Afghanistan Policy Is Something Obama Needs To Take Another Serious Look At

01/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday the NY Times reported that the military is preparing a big troop buildup in Afghanistan. This could be a terrible miscalculation and I'm only slightly less worried about it under Obama than I was under Bush. In fact... when you think about which politician is more like Alcibiades... well, it sure isn't Bush. Steven Pressfield's historical novels, set even before John McCain was born, Tides of War (about Athens' penultimate-- in as much as it lead to the destruction of Athens as a world power-- disastrous campaign in Sicily) and The Afghan Campaign, should serve as fair warning to Obama that hubris is what ends big strong empires... and this one isn't immune, not by a long shot.

Is Obama going to succeed where everyone since Alexander the Great failed-- and he only succeeded by stashing Hephaestion and marrying an Afghan chief's daughter, Roxana-- including the British and the Soviets when they made the mistake of trying to invade and conquer Afghanistan?

The Times reported that Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy commander for operations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters that military leaders are anticipating a ''very active winter'' of insurgency attacks and said that there's a "very huge building campaign that has already begun. We're pushing dirt as we speak to prepare for the arrival of these forces.''

He could not quantify the number of buildings or contractors involved, but said the military has done several in-depth studies over the past month and a half to determine exactly how many buildings, helicopter pads, dining facilities and even latrines will be needed.

Damn, I wish they would have read Thucydides' report instead! Or perhaps this report from my old college professor, Michael Parenti who begs that before we sink any deeper into the Afghan quagmire we learn something about recent Afghani history and the role our country has played heretofore. I want to offer some of what he's written about it with a note that soon after graduating from the college he was teaching at I traveled to Afghanistan and spent the better part of a year there. In 1969, when I was there, women were not seen on the streets, rarely even in chadri, and I had the feeling I had traveled further in time-- back in time-- than in distance. From my experience Parenti knows what he's talking about.

Since feudal times the landholding system in Afghanistan had remained unchanged, with more than 75 percent of the land owned by big landlords who comprised only 3 percent of the rural population. In the mid-1960s, democratic revolutionary elements coalesced to form the People's Democratic Party (PDP). In 1973, the king was deposed, but the government that replaced him proved to be autocratic, corrupt, and unpopular. It in turn was forced out in 1978 after a massive demonstration in front of the presidential palace, and after the army intervened on the side of the demonstrators.

The military officers who took charge invited the PDP to form a new government under the leadership of Noor Mohammed Taraki, a poet and novelist. This is how a Marxist-led coalition of national democratic forces came into office. "It was a totally indigenous happening. Not even the CIA blamed the USSR for it," writes John Ryan, a retired professor at the University of Winnipeg, who was conducting an agricultural research project in Afghanistan at about that time.

The Taraki government proceeded to legalize labor unions, and set up a minimum wage, a progressive income tax, a literacy campaign, and programs that gave ordinary people greater access to health care, housing, and public sanitation. Fledgling peasant cooperatives were started and price reductions on some key foods were imposed.

The government also continued a campaign begun by the king to emancipate women from their age-old tribal bondage. It provided public education for girls and for the children of various tribes.

A report in the San Francisco Chronicle (17 November 2001) noted that under the Taraki regime Kabul had been "a cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city's university. Afghan women held government jobs-- in the 1980s, there were seven female members of parliament. Women drove cars, traveled and went on dates. Fifty percent of university students were women."

The Taraki government moved to eradicate the cultivation of opium poppy. Until then Afghanistan had been producing more than 70 percent of the opium needed for the world's heroin supply. The government also abolished all debts owed by farmers, and began developing a major land reform program. Ryan believes that it was a "genuinely popular government and people looked forward to the future with great hope."

But serious opposition arose from several quarters. The feudal landlords opposed the land reform program that infringed on their holdings. And tribesmen and fundamentalist mullahs vehemently opposed the government's dedication to gender equality and the education of women and children.

Because of its egalitarian and collectivist economic policies the Taraki government also incurred the opposition of the US national security state. Almost immediately after the PDP coalition came to power, the CIA, assisted by Saudi and Pakistani military, launched a large scale intervention into Afghanistan on the side of the ousted feudal lords, reactionary tribal chieftains, mullahs, and opium traffickers.

A top official within the Taraki government was Hafizulla Amin, believed by many to have been recruited by the CIA during the several years he spent in the United States as a student. In September 1979, Amin seized state power in an armed coup. He executed Taraki, halted the reforms, and murdered, jailed, or exiled thousands of Taraki supporters as he moved toward establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state. But within two months, he was overthrown by PDP remnants including elements within the military.

It should be noted that all this happened before the Soviet military intervention. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski publicly admitted--months before Soviet troops entered the country-- that the Carter administration was providing huge sums to Muslim extremists to subvert the reformist government. Part of that effort involved brutal attacks by the CIA-backed mujahideen against schools and teachers in rural areas.

In late 1979, the seriously besieged PDP government asked Moscow to send a contingent of troops to help ward off the mujahideen (Islamic guerrilla fighters) and foreign mercenaries, all recruited, financed, and well-armed by the CIA. The Soviets already had been sending aid for projects in mining, education, agriculture, and public health. Deploying troops represented a commitment of a more serious and politically dangerous sort. It took repeated requests from Kabul before Moscow agreed to intervene militarily.

The Soviet intervention was a golden opportunity for the CIA to transform the tribal resistance into a holy war, an Islamic jihad to expel the godless communists from Afghanistan. Over the years the United States and Saudi Arabia expended about $40 billion on the war in Afghanistan. The CIA and its allies recruited, supplied, and trained almost 100,000 radical mujahideen from forty Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan itself. Among those who answered the call was Saudi-born millionaire right-winger Osama bin Laden and his cohorts.

After a long and unsuccessful war, the Soviets evacuated the country in February 1989. It is generally thought that the PDP Marxist government collapsed immediately after the Soviet departure. Actually, it retained enough popular support to fight on for another three years, outlasting the Soviet Union itself by a year.

Upon taking over Afghanistan, the mujahideen fell to fighting among themselves. They ravaged the cities, terrorized civilian populations, looted, staged mass executions, closed schools, raped thousands of women and girls, and reduced half of Kabul to rubble. In 2001 Amnesty International reported that the mujahideen used sexual assault as "a method of intimidating vanquished populations and rewarding soldiers."

Ruling the country gangster-style and looking for lucrative sources of income, the tribes ordered farmers to plant opium poppy. The Pakistani ISI, a close junior partner to the CIA, set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan. Within two years of the CIA's arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland became the biggest producer of heroin in the world.

Largely created and funded by the CIA, the mujahideen mercenaries now took on a life of their own. Hundreds of them returned home to Algeria, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Kashmir to carry on terrorist attacks in Allah's name against the purveyors of secular "corruption."

In Afghanistan itself, by 1995 an extremist strain of Sunni Islam called the Taliban-- heavily funded and advised by the ISI and the CIA and with the support of Islamic political parties in Pakistan-- fought its way to power, taking over most of the country, luring many tribal chiefs into its fold with threats and bribes.

The Taliban reign of terror was unimaginable, although if you're one of the 10 million people who read Khaled Hosseini's book The Kite Runner-- or even if you only saw the movie-- you probably can imagine. (See the trailer below.) The U.S. government had no problem working-- even coddling these barbarous thugs because they were right wing thugs-- i.e., "our thugs." Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher publicly bragged that he was a brother of these monsters and was proudly photographed in Afghanistan with them costumed and playing mujahideen. "As recently as 1999, the US government was paying the entire annual salary of every single Taliban government official. Not until October 2001, when President George W. Bush had to rally public opinion behind his bombing campaign in Afghanistan did he denounce the Taliban's oppression of women." Since then tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by Cruise missiles, Stealth bombers, Tomahawks, daisy cutters, and land mines and God knows how many from hunger, cold, lack of shelter, and lack of water. More have fled to Iran and Pakistan.

While claiming to be fighting terrorism, US leaders have found other compelling but less advertised reasons for plunging deeper into Afghanistan. The Central Asian region is rich in oil and gas reserves. A decade before 9/11, Time magazine (18 March 1991) reported that US policy elites were contemplating a military presence in Central Asia. The discovery of vast oil and gas reserves in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan provided the lure, while the dissolution of the USSR removed the one major barrier against pursuing an aggressive interventionist policy in that part of the world.

US oil companies acquired the rights to some 75 percent of these new reserves. A major problem was how to transport the oil and gas from the landlocked region. US officials opposed using the Russian pipeline or the most direct route across Iran to the Persian Gulf. Instead, they and the corporate oil contractors explored a number of alternative pipeline routes, across Azerbaijan and Turkey to the Mediterranean or across China to the Pacific [and, of course, across] Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean... The 9/11 attacks provided the perfect impetus, stampeding US public opinion and reluctant allies into supporting military intervention.

One might agree with John Ryan who argued that if Washington had left the Marxist Taraki government alone back in 1979, "there would have been no army of mujahideen, no Soviet intervention, no war that destroyed Afghanistan, no Osama bin Laden, and no September 11 tragedy." But it would be asking too much for Washington to leave unmolested a progressive leftist government that was organizing the social capital around collective public needs rather than private accumulation.

US intervention in Afghanistan has proven not much different from US intervention in Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, and elsewhere. It had the same intent of preventing egalitarian social change, and the same effect of overthrowing an economically reformist government. In all these instances, the intervention brought retrograde elements into ascendance, left the economy in ruins, and pitilessly laid waste to many innocent lives.

The war against Afghanistan, a battered impoverished country, continues to be portrayed in US official circles as a gallant crusade against terrorism. If it ever was that, it also has been a means to other things: destroying a leftist revolutionary social order, gaining profitable control of one of the last vast untapped reserves of the earth's dwindling fossil fuel supply, and planting US bases and US military power into still another region of the world.

In the face of all this Obama's call for "change" rings hollow.

Good professor to have studied under, right? But Parenti is hardly the only voice worth listening to regarding Afghanistan. Patrick Seale is a British journalist specializing in the Middle East. Last week he speculated that the West is rethinking its Afghan War strategy, having come to the conclusion that there is no military solution. "Clearly," he wrote, "the notion of 'victory' in Afghanistan is being quietly redefined to mean reconciliation, economic development and nation-building rather than a military defeat of the Taliban." Robert Gates and Hamid Karzai seem to have come around to this way of thinking. The big problem: Obama!

During his election campaign, he pledged to take the war to Al-Qaeda's tribal sanctuaries in Pakistan, with or without the agreement of the Islamabad government. It must be hoped that he will be persuaded that any such strategy would be a grave mistake, inflaming Pashtun passions and destabilizing Pakistan.

This year has seen the worst violence in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. At least 4,000 have been killed, about a third of them civilians. It is surely time to bring the killing to an end.

And this idea about there not being a viable military solution isn't exactly new. In 2006 Anatol Lieven and Rajan Menon of the New America Foundation were writing in Newsweek that imaginitive thinking is what's needed, not more troops and more money.

Rory Stewart was a British foreign service officer and best-selling author (The Places in Between and The Prince of the Marshes). Last week he penned an Op-Ed for the NY Times about the wrong-headedness of Obama's plans for more war in Afghanistan. He makes a strong case that escalation has been not just unsuccessful and wasteful, but counterproductive.

What incentive do Afghan leaders have to reform if their country is allowed to produce 92 percent of the world's heroin and still receive $20 billion of international aid? Are they wrong to think that if they became more stable and law-abiding and wiped out the Taliban we would give them less support? That this is a protection racket where the amount of money one receives is directly proportional to one's ability to threaten trouble?