Roger Morris / Globe and Mail – 2007-03-08 23:23:30
Afghanistan: Another Ill-fated Attempt?
Roger Morris / Globe and Mail
(March 1, 2007) — ‘I heard a loud boom,” US Vice-President Dick Cheney said of the suicide bomb at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, where he stopped over this week. Said to be aimed at Mr. Cheney himself, the attack left him untouched but killed 21 Afghan workers and two Americans — more casualties in Afghanistan’s 30-year, million-and-a-half-dead civil war.
One hopes the Vice-President heard more than a “boom.” Bagram thunders with relevant ghosts, many of them American.
In the fourth century BC, Bagram was a fort in one of the first of so many ill-fated attempts to subdue the Afghans. Even Alexander’s campaign-hardened Macedonians were shocked when the local insurgents left battlefield dead to devouring wild dogs. It was religious practice for ancient Afghans, but for the invaders, a telling mark of a people capable at once of tender poetry and chivalrous hospitality along with the most ferocious, indomitable resistance to conquest.
Bagram was a mocking ruin as Britain came and went in the 19th century to parry imperial Russia in the Great Game. The English killed, tortured, bribed and subverted the Afghans, and in the end, like Alexander’s legions, left their bones to bleach at Gandamak and on the stony plain of Maiwand, west of Kandahar.
They left, too, the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan from the subcontinent. Cut for colonial convenience through the heart of Pashtun tribal lands, the fateful boundary still makes Pakistan the furtive nemesis of Afghan stability, and the inconsolable frontier a sanctuary for the Taliban.
The Cold War brought Bagram back to life in the mid-1950s as an air base for the old Afghan royal regime. Having begged in vain for US help — Washington thought the Hindu Kush of no strategic value and preferred the crisp military dictators in Pakistan as clients — the Afghans turned to Russia to modernize their armed forces.
As Bagram hummed with Soviet advisers and MiGs, America took up the competition, and the Great Game continued as the CIA relentlessly used Afghanistan to spy on Soviet Central Asia, feeding perennial Russian fears and the inevitable counterintrigues.
Intent on each other, both superpower rivals dispensed their foreign aid wares — and a corrupt Kabul oligarchy took them — heedless of the impact. As aid spawned an educated class without jobs, as the army grew better armed but no better paid, as grinding poverty only worsened, the turmoil built that would plunge Afghanistan into disaster, and haunt the world into the next century.
Bagram was always emblematic. The neutrality of its officers allowed strongman Mohammed Daoud to overthrow the venal monarchy of King Zahir Shah in 1973. Five years later, it was from Bagram that a leftist commander launched his jet fighters with withering effect on Daoud’s presidential palace in a communist coup neither Moscow nor Washington expected — and the Soviets soon regretted more than Washington.
Into Bagram then poured Soviet advisers and materiel in the Kremlin’s vain attempt to shore up a weak, divided communist rule in Kabul that remained typically Afghan, and thus fiercely independent of its patrons. The regime’s reforms were crudely anti-religious and culturally insensitive, though laudably democratic in land reform and the education of women. A reactionary Islamic revolt was ignited that the US, Pakistan, China, and, briefly, the tottering Shah of Iran, quickly moved to foment with covert arms and training.
Results were horrific. When a CIA-and Iranian-instigated Islamic uprising in Herat massacred hundreds of Russian aid workers and their families in March, 1979 — the bloodiest episode in the history of foreign aid — sorties from Bagram indiscriminately bombed monuments, homes and schools even after rebels had left, killing as many as 20,000.
In the face of a deliberate US policy to provoke a Soviet invasion — “giving to the USSR its Vietnam War,” as national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told president Jimmy Carter — we know from the post-Soviet release of Politburo minutes that the Kremlin warily resisted what some knew would be a disaster.
When that trap was sprung, it was Bagram that saw an elite KGB unit kill Afghan president Hafizullah Amin in a 1979 coup to replace his regime with a more agreeable puppet. It was Bagram’s runways that took wave after wave of Soviet invasion forces, whose masters expected a victorious, low-casualty show of force lasting only months.
It was Bagram that saw the last troops leave more than nine years later after some of the most savage warfare in history and twice the casualties Moscow admitted.
Over a decade of carnage, the base was a centre of war and portent. Trained by the Americans and Pakistanis with the latest explosive devices and, eventually, Stinger missiles, the mujahedeen constantly stalked Bagram. Tuesday’s attack was in a tradition begun by US-directed car-bombing squads sent to terrorize not only Soviet or Afghan forces but also civilians, including Kabul’s intelligentsia at sites such as movie theatres and cultural events.
After the fall of the Soviets and Kabul’s communist regime, the base was a shifting prize between mujahedeen factions amid the chaos of civil war and the bloody Pakistani-sponsored Taliban.
With the US occupation in 2002, Bagram was expanded as a hub of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s war, with one of its cavernous hangers converted into the most notorious prison in Afghanistan, eclipsing even the infamous Pul-i-Charki outside Kabul where the mujahedeen, the communists, the Daoud regime and the monarchy before them jailed and tortured thousands.
Did Mr. Cheney hear any of it? In the 1970s, as Afghanistan slid to calamity, he was a rising young aide to Don Rumsfeld in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In 1978, as the communists seized power and the US began its covert intervention, he was manoeuvring for a Wyoming congressional seat. In 1979, as Washington provoked and Moscow invaded, he was finishing his first year in the House, positioning for the leadership he gained a decade later.
In the 1980s, as the mujahedeen attacked Bagram, he ardently supported the Reagan administration’s covert wars in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Iran, although he took no interest in the places — like his colleagues, looking the other way amid questions about the drug trade, atrocities, terrorism.
It was all there at Bagram — the consummate folly of corrupt clients, the false valour of historical ignorance, and the presumption once again to conquer the unconquerable in what the Greeks called the “land of the bones.”
A “loud boom” indeed.
Historian Roger Morris, who served on the National Security Council staff under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, is the author of Shadows of the Eagle, a history of US covert intervention and policy in the Middle East and South Asia, to be published this year.
NATO Air Strike Hits Afghan House, Killing Family of 9
The Associated Press
(March 5, 2007) — A NATO air strike destroyed a mud-brick home in the village of Jabar, killing nine members of an Afghan family during a clash between Western troops and militants, Afghan officials and relatives said Monday.
It was the second report in two days of civilian deaths at the hands of Western forces. On Sunday, US marines fired on cars and pedestrians as they fled a suicide attack. Up to 10 Afghans died in that violence, and President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings.
Both times, the U.S military blamed militants for putting innocent lives in danger.
But Karzai has repeatedly pleaded for Western troops to show more restraint amid concern that civilian deaths shake domestic support for the foreign military involvement that the president needs to prop up his weak government — increasingly under threat from a resurgent Taliban.
In the latest incident, militants late Sunday fired on a US base in Kapisa province, just north of Kabul, prompting the air strike on Jabar village.
The strike hit a civilian home, killing four women, four children between the ages of six months and five years, and one elderly man, said Gulam Nabi, a relative of the victims.
Sayad Mohammad Dawood Hashimmi, Kapisa’s deputy governor, confirmed the nine deaths, as did an Interior Ministry official in Kabul, who asked not to be identified because the ministry had not yet prepared a statement.
A US military statement said two men with automatic rifles were seen heading into a compound of five homes after a rocket attack on a US base in the area.
“These men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces,” said Lt.-Col. David Accetta, a US military spokesman. “We observed the men entering a compound and that compound was targeted and hit by an air strike.”
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said coalition forces will always respond in self-defence when fired upon: “It is often the enemy that is putting innocent peoples’ lives in danger by where they’re conducting these attacks on our forces.”
The statement said coalition forces “dropped two 2,000-pound bombs” on the compound after a rocket was fired at the base and armed militants were seen moving into the compound. The US base in Kapisa is about 80 kilometres northeast of Kabul, the capital.
An AP reporter at the scene said a large mud home in a compound of five buildings was destroyed, leaving only bits of mud.
Among those killed were Gulam Nabi’s parents, his sister, his nephew, and four of the extended family’s youngest children.
Retaliation for suicide bombing sparks protests
The news of the air strike came a day after wounded Afghans and witnesses said US marines fired on civilians after a suicide bombing in eastern Nangahar province. The violence, which left up to 10 Afghans dead and 34 wounded, sparked angry anti-US demonstrations by hundreds of Afghan men.
A US official called AP on Monday to say that military authorities believe Sunday’s suicide bombing was a “clearly planned, orchestrated attack” that included enemy fire on the convoy and a pre-planned demonstration.
The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said authorities believed that criminal elements orchestrated the attack and demonstration and that it was related to Afghan efforts to eradicate the region’s profitable opium poppy crop.
He said there was “no doubt in the minds of marines on the ground that they were being fired on.” The official said Afghan casualties could have been caused by militants or by US gunfire.
However, two senior provincial Afghan officials who also asked not to be named said they had found no evidence to corroborate the US military’s claim that militants fired on the Americans. An AP reporter who spoke to more than a dozen witnesses could not find anyone who said they saw or heard incoming militant gunfire.
Akhtyar Gul, who ran outside his home after the suicide bombing, said he saw American troops firing in many directions, and that some bullets struck the wall of his home. He said he saw a woman working in a nearby field struck by American gunfire.
“There was nobody on the street, nobody on the road to fire on the Americans,” said Gul. “The only firing that came toward us was from these American vehicles.”
© The Canadian Press, 2007