Belaboring the Obvious

Friday, October 06, 2006

Impure Motives....

Sen. Bill Frist made what seemed to be a ridiculous statement (for an insane Republican, anyway) recently, suggesting that making peace with the Taliban and bringing them into the existing government was an alternative to being completely routed from southern Afghanistan. He just as quickly tried to take a mulligan on the remark, saying that he'd been "quoted out of context."

Now, I realize that any Republican these days trying to make sense of a bad situation is going to seem traitorous to the cause and look sublimely ridiculous, but, what Frist was obviously doing was poking around the edges of trying to bring reason to a problem that has seen precious little of that commodity from the very start. The direction of his suggestion may be dead wrong, but the attempt is noteworthy. Post-9/11, the mere suggestion of applying one's mind to the alternatives is downright astonishing--for a post-modern Republican, that is.

If one were to record all the stupid, disingenuous, rude, obscene and barking mad comments made by the right since the 2000 election, it would take about twelve volumes, and an eight-volume concordia to catalogue and explain it all.

We're swimming in spewed verbal diarrhea, and so any instance of Republicans acting like normal people deserves some consideration.

Unfortunately, strategically and historically, Frist is probably on the wrong track. While the Taliban have lately been trying to woo the local tribal leaders in the south, village by village, with what appears to be more political means, rather than by bullets, one has to consider their ultimate aim--a return to control of the government. Here's a little conjecture and speculation to put Frist's seemingly hasty comments in perspective.

Taliban supporters, as their name suggests (the root of the word comes from talib, "one who is seeking," now, particularly, a religious student), came principally out of the madrassas that sprang up in the refugee camps on the periphery of the Soviet-Afghan war. The madrassas in those camps taught the same sort of fundamentalism prevalent in Pakistan (and, likely, Saudi Arabia, too), with an important difference. Living conditions in those camps was austere, at best, and folded into that traditional fundamentalism was a belief in extreme austerity as a religious virtue. Hence, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, they banned (and enforced, with the aid of the religious police) television of all sorts, music, motion pictures of all varieties, contemporary public arts of all types. While the Taliban said this was an effort to rid the society of Western influence, that didn't explain the exclusivity of the ban. It more likely was to recreate, throughout the country, the same privation of the refugee camps (which had made the madrassas seem like such a relief from refugee camp life).

Deprivation was, therefore, an essential component of the Taliban's strategy of using religious education to form a unified theocratic government and religious society--the ultimate aim of the nationalist Islamists funding the madrassas.

In the background of this phenomenon are the nearly thirty years of continuous war in the country, beginning with the Soviet invasion (suckered into doing so through a plan devised by Zbigniew Brzezinski), which had fractured the country's political core and which had created the circumstances for the reemergence of the warlords. The Reagan administration (with the considerable help of Rep. Charlie Wilson) pumped huge amounts of money into the country with the ostensible purpose of fighting the Soviets--perhaps $3 billion in a few years, while wealthy Saudis also contributed to the cause, to an unknown extent, probably on the order of $500 million-$1 billion over a similar period. The important point about the money was that much of it was funneled into Afghanistan by the CIA, whose presence and funding could not be made too public--the whole point of fighting a proxy war is to make it seem as if it is an indigenous conflict. For this reason, the CIA used the Pakistani intelligence service ISI as a cut-out. Lots of the funding was channeled through Pakistan. Saudi funding was treated in the same way. At every waystation for that money, someone was skimming off some in preparation for the time when the Soviets would finally leave. The warlords used the money for weapons, brought into the country on pack mules bought by the ISI, but they also put some away for expanding opium production, which would become their power base. Pakistan shaved off a little (maybe as much as $500 million over the years from all sources) in order to support their interests in Afghanistan afterwards.

Economists talk of "soft landings" and "hard landings" of the economy after it's been overheated, with the likelihood of the former happening through policy adjustment and planning, while the latter usually occurs when there is no plan and no expectation of anything adverse occurring. The United States had no plan for a soft landing for Afghanistan because its only interest there was in wearing down the Soviet Union, forcing it to waste time and money "on its own Vietnam." Once that had been done, Afghanistan was left to its own devices. That this was policy was made apparent by the deals Reagan/Bush made with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988 and 1989: the Soviet Union would leave Afghanistan, but only if Bush agreed to withdraw all U.S. funding and political involvement. Both countries, it was agreed, would not interfere in the politics of Afghanistan.

Politics, as with nature, abhors a vacuum, and the Najibullah government in Afghanistan was almost immediately in the midst of a civil war, pitting various warlords against each other and the government. Kabul was shelled almost daily by various factions. As with the mujahideen and the Soviets, the smarter force, the Pakistan-backed Taliban, largely withdrew to let other factions beat up on each other and waited. The Taliban returned to the fray, well-supplied, in 1993, and by 1996 had firmly established a government. (The Frists of the world would be well to study recent history of the Taliban, because they are now doing what they had done in the past. When the U.S. invasion began in 2001, they melted away to the borders, or deep into northwestern Pakistan, and waited. By 2004, the Afghan population was tired of being targets for U.S. planes and indiscriminate fire from soldiers who couldn't tell the Taliban from apolitical villagers. By 2005, car bombs and IEDs were in regular use, and by now, the British commanders in the regional Taliban strongholds around Kandahar are admitting they could lose the area.)

This latter realization is what drives Frist to think that partial representation for the Taliban in the existing government might be acceptable. What Frist didn't say, but was thinking, I'm sure, was that such was far more preferable than the Taliban seizing the entire government again. Frist's later denial of what he really did say publicly doesn't change the obvious--Frist knows the occupation is going badly (as occupations facing an insurgency always do), and any step toward accepting the need for diplomacy, even if it's a misstep, is better than a protracted, but doomed, military campaign.

Unfortunately, there's that prior history to understand. There were pro-democracy elements within Afghanistan that felt that the U.S. had abandoned them when the Soviets withdrew. That generated internal suspicions about U.S. motives. Nor had the U.S. done much to restrain the Pakistani ISI's enthusiasm in its support for the Taliban. The Taliban initially gained support by limiting the fighting and bringing some semblance of order to the country, but their religious and cultural extremism was too much for even the average Afghan in a country that was already mostly Muslim, even more tribal than Arab societies and exceedingly patriarchal. At the heart of that skepticism about the Taliban was the Taliban's expectation that it could radically alter Afghan society to conform to its own weird, warped notions of religious purity, precisely at a time when the country desperately needed help rebuilding after fifteen years of war. When the Taliban excoriated the West, generally, they were also driving away the elements which could help Afghanistan. As a consequence, the Taliban were seen, by at least part of the inhabitants of the country, as incompetent managers, and, indeed, in the five years that the Taliban ran the country, it became even poorer, as impossible at that seems. Their implementation of a draconian version of Sharia law only compounded the ill-feeling many in Afghanistan held for the Taliban.

It's difficult to say, from a remote vantage point, how the general populace felt about the Taliban giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and what by then was known as al-Qaeda. Taliban supporters might have thought it would give them credentials with the fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, and might mean some financial help. Less sanguine appraisals from non-supporters certainly included the notion that the United States would not be pleased, and that what little aid coming in from western NGOs might dry up if violence was in the offing. But, at that time, the Clinton government had not tied the Taliban government to bin Laden as co-conspirators and had continued to view bin Laden and his supporters as a criminal enterprise.

Then the Bushies arrived in Washington, ready to kick ass and take Democratic names and advance an agenda that had been long in the works. Their first solution to the problem of the Taliban was to bribe them. The $40-odd million in-kind payment to the Taliban in 2001 was reported in the U.S. as a good-faith payment by the U.S. for the eradication of poppy fields, with the implication that the Taliban's religiosity was at odds with opium production, but as with most things in Afghanistan, the situation was far more complicated.

Opium as a cash crop was relatively easy to grow, and provided farmers with more money than traditional crops, and after many years of war, money at the local level was extraordinarily tight. Extra money paid for the cultural incidentals of life--pick-up trucks, gasoline to run them, maybe a CD here and there, and if one were lucky, television with satellite service. Many of those things were precisely what the Taliban had banned. Killing off poppy production--without instituting effective government programs to replace the lost income--had the effect of impoverishing the farmers, reducing them to the level of privation equivalent to that in the refugee camps, the only way of life many Taliban supporters knew and understood.

But, more importantly, the Taliban wanted to eradicate the source of income of the warlords, to hamper their ability to pay or coerce recruits to fight for them against the Taliban, to minimize their capability to procure further arms and ammunition.

The Bushies, however, didn't much care about that. Their bribe was the set-up to get the Taliban to change their mind about a pipeline deal. UNOCAL had wooed them without success, and in the meantime, the Taliban had awarded a related contract to Bridas, a consortium based in Argentina. The only way the Bushies could stop that contract with the Afghan government was to get rid of the government. So began in the spring and early summer the carrot-and-stick approach--the "carpet of gold, or a carpet of bombs" routine. The Bushies were planning to attack Afghanistan for the purposes of regime change well before the attacks of September, 2001. Shortly after those attacks, of course, came the announcement of the Bush doctrine, that governments which harbored terrorists would be equally liable. (I have no idea if U.S. intelligence services had knowledge of the Taliban actively aiding al-Qaeda in their 9/11 attack plans. It seems unlikely that al-Qaeda would have broken security to that degree. As well, implicating their hosts in the plans would have assured an invasion. What is now reasonably certain, however, is that Pakistan's assistance to the fundamentalists in Afghanistan was palpable and that camps for fundamentalist fighters (terrorists, in the catch-all of Bush rhetoric) existed in Pakistan. And yet, Pakistan was not invaded. Afghanistan was. Pakistan, miraculously (with the aid of U.S. threats and bribes), became a staunch ally of Bush in the "war on terror.")

The effect of that "doctrine" was to institutionalize extended military response to terrorism (codified in the 2001 AUMF), which was conveniently a means of spreading U.S. bases into central Asia, the "lily pad" concept promoted by Donald Rumsfeld. A massive military response could also convince the U.S. and western European publics that al-Qaeda was, contrary to intelligence, an equally massive and monolithic military force, bent on conquest. In fact, al-Qaeda, as it existed in Afghanistan, was at most a few hundred core fighters who had fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, followed him to the Sudan and returned to Afghanistan with him after his expulsion from there in 1996. Outside of Afghanistan, bin Laden's support might have totalled a couple of thousand serious people wishing for funding as "franchisees" of al-Qaeda plans or asking bin Laden to underwrite their own operations, either as individuals or as "cells," many of whom were disaffected Saudis or radical fundamentalists around the globe.

The attacks on the United States unleashed a Pandora's Box of mistakes in Afghanistan (precisely what has happened in Iraq, in very large part for the same reasons--in both instances, the object was regime change, and the plan consisted of little more than to install a puppet government which would carry out the Bush administration's wishes without contradiction or resistance). The U.S. choice to lead Afghanistan was Hamid Karzai, who was, in turn, guided through the early government-forming process by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Both of these people had connections to UNOCAL, and Khalilzad had strong neo-conservative credentials in Washington. Did Afghans not notice that the U.S. was immediately creating a puppet government which could not survive without continuing U.S. occupation of their country? How could they not? An early call to return the exiled elderly king,
Muhammed Zâhir Shah (who was popular with the non-aligned in Afghanistan and with the tribal chieftains) and reconstitute the loya jirga as the traditional tribal government went unheeded. Had the U.S. taken that course or something similar, provided protection to the tribal leaders from both the warlords and the Taliban, the last five years in Afghanistan might have had a different outcome.

The British failed in Afghanistan in the 19th century, and the Soviets spent ten years fighting there in the 20th, to no good end. The United States is now halfway along the same path the Soviets traveled. NATO countries are increasingly chary about committing more troops to what seems to them a thankless task without the promise of benefit to anyone, including the Afghans themselves. If there are doubts about how little the Afghan people figured into Bush administration calculations, let's not forget that when the Bushies submitted their fiscal year 2003 budget, there was no provision for humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan included.

As more is known about the early months of fighting in Afghanistan, it seems clearer that the Bush administration had its eyes fixed on the prize of pipeline contracts for American multinationals, creating a puppet government and on manipulating U.S. public opinion in favor of an interminable "war on terror" (principally by finding yet another new target in Iraq), rather than on the immediate requirements of capturing the leaders of al-Qaeda and bringing them to justice, neutering the Taliban militarily and politically, and restoring a stable native government. Five years on, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri still remain at large, the Taliban are now resurgent, and the Karzai government is no less dependent upon U.S. and NATO occupation forces for its survival.

The parallels between Afghanistan and Iraq are numerous, because the Bush administration saw both through the same distorted lens of self-interest, and applied the same lack of planning for what would come after the bombing, in large part because they were firmly convinced that with the application of military force and a belief in the "free market" (read: U.S. economic control of resources), all else would simply fall into place.

Maybe Frist is finally figuring that out, even if George Bush hasn't (or won't). Frist's initial statement was a halting, if ill-considered, recognition of fact. His later denial, his insistence that his statements had been taken out of context, was just the politics of self-preservation. It's wrong of him to think that the Taliban would be satisfied with a minority role in the Afghan government. They won't be, and the wealthy Islamists in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the UAE who want to see the establishment of a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan won't, either. But, it is right to begin to think of using diplomatic effort, rather than depending upon the continued misapplication of military force and occupation.

Smart diplomacy is in order, but accommodating the Taliban is not smart. It would be far better to convince our erstwhile "friends" in the region, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the UAE (coincidentally, the only three countries in the world which recognized the Taliban government), that neither a Taliban- nor a warlord-controlled Afghanistan is in anyone's best interest, and most of all, is not in the best interests of the majority of Afghans, who mostly want to be left alone. The mujahideen succeeded in driving out the Soviets, principally because they had plenty of CIA and Saudi money behind them. The warlords have maintained their control because the U.S. backed them monetarily before, during and after the invasion. It takes little imagination, then, to understand why the Taliban have returned with a vengeance. Someone is funding them to do so, and that money is very likely coming from within countries who are supposedly our allies. As was the case in the post-Soviet withdrawal period, some of that money may even be our own.

The fundamental truth, though, is that as long as it's politically advantageous to the Bush cohort to perpetuate the "long war" on terror, that's exactly what they will do. They are no more interested in diplomatically marginalizing the wealthy Islamists funding extremism than they are in marginalizing the religious extremists in the United States. Both are essential elements in a plan borne of impure motives.

(Photo c/o UN Commission for Children and Armed Conflict)


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