Afghanistan – Pakistan: the black hole of the empire


Why did Bush go to Afghanistan? Why is Obama going too? The oil and gas pipelines. The reasons for the Taliban’s rise and Karzaï’s collapse. Who profits from opium? Why is neighbouring Pakistan at risk to split apart?

Interview: Grégoire Lalieu et Michel Collon

Is it possible to win the war in Afghanistan? The specialists answer: ‘No.’ Nevertheless, NATO continues its efforts to defeat the Taliban and now Pakistan erupts. What are the real motives for this war? Could the hegemonic aims of the United States plunge the region in chaos? In this new chapter of our series, “Understanding the Muslim world”, Mohamed Hassan answers those questions and explains why it is up to the Pakistani people to save their country from a possible disappearance.

In 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. They said that the Taliban were refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden. Seven years later, no one mentions public enemy number one anymore. What justifies this war today?

First, you have to realize that the Taliban have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. In 1996, Bin Laden, expelled from Saudi Arabia, found refuge in Sudan. Then, the Saudis pressured Sudan to expel the famous terrorist. That’s when Bin Laden came to Afghanistan. When the 9/11 attack occurred, it had nothing to do with Afghanistan. The only thing was that when Washington asked for Bin Laden, the Taliban reacted like this: “If you want to try Bin Laden, give us the evidence and let him be tried by an Islamic court in any Muslim country”.  The fact is that the neoconservatives of the Bush administration used this tragic event as a pretext.

What were their intentions?

Three essential books explain the roots of Washington’s view. The first one is The End of History by Francis Fukuyama. He claimed that the evolution of the human history ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the domination of liberal democracy. The second book is The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington. According to the author, history is driven not by the struggle between classes but by a clash of civilizations. So Huntington divided the world according to the different civilizations and claims Islamic civilization is the most aggressive one. The last book, The Grand Chessboard, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, considers that the power dominating Eurasia will be the single dominant power in the 21st century. The majority of humanity indeed lives in this area and its economy will continue to grow.
Now let’s turn back to the end of the Clinton administration. In 1997, there was a serious economic crisis: with the bursting of the speculative bubble in Asia, the NASDAQ collapsed. So when the neo-conservatives came to the White House in 2001 with George W. Bush, the economic situation was somber. However, they clearly expressed their objective: no one would be allowed to rival the United States. To accomplish that, the new administration looked to control the world by controlling the most important resources, mainly natural gas and oil.

Under the influence of Brzezinski, Clinton first wanted to dominate Europe by enlarging NATO, then to reach Central Asia. But the neoconservatives said: “No, we have no time for that. In view of the crisis, we have to create and control the Greater Middle East to seize the oil”. We could sense the change as we listened to Bush’s speech after the 9/11 attack when he said: “You are either with us or against us”. With his conception of the axis of evil, he wanted to enlarge the war.

The war in Afghanistan, the first war in history planned by the CIA without the collaboration of the Pentagon, was only a pretext to train U.S. troops and give them the experience to later attack Iraq. You should know that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was already planned before the Sept. 11 attack.

Obama wants to embody change. Why does he concentrate the military forces in Afghanistan instead of Iraq?

First of all, the war in Iraq has raised unexpected difficulties. The U.S. government thought Iraq was the easiest target as Saddam Hussein didn’t have a big army and as a big part of the Iraqi population detested his regime. In a few days, from March 20 to April 10, 2003, the United States took over Baghdad. Then, they protected only the oil industry and let everything else blow up. Paul Bremer, the U.S. governor of Iraq, destroyed the basis of the old Iraqi regime, demobilized the police and the structure of the army. At this time the resistance rose and the cost of the U.S. occupation of Iraq became very high: 8 billion dollars each month (that you can add to the monthly 1.5 billion for Afghanistan)! For eight years, the neo-conservative administration spent all its money on this war with no result: they neither managed to pacify the country, to create the government they wanted, to get a popular base nor to control the oil.

As the Iraqi resistance exposed the weakness of U.S. imperialism and the impossibility for it to win, the U.S. population grew more politically aware. So the unpopularity of this war also pushed Obama to make this change. Even on the international side, this war lacked unanimous support: France, Germany and other countries refused to go into Iraq. In short, Obama’s decision is also a cover for the United States to keep the NATO alliance. But a defeat in Afghanistan could be the end of NATO.

The Taliban didn’t use to be an enemy of the United States. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright welcomed their takeover in 1996 as a “positive step”. It even seems that it had been encouraged. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto summed the whole Taliban story up this way: “The idea was English, the financing was Saudi, the supervision was Pakistani and the arming was American”.

In the late seventies, the Soviets went to Afghanistan in order to support a revolutionary government threatened by internal fighting. Brzezinski, President [James] Carter’s adviser, wanted to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet’s Vietnam and to strike a fatal blow against socialist influence in the area. So in order to fight against the Soviet Union and the revolutionary government of Afghanistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia, through Pakistan, supported the mujahidin. When the Red Army left Afghanistan in 1989, the United States knew that the Soviets were in a serious crisis. So as the U.S. achieved its goal, it washed its hands and left the region, which was plunged into chaos. In fact, Washington used the mujahidin like a condom: when they were no longer useful, they threw them away. Who suffered from this? Afghan people and Pakistan.
Indeed, when the Pakistani intelligence service supported the mujahidins’ fight against the communists, they didn’t unify the movement, but supported each warlord separately. So when the United States left the country, the various warlords faced each other in serious competition. Afghanistan was totally destroyed by the civil war. Millions of refugees moved to Pakistan, which was itself at the time hit by a serious crisis, with its economy declining together with the arrival of a lot of Afghans and drug lords.
In this situation, the Taliban appeared, students from the younger generation of these refugees. At this moment, their access to power might have been an opportunity for United States and Pakistan but the fact is that the three actors had different interests.

What were these interests?

When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1990 and the Central Asian countries became independent, Pakistan realized that as its main enemy, India, was strong, while it was itself weak. To develop economically and to strengthen the country, the Pakistani bourgeoisie decided to use Afghanistan as the entry point to the Central Asian market. So they encouraged the Taliban’s path to power.

U.S. interests were overall the domination and the control of Central Asia’s wealth. The U.S. oil company Unocal had a project to build a pipeline in the region but in order to do that, they needed Afghanistan to be pacified.

Finally, the Taliban’s interests were to pacify the country and carry out an Islamic revolution, which met the Saudis interests too. Saudi Arabia wanted indeed to export the Islamic ideology to Central Asia, in order to weaken Russia and to control the gas of that area.
So, helped by those foreign powers, the Taliban fought against the warlords and took power. People of Afghanistan were tired and wanted peace. That’s why the Taliban were welcomed.

Finally, this plan didn’t work: the United States failed to pacify the region, Pakistan could not open an access to the Central Asian market and the Taliban were overthrown. Why?

You can find several ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The largest are the Pashtuns with almost 50% of the population. Then you have the Tajiks, the Hazaras and the Kazakhs, responsible for the competition among the warlords. Finally you will also find other minorities. The Taliban are Pashtuns: they are very independent mind! The United States and Pakistan wanted to use them like mercenaries but they’ve got their own vision. Another important point is that the Pashtuns do not recognize the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Let’s turn back in the 19th century, when India was the golden colony of the British Empire. At this time, the British were afraid of the Russian expansion in Central Asia. In order to protect their colony, the British wanted to use Afghanistan. This led to the three Anglo-Afghan wars. What interests us particularly is a result of the second one: in 1893, the governor of India, Sir Durand, traced a line in the Pashtun territory, in order to protect its colony by creating a buffer zone between Afghanistan and the British India. This line is the present border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s why a lot of Pashtuns do not recognize the existence of Pakistan. When this country became independent, the only one who voted against its entrance to the United Nations was Afghanistan!

So it was clear that the Taliban, when they took power, wouldn’t submit to those foreign interests. In May 2001, six months before the World Trade Center attack, Washington granted without any result a subsidy of 43 million dollars to the Taliban regime within the framework of the Unocal pipeline project. And when 9/11 happened, all the plans went awry.

The Coalition forces easily overthrew the Taliban regime but they didn’t manage to control the country. Why?
First, the current Afghani government is not recognized by the Pashtuns. When Taliban were overthrown, the United States installed Hamid Karzai as president. Karzai, who had worked for Unocal1, is a Pashtun but he has no social base in Afghanistan. The fact is the Pashtuns, who are the leading ethnic group in the country, are not represented in this government. There are just some puppets of Washington with no legitimacy among the people. In the beginning, the United States tried to buy representative Pashtuns to participate to this government, but those took the money and ran: as I said, Pashtuns are very independent minded!

Secondly, you must realize that the warlords brought into the government work for their own interests. They don’t pay taxes to the central government but are appropriate the wealth for themselves. Each ministry is the seat of an independent warlord. It’s a chaotic situation where the government is paralyzed.

Thirdly, the warlords don’t trust the Pashtuns. They think that if the Pashtuns take the majority of the offices in the government, they will impose their vision. So it’s a government were everybody is against everybody. All the fake films the West made of it, it really doesn’t work!

Finally, we could say that NATO’s military forces don’t help Hamid Karzai in its work when they bomb peasants in their farms, in the mosques, in a wedding or funerals… The current government is seen by a big part of the population as the tool of the invaders. All those killings have brought about a broad popular uprising and unified the resistance of the Taliban.

A consequence of the war is the growing production of opium in Afghanistan: more than 3,000% since the fall of the Taliban regime. The U.S. State Department accused the Taliban of using drugs to finance the resistance…

Opium is a chemical product coming from poppies. When the poppy flower comes up, you cut it and you collect the milk that drops out from it and then you sell it. This is what the Afghan peasants do. After that, you’ve got people who dry this milk, working with it in a machine where they add chemical products and finally get opium. In order to produce this drug, you need a factory and some knowledge of chemistry. I don’t think that the Afghan peasants all have chemistry diplomas. If that were the case, Afghanistan would be a very advanced country! To get money from the opium trade, you also need specific logistics and the capacity to bring the product to the West. The Taliban have none of that.

The fact is that opium comes from the warlords with the help of the CIA. Most of the time, this drug comes from the U.S. intelligence service, which utilized it as an income-generating fund, bringing the drug to the Western countries, selling it at a market price and then using this dirty money to finance their wars.
In Afghanistan, poppy cultivation started during the war against the Soviets and now the opium industry is in the hands of the warlords. And yet, for a peasant, cultivating poppy brings much money than cultivating tomatoes. So in order to have a mass base, the warlords let the peasants cultivate what they want.
When the Taliban took the power in the 1990s, they burned the poppy fields. By doing this, they made a lot of enemies among the peasantry. That’s why today they don’t stop peasants producing poppy but they have forbidden the production of opium. And they even get income, thanks to contributions from the peasants. In fact, it is impossible for the central government to tax the southern part of the country. And a government that doesn’t have that capacity is not a government!

A lot of specialists consider the war in Afghanistan impossible to win. The French general Georgelin even qualified it as a “unmanageable cesspool”. What are the difficulties met by the Coalition forces?

NATO kills civilians every day. Following these attacks, the Afghan people started to become closer to the Taliban. Now, the Taliban control the southern part of the country and have a de facto government in each village. Taliban are mixed with the population and NATO forces are taking casualties. So when anything suspect moves, the GIs shoot and kill civilians. The fact is that the Afghans must confront imperialist warlords bombing civilians in one hand, and regional warlords looting the country and selling drugs on the other. That’s why the Taliban have the support of the population. Not because they have progressive ideology, but because the people expect them to bring peace to the country, exactly as they did after the civil war in 1992.

Is that why Obama said he was ready to negotiate with moderate Taliban?

The fact is that Obama is trying to protect the United States from a crisis that has accumulated over the last seven decades. And this is very difficult. Obama wants to show that there is no war against Muslims and that he rejects the so-called clash of civilizations. That’s why he said that he is ready to negotiate with the moderate Taliban. This is the new U.S. policy for a lot of places in the world where there are Muslim movements: dividing them between the good Muslims and the bad ones.

I don’t know if this kind of negotiation could be the way to end the conflict. If Washington tries this solution, they will probably plan a new propaganda showing the positive side of the Taliban. But the Taliban have a backward ideology: they destroyed Buddhist temples to install their Islamic regime, they have a primitive position against women’s rights and their vision of the world is very archaic. On the other hand, to get the support of the population, they also learned from their mistakes. I told you about the poppy culture. Another example: contrary to what they were recommending before, the Taliban now agree with the fact that girls can go to school. They’ve evolved and are now stronger for resistance. But that does not necessarily mean they will be open to negotiating with the United Sates. Finally, you must also consider that the deepest crisis is no longer in Afghanistan now, but in Pakistan.

How did the Afghan War provoke such a crisis in Pakistan?

altAs I said, the Durand Line traced in the historical Pashtun territory is the current border between the two countries, which means you’ve got Pashtun population on both sides of the border. In Pakistan, the Pashtuns are the second largest ethnic group after the Punjabis. This is very important. The Pakistani elite, since the independence of the country, indeed used to support U.S. imperialism. You can be an agent for your boss when you solve a problem for him very far away, for example in South America or in Africa. But in the case of the Afghan war, it is a suicide because those two countries are neighbors and share ethnic groups.

There are Taliban in Northern Pakistan too. Every day, they attack and destroy the supplies of the Coalition forces supposedly passing from Pakistan to Afghanistan through a strategic point of the border. In order to resolve this problem, the Pakistani government, a puppet of Washington, allows NATO to bomb Pashtuns on its own territory. The result is that Pakistani Taliban have grown; now they say that their enemy is in Pakistan. So they want to march to Islamabad.
That’s why the border between the two countries no longer has a meaning. The people of Pakistan must face this problem: how can the Pakistani government be legitimate when it lets NATO bomb its own civilian subjects? Pakistan’s people have now two solutions: to become nationalists and to refuse the U.S. diktat or to continue this way and see their country come to its end.

What could be the consequence of that crisis?

Its key point is that the U.S. has a strategy to block China. When the tsunami happened, Washington sent a lot of supplies to Indonesia. They used this occasion to also build a military base in the country, in the province of Aceh, facing the Strait of Malacca. The oil coming from the Indian Ocean passes through this strait to reach China.

Now, the United States is sitting there and if a conflict with China happens, they will certainly close the strait. In this way they can stop China from getting oil. In this situation, the economic giant, who needs more and more oil as the country develops, is looking for other ways to get the resources. One solution is Myanmar, which has resources and could also be a way open to Bangladesh.

Another solution is the port at Gwandar built by China in Baluchistan, the largest province of Pakistan: almost 48% of the territory. But it is also the least populated province: only 5% of the total population. The province has important reserve of gas and oil. Beijing could build a pipeline coming from Iran, passing through Baluchistan and finally reaching Western China. But the United States really wants to stop this province from coming under the influence of China. So Washington has a strategy to support a separatist movement in Baluchistan and take control of the port of Gwandar.

With the possible independence of its largest province in one hand, and with the Pashtuns problem in the other hand, Pakistan could be Balkanized: the whole country could be broken up in little states. Now, people of Pakistan are starting to be more aware. It is up to them to stop this disaster by kicking the United States out of Pakistan. But it is also the responsibility of all democratic revolutionary movements in the region. Indeed, if Pakistan turns out like Yugoslavia, the whole region would be in serious trouble.

Mohamed Hassan recommends the following readings:

  • Ahmed Rashid, Taliban. Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Antonio Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan, 1978-1992, Georgetown University Press, 2000.
  • Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. CIA complicity in the global drug trade, Harper & Row, 1972.
  • Michel Collon, Media Lies and the Conquest of Kosovo, Unwritten History, 2007.