The USA broke Afghanistan, now it must own the mess.

The USA Bugs Out

By Phil Hall and Tony Hall

The decisive battle that the USA has lost is the battle to rebuild Afghanistan and win hearts and minds. Let’s start by injecting a little historical memory into these farcically simplistic and convenient narratives of invasion, counter invasion and withdrawal. ‘We tried. We came in to rescue women and girls.’ Really?

We crossed the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan in 1976. The names of British soldiers were set into the rock of the pass in brass plaques. Churchill, the aristocrat who hid under a commoner’s name, when he was a young subaltern, a lieutenant in India, said of the Afghans – before running away from them:

“The danger and difficulty of attacking these active fierce hill men is extreme. They can get up in the hills twice as fast as we can, and shoot wonderfully well with Martini Henry rifles. It is a war without quarter. They kill and mutilate everyone they catch and we do not hesitate to finish their wounded off. I have seen several things which have not been very pretty since I have been up here.”

From the letters of Winston Churchill

We were the fighters, a former Afghan Mujahadin told me, who centuries before slaughtered our wives and children before going off to fight the Golden Horde; there was nothing left for us to lose. We are the men who defeated the USSR’s elite fighting force, the SpetsNats, the best in the world.

The Halls by a river near Herat in 1976, photo credit Eve Hall

When we passed through Afghanistan in 1976, it was still part of the hippy trail. I remember its fast, clear, pebbly rivers. I remember beautiful, unveiled women. As a joke, a young soldier at a petrol station pretended to run me through with his bayonet.

After the Second World War, Afghanistan was gradually pulled into the orbit of the Soviet Union. After all, Afghanistan was on its border. The idea was to ‘bring it along’, as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were brought along.

From the late 50s onwards, the former Soviet Union positively indulged regional identities, and, at the same time in its clunky and unsubtle way, unenhanced by the exquisite weaponry of PR, the USSR encouraged equality of opportunity for women, secularism, public works, and the rest of what was commonly and clumsily associated with progressive society.

The world in 1970 was going into the last phase of a long period of standoff, if not balance, between post-colonial, state mediated capitalism, and giant state socialism. The Soviets had a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. The USA, on the other hand, developed an interest in its instability.

Afghanistan was trying to play regional Soviet involvement off the long distance strategic opportunism of US foreign policy. Half the highway we drove over, the one that crossed the country, was paved by the Soviets and the other half was paved by the United States government. You could actually see the join. The different types of road surface met in the middle of the country.

The bellicose US agent in the region was Pakistan and, with its help, the US plan was to first destabilise Afghanistan and India and then use any opportunity that arose to try to bring both countries into the western sphere of influence, out of the semi-neutrality they had enjoyed until then.

In 1976, there was no war in Afghanistan and all the women did not wear hijabs. Kabul was a nice peaceful city. The western flower children, in search of enlightenment in India, passed through Afghanistan on their way. They read in Lonely Planet that the Afghans were so hospitable that they would look after foreign guests for weeks expecting nothing in return. Some hippies stayed for months. Still, in their hospitable fashion, the poor Afghan farmers hosted them.

The broadminded King Zahir Shah in 1963, photo Afghan govt.

The Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was a reformer, He liked western ideas and liberalised Afghan society. He is quoted as saying:

I am “not a capitalist. But I also don’t want socialism. I don’t want socialism that would bring about the kind of situation [that exists] in Czechoslovakia. I don’t want us to become the servants of Russia or China or the servant of any other place.

But land reform was important to farmers and there was no sign of it. The king was removed in 1973 in a coup by his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan. Still no land reform came.

In April 1978, according to John Ryan, the army intervened after demonstrations. The Afghan government stood down and the army took power. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Marxist university professor, became president. This, even the CIA has admitted, was without the involvement of the USSR. The vital point, however, is to remember that the Marxist government in April 78 came about through a totally indigenous change, that good things happened under Taraki’s leadership, and that, for most Afghan people, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

Although the takeover was not part of a democratic process, John Ryan, a retired professor of geography and senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg who was in Kabul in 1978, wrote:

it is important to understand that if the U.S. had left the Marxist Taraki government alone there would have been no army of Mujahideen.

In an article written in 2006, Ryan, describes how he perceived the popularity of the new Marxist government:

Labour unions were legalized, a minimum wage was established, a progressive income tax was introduced, men and women were given equal rights, and girls were encouraged to go to school. On September 1, 1978, there was an abolition of all debts owed by farmers. A program was being developed for major land reform, and it was expected that all farm families (including landlords) would be given the equivalent of equal amounts of land.

The immediate response of the USA was to oppose the new Afghan government, and it started training conservative Muslim opponents to the regime, bringing into the fight the USA’s Muslim Arab allies from the Gulf region to participate in the process of the destabilisation and Islamisation. This was a terrible mistake. The USA should have pushed for a democratic election and not immediately tried to organise a coup d’etat.

Story after story in the western media, on the TV channels, on the covers of Time and Newsweek, throughout the whole of the establishment press, commended the brave mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet-backed regime.

Afghanistan had been turned by the USA from a relatively secular country where women had some freedom and the right to an education, into a misogynistic, warring hellhole.

In the second half of the 70s, capitalist exploitation and speculation, and religious extremism, were operating globally, feeding off each other – with socialism so left out, and secular nationalism so constantly slapped down that almost the entire geo-political stage was taken up by two mad, ungovernable forces pitted against each other. Criminal Lunacy Sans Frontieres.

The key to the US strategy of destabilisation was to plant an agent provocateur in the Afghan government. That agent provocateur, according to Afghan Marxists, was Hafizullah Amin who had been, allegedly, recruited by the CIA when he visited the USA. He was given the job of working inside the Afghan government to alienate Afghan society and, especially, the traditional minded Muslims in Afghanistan. He became the defense minister. He had Taraki killed in September 1979 and Amin rooted out Taraki’s supporters.

The Soviets were invited in by Babrak Karmal in 1979 to get rid of Hafizullah Amin. The involvement of the USSR was a desperate and ill advised measure. They engaged in an unwinnable war of attrition. The Soviets were unlikely to succeed in the face of the 40 billion funding organised by the Pentagon and with the participation of 30,000 non-Afghan fighters joining a global jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Brzezinski, was inspired by John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle, to harness Islam as a political force. In doing so, he released a terrible Djinn that still haunts the world.

Afghan anti-Mujahidin militia fighter in the 1980s, photo credit Afghan govt.

The Soviet withdrawal, when it came, was greeted with great cheers by the Western media. But there were no cheers when the USA’s chickens came home to roost and extremists took over the capital three years after the Soviet withdrawal. The mujahadeen won out and conquered Kabul in 1992, killing the Afghanistan president, Mohammad Najibullah, horribly. torturing him to death and castrating him and hanging his body from a lamp post. The Taliban gained ascendency in 1996.

However, the fact that it took the Taliban so long to overturn the government, in the end, is testimony to the fact that there was still strong opposition to them.

We know what happened next. The most misogynistic government in modern times took over. There are so many horror stories about Taliban rule, but I remember one story in particular. A young Afghan refugee told me that she and her whole family were in their house in Kabul and that the bullets were whizzing through the mud walls. Her aunt was nine months pregnant. They couldn’t take her to hospital because the Taliban were outside. The aunt died in agony in childbirth. The young woman swore at that moment that she would become a doctor and she told me that she now hated all men, and in particular, bearded men. She was as good as her word.

Afghanistan had been turned by the USA from a relatively secular country where women had some freedom and the right to an education, into a misogynistic, warring hellhole.

The strategists in Chief in President Carter’s government were Holbrooke and Brzezinski

Brzezinski encouraging the Mujahadin to fight

In this light it is interesting to read an extract of Brzezinski’s responses in an interview given in Le Nouvel Observateur (France), Jan 15-21, 1998.

Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Question: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

In terms of responsibility for the outcome of the situation in Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinski was the secretary of state but Richard Holdbrooke was the Assistant secretary of state. Zbigniew was the self proclaimed ‘Architect’ of the policy designed to support the Mujahidin and put the Soviet Union under pressure but Holbrooke was the constructor. The builder, the doer. He probably built the key alliances. Later Holbrooke was hired by Obama to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The effect of 9/11

In the second week of September, 2001, large numbers of innocent occupants were killed in the bombing of big city buildings in New York at the instigation of Islamist terror groups run and financed by Arab Muslims.

Responding to a wave of anger and revulsion, staring at the prospect of a centre that could not hold, of a state no longer able to protect its citizens, the President of the USA ordered his armed forces to move in and to bomb and blast the perceived source of the terror located in Afghanistan.

NATO, a cold war organisation well past its sell by date after the fall of the Soviet Union, intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of the US decision to attack. The Tony Blair and George W. Bush governments bypassed the UN and ignored the wishes of Germany and France. Was this the opportunity for a reset? Would the USA be able to make up for the past and, finally, establish a legitimate democracy and help an Afghan government defend the rights of women?

I taught a woman in the government of Muhammad Karzai in who was in charge of the social programme and had a huge budget in 2005. Her remit was to focus particularly on helping boost income generation for Afghan women. Most of the money came from the US but it was guaranteed by the world bank. She was hopeful. She was working as hard as she could to bring about change and making some headway despite resistance from the extremists. This was in 2005.

Growing nationalism in Afghanistan

But what also seems to be ignored and revised now that it is no longer part of Holbrooke-think, is the extent to which the rejection of the Soviets created a legitimate sense of nationalism. Is nationalism under-estimated as a force in Afghanistan and Islam overestimated. Who were the nationalists?

There can be no such thing as Afghan nationalism, it doesn’t exist, sputter the left-liberal historians, look, there are many tribes in Afghanistan and they occupy different areas of a so-called country and they have been at each others throats since time immemorial with the Pashtuns as the dominant tribe. The Americans are trying to create a nation that never existed. So called Afghan nationalism is Pashtun nationalism.

Warning bells ring. The influential historian Ernst Gellner oversimplifies when he defines the formation of national identity and emphasises different kinds of homogeneity. The consequences of this analysis have been disastrous in places like Yugoslavia, justifying the splintering of countries into component parts by meddling outside forces.

Nationalism, not just religion, drives the forces currently arrayed against the US and the Afghan government.

On close examination, Gellner’s approach is laughable. Look at countries like India and China. They are not homogeneous, they shouldn’t exist. Was the Soviet Union a country? If it wasn’t a country, then why is China considered to be a country? Why can’t different groups of Afghans see themselves not only as members of a tribe, but as members of a nation, too.

Ahmed Sha Massood, a nationalist leader

One of my students, an Afghan in his 20s, said that he was a follower of Sha Massood. Ahmed Sha Masood had been instrumental winning the cruel war of attrition against Soviet Forces. He had been an ally of the United States in the late seventies and 80s. He was assassinated by Al Qaeda on September the 9th 2001. This former supporter of Sha Masood, remarked that, with the presence of US forces and the failure of the government they supported, the issue was rapidly transforming into a nationalist war against a foreign invader. The Taliban were not the main problem now. He said, the USA should leave. Nationalism, not just religion, drives the forces currently arrayed against the US and the Afghan government.

The question is not whether Americans or British historians think that Afghan nationalism exists, or whether the concept, prior to their year zero strategy, was real enough. The question is do Afghans think there is such a thing as Afghanistan? Apparently they do!

The Taliban Cartel invokes nationalism and Islam

In addition to the nationalistic clarion call to get rid of the foreign invader, it became clear that another force was in play; the drug trade. The Afghan Chief of Intelligence, Amrullah Salah, was forced to resign by Hamid Karzai. The reason was he exposed a $500 million drugs deal that Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai carried out of Bagram airbase – with the approval and involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.

At that time Amrullah Salah, the chief of Afghan intelligence, was arguing for a greater US military aid and more constructive cooperation and engagement from the USA; more support in getting rid of the Taliban. His appeals were ignored.

Taliban drug lords travel to Dubai to live high on the hog.

A UN report that came out during that period explaining how the Taliban were now deeply embroiled in the drug trade. The stories go that Taliban drug lords travel to Dubai to live high on the hog; to gamble and sleep with women and men and luxuriate in all that sinful western consumer society has to offer, while their foot soldiers, peasant fighters, are duped into fighting a patriotic religious war.

Taliban foot soldiers are paid around $500 a month. This is a lot in a country with so much subsistence level poverty. A substantial part of what these foot soldiers do is protect the drugs and arms trade. Attempts by US strategists to find substitute crops like saffron for Afghan farmers, and replace poppies, have failed.

On the one hand, there is the legitimate nationalist yearning for Afghanistan to be free of foreign interference. On the other hand, the USA is facing an unwinnable war against an international drug cartel that hides behind the increasingly flimsy disguise of fundamentalist Islamic ideology.

This doesn’t harmonise with the simplistic clash of civilizations story that the BBC and other influential outlets rely on to explain the current situation and the reasons for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There are other complicating factors. There is the problem of the ineffectiveness of US and Afghan government troops; a territorial army man, tall and fit, a family member, went to train the Afghan police. He pointed out when he went he witnessed drug taking in the British army. He said drug taking is a big problem in the US army and in the Afghan army, too. Drugs bring corruption.

Drugged up and disillusioned soldiers offer little resistance to a determined enemy,  especially a determined enemy with both nationalism and Islam on its side and an enemy who pays ordinary Afghan farmers a good wage to fight.

Moreover, there are also bad, trigger-happy elements that discredit foreign involvement in Afghanistan, elements within the private military contractors – the companies which constantly change their names,

I met young European men about to go to Afghanistan in 2011 to fight. I asked them why. They told me.

‘To be a soldier and go to battle and kill people is part of what it means to experience the fullness of manhood.’

In its desire to undermine the Soviet Union and get strategic control of Afghanistan, the USA shattered the country. Now, despite desperate pleas from the Afghan government – corrupt as it may be – after all the damage US foreign policy has caused that country, the USA is withdrawing its ineffectual troops and abdicating from its responsibility to clean up the mess it has created over decades. It has decided to leave Afghan women and Afghan secular society to the mercy of the Taliban.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Tony Hall initially worked as a reporter at the Johannesburg Star. He joined the Congress of Democrats after Sharpeville along with his wife Eve Hall. He interviewed Nelson Mandela in hiding. Tony Hall was the first journalist to be banned from a major newspaper in South Africa when, after interviewing Potlako Reballo on a forthcoming insurrection, he was questioned and refused to give information to police.

Tony went into exile in Kenya and worked on the Daily Nation. He wrote the column ‘On the Carpet. However, when Tony helped to drafted the platform of KANU his involvement with KANU was discovered, he was fired from his job as the communications officer for the East African Community, and he and his family were forced to leave the country.

In the United Kingdom Tony worked for Oxfam and then moved with his family to Tanzania to work as Training Editor for The Standard with Frene Ginwallah. From there Tony was appointed Oxfam information officer for East Africa and was the first to reveal to the world, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia. After Ethiopia Tony and Eve shared the job of Oxfam Information officers in India.

After India Tony Hall worked as an editor of international Newsmagazines focused on the Middle East for eight years. Then he left to join his wife in Somalia where he worked for UNDP starting IMR, a trade magazine. He trained a team of Somali journalists to run the magazine.

In the late 80s Tony and Eve were in Harare. Tony was Editing the Magazine Africa South and East under the aegis of editor-in-chief Govan Mbeki. It was at this time that Mandela was released and Tony and Eve were unbanned. Africa South and East moved its headquarters to Yeoville. When Allister Sparks resigned as head of Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, which he founded, Tony Hall was offered a senior management job at the institute, however, once again, he left to join Eve who was working in Addis Ababa. There Tony become the Communications Director of the Economic Commission for Africa, a branch of the UN.

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