Sunday, December 03, 2006
Anyway, this is by way of introducing the topic of absolute ideological obedience in relation to Afghanistan. On Iraq, there is some dissent, some unease, some sense that there might be other purposes involved than 'liberation', but when it comes to Afghanistan there is at most a sense that the damned place may be beyond repair, despite our best efforts to create a thriving democracy with equal rights for women there. There is an almost foolproof way to establish that this is indeed the effort underway: you demand proof that anything else is the case, and when it is presented, you dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. On the other hand, there is always the business of elections. "The Loya Jirga!" They say. "The women in parliament! Voting! Schools with girls in them! Would you prefer the Taliban?"
The feudalisation of Afghanistan
The strategy of creating impotent representative institutions as a facade for a highly patronised, tyrannical and undemocratic state has been commented on here before, so I simply want to go into some of the specifics of 'nation-building' in Afghanistan. Dispensing with glittering generalities, one finds that the policy of the occupiers was to create a weak central state and a strong network of war lords and police chiefs. Ismail Khan, one of the former anti-Soviet leaders and a Northern Alliance chief, was in possession of a 30,000 strong army in 2002, more than the entire Afghan National Army at the time. Rashid Dostum, responsible for several atrocities, not least the mass murder of thousands of 'Taliban' captives in 2001-2 under the watchful eye of US Special Forces, was rewarded with the post of deputy defense minister (and is now the National Army chief of staff, appointed by Karzai). He retained control of the central northern provinces, while General Mohammed Daud controlled the north-east (he is now the deputy Interior Minister). Commander Gul Agha Sherzai controlled the southern provinces until Yusuf Pashtun took over in 2003, although he remains in charge of Kandahar and now has a post in central government. The police chiefs who suppress the population for the occupiers include men like Jamil Jumbish, “implicated in murder, torture, intimidation, bribery and interfering with investigations into misconduct by officers directly under his control” according to Human Rights Watch.
These are the real powers in Afghanistan, and all of them are bought by the occupiers. The Karzai administration controls a small part of Kabul, with 6,500 Nato troops who prevent his assassination. It is no odds to the occupiers, provided it isn't noticed too much by the media, that people like Ismail Khan are every bit as brutal as the Taliban. You do not, under his watch, try to debate political issues or run an independent newspaper or radio program. If you are a woman, you don't meet a man in public. That will do you no favours at all. Khan, whom Donald Rumsfeld considers "appealing" and "thoughtful" (there's a recommendation Mr Khan could have done without), has used a policy of terror and torture (the usual range of beating, hanging and electrocution) to discipline the population. In general, if you are bus-driver or a taxi-driver who omits to pay a bribe to the local soldiers and police, you will be kidnapped and beaten and in many cases killed. If you are a reported who hints at the wrong kind of information, a death threat and a subsequent arrest might not be far off.
All of this is being conducted under the rule of people who would have had no political power had it not been for the occupiers. Becuase the occupiers rely on this network of patronage and bribery to suppress the population, but also to prevent the central government from becoming too independent, they embed localised wars in the social fabric. In March 2004, Khan fought a rival commander's troops, killing a hundred people. In April the same year, Dostum invaded the Faryab province, controlled by Mohammed Fahim, the then defense minister. This was simply a threat to Karzai to get rid of Fahim, since Dostum had once controlled the Faryab province. Fahim was duly ousted in December 2004. Part of the strategy of war is simply to steal land, demolish homes and drive residents away from the territory, which is exactly what UN Special Rapporteur Miloon Kothari accused the education and defense ministers of in 2003.
Money-wise, Ismail Khan got as much money out of Afghans in Herat as Karzai got from the whole country in 2003 (they each had approximately $100 million, and Karzai had to rely on $340m aid from international donors). Much of the aid sent in has gone into the hands of the occupiers' local auxiliaries, either by theft or the demand for bribes at checkpoints. A huge amount of the cash for the warlords comes from the biggest drugs empire east of Colombia, which - having financed the US war in the 1980s - now finances its control of Afghanistan. Liberal commentators like Hari and Hitchens always miss the point here, as if the issue was to do with the right of Western youths to take smack or whatever suits them. The government has no business involving itself in an individual's sumptuary propensities and nor should peasant opium-growers have their livelihoods destroyed, but the whole point about the US promotion of the drugs trade is that it is a massive and easy form of war financing for them. To pretend to oneself that they are engaged in a serious attempt to cut off their own supply of cash is absurd. The point about illegality in this context is that it keeps the price massively high - a kind of leisure tax - and thus increases the flow of funds to America's local affiliates. The illicit nature of the trade means it is also far more susceptible to manipulation for political ends, with no one keeping a paper trail or returning tax forms.
The whole strategy of strengthening local military rulers against the central government is remarkably similar to that pursued by Britain in Iraq in the 1920s: it is the conscious feudalisation of social relations. To put it simply, the occupiers are medievalising Afghanistan.
The Gucci presidency and the elections.
Sadly, PR was so unimportant in Afghanistan that we were not treated to the spectacle of empurpled fingers raised aloft to signify an emerging democracy. Yet, there was a process designed to look at least a little like the establishment of popular sovereignty. The Bush administration did not begin war before they had chosen a future leader, and shortly after the initiation of hostilities in October 2001, the newspapers started to report on an exiled 'dissident' who was becoming the Bush administration's main hope for creating a southern alliance against the Taliban. Karzai had not been heard of before, but was cited as an 'influential Pashtun chief' starting a 'quiet revolution' against the Taliban, as if he had a real popular base: he did not, of course, and this was the whole point. Karzai's lack of a base in Afghanistan means that he was and is entirely dependent on his overseas benefactors. As a pashtun with some history of involvement with the Taliban, he was perfect. Of course, he was not always so good-looking as you can see from this picture taken before he was famous. They had to get him to grow a beard, cover his baldness with a lamb-fetus fez, and give him some band collars and capes before he became an international sex symbol, even salivated over by a Gucci designer.
However, it took some arm-twisting to get him into position. Karzai had addressed the Bonn Conference that put the Northern Alliance in power over a satellite telephone, and initially received no votes from the delegates. Instead, Abdul Sirat, a representative of the former king of Afghanistan, received most votes. It required the efforts not only of the United States, but also of Iran, Pakistan and Russia (yes, the first two former sponsors of the Mujahideen, the latter a former occupier of Afghanistan), to persuade Sirat to step aside. All governments imposed on Afghanistan from without have had a Pashtun in charge in order to secure the consent of the largest ethnic group, and Sirat was an Uzbek. The delegates came to understand that their patrons wanted Karzai and that the decisions had already been taken, and duly voted for him on December 5th. There followed from the conference an agreement to the process of establishing an interim cabinet, then an Emergency Loya Jirga, then a Constitutional Loya Jirga, and then presidential and parliamentary elections. The warlords dominated the entire process of course, but within a course strictly determined by the United States and with their man as President.
From November 2003, the main man behind the scenes of Afghan politics was the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. He had already been the special envoy and manipulated many of the goings-on. He had advised on the Mujahideen policy in the 1980s, was a founding signaory to the Project for the New American Century, had been a UNOCAL consultant, had overseen Bush's transition team for the Department of defense, and was now in the position of determining policy at almost every level in Afghanistan. Not a single decision was made without his involvement, which is why he was known as the viceroy. Khalilzad was the one who put the ultra-conservative Chief Justice Fazil Hady Shinwari in charge of Afghanistan's new Supreme Court, thus ensuring a highly repressive legal superstructure.
The elevation of the 'Loya Jirga' concept came directly from Khalilzad too. It was he who in 2000 wrote a policy paper describing how such a convention might gather the anti-Taliban warlords and prompt the selection of an "acceptable" alternative government. When the idea was actually promulgated in 2002, the immediate problem was that all sorts of unwanted people were taking part: women, serious grassroots forces, the kinds who had no particular care for the warlords and wished to diminish their power. This was despite the best efforts of local rulers to intimidate rivals, bribe supporters, and select candidate lists of their own and insist that the ruled endorse them. Many of the grassroots forces, including RAWA, preferred the former king Mohammed Zahir Shah as the presidential candidate - not because they favoured monarchy as a principle (he would not at any rate be restoring his monarchy), but because in the given circumstances it was perceived as the least worst option. He would weaken the warlords, and he would have a social base. When it became evident that this was the mood, the Emergency Loya Jirga was suspended - initially for two hours, then for a further five hours, then til the next day. Khalilzad, then the special envoy to Afghanistan, announced that he was in the business of finding out the true intentions of the former king. He announced later that the ex-king was not a candidate and was endorsing Karzai, and a statement was read out on his behalf. The fix was in.
The atmosphere changed dramatically, according to reports. Human Rights Watch interviewed delegates who explained that as soon as it was understood that Karzai was the man, the warlords were ecstatic, openly threatening reformist delegates and ensuring that the microphone was controlled by their supporters. The interim cabinet selected after this debacle was predictably composed of Northern Alliance faction leaders. Dr Sima Samar, Bush's chosen figure representing womens' rights in the new Afghanistan, was quickly dropped (she was accused of 'blasphemy' as it happens).
The Constitutional Loya Jirga in January 2004 was characterised by the same array of death threats and vote-buying, which in most cases would suggest something was up. Candidates were often too afraid to even run, much less campaign in any serious way. And in the end, the bulk of delegates were made up of voting blocs controlled by the warlords. One delegate, Malalai Joya, made a single attempt to denounce the warlords and demand that they be tried for their crimes: a brave attempt, and one duly met with death threats after her microphone was immediately cut off. (Of course, at the same time as the Constitutional Loya Jirga was being prepared for, the US was busily intimidating a large section of the Afghan population with what it called Operation Avalanche. That kept those folks busy having to fight the Americans rather than attend or 'disrupt' any Loya Jirgas, and it also involved a number of notorious massacres - notorious, that is, in Afghanistan and nowhere else.
The event thus sealed up, the warlords' delegates voted to accept Karzai's prepared constitution without amendment - its primary gesture was to embed a strong presidency in the institutions of government, which meant that the preponderance of political power was vested in a man wholly dependent on the United States for his position. In general, a strong presidency is a means of attenuating not strengthening representative institutions, and this has been especially so in tutelary or colonial situations. Even with all the fixing, however, almost half the delegates had boycotted the vote, usually those from less powerful minorities. But a backroom deal with dissenting Northern Alliance delegates ensured its passage.
The presidential elections involved the same stitching up: seven weeks before the polls, registration ceased, with issued voting cards far exceeding the number of eligible voters, thus suggesting massive electoral fraud. Some areas had registration rates of 140 per cent. HRW again found that huge numbers of people were intimidated into voting for Karzai by local warlords. Research by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium found that most of the intimidation was in the southern and eastern parts of the country where the warlords have the least political support, and 86% of those intimidated blamed the "commanders". Further, Karzai had already put through an interesting law undoubtedly scripted by Khalilzad. On the face of it, it banned political parties from running their own private militias: but it also banned most state actors from being members of political parties, thus narrowing the range of potential challengers for his role considerably.
And when it came to the vote, Karzai's main challengers were warlords like Yunus Qanuni and Rashid Dostum. Grassroots political forces including the RAWA saw Karzai as the best of an odious bunch in the circumstances, and certainly the least psychopathic candidate with a chance of winning, so they voted for him. With the choices so catastrophically limited, and with Karzai promising to limit the power of the warlords (he had sacked Ismail Khan as governor of Herat), he won with some 55.4% of the vote. He then proceeded to appoint several of the losing warlords to senior government positions. Khan was made minister of energy, a crucial role given that the oil pipeline is a huge source of domestic wealth, and Dostum was of course made the army's chief of staff. The ensuing parliamentary elections - well, take a wild guess. Widespread intimidation, the appointment of senior warlords to the upper house and the election of several to the lower house. The turnout had slumped dramatically to slightly more than half of registered voters, and only 34% in Kabul province, where the candidates were all warlords. Ronald Neumann, Khalilzad's successor as ambassador to Afghanistan, suggested that the low turnout meant that Afghanistan was becoming "a normal country".
Given the bolstered power and prestige of the warlords; given the ongoing exploitation of Afgan people by this class of comprador gangsters; given the mass starvation that has resulted; given the daily violence of the occupiers and their brutal clients; and given the failure of the state to be genuinely representative - given all that, an insurgency has developed and grown, and (as I have pointed out elsewhere) is not delimited to the Taliban and its supporters. NATO forces can only keep the country by becoming even more brutal, killing ever more people, destroying more houses and utilising more of the repressive techniques of the warlords whom they employ. US Special Forces in alliance with mercenary outfits like the Afghan Militia Force have already done their best to turn residents of Afghanistan into insurgents. According to the Senlis Council, the "conflict in the Southern provinces of Afghanistan has shifted from a traditional military opposition to people warfare." That is, it elaborates, an increasing "guerilla war" with deepening roots in local communities. Up to ten thousand Afghanis died in the first few months of war alone, according to a study by Aldo Benini and Lawrence Molton for the Journal of Peace Research. We have no indications at the moment how many excess deaths have resulted from this particular occupation, five years on. Nevertheless, as the people's war widens widens, the military response will widen, and the calls from liberal warmongers for the annihilation of the insurgents will amplify proportionately.