• The 'Good War' Is a Bad War

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    me, I confess, [countries] are pieces on a chessboard upon which
    is being played out a game for dominion of the world."

    Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, speaking about Afghanistan, 1898

    I had suggested
    to Marina that we meet in the safety of the Intercontinental Hotel,
    where foreigners stay in Kabul, but she said no. She had been there
    once and government agents, suspecting she was Rawa, had arrested
    her. We met instead at a safe house, reached through contours of
    bombed rubble that was once streets, where people live like earthquake
    victims awaiting rescue.

    Rawa is the
    Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which since
    1977 has alerted the world to the suffering of women and girls in
    that country. There is no organization on earth like it. It is the
    high bar of feminism, home of the bravest of the brave. Year after
    year, Rawa agents have traveled secretly through Afghanistan, teaching
    at clandestine girls’ schools, ministering to isolated and brutalized
    women, recording outrages on cameras concealed beneath their burqas.
    They were the Taliban regime’s implacable foes when the word Taliban
    was barely heard in the west: when the Clinton administration was
    secretly courting the mullahs so that the oil company UNOCAL could
    build a pipeline across Afghanistan from the Caspian.

    Indeed, Rawa’s
    understanding of the designs and hypocrisy of western governments
    informs a truth about Afghanistan excluded from news, now reduced
    to a drama of British squaddies besieged by a demonic enemy in a
    "good war." When we met, Marina was veiled to conceal
    her identity. Marina is her nom de guerre. She said: "We, the
    women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the west following
    11 September 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official
    enemy of America. Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not
    unique, and we have resented the silence in the west over the atrocious
    nature of the western-backed warlords, who are no different. They
    rape and kidnap and terrorize, yet they hold seats in [Hamid] Karzai’s
    government. In some ways, we were more secure under the Taliban.
    You could cross Afghanistan by road and feel secure. Now, you take
    your life into your hands."

    The reason
    the United States gave for invading Afghanistan in October 2001
    was "to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators
    of 9/11." The women of Rawa say this is false. In a rare statement
    on 4 December that went unreported in Britain, they said: "By
    experience, [we have found] that the US does not want to defeat
    the Taliban and al-Qaeda, because then they will have no excuse
    to stay in Afghanistan and work towards the realization of their
    economic, political and strategic interests in the region."

    The truth about
    the "good war" is to be found in compelling evidence that
    the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable
    response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months
    prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington
    was not the Taliban’s links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect
    of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan to less reliable
    mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed
    by the CIA to fight America’s proxy war against the Soviet occupiers
    in the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahedin had
    been largely a creation of Washington, which believed the "jihadi
    card" could be used to bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban
    were a product of this and, during the Clinton years, they were
    admired for their "discipline." Or, as the Wall Street
    Journal put it, "[the Taliban] are the players most capable
    of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history."

    The "moment
    in history" was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs
    had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal.
    However, by the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached
    further and further on territory controlled by the Taliban, whom,
    as a result, were deemed in Washington to lack the "stability"
    required of such an important client. It was the consistency of
    this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support,
    regardless of the Taliban’s aversion to human rights. (Asked about
    this, a state department briefer had predicted that "the Taliban
    will develop like the Saudis did," with a pro-American economy,
    no democracy and "lots of sharia law," which meant the
    legalized persecution of women. "We can live with that,"
    he said.)

    By early 2001,
    convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring
    their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid
    of him. Under a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan’s two
    Islamic parties, Bin Laden was to be held under house arrest in
    Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would then hear evidence against
    him and decide whether to try him or hand him over to the Americans.
    Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf
    vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister,
    Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it
    had been decided to dispense with the Taliban "under a carpet
    of bombs."

    Acclaimed as
    the first "victory" in the "war on terror,"
    the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 and its ripple effect
    caused the deaths of thousands of civilians who, even more than
    Iraqis, remain invisible to western eyes. The family of Gulam Rasul
    is typical. It was 7.45am on 21 October. The headmaster of a school
    in the town of Khair Khana, Rasul had just finished eating breakfast
    with his family and had walked outside to chat to a neighbor. Inside
    the house were his wife, Shiekra, his four sons, aged three to ten,
    his brother and his wife, his sister and her husband. He looked
    up to see an aircraft weaving in the sky, then his house exploded
    in a fireball behind him. Nine people died in this attack by a US
    F-16 dropping a 500lb bomb. The only survivor was his nine-year-old
    son, Ahmad Bilal. "Most of the people killed in this war are
    not Taliban; they are innocents," Gulam Rasul told me. "Was
    the killing of my family a mistake? No, it was not. They fly their
    planes and look down on us, the mere Afghan people, who have no
    planes, and they bomb us for our birthright, and with all contempt."

    There was the
    wedding party in the village of Niazi Qala, 100km south of Kabul,
    to celebrate the marriage of the son of a respected farmer. By all
    accounts it was a wonderfully boisterous affair, with music and
    singing. The roar of aircraft started when everyone was asleep,
    at about three in the morning. According to a United Nations report,
    the bombing lasted two hours and killed 52 people: 17 men, ten women
    and 25 children, many of whom were found blown to bits where they
    had desperately sought refuge, in a dried-up pond. Such slaughter
    is not uncommon, and these days the dead are described as "Taliban";
    or, if they are children, they are said to be "partly to blame
    for being at a site used by militants" — according to
    the BBC, speaking to a US military spokesman.

    The British
    military have played an important part in this violence, having
    stepped up high-altitude bombing by up to 30 per cent since they
    took over command of NATO forces in Afghanistan in May 2006. This
    translated to more than 6,200 Afghan deaths last year. In December,
    a contrived news event was the "fall" of a "Taliban
    stronghold," Musa Qala, in southern Afghanistan. Puppet government
    forces were allowed to "liberate" rubble left by American

    What justifies
    this? Various fables have been spun — "building democracy"
    is one. "The war on drugs" is the most perverse. When
    the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they had one striking
    success. They brought to an abrupt end a historic ban on opium production
    that the Taliban regime had achieved. A UN official in Kabul described
    the ban to me as "a modern miracle." The miracle was quickly
    rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai "democracy,"
    the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the
    country’s entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32
    provinces instantly went under cultivation. Today, 90 per cent of
    world trade in opium originates in Afghanistan. In 2005, a British
    government report estimated that 35,000 children in this country
    were using heroin. While the British taxpayer pays for a £1bn
    military super-base in Helmand Province and the second-biggest British
    embassy in the world, in Kabul, peanuts are spent on drug rehabilitation
    at home.

    Tony Blair
    once said memorably: "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment.
    We will not walk away . . . [We will offer] some way out of the
    poverty that is your miserable existence." I thought about
    this as I watched children play in a destroyed cinema. They were
    illiterate and so could not read the poster warning that unexploded
    cluster bombs lay in the debris.

    five years of engagement," reported James Fergusson in the
    London Independent on 16 December, "the [UK] Department
    for International Development had spent just £390m on Afghan
    projects." Unusually, Fergusson has had meetings with Taliban
    who are fighting the British. "They remained charming and courteous
    throughout," he wrote of one visit in February. "This
    is the beauty of malmastia, the Pashtun tradition of hospitality
    towards strangers. So long as he comes unarmed, even a mortal enemy
    can rely on a kind reception. The opportunity for dialogue that
    malmastia affords is unique."

    "opportunity for dialogue" is a far cry from the surrender-or-else
    offers made by the government of Gordon Brown. What Brown and his
    Foreign Office advisers willfully fail to understand is that the
    tactical victory in Afghanistan in 2001, achieved with bombs, has
    become a strategic disaster in south Asia. Exacerbated by the assassination
    of Benazir Bhutto, the current turmoil in Pakistan has its contemporary
    roots in a Washington-contrived war in neighboring Afghanistan that
    has alienated the Pashtuns who inhabit much of the long border area
    between the two countries. This is also true of most Pakistanis,
    who, according to opinion polls, want their government to negotiate
    a regional peace, rather than play a prescribed part in a rerun
    of Lord Curzon’s Great Game.

    11, 2008

    was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
    a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
    he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
    highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
    work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
    Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
    , is
    published by Jonathan Cape in June.

    John Pilger 2008

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