For Vice Magazine
“Now that the sonovabitch is dead, why is the US still angry with us?”
“Us”, in this conversation, are the Taliban. The SOB in question is Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban's frustration was relayed to me by Yahya Maroofi, Counsellor to Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai – Karzai's Kissinger, if Kissinger had a soul.
The Silk Road nation of Kazakhstan is an excellent place to encounter the dervishes of the Great Game for control of the camel-and-pipeline routes of the Central Asian steppes. Here we can witness the diplomatic-military idiocies of new empires pathetically attempting to ignore the dried skeletons of the imperial forces that went before them.
Maroofi was spending the day in Kazakhstan's capital on his way to little-noticed peace negotiations – little noticed because neither Uncle Sam nor Great-Uncle Britain were invited. Attendance is limited to those frontline states that will be left holding the grenade when the US and UK pull out the pin with the removal of their troops in 2014. The lineup includes Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan (birthplace of the Boston Bombers) and the big new swinging dick on the block, Turkey, as well as Iran, the nation most feared and despised by the Taliban. The unannounced guests, of course, are the Taliban themselves.
I am moved to recount a bit of my lengthy talk with the Afghan minister after reading reams of meretricious bunkum about Afghanistan from the pens of US propaganda repeaters pretending to be reporters. My favourite is, “Hope Seen for Afghanistan After Coalition Leaves,” in the New York Times. To give us an expert view, two American reporters used their 20-column inches to take down the words of General Joseph F Dunford Jr, commander of all “international forces” in Afghanistan. Dunford just arrived in Afghanistan for the first time about 12 weeks ago. He may not know a Tajik from a camel fart, but he does speak fluent Pashto. (I made that last one up because I'm tired of Europeans making fun of Americans for being ignorant of foreign languages.) Notably, the Times article about the future of Afghanistan includes not one word from an Afghan.
But the General does have lots of medals (see?), so I suppose he's as good a source as any.
I did wonder why the Times flew reporters all the way to Kabul to speak to a bewildered US general when they could have saved time and painful immunisations by just copying the Pentagon press releases in Washington. The Times asked “Fighting Joe”, as he's called in his official bio, the only question of concern to the US press: “Will the Afghan troops be able to resume lead responsibility” in killing Taliban? “Yes!” asserted the tourist-general.
So I figured, what the hell, let's ask an Afghan about Afghanistan's future. Maroofi, the minister into whose hands this future falls, takes a different tack entirely. He has no time for the American fixation on whether Afghans will fight the Taliban. He makes it clear that Afghans don't want to fight the Taliban at all. And the Taliban don't want to fight fellow Afghans.
But General Joe wants the Afghan army to prove its mettle in “fighting fellow Muslims and countrymen”, as the Times puts it. It appears the US has a great fear that, without US boots on the ground and drones in the sky, the war will end, and with it, the Great (and very lucrative) Game.
However, it is the hope of most Afghans, and the goal of the Karzai government, not to kill Taliban, but to bring them into the government.
Or, as Maroofi explains, to recognise publicly that “the Taliban are already in the government, in the Parliament, in control of governorships” – but not openly. The talks among the frontline nations are to bring the Taliban back to its roots as a political organisation, not an armed insurgency.
Maroofi notes that there are some kinks to work out: Currently, female members of the Afghan parliament are fearful of attending with their not-yet-public Taliban colleagues.
“Taliban are Pashtun. They are citizens of Afghanistan. They have to have a place in our democracy.” That's not what Uncle Sam wants to hear. President Barack Obama, the Drone Ranger, wants to convert Afghan forces into a kind of drone army, remotely controlled killers keeping the pot boiling.
Afghans, however, have had enough of playing proxy in someone else's war. And they see an opportunity to end the killing. It was taken as a matter of fact by all the Asian diplomats I met that, “The Taliban have been defeated” – militarily, that is; like the US army, they can't advance or hold ground. They are facing fellow Pashtuns (Karzai is one, of course), not the Northern Alliance of minorities that once controlled their opposition. The Taliban can't party like it's 1999.
Plus, the Taliban know there's a four-trillion-dollar carrot awaiting those who sign on to a peace agreement. The US Air Force has conducted a complete aerial survey of Afghan resources and released Russian assays measuring the nation's untapped mineral wealth in gold (in Badakshan), copper (Balkhab), iron (Haji-Gak), cobalt (Aynak), carbonatite (Khanneshin), tin (Dusar-Shaida) and more. Afghanistan could be the Saudi Arabia of rich rocks.
Left out of the published US reports (but something I dug out of old paper CIA files not purged from computers) was the most valuable stash of all: uranium, possibly the world's largest deposit. The Soviets secretly mined the uranium, using only imported Russian workers, until they were chased back home in 1988.
Uranium mining beats the hell out of the opium trade (which is slipping to Myanmar, anyway). The Karzai government's hope is to leave a path to wealth as its legacy, but that wealth can't be dug out until the soil above is free of land-mines and maniacs.
Chinese state companies are lining up in Kabul with shovels and signing bonuses. Maroofi likes Chinese companies – they're more likely to provide jobs than baksheesh. Unlike Western companies.
Baksheesh. Bribes. Corruption. It was this topic that set Maroofi on a long rip. Yes, Afghans have been showered with billions in bribes, backhanders and corrupt deals, but who's paying those bribes? Who's doing the corrupting?
“Karzai told defence contractor Lockheed Martin. You give hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to my family and to my minister's families because you expect to buy influence. You're not getting influence, and you're not getting your money back, either.”
Lockheed’s response is that it is required by US law to give contracts to the “most qualified” bidder, regardless of familial relationships with government. Any government, it seems: Lynn Cheney, Dick’s wife, was once on Lockheed’s Board of Directors.
(Maroofi gave me details of questionable contracts that are poisoning the entire system of governance. I intend to hunt down the facts, so watch this space.)
America’s front pages have been splashed this past week with the CIA’s admission that it has been sending bucket-loads of US currency to President Karzai’s office. No one suggests that Karzai has dipped his own hand into the buckets: the loot is for his dispersal among warlords who need a little TLC. For example, Uzbek berserker Abdul Rashid Dostum boasts of billing the CIA $800,000 per month to stay on the government’s side.
But Karzai simply can't control the buckets of system gone wild. Maroofi is particularly incensed that, “These US companies give millions to governors they know are splitting the money with the Taliban.” One favourite racket is for the Taliban to take millions in bribes (via the governors) to let through shipments of material used to supply US forces in remote areas who are fighting the Taliban.
Right now, the Taliban are ready – if reluctantly – for the peace deal, in order to get a piece of the resource action. And they're astonished that, with that sonovabitch Osama dead, the US still holds a grudge.
Why? Face it: if Karzai can end the war, then the winner of the Great Game is China. After all, the US has almost all the ore it needs under its own soil or within easy grabbing distance from Canada and Latin America. And unlike China, desperate for those gas pipelines from Kyrgyzstan and oil lines from the Caspian, the US has fracked natural gas and oil coming out its arse. Indeed, unleashing Afghanistan's resource riches will only crash the price of commodity reserves held by US companies.
Afghanistan's peace is China's economic life-line and America's commodity price recession.
General Joe is not worried about a sudden outbreak of peace. “You can accuse me of being an optimist and I’ll plead guilty,” as he looks forward to an Afghanistan trapped in a war without end. For US corporations, that means a profit centre without end. That's because, even after US troops go, the military-industrial gravy train – boarded by contractors, special ops mercenaries, “development” agencies and their fixers – will continue to roll.
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Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Armed Madhouse and the highly acclaimed Vultures' Picnic, just named Book of the Year on BBC Newsnight Review.
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For Vice Magazine