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Understanding the Afghan War

Par By Borhan Younus

Afghan Writer & Journalist - Kabul t 3: Bush's Afghanistan[image][image] 

Understanding the Afghan War
Part 1: The Soviets in
Part 2: Taliban's Story
Part 3: Bush's Afghanistan

The 9/11 attacks gave a new dimension to the Afghan conflict. It was a turning point that enabled the Americans to ground their soldiers on the Afghan soil. The US administration started looking for the perpetrators in Afghanistan. It blamed the attacks on Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda shortly after 9/11.The war on Afghanistan unleashed the proclaimed "war on terror," which opened Pandora's box.

It all started when the US administration gave an ultimatum to Taliban and other governments, urging them to get rid of the "terrorists." All countries responded quickly and positively, but Taliban's Afghanistan, which was the prime intended addressee of this demand, refused to submit to the Americans. Atop the list of specific demands from Kabul was handing over Bin Laden to the US, which was rejected by Taliban as an action against Islam and against the Afghan tradition of hospitality.

The US started building up for the war. It had already been providing the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan with assistance. After securing the world community's support and the patronage of Taliban's closest allies through some quick diplomacy, the US sent its B-52 bombers, which appeared in the sky of Kabul to hit Taliban's targets on the evening of October 7, 2001. Cruise missiles followed. The US-led campaign to topple Taliban was dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). It was launched with symbolic contribution from some 30 other nations, most of which are NATO members. The military coalition described its operations in Afghanistan as an "act of self-defense." The two sides of the war were completely unmatched in terms of arms and firepower. Taliban used old Soviet-era weapons, while the US military utilized its cutting-edge, sophisticated weaponry.

It took the US-led forces about one month to drive Taliban out of Kabul after severely striking the front lines of the battle in the north by carpet bombing. Thousands of Taliban fighters, Afghans, Arabs, Central Asians, and Pakistanis were killed during the bombings. The US-allied Afghan militias killed thousands more of those who surrendered as prisoners of war. The incidents of mass killings of prisoners alarmed the international rights watchdogs, yet with no avail.

Northern Alliance: US Proxy

Using the Northern Alliance militias already in battle with Taliban as a proxy force, the US played it right and spared itself fatalities

The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan lost its leading commander Ahmad Shah Massoud two days before 9/11 in a suicide attack by two Arab journalists. The alliance went on to continue its war on the ground against Taliban but now as a US proxy militia. Northern Alliance former mujahideen leader Burhanuddin Rabbani was asking the Americans for more powerful bombs on the Taliban lines.

Using the Northern Alliance militias already in battle with Taliban as a proxy force, the US played it right and spared itself fatalities. CIA officers were behind the Northern Alliance's front line to push the militias ahead and pass the developments on the ground to its command.

• Oct. 7, 2001: US begins military strike against the Taliban
• Nov. 12: Kabul falls to the pro-US Northern Alliance Coalition.
• Dec.: Hamid Karzai is sworn in as chairman of a six-month interim government.
• Jan. 4, 2004: Loya jirga agrees a constitution, paving way for elections.
• Oct.: Karzai wins majority in presidential election.
• 2005: Taliban attacks intensify
• May, 2006: Riots sweep Kabul, worst since the collapse of the Taliban.
• Oct.: NATO takes charge of security operations across Afghanistan.
• April 26, 2008: Karzai survives assassination attempt in Kabul.


Most of the Northern Alliance's leaders had been fighters in the jihad against former Soviet Union. They regarded it as a genuine Islamic cause, yet they were illusioned while dealing with the US and the Taliban affair. They aspired to take control of the government and protect the Islamic country against the US occupation after the "Pakistan puppet" Taliban is deposed with the US firepower. But soon they realized it was a fatal miscalculation.

While the Americans were there in Afghanistan with a well-prepared plan and a long-term strategy, the former mujahideen leaders took it lightly — a short game in which they would be able to easily eject the US-led troops after using them in toppling Taliban.

Taliban finally fled Kabul in November 2001. Its fighters were captured by the militias of the Northern Alliance. The alliance's fighters were wanted only until they defeat Taliban. The US did not need a rogue militia that could turn against it once the country is rid of Taliban. To replace them with a "legitimate government," the US and the UN jointly accelerated their efforts and handpicked a number of so-called technocrats and others renovated warlords to run the emerging "democracy."

The entire process of forming an interim administration took less than a month. On the grounds of the accord reached in Bonn, Germany, higher governmental posts were virtually shared between the Northern Alliance and technocrats loyal to former king Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Hamid Karzai, an obscure Pashtun leader and low-profile politician, was selected as leader of the interim government until a transitional administration took over. The cabinet and Karzai's four deputies were selected according to ethnic proportion, with minority Shiite Hazaras taking their highest posts ever in the Afghan political history. Ethnic Tajiks, mainly from the Northern Alliance, and Pashtuns, to which Taliban primarily belonged, got the biggest share.

Nascent "Democracy" 

Former mujahideen believed that they would to take control of the government and protect the Islamic country against the US occupation after the "Pakistan puppet" Taliban is deposed with the US firepower.

Six months on, a transitional government came out of a loya jirga (traditional Afghan meeting of tribal leaders and other elders). Karzai remained with little changes in the cabinet. The two main tasks of the transitional government were to enact a new constitution and prepare for general elections.

In January 2004, the new constitution drafted by a so-called commission of experts was approved by another loya jirga. In the constitution, the official religion in Afghanistan was passed to be Islam, with the state to be called the Islamic Republic, but the constitution also contained contradictory and controversial items on freedoms and religious issues.

In the past, the loya jirga was traditionally the highest decision-making public body, but its representatives (mostly tribal chieftains) are not immune from different influences, including bribery by any superior party. That is how the outcome of these loya jirgas decided the future of post-Taliban Afghanistan on a US-favored track.

In October 2004, Karzai won the general elections and was dubbed Afghanistan's "first democratic president." He was regarded by some as a George Washington of Afghanistan. While the international community and Western media were focusing on the shiny side of Afghanistan's image, of which the most boasted about was the elections, ordinary Afghans were living the depths of an emerging crisis. They lost their hope for a better future and lost their country yet again.

However, the outside world did not realize the situation until the parliamentary elections were held on September 18, 2005, as the second strongest step in building the promised democracy. The Parliament brought together an explosive combination of old enemies: former mujahideen leaders once seen as establishing a caliphate, Soviet-puppet ministers of the erstwhile communist regime, notorious militia commanders accused of raping and abducting women, and ardent feminist activists.

They were all sitting together in Parliament. Ironically, despite their previous ideological antagonism, the MPs reached consensus on most of the controversial issues, such as the Shari`ah-related laws and legitimization of the presence of foreign troops in the country.

But this state of relative serenity did not last long. Soon after the parliamentary elections were over, Taliban staged a dramatic comeback by accelerating its hit-and-run operations against the government and foreign troops.

Taliban's Reemergence

The harder Taliban hit, the crueler the US and allied troops intensified their battles, only to kill more civilians and destroy more villages, adding to the hostility in the eyes of ordinary Afghans.

Utilizing the public disillusionment about the government's incapability of achieving the expected development, the neo-Taliban set in motion its operations in summer 2003, staging a gradual comeback in the shape of a full-scale guerrilla war within two years of the 2005 parliamentary elections. The harder Taliban hit, the crueler the US and allied troops intensified their battles, only to kill more civilians and destroy more villages, adding to the hostility in the eyes of ordinary Afghans who were already suspicious of the invaders.

However, several other factors led to the reemergence of Taliban. They include

• NATO bombardment of civilian targets, which gave far less share in government to the Pashtuns, who constitute the predominant ethnic makeup of Taliban.

• Spread of corruption in all sectors of the government.

• Sharp cultural contradiction between the ultraconservatism of Taliban and the mujahedeen on one side and the loose environment built in the footsteps of the West on the other side. This contradiction has alienated the public from the government and made more people at odds with it.

A new generation of Taliban was on the raise. As the propagated democracy was failing, and a new phase of turmoil loomed. The streets of Kabul definitely looked more colorful and more crowded than in the Taliban era, but fear about the future of the country and frustration from the "going-nowhere" situation were easily visible on the faces of passersby.

Throughout the history of the Afghan conflict, hope was always there — a dream of a better future when it all ends. But now, the fateful question of what will come next received either no answer or an "expect-the-worse" response. There is an apparently positive image of some developments in Afghanistan, but behind this image hide some big challenges that the Afghans never faced before.

War Is Over; Higher Casualties


A UN Security Council report revealed that the year 2007 was the bloodiest with some 8,000 killed.

Security and political instability come on the top of these challenges. The security situation has never been so fragile in Afghanistan. One of the justifications of the US-led invasion was to secure the lives of the Afghans, but the opposite happened: people's lives have been further endangered.

A recent UN Security Council report revealed that the year 2007 marked the bloodiest period for the Afghan civilians, government officials, and foreign troops, and the same is reported about Taliban as well. Some 8,000 people, of whom a considerable number are civilians, were killed.

The civilians fell victim to both the bombing and firing of the foreign troops and the suicide attacks carried out by Taliban. The casualties of US soldiers also hit 500. Most soldiers were killed after the reemergence of Taliban after 2005. While all areas of Afghanistan were once brought under nominal control of the US-backed Afghan government in 2002, wide areas of the south (in Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan) are presently controlled by Taliban. Further, the fighting is migrating north into the provinces of Ghazni and Maidan Wardak, right next to Kabul.

US Blunt Failure 

A 2008 report by the Afghan NGO Security Office recently concluded, "Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."

Recently, some major attacks by Taliban have shown that the fragile security and stability can hardly withstand the so-called surging insurgency.

In March 2007, there was a suicide attack at the gates of the US military base at Bagram where American vice president Dick Cheney was staying. The attack, twin bloody bombings, on Afghan police buses left around 70 policemen killed.

last summer, a suicide attack hit a visiting group of the Afghan parliamentarians in northern Afghanistan killing up to 70, including six MPs.

Last November, there was a bold attack on Kabul's most heavily guarded hotel hosting western VIP guests in January. Another bombing in a dog-fighting festival in Kandahar that killed more than 200 people in February underlined that Afghanistan is too far from being turned into a peaceful land promised by the US invasion.

In fact, the audacious January 14 attack on Kabul's five-star Serena Hotel showed that Taliban could target Westerners virtually anywhere and anytime, even deep inside Kabul.

Looking at the rising Taliban threat in 2007 and the expected boost in 2008, a report by the Afghan NGO Security Office recently concluded, "Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."

Many analysts believe that Taliban's recent advances are eerily reminiscent of the Soviet years during the 1980s when the Soviet troops occupied the cities but the Afghan resistance fighters commanded the countryside and eventually won. History has shown that foreign powers have tried for decades to quash Afghanistan but failed.

In a hope to curb the reemerging Taliban insurgency, the US and NATO doubled their troops in the last two years to 50,000. But this massive expansion in troops meant more targets and more losses. Deploying strictly military strategies for eliminating Taliban has led to the killing of more civilians than fighters and thus turned the foreign troops into a pure enemy in the eyes of a wide segment of the Afghan public.

Divide and Rule

The US created a situation wherein presence of the occupation is always necessary, otherwise the country would plunge into civil war, to perpetuate the foreign occupation at the demand of the occupied, a case similar to the one in Iraq. Another big challenge is the political instability. To from the new regime, the Americans brought together old enemies who once severely fought one another. Neither national unity nor national interests appear to hold together the left extremists and right extremists — only per.sonal interests prevail. In addition to the old political hostilities, the whole society is now divided on ethnic lines — a souvenir of the Western democracy and a reminiscent of the divide-and-rule approach.

There is a wide conviction in Afghanistan that if the foreign troops left, Afghanistan would immediately plunge into a new civil war. This time, the war will be waged on multiple fronts. In the past six and a half years, whenever the old rivals confronted one another on narrow-scale military fronts and high-level political fronts, the final solution always came from the US embassy and President Bush's former special envoy to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad using the carrot-and-stick approach.

Creation of a situation wherein presence of the occupation is always necessary is read by many analysts as a smart US tactic that aims at perpetuating the foreign occupation at the demand of the occupied, a case similar to the one in Iraq.

While the former enemies are now seated around the same table by Uncle Sam, Taliban, the most stubborn enemy for all players, is waiting for the moment when the US-led troops will be defeated, paving the way for Taliban's leaders to control the country again.

Taliban's fighters have appeared to be the most irreconcilable force in the past six years. When Karzai offers olive branch to them, their first condition is always the withdrawal of foreign troops. This is seen as an incapacitating condition for the Afghan government, because if the foreign troops left, Taliban would not need to reconcile or even talk to the rival groups.

"Tremendous Progress"

Staying in the West is enough qualification that can turn an Afghan petrol pump attendant who stayed in the US for a while to a skilled technocrat deserving the post of governor!

Turning the view to the government and its so-called achievements, one can be caught by the mantra of "tremendous progress" repeated daily by the Afghan authorities and Western leaders. However, on the ground, if a couple of sectors witnessed development, most of the others experienced unique deterioration and regress.

International efforts to promote and build the capacity of the government's various institutions, such as the police, army, judiciary, and civil administration, did not lead to considerable results because of the inefficiency these institutions are stuck in. Both the police and army have been filled with loyalists to commanders from the Northern Alliance and other militias. Most of them are illiterate or professionally unfamiliar with their job responsibilities.

In addition, the corruption of the police and other branches of the government is unprecedented in the history of Afghan governments. In the 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index of the corruption watchdog Transparency International, Afghanistan ranked among the 10 most corrupt nations. Bribes have turned into an inseparable part of any paperwork or case submitted to the government for a resolve.

In addition to corruption, the government's red-tapeism with a century-old system of bureaucracy is adding to the inefficiency. The "qualifications" that the Afghan government considers for high jobs also contributed to maintaining an insufficient administration.

For instance, in some cases, merely staying in the West for a period of time was considered a competency qualifying a man for an important post in the government. Such a competency can turn an Afghan petrol pump attendant who stayed in the US for a while to a skilled technocrat deserving the post of governor!

In the sector of social services, the government has failed to achieve any basic improvement in the fields of education, health care, and security. In one sentence, the government's efficiency in social services can be better gauged by a quote from a resident of Maidan Wardak who was quoted in a report, saying,

Now there is lots of snow. Many people are sick. They want to go to health clinics. But they cannot go. The government cannot clean the road. The government is indifferent.

Little Development, Much Trouble


Despite the billions in aid and big international commitments, Afghanistan ranks 174 out of 178 countries on the UNDP's index of human development.

Levels of economic and human development have also been so down despite the billions in aid and big international commitments. Afghanistan ranks 174 out of 178 countries on the index of human development of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Since 2002, most of the social progress has been confined to the west and north of the country.

The surge in drug trade is so intense that the production of opium poppy is now worth about US$3.1 billion, almost half of the country's legal gross domestic product (GDP). In the last three years, Afghanistan has been producing record-level opium (almost 90 percent of the world supply), after the production was brought to a five-percent low by Taliban.

Nearly six and a half years after the Bush administration's self-proclaimed "liberation" of Afghanistan, the whole work of development can be summed up in luxury hotels constructed by the private sector, armor-plated Land Rovers of international organizations, and lavish supermarkets built with the money of drug or bribes.

For the Afghans, these years of occupation mean little development, much trouble, and an uncertain future to be worried about. For the Americans, these years mean a prolonged failure, not only in making the OEF work but also in realizing the stated goals of the war: capturing Bin Laden and ending the Taliban headache. It is now evident that these goals are far from being accomplished, though a whole country has been destroyed in pursuing them.

Borhan Younus is a freelance writer and journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

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