America’s Great Game


William Bryant


I began recording the news in November of 2009, the same month that Robert Byron first reached Afghanistan in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression.  I was distressed and outraged by the events in Afghanistan where the US is mired in an imperial war of their own designing and a war which they can in no way “win.” The frustration of the US and coalition forces after nearly ten years of conflict is in some ways comparable to the situation the British faced during the 19th century.


In 1838 the British were mired in the first war in Afghanistan.  They attempted to impose Shuja Shah and his puppet regime on a country that was fiercely opposed to all things foreign, much like today when, in spite of massive coalition struggles, the general population views the “war” as America’s war and Hamid Karzai as a Western tool.  Britain’s move to impose their own man as ruler of the country was short-lived.  There were violent attacks against the British on the streets, increasing daily to such an extent that the situation became untenable.  Finally British troops abandoned Kabul—4,500 regular troops and some 1,200 Hindu soldiers plus hundreds of support staff.  All were slaughtered on their retreat but for one Dr. William Brydon who, along with his quivering servant, was spared  to tell of the destruction of the British army.  There had been no such humiliation of this scale in Anglo-Indian history.

By the time of the Indian uprising in 1857, the Britons had become more acutely aware of Afghanistan as a buffer state, as Russia continued to expand into the area.  In 1865 the Russians annexed Tashkent, then three years later Samarkand became part of the Russian empire.  Russia under the Czar posed a threat to British interests in the region and London was afraid that the Russian would take over the country and eventually try to conquer India.  As unlikely as this was, the Russians had managed to subdue one after another of the Khanates.

During the time of the Great Eastern Crisis of 1878, a Russian mission was dispatched, uninvited, to Kabul.  Nothing resulted.  In the same year a British mission went off to Kabul (now under Shah Ali) and was rudely turned back.  This state of affairs could not be tolerated in London where leaders decided to flex their muscle.  40,000 troops were sent across the border, launching the second Anglo-Afghan war.  This conflict turned out to be almost as disastrous as the first and the British were forced out of Kabul in 1881.  They were however able to install Abdar Rahman Khan on the throne before they took flight.  Abdar Rahman was a monarch who maintained power with efficiently ruthless measures.  In a sense, Britain had got what it wanted even after their shameful retirement.  The Great Game, as it was called, by this time had developed into a kind of madness, a madness that would continue through the 1930s and beyond and which was obvious during the time that Robert Byron traveled in the region.

The 19th century saw much of Afghan territory—and autonomy—handed over to Britain.  Thousands of British troops patrolled the “protected areas” along the frontier.  Lord Curzon eventually changed this policy, using mainly Afghan troops with British officers to police the border or, as it was established in 1901, the North West Frontier Province.  The Durand Line separated the Pashtun territories. British hegemony in the area was made more secure--along with the Persian Gulf which became practically a British waterway (Lord Lansdown proclaiming a kind of Monroe Doctrine to make sure of that).

Conflict in the area became more rare.  Russia had gotten much of what it wanted and the borders of British India were secure.

However, by 1907 both Czarist Russia and Britain became increasingly alarmed by Germany’s involvement in the Middle East.  They agreed to work together against a common enemy in the Anglo-Russian Convention of that year.  By this time the world was already slipping toward the cataclysmic conflict of the First World War.

After the war there was a period of relative peace in Afghanistan.  King Amanullah, who ruled from 1919 to 1929, became uncomfortably aware that Afghanistan was relatively backward in comparison to other countries in the region that were rapidly developing.  On a tour of Turkey in 1927 the king was immensely impressed by the modernization that Ataturk had brought about and came home determined to follow his example.  Reforms were put into place, including outlawing the veil, establishing co-ed schools and in article 68 of the constitution making elementary education obligatory.

King Amanullah’s forward-looking attempts at the overhaul of the Afghan nation ended in abject failure.  He was forced to abdicate by the armed forces under Habibullah Khan.  Habibullah’s reign was short and bitter: he was himself wrenched from power and murdered by Prince Mohammed Nader Khan, who wisely favored more gradual modernization.  In 1933 Nader Khan himself was assassinated by a crazed Kabul student and was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Mohammed Zahir Shah.  At last there was to be some kind of lasting  stability as the country balanced between the opposing empires—Britain and the Soviet Union, who were  soon to be mired in the Second World War.

Afghanistan remained basically isolated from the turmoil of the World War, maintaining its ambiguous situation as buffer state.  It even managed to keep its distance from the new power in the region, Pakistan.  Zahir Shah ruled comfortably for forty years, with the help and connivance of a widespread network of cousins, uncles and closely related family members.  Then, in 1973, while he was on an overseas visit, the Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud Shah, instigated a bloodless coup, becoming the country’s first president.

By the late 1970s Afghanistan found itself not only squeezed between the USSR and India but under pressure from the United States which, under the ill-advised Jimmy Carter (along with a number of other interested Cold War allies), funneled arms and financial support to the Mujahadeen in order to hold off the Russians.  Thus the early Taliban movement was nurtured by the people who would have most to lose by supporting them.


What would have happened in Afghanistan if the US and its coalition partners had not invaded after 9/11, bringing down the Taliban regime that had lasted some five years?  The Taliban had served their purpose and could be dispensed with, having battled the Russians and kept the Middle East from the threat of a Communist takeover.  The Russian occupation, from 1979 to 1989, occurred in the face of international outrage and ended like the British invasion during the 19th century, in ignominious withdrawal.

The Mujahedeen, the Taliban, strict Islamists, even managed to bring corruption if not to a halt at least to a snail’s pace.  There was definitely peace in the country during the 1990s.  The Afghan people complained about idiotic fundamentalist strictures on their lives, widely publicized by the international media, and while struggling against young fanatics they went about their business as they have for thousands of years.  Then the events of 9/11 blasted their dreams and led to the occupation of foreign forces again.  This time it was the US leading the way, with the complicity of the international community.

I think of Afghanistan with longing and regret.  The mountains are always there, a snowy backdrop to the insanity of history.  The small farms growing abundant crops of poppies as well as vegetables and fruit., and their fabled orchards are the scene of picnics, games and profound sleep.  The people with their wry sense of humor, a delicious appreciation of absurdity.  First the British, then the Russians, and now the Americans.  But there has never been such a constant threat of death and devastation as there is today.  The Americans insist that the Afghans must be saved from the “insurgents” and “terrorists” and “rebels” and that the corrupt government in Kabul, a president propped up by the US, must be recognized and respected.

The Afghan people, good Muslims, refuse to respect thieves and murderers, but they do recognize and respect money.  Any success the US might have in Afghanistan will be achieved with the power of money.  And there is a lot of money in play.


In August of 2009 General Petraeus, the Supreme Commander, selected his old friend Stanley McChrystal to take charge of operations in Afghanistan.  McChrystal, oddly similar to Petraeus in many ways, wassupposedly an expert in counter insurgency techniques and sure to turn the war around—a war that had been going on with no success in sight year after year.  The new man—dedicated, intelligent, ascetic--at once declared himself skeptical of winning the war unless some 40.000 troops could be brought in.  The Administration in Washington finally agreed on 30,000 to help in the changed strategy against the Taliban.  The media published the good news that General Petraeus saw progress in the Afghan war, even while noting that the Pentagon was worried about President Obama’s sincere commitment to the war.

Groundwork was instantly put into position for the increase in troops—at this time US troops numbered about 68,000, more than half of the combined coalition forces.  Even as these plans were being implemented, explosions were killing off more US troops---47 in August alone--which was reason enough for concern and skepticism about the “good news” from the front (if there was a front).

The media meanwhile continued their linguistic ballet, having already categorized the Taliban as “insurgents” while ignoring the fact that the Taliban first of all were Afghans.  The war in Afghanistan, like the war in Iraq, a US fabrication, was already in a state of transformation, according to Richard Holbrooke.  It had been a long and hazy war already, eight years of constant frustration and failure—but in effect the war had been going on not since 2001 but since the administration of Jimmy Carter who had been convinced by associates that funding the Mujahedeen would raise a barrier to Communism.

America was, as usual, playing the role of good guy on the international stage, ignoring the fact that they were in the country illegally.  Already, announced Richard Holbrooke, hundreds of experts in law, agriculture, engineering and government were at the ready to be deployed to Afghanistan.  He didn’t mention that Afghanistan was a country that before the invasion had enjoyed steady improvements in infrastructure, had a well-established judicial system (both sharia and civil courts), a functioning security system and military, agricultural efficiency (after 50,000 years of cultivating the soil in small plots), and a government that was capable of normal day-to-day functions.  The country had water, power, roads and bridges, and a medical organization that was, if not to US standards, a great deal better than many third-world countries, and schools, lots of schools.   The Afghans were not begging for help.


It has taken nine years for the US and its coalition partners to conclude that they cannot win against determined guerrilla fighters.  Their high-tech weapons are all but useless in this kind of war.  The Americans have not learned what is obvious—you cannot win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people if you are an occupying power backing a corrupt government, slaughtering civilians and creating social havoc everyplace in the country.

Some experts reason that you can do nothing more at this stage of the game than retire from the field of combat, pay off the Afghan people and hope for the best.

“What will the Taliban do once the Americans leave?” an Afghan farmer was asked.

“Put down their weapons and drink tea with us,” the man said.


MARCH, 2010

[It is almost six months since I started this narrative of daily events and nothing has changed.  The untenable and dangerous “outposts” continue to sit in remote areas, patrols go out in search of shadow Taliban, convoys roar and rattle along the highways and are often stopped by immense explosions from IEDs, civilians continue falling from suicide bombers and ”accidents” on the part of coalition forces and the “pinpoint accurate” drones.  The military leaders sit in front of their computer screens like robots and nothing changes.  Nothing.  People are dying.  A country is  destroyed.  And nothing changes.  Nothing.]

In Kabul President Karzai is busy managing the media.  Reporters have been told that there will be a ban on live coverage of bombings and attacks by militants, with punitive measures taken against journalists who do not comply.  This comes as no surprise.  Last year a similar directive was issued by the Karzai government and journalists were warned not to broadcast “any incident of violence” during the hours of polling in the August elections.  Since the war began the media in Afghanistan and the US have been tightly controlled.  Frank Rich gives a clear vision of what was happening in ”The Greatest Story Ever Sold”:

The White House expected obedience not merely from entertainers but from the press—and mostly it got it.  The post-9/11 presidential address to Congress was all it took for Washington to uncork a Hollywood fairy tale. . . . Press adulation was not all the White House wanted, it also wanted control.  When the United States made its first strikes in Afghanistan in October, there were no pictures available—except from Aljazeera, the Arab network based in Qatar, whose live shots of nighttime antiaircraft fire around Kabul were conveyed on the American cable-news networks.  It was also Aljazeera that, on the very first day of U.S. military action, broadcast a video in which Osama bin Laden threatened further terrorism.  Bin laden was preceded on screen by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who asked, “American people, can you ask yourselves why there is so much hate against America?”

To counteract this propaganda, America fashioned some of its own, even as it experimented with restricting information by canceling a routine daily Pentagon press briefing. The Defense Department’s footage in networks included a hokey shot of the launch of a Tomahawk missile set against the backdrop of the American flag. Pilots from the first Afghanistan missions were made available to a pool of reporters. All their news from the front was good news. There were few means for verifying it. Once the bombing of Afghanistan began, press access to U.S. troops was restricted for months, so that Americans learned about even the war’s red-letter events, like the fall of Mazar-i-Sherif, only secondhand.

Pakistan remains a sticky problem but hardly analyzed in depth in the media. Reaction against the government and against the US grows daily. As Karen Armstrong notes, in Pakistan “Muslim activists who feel coerced by the state look towards the fundamentalist government of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.” The Taliban who came to power in Afghanistan in 1994 are affected by Sayyid Qutub’s philosophy, which they have carried to extremes, and they are at one with the extremists of Pakistan who see the US-backed Pakistani government as an enemy of Islam.

The outgoing UN representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, says he has always been keen on engagement with the Taliban, in contrast with the Americans who want to see them eradicated.  It is, he insists, high time that talks were held, after eight years of fruitless and deadly conflict.  His idea has finally gained ground, but there is no hope of dialogue while the Taliban do not give up their ties to al-Qaeda.

While the war bumbles along, American firms are making money hand over fist from projects badly planned and ineptly carried out without consultation with the appropriate Afghan ministries.  A major project to supply electricity to Kabul has faltered, cost overruns have ballooned (from about $100 million to over $300 million) and the city of over 600,000 remains in darkness.  US contractors come up with excuses, that of poor diesel generators that broke down or were corroded, and corruption on the part of the Afghan administration.  Meanwhile Afghanistan buys what little electricity it enjoys from neighboring countries, at a price well below that of the US plant.  The major part of the $51 billion to $71 billion being pumped into Afghan reconstruction goes to the armed forces and police.  Now there is talk of cutting off Blackwater from a billion dollar contract to train Afghan security forces.  Other contractors are lining up for the money—but working in Afghanistan is next to impossible given the political and social conditions.


The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a gray area, dangerous in the extreme—the real wild west of the Middle East—and ill-marked. As it was established in 1893, the Durand Line (named for the foreign secretary of India at that time and signed by him and Emir Abdar Rahman Khan). This was helpful in defining their respective shares of influence, recognizing Afghanistan as a Great Game buffer zone between Britain and Russia. The line cuts through what is now the Pashtun tribal areas and is another monument to the blindness of imperial border creators. The frontier area is alive with wild individuals armed with guns and assault weapons. Smuggling is common and there is a bustling drugs trade. Beluchis and Afghans pass freely over the border, where no passports are necessary.


The war in Afghanistan is beginning to seem like a video game.  NATO is revising night battle tactics: if they can’t see the enemy during the day how can they see them at night?  Every day the US military reinvents the war.  Even if they finally subdue Helmand province, they still have 1,500 miles of porous border to take care of, and the whole country is still mired in violence.  The Taliban are operating at will as the elections loom.

In the Muslim world societies of our sort would not be tolerated, certainly not in the fundamentalist Islamic state that the Taliban seek to establish.  Not that alcohol and drug use are uncommon in places like Afghanistan, or even in the Wahhabi paradise of Saudi Arabia.  There is nothing in the opinion pages of the newspaper or from the CNN pundits about the use of hashish and alcohol in the Middle East, nor anything except sheer ignorance concerning homosexuality.  But then there is very little about the life of the people in the Middle East or their culture in general.  Even in classically “authentic” movies like Lawrence of Arabia Peter O’Toole is shown cramming food into his mouth with his left hand.  A bleeding-heart piece on the plight of the poor in Afghanistan exposes that people are “forced to eat and sleep on the floor.”  All over the Middle East people sleep on the floor and also eat on the floor around a common platter (the ultimate democratic custom according to Elias Canetti).

Lord Curzon had much to say about the East and its relation with Britain.  Edward Said quotes a passage from a speech he made to the House of Lords on September 27, 1909 which seems relevant:

[O]ur familiarity, not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, feelings, their traditions, their history and religion, our capacity to understand what may be called the genius of the East, is the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won, and no step that can be taken to strengthen that position can be considered undeserving of the attention of His Majesty’s Government.

In spite of “pop-bottle” bombs, the Iraqi elections are stumbling forward, with, it is said, 60 percent of the electorate turning out.  With what results no one can know, since results will take months to determine and will be certain to be challenged.

Victory in Marjah is a joke.  President Karzai is met with downright hostility as he visits what is left of the town with his top military leaders.  At a meeting with several hundred locals, they told him of their outrage at what has happened.  A well-respected elder is quoted as saying that the warlords who have ruled them for eight years have hands stained with the people’s blood—they have killed hundreds and they are still ruling the nation.  “Now we have destroyed irrigation canals, and schools and homes have been taken over by the Americans.”  The old man adds, “You have said on the radio that you want our children to go to school, but how can we educate our children when the schools are turned into military bases?  The Taliban never built their bases in the schools.”  There is no record of President Karzai’s reply.

Secretary of Defense Gates meets with General McChrystal in Kabul and says that “we are going to secure Kandahar.”  This will be the next major fiasco after Marjah.  US troop levels will reach 100,000 soon.  Such a massive force should be able to destroy a lot of buildings and kill a lot of civilians, who continue to suffer more than the insurgents.  Such statements for the press please President Karzai, secure behind phalanxes of foreign security guards.  He is still trying to go down the path of reconciliation, however, offering defectors money, jobs, vocational training.  There is not much response.  If the US begins to pull out, as President Obama insists, as soon as 2011, Karzai does not have much time left—but he will figure something out, something that will get him through until 2014, when his term in office ends.


Secretary Gates goes on to visit Now Zad, near Marjah, where, heavily guarded, he walks a scruffy street avoiding the ruts, in what was once a no-go zone.  The glib report on the visit notes that four years ago the Taliban seized this small market town and forced the entire population to flee.  Nothing about why they seized the town or how they got rid of the thousands of inhabitants.

The actions of the US in Afghanistan are fueling the recruitment of young Muslim recruits to al-Qaeda, the Haqqani and other extremist groups.  How does the US plan to get at these people, whose base of operations lies outside the country?  Attacks on al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and Yemen would be seen as attacks on sovereign nations and a violation of international law.  You cannot simply buy off extremists.  The smashing of antiquities, the destruction of giant Buddhas are emblematic of the primitive agrarian mindset which can only change over many years.  This mindset, however, is not consistent with the many educated, highly trained foreign terrorists, mostly from Britain and Germany, who are committed to carrying out bombings and suicide missions.  This is a different kind of fundamentalism.


I am heartened by a Congressional resolution calling on President Obama to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the troops home.  It fails in the House, but Secretary Gates, still in Afghanistan, suggests that US troops might indeed begin an early withdrawal—a remark that infuriates President Karzai, who accuses the US of playing a double game, having created the terrorists “and now they say they’re fighting terrorists. . . . Your country is located on the other side of the world, so what are you doing here?”  The meeting of the two is not a success, and no one expects the US to pull out any time soon.  In Karzai’s view, the US will have to stay for ten or twenty more years in order to sort things out.

New concern about al-Qaeda and Yemen surfaces with the arrest of an American Muslim, Sharif Mobley, a young Black who killed a guard in a shootout while trying to escape from custody.  The man is American-born, of Somali background, one of many US Muslims involved with al-Qaeda and trained in Yemen.  This brings on flashes of concern about Yemeni involvement in international terrorism, soon forgotten.

As to be expected, the Sunnis in Iraq are accusing their opponents of vote-rigging in the elections.  At any rate the Sunnis are certain to come out of this on the short end of the stick.  In Afghanistan, President Karzai and his cronies will remain in charge of the government in spite of well-documented voter fraud.


How are the orchards, fields and gardens of Kandahar now?  This weekend there were five blasts and four suicide bombers in this spiritual capital of the Taliban.  In 2008 blasts ripped open the prison, freeing hundreds of criminals and suspected terrorists (according to a NATO report), but this time the prison walls are heavily fortified and a repeat is not made.  Government officials in the city find it impossible to keep order and the residents are terrified since the announcement by General McChrystal that Kandahar will be the site of the next major offensive.


Anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in Catholic countries. In France anti-Muslim politicians have won big in the elections. Minarets are outlawed in Switzerland. Plots to kill the Swedish cartoonist who depicted Mohammed “disrespectfully” are foiled by arrests of Muslims in the US and Ireland. Europeans are said to be uneasy about the growing Muslim minority.


A harbinger of things to come:  al-Maliki appears on TV to explain that his recent visit to a hospital was not the result of an assassination attempt but only for the removal of a cyst.  Talk of assassination is in the air.  In Afghanistan President Karzai is only alive because of the numerous bodyguards supplied by the US.  It is obvious that neither al-Maliki and Karzai would survive if US and coalition forces were withdrawn.

Congratulations: in Afghanistan three suicide bombers are foiled.  A rocket attack on Bagram military base kills only one.  There are 24,000 military personnel and civilian contractors living at Bagram, the largest base in the country, with an air field of some 5,000 acres, which has been expanded to accommodate the influx of 30.000 new troops that are arriving.  Meanwhile, in Marjah a US Marine is killed in a non-combat related incident.  In the southwest part of the country a US drone aircraft crashes—but not, the military is quick to note, certainly not due to enemy fire.

In Afghanistan, General McChrystal is given command of all NATO and US forces in the eastern part of the country.  It seems (in a report to the Senate) that he expects to drive the Taliban out, even though no one has been able to drive the Taliban out in almost a decade.  Taliban fighters continue to zip around the country carrying their assault rifles and grenade launchers, attacking even heavily fortified bases, creating havoc on the streets and blowing up US and coalition convoys with IEDs, suicide bombers exploding like firecrackers.  General McChrystal’s strategy will include changes in rules of engagement, a concern to protect civilians, a campaign of cozying up to the Afghan people.


In Marjah, while the new “definitive” offensive is being prepared against Kandahar, the inhabitants are increasingly terrified, undergoing threats from the Taliban—but weren’t the Taliban routed, weren’t they either killed or simply fled?  The threats include reprisals if there is any cooperation with the invaders, i.e. the US Marines and the handful of Afghan and coalition forces that were involved in the battle for the town.  At least one government official has been beheaded, and there are reports of others.  There are real fears in Marjah that lands will be lost, that military outposts will be used to spy on their womenfolk.  They also fear that homes and schools will be taken over by the military—but this has already happened.   US propaganda is working overtime.  The military goals are supposedly to create security, to provide jobs, to get children vaccinated and give them schooling.  Also the McChrystal-style assertion—that the US and its allies are determined to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to prove that they are capable of long-term reconstruction.

During their five years in power, as I have noted, the Taliban crushed corruption, provided services such as electricity and sewage disposal, provided education (not solely for males), and created a community of devout believers.  The country was not cut off from the rest of the world, but it was a society islanded in an absurd system of prohibitions.  The Taliban were not terrorists; the US created the terrorists.

Cell phone service has been cut at night in Afghanistan, since tower operators are bribed or threatened to shut off operations, presumably so that people cannot alert police or security as bombs are planted during the dark.

Pakistan has arrested five US jihadists.  These men are certainly not typical Taliban or al-Qaeda members, nor perhaps truly conservative Muslims.

Conservative Islam is still deeply imbedded in the rural culture of Afghanistan, but the country is not wholly backward and unable to change, as anyone who has traveled there knows.  Afghanistan’s leaders have never been able to draw the majority into a more secular culture.  The attempts, during the early 20th century, to follow Turkey’s lead and impose modernity on the people failed miserably.  There was no powerful figure such as Ataturk to inspire and dictate.  But Afghans have developed a higher educational system, have gone abroad to study, and there is—has always been—a class of educated, cultivated, sophisticated individuals in the country, for the most part in urban areas.  Economic necessity, ambition and willingness to change are all part of what will eventually result in a new Afghanistan—not the forced development, the reconstruction, that the US envisions.


What happened to the victory in Marjah?  The Tucson Daily Star prints a photo of US Marines on patrol in the region, pointing their rifles from the vantage point of a dry irrigation canal.  Who are they pointing at?  Weren’t the Taliban dislodged and didn’t they flee?  The caption reads that the US Marines in Marjah are still encountering resistance.

Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who stepped down from his post in Afghanistan, now expresses disgust at the arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan. This, he says, will effectively derail talks with Taliban aimed at ending the war.  It now seems that secret talks have been going on for months.


In mid-March, thirteen Afghans die in ongoing violence.  Violence does not abate despite President Karzai’s claims to be in talks with insurgents.  These, he hopes, will lead to some sort of reconciliation and an end to the war.  A “peace jerga” is scheduled for late April or early May.  Helmand province is the scene of mayhem, as usual, where a suicide bomber kills ten civilians and wounds seven others.  In Khost province in southern Afghanistan two civilians die when a bomb explodes  near a crowd celebrating the Afghan New Year.  Joint Afghan and coalition forces shoot and kill an old man who they thought posed a threat to them.  In Kabul rockets manage to strike the military complex and the airport; one lands in the city.

Hisbi-Islami, a group originally led by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is now reported to be presenting terms for peace which include a stipulation that all foreign troops be removed from the country by July, 2010, hardly possible since additional US troops are streaming into Afghanistan in large numbers.  The Hisbi-Islami also want a new constitution, a melding of the present constitution with earlier versions.

The fighting, like an incurable disease, goes on.  NATO reports that three service members were killed on Monday by explosions in southern Afghanistan.  There is talk that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar may defect—he was a leader in counter Soviet fighting but during the civil war that followed fell out of favor with the US who branded him a “global terrorist” in February 2006.  Will the US remove this label in order to get insurgents to the bargaining table?  The talks with Hisbi-Islami toward reconciliation are ever more tenuous.


News comes that the Saudis have arrested about a hundred terrorists who were planning attacks on oil installations.  Facilities at Abqaiq and Ras Tanura, where I worked for some time, no doubt figured in their plans.  Only a handful of these terrorists were Saudis, others came from other Gulf countries, notably Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s traditional enemy, where they received their training at al-Qaeda camps.

The conflict is spreading, and the US and Western forces have still not learned anything about the region or the people there.  Even the most wacko hippy hitchhikng through Afghanistan on the Soviet-built highway during the 70s and 80s, on a trail in search of illumination in the East, knew more about the local culture, customs and people than most of the experts inhabiting the corridors of the Pentagon, not to mention the wordy pundits appearing on TV talk shows.

Talk continues about the Hisbi-Islami, with unconfirmed reports that the group has contacted the UN and the European Union about an agreement ending the war.  Meanwhile deaths continue to pile up.

On March 20th Prince Charles visits Afghanistan where British troops are next to US in number of deaths.  Otherwise, there is a selective blackout of all significant news.

No news, for example, about the Saudi arrests of terrorists, nor of the active training camps of al-Qaeda in Yemen, nor of the buildup of coalition forces in Kandahar, nor of the growing sentiment in the Middle East against Israel, now determined to develop settlements in the eastern part of Jerusalem which they claim as their capital, nor of the developing situation in Marjah.

The Arab League meets and decides to negotiate—to open talks—with the Iranians and to back Palestine in its struggle to prevent Israeli development in east Jerusalem.


A busy weekend for Obama.  He makes a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan.  At the end of March in Kabul he has talks with President Karzai, certainly about the problem of corruption in his government.  At Bagram Airfield he addresses the troops, bolstering morale as the additional forces are set to arrive in country. They are readying for the coming major attack in Kandahar.  There is background noise about the infamous CIA prison called the Salt Pit and the death in 2002 of a suspected terrorist held there (put down as from natural causes).  This prison is only one of several in Afghanistan, one of many throughout the world.  In Afghanistan CIA agents are omnipresent, staging raids and ambushes, a force to be feared.  President Obama and Mike Mullen face off with President Karzai in Kabul, as if they owned the place—harping on the dangers the Taliban represent to American interests, including those of American contractors who look forward to a peace or settlement of hostilities in order for them to rake in the fat contracts for which the Pentagon and Department of Defense maintain little or no oversight.

March has been terrible, but April will probably be the cruelest month.  Other nations are getting cold feet.  Secretary Clinton in Ottawa hears that Canada will definitely pull out of Afghanistan in 2011.  Many allies are also wavering in support of a war that has no end in sight.  French President Sarkozy in a Washington visit says he is in favor of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan—but all 42 countries in the coalition make up an insignificant number compared with the US.  Their purpose is also vague, including that of the Canadians making a sweep through Kandahar province destroying villages and terrorizing the population.  The political situation is a joke, with President Karzai a reluctant puppet.


By the end of the month TGI Friday’s, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and other chain restaurants have set up shop in the big bases in Afghanistan.  The military has been enthusiastic about importing American culture, but now General McChrystal is putting a stop to chain restaurants in Afghanistan, since space is needed on flights for military supplies instead of fast food.

The news from Afghanistan is thin.