The regional alternative to escalation in Afghanistan


More U.S. troops are being prepared for Afghanistan. The President charged them with defeating or degrading the Taliban; building the Afghan National Army. We have thrown in our lot with Hamid Karzai's government. Its association with warlords is uncontestable (his own brother is an opium kingpin). Our enemy is the Taliban, which recruits a family each time we accidentally kill one civilian. And we have offered the coldest shoulder to the forces of progress, like the former parliamentarian Malalai Joya. Obama's enunciated goals seem impossible. Departure in 2011 is a chimera; it is thrown like magic to assuage those with anxiety about a long-term commitment. Withdrawal will be silenced by the monstrous anger of guns.

The United States-NATO Occupation has ill-defined signposts, and those that are defined will be difficult to reach. There is a better alternative to escalation, which is to make the stability of Afghanistan a regional responsibility, and to withdraw in a very timely fashion. The regional partners with the greatest stake in the stability of Afghanistan, such as Iran, India, Pakistan, China and the various Central Asian republics, will not begin a genuine process if the U.S.-NATO Occupation persists. Why would the Chinese or the Iranians get their hands dirty if this means that their work will reward the U.S. with military bases at Bagram and Kabul? A prerequisite for their entry into the process is the withdrawal of the US, and a pledge that no permanent military bases will remain in the region. This is not a marker that the US is willing to put on the table. It is committed to empire. Obama said at West Point, "We have no interest in occupying your country." That is true if the definition of occupation is a 19th century one. But a 21st century occupation is conducted via military bases and extra-territorial privileges, by free trade agreements and dispensations for certain corporations. The high walls of the bases and the hum of the drones is enough to distort the fine sentiments in Obama's phrase.

When the Taliban was in power, 1996-2001, the regional states formed the Shanghai Cooperation Alliance (it was the Shanghai Five in 1996, and by 2001, the SCO). The members included the various Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, Russia, and China with observer status for India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia. The SCO was formed to create trust on the borders of the new Republics, which were once part of the USSR, and China. In July 2001, the SCO acknowledged that the "cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremisms is the instability in Afghanistan." They pledged to work together to undermine the Taliban, and the various political Islamists in the region. It was to be a long process, but not one without possibility. None of the neighbors wanted to see the Taliban emirate exported; they had national interests at stake. And they had influence over a landlocked country whose only ally was Pakistan, itself beholden to China for diplomatic cover and much else. Pressure could have come, but time did not permit.

A few days after 9/11, elements in the Taliban reached out to the U.S. They wanted political cover to turn over Osama Bin Laden, and to save their own emirate. This was an important opening, but the Bush administration decided to snub them. In mid-October, the Taliban's nunber three, Haji Abdul Kabir told reporters. "We would be ready to hand [Bin Laden] over to a third country" if the bombing ended. Once more, Bush demurred. It was not his style to negotiate. This is when the Afghan war was lost: not at Tora Bora but at a press conference at Jalalabad. If the U.S. had taken the Taliban up on this offer, Bin Laden would have been in custody in a third country and tried in an international court. Instead, the U.S. backed one group of nasty warlords (the Northern Alliance) against the Taliban, throwing to the wind the progressive forces within Afghan society. The SCO was also disregarded. This was a costly mistake.

The SCO continues to have influence in the region. This summer, the Taliban leadership sent a letter to the SCO, asking it to intervene against the Occupation. These are the leaders of the insurgency on the ground, not the "moderates" who decamped to Saudi Arabia for a Mecca meeting with their funders and the Karzai government (as reported in Asharq al-Awsat in October 2008). Those who went to Mecca, such as Mullah Mohammed Tayeb Agha and Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, are not linked to the Taliban resurgence (indeed, its spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied that they spoke for the Taliban). On the other hand, the letter to the SCO came from the Quetta Shura Taliban, the inner sanctum controlled by Mullah Omar. Since September 2009, the Quetta Shura has been trying to play up its "nationalist" credentials, including distancing itself from al-Qaeda, whose own regional leaders have continued their tirade against nationalism of all kinds. Mullah Omar's Eid message on September 19 called the Taliban "a robust Islamic and nationalist movement," a statement that earned a rebuke from the leading Salafi cleric, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The Salafis worry that the Taliban will go the way of Khalid Meshal's Hamas. No division of the umma, the Muslim nation, for the hard-core jihadis. There is daylight between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Which is why it reached out to the SCO. Of course the SCO is sitting on its hands, but it is able. The regional solution will be difficult, given that it would have to scrub off the effects of thirty years of warfare. The SCO is not going to welcome the Taliban with open arms and hand over Kabul to Mullah Omar. After 2001, the U.S. welcomed the warlords into Kabul, handed them the keys to the kingdom and gave them a tacit amnesty for their grievous crimes (even making Ahmed Shah Masood, a ghastly warlord, the nation's icon). Such a positive fate does not seem to be on the horizon for the Taliban. It will come above ground with much less fanfare. The Taliban and the warlords obviously command a following in Afghanistan (something that was not true in the 1970s). Thanks to U.S., Saudi and Pakistani funding and assistance, the warlords and the Taliban have become a social force and have to be combated politically. The U.S. and the Saudis cannot broker their entry into the political process. But the SCO has a better chance.

Right after the Taliban fled in 2001, the US convened a "donor's conference" in Bonn, where Europe, Japan and the US gathered to promise money for the reconstruction of the country. No one invited the SCO players. This has not changed. Europe, Japan and the U.S., the countries with the least legitimacy in Afghanistan are the ones calling the shots. Rather than conference calls with Brussels (the NATO headquarters), and Paris and London, and Kabul (with the shaky government of Karzai), the Obama administration should have called a political conference of the SCO, to see what it would have taken to hand over the Afghan imbroglio to them. The SCO met in Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) on Nov. 24 to discuss the problem of the region, and made all kinds of suggestions. None of these are operational till the US-NATO withdraws from Kabul. China is the only power in the region with the wealth and expertise to genuinely rebuild Afghanistan (people might criticize its development policy in Africa, but mark this: Chinese investment enters countries in Africa without IMF-type conditionalities and Chinese engineers and managers live in modest conditions, not creating the kind of high-overhead NGO lifestyles of the European and U.S. humanitarian workers).

India and Pakistan have competing interests in Afghanistan. Their Cold War is fought between their Afghan proxies. If the SCO were responsible for the situation, India and Pakistan would be forced to work together. India's sober reaction to the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and to the two bombings of its Kabul embassy have shown the Pakistani civilian leadership that it is prepared to negotiate in a serious fashion. On Dec. 2, the Indian government announced, for the first time in decades, that it would begin to withdraw troops from Jammu and Kashmir. The moment is nigh for the Pakistani civilian leadership to put itself at the center of diplomatic discussions in the region, to isolate the ISI and the Pakistani military who have otherwise defined Pakistan's Afghan policy. But an escalation is going to set this backwards: more bloodshed in the northern borderlands of Pakistan will inflame the population, and it might set in motion a forward policy not only into Afghanistan but also its twin, Kashmir. If all this happens, I fear for the future of South Asia. In a decade it will resemble West Asia. Both broken by empire.

The U.S. media has portrayed the escalation of the occupation in a very simplistic fashion: either the U.S. solves the problem, or the Taliban returns. This is a false choice, one that assumes that only the U.S. can act, the White Knight riding in to save the world. America is not exceptional. Others are ready. But they don't want to act unless they have a commitment that the U.S. is not going to use their blood and treasure to build its empire.

This article originally appeared on Counterpunch, reprinted with permission from the author.

Photo: / CC BY-SA 2.0


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  • "jailed""

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/10/2010 5:35am (6 years ago)

  • It is that time of year that we celebrate the hounded,jail,battered and murdered human rights activists,MLK.
    Fresh out of the cramped seats of a packed house at the auditorium of Harris-Stowe State University,St. Louis,MO,where two,U.S. congress-persons,Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay Jr.,scores of local and state elected officials,many civil and human rights activists assembled,"Celebrating Diversity for the Common Good",I have inadvertently had a stack of petitions,bulk headed"DEMAND CIVILIAN SOLUTIONS FOR AFGHANISTAN"fall from my cloak pocket.
    This petition,available from United for Peace and Justice .Org,ends with a proposal and a command which I will quote here:
    "Congress should begin debate on civilian alternatives to a failed military-based approach to bringing peace and security to the region,starting with Congressional hearings." Then,there is space afforded for petitioners to put Name,Address,Zip Code and E-Mail Address.
    The command that follows is:
    "When this sheet is filled,fax it to Emily Taylor at (310) 204-0174,or mail it to:

    Emily Taylor
    Brave New Foundation
    10510 Culver Blvd.
    Culver City,CA 90232

    At the very bottom of the petition appears: and Labor Donated

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/10/2010 5:24am (6 years ago)

  • This is a great and very useful article. I have started to route it among my peace contacts. Too often in the peace movement we oppose war as the "solution" for problems, without articulating concrete alternatives. This article puts forward information which is not in general circulation, and advocates something concrete and practical as part of an alternative solution.

    I think another important part of the response to terrorist acts, and crimes against humanity in general, would be for the United States to finally ratify the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court. 110 nations have already done so, but we are among the handful of states which have not. This would only be one part of a broader approach, but I think that responding to acts of terrorism through international cooperation, police work and application of law, rather than as an excuse for invasion and occupation, would be a huge step in curbing imperialist adventures and increasing the chances for peace and security at home and abroad.

    President Clinton signed the treaty, but it has never been ratified by the US Senate. President Bush said that the US would never join the International Criminal Court because it could be used to prosecute the American leadership for war crimes!

    When he was running for the Senate in 2004, then-citizen Obama indicated his support for joining the International Criminal Court, and I presume his position is the same today. We should call upon the President to move us forward on this point, and bring the Treaty to the floor of the Senate for ratification at the earliest opportunity.

    Posted by Tim Yeager, 12/08/2009 9:10am (6 years ago)

  • Barack Obama and the Democrats have refused to deliver peace.

    Barack Obama and the Democrats haven't delivered the kind of health care reform working people want and need:

    Single-payer universal health care with a vastly expanded public health care system... no-fee/no-premium, comprehensive, all-inclusive, prenatal to grave; publicly funded, publicly administered and publicly delivered.­..

    Instead of real health care reform we are getting more war like this escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

    Barack Obama hasn't solved the health care mess in this country and he is going to spend trillions of dollars on an imperialist occupation of the country we should have kept out of in the first place.

    The alternative is to let people solve their own problems; no one asked the United States to stick its big nose into the affairs of Afghanistan.

    We got a Wall Street health insurance salesman for president who now thinks he can smile. stick his nose in the air and point his finger around and sell the world a never-ending war.­..

    It's time to tell Barack Obama and the Democrats:

    No peace and no real health care reform; no more votes.

    Fund health care not imperialist wars.

    Expand the public health care system instead of expanding and escalating the war in Afghanistan.

    It's all about "accountability" which is fundamental to democracy.

    If Barack Obama and the Democrats don't understand the meaning of the word "accountability;" give them a dictionary not your support or your vote.

    The United States has no business intervening in the affairs of this region of the world when it can't even solve the basic human needs of our own people.

    Get the American troops out of Afghanistan and agree to write the United Nations a check for whatever it costs to rebuild the country to where the Soviet Union left it... and the Soviets left it in pretty darn good shape... they were helping the Afghan people build up their own country the way they wanted to... the progressives who cared about the people ended up with their heads on flag-poles courtesy of the CIA. The CIA helped to butcher the entire progressive leadership of Afghanistan and now the United States is propping up a government consisting of a bunch of dope dealing crooks and thieves... they kind of remind me of Wall Street investors.

    Posted by Alan Maki, 12/06/2009 5:05pm (6 years ago)

  • How do we get there from here? The regional solution needs a global environment, the United Nations being part of it. The political forces in the US for such an approach are not developed yet. Global economic recovery and global warming seem to be the areas of greatest global cooperation, world peace sentiment is another tremendous force.

    Perhaps speaking of a greater UN role in peace keeping with regional participation in social/economic development and diplomacy would have some political resonance here with millions?, then there is the question of how the Afghanistani people(s) are represented?

    Posted by Rosalio Munoz, 12/05/2009 10:48pm (6 years ago)

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