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U.S. prepares to bomb one of the world's poorest countries
How Afghanistan was bled dry

September 28, 2001 | Page 7

PHIL GASPER examines the history of the country the U.S. is ready to bomb.

"WE COME now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age," Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary wrote in an article for Salon.com. "Trouble is, that's been done…"

"Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools to piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and healthcare? Too late. Somebody already did all that."

Unless Afghanistan's Taliban regime turns over Osama bin Laden, the U.S. is prepared to rain death and destruction on a country that has already been devastated by more than 20 years of military occupation and civil war.

Millions of Afghanis live in refugee camps. The country has more than 500,000 disabled orphans. Much of the already devastated countryside is currently experiencing a drought, leading to famine in some areas.

The U.S. government's massive military might will make things far worse. But past U.S. actions are in no small part responsible for the misery and poverty that already exists in Afghanistan. As the Economist magazine put it, "[U.S.] policies in Afghanistan a decade and more ago helped to create both Osama bin Laden and the fundamentalist Taliban regime that shelters him."

The U.S. is only the latest power to cause mayhem in the country. Modern Afghanistan emerged during the 19th century as a buffer state squeezed between the Russian and British empires. From the beginning, it was a pawn in battles between these two world powers.

The country's mountainous terrain protected it from imperial occupation, but also resulted in little economic development. Afghanistan has always been one of the poorest countries in the world. By the 1970s, less than 10 percent of the population was literate, and life expectancy was only 35 years. The central state was weak, and outside of a few cities, Afghan society remained traditional, with power divided among rival ethnic clans.

This began to change in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of foreign aid from the former USSR and the U.S.--which were competing for influence during the Cold War--there was a shift of power toward the state.

In 1973, the corrupt and repressive regime of King Zaher was overthrown by his cousin, Daud, who declared a republic. But expected reforms didn't materialize, and the emerging urban middle class grew increasingly discontented.

In April 1978, as Daud tried to move against opponents to his left, he was overthrown and killed by army officers sympathetic to the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which had close ties with the USSR.

But the new government had little support in the countryside, and its attempt to institute reforms from above was disastrous. Resistance began to spread across Afghanistan.

It was met with severe repression as the government itself broke into hostile factions. The opposition came to be dominated by a collection of radical Islamist groups--known as the "mujahadeen," or holy fighters--with reactionary political ideas, especially concerning women.

In December 1979, hard-liners in the USSR--worried that a regime hostile to them might come to power in Afghanistan--decided to intervene. Russian troops advanced on the capital of Kabul, killed the president and replaced him with their own man.

For the next decade, the USSR fought a brutal war for domination of the country. More than 1 million Afghanis died, and millions more fled their homes, becoming refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. But by 1989, with casualties mounting and its troops in a state of near-rebellion, the USSR withdrew its forces.

U.S. policymakers celebrated the Russian retreat from the country--and promptly cut off aid to the rebel forces that they had armed, trained and supported.

Afghanistan collapsed into virtual anarchy. Almost a quarter of the population was in refugee camps, and most of the country was in ruins.

Different factions of the mujahadeen struggled for power in the countryside, while the government of Muhammed Najibullah, the last USSR-installed president, remained in control in Kabul.

Kabul finally fell in April 1992 to one faction of the mujahadeen. But the civil war continued.

In 1994, a new organization, the Taliban, emerged. Its members had been trained in the religious schools set up by the Pakistani government--with U.S. support--along the border.

The Taliban advocated an ultra-sectarian version of Islam. Under its rule, Afghani women have been denied education, health care and the right to work, and must cover themselves completely in public. With the aid of Pakistan's army, the Taliban swept across an exhausted country, taking power in 1996.

The U.S. government made no criticism of the regime it now demonizes as the main source of international terrorism. A State Department spokesperson told reporters that there was "nothing objectionable" about the Taliban's coming to power. That opinion wasn't shared by Afghani women--or the Taliban's political opponents, who were savagely repressed.

In fact, the U.S. hoped the Taliban would provide stability. Its "most important function," one commentator wrote, "was to provide security for roads and, potentially, oil and gas pipelines that would link the states of Central Asia to the international market through Pakistan rather than through Iran."

Today, U.S. politicians denounce the Taliban regime for its repression and brutality. But this is rank hypocrisy. Washington's warlords are only looking for an excuse for war--a war that will further devastate the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan.

"Freedom fighters" armed and trained by the U.S.

THE AFGHAN rebels that fought the USSR's military occupation were backed to the hilt by the U.S. government. In fact, in a 1998 interview, Zbigniew Brezinski, who was national security adviser in the Carter administration, admitted that Washington had begun funding the mujahadeen six months before the Russian invasion in order to provoke "a Soviet military intervention."

The U.S. deliberately chose to back Islamic fundamentalist organizations, rather than secular and nationalist groups, because Brezinski hoped not just to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, but to cause unrest within the USSR itself.

With the support of Pakistan's military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the U.S. began recruiting and training mujahadeen fighters from the 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan--as well as large numbers of mercenaries from other Islamic countries.

The operation was supervised by the CIA, with Pakistani forces carrying out the work on the ground. "The trainers were mainly from Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency, who learnt their craft from American Green Beret commandos and Navy SEALS in various U.S. training establishments," according to the British military magazine Jane's Defence Weekly.

Washington leaders fell in love with their rebel army in Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan--the same man who denounced the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization for not renouncing violence--described the mujahadeen as "freedom fighters."

Reagan met in Washington with rebel leaders like Abdul Haq, who openly admitted his responsibility for terrorist attacks, such as a 1984 bomb blast at Kabul's airport that killed at least 28 people.

Meanwhile, with CIA assistance, the mujahadeen greatly expanded opium production in areas under its control--turning Afghanistan into what one U.S. official later described as the new Colombia of the drug world.

Between 1979 and 1989, "the CIA and Saudi intelligence together pumped in billions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition," according to the Economist. But when the USSR finally withdrew in 1989, the administration of George Bush Sr. turned its back on Afghanistan--leaving it, in the words of the Economist, "awash with weapons, warlords and extreme religious zealotry."

Who trained Osama bin Laden?

OSAMA BIN Laden, a civil engineer and businessman from a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, was one of the first non-Afghan volunteers to join the mujahadeen. He recruited 4,000 volunteers from his own country and developed close relations with the most radical rebel leaders in Afghanistan.

He also worked closely with the CIA raising money from private Saudi citizens. "In 1988, with U.S. knowledge," reports Jane's Weekly, "Bin Laden created Al-Qaeda (The Base): a conglomerate of quasi independent Islamic terrorist cells spread across at least 26 countries... Washington turned a blind eye to Al-Quaeda, confident that it would not directly impinge on the U.S."

After the USSR's withdrawal from Afghanistan, bin Laden and other volunteers returned to their own countries. "In their home countries, they built a formidable constituency--popularly known as 'Afghanis'--combining strong ideological convictions with the guerrilla skills they had acquired in Pakistan and Afghanistan under CIA supervision," writes author Dilip Hiro.

Over the past 10 years, the "afghani" network has been linked to terrorist attacks not only on U.S. targets, but also in the Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, France, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere.

"This is an insane instance of the chickens coming home to roost," one U.S. diplomat in Pakistan told the Los Angeles Times. "You can't plug billions of dollars into an anti-Communist jihad, accept participation from all over the world and ignore the consequences. But we did."

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