PARIS – This city, a meeting point of the Afghan and Central Asian diasporas, is an ideally neutral observatory nowadays to examine all the complex forces unleashed by a process that includes the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the qualification of Iran as a member of an “axis of evil,” the American expansion in Central Asia, and the wider, always evolving war against terrorism.
Let’s start with Afghanistan. Sixty-five percent of the population is female. And 47 percent is less than 14 years old. So the average Afghan is a young woman. The “future of Afghanistan” essentially means the future of this young woman.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people left the country after September 11. One in four Afghans is in exile. For the moment, nobody is inspired sufficiently by the elegance of Hamid Karzai’s robes to come back. On the other hand, many Afghan women delight in comparing the Taliban cultural wasteland, from 1996 to 2001, to the 14 years of communism, from 1978 to 1992. The communists at least provided some education: at the time, 75 percent of women were teachers.
Abdullah Keshtmand, a scholar and specialist on Afghanistan and Central Asia, agrees that “The Taliban implemented a real apartheid. Dari has always been the language of the majority – with a long cultural and historic tradition.” Pashtuns constitute only one-third of the Afghan population, but the Taliban-Pashtun supremacy – ethnic and linguistic – imposed what amounted to racial segregation. Says Keshtmand: “Pashtun political domination was always imposed by decree.” No wonder he is also “surprised that the United Nations has chosen a loya jirga [grand council] as a solution” to the Afghan drama: “It’s not really democratic. It’s an arbitrary nomination [of a leader].”
Afghan writer Latif Pedram, spokesman for the Movement for the Afghan National Congress, agrees: “We cannot institute a democracy from the outside.” Pedram accuses the US-sponsored interim political project of “eliminating all the real forces of society. Hamid Karzai has not the same amount of power as Ismail Khan, commander Fahim or commander Dostum. There are more than 1 million armed people in Afghanistan. How can you apply political solutions under these circumstances?”
Pedram insists Afghanistan “is not a nation-state.” He says the “only solution for the UN would be the constant presence of foreign troops. The Americans would like to see the composition of a national army – which represents the power of a nation-state. But this is impossible when you have an inter-ethnic war. It’s impossible to disarm all the mujahideen factions.”
So is there a solution for Afghanistan? Pedram says, “We could move towards free elections, or we could move towards a federal system: Afghans are not ready to accept a monarchy, unless it is imposed.” And unlike some excited Western fashion magazines, Pedram thinks there’s still a long way to go for women’s lib in Afghanistan: “Freedom for women, for the moment, does not go beyond the Sunni faith.”
Iranian women, under Shia imperatives, may have to wear a chador, but are much less encircled, in terms of work opportunities and access to education, than their Sunni counterparts.
Iranian scholar Abdullah Mostofi, a specialist on Iran and Afghanistan, observes that post-Cold War US politics has always focused on “preventing the reconstitution of the Russian Empire.” The imperative remains, of course – now ironically with the help of a wealthy Arab. Mostofi points out that “Osama didn’t know how much he would change the world.” Elie Kheir, another strategist, adds: “Many states should send letters of congratulation to bin Laden.”
Now, for the first time in history, says Mostofi, “Iran has common borders with the Americans. Iran is encircled. The American aim is to prevent Iran from any iniative.” So, Mostofi asks rhetorically, what does America want with Iran? “What can they [the US] do? An invasion is impossible. Attack certain installations? Maybe: but nothing would change inside the country. A coup d’etat? No. Help the opposition? There’s no structured opposition in Iran. What if all this was nothing but a pretext?” Mostofi regards the inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil as a pretext to justify the new, improved, heavy-metal American presence in Central Asia.
It’s much harder for the diaspora in Europe to explain why US-Iranian relations got better between September and December 2001 – before deteriorating after George W Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. The war modified American thinking. And the silence of the Arab “street” led America to some bolder decisions. But now Washington is totally obsessed with Palestine and Iran. Washington supplies almost unlimited support to Ariel Sharon as Israel manages to “help” the US once again to isolate Tehran. A flurry of Israeli high-level visits to Washington in effect warned the Bush administration about Iran becoming a nuclear power with Russian help. Intelligence analysts in Israel spent the past few months warning that any US rapprochement with Tehran is dangerous. As the news tells it, Israeli propaganda to demonize Iran has been hugely effective in the US.
This is not a monochromatic situation. Sharon still has no green light from Washington to eliminate Yasser Arafat or the Palestinian Authority. And Washington has been extremely careful not to directly accuse Iranian President Seyed Mohammad Khatami or the regime of “terrorist activities.” But Asia Times Online has learned that the debate is practically the same in Washington and Jerusalem: how to benefit from the shock of war to do what was previously unthinkable. For example: a change of regime not only in Iraq but also in Iran.
Strategy specialist Alain Joxe, professor at the extremely prestigious Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, prefers a discordant note. He talks about a “disorder in American strategic thinking.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a former alliance against the Russians, has been turned into an alliance with the Russians. Joxe sees on the horizon a great “mutation of political representation, for technological reasons.” In this New Geopolitics, “instead of the seas functioning as a mechanism of encirclement, there is extra-terrestrial space.” The American model, for Joxe, has a “naval inspiration,” using “satellites as a means of navigation.” The strategic objective is of course the total domination of Eurasia.
Joxe considers the “oil hypothesis” as “insufficient” to explain America’s new geopolitical thrust. And a mere war against radical Islam is also not believable: “The people from al-Qaeda are sectarian and oligarchic, and in the beginning they were even in the American camp.” It’s true, America changed all the rules of the game. Based on Washington’s long destabilization experience in Latin America, Joxe may say that “they eliminate many things, but they are not capable of building. The American model is based on destruction, and then the construction of a minimal state.”
Joxe reads the current “axis of evil” psychosis as directed against nuclear proliferators – but what about Pakistan? Mostofi, along with many other scholars, points to the fact that there are several intact al-Qaeda bases inside Pakistan. And everybody knows Osama himself was in Chitral, in Pakistan, before the United States unleashed its high-tech bombs.
Joxe says the axis of evil “reflects a militaristic conception of world politics” – the key to understanding what America now is all about. So “the spectacular bombardment of Afghanistan was nothing but a stylistic exercise”: a grand maneuver followed by a few marines. It’s an exercise that applies “not only to Afghanistan: it’s a microcosm of the American strategy.”
To sum it all up, Joxe reads US understanding of the world today as structured around a straightforward formula: the “effectiveness of the menace of death.” A menace, any menace, may appear in the distant future, as far as America is concerned: but any decision has to be immediate. “Americans don’t even need others anymore to display their fear,” says Joxe. The world will simply have to dance according to the whims of this imperial Narcissus.