"To me, I confess, [countries] are pieces on a chessboard upon which is
being played out a game for dominion of the world."
Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, speaking about Afghanistan, 1898
I had suggested to Marina that we meet in the
safety of the Intercontinental Hotel, where foreigners stay in Kabul, but she
said no. She had been there once and government agents, suspecting she was Rawa,
had arrested her. We met instead at a safe house, reached through contours of
bombed rubble that was once streets, where people live like earthquake victims
Rawa is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which since
1977 has alerted the world to the suffering of women and girls in that country.
There is no organization on earth like it. It is the high bar of feminism, home
of the bravest of the brave. Year after year, Rawa agents have traveled secretly
through Afghanistan, teaching at clandestine girls' schools, ministering to
isolated and brutalized women, recording outrages on cameras concealed beneath
their burqas. They were the Taliban regime's implacable foes when the word Taliban
was barely heard in the west: when the Clinton administration was secretly courting
the mullahs so that the oil company UNOCAL could build a pipeline across Afghanistan
from the Caspian.
Indeed, Rawa's understanding of the designs and hypocrisy of western governments
informs a truth about Afghanistan excluded from news, now reduced to a drama
of British squaddies besieged by a demonic enemy in a "good war." When we met,
Marina was veiled to conceal her identity. Marina is her nom de guerre. She
said: "We, the women of Afghanistan, only became a cause in the west following
11 September 2001, when the Taliban suddenly became the official enemy of America.
Yes, they persecuted women, but they were not unique, and we have resented the
silence in the west over the atrocious nature of the western-backed warlords,
who are no different. They rape and kidnap and terrorize, yet they hold seats
in [Hamid] Karzai's government. In some ways, we were more secure under the
Taliban. You could cross Afghanistan by road and feel secure. Now, you take
your life into your hands."
The reason the United States gave for invading Afghanistan in October 2001
was "to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11." The
women of Rawa say this is false. In a rare statement on 4 December that went
unreported in Britain, they said: "By experience, [we have found] that the US
does not want to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, because then they will have
no excuse to stay in Afghanistan and work towards the realization of their economic,
political and strategic interests in the region."
The truth about the "good war" is to be found in compelling evidence that the
2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable response to the
11 September attacks, was actually planned two months prior to 9/11 and that
the most pressing problem for Washington was not the Taliban's links with Osama
Bin Laden, but the prospect of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan
to less reliable mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and
armed by the CIA to fight America's proxy war against the Soviet occupiers in
the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahedin had been largely
a creation of Washington, which believed the "jihadi card" could be used to
bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban were a product of this and, during
the Clinton years, they were admired for their "discipline." Or, as the Wall
Street Journal put it, "[the Taliban] are the players most capable of achieving
peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history."
The "moment in history" was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs
had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal. However, by
the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached further and further on
territory controlled by the Taliban, whom, as a result, were deemed in Washington
to lack the "stability" required of such an important client. It was the consistency
of this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support, regardless
of the Taliban's aversion to human rights. (Asked about this, a state department
briefer had predicted that "the Taliban will develop like the Saudis did," with
a pro-American economy, no democracy and "lots of sharia law," which meant the
legalized persecution of women. "We can live with that," he said.)
By early 2001, convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring
their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid of him. Under
a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan's two Islamic parties, Bin
Laden was to be held under house arrest in Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would
then hear evidence against him and decide whether to try him or hand him over
to the Americans. Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan's Pervez
Musharraf vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister,
Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it had been decided
to dispense with the Taliban "under a carpet of bombs."
Acclaimed as the first "victory" in the "war on terror," the attack on Afghanistan
in October 2001 and its ripple effect caused the deaths of thousands of civilians
who, even more than Iraqis, remain invisible to western eyes. The family of
Gulam Rasul is typical. It was 7.45am on 21 October. The headmaster of a school
in the town of Khair Khana, Rasul had just finished eating breakfast with his
family and had walked outside to chat to a neighbor. Inside the house were his
wife, Shiekra, his four sons, aged three to ten, his brother and his wife, his
sister and her husband. He looked up to see an aircraft weaving in the sky,
then his house exploded in a fireball behind him. Nine people died in this attack
by a US F-16 dropping a 500lb bomb. The only survivor was his nine-year-old
son, Ahmad Bilal. "Most of the people killed in this war are not Taliban; they
are innocents," Gulam Rasul told me. "Was the killing of my family a mistake?
No, it was not. They fly their planes and look down on us, the mere Afghan people,
who have no planes, and they bomb us for our birthright, and with all contempt."
There was the wedding party in the village of Niazi Qala, 100km south of Kabul,
to celebrate the marriage of the son of a respected farmer. By all accounts
it was a wonderfully boisterous affair, with music and singing. The roar of
aircraft started when everyone was asleep, at about three in the morning. According
to a United Nations report, the bombing lasted two hours and killed 52 people:
17 men, ten women and 25 children, many of whom were found blown to bits where
they had desperately sought refuge, in a dried-up pond. Such slaughter is not
uncommon, and these days the dead are described as "Taliban"; or,
if they are children, they are said to be "partly to blame for being at
a site used by militants" according to the BBC, speaking to a US
The British military have played an important part in this violence, having
stepped up high-altitude bombing by up to 30 per cent since they took over command
of NATO forces in Afghanistan in May 2006. This translated to more than 6,200
Afghan deaths last year. In December, a contrived news event was the "fall"
of a "Taliban stronghold," Musa Qala, in southern Afghanistan. Puppet
government forces were allowed to "liberate" rubble left by American
What justifies this? Various fables have been spun "building democracy"
is one. "The war on drugs" is the most perverse. When the Americans
invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they had one striking success. They brought to an
abrupt end a historic ban on opium production that the Taliban regime had achieved.
A UN official in Kabul described the ban to me as "a modern miracle."
The miracle was quickly rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai "democracy,"
the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the country's
entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32 provinces instantly went
under cultivation. Today, 90 per cent of world trade in opium originates in
Afghanistan. In 2005, a British government report estimated that 35,000 children
in this country were using heroin. While the British taxpayer pays for a £1bn
military super-base in Helmand Province and the second-biggest British embassy
in the world, in Kabul, peanuts are spent on drug rehabilitation at home.
Tony Blair once said memorably: "To the Afghan people, we make this commitment.
We will not walk away . . . [We will offer] some way out of the poverty that
is your miserable existence." I thought about this as I watched children
play in a destroyed cinema. They were illiterate and so could not read the poster
warning that unexploded cluster bombs lay in the debris.
"After five years of engagement," reported James Fergusson in the
London Independent on 16 December, "the [UK] Department for International
Development had spent just £390m on Afghan projects." Unusually,
Fergusson has had meetings with Taliban who are fighting the British. "They
remained charming and courteous throughout," he wrote of one visit in February.
"This is the beauty of malmastia, the Pashtun tradition of hospitality
towards strangers. So long as he comes unarmed, even a mortal enemy can rely
on a kind reception. The opportunity for dialogue that malmastia affords is
This "opportunity for dialogue" is a far cry from the surrender-or-else offers
made by the government of Gordon Brown. What Brown and his Foreign Office advisers
willfully fail to understand is that the tactical victory in Afghanistan in
2001, achieved with bombs, has become a strategic disaster in south Asia. Exacerbated
by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the current turmoil in Pakistan has
its contemporary roots in a Washington-contrived war in neighboring Afghanistan
that has alienated the Pashtuns who inhabit much of the long border area between
the two countries. This is also true of most Pakistanis, who, according to opinion
polls, want their government to negotiate a regional peace, rather than play
a prescribed part in a rerun of Lord Curzon's Great Game.