Revolution #216, November 14, 2010
From A World to Win News Service
The U.S.'s mercenaries in Afghanistan
November 1, 2010. A World to Win News Service. The flap about President Hamid Karzai's threat to restrict the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan sheds a bright light on what the U.S. and its allies are doing there.
In August, Karzai announced that foreign security firms would be banned from operating in the country, citing the undeniable fact that the men they employ have been responsible for all sorts of murders and other atrocities. He also claimed that this would be part of reasserting Afghan sovereignty.
The U.S., UK and other allies have been reliant on paid civilian fighters as part of their effort to wage this war without awakening broader opposition in their home countries, especially the U.S., where, it must be said, the Obama government has been unhindered by antiwar public opinion. The exact number of mercenaries and their deployment are secret, but there have been reliable reports that the occupation forces include more private contractor employees than official troops (New York Times, October 25, 2010), who now total about 170,000.
These men perform tasks left to soldiers in previous wars, from guarding military convoys and bases to taking part in commando raids alongside special forces and CIA "kill teams" that storm into villages at night to assassinate suspected anti-occupation fighters and terrorize civilians suspected of harboring them. Many of these mercenaries are the worst of the worst, former U.S. and UK armed forces commandos who now combine their taste for murder with lust for money.
Further, it is extremely telling that the U.S. authorities responded to Karzai's threat by calling it "impossible" to trust Afghan national army and police forces to perform even simple defensive tasks. The U.S. trains its own soldiers in a few months, but these organizations are said to be "untrained and undisciplined" after Washington has spent nine years and billions of dollars trying to build them up. Members of Karzai's armed forces have repeatedly killed their "trainers." There are simply not enough Afghans whom the occupation forces can trust enough to turn their backs on.
Karzai's threat, as it turned out after the initial bluster when he spelled it out more clearly, was limited. He proposed to allow the U.S. military and State Department, the main combat mercenary employers, to continue as usual. Only for-profit construction and development firms would be forced to lay off their guards and rely on police and soldiers working for the Karzai government.
Even this was too much for the occupiers. President Barack Obama had his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ring up Karzai to make him change his mind. Obama also had General David Patraeus, the man running this war on his behalf as head of the U.S. and NATO forces, conduct an "unusually tense" talk with him.
Karzai backed down the next day, well before the December 17 deadline he had fixed. In fact, the first announcement that he had undergone a change of heart came not from the Afghan president or his office, but the U.S. authorities. They said that Karzai had decided to postpone a decision, so that any restriction on private security contractors would not come until February 2011 at the very earliest, if at all.
One reason why the Obama government became so focused on this matter is its enthusiasm for the use of mercenaries in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. While of course his predecessor George W. Bush initiated the policy on its current scale, the Obama government has distinguished itself by its insistence on continuing their use in the face of scandals and even some Congressional opposition.
The issue came to the foreground in the U.S. after the unprovoked massacre in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2006, when mercenaries employed by the Blackwater company gunned down at least 17 Iraqis simply to clear a traffic jam. Some of these murderers were indicted under the Bush government, but Obama's Attorney General Stephen Holder, who is supposed to oversee the prosecution, has so far successfully failed to advance the cases against them. Blackwater, more ideologically driven than most security contractors in that it is run by extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalists, has changed its name to Xe Services. In Afghanistan, it supplies not just guards but also fighters for offensive operations and assassinations. In Iraq, the U.S. is greatly stepping up its use of mercenaries to replace some of the regular forces withdrawn from there.
Political pretense and real contradictions
But questions regarding the relationship between the U.S. and Karzai have also been at play in this matter. They involve both political pretense and real contradictions for both sides.
Karzai was, after all, brought to the presidency of Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies. They chose him at a conclave of Western imperialist nations in Bonn in 2001, had their troops install him in office, organized an election in 2004 to lend his appointment legitimacy and have sustained his regime militarily, economically and politically. His regime could not survive without them, and everyone knows that.
In retaliation for Karzai's threats, at least according to him, the Western media began to make a big fuss about how he receives bags of cash from the Islamic Republic of Iran. He didn't bother to deny it: "It's not hidden. We are grateful to the Iranians for their help in this regard. The United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices," he said. An unnamed "senior U.S. official in Kabul" commented, "Everyone knew about it, including the U.S. government. Everyone talked about it openly for years." (Washington Post, October 24, 2010) Karzai argues that the money was not just for him, and that's probably true. Of course the warlords, tribal leaders and others he has allied himself with have their own reasons to support his regime, but bags of money have furthered these fragile relationships.
It is almost funny to hear these complaints about Karzai and Co. taking a few million dollars a year from Iran when the U.S. admits that it has spent tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan that it can't—or won't—account for.
Part of the real content of American complaints about corruption in the Karzai government is that he is ungrateful enough to take money from the U.S.'s enemies. Why is it, U.S. officials and their media seem to lament, that whenever we buy someone they turn out to be so corrupt!
The U.S. and the Iranian regime are certainly contending for influence in Afghanistan, both within and against the Karzai government. But just as with the Nouri Maliki government in Iraq right now, Iran is supporting a regime that tolerates a U.S.-led occupation. For Washington and Tehran alike, Afghanistan simultaneously represents a temporary confluence of interests and an arena of intense competition.
How this works shows just how ruthlessly cynical both the U.S. and Iranian governments can be in pursuit of their reactionary interests. Karzai's longtime chief of staff accused of being the funnel for Iranian funds and political influence, Umar Daudzai, like other members of Karzai's inner circle, was formerly with the Hezbi-Islami. Led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord whose religious fanaticism and brutality the Taliban could envy, it was one of the Islamic fundamentalist groups to which the U.S. funneled money during the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. In the civil war among the mujahideen in the 1990s after the withdrawal of the Soviet invaders, Hekmatyar's men bombarded Kabul extensively and killed many thousands of civilians. Now he is loosely allied with the Taliban—and continues to have ties with the Iranian regime. The U.S. is entertaining the idea of drawing more of this grouping—along with a part of the Taliban themselves and the equally vicious Haqanni group (once Washington's favorite mujahideen forces and now also allied with the Taliban)—into the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan over which Karzai currently presides.
It seems that the U.S. has also considered dumping Karzai, perhaps as part of some new configuration of henchmen and at any rate because he is one of the most hated men in Afghanistan. You could say the American attitude isn't really fair to Karzai, because what Afghans hate him for is above all the way he has put the interests of the U.S.-led occupation ahead of those of the people and sold out the country to the invaders.
Over the nine years since the 2001 invasion, the Taliban have gone from a widely discredited and hated organization, especially by people not part of its immediate ethnic and ideological base, to one that if not enthusiastically welcomed by most Afghanis throughout the country at least benefits from their neutrality. This change has been brought about by the occupiers' murderous disregard for Afghan lives and the moral climate and social collapse the occupation has produced. The fact that Karzai took money to facilitate the humiliation of the country and its people is just an added reason to hate him.
In these circumstances, it's no surprise that Karzai has tried a little nationalist posturing to try and renew his brand image. There are real conflicts of interest between him and the occupiers, since he has no one to depend on but them while they could consider alternatives. But also, as Karzai himself must realize, the more he succeeds at putting what looks like a little political distance between himself and the U.S., the more valuable he might be to them. It might not work, but what else can he do?
The occupiers want it to appear like they are in Afghanistan as partners of a local sovereign government and not just trying to impose their will on the country by force. They are also more than happy to blame Karzai for Afghanistan's misery. But his is not a sovereign government. The U.S. couldn't help demonstrating that yet again in the last few days by bringing in Russian forces to join American troops for a massive raid in eastern Afghanistan without even telling Karzai about it. This left him looking not only like a lowly underling of the U.S. but an heir of the national traitors who sold Afghanistan to the Soviet Union. No wonder he squirms and seeks to play the patriot.
Even now the U.S. doesn't take his protests very seriously. When he threatened to impose a deadline for private security firms to leave the country, a "Western official in Kabul" mocked it as a self-interested tactical political maneuver. "What this timeline means is withdrawal. The discussion that needs to happen now is: What do you really want? What are your real concerns? Let's draw up a different plan." (Washington Post, August 17, 2010) This statement was both the truth and an attempt to humble and undermine him further.
This filthy game shows what's really going on in Afghanistan. What the U.S. "really wants" is not an independent Afghan "partner" but a flunky regime that can facilitate and provide cover for the occupation. What matters to Washington are the U.S.'s strategic geopolitical goals and not the interests of any people. When the U.S. supports Karzai it is to serve those goals, and when it criticizes Karzai it's for the same reason, just as it fights the reactionary Taliban to serve those goals and seeks to negotiate for the same reason.
The situation in Afghanistan is a nightmare for its people and getting worse. Some misguided Westerners argue that even if the initial invasion was wrong, "'We' have no choice but to stay" until the U.S. can sort out the mess it has created. But when you see how the U.S. is weighing its options, all you can say is that until the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it can only do more and more harm.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
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