Warlords vs democracy in Afghanistan - guess which side the USA prefers

Last January, in a State of the Union Address full of fantasy sequences, this one stood out:
As of this month, [Afghanistan] has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With the help from the new Afghan army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against the surviving members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror — and America is honored to be their friend.
The media lost interest in Afghanistan once the American bombs stopped falling, but the real story has gotten out here and there. A good recent summary of exactly what kind of liberation the Americans brought is in the current Foreign Affairs: Kathy Gannon, "Afghanistan Unbound", May/June 2004.

The country is run not by enlightened rights-protecting men and women, or even by the disturbingly photogenic Hamid Karzai, the nominal president. Rather, a handful of brutal and ruthless warlords have split the country among themselves and, drawing funds and weapons from the United States and other foreign powers, maintain fearful militias to protect their position.

These are the same warlords who the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia built up to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. The same warlords who, after the Soviet withdrawal, tore the country apart in bloody rampages to see who would control it. The same warlords who used extortion, torture, rape, and murder to secure control of their regional fiefdoms.

When the Taliban finally drove the warlords from power in the mid-90s, regular Afghans — despite the incredible repression and Pashtun-chauvinism of the Taliban — celebrated their victory since it rid them of the warlords.

As Gannon writes, these men have stayed true to their pasts. Today,
not only are the warlords complicit in drug-running and corruption, but according to Afghanistan's Human Rights Committee, they are also guilty of abusing and harassing the population. The warlords have stolen peoples' homes, arbitrarily arrested their enemies, and tortured them in private jails....The public has grown disappointed and disillusioned with the international community, which it increasingly blames for failing to deliver on the lofty promises that preceded the U.S. attack on the Taliban. The West has even empowered their former persecutors....The international community also failed to make good on its aid commitments.
This is hardly surprising, since it was never America's intent to liberate Afghans. As I wrote two years ago, the US goal in Afghanistan was
to produce a reliable client government propped up by a US-trained military that provides a permanent base for US troops in the region. Already the American military base at Bagram is being converted into a permanent installation that, along with bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, will cement the American military presence in Central Asia. This greatly advances US efforts to secure control over the major oil and natural gas reserves of Central Asia and provides a key barrier to the reassertion of Russian influence or the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.
The only thing I got wrong was the tactics: instead of building a central government from scratch and an army to enforce its will, expediency-minded Americans simply chose to deputize the warlords, give them free reign outside Kabul, and supply them with weapons and cash. A form of indirect rule all too familiar from the days of empire.

Yet Gannon seems confused. She writes, "The United States is betting that the same men who caused Afghanistan so much misery in the past will somehow lead it to democracy and stability in the future."

Yes, I supppose it's possible that the men making American policy are overly optimistic and amazingly stupid. Perhaps the cable traffic between Zalmay Khalilzad, the American proconsul in Kabul, and Washington discusses at length how being nice to the warlords really will win them over to democracy.

Or maybe democracy is irrelevant to their plans, outside of its uses in rhetoric. You'd think that well-informed American liberals, confronting the 10,000th instance of US government collaboration with murderous autocrats, would figure out that something other than well-intentioned but misguided policy might be at fault.

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