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Christian Parenti is a correspondent for The Nation and author of "The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq" (New Press, 2004).
He received a PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics in 2000 and he has been a Soros Senior Justice Fellow and a Ford Foundation Fellow at...
The Afghan communists of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over in 1978 with dreams of jump-starting modernization and development in their deeply backward nation of mountain villages, nomads and dirt roads. Instead, they triggered immediate crisis. The communists of the PDPA favored expanding education, gender equality and land reform, but their doctrinal cleavages led to almost immediate internecine warfare within the party. In 1967, the PDPA had split into two groups—the Khalq and Parcham—but there was violent rivalry even within the Khalq faction.
The new government succeeded in alienating Afghanistan’s largely autonomous tribal leaders. Scattered rebellions soon erupted. By April, 1979, whole units of the Afghan army were defecting to the rebels. As early as March 30, 1979, Robert Gates, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, attended a meeting at which Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe asked whether there was “value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, [and] sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.”
As former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explained in a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, the U.S. began aiding the tribalist and Islamic uprisings as early as July 1979. By early autumn, the Afghan army had collapsed and the USSR, fearing that Islamic rebellion in Afghanistan would quickly spread to its Central Asian republics, invaded on Dec. 24, 1979.
Soviet Special Forces, or Spetnaz, commandos killed one communist leader, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier killed Nur Mohammed Taraki, and replaced Amin with the more agreeable Babrak Karmal. For the next eight years, the Soviet Union bled into the Hindu Kush mountains, sending in war material and fresh troops only to bring out zinc caskets and heroin-addicted vets. As the war progressed, the Red Army’s tactics devolved: mines were dropped indiscriminately from planes and civilian populations bombed.
The U.S. effort in this conflict was also massive, described by Fred Halliday as “the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA.”
From 1979 to 1992, America channeled a minimally estimated $3 billion to the various mujahedeen factions fighting the Russians and then the Najibullah regime. The Saudi dynasty sent an equal amount, while additional aid flowed from China, Iran, assorted Islamic charities, drug-running operations, privatized CIA funding sources (such as the collapsed Bank of Commerce and Credit International) and various Arab millionaires (such as Osama bin Laden).
Most of the arms were Soviet hand-me-downs purchased from the increasingly Western-oriented Egypt. Running the pipeline of arms, training, money, information and drugs in and out of Afghanistan was the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Described as a state within a state, the ISI almost doubled in size during the war and became the most religiously politicized apparatus of the Pakistani government.
Throughout the Reagan years, U.S. funding for the mujahedeen steadily increased. Facilitated by innocuously named lobbying groups like the Afghan American Educational Fund, above-board appropriations for the largely secret campaign reached $250 million annually by 1985. Much more issued from the CIA’s black budget. Fully a third of U.S. monies went to the religious zealot and Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Now this feverishly anti-American warlord has joined forces with the Taliban.
Among the many volunteers who joined the jihad was the young Osama bin Laden. Another was his now close comrade, the Egyptian surgeon-turned-terrorist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Charged with conspiracy in the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Zawahiri was arrested, tortured and, upon release, fled to Afghanistan. Known as “Afghan Arabs,” these foreign fighters also included Pakistanis, Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians and Malaysians.
By the time the Afghan communists were vanquished and the mujahedeen were victorious, Afghanistan was devastated. In place of a state, it had seven competing guerrillas parties. Civil war and banditry consumed the next decade and from this emerged the Taliban—a messianic, largely illiterate, vigilante force that sought to impose Muslim law and order upon Afghanistan’s anarchic state of war.
Instead, the American-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was marked by carelessness, parsimonious budgeting and a deep cultural ignorance rooted in a sense of technology-based omnipotence.
Central to the Afghan failure was the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq—the land of oil, cornerstone of Arab nationalism, strategic linchpin to a globally crucial region. In the Bush imperial scheme, Afghanistan served as a stepping-stone to Iraq and a political prop with which to sell and justify the more nebulous war on terror. As a project in and of itself, Afghanistan was always a sloppily handled sideshow.
Consider again the salient facts: Well before 9/11, the Bush team’s earliest cabinet meetings touched on regime change in Iraq. Days after 9/11, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggested that the U.S. skip an invasion of Afghanistan and proceed directly to Iraq. His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, complained that there were no good targets in Afghanistan. But the Afghan invasion had to happen for U.S. foreign policy to have any credibility. As it happened, the Afghan war was an advertisement for Rumsfeld’s goal of “military transformation” and his theory of light, fast warfare.
Once the Afghan occupation began, the political process was rushed. Warlords were allowed to take over the government. The loya jirga, the constitution, the presidential elections, and the parliamentary elections were all rushed processes, designed to meet U.S. political deadlines. This was the quickest way to create the short-term appearance of stability and success and thus was the quickest way to Iraq. But this process created a hopelessly dysfunctional, intensely corrupt Afghan government, and that foreordained Western failure. After all, who would stand up as the West stood down?
The international community’s military spending in Afghanistan has outpaced development spending by 10 to 1. This is a core mistake in a war that is fundamentally political. Despite the disproportionate military spending, the U.S. deployed only 9,000 troops to hunt Osama bin Laden during the first two years. The ratio of support troops to combat soldiers in the U.S. military is such that a force of 9,000 translates into little more than 800 or 900 soldiers actually in the field at any one time.
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