A serious crisis - not dissimilar to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - is brewing in Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands which threatens the long-term stability of Central and South Asia. The Afghan Civil War tied to the wider, and failing, ‘Global War on Terror’, is being won by the Taliban as elections close in and drought grips the country. The multi-generational war, a complex regional puzzle and geopolitical struggle, has sucked the Western powers into a man-made disaster in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
THE DEATH OF A WARLORD
The death of General Abdul Razeq, assassinated on October 19th as he left a security meeting with American and Afghan officials including General Scott Miller, is a major setback for NATO operations in Afghanistan. General Miller, who has served as head of NATO for a month later posted on Twitter: “Afghanistan lost a patriot, the good he did for Afghanistan and the Afghan people cannot be undone.” U.S commanders and members of their intelligence and security agencies held Razeq in high regard as a leader in the Achakzai tribe, a major power along Afghanistan’s southern border and its accompanying paramilitary forces.
The reality of the “patriot” is different. His death was widely celebrated by the insurgents and Taliban supporters and sympathisers. Razeq and his police forces were responsible for serious human rights violations. From suffocation to crushing testicles to forcibly pumping water into victims’ stomachs and dishing out electric shocks to detainees, Razeq was accused of major human rights abuses by Human Rights Watch. Furthermore, as detailed by Reuters, the United States ‘Man in Kandahar’ was also regularly accused of being corrupt. His brother, Gul Agha Sherzai, who was governor of the eastern Nangarhar province in Afghanistan and was suspected of drug trafficking and human rights abuses, was removed from his post as Kandahar governor in 2010 after he admitted to receiving $1 million a week from import duties and the opium trade. Razeq himself was accused in 2010 by an anonymous government official of ‘winning a disproportionate share of construction contracts with NATO at Kandahar major airfield’ by seizing control of the market and eliminating rivals in other Afghan tribal groups.
In 2011, Matthieu Aikins detailed how Razeq and his police commandos tortured two young men, Najib and Ahmad, which included electrocution and nerve damage to wrists after being handcuffed for two days by Razeq’s men. Furthermore, according to Aikins, Razeq’s men were ‘trained by two controversial private military firms, DynCorp and Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, at a U.S.-funded center in Spin Boldak, where they were also provided with weapons, vehicles, and communications equipment. Their salaries are subsequently paid through the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, a UN-administered international fund, to which the U.S. is the largest contributor.’ In April, 2017 during their second periodic report on torture in Afghanistan, the Committee Against Torture, stated that “numerous and credible allegations indicat(ed) General Abdul Raziq, Afghanistan National Police Commander in Kandahar, as being widely suspected of complicity, if not of personal implication, in severe human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and settlement of secret detention centers.”
The CAT report was dismissed by some Afghan politicians including Senator Rahmatullah Achekzai and Gulalai Akbari , a member of the Upper House of Parliament. ““The report has been fabricated by the Pakistan’s intelligence service [ISI] and other foreign intelligence services,” was the claim of Achekzai while the speaker for the Upper House of Parliament, Mohammad Alam Ezidyar went on to say that “The international human rights commission is monitoring all prisoners under the control of Afghan government across the country, but it is surprising that they raise the issue after so many years. I doubt the report and it is vague.” In May, Razeq himself denied all allegations of the United Nations report which demanded his prosecution. “First of all I don’t have private jails and secondly the government-run prisons are inspected by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other human rights organizations on regular bases,” Raziq said to Reuters. “I strongly reject such claims and they are made to defame me. If anyone or any entity have any proof, they should present it but I am sure there is none,” he added.
Many supporters (and bots) took to social media to proclaim their support and condolences for Razeq in the aftermath of his assassination by the Taliban. This reflected what Foreign Policy described in 2016 as ‘the warlord paradox shaped by the U.S. state-building agenda in Afghanistan. Raqez was labelled by some as a warlord and others a hero.’ He was both charismatic and popular among many civilians for bringing a semblance of stability to the south and his ruthless policies adopted against the Taliban, a merciless shoot-to-kill counterinsurgency doctrine. As a Kandahari businessman stated to Foreign Policy: “only a tough and strong-minded person can maintain Kandahar security and General Raziq is that individual.”
The death of the most powerful man in the southern Afghanistan is a bad blow to the United States. They have lost a key ally in a war they are not winning. However, it was always a fool-hardy policy to revert to warlordism as a way to impose control in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to instability, civil war and rampant warlordism in the 1990s, a brutal cycle of violence which allowed the Taliban to seize power and in-turn allowed Al-Qa’ida, Osama Bin Laden and the future leaders of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi to nurture their ultra-violent, puritanical ideologies and move with ease between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The warlords, far from ushering in a peaceful Afghanistan, aggravated its lawlessness and paved the way for the Taliban to seize power.
THE TALIBAN RESURGENT
Razeq was not the face of a democratic Afghanistan and the costs of corruption and instability for 17 years since the initial invasion of Afghanistan are stretching NATO forces to their maximum. The Taliban are active in 70% of Afghanistan. 4% of Afghan territory, according to a BBC report, are under their total control while 15% of territories across the country face weekly attacks by insurgents. A further 20% are attacked monthly by Taliban foot-soldiers.
The staying power of the Taliban could not have been possible without the tacit support of the Pakistani intelligence and its military. Pakistan’s enduring conflict with India since the fateful partition in the 1940s has meant that Afghanistan has become regarded by Pakistani officials, political and military, as a source of strategic depth for the army in future conflicts with India. Indeed, during the Soviet-Afghan War Pakistan was one of the key logistical life-lines to the jihadists fighting the Soviets during the decade long war in Afghanistan. The CIA and ISI, as well as financial support from the Saudi Arabian government, provided support to the insurgents as Soviet military failed to quell the rebels and jihadists fighting them. The Soviet-Afghan War was the death of the Soviet Union and catalysed its collapse and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. The CIA and ISI operations were sanctioned by the Carter and Reagan administrations in the 1970s and 1980s to contain, what they perceived to be Soviet expansionism into Central Asia and the Middle East which both threatened economic interests in Middle East and India and could have viably given the Soviets military access to the Indian Ocean. Bogging down the Soviet army in Afghanistan served to curb these threats.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the U.S government under President Clinton and George S.W Bush lost interest in the Central Asia and South Asia, and Afghanistan slid down the list of global priorities as the fall of Yugoslavia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Congolese Wars, the Rwandan genocide, the Somalia famine and the invasion of Kuwait (and subsequent Gulf War with Saddam Hussein) became key foreign policy issues for the U.S, the sole superpower in the world at the time. The vacuum of power in Afghanistan led to civil war, the rise of the Taliban and the strengthened Al-Qa’ida and other extremist groups across the globe who used Afghanistan and Central Asia as safe haven from which to launch terrorist attacks worldwide. This culminated in the worst attacks on U.S soil ever and the single most devastating act of terrorism in world history. As the ruins of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon smouldered, the U.S responded and drove the Taliban from Kabul in 2001.
The Pakistani military, who did little to curb the influence of the Taliban during the 1990s did not want to face the military wrath of a militant Bush administration which threatened to send Pakistan back to the Stone Age if it did not cooperate with the U.S invasion of Afghanistan. While the subsequent invasion was a success, the state-building project utterly failed, as both the Pakistani branch of the Taliban and its Afghan cells retreated to the Hindu Kush and the tribal borderlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The surge, a carbon-copy of General Petreaus’ counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, initiated by President Obama in 2009 failed to stabilise the project designed to turn Afghanistan into a pro-Western government as the Karzai regime faced chronic problems of corruption and Afghan security forces struggled to impose themselves, harness Afghanistan’s deeply entrenched war economy and address the toxic legacy of decades of war. The political projects of Kabul remained in Kabul and NATO, in-part limited by Afghanistan’s intimidating geographical landscape, could not control the entire country much like the Soviets in the 1980s and the British and Russian Empires before them.
Several thousand NATO soldiers have perished, tens of thousands more have been wounded, hundred of thousands have returned home with post-traumatic stress disorders and after 17 years of fighting little on the ground has changed to suggest that the expenditure, political, economic and military, was worth it. Malnutrition and water shortages remain a problem, roads are still in disrepair, migrants and refugees continue to flee or attempt to gain access to Europe due to the economic and military problems gripping the country and the Taliban remains a potent political and military fighting force as demonstrated by the weekly suicide bombings and terrorist attacks striking Afghanistan which are being launched by the Taliban, their opponents ISIS, and the Haqqani Network. The attacks in 2018 alone have had appalling costs, no different to the serious terrorist attacks across European, Middle Eastern, African and American cities.
On 20th January, 2018, Save The Children’s offices in Jalalabad were caught in crossfire of a turf war, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. Six were killed and eighteen wounded and a further forty-two were killed in the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul attack on 24th January by the Taliban and on 27th January, 103 people were killed and 235 others wounded in the attack in an ambulance bombing also claimed by the Taliban. The group also showed their relish for sectarian violence by killing at-least 20 Hindus and Sikhs in the July bombing in Jalalabad. At-least 267 have killed in six major suicide bombings in Kabul so far in 2018, including journalists and university students. Suicide bombings, improvised explosive devises and acts of terror have been a daily reality for millions of people. Between 2014-2016, 14,380 men, women and children were killed by acts of terrorism.
Will the Taliban seize power again? President Trump has stated that U.S soldiers will remain in Afghanistan indefinitely and while there is no doubting the stoic commitment of young American soldiers to the cause of Afghanistan, there are doubts over whether the war is affordable for the U.S government and NATO allies for an indefinite period of time. The war has cost $1.07 trillion and according to The Balance, ‘researcher Ryan Edwards estimated that the United States incurred an extra $453 billion in interest on the debt to pay for the wars in the Middle East. Over the next 40 years, these costs will add $7.9 trillion to the debt.’ That is nearly eight tenths of the money injected into Europe’s Banks by the U.S government following the Great Recession in 2008, an astronomical figure for the country to contend with as Afghanistan slides into worsening bloodshed.
A PRIVATE WAR
Eric Prince suggested an alternative: more contractors and mercenaries to support Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and CIA operatives. "What worked after 9/11 were a few CIA officers, a few special forces, some air support, and they decimated the Taliban in a matter of weeks,” he told MSNBC. This would maybe suit fighting terrorists and insurgents in the Taliban and the Haqqani Network but it will not bring stability to Afghanistan. It would inflame the region and is a crude solution to address the complex issues affecting the delicate cobweb of alliances and rivalries plaguing the country’s tribal and ethnic groups and aggravate the conflicts between jihadists, warlords, militias, paramilitaries and drug traffickers (some of whom fall under all these categories) ravaging each other. None of these are conducive to enhancing Western security and fill the coffers of private military companies and billionaires such as Prince offering war strategies (business proposals) on Fox, CNN and CBS.
According to Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer charged with leading Afghan and U.S forces who struck back at Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, the war against Al-Qa'ida could have been over in months. As Michael Hirsh writes:
"With a Delta Force officer standing by his side, Berntsen drafted a message to his superiors back in Washington that he told me ended with the line: "Let's kill this baby in the crib." Berntsen wanted to send in troops - fewer than 1000 Army Rangers - who could've closed the noose, but George Bush, on the advice of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, turned him down...Other opportunities presented themselves in the months that followed...But rather than send troops into Afghanistan to eliminate Al-Qa'ida, the Bush administration began to massively shift men and resources to Iraq, where Al-Qa'ida did not exist."
Arguably, the initial 9/11 strategy failed, because they did not intercept Bin Laden and as the diversion of resources to the Iraq War and regime change in Baghdad the state-building project in Afghanistan started to fail. A “few CIA officers and special forces” eluded to by Erik Prince and policies pursued by the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations’ have not only incurred deep costs in blood and treasure but wrought havoc on Afghan civilians since 2001 regardless of whether the original post-9/11 strategy for deposing the Taliban ‘succeeded’ in the short-term.
JSOC counter-terrorism operations have killed untold numbers of men, women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan through a combination of deadly ‘night-ops’ and drone airstrikes in military campaigns such as Operation Haymaker, alienating populations across in the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands and created levels of anti-American sentiment deeper than those which existed in the pre-9/11 era. SAS soldiers were alleged to have conducted extra-judicial killings (de-facto executions) according to The Times and the detention centres and black sites established across Afghanistan served as locations where Western intelligence and security officials could interrogate and use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (including waterboarding) with impunity in the hunt for Al-Qa’ida, ISIS and insurgents opposed to NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan and Western security during the 2000s and 2010s. The crude policies pursued by different military branches and long-term realpolitik alliances with Pakistan, Afghan warlords and Saudi Arabia have undermined the efforts of other branches of the U.S military who were genuinely trying to improve conditions in Afghanistan.
Sean Mcfate, a former contractor, argued that the reliance on private military companies, much as the Roman Army relied increasingly on barbarians and mercenaries in the last centuries of empire, ‘has mutated into a strategic vulnerability.’ Mcfate went on to write about the glaring risk associated with privatised warfare: ‘If anyone with enough money can wage war for any reason they want to, then new superpowers will emerge: the ultra-rich and multinational corporations. Oil companies and oligarchs should not have armies.’
Razeq and his men, as noted above, and by The Atlantic in 2011, were trained by Blackwater, Prince’s private military company and as Mcfate shows, eluding to an investigation by the Committee on Armed Services United States Senate, Abdul Razeq was not an anomaly or a bad egg. The 89-page investigation titled, The Inquiry into the Role and Oversight of Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan and conducted in 2010 concluded in its executive summary that they had ‘uncovered evidence of private security contractors funnelling U.S. taxpayers dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery as well as Taliban and other anti-Coalition activities.’ This included the British private military company Armor Group sub-contracted two Afghan military companies that it called “Mr. White” and “Mr. Pink” to provide security. Blackwater, in Scahill’s BlackWater, The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, hired Ambassador Cofer Black in February 2005 as the PMC’s vice chairman. (Blackwater, 278) who was central to planning the covert “war on terror”. In 2000, Black ‘kicked up U.S covert support for Ahmed Shah Massoud and his Northern Alliance, which regard Bin Laden and Al-Qa’ida as enemies. Black’s and the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre’s heavy reliance on Massoud was controversial - even within the intelligence world.’ (Blackwater, 266). Scahill continues quoting investigative author James Bamford “While one part of the CIA was bankrolling Massoud’s group, another part, the CIA’s Counter-Narcotics Centre, was warning that he posed a great danger. His people, they warned were continuing to smuggle large amounts of opium and heroin into Europe.” (Blackwater, 267) As Razeq fells to Taliban bullets, so to did the warlord Massoud to Al-Qa’ida assassins on September 9th, 2001 (days before the September 11 attacks).
U.S Senators, including John McCain, Jeff Sessions, Lindsey Graham and David Vitter questioned the Senate’s 2010 investigation arguing that “Our commanders have recognised these dangers and are moving together with our Afghan allies now to incrementally reduce the dependence on private security contractors through a transfer of responsibilities to the growing and more capable Afghan National Security Forces.” Evidently not, 75% of soldiers operating in Iraq and Afghanistan are contractors as detailed by Department of Defence and most of the contractors aren’t American. According to Mcfate, ‘In the 2014 fiscal year, the Pentagon obligated $285 billion to federal contracts—more money than all other government agencies received, combined.’ Expenditure and dependence on contractors has been increasing not decreasing since 2010, which contradicts the rebuttal of the investigation by the John McCain and his cohorts. The war in Afghanistan becomes less of an American enterprise and more of a private war waged by the business and corporate interests of the political elite of Afghanistan, NATO countries and beyond and feeding off a war economy. In 2016, only 33% of contractors were American in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American war-machine is more reliant than ever on contractors then before the publication of the investigation by the Senate and as history suggests the U.S is as strongly reliant as ever on human rights abusers and drug traffickers to control and pacify Afghanistan. Prince’s dreams for a private, covert war are already a well-known fact.
Compounding the challenges of corruption, the Taliban insurgency, regional conflict, a nuclearised, chaotic Pakistan, and the “Global War on Terror” is the overarching threat of climate change. Like Iraq, Afghanistan is facing severe water shortages. In Iraq, it was estimated by The Independent that 4 million could be displaced by water shortages and drought. Though drought is not uncommon in Afghanistan, the severity of droughts gripping parts of the country is increasing at an alarming rate with each year. In April 2018, 120,000 people arrived in Qala-e-Naw City, Badghis, due to the drought and in Kandahar, international charities verified the arrival of 2,800 drought-displaced people from Badghis and Ghor and 1,400 in the district centre of Maiwand, Kandahar. According to Relief Web, the total displacement due to the drought has reached a total of 275,000 people, exceeding the number of people displaced by conflict in 2018 by 52,000 people.
The devastating droughts in Afghanistan and Iraq dwarf those of Europe, and with raging wildfires in California, Greece, Portugal and the Lake District, killer droughts in Pakistan, Somalia and Lake Chad and chronic droughts expected in the future in the United Kingdom, the plight of climate refugees in Afghanistan is an example of the instability and turbulence the world can expect for 21st century if actions are not taken to address the global threat of climate particularly in countries less able to cope with the increasingly volatile weather threatening the planet. Furthermore, it is a demonstration that the U.S is playing yesterday’s game by pursuing small wars abroad which serve to distract it from future challenges such as climate change. Digging itself further into debt and political strife because of its military adventurism seems futile when the terrifying threat posed by environmental degradation and destruction is considered.
The Western powers are invested in Afghanistan, and will remain there for decades. However, the initial investment and arguments promoted (and embarrassingly defended) by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush has now become a quagmire, and the initial reasons for being in Afghanistan have drastically evolved since 9/11 and the Soviet-Afghan War. The nightmare the West finds itself in is one which they cannot extract themselves from and its costs and its perpetuity will have profound long-term consequences for us all. Afghanistan has become a laboratory for the future crises facing our world and its war is one we must urgently address.