This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012


From November 2008; and four years later it seems more prescient than I could have imagined

The official line, obviously, is clear: Afghanistan is the terror centre of the world, and the job should be done right this time. Osama bin Laden, wherever he may be, has to be tracked down and killed; and then, by implication, the war against the Taliban can be won, everyone can go home, and peace of a kind fall over the world.

As with all oversimplifications, it’s a puerile line of argument, and in this case reduces a highly complex situation to the level of a black hat/white hat Western. In fact, the situation is beyond complex; it’s attained a condition so intricate as to be virtually beyond solving.

Fourteen months ago, on this blog, I remember writing about the inevitable return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that they may have had tactical reverses but utilised those to strengthen themselves to win the strategic war, and that the defeat in 2001 was something that the Taliban needed just in order to survive. With apologies to those of you who read the former post, here, I’ll repeat some of the things I’d said then:

Cut to Afghanistan, 2001. Approximately 90% or more of the country was under Taliban control. Just pockets in the extreme north and the Panjshir valley were still with the warlords of the northern Alliance, but these areas had held out so long that they were virtually impregnable.

In the Taliban-controlled south, however, things were not exactly great. The Taliban were under extreme economic pressure due to the mass sanctions against them. Drought ravaged the land. All the fantasies about Unocal-approved gas pipelines from Central Asia had been abandoned because the Americans no longer backed the Taliban as they had in the early days. And, where the Taliban had managed to earn substantial amounts from the sale of poppy products (opium, morphine and heroin) earlier, Mullah Omar had banned poppy growth and the Taliban had almost eradicated it. Yeah – there are some positive things to being an absolute ruler. You can get some things done.

Now, while in the earlier years the people had supported the Taliban simply because they needed security against the murderous and criminal Mujahideen “rulers”, once the security had been provided they needed something else. Once people can live free of the fear of being robbed, raped, or shot if they walked down to the corner shop, they begin to ask for more. Even if you’re a pure Islamic holy warrior host who won’t allow polluting things like culture, you still have to provide food, clothing and shelter for the population, and employment, and education, and other intangibles like satisfaction with life. Right?

It would be difficult for anyone, given the circumstances. For the Taliban, it was an impossibility. Jehadis are piss-poor rulers. Revolutions are all very fine when you’re fighting Western cultural pollution and Mujahideen bandits, but after a time, when all the women are in burqas and all the men have fist length beards, you have to begin filling their bellies and curing their illnesses. The Taliban might have got somewhere had they had something in the way of ruling talent, but they danced to the tune of Mullah Omar, a financial genius of such proportions that he kept the entire national treasury in two tin trunks under his bed in Kandahar. One trunk was full of Afghanis, the other of US dollars (vide Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords). Some whiz-kid, yes. And while we’re about it remember that Islam already outlaws such things as lending money for interest and so on.

So, it isn’t too surprising that by 2001 the Taliban were creaking and nearing collapse. I’m sure that if they didn’t have the residual civil war to keep them glued together, they would have fallen apart then. As it was, the relative moderates among the Taliban were not exactly happy with Omar’s policies. They didn’t like the Arabs of Osama bin Laden, whom they considered unwelcome foreign interlopers and a millstone round their neck. They wanted engagement with the world, not confrontation. They even, to this end, tried to signal to the US that they would be ready for bin Laden to be conveniently “grabbed” – but the US refused to act.

Then what happened? 11/9, or, as the Americans put it, 9/11. NATO invaded Afghanistan, and with the help of the Northern Alliance, “toppled” the Taliban. It wasn’t all that much of a “toppling”, the Taliban put up remarkably little fight, melting away into the tribal areas and waiting for the occupation to make a mess of things. Which it obligingly and promptly did, including indiscriminately bombing civilians, handing the nation back to warlords, and moving on to the invasion of Iraq, leaving the Taliban structure intact to fight another day.

And, therefore, today, outside the confines of Kabul, the Taliban have built right back up again, repositioned themselves as "nationalists", and the people, who hate and fear the occupation forces with excellent reason, are turning again to the Taliban as their saviours. There are excellent reasons to think the Taliban will be back in Kabul in some form in the not too distant future, perhaps as part of a “national unity” government, but back, yes, and more radicalised than ever. That’s what you get by gratuitously attacking an enemy which was about to implode anyway.

OK, back to the present. Not even NATO now pretends the Taliban aren’t a major threat. Of course they are...but who are the Taliban, and where do they operate?

A few home truths: in 2001, the Taliban were limited to (most of) Afghanistan and a few staging areas around the Pashtun localities of Pakistan.

Today, the Taliban are in de facto control of most of Southern Afghanistan and have made deep inroads into Pakistan, where they have fought the Pakistani army to a standstill and control so much of the northern stretches of the nation that it has become more of a haven to them than their old holdings in Afghanistan were.

In 2001, the Taliban were hated by most Afghans in the same way as the Khmer Rouge was hated by most Cambodians, and for the same reason. Revolutionary fervour does not feed the hungry nor clothe the naked. When the Northern Alliance tanks drove into Kabul, magazine covers depicted joyous crowds cheering their throats out.

Today, the Taliban are considered heroic nationalistic freedom fighters; and the erstwhile liberators are back to looting and murdering, or have been quietly put on the shelf.

In 2001, the Taliban were impoverished and virtually bankrupt, in charge of a nation without agriculture, industry, or anything to earn revenue, even illegally (remember the poppy cultivation had been stopped).

Today, the Taliban are flush with funds from the huge poppy crops which Afghanistan produces, and can pay their fighters far more than the so-called Afghan national army can pay its troops.

In 2001, the Taliban were a relatively homogeneous organisation, which could have been dealt with by  negotiating with a fairly small group of mullahs, Omar at their head.

Today, the Taliban are a medley of various groups of differing ideologies and viewpoints, with no central leadership, no organised structure, and no way of negotiating with them all one one platform, even if one should want to.

Back in 2001, the Taliban were a regressive organisation, against women’s education, music, etc, and easy to categorise as “evil” (but wait – isn’t the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia against the same things, more or less?).

Today, the Taliban speak of the need to let women study and work, and Taliban themselves use TV, the internet, and all the modern tools they used to shun.

In 2001, the Taliban were tottering, and it needed, to quote Hitler, “one good kick and the whole rotten structure  would come crashing down.”

Today, it’s hard to see how the Taliban can lose.

Let’s, before I move on, get a few things more out of the way.

First, you can’t bomb the Taliban into defeat. You can’t bomb it into defeat because in bombing it, you also bomb civilians, even if only unwittingly (and there’s no particular reason to believe the bombing of civilians is being done unwittingly). Since you’re operating in one of the most highly militarised societies in the world, where virtually everyone owns a gun, there’s no clear distinction between a civilian and a militant anyway. Today’s peaceable farmer can just walk into his house and take his AK47 to blow you away tomorrow if you come around to burn his poppy fields. And because you’re operating in a tribalised society with an ancient history of blood feuds, kill one civilian and you run the risk of the entire tribe going over to the enemy.

Also, the US has shown an incredible slowness to learn about Afghanistan. There is no excuse, after seven years of war, to be still bombing weddings and tribal gatherings, and saying that the militants were using the “civilians as cover” just won’t do. Of course the militants were living in and around the civilians. For reasons I just talked about, there is no clear distinction any more between a civilian and a militant fighter. Since you can’t kill everyone, it seems logical that the better option would be not to unnecessarily piss people off, because when you kill one man, you create a dozen new opponents. But that seems to be something beyond the understanding of the average NATO officer.

What, one might ask, are the Taliban supposed to do to qualify as “not hiding among civilians”? Line up in the open with rifles and be shot down in droves by long range artillery and air strikes?

Not that the pathetic compensation amount offered those “killed by mistake” by the NATO/US forces in Afghanistan has achieved anything more. As this site points out, the US spent ten times more to rehabilitate sea otters than it spends to succour the family an Afghan civilian killed as “collateral damage”.

No, you can’t bomb the Taliban into defeat. Can you, perhaps, defeat them by flooding the country with troops?

There is one fundamental fact about guerrilla warfare: if the guerrillas avoid being defeated, they win. No guerrilla army can destroy a conventional army by open warfare. You can flood the country with troops, all you’re going to do is present the guerrillas with the targets on which they can mount more attacks. And if you do manage to crush the country into a form of pacification, you’d better be willing to maintain that level of occupation, and pay for it, or else as soon as the pressure is off the guerrillas will raise their heads once more.

Contrary to popular supposition, Afghanistan has been conquered by invaders many times. In fact, I’d be hard put to name an invader who failed to conquer it. But nobody could hold on to it with anything like an economic level of force, because, whatever their many faults, the Afghans just won’t be ruled. That’s all it takes to defeat the most well-entrenched occupation – the refusal to be ruled.

No, you can’t beat the Taliban by flooding the damn country with weapons and troops.

What, actually, is the situation in Afghanistan today? The Taliban control virtually all the southern half of the country. Former UNOCAL employee Hamid Karzai has been reduced to rather less than the mayor of Kabul, and, years after his alleged victory, still depends on American mercenary bodyguards to stop his own people tearing him to pieces. Kabul itself is virtually cut off from the rest of the country, and when Taliban commanders wish to enter the city, incognito, they do. As for the non-Taliban parts of the country, they have fallen back under the control of the warlords, and these warlords (the erstwhile Northern Alliance) have to be kept in good humour to stop them going over to the Taliban. As for the Taliban, they are divided and disorganised, united only by a desire to eject the occupation.

How can you fight a war under these circumstances? How can you negotiate your way out of a war under these circumstances?

It’s easy to call the Taliban “terrorists”. It’s way easy because it plays on the post 11/9 “all-terrorists-are-evildoer-Muslims” theme, but it’s just not true. It’s not true because the Taliban use of terror is to maintain, not attempt to secure, control. They have always terrorised in the fashion of state terror, beheading collaborators, shooting malcontents, hanging “enemies of the state”. That isn’t terror when practised by the abovementioned Saudis, and it isn’t terror when the Zionazi pseudostate of “Israel” uses mass punishment tactics against Palestinians or carpet-bombs Lebanon. But the Saudis are US allies, and the “Israelis” are not just allies (albeit informally) but have the Holocaust to hide behind. So it makes it all right for them. The Taliban, despite the fact that they were in Washington’s good books till the late nineties, have no such excuse. But although they remain a thoroughgoing bunch of nasties, it doesn’t make them terrorists, either.

Again, how can you fight a war like that?

By invading Pakistan? I’m aware that Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is a US puppet, but he is also answerable (being a democratically elected leader) to the people of Pakistan, and they don’t like the US, not at all, at all. And if anyone wants to launch an invasion of Pakistan (attention, St Barack of the Winds of Change) – the nation is infinitely better armed than the Afghans ever were. How many wars can one fight?

All righty, just let’s imagine that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are both alive and sitting in some cosy cave with Mullah Omar. Let’s imagine that someone manages to track them down and finish them all off, to worldwide exultation. So what?

 Will that defeat Al Qaeda, a completely decentralised group of organisations, split into a myriad of independent cells? Of course not.

Will that have the slightest effect on the Taliban, who have never had any direct affiliation to  Al Qaeda anyway and who no longer have any use for Omar? Not on your life.

So how will flooding Afghanistan with soldiers and trying to hunt down Osama bin Laden help matters? In the elegant words of some UN staffer in Kabul, “You can’t make a woman more pregnant by having several men f*ck her”.

Someone should really ask St Barack the question.

In case anyone wants to know what I suggest, it’s this: quit the whole scene, let the Afghans sort out their problems, and let the Taliban take out Al Qaeda, as left to themselves, they will.

But, of course, that leaves the whole question of those lovely pipelines from Central Asia unsettled. And that was the entire not-too-hidden rationale behind the entire Afghan invasion, though we aren’t supposed to talk of it now.

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