nearly all elements of the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, from “clear and hold” tactics to arming “tribal militias,” have their origins in the activities of British colonial administrators.” 

Cowper-Coles presents his own, serious, rational understanding of what is going on: “The truth is that, at root, the American Republic is not really equipped, constitutionally or in any other way, for that kind of quasi-imperial expeditionary adventure. Americans are too nice. They are not interested and not very good at ruling other people, which is essentially what this is about—ruling them in a benign sense, temporarily, in order to prepare Afghanistan for independence, as it were.”

(The former-ambassador played a key role in ending an investigation into BAE Systems’ corrupt deals with Saudi Arabia, and has since gone on to take a high-ranking position with - you should know what’s coming - BAE systems. But it would be wrong to judge Cowper-Cowles on this alone.  Sandy Gall provides a portrait of the man, in words that could easily have been written over a century earlier, on his arrival in Kabul: “Sir Sherard brought to the daunting new job not only a shrewd political brain and an enviably fluent turn of phrase, but also an infectious joie de vivre which brightened up the drab social scene in Kabul.  Invitations to his dinner parties were much sought after,” but, before you get the impression that occupations are all peaches and cream, “he had difficulty finding the right chef.”)

Cowper-Coles’ testimony is revealing.  British citizens should be aware of the principal objective the war has achieved for the British government:  “One of our chief roles, and one of the chief benefits of our massive contribution, is the influence that it gives us with the American military and in Washington.”  Afghanistan, then, was the foreign policy equivalent of being a good lapdog, and we should be proud of it.  Reacting to this comment, and presumably dabbing a sweating brow in nervous anticipation, one of the committee members asks Coles whether, in Washington’s eyes, we are “major or minor?”  The former-ambassador eases his concerns: “We are major. We are very much premier league and everyone else is sort of champions league.”  Fortunately, nobody was around to point out the mistake and everyone relaxes, satisfied.  Rationality prevails.

Ross Eventon is a writer and researcher based in Bogota, Colombia.  He was previously the Samuel Rubin Young Fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam where he focused on Afghanistan

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