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Elphinstone's Mistake Again: What Are We Doing In Afghanistan?

As the tenth year of the US-led invasion by the UN-endorsed International Security Assistance Force [1] occupation approaches, debate has began over the continued role of the coalition troops in that country, with increasing concern that the war is unwinnable, the coalition supported government is incurably corrupt and the armed forces of official Afghani government would be incapable of maintenance of any sense of law and order without foreign support [2]. The Taleban, partially religious extremists, partially local partisans, are believed to be winning the ground war and the support of the local population. Despite this honestly bleak assessment the situation, conservative politicians are comitted [3] to a failed policy of military occupation, with at least the nominal claim that they are denying Islamicist terrorists a safe haven for operations, and with the admitted policy of supporting international alliances; almost fifty states have currently committed troops to ISAF, total casulties are at least 100,000 [4], and billions of dollars pledged in aid.

Despite this the existential circumstances in Afghanistan remain dire; the average life expectancy is less than 45 years. Only 28% of the population is literate. GDP per capita is $1,000 USD, with 35% unemployment and an equivalent number living below the poverty line. Tellingly these are not dramatic improvements from 1990 or 2000, and in some cases the metrics are worse (47, 46 years life expectancy, 12 and 31% literacy, GDP per capita $200 and $800, 8% estimated unemployment in 1995) [4]. In 2010 Terrorist attacks, those who systematically use violence against non-combatants for political ends, increased in 2010 (to 7,400 attacks between January and September), among an increasing illegal trade in narcotics, elections with an enormous degree of fraud [6], the retention of the death penalty, arbitrary detention and torture, and serious abuses of basic human rights especially toward women.

With the monthly military cost of $6.7 billion from the US budget alone [7], the continuing defense of a lackey government in Kabul, which faces deep resentment among the Pashtun tribal loyalists, cannot be considered a sustainable proposition. It seems that many recognise this, but few are able to offer truly viable alternatives. The occupation forces have recently spoken about alliances with the Taleban (apparently overstated [8]) and NGOs are asked to seek permission from the same in order to carry out their work [9].

Opponents of the occupation and the Islamic republican government and the fundamentalists of the Taliban, such is common in leftist and libertarian circles, must present this opposition with a viable alternative. Few have genuinely considered a principled and practical position that places human rights and national self-determination with an understanding of the context. The first step in this process is the conversion of the existing military strategy to defeat the Taleban/Al-Qaeda to an economic one. Religious fundamentalism struggles to survive in places of economic prosperity, US-style evangelicism notwithstanding. Unwelcome military occupation generates resentment; providers of infrastructure are more often welcomed. Literacy, health-care, housing, sanitation - all of these are desparately needed by the people in Afghanistan. Improving their lives is the priority, of far greater importance than abstract geostrategic concerns.

Some political organisations try to apply their own group as the basis for political advocacy; this is both sectarian and dishonest. Despite any loss of 'ideological purity', it is far preferable to identify the most progressive and successful organisations within the countries in question. For left and libertarian internationalist supporters of emancipation of the Aghani and Pakistani people, the political organisation deserving of the greatest support is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, founded in 1977 and consistently - through the communist, Taleban and contemporary Islamic Republican regimes - advocating human and equal rights for women and a secular government, as well as creating orphanages and teaching centres, even when facing severe reaction from reactionary forces. The Labour Party of Pakistan is a small but very important progressive force, albeit with strong Trotskyist connections which can often be as much of a hindrance as an advantage. Finally, and more distantly, the Democratic Watan Party of Afghanistan is worthy of watching; this is the remains of the moderate wing of the former communist regime which ruled Afghanistan in it's last years before the Islamicist takeover; some innovations of that period included a constitution with a multi-party political system, a free press, and an independent judiciary [10].

One often overlooked issue is the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan; after all even a cursorary understanding of the geodemographics and history illustrates a particular Pashtun dominance in south and east Afghanistan contigious with western Pakistan. This is part of the reason of the ability of the Taleban to establish themselves in Swat valley to the extent of the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. The reality is the people who live in the region do not recognise the state borders between the two countries. Not only does require that the democratic, secular and self-determination issues of Afghanisatn also apply for Pakistan, it also means that either Afghanistan becomes a multinational federal republic, or it will tear itself apart in a nationalistic (and religious) civil war with dangerous interventions from Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Iran [11]. One can imagine the human cost that will result from such an evisceration.

The path to a secular, democratic and egalitarian Afghanistan (and Pakistan) is paved through education, health and housing. It will not be achieved by a hardline military approach designed to root out and destroy supporters of the Taleban or Al-Qaeda; indeed such an approach will only generate antipathy towards the occupiers and lead people to support any resistance. A complete strategic re-orientation by the occupying powers that converts the military expenditure to the betterment of human life in that country is the first priority towards this objective and it can be stated simply; ask the people of Afghanistan itself what they would prefer; ask whether the would willingly inform on those who engage in terrorism if their lives we improved by the presence of foreign aid workers and engineers, rather than threatened, by foreign military and foreign drones [12]. Such an approach is far from recognising a military victory by the Taleban. They have no desire even to attempt this, such is their military inferiority. Rather they are seeking to outlast the military presence and engaging in gradual and wearying attacks on 'soft targets'. Outflanking them on the temporal by cutting off any possibility of long-term support through an educated, informed and prosperous Afghanistan is an alternative worthy of promoting.

1] ISAF was established by the United Nations Security Council on 20 December 2001 by Resolution 1386. The US-invasion, "Operation Infinite Justice", which was launched in October 7, was not approved by the UN Security Council.
2] Tom Hyland, Troops 'overwhelmed and cannot defeat Taliban', The Age, October 17, 2010. See also "Creating Conditions for the Defeat of the Afghan Taliban: A Strategic Assessment", Brigadier Mark Smethurst, Australian Army, October 2010
3] Hamish McDonald, Pollies wax poetic on Afghan quagmire, The Age, October 23 2010
4] Data from the CIA World Factbook, 1990, 2000 and 2010.
5] Amnesty International Yearbook 2010
6] Alissa J. Rubin, Widespread Fraud Is Seen in Afghan Elections, New York Times, October 17, 2010
7] Richard Wolf, Afghan war costs now outpace Iraq's, US Today, May 13, 2010
8] Afghan Peace Process May Have Been Overstates, Associated Press, October 21, 2010
9] Jon Boone, Afghanistan's aid workers advised to seek permission from Taliban, The Guardian, October 15, 2010
10] RAWA (, Labour Party of Pakistan (, Democratic Watan Party of Afghanistan (
11] S. Frederick Starr, A Federated Afghanistan?, Central Asia-Caucus Institute Analyst, July 11, 2001
12] Sebastian Abbot, Report criticizes civilian casualties in Pakistan, Associated Press, October 14, 2010

Commenting on this Page will be automatically closed on December 25, 2010.


What do you want us to do about it?

Lobby ('phone, write to, speak to) politicians to switch from a military to an aid strategy.

Support - financially - groups like RAWA and, who do joint work with RAWA.

They're the two most beneficial activities people who are not actually in Afghanistan or Pakistan can do...

The revelation that Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai receives millions in influence peddling payments from Iran is full of ironies. It demonstrates that the US and Iran are de facto allies in Afghanistan (in fact both of them are deeply opposed to the Taliban and their backers among hard line cells of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence). US military spokesmen have sometimes attempted to make a case that Iran is helping the hyper-Sunni, Shiite-killing, anti-Karzai Taliban, which is not very likely to be true or at least not on a significant scale (why undermine the Karzai government, which Tehran clearly likes just fine, even if there are Tajik leaders it might slightly prefer?)

by John Martinkus

In 2005, not many media reports disputed the official story of triumph over the Taliban. This episode from John Martinkus's time in Afghanistan shows how profound that disconnect was

Blo^dy Alexander of Macedon! If he’d been content to stay at home, none of this would have happened. Maybe. Perhaps.

Meaning the area’s been a right pain in the ars^ ever since, and that Romans and all who came after them should have embraced the Great Fabian (aka Cunctator’s) warning to idiots with great generals & supposedly invincible armies inc heavy cavalry (even elephants) who invade a country far from their own: You can’t beat the locals who embrace my guerilla warfare strategies!

One would think, after C20?s experiences in Ireland, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Indonesia, Vietnam, Kenya, Rhodesia, etc etc etc, Australian governments would at least have learnt that.