By Eric Margolis | July 30, 2008
NEW YORK -- During his triumphant European tour, Senator Barack Obama again urged NATO's members to send more troops to Afghanistan and called the conflict there, "the central front in the war on terror." Europe's response ranged from polite evasion to downright frosty.
It is unfortunate that Obama has adopted President George Bush's misleading terminology, "war on terror," to describe the conflict between the United States and anti-American groups in the Muslim world. Like many Americans, he and his foreign policy advisors are sorely misinformed about the reality of Afghanistan.
One understands Obama's need to respond with martial élan to rival John McCain's chest-thumping about "I know how to win wars." Polls put McCain far ahead of Obama when it comes to being a war leader. But Obama's recent proposal to send at least 7,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and his threats to attack Pakistan's territory, and warnings about Islamabad's nuclear forces, show poor judgment and lack of knowledge.
The United States is no longer "fighting terrorism" in Afghanistan, as Bush, Obama and McCain insist. The 2001 U.S. invasion was a legitimate operation against al-Qaeda, a group that properly fit the role of a "terrorist organization." But, contrary to the White House's wildly inflated claims that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda was a worldwide conspiracy, it never numbered more than 300 hard core members. Bin Laden and his jihadis long ago scattered into all corners of Pakistan and elsewhere. Only a handful remain in Afghanistan.
Today, 80,000 U.S. and NATO troops are waging war against the Taliban. Having accompanied the mujahidin fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980's, witnessed the birth of Taliban, and penned a book about the Afghan struggle, "War at the Top of the World," I can attest that Taliban is not a terrorist organization as the U.S. and its allies wrongly claim.
Taliban was created in the early 1990's during the chaos and civil war that engulfed Afghanistan after the Soviet invaders were driven out. Drawn from Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan, who make up half that nation's population, Taliban was a religious movement that took up arms to battle the Afghan Communists, stop the wide-scale rape of Afghan women, and halt banditry and the drug trade. Both Pakistan and the U.S. secretly aided Taliban.
The ranks of Taliban were filled with young religious students -- "talibs" -- and veteran mujahidin fighters whom the U.S. had armed and hailed as "freedom fighters." By 1996, Taliban took Kabul, driving out the Northern Alliance, the old rump of the Afghan Communist Party and its Russian-backed Tajik and Uzbek tribal supporters. Taliban, most of whom were mountaineers, imposed a draconian medievalist culture that followed traditional Pashtun tribal customs and Islamic law.
The U.S. quietly backed Taliban for possible use in Central Asia, against China in the event of war, and against Iran, a bitter foe of the Sunni Taliban. U.S. energy giants Chevron and Unocal negotiated gas and oil pipeline deals with Taliban. In 2001, Washington gave $40 million in aid to Taliban until four months before 9/11. The U.S. only turned against Taliban when, at Osama bin Laden's advice, it gave a major pipeline deal to an Argentine consortium rather than an American one.
Everything that happens in Afghanistan is based on tribal politics. Taliban came from the heart of the Pashtun tribal grouping, the world's largest tribe which also accounts for up to 20% of Pakistan's population. Tribal and clan loyalties trump all political alliances.
The Taliban leadership had nothing to do with 9/11, a plot that, according to European prosecutors, was hatched in Germany and Spain, not Afghanistan. Nor did it have anything to do with subsequent attacks ascribed to al-Qaeda. After 9/11, Secretary of State Colin Powell vowed to published a White paper demonstrating Osama bin Laden's culpability in the attacks. Curiously, the promised paper was never issued.
Osama bin Laden was a national hero of the anti-Soviet struggle, wounded six times in battle. Taliban's collective leadership, in keeping with the Pashtun code of hospitality and honor, refused U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden until Washington issued a proper extradition request with evidence of bin Laden's guilt and promised him a fair trial. Washington refused to go through legal channels and, instead, invaded Afghanistan.
Fast forward to 2008. Today, U.S. and NATO forces are not fighting "terrorists" in Afghanistan but a loose alliance of Pashtun warrior tribes whose resistance to foreign occupation is legendary. They are descendants of the same Pashtun mountain warriors who battled Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. All these invaders were eventually defeated.
Former U.S.-backed mujahidin "freedom-fighters," like the legendary Jallal Haqqani and Gulbadin Hekmatyar, have also joined Taliban in resisting foreign occupation.
The war now being waged in Afghanistan by the U.S. and NATO closely resembles 19th century colonial "pacifications" in which a puppet ruler is installed, a native mercenary army ("sepoys") hired to fight, and western troops sent to crush rebellious tribesmen who refuse to follow the diktat of the imperial power.
Equally important, the real objective of the ongoing U.S. occupation of Afghanistan became recently evident. The U.S.-installed Karzai regime in Kabul finally signed a long-discussed pipeline deal that will bring energy south from the new gas and oil Klondike of the Caspian Basin through Afghanistan to Pakistan's coast and India.
As the perceptive writer Kevin Phillips notes, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan -- and Iraq -- have become "pipeline protection troops."
Barack Obama and John McCain had better look carefully before plunging deeper into the Afghan morass. In Afghanistan, we are not fighting "terrorists" but a medieval tribal people who just want to be left alone. This is an ugly little war about oil and gas, not freedom, democracy, or woman's rights. Every village we bomb, every wedding party our air powers massacres, brings new recruits to Taliban and its allies.
Even the secretary general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said last April that there could be no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. That means negotiating with Taliban and political inclusion for the Pashtun people. But President Bush and candidates McCain and Obama are not listening.
Eric Margolis is a columnist for the Toronto Sun. His web site is foreigncorrespondent.com.