Neo-imperialism losing in Afghanistan but closing in on Syria

Last month when a woman was publicly executed by a bunch of men for alleged adultery, outside Kabul and not far from the seat of power of the puppet government of Hamid Karzai, there was uproar in the western news media. There was chest-beating aplenty that the Taliban-like summary justice was returning to Afghanistan.

There was, however, none among the bleeding hearts with enough moral integrity to state the obvious: that all this was happening in a country where the full might of the west, in the guise of US and NATO, has been present for the past 11 years-with more than 150,000 troops armed to teeth-and more than $ 400 billion dollars have been spent on allegedly ridding the country of the blighted Taliban presence and blessing on its people the sunshine of democracy.

The neo-imperialist presence in Afghanistan has undergone a series of justification-changes since US first unleashed its military fury on Afghanistan-in the wake of George W. Bush’s declared vendetta to teach the Afghans a lesson for sheltering those held responsible for the cataclysm of 9/11. It was, to begin with, a war of retribution to make the Taliban-led Afghanistan pay for the crime of colluding with Al-Qaeda. But once that target was accomplished and the Taliban were toppled, the reason for being in Afghanistan mutated, quickly, into a mission of bringing to the Afghan people the fruits of western-blessed democracy. In other words, it was an unabashed rehash of the 19th century western mantra of the white man’s burden. Afghanistan had to be civilised, no matter what.

However, after 11 long years, neither the security situation in Afghanistan looks any more promising than what it was when the Taliban were in command in Kabul, nor the lot of the Afghan women-deemed most vulnerable and thus worthy of western humanitarian support-seems any better.

The Taliban, never quite routed or rendered ineffective as a force of reckoning in Afghanistan, clearly seem to be on the rebound. Security for the common Afghan is precarious even in those areas where US and NATO claim the Taliban have been purged and driven into wilderness. The Afghan people are, obviously, in a greater predicament in those areas which are still regarded as the Taliban strongholds.

Corruption of the ruling elite spawned by western presence in Afghanistan is, no doubt, a powerful element behind the revival of the Taliban, whom many increasingly see as the lesser of the two options. Political corruption, led by Karzai’s own extended family and clan, has been endemic, to the abiding concern of ordinary Afghans. A new class of corrupt cronies has been fostered right under the wings of Karzai. In the name of promoting democracy, western governments have lavished favours on this elite class and neglected the welfare and interests of the ordinary people who suffered under the Taliban but have, obviously, been suffering more under the present dispensation of rogues and scoundrels.

Canada’s largest newspaper, The Toronto Star, recently ran a series of first-hand reports on its front page, filed by its reporter, Paul Watson, from Afghanistan, based on his impressions of those projects that had been commissioned by the Canadian government with great fanfare for uplifting the socio-economic conditions of the Afghan people. Watson’s revealing reports portrayed dismal conditions of these projects that included an irrigation dam and schools set up for the education of Afghan girls. The dam is not irrigating land and schools aren’t providing education to the children as intended.

Afghan women had been trumpeted as the most vulnerable segment of the Afghan society when western military presence in Afghanistan allocated to itself a new mission, that of alleviating their lot, in particular, and securing their rights in a society that had traditionally treated them as chattels and pieces of property. Western NGOs swung into action with élan to wrench Afghan women from the bowels of ignorance, illiteracy, maltreatment and subjugation.

But after 11 years and 55 billion dollars said to have been spent on improving the social standing and conditions of the Afghan women, the picture today seems as dark and dismal for them as it was at the commencement of the undertaking. Reports from western press mention hundreds of schools for girls remaining closed because of the Taliban intimidation. Women are still a haunted and persecuted group treated as second class citizens, even under the supposed democratic and representative Karzai regime. Women’s rights are still being given a short-shrift by Afghanistan’s legal system and courts are behaving not much differently than the Taliban’s kangaroo courts which had been denounced in the west as archaic and belonging to the stone age.

In the last four months alone, there were 52 reported cases of murder of women; 42 of them were murders committed by family members at the behest of the archaic jirgas for allegedly dishonouring the family’s name. The Afghan women are entitled, in the face of such cruelty and barbarity, to ask what blessings has the western occupation of their country-in the name of ridding it of injustice-brought to them and what can they look forward to once the western forces finally pack up and depart from their land?

It was, as such, no news for the Afghan people that donors at the recent Tokyo conference, assembled to ferret out aid from wealthy countries still obliged to support the neo-imperialist mission in Afghanistan, pledged $ 16 billion over the next four years for social up-liftment of the Afghan people. Knowing the rampant corruption on Hamid Karzai’s watch in that country, not even most donors are convinced that their dollops of aid wouldn’t end up in the already bulging pockets of Karzai and his cronies.

It’s obvious that the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan has failed, miserably, on both counts: security and uplifting the socio-economic conditions of the Afghan people.

To add to the concern of the Afghans, there’s no light at the end of the dark tunnel for them now that the western neo-imperialists, having miserably failed in their mission to eliminate the Taliban are showing all the symptoms of defeat. With 2014 already declared as the year for the final eviction of western forces from Afghanistan, all focus is now riveted on patching things up with the derided Taliban, while at the same time desperately beefing up the ranks of the new Afghan army to carry on the western effort.

According to plans currently on foot, the new Afghan army-for the training of which thousands of American and other western troops would still be left in Afghanistan after 2014-would have a strength of 350,000, a huge number for a country as poor and pauper as Afghanistan. The yearly expenditure on this large force is estimated to be around $ 11 billion-three times the total budget of Afghanistan.

It isn’t clear who will foot the bill for supporting such a large army and maintaining it in fighting form so it may deliver on the expectations that it would keep the Taliban at bay and not allow them to retake Afghanistan once the western forces are gone.

Those knowing the recent history of Afghanistan suffer from no burst of optimism that the new Afghan army would remain a disciplined force once its mentors have departed from the scene. Afghanistan’s chequered tribal moorings are as active as ever and their centrifugal pull wouldn’t lose its magic over the new recruits. Besides, the over-arching infiltration of the Taliban in every segment of the Afghan society would spin its own spell on the new force, inevitably. Desertions from its ranks, and defection to the Taliban, are a foregone conclusion, even to some of their western mentors who seem quite resigned to this inevitability. The Taliban should have ample cause to rejoice on prospects of receiving infusion of well-trained soldiers into their ranks.

With an eye on this denouement of its epic adventure in Afghanistan, US has already been dispensing feelers, all around, that 2014 will not see a complete end to its military presence in Afghanistan. The genial and affable Ryan Crocker-resigning from his post as American Ambassador to Afghanistan for presumed reasons of health-told interviewers from two American papers, before leaving his Kabul post, that US is committed  to carry on its mission until 2024, at the very least. Knowing Crocker, there’s absolutely no reason to doubt his frank admission.

Pundits are at one that western governments, nearing the end of their misadventure in Afghanistan, have precious little to convince their increasingly frustrated and disgusted people that all that was not a complete waste of money, men and strategy. They’re desperately on the prowl for another option that could salvage their bruised reputation and pride, vis-à-vis their electorate.

Syria happens to be just one such option that presents itself and western governments, on cue from US, seem keenly going after it.

The mess and mayhem triggered there by a purblind and obdurate Baathist regime, led by Bashar Al Assad, over the past 15 months, is not only an unfolding and bloodied tragedy but its eventual denouement promises to be bloodier and messier. The western governments clearly see in it an opportunity to put their money on the winning side-the opposition forces gaining strength and adherents by the day-just the way they did in the Libyan crisis.

Of course Syria is much more complex and sordid than Libya ever was. In Libya it was a straight-forward conflict between the tyrant Qaddafi and the Libyan people fed up with his excesses. In Syria it is that plus sectarian and ethnic fault-lines all crossing over each other and jumbling into a kaleidoscope; borrowing words from Winston Churchill, it’s an enigma rolled into a riddle.

But the most sensitive angle to the Syrian imbroglio is the extraneous factors woven into the crisis.

For one, there is the Israeli angle, which is dear to the western hearts. The Baathists were never kosher to western strategy for Middle East and the Arab world; no mercy was shown to the Iraqi part of it under Saddam. Likewise, Bashar’s father, Hafiz Al Assad, was as much a pariah as Saddam but was tolerated because in his later years he chose to not ignite the demand for the return of the Golan Heights seized by Israel. Bashar continued that policy and was welcomed. In fact, for a while, he was hailed as a moderate and reformer.

U.S and other western powers aren’t so sure how a successor populist regime in Damascus would behave vis-à-vis Israel and, hence, would still prefer to move cautiously and gingerly and not hasten into an early end to the crisis. The rise of the much-maligned (in western eyes) Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as a result of free choice of its people, has already been ringing alarm bells in western capitals and noises of concern for Egypt’s future course of action in regard to their blue-eyed Israel and the peace treaty can be heard, loud and clear.

But, then, there is the rosy prospect of cutting off Iran’s supply lines to Hizbollah in Lebanon-a constant and annoying thorn in Israel’s side and, by implication, also in western sides-with the extinction of the Assad regime in Damascus is too tempting to be passed off. Iran is still the biggest prize on the chessboard of ME. The demise of Assad regime in Syria dangles the added bonus of cutting Iran to size. Western governments would think of themselves as a bunch of naïve poltroons if they were to allow such a glittering prize to slip through their fingers.

But fortune seems inclined to favour the western strategists; they have some Trojan Horses well implanted into the Arab camp; wealthy oil producing autocratic regimes that allow no freedoms to their own people but are all game to roll out their billions to support and bankroll the cause of the Syrian people against their own corrupt and tyrannical regime. The likes of Saudi Arabia and tiny Qatar are in the forefront of countries ensuring the supply of weapons to the Syrian liberation forces camped in Turkey. The latter has its own axe to grind with Assad and is playing along. But Turkey can’t be unmindful of the fallout from the demise of Assad regime in Syria, especially the ethnic Pandora box that could pose some tough choices for Ankara in regard to its own Kurdish minority.

That’s how the Syrian imbroglio looks at the moment. The western governments, despairing in Afghanistan, are getting into the act in Syria because their covert involvement there holds a more promising outcome. They aren’t averse, at all, to wreak havoc on the lives of peoples considered inferior just as their forebears carved out colonies and empires to whet their appetites for aggrandizement. The jaded mantra of the white man’s burden remains their guiding star.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 August 2012 on page no. 18

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