AER 104: Will Ukraine be Putin’s Afghanistan? With Scott Ritter

Will there be “another Afghanistan”?

I interviewed Scott Ritter, former Marine, weapons inspector, and current author and writer about the war in Ukraine. We start with his experiences as a young member of the US military studying the Soviet Union and preparing for war with Russia; then talk about the surprises when he actually met Russians under conditions of detente. I asked him, since everybody seems to be an armchair military analyst, how we could be better at it. Then we talk about Russia’s goals, the situation in Ukraine, how Russia’s conducting the war so far (we talked on Day 9), and the prospects for Ukraine becoming “another Afghanistan”.

A destroyed Afghanistan has been an imperialist priority for 200 years

As the British before them, US imperial propaganda treats itself as the victim and those they invaded and occupied as the criminal

On August 18th, shortly after the Taliban took Kabul, former British Prime Minister Theresa May stood up in the British House of Commons and asked: “Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” The rhetorical question, as well as the concept of “global Britain” itself, sounds like pandering to a bygone era of imperial glories. But a survey of what it looked like when “global Britain” first showed up on the streets of Kabul, and the nearly two centuries since, could help clear up some muddled thinking about Afghanistan today.

Imperialist designs on Afghanistan

While they were about halfway into their 180 years of plundering $45 trillion from India, the British always knew that an alliance of neighbouring states – the Persian Empire, the Sikh Empire, Afghanistan – could pry their claws off of their prize.

As the British completed the destruction of their rivals and the absorption of territory, Afghanistan came under their hungry gaze. Initially the plan was to install a friendly monarch on the throne and turn him into a pensioner, along the Indian pattern.

The opportunity came in the form of an exiled monarch, Shah Shuja, who the British hoped to install on the throne in Kabul. After elaborate preparation, the British invaded from India in a momentous year for imperialism – 1839. That very same year, they launched the first Opium War on China and began what that country calls its ‘Century of Humiliation’. The army the British sent into Afghanistan consisted mostly of Indian troops, who were treated according to a strict racist hierarchy. “Rather strangely”, writes Farrukh Husain, author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires, “the British Indian army operated an apartheid system for provision of food. British soldiers received more food rations than Indian troops and the camp followers received less still.” When food ran low, all of it went to the white soldiers while the native troops starved.

British forces raped, slaughtered, and looted their way through Afghanistan. They kidnapped the wives of their allies. They blew Afghans out of cannons (a move they made more famous in 1857 India). They destroyed the economies of the cities they seized. One British agent, a Kashmiri named Mohan Lal, wrote: “I heard both the men and the women saying that the English enriched the grain and grass sellers…while they reduced the Chiefs to poverty, and killed the poor by starvation.” Upon occupying Kabul, the British raised taxes on the locals – unleashing an army of collectors on Afghans, who had to borrow the money to pay the taxes, and then proceeded to lose their houses and other assets, in a standard pattern repeated throughout the colonized world.

Even centuries ago, the imperialists were interested in Afghan minerals. One held the “opinion that a good geologist would be very useful in Afghanistan as the country is said to abound in minerals of every description.”

But after abusing both their allies and their enemies, the British lost control of Kabul and were driven into retreat. The king they put on the throne, Shah Shuja, was assassinated in 1842.

A less vindictive power might have ended it there, but “teaching the natives a lesson” through extreme violence has also always been a pattern of the imperialists. After their loss the British re-grouped and created an “Army of Revenge” against the Afghans for having the temerity to drive them out. The British destroyed Ghazni, an important city which has never recovered: “Ghazni was lost in the darkness of the night to be forgotten by history.” They also looted the gates at the 800-year old tomb of Mahmood of Ghazni and brought the gates back to the Agra Fort. After Indian independence, the Indian government created an official inscription stating that the gates are “lying here either as a war trophy of the British campaign of 1842, or as a sad reminder of the historic lies of the East India Co.”

The Army of Revenge sought to destroy the agricultural and ecological basis of life in Afghanistan: “Our way of destroying the country is very simple, merely cutting a ring through the bark of every tree. This ruins the country completely as the trees die directly and the inhabitants live principally on dried fruit and flour made from the dried mulberry.” There was no other purpose to this army than destruction: “every house was destroyed, every tree barked or cut down”. Neville Chamberlain reported of a village where all males over puberty were bayoneted, the women were raped and their goods plundered: “This is one of the most beautiful valleys in Affghanistan, but we left it a scene of desolation;” At one fort that the British destroyed, Reverend Allen described the scene: “One woman was the only live thing in the fort. She was sitting, the picture of despair, with her father, brother, husband and children lying dead around her.”

Still the imperial bloodlust was unsatisfied. Upon reaching the capital the British debated whether to destroy Kabul or not (one British commander said “not one stone should have been left standing upon another”), and also whether or not to kidnap the king’s child and bring him up as a Christian in London (which they did to Prince Duleep Singh after the Anglo-Sikh wars). The British finally settled for destroying the most spectacular building in Kabul, the Char Chatta market, described by Farrukh Husain as “the greatest covered bazaar of all Central Asia, a veritable regional trade centre if not world trade centre from whence Afghan lapis, dried fruits and rugs went to far off lands on the silk road.” In his own book about the 1839-1842 war, William Dalrymple described it as “superb structure with its painted wooden vaulting and intricate tilework, said by some to be the single most beautiful building in Afghanistan… originally built during the reign of Shah Jahan and renowned not just as one of the supreme wonders of Mughal architecture but as one of the greatest buildings in all Central Asia.”

The dynamiting of Char Chatta bazaar was part of a general carnage enacted by the British in Kabul: “the city was pillaged, and fired in a hundred different places. Numbers of the European soldiers… and crowds of sepoys and followers from both camps, poured in, through many unwalled spaces, and with little interference from the troops on duty, who indeed, to a certain extent aided and abetted, the work of plunder and destruction was carried on, and the few remaining inhabitants were exposed to outrage.” “Outrage” itself was a euphemism for rape, murder, indiscriminate killing, enslaving and trading of women, burning of wounded people alive. “Many a hiding mother hen and newborn infant died. But such things like these you know must be at every famous victorie.” Murder and loot went together: “All day the sack went on, and great booty did the captors get, rich dresses, shawls, carpets, silks, horse trappings, arms, emblazoned Korans, etc”

The engineered demolition of the most magnificent building in Central Asia was not an accident or a crime of passion. Imperialists always try to destroy the cultural heritage of their targets. The same way that Iraq’s National Museum was looted immediately after the US occupation began in 2003, the destruction of Afghanistan’s culture has been an objective of the imperialists for centuries.

On their way back to their base in their Indian colony, the British destroyed other cities, including Jalalabad, which they left “a smoking mass of ruins”. When the British left Afghanistan, one officer writes in 1843: “The work of retribution was now deemed accomplished, and, indeed, it was severe…nor will years repair the damage and evils inflicted”. Another writer, Roebuck, summarized it: “Ghuznee, Cabul, Istalif and Jalalabad have shared a common doom; havoc and desolation have marked the path of our conquered armies, and as fell a revenge has been inflicted on our foes as the warmest advocate of retaliation could desire.”

One British Minister of Parliament, William Hutt, lamented the loss of business opportunities: “We had destroyed every town which could afford us a market, and centuries would elapse before Affghanistan recovered from the misery and desolation in which it had been plunged.”

Having failed to subjugate Afghans, the British imperialists decided the country was to be a buffer zone and dedicated themselves to ensuring it would remain divided, undeveloped, and ideally controlled by compliant rulers. But even this arrangement could not be accomplished without additional wars.

Modernization efforts clash with imperialist designs

The decades after the 1839-1842 war on Afghanistan were decisive in the history of imperialism.

On the North American continent, the United States took all of northern Mexico in the Mexican American war of 1846-8 and followed it with a series of wars and genocides against Indigenous nations. Most of what is now Canada was stolen from First Nations at the same time.

Having devastated Afghanistan, the British next put an end to the Sikh Empire in 1849. In 1852, the British took more territory in Burma. I’ve already mentioned the war of 1857, during which the British faced a powerful challenge to their rule in India. Diminished as a “mutiny”, the uprising was multi-religious, multi-caste, across much of the country, and nearly succeeded in ousting the British, who suppressed it by killing millions. In the decades that followed, documented by Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts, imperialists broke down China’s and India’s sophisticated agricultural systems and tens of millions of Asians died in the resulting famines.

Enjoying years of calm left behind after the mass slaughter of 1857, the British decided in the 1870s to try again to annex Afghanistan. The propaganda of “avenging” the losses of the first round was revved up, including a famous painting of a lone survivor of the 1842 retreat. The horrible cliche of invincible savage Afghans is less the product of multiple wars and more the product of multiple rounds of war propaganda.

In the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-9, Britain imposed the humiliating treaty of Gandamak on Afghanistan, which gave Britain control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy (this was a time when successive humiliating treaties were also foisted on China and Indigenous nations in North America). In 1893, Mortimer Durand – whose father had helped destroy Afghanistan in the 1839-1842 war – went to Kabul and imposed a division of the Pashtun lands into the British India side and the Afghanistan side, seeding a century of conflict with the stroke of a pen.

The British invaded Afghanistan again in 1897 to suppress what they called the Malakand Uprising, with the same vindictive imperial purpose. Winston Churchill was there, and what he told a friend was representative: “After today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed without quarter. The Mohmands need a lesson, and there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.”

On the Afghan side, though, the drive to modernize (chronicled in Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire) was strong – inspired by Turkey, Japan, and the Russian Revolution, the courts of the Afghan monarchs debated ideas and envisioned building a state capable of withstanding imperial pressure. In February 1919, the young king Amanullah Khan took the throne. The new Soviet Union, itself desperately fighting off an invasion by the imperialists, quickly extended recognition to the new monarch. A short war with the British followed in May, which ended with Afghanistan winning foreign policy independence. Having just slaughtered 1,000 Indians at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in April, The British may have been concerned about the morale and reliability of their Indian troops – these were the men who, after all, fought the British Empire’s wars.

Afghan history has had many twists and turns since Amanullah won its independence in 1919. One under-appreciated theme: it has been a century of nationalists struggling to modernize their country in the face of imperialism. If it is rarely understood this way, it could be, among other reasons, because many of the nationalists killed each other.

In 1929, Amanullah was overthrown in a British backed regime-change operation and a series of short-lived rulers followed, until king Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933-1973. Zahir Shah was also a modernizer, who tried to develop the country under growing pressure from the new US empire.

When the CIA overthrew neighbouring Iran’s elected government and installed the pro-US Shah in 1953, the US gained its own independent military foothold in the region. Taking over the British imperial role, the US injected a new ideology of “development”, as well as “democracy and human rights”, to compete with the socialism and independent national development desired in the colonies. US Historian Nick Cullather wrote in 2002: “The confrontation between colonizer and colonized, rich and poor, was with a rhetorical gesture replaced by a world order in which all nations were either developed or developing.” And in this scheme, Afghanistan “suddenly became ‘underdeveloped’”. Daud Khan, the king’s cousin, said succinctly: “Afghanistan is a backward country. We must do something about it or die as a nation.”

And much was done about it, with help from both Cold War blocs. The USSR built highways linking Kabul to the Central Asian Republics, including the engineering feat of cutting the 2.67km Salang Tunnel through the Hindu Kush mountains in 1964. Germany and Japan built factories and radio towers.

The flagship US project was the Helmand Valley Authority, which historian Arnold Toynbee described as “a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape.” Through the Helmand Valley Authority, which ran from 1946-1979, America engaged Morrison-Knudson – builders of Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, active all over the world – to build a network of dams. Agricultural fields – which now grow opium – in Helmand were improved and made capable of multicropping. In Afghanistan in this period, Cullather notes, the Cold War was “fought with money and technicians instead of spies and bombs.”

In fact the spies and bombs were well on their way. From 1964-1973, there was a famous “democratic opening”, during which the US exercised influence over pro-US Afghan politicians to try to exclude the left. In 1973, Daud Khan, another modernizer, took over in a coup. There is evidence in the Wikileaks Kissinger Cables that the US were themselves planning a coup that year to counter the growing influence of left-wing politics. The first mujahadeen uprising occurred against Daud’s modernizing efforts in 1975 – led by Ahmad Shah Masoud of the Panjshir Valley, it failed to win any popular support and was easily crushed. In 1977, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia ul-Haq. Bhutto had offered a degree of support to the mujahadeen: Zia-ul-Haq radically stepped that support up. In 1978, Daud himself was overthrown by the left-wing, and Muhammad Taraki became president. A co-founder of what was called the Saur Revolution was Hafizullah Amin. Taraki was president from April 1978-September 1979. He was killed (maybe by Amin). Then Amin took over from September 1979-December 1979.

During the Taraki/Amin year and a half, there was a land reform, which was very popular with farmers and very unpopular with landlords. A number of these disaffected elites went to Pakistan to organize a revolt. The US supported these exiles, in a pattern familiar across the world of the US supporting right-wing insurgencies against left-wing governments. With an open border with Pakistan and virtually unlimited financial resources and weapons from the US, Saudi Arabia, and China, the mujahadeen quickly became a viable threat to the Afghan government, which asked the USSR for military support in 1979. When Soviet troops arrived, the Afghan leader who had invited them, Hafizullah Amin, was himself killed in still-unclear circumstances. Babrak Karmal – a former student leader and parliamentarian with a stronger relationship to Moscow – took over leadership.

The controversial post-1979 period

History is always contentious, but historical consensus on interpretations, or even facts, of an ongoing civil war is impossible. How to interpret the history of the past forty years? The standard interpretation argues that reformers from Amanullah to Zahir Shah, Daud, Taraki, Amin, and Karmal all tried to do too much too fast, failing to respect the deep conservatism of the Afghan people. But that is too shallow of an analysis. Every reform faces a conservative backlash and if the backlash succeeds, the reform itself can always be blamed for provoking it.

What we can say is: From 1979-1987, Afghanistan became the epicenter of a US-supported insurgency against the Afghan government and its Russian ally. The war devastated the country but the government’s modernization efforts continued. From when the Soviets arrived in 1979 until the end, the mujahadeen never again would pose a strong enough military threat to overthrow the government. Media commentators of all viewpoints in the 1980s admonished readers that “there was no military solution in Afghanistan” for either side. Yet Afghan’s government did fall: its demise was negotiated by Gorbechev and then Yeltsin. Hoping to appease the US, the Russian leaders agreed to abandon their allies in Afghanistan – and kept their word. Meanwhile the US, having made the same agreement, blithely continued to support the overthrow of the Afghan government and reject the reconciliation efforts of Afghanistan’s last modernizer, Mohammad Najibullah, who had succeeded Karmal in 1986. Even when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Najibullah’s government held on until 1992, when airlifts from Russia were halted altogether.

From 1992-2021: what the imperialists built

So it was in 1992 the US-sponsored insurgents finally toppled the Afghan government and proceeded to cleanse the country of communism and the idea of modernizing, nationalist reforms.

The mujahadeen then applied their skills in state destruction on the whole of the country. While some warlords were content to contain their depredations to their own base areas, two warlords in particular wanted control of Kabul and couldn’t agree – one was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other was Burnuhuddin Rabbani (and Ahmad Shah Massoud). Hekmatyar was kicked out and proceeded to shell Kabul from outside. The 1992-1996 war destroyed much of what little development had survived the previous decade.

Into this context were born the Taliban, a group of young men raised entirely during war and by the Islamists with no influence from nationalism or communism (which had been cleansed from public memory). They repudiated the atrocities and chaos of the warlords and promised to bring them to an end. Starting in the refugee camps of Pakistan where they grew up, they took Kandahar, advancing quickly from 1994-1996 until they took Kabul. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from Kabul (though several warlords continued to control northern areas and maintained an anti-Taliban alliance). In 2001, the US invaded, re-organized the warlords, and overthrew the Taliban, who retreated to Pakistan.

The US imposed their own candidate, Hamid Karzai as president under an Afghan-American viceroy, Zalmay Khalilzad. For the next 20 years, Karzai and then his successor, Ghani, ruled over the warlords; the US, through Khalilzad, ruled over Karzai and Ghani. Called ‘indirect rule’ in the 19th century, this arrangement would have been familiar to the British imperialists of that era. So, too, would the US’s geopolitical imperative: having lost its Iranian bases in 1979, the US had gained a covert new foothold in Pakistan that same year, but didn’t get the full power conferred by military occupation and multiple bases in Afghanistan until 2001.

For the next 20 years, the US treated Afghanistan as a video gameworld for practicing drone warfare, protected the opium trade, and committed continuous atrocities, including hunting Afghans for sport, while making it a playground for private contractors and NGOs. US bombs and night raids, which probably killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and the indifference to these deaths shown by the US-sponsored government, made support for the Taliban inevitable.

The 1996-2001 Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, massacred minorities, and subjugated women as severely as the mujahadeen. Will they be worse, better, or the same as the US-backed mujahadeen? It is too soon to tell, but here are two anecdotes.

First, the mujahadeen and the CIA turned Afghanistan into the world’s leading opium producer from the 1980s. The Taliban taxed opium but discouraged production, and in 2000 – whether for reasons of market manipulation or earnest principle – reduced opium production in Afghanistan to nearly zero. In 2001 they were overthrown and opium cultivation returned to even higher levels than before under US protection.

Second, like the mujahadeen among whom they grew up, the Taliban built almost nothing, but they did complete one infrastructure project. Cullather reported it in 2002: “During its five years in power, the Taliban government invested in the dams and finished one project begun but not completed by the Americans: linking the Kajakai Dam’s hydroelectric plant to the city of Kandahar. Work was finished in early 2001, just a few months before American bombers destroyed the plant.”

AEP 94: Taliban Takes Over

Talking Taliban takeover

Joe Emersberger and I discuss some questions about Afghanistan after the Taliban take over the country and the US leaves. Was this really a defeat or a controlled handover for the US?  What is Pakistan’s role? China’s? What is with the mystique around the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose UK-trained son is now claiming to lead the #Resistance? And a few other questions.

AEP 91: Kung Fu Yoga – US withdraws from Afghanistan and panics about China, with Carl Zha

US withdraws from Afghanistan and panics about China, with Carl Zha

Another episode of Kung Fu Yoga with Carl Zha, where we talk about the Indian and Chinese angles on world events. With the US withdrawing from Afghanistan like thieves in the night, the greatest agent of chaos may be gone (or mostly gone, for now) and country’s neighbours (Iran, Russia, the Central Asian republics, Pakistan, India, and China) will be playing a bigger role in the future, and so, evidently, will the Taliban. We talk about the differences we see between the Taliban of today and the Taliban of 2001 in terms of the movement’s apparent support in rural areas and ability to win many of them over without fighting; in terms of the Taliban’s perhaps independence from Pakistan; and in terms of the Taliban’s diplomatic agenda in the region. With the US panic about China taking up where the US left off, we consider China’s relationship with Pakistan (eg., the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and whether that has any insight to offer about what the China-Afghanistan relationship might look like in terms of priorities like infrastructure, the Belt & Road initiative, and China’s concerns with stability and terrorism on the border with Xinjiang. As well as India’s seeming irrelevance to the situation.

Civilizations 36b: Islam & Imperialism 3b – the rest of the Anglo-Afghan Wars

From the Army of Revenge to the Durand Line

A strategically bankrupt expedition by a vindictive, racist, imperialist power to conduct a series of genocidal atrocities on a Muslim population solely because they dared to fight back. And no, we aren’t talking about last week – we conclude the Islam & Imperialism segment of Civilizations with the Anglo-Afghan wars starting with the Army of Revenge in 1842 and going down to the fixing of the Durand Line. What could go wrong?

Civilizations 36a: Islam & Imperialism pt3 – The First Anglo Afghan War aka the Invasion of Afghanistan

The First Anglo-Afghan War and background

The British imperialists made much of the bad experiences they had invading and pillaging Afghanistan beginning in 1839, coining terms like the “Graveyard of Empires” and inspiring racist poets like Kipling. We tell the story straight – a bloody imperialist aggression designed to set back Afghan society. Still, the story has some unforgettable characters – from Shah Shuja to Dost Mohamed, from McNaghten and Burnes to Mohan Lal Kashmiri. The crimes, the atrocities, the massacres, the racism and the foolishness of the imperialists and the calculations on the Afghan side, in this long instalment in the Islam & Imperialism series of Civilizations. This is a long one, and we didn’t quite get to the end of the first war! 

AEP 73: Pakistan’s Hybrid Civil-Military Regime, with Saadia Toor

A sweep of Pakistan’s history, including the Left this time

I’m joined by the Anti-Empire Project’s special correspondent for Pakistan, Saadia Toor, professor at CSI CUNY and author of the State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. Saadia gives us a quick sweep of Pakistan’s history including the key role of the left in the many twists and turns. We get caught up all the way to Imran Khan’s hybrid civil-military regime and the inspiring youth-led Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).

The Afghans are Coming!

There’s a phrase that keeps popping up in discussions of Syria. It’s a string of words that always appear together, without variation, which is a tell for propaganda phrases and talking points. In the context of Libya, there was a line about “African Mercenaries”. The one I keep hearing about Syria is that Assad has “Afghan Shia militias” fighting for him.

The phrase caught my attention, because when I heard it used, it was by people who don’t know Afghanistan. The country has sectarian and linguistic differences: there are two official languages (Dari and Pashto), there are different self-identified ethnic groups (Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara), there are rural-urban differences, and there are differences of sect within the main religion (Sunni and Shia Islam). For the first few centuries of its existence, including the first several decades of the 20th century, Afghanistan’s leaders tried to create a nationalism that transcended these differences. Then came the war and the foreign interventions that played the differences up for short-term gain, destroying the country so thoroughly that it now sits near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index.

The phrase “Afghan Shia” doesn’t mean much in Afghanistan. There are rare exceptions, but if you are talking about “Afghan Shia”, you are probably talking about the Hazara, a group of people traditionally oppressed along caste and ethnic lines. The one book many Westerners have read about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, prominently features the oppression and violence against a Hazara boy, a friend of the protagonist. During the Afghan wars, sectarian warlords and the Taliban singled Hazara communities out for massacres and atrocities. Millions of Afghans fled to Iran during these wars — many of them Hazara – and were mistreated there, often charged with trumped-up crimes and even executed en masse. Nonetheless, there is a long-term community of Afghans living in Iran, many of whom are Hazara.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, there have developed in Afghanistan armed Hazara groups, even Hazara warlords. These groups are mainly preoccupied with self-defense and survival: against the Taliban, other sectarian warlords, and now even ISIS in Afghanistan, which was why I was suspicious of the claims of “Afghan Shia Militia” fighting in Syria. I asked friends in the Afghan diaspora if they thought it was possible. Some thought yes, though none had heard of the phenomenon from the Afghan media or community.

I came across two sources about these Afghan Shia Militia in the footnotes of Christopher Phillips’s book, The Battle for Syria. One, an article from May 11, 2015 in Der Speigel by Christoph Reuter, is titled “The Afghans Fighting Assad’s War“. It is hard to tell whether the fact that Germany hosts a big Afghan refugee and diaspora community (or whether racist resentment against Muslim refugees in Germany is often focused on the Afghan community) played a helpful role in finding the hook for this one, but its dubious analysis is on display more clearly in other ways. After an evocative scene with “Murad”, cowering in a pile of Syrian rubble having followed his Iranian officer’s orders, Reuter provides some paragraphs of context.

“The Assad family dictatorship is running out of soldiers and is becoming increasingly reliant on mercenaries. Indeed, from the very beginning the Assad regime had an opponent that it could never really defeat: Syria’s demography.

“In order to prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah began fighting for Assad as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis — Shiites from all over, on whom the regime is increasingly dependent. But the longer the war continues without victory, the more difficult it has become for Assad’s allies to justify the growing body count.”

Of course, “Syria’s demography” is only an unbeatable enemy if the demographer is a devoted sectarian who assumes that all Sunni Syrians are against Assad and all Shia, Alawi, or Christian Syrians are for Assad. Such a demographer would be at home in ISIS, in al Qaeda, or in the Saudi Kingdom and if that demographer were correct, yes, because Sunni Syrians are the majority, demography wins. But a full sectarian split in Syria remains an aspiration of ISIS and al-Qaeda, not a reality, despite what Reuter writes.

As for Reuter’s picture of “Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis – Shiites from all over”, this is a distorted mirror image of the reality, which is that foreign fighters “from all over” have come to Syria to join ISIS and fight against the Syrian government. Drinking in the sectarianism of Wahhabi clerics from the Saudi Kingdom, they hate the Shia and find religious rationales for every manner of atrocity against them. On the other side, Shia militias from Iraq are well-documented in Syria, and given the geography and the connections between the two countries (and the fact that their enemy, ISIS, operates in both countries), it makes sense. So, too, does the involvement of Hizbollah of Lebanon. But the recruitment of sectarian fighters “from all over”? That’s an ISIS/al-Qaeda cause, not a Shia one.

It is not until a few paragraphs later, though, that Reuter gets into some really ugly imagery.

“Up to 2 million Hazara live in Iran, most of them as illegal immigrants. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdars — as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are called — have recruited thousands for the war in Syria over the last year and a half.”

An “inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate”! By that logic, surely Iran’s population of 79 million would be even more inexhaustible! Some of these millions might be children, elderly, not military-aged, but no matter. Might Iran, whose interest is for Assad to actually win the war, be interested in sending some of its own half-million strong military with some training, equipment, maybe even language skills, rather than recruiting from Afghan refugee camps? Obviously not, for in Reuter’s world, the only qualification is desperation.

Reuter then returns to Murad’s story – a refugee arrested for a petty crime in Iran and offered amnesty if he would serve as cannon fodder in Syria. He then repeats the description of an anonymous Syrian rebel, who says the Afghans are “incredibly tenacious, run faster than we do and keep shooting even after they have been surrounded” – like machines, Reuter adds for colour. He outlines what happened to Murad for him to end up under rubble and how he wants to go back to Afghanistan, “to the misery he once tried to escape.” As he hangs out with the rebel commanders who are trying to arrange prisoner exchanges – rebels for Afghan prisoners — Reuter hears that the Syrian government officer Colonel Suhail al-Hassan, aka the Tiger, says “You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.” An interesting response indeed for a commander whose army is “running out of soldiers”.

In the end, Reuter’s sole sources are anonymous rebels and “Murad”, whose story can’t be checked. The rest is bald assertion and “the Shia are coming” fear-mongering.

Another source is a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which Israel Lobby scholar Stephen M. Walt has called” a key organization in the Israel Lobby”. This report, “Iran’s Afghan Shiite Fighters in Syria”, is written by Phillip Smyth, who also writes a blog called Hizballah Cavalcade “which focuses on Shiite Islamist militarism in the Middle East”; and author of another monograph called “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects”. In other words, expect fair and balanced on this one.

Smyth begins citing the WSJ (May 22/14) that Iran was recruiting “Afghan Shiite refugees to fight in Syria” with promises of Iranian residency and $500 per month. In 2012, Smyth continues, the Free Syrian Army posted on YouTube videos of interrogations of “Afghan Shiite fighter” Mortada Hussein; in 2013, “opposition and regime social media ciriculated undconfirmed images of uniformed Afghans posing together and holding weapons. In many cases, their faces – which tended to be ethnically distinct – were clearly shown… Yet these fallen Afghans were never named.”

Despite the lack of names, Smyth has more than a few “ethnically distinct faces” to show. He cites Afghan writer Ahmad Shuja, who had written about a small refugee community of Afghans (mainly Hazara) who had been living in Syria before the conflict broke out. “Their migration to Syria occurred in several small waves,” Shuja wrote, “with most fleeing Afghanistan to escape ethno-religious persecution and a few settling in the country after their pilgrimage to the holy Shiite sites in the country.” Shuja’s article describes the dire humanitarian situation of these Afghan refugees who were displaced from their neighbourhood of Syeda Zainab in 2012, “easily identifiable by their Asiatic features and foreign accents, making them easy targets for attacks by all sides.” Shuja quotes from a letter from an Afghan refugee reporting that “Afghan Refugees are victimized of torture and they have been threatened just because they are different and they believe in a religion as called ‘Shiite’.” Based on this piece by Shuja, Smyth makes the following suggestion (my emphasis): Fighters from this refugee population appear to have followed an organizational model similar to Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), the main pro-regime Shiite brigade in Syria. What follows in Smyth’s piece is a description of LAFA, which it turns out comprises Iraqis, not Afghans.

Another source, Smyth says, is what Reuter called the “inexhaustible reserves of the desperate” – the Afghan refugee population in Iran. For this claim, Smyth cites “Iranian government-backed newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources”. And “a third and more debatable source of Afghan Shiite fighters is refugee populations in countries other than Iran and Syria”, but “real evidence of direct recruitment in Afghanistan has yet to surface.

The rest of the article is mainly speculation of what Iran could be thinking by using these fighters. There is mention of Afghans captured by Syrian rebels. Three names are offered: Reza Ismail, who “had attended Iran’s University of Mashhad” and was “beheaded by Sunni jihadist rebels”, Ali Saleihi, an Afghan refugee in Syria who joined the fight and was killed around Damascus, and the aforementioned Mortada Hossein. In other words, the report is a mix of rebel videos, rebel testimonies, mention of “Iranian newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources”, and speculation.

By 2016, some amazing numbers are being bandied around. An Iranian foreign legion apparently includes 20,000 “Afghan Shia fighters”, according to Al Jazeera. The source? Anas al-Abdah, “the secretary of the opposition Syrian Coalition’s political committee.” A Guardian report from June 2016, like many others, cites “a senior Iranian official” saying that Iran’s “Foreign Legion”, called the Fatimeyoun, has 18,000 Afghans fighting in Syria. The report acknowledges that the number could be “exaggerated” and cites “an independent Iran analyst” who thinks there are “a couple of thousand” Afghans fighting in Syria.

Maybe. But it remains impossible to get verifiable information from rebel held areas, as Patrick Cockburn wrote last year. As for the broken telephone that led a “senior Iranian official” to report tens of thousands of Afghan fighters operating in Syria and that getting reported in Western outlets like the Guardian and Gulf-Western outlets like Al-Jazeera? Again, maybe. But the certainty with which these speculations are discussed and the ready quality of the phrase, “Afghan Shia Militias”, suggests some other function at work.

The Hazara of Afghanistan are discriminated against in their country, as Hazara. They are attacked by the Taliban, massacred by ISIS, and embattled by other sectarian warlords as Shia. They are discriminated against in Iran as Afghans. They are mistreated and oppressed in Europe and North America as migrants, as refugees, and as Muslims. It seems to me that the phrase “Afghan Shia Militias” is actually about rubbing some of that racial stigma off on the Syrian government and its supporters. In that sense, the “Afghan Shia Militias” play a similar symbolic role to the myth of the “African Mercenaries” that was used to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya. Patrick Cockburn wrote about this at the time:

“The killing of so-called mercenaries in Tripoli is a case in point. Since February, the insurgents, often supported by foreign powers, claimed that the battle was between Gaddafi and his family on the one side and the Libyan people on the other. Their explanation for the large pro-Gaddafi forces was that they were all mercenaries, mostly from black Africa, whose only motive was money. In the early days of the conflict, some captured Gaddafi soldiers were shown off at press conferences as mercenaries. Amnesty International investigators discovered that all had subsequently been quietly freed since they were, in fact, undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa. But the effect of this propaganda has been to put in danger many African migrants and dark-coloured Libyans.”

Maximilien Forte, author of Slouching Towards Sirte, wrote about the “African Mercenaries” of Libya in 2011 as well:

“The “African mercenary” myth continues to be one of the most vicious of all the myths, and the most racist. Even in recent days, newspapers such as the Boston Globe uncritically and unquestioningly show photographs of black victims or black detainees with the immediate assertion that they must be mercenaries, despite the absence of any evidence. Instead we are usually provided with casual assertions that Gaddafi is “known to have” recruited Africans from other nations in the past, without even bothering to find out if those shown in the photos are black Libyans. The lynching of both black Libyans and Sub-Saharan African migrant workers has been continuous, and has neither received any expression of even nominal concern by the U.S. and NATO members, nor has it aroused the interest of the so-called “International Criminal Court”.”

Yesterday’s “African Mercenaries”, today’s “Afghan Shiite Militias”. The subtext is the same as it was with Gaddafi: if Assad has “Afghan Shiite Militias” fighting for him, what atrocity is he incapable of?

The truth is a casualty of war. Propaganda operations are some of modern warfare’s most important strategies and no rebellion could afford to neglect them. The phrase “Afghan Shiite Militias” is a tool of the war, and it is no mystery why the Gulf monarchies and the rebels they sponsor would use it. What is harder to stomach is when people who have never met an “Afghan Shiite” and have no knowledge of Afghanistan repeat the phrase.

First published on TeleSUR on May 18, 2017:

Who is ISIS afraid of? Popular outrage in Afghanistan sees the Islamic State avoiding responsibility for beheadings of families

Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital, a city of over five million people that has transformed completely since 2001. Kandahar was, and remains, a stronghold of the Taliban. The highway between Kabul and Kandahar, which passes through Wardak, Ghazni, and Zabul, is sometimes called the Highway of Death. One British journalist, writing in 2012, called it a “bomb-cratered, 300-mile long shooting gallery”. Most Afghans have no option but to travel along it. Tens of people are killed taking the highway each year.

In early 2015, survivors of the highway told journalist Samad Ali Nawazesh about the pattern of attack:“When we go off the Kabul-Kandahar highway towards Jaghoori we are accosted by many types of robbers and armed individuals. They search the passengers, rob and release some. Sometimes they behead passengers”.

Before that, in 2014, the Kabul-Behsud highway (that intersects the Kabul-Kandahar highway) had become famous as a “Death Road” where Afghanistan’s minority Hazara were specifically targeted for murder by the Taliban. The Hazara are a traditionally oppressed minority. In recent decades, they have begun a resurgence, attaining opportunities in education and employment that had traditionally been closed to them. The Taliban’s persecution of them has been partly sectarian (Hazara are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni), partly traditional oppression (trying to keep the Hazara in their lower-status place through terror). Many factions in the civil wars Afghanistan has suffered since 1979 have targeted Hazara civilians with a particular ferocity.

So, when, a few months ago, a group of Hazara civilians – four men, two women, and a child – were abducted on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, held for a month, probably by ISIS-Afghanistan (a split from the Taliban), and then beheaded, the authors of the atrocity, as well as the country’s government, may have expected the same kind of terrorized response that they have grown accustomed to.

The response was not what they expected. The families of the victims refused to bury the bodies. They marched with the coffins in Kabul.

Writing in the Swedish Feministiskt Perspektiv, Dr. Farooq Sulehria, a journalist with extensive experience in Afghanistan, described the mass protest of November 11, in which Kabul “erupted” on a scale seen “for the first time in three decades”, with a “30,000-strong rally” that “stretched over 15 kilometres.” The protest was remarkable not solely for its size: “While Hazara dominate numerically, every ethnicity is visible in the rally... Women in their thousands, sometimes carrying coffins on their shoulders, are marching at the vanguard.” The protests, Sulehria writes, sidelined the traditional Hazara leadership. “Muhammad Mohaqiq, a warlord and second deputy to CEO, as well as Karim Khalili, former vice president, were not spotted at the rally.” The Afghan diaspora also mobilized, with rallies in many cities at Afghan embassies all over the world. Among the chants there was one notable for its simplicity: “death to the Islamic State”.

And even though since November there have been more abductions of Hazaras along the highways and more people found beheaded, there are signs that the protests may have shaken both perpetrators and the government. To date, no one has taken responsibility for the murders, even though everyone holds ISIS-Afghanistan responsible.

The scale of the protests took the Afghan authorities by surprise. The protests had several new features: solidarity across Afghanistan’s Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups; their grassroots nature, sidelining the traditional warlord-type authorities; and their militancy. After a long period of official silence, Afghanistan’s president promised to take action.

Afghanistan has many traditions. Yes, some of these are conservative and religious. But one that is rarely remembered is the tradition of nationalism that united the country’s ethnic groups in the struggle for sovereignty and development – there were many mass protests on that basis in the 1970s.

Another tradition that is rarely remembered is the tradition of women’s struggles. In the spring, I wrote about the massive outpouring of rage and protest after the murder of a woman named Farkhunda outside of a mosque in Kabul. That outpouring, which also surprised both the murderers and the authorities, forced the government to act to arrest and jail some of the perpetrators.

It is too early to know if the protests of 2015 are the beginning of something bigger in Afghanistan. But there is certainly potential. Maybe enough potential to scare those who are most comfortable terrorizing others. Large numbers of people that are militant, hard to scare, and hard to divide on sectarian lines are a formidable force, one Afghanistan may see more of in 2016.

First published on TeleSUR English December 23, 2015

Syria and Afghanistan: The Limits of Bombing

Just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. planes bombed a hospital run by the extremely credible, competent international organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in the country’s north, in the city of Kunduz. The bombing was, apparently, requested by the Afghan government, who had lost the city to the Taliban and whose initial counterattack had failed.

Fourteen years before, the U.S. invasion of 2001 had the explicit goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Taliban. Fourteen years and thousands of lives later, the Taliban are still here, and are still able to take a city well outside of their traditional zone of influence in the south. There are many causes for this failure. Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book “Descent into Chaos” about “Operation Evil Airlift,” in which the Taliban’s Pakistani patrons were allowed to escape to Pakistan in 2001. The people running the Taliban went back to Pakistan, while thousands of civilians perished under the bombs.

But more important than the fact that the Taliban dispersed to Pakistan to return and fight another day was the fact that when NATO ousted the Taliban, they installed their opponents: warlords who were as misogynist and violent as the Taliban were. That reality has only slowly and partially changed despite several elections since 2001: senior posts and elected offices are still populated by the warlords, and the occupation-created Afghan army apparently shares many of the problems of corruption with the Iraqi army created by the U.S. around the same time and in approximately the same way. It is an army more efficient at enriching commanders than defending the country’s sovereignty.

2001, the year the U.S. invaded, is a key year for Afghanistan, but it was not the beginning of the horrors Afghanistan had been living. The wars of the 1980s, as the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan coalition poured ever more investment into groups of fighters who were fighting against a Russian-backed regime, were decisive. Once those fighters succeeded in regime change in 1992, they spent the next decade fighting one another and completing the destruction of the country. The Taliban had established a shaky control over most of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001.

Today, the U.S., Israel, the Saudi Kingdom, Turkey, and a few other countries are similarly pouring ever more investment into groups of fighters (some of the same groups as fought in Afghanistan, including al-Qaida) trying to change a regime in Syria. There is every reason to believe that if regime change succeeds, the winners will be al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Whether they then fight among themselves as the Afghan mujahadeen did, or consolidate an Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, they, too, will complete the destruction of their country. In a few decades, we will be looking at pictures of Syria in the 1990s and early 2000s that will be completely unrecognizable as Syria, like the 1960s and 1970s photos of Afghanistan are unrecognizable today.

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the New York Times famously called global public opinion the “second superpower”. But the anti-war movement failed and has not recovered. Anti-war principle has weakened among progressives, replaced by limited support for limited Western intervention in specific cases, where bombs might be able to do some good. Numerous progressive voices that might have been expected to take an anti-war stance supported bombing and regime change in Libya in 2011 and continue to support regime change in Syria today. Some even cite Libya as a success story.

I have seen writers who I respect arguing or retweeting that because Syria has had many more deaths and refugees than Libya since 2011, overthrowing Assad (the “how” of this overthrow remains unspecified) would have prevented the refugee crisis. The counterfactual is also presented: that without regime change in Libya in 2011, Libya would have produced a refugee crisis of the same magnitude as Syria had.

I have read other progressive writers arguing that the “world’s powers” should have set a “red line” for Assad much sooner than they did, and if they had done so, again, the Syria crisis would have been averted.

The trouble with this analysis is the assumption that Syria’s regime existed at the whim of the “world’s powers” – that these “world’s powers” could, once the “red line” was set, press a button and exchange Assad for a democratic regime that respects human rights. It is this flawed assumption that leads to magical thinking about what the West can do in countries that it bombs.

Vijay Prashad has argued that the Libyan regime was already collapsing when NATO’s bombs arrived to finish it off. The Libyan armed groups, for which NATO provided the air force, committed massacres after their victories in Sirte and elsewhere. These armed groups are still an ongoing concern, as the U.S. knows. And there were many local and international consequences of what happened in Libya in 2011. One of these was that powers outside of the West, especially Russia, saw how seamlessly Western support for “moderate rebels” led to regime change.

Syria’s regime was not collapsing when the West started backing the rebellions there. Syria is, evidently, not Libya. But not for lack of trying by the West, and its Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish allies. Regime change has been the goal, but only chaos has been the result. There is a lesson to be learned from these decades of regime change. Twelve years since the invasion of Iraq, 25 since the first U.S. war on Iraq. Fourteen years since the invasion of Afghanistan, 35 since the Western backing of the Afghan mujahadeen. The outcomes: the Islamic State group and the Taliban ruling over de-developed, devastated areas, corrupt governments extracting wealth from the rest of the country, with the U.S. occasionally flying over and bombing something – a wedding here, a hospital there. If Libya looks different from this in a decade or two – and that is far from certain – it will be in spite of NATO’s bombs, not because of them.

People who don’t like these outcomes should not put faith in these means. The West’s bombs are instruments of chaos.

First published on TeleSUR English: