Afghanistan: the other lost war

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Against the backdrop of failure in Iraq, Afghanistan is often promoted as the enduringly justifiable, and winnable, war. Jonathan Neale explains why this is not the case, while former US infantryman Johnny Rico speaks out about his experiences on the Afghan frontline

This is the fifth Afghan War. The first Afghan War was in 1838, when the British invaded to make Afghanistan part of the Indian empire. The Afghan barons and warlords did not resist. It was the ordinary people who rose up under the leadership of the village mullahs and slaughtered a whole British army. The British left.

In 1878 the British invaded once more. Again the warlords did not resist, and there was another Muslim popular uprising. The British left, but kept control of Afghanistan's borders and foreign relations. That was the second Afghan War. In 1919 came the third Afghan War. The Afghan army marched towards India, and the British surrendered before the Afghans lit a fire of Muslim revolt across the subcontinent. Now Afghanistan had full independence.

The Afghans had built a tradition. They fought invaders under the banner of Islam, and they won.

In 1978 there was a Communist coup by Afghan army officers. The Communists had support in the cities, but little in the villages, where most people lived, and where right wing Islamists and the mullahs led anti-Communist revolts.

When I lived in Afghanistan, the Communists were the people I looked up to. They were brave - they wanted equality and women's liberation - but their coup did not have majority support. The only way they could stay in power was to arrest people and then torture them. When that didn't work, they had to bomb villages. When that didn't work, the Soviet army poured over the border to occupy the country and break the right wing Islamist resistance.

At that point the majority of the Communist supporters in the cities turned against them. The Russian occupation lasted eight years. It relied partly on torture and mainly on bombing, like the occupation today. The accepted estimates are that the Russians killed a million, maimed a million and drove six million into exile - in all, eight out of 20 million people.

That was the fourth Afghan War. Islam was still identified with resistance, and socialism and feminism were identified with mass murder.

Then the Soviet army left. The Afghan resistance had helped destroy an empire. They had won under the leadership of Islamists backed by the US and it was the courage of ordinary people that had made the difference.

But then the new Islamist leaders betrayed that courage, as they fought among themselves and were endlessly corrupt. The city of Kabul had been spared all the bombing. Now internecine war between the Islamists levelled the capital, as they shelled not each other but the working class neighbourhoods between them.

The embittered Afghan people turned away from the Islamists, just as some had turned away from the Communists. People believed in nothing but survival, looking after their families and trying to keep their dignity.

For years no central government could hold. Then the Taliban poured over the border from Pakistan. Many of the soldiers were boys from the refugee camps. The officers were from the Pakistani army or former Afghan Communists. The Taliban had the support of Pakistani intelligence and the US, and the US government figured the Taliban would give them an oil and gas pipeline from central Asia.

In Afghanistan about half the population are Pashtuns - Pashtu speakers - most of whom live in the south and east. In the centre, north and west most people belonged to different groups speaking Persian or Turkish languages. Until the Taliban, these ethnic differences had not divided people in national politics. Pashtuns had been found in large numbers on all sides - with the Communists, the centre and the Islamists.

The Taliban, though, were almost all Pashtuns. As they advanced through the south, people were mostly relieved. The Taliban promised - and delivered - a strong central state that enforced the law fairly and was not corrupt. And, people reasoned, because the Taliban had US support they might well be able to end the terrible local civil wars.

In the north the Taliban were seen as an invading Pashtun force. Resistance began with the Hazara minority in the cities, the poorest and most solidly working class group. That led to a stand off. The Taliban controlled the south, the east and Kabul - the Pashtun regions. The rest of the country was controlled, variously, by leaders of the anti-Soviet resistance, by Islamists and by the old Uzbek Communist Abdul Rashid Dostum. But people were exhausted from 22 years of war, and there was almost no fighting.

The Taliban were not "good guys". They were right wing and sexist, and modelled their government on Saudi Arabia. They largely banned women's education in the cities, but allowed it in the villages because their supporters there insisted on it. They were also the most honest government the country had ever had. They were not popular, but they were tolerated in Pashtun areas.

By 1998 the US government realised that if the Taliban could not control the north, they could never deliver the pipeline. Then came 9/11. In 2001 the US had not invaded a country that resisted in 30 years. They invaded Afghanistan because 9/11 had made the US and the Pentagon look weak. The US dominated the Middle East with fear, and that fear had to be restored. After the Vietnam experience the US population had to be softened up for an invasion. In part, the invasion of Afghanistan was about was winning Americans to the idea of letting their boys and girls die for Washington's foreign policy again. The US government chose to invade Afghanistan first because it was easy - one of the poorest countries on earth. The people had suffered years of invasion and civil war, and the Taliban were unpopular.

The US sent in some special forces and bombers, and gave arms and uniforms to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the north. And a funny thing happened - no one would fight for the Taliban. And no one would fight for the Northern Alliance either. The Afghans had had enough war and the troops just stood there on the front lines.

So Pakistani military intelligence brokered a deal between the US and the Taliban leadership. The US could have Kabul. The Taliban leaders would go free. They could return to their villages or take refuge in tribal Pushtun areas of Pakistan. They would not be arrested or tortured.

Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan as part of this deal. It was honoured. The Taliban leaders were not arrested, while the US took Kabul and could tell everyone they had "won".

For the first year of the US occupation there was almost no resistance, almost no casualties and no suicide bombing. This is the big difference from Iraq, as Afghans were no longer willing to die for Communists, warlords or Islamists. The US installed Karzai, an Afghan-US CIA employee, as president. There was even a half free election.

The Afghans have not always supported the Taliban. But they are fighting now and winning, and the reason is their experience of the occupation.

Afghanistan is not in the same state of economic collapse as Iraq. Indeed, under the Taliban and since, refugees from the Soviet war have been able to return. In Iraq the US occupation destroyed industry and state services. In Afghanistan there was little to destroy, but the Afghans were all expecting generous US aid to rebuild the country. It did not come. Instead they got thousands of overpaid aid workers.

All of these NGOs have sided with the occupation and demanded protection. In Palestine no NGO workers are in danger from the Palestinians, because everyone knows which side they're on. In Afghanistan all NGO workers are in danger, because everyone knows which side they're on.

Worse, and this is what really revolts ordinary Afghans, the NGOs are corrupt. The Afghans expected that of their governments, and got it. They did not expect senior US and European staff to take bribes and steal money.

Then there is the killing. Johnny Rico has written a very good book, Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green, about his service with the US military in Urozgan province in the south. What he describes seems to have happened across the Pushtun areas. The US soldiers were sent into fire bases, and told that the local population was the enemy. They swaggered about, stole land, humiliated people, and sooner or later someone took a pot shot. The US responded with overwhelming force, creating more resistance. Then in Urozgan the US army was withdrawn and the brutal special forces were left on their own. They called down fire power from the skies on village after village. Then they too left Urozgan, and the Dutch were sent in to cover their retreat.

This seems to be what happened in Helmand as well.

Until recently this cycle of killing was confined to Pushtun areas, because that's where the US troops were. This year, though, incidents of resistance have started to spread across the west and north.

The country is not ethnically split in the way Iraq now is. The Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks of the North will not go south and fight for the US. There is no ethnic cleansing in Kabul. The members of most other ethnic groups expect the US to leave eventually, and want them to go.

The Taliban

The Taliban still have right wing views on women. These views are strong because the resistance to the Russians was led by right wing Islamists, and because the Afghans who supported women's rights also collaborated with the mass killing under the Russian occupation. Now many Afghans and foreigners who support women's rights also support the US occupation.

There was a time when secular Communists and socialists who supported women's rights in many Muslim countries were opposed to colonial occupations - building great mass movements in Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Indonesia. In 1951 the voters of Kabul elected a Communist woman as an MP. Those countries were traditionally Muslim, but also traditionally socialist. There is no prospect of hope in Afghanistan unless there is a movement of the left that is actively against the occupation. Anyone who supports the occupation, its murders and its tortures, and tells the world they do so for feminist reasons, is destroying the fight for women's rights.

This occupation is going to lose. I was told five years ago that Bin Laden was living in Waziristan, a mountainous Pushtun border area of Pakistan, and most newspapers now report the same. The Pushtun villagers in Pakistan largely support the resistance in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army has been fighting a local Islamist resistance in Waziristan for several years, suffering the death of at least 400 troops. In September 2006 the army signed a detailed peace agreement with the "local Taliban" in north Waziristan. Under the terms of the agreement the Taliban would take control of road and border checkpoints and all Taliban detainees would be released. All confiscated weapons and vehicles would be returned to the Taliban. The government would pay compensation to the families of those they had killed or whose houses they had destroyed. The agreement also specified that foreign fighters (such as Bin Laden) would be allowed to remain.

This was a major victory for the Afghan Taliban, and has created an important haven for them. Provincial governments friendly to the Taliban have also won local elections in all the border areas.

The surrender of the Pakistani army in Waziristan enraged the US government. They conveyed that rage to General Musharraf, the Pakistani dictator, and made it clear he would lose their support unless he moved against the Islamists in the tribal areas along the border. Musharraf did their bidding this summer, attacking a major mosque in the Pakistani capital and sending the troops back into Waziristan and other border areas in force. The Pakistani army has no heart for that and appears to be losing, and now Musharraf's days seem to be numbered.

If the Pakistani army loses control of the border, or overthrows Musharraf, or if the people overthrow him, the foreign occupation of Afghanistan will be unsustainable.

In Helmand last year the British occupying forces came under sustained attack. In the town of Sangin helicopters were unable to reach a British garrison for at least two weeks, and the British troops came very close to running out of ammunition. Had they done so, they would all have been killed within the hour. They managed to survive, however, but only after intensive bombing of women and children. Afterwards the British army negotiated what was in effect the surrender of Sangin to the Taliban. This too makes Washington furious.

As I write this, the newspapers report that British commanders have begun negotiations for a national peace agreement with "moderate sections of the Taliban" and the Kabul government. This is the beginning of the British retreat. The British commanders are haunted by the fear of another Sangin - of an outpost cut off and everyone killed.

Moreover, the US is facing defeat in Iraq. Its troops can, perhaps, be reduced by small amounts, but the great danger for US troops in Iraq is their supply lines. That is where US soldiers are dying - in helicopters and on roads. A smaller force cannot hold those supply lines, and they too would face Sangins.

Once the US is out of Iraq, ordinary Americans will turn away from foreign wars as they did after Vietnam. And once the US is defeated in Iraq, everyone in Afghanistan will know the occupation is doomed.

The resistance will win the fifth Afghan War, as they won the four before. But the extent of the killing, maiming, and permanent devastation of land and society depends in part on what we do now, here, in Britain, to stop the war. We should not kid ourselves: the defeat of the invasion will leave right wing Islamists and the Taliban in some sort of coalition. But this will be the case because historically the left and liberals in Afghanistan have sided with Russian, US and British invaders. This is not a reason for continuing the murder of Afghan people.

That history can be turned round. It matters in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the Stop the War Coalition has been protesting against the occupation of Afghanistan from the beginning, and that we have united atheists, Christians and Muslims, whites and Asians, socialists and simply decent people.

You can't build socialism through torture, mass murder and licking Bush's feet. You build it through resistance.


"The officer in charge of my platoon started disabling our vehicles not to go on missions."

After 9/11, Johnny Rico joined the US army as an infantryman and was soon sent to fight in Afghanistan. Here he talks to Patrick Ward.

Why did you join up?

My motives were shady. 9/11 happened and inspired patriotic folk to go over. I wasn't so much inspired by patriotism, it was more the feeling that I'd be missing out on the defining event of my generation.

It was a horrible experience I'd regret later in life, but I was compelled to see what it was like regardless.

What was it like when you first arrived?

I went in 2004 and 2005, the first deployment. We were sent to Ghazni. I was in the infantry with the combat soldiers and they told us there was going to be intense fighting. But when we got there it was really quiet.

We were overly aggressive to the indigenous population there simply because we were primed and ready for a fight, and no one was giving us one. The Afghans were very peaceful and compliant, and we were just running people down on bikes, just being overly rough with people. In the second part of the deployment we were stationed at a special forces base where it was all action.

When did your feelings about the war change?

I was shaped by my own experience of Afghanistan, so when I started seeing combat on the second half of my deployment my perception certainly changed. In the second half I started seeing just how ridiculous our whole being over there was.

I give you an example. We had some soldiers who were killed by an IED blast. Our commanders didn't call what happened next "revenge", but that's what it was. We were going into the villages to kick some ass and show we weren't going to be pushed around. So we did that, then they retaliated against us and we retaliated against them. It was just this cycle: you could see it going on in perpetuity, and suddenly it made sense.

This is how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is, how so many conflicts across the world are. I think over here in the US there's this big fallacy that if you come on tough enough and strong enough you'll cow people into submission and they'll respect you and be peaceful.

But that's not how human nature works. The more you beat up on somebody the angrier they get, so it's kind of counter-intuitive to our whole strategy.

People can see the Iraq war as the bad war, and Afghanistan as the winnable war where we can create peace. What do you think?

The idea that this is the good war or the winnable war is just an idea that has been pushed by the administration.

When I was over there only the capital, Kabul, was actually governed by Hamid Karzai, and the rest of Afghanistan was under the governorship of warlords and thugs.

It's really a weak central government, and the US is actually in the practice of paying off the guys who are in the heroin business. The US needs the cooperation of people who we'd consider to be bad guys.

There was this one guy I was told we were paying $1 million a month to for allowing us to put military bases in areas under his control. But really it was a payoff so he wouldn't have his troops engage us.

So we were paying off a whole part of the country so they wouldn't attack us. I don't really consider that a win. Really we're just treading water and trying to make it look like a win to cover for the Iraq fiasco.

Is it only a matter of time before it's considered a lost war?

I think it is. Even 20 years from now I don't see anything positive for Afghanistan's future - there's so much corruption rampant at every level.

In addition to combat missions I was involved in a reconstruction project. We pumped millions of dollars into the valley we were stationed in for wells, schools, irrigation, and employed the locals for the labour, gave them the business to try to stimulate the economy.

At the end of our deployment we found out that the local police chief and the local mayor, or equivalent of, were taking huge cuts off the top of every contract that we gave out to locals.

It was rampant corruption. Half the money we gave out was just being pocketed, and these were our "allies". When we left we simply didn't have enough troops to replace us, so they left a five-man special forces team who were immediately attacked. The base was overrun and a special forces guy was killed. Our side then lined up bombers and blew up the whole valley and undid everything we had worked for.

How did the morale of the troops change during your time there?

It got a lot worse. Everybody got very upset when their friends died but then got into bravado, machismo, dialogues: "We're going to fuck them up", "We're going to bring them back to pain." But no one ever looked at the other side. I thought, "Weren't they saying the same thing?" and it got back to that cycle again.

The morale got pretty bad and that was mostly just because of the losses we were taking. We got to the point where we weren't even really leaving our base because every time we did we got hit pretty hard and it wasn't even worth it.

My senior officer in charge of my platoon actually started disabling our vehicles. He'd call up command and say that none of our vehicles were working because he didn't want to send us out on missions. They knew that somebody would die and we'd never accomplish our objective, so he didn't see the point in it and saved some lives in the process.

What would you say to military families over here?

It's a tough call to accept that if your son dies he may have died for no reason, but I think that's the uncomfortable truth.

Military families, and even other soldiers, had to believe that we were there for a reason, simply because someone they knew had died, and it became emotional and personal.

I don't think we should be in either of the wars. I don't know how you tell someone who lost somebody that there's no reason to die. But ultimately that's the ugly truth.


Johnny Rico's book, Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green, is available through Bookmarks