Chomsky on Afghanistan: the West must co-operate with China

IssueOctober - November 2021
28 April, 1998: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) march in Peshawar, Pakistan, to mark the anniversary of fundamentalists entering Kabul at the start of the Afghan civil war. PHOTO: RAWA
Feature by Noam Chomsky, Sarvy Geranpayah

Gulf News: It was only several months ago that you predicted that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would cause the collapse of the Afghan army and the government and that’s exactly what’s happened.

That’s what’s [been] unfolding in the last few weeks, as we’ve seen, and yet we see the Biden administration and others express surprise at what’s happened or at least at the speed at which it’s all happened. Where are your thoughts on that?

Chomsky: The basic problem is one that is familiar in other circumstances – Vietnam, Iraq – the executive branch of the government, the top of the government, is burdened by intelligence information which is rarely accurate.

The people on the ground know what’s happening but, as the information filters up to the top, it gets modified, adapted, to what people want to hear – and they literally don’t know what’s happening.

We saw that over and over again.

If you were not burdened by [US] intelligence [reports] and you were just looking at the facts, it was pretty plain what was going to happen. I don’t say that in retrospect. You can look back at things I was writing months ago.

The [Afghan] government was a morass of corruption which had virtually no support. The army was largely on paper. About half of it probably wasn’t even there – ‘ghost soldiers’.

Others were trained on the American military model, where you rely on very heavy air power [and] mechanised support to try to keep soldiers from really entering directly into combat. They’re not going to win the guerrilla war that way.

Go back to Vietnam. Take the Tet offensive in January 1968, the most astonishing uprising that’s ever happened in military history.

The US had almost 600,000 troops in South Vietnam. There was a South Vietnamese army of 700,000, very well-armed, trained by the US. They were in every village.

Nobody had one word [of advance notice] about the fact that a huge popular uprising [was about to take] place all over the country, completely surprising everyone.

The US had to turn to massive bombardment to try to put it down.

A couple of weeks before that, the generals were telling Washington: ‘We’ve won the war. It’s all over. We can start pulling out troops.’

Okay, we know the mechanisms by which that happens.

Take Iraq.

The Iraqi army that the US had created had about 350,000 well-armed soldiers.

According to the statistics, there were 800 jihadis, 800, coming in pickup trucks waving rifles.

They [the Iraqi army] disappeared.

It happens over and over and you never learn from it.

Gulf News: There are some small pockets of resistance left [in Afghanistan] such as in the Panjshir area and they have openly, publicly asked for support. They’ve said: ‘Give us in particular military support.’

Would it be wise for the US or others to extend their hand to them, or should the policy be as Joe Biden has suggested which is to leave Afghan internal business and possibly civil war to Afghans?

Chomsky: Whatever the policy should be, it should be determined by Afghans. They are the ones who are going to live with the situation. It’s their responsibility, they should be brought actively into the arrangements. They are the ones who have to be in the lead in determining policy. That never crossed anyone’s mind [in the US administration]. I mean, it wasn’t even an option to be considered.

The only option is: how do we do this in the best way for us?

That’s going to be a disaster.

Take the policy of withholding funds from the Taliban. Who does that hurt? The Taliban leadership? They can get the funds from opium sales to Europe. Europe buys the opium which funds the heroin which funds the Taliban.

[Witholding funds] will hurt the population, just as the drone attack yesterday hurt the population.

If the World Bank and the IMF withhold funds, same thing.

It’s the same as sanctions. Who do sanctions hurt?

Suppose you put sanctions on Iran – [they’re] devastating for the population. Does it hurt the leadership?

The sanctions on Saddam Hussein [were] extreme sanctions [that] devastated the population.

The [UN] administrators of the sanctions, distinguished international diplomats, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, they both resigned in protest, one after the other, because the sanctions, they said, were ‘genocidal’.

Did [the sanctions] hurt Saddam Hussein? They benefited him. The population had to shelter under his wings for survival. He had some rationing systems.

“If China and the United States do not co-operate on the major issues, like environmental destruction, pandemics, nuclear war, we’re done. The human species is finished. It’s as simple as that.”

It’s the same, over and over.

The idea in powerful states is: ‘We have force, we monopolise violence. We’ll use it. That’s what we can do. We can use our force. What happens to the victims [is] not our business.’

That was true of the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

20 years ago, the US invaded, not knowing [at the time of the invasion] who was responsible for 9/11.

The people who are at the wrong end of the bombs, they often know what’s happening.

So, right away, the most respected [leader] of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, Abdul Haq, had an interview in which he was asked about the invasion. It was bitterly opposed [by him]. He said: ‘The invasion will just kill a lot of Afghans. It’ll undermine our efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within. The United States is doing it because they want to show their muscle and want to intimidate everyone.’

That’s pretty accurate.

We are getting, finally, 20 years [later], a leaking of the internal records from Donald Rumsfeld and others. We see that’s pretty much true.

Now, it’s conceded that 20 years ago the Taliban offered to surrender and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld said: ‘We don’t negotiate surrenders, we’re going to destroy you.’

Okay, we’re not going to let you live in dignity somewhere, even though we don’t know that you were responsible for 9/11.

Exactly what Abdul Haq said: you want to show your muscle and intimidate everyone.

It wasn’t as clear then as it is now but it was pretty clear. I was writing pretty much that at the time, as were others, but, in a powerful state, you don’t listen. In a well-controlled intellectual community, deeply-indoctrinated, following orders, you don’t ask the questions.

It happens over and over and nothing is learned from it – for a good reason. [It’s] not because people are stupid but [because] that’s the way the institutions are structured. You move into those institutions, that’s the way you behave.

By now, the evidence is simply overwhelming that the American strategy [in Afghanistan] of bombing villages or sending in special forces to break open people’s doors in the middle of the night and arrest somebody... all of this was just creating Taliban [fighters].

It’s very well known.

So, what’s the first reaction of the military when there’s a terrorist attack?

Do the same thing.

Today, we get the news which you could have anticipated – a family of 10 people killed, seven children and infants.

Consequences? It doesn’t take much imagination, especially when it’s been happening over and over for 20 years.

Gulf News: There is a worry that with the Taliban taking over the country, forming a new government, that Afghanistan will become safe haven for the likes of al-Qa’eda. What are your thoughts on whether Afghanistan will become a safe haven for these terrorists? What would that mean for Afghanistan, for the region, and for the world?

Chomsky: Well, first of all, why should we assume that Afghanistan will become a haven for terrorists?

Actually, it’s the United States which is creating the terrorist networks – not by funding them, but by its actions.

Let’s go back to 2001. Al-Qa’eda and bin Laden were in a tiny area at the Afghan-Pakistan border. That’s where the seat of Islamic terrorism [was].

Where is it now?

All over the world.

We’ve given bin Laden the greatest gift he could have imagined.

9/11 was the most successful action in military history.

The United States reacted exactly the way he wanted – by showing our muscle, using force, spreading radical Islam all over the world.

We accelerated it further when we invaded Iraq [and] created the Sunni resistance – ISIS.

Finally, [we were] spreading [it] all over Africa, [the] Philippines, all over the place.

Now, let’s go back to your question.

The Taliban have every reason to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the country.

In 2001, they did keep bin Laden there as part of the tribal culture. The tribal culture is: you give people protection. It’s a tribal society, they live by the deep-seated tribal culture.

There are specialists on tribal societies, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, people like Akbar Ahmed, a highly-respected anthropologist. He has been trying for 20 years to get somebody to listen to this. [He has] a wonderful book about it called The Thistle and the Drone [subtitle: ‘How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam’ – ed].

He’s well-respected, he’s in all the major institutes, and people can’t hear it.

So, the Taliban kept bin Laden there as part of the tribal culture. They didn’t want him around, he was a nuisance, they didn’t want the US attacking.

In fact, they had pretty good relations with the US in the 1990s, they were working on pipeline arrangements and so on, but they couldn’t just kick him out.

Well, when 9/11 happened, they did begin to make offers to allow him to be moved out of the country somehow, maybe sent to an Islamic state for trial or something – or maybe just to totally surrender.

If [that meant] the Taliban leadership could live in dignity, absolutely not.

We have to show our muscle, intimidate everyone, show that we are the boss, we have force, we don’t negotiate surrender.

We’re just going to use our force to smash everything up and make the world look the way we want it to be.

Okay, imperial power.

Gulf News: Trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan. Most of that went to the military but there was some money spent in programmes that were supposed to provide Afghans with the tools needed to build their country, educational programmes, cultural programmes.

Now, we’ve just seen over 100,000 Afghans evacuated out of the country. The UN refugee agency just a couple of days ago predicted that there could be possibly 500,000 Afghans leaving Afghanistan in the next few months.

Many of the people who are leaving the country are the scholars, intellectuals, the young, professionals, the artists. These are the very people that were the hopes of the country, the people that were supposed to build it.

So, with these people gone, investment gone, who’s going to build the country? Is it effectively going back to zero, to start from scratch? Who’s going to help the Taliban build it?

Chomsky: Well, there are a few things to say about that.

First of all, chances that they’ll leave are not very high because the Europeans and the Americans are too sadistic to allow them to enter. You can see it right now.

Okay, they may want to leave but where are they going to go? To Uzbekistan? Tajikistan? To Denmark? To France? Fat chance.

So, what will happen now?

Well, the most hopeful part is China, which has a real stake in Afghanistan. They don’t want Afghanistan to be a base for Islamic terrorists – they’ll be the victims.

Western China, Xinjiang [province], they’ll be the victims if Turkic, Uighur or other terrorist forces have a haven in Afghanistan.

So, I’d be pretty confident that they’ll be trying to help the society develop in some fashion.

They’ll probably try to bring it into the China-based Eurasian/Central Asian system that they’re creating with Russian support – with, by now, Iranian support – the whole complex system that grew out of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, now [known as] ‘the Belt and Road Initiative’.

So, they’ll probably try to bring Afghanistan into that – maybe with some development aid, it’s possible.

They’ll certainly be desperately trying to keep any terrorist groups from forming there.

The US could co-operate on that.

That would, of course, mean co-operating with China.

That’s not permitted. The ‘yellow peril’ is supposed to be the big enemy, so we have to make sure not to co-operate with China, even though US-China co-operation is the basis for survival of the human species.

If China and the United States do not co-operate on the major issues, like environmental destruction, pandemics, nuclear war, if we don’t co-operate on that, we’re done.

The human species is finished. It’s as simple as that.

But it’s not what’s happening.

We [the US] have to be more provocative, we have to show our muscle, new military forces, move the war to space, send an armada into the South China Sea, show who we are.

It’s in the bones, you know.

None of it’s surprising.

If the British were still running the world, they’d be doing the same thing, just as they did when they were running the world.

It’s the nature of imperial power.

China does plenty of horrible things, but that’s not a reason not to co-operate, any more than the fact that the US does horrible things [is] a reason for China not to co-operate.

We have to – and Afghanistan’s a perfect place.

We have the same interests, making sure that some development takes place, that these hundreds of thousands of people – who probably can’t leave – have something there that they can use to build and develop some kind of life.

We can help with that to some extent. Not by drone attacks, but by development projects – real ones not the kinds you do when you occupy a country – run by the people in the country themselves, their leadership.

That’ll include the Taliban, of course.

The fact is: they’re the major force.

It may include what’s left of the warlord system, we don’t know exactly. Probably they’ll be arising again. They already are in the Panjshir valley in the north.

Whatever works out in Afghanistan, we should be working with it, trying to help them from outside, not from on top – jointly with China, maybe Russia.

Russia has a major interest there. Afghanistan is far from the United States but it’s on the border of the Russian Federation. Russia has every reason not to want radical Islam to develop in Afghanistan and influence the states to the north which had been within the Russian sphere.

So there happen to be shared interests, maybe that’s enough.

I wouldn’t expect leadership elements to do it on their own. That’s not their nature, but popular forces could organise internationally, [in] solidarity, to pressure their governments to act in a humane and sane fashion for once.

It would be a break in human history but it could happen.

Gulf News: What are some of the key points that perhaps can be considered to help Afghanistan become a success story, to help Afghanistan or Afghans go back to their country? Many, like my husband, say: ‘I want to be in my own country. I want to help build my country’, but they don’t feel that they can, under the [current] circumstances.

What can be done, whether it’s the US or the neighbours, to help Afghans?

Chomsky: The first thing that can be done is a willingness to accommodate, absorb properly, the people who want to flee and are able to flee. Don’t close the doors to them, as Europe and the United States are now doing. So, the first thing to do is: look into the mirror, see who we are, recognise that we have a responsibility to accept the people who are able to escape.

Second, work jointly with others, with China, with Russia, with Tajikistan, with Middle Eastern countries, to try to help Afghanistan recover in some fashion – in the way that Afghans will determine, not that we will determine.

We’ve demonstrated for centuries how we determine things, leaving the world a smashed-up wreck, so, let them do it. They’ll make mistakes, they’ll do the wrong thing, okay, we’ll try to help.

First, a simple thing we can do is release funds. They need the funds for reconstruction.

Then, jointly, probably mainly with China and Russia, work on some kind of support for internal development programmes.

It’s a shared interest. All the imperial powers have the interest in seeing Afghanistan recover somehow and not fall apart and become a base for the Islamic State, which is just relishing everything that’s happening. They loved the drone attack. Just what they wanted – and it had exactly the effect they wanted.

So, we can continue to support them [Islamic State] as we’ve been supporting al-Qa’eda for 20 years, doing exactly what they want.

Or, we can turn to a different course, undermine them by supporting the societies where they are trying to establish roots, relying on our brutality and violence.

Okay, it’s not a deep secret, it’s right in front of our eyes, we’ve been watching it for 20 years.