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A tale of two invasions

Imperialism’s legacy in Afghanistan

Published Sep 9, 2010 11:07 PM

On Aug. 31, USA Today reported 1,985 NATO coalition deaths in Afghanistan, with 1,248 of them U.S. troops. More than 7,000 have been seriously wounded.

July and August were the most costly months to NATO forces in almost a decade of war and invasion. The Pentagon is attempting to carry out its ballyhooed “surge,” which is supposed to get the U.S. out of the quagmire it has created for itself in Afghanistan.

Of course, these numbers pale when compared to deaths of the Afghan civilians and freedom fighters who, according to one conservative estimate, have suffered nearly 20,000 deaths.

Conservative pundits such as Charles Krauthammer have already begun to blame the Obama administration for a potential defeat. He accuses Obama of “giving our enemy sustenance” by even mentioning the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by July 2011. (Washington Post, Sept. 5) Most people, in the U.S. and around the world, think the date should be much sooner.

An imperialist legacy

In 1839, the British government decided to invade Afghanistan, ostensibly to forestall the Czarist Russian government from increasing its influence there. Their real reason was to support the expansion of the British East India Company.

The British achieved some initial “success”: they killed a lot of Afghans, installed a puppet government and settled down for a long occupation. Large bags of gold, literally, were handed out to buy off traditional tribal leaders.

Three years later, an entire British army of more than 14,000 men lay dead along the banks of the Kabul River, slaughtered as they tried to escape through the mountain passes. The headless, dismembered corpse of the chief British general hung in the marketplace of Kabul, while the Afghan puppet ruler attempted (unsuccessfully) to convince other Afghans that he had helped persuade the British to leave. (Steven Tanner, “Afghanistan: A Military History,” Da Capo Press, 2009)

The British tried again in 1878, and again they failed. However, before they withdrew, they “preserved British honor” by massacring whole villages and hanging militants from almost every lamppost in Kabul.

In 1893, the British imperialist government in India decided to draw a border between Afghanistan and British India (which included modern Pakistan). Having failed disastrously in two previous attempts, the British goals were to grab as much of the land and population of Afghanistan as they could, establish a defensive perimeter and control the vital passes through the Hindu Kush mountains.

Afghanistan lost a third of its population and some of its most fertile land, the Peshawar region, in what is today northwestern Pakistan. These are the so-called Northwest Territories, a center of resistance to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and home to 25 million ethnic Pashtuns. Pashtuns also comprise more than 50 percent of the population of Afghanistan.

The British never went back until 2001 — when they joined the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan.

This same region has suffered from unprecedented flooding recently, with more than 14 million people affected. More than 1 million people are still stranded and starving. The U.S./U.N. response of $460 million in aid was recently dwarfed by private Muslim charities, which contributed $1 billion from around the world. More is needed.

However, the principal concern of mainstream pundits has been that the Taliban — which was among the first to offer aid to the victims — may “take advantage” of the flooding to increase their influence. To make their point, the U.S. launched a drone attack that killed an unknown number of people in Peshawar while the flooding was still in progress.

The U.S. seems to be following the template laid down by the British in the nineteenth century. Whether events will turn out the same, or whether the U.S. ruling class will learn from history, remains to be seen.