Joseph Heller in Afghanistan

You don’t need to be an expert on counterinsurgency to conclude that burning Korans is probably not the most efficacious method of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population.   And the fact that US soldiers have done this after more a decade in Afghanistan is symptomatic of  a conflict that has been characterised by quite  stunning levels of futility and incoherence.

Few writers have captured the insanity and delirium of war as lucidly as Joseph Heller, who died in 1999.  But  some of the surreal absurdities and contradictions of the Afghan war would have strained his comic imagination to breaking point.

The author of Catch 22 might not have been surprised to learn that a war that was intended to bring democracy to Afghanistan is now propping up a corrupt government that won the last national elections through massive and widely-documented fraud.  Or the fact that Afghan heroin production rose from 185 tons in 2001 to 5,800 tons in  2011, even though Tony Blair once claimed that the war was intended to eliminate opium cultivation.

Heller flew sixty combat missions as a B-25 bombardier, and the civilian deaths resulting from Taliban bombings, or in Pakistan’s tribal areas from drone missiles fired by men and women sitting in front of computer screens thousands of miles away would not have been unfamiliar to him, since the death and mutilation of non-combatants is intrinsic to every war, regardless of the forms it takes.

Perhaps Heller would have considered it to be par for the course, had he learned that some of  NATO’s  ‘Taliban’ opponents are sponsored and supported by Pakistan, a nominal ally of the West in the ‘war on terror’.   Or that Osama bin Laden was living peacefully for years in the military town of Abbottabad, just a few streets away from the main training base for the Pakistani officer corps,  even as NATO was fighting to prevent the re-establishment of al-Qaeda ‘command posts’ in Afghanistan.

Not only have NATO’s enemies been linked to one of its principal allies, but some of these enemies, such as the Haqqani network,  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, and Osama bin Laden himself were once part of an anti-Soviet resistance movement that was supported and funded by many of the same countries that are now fighting them.

Heller was fond of gallows humour, and he  would probably have been aware that the leaders of these groups were once invited to the White House,  where Ronald Reagan described them as ‘the moral equivalent of the founding fathers’, even though they were ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ much like the Taliban, who advocated the same harsh and reactionary brand of Islam.

During the Soviet occupation, these groups planted bombs in girls schools,  shot schoolchildren and teachers involved in ‘Marxist education’, skinned  Russian prisoners alive, as well as engaging in all the other activities that governments call ‘terrorist’ whenever they are directed against them.

None of this had any impact on  the funding and weaponry that was siphoned to the Afghan ‘muj’ through a vast and complex covert operation that included the US, Saudi Arabia, Britain, China and other countries that made up the so-called ‘Safari club’.

It’s often forgotten that this assistance began before the Soviet invasion in 1979, when Zbigniew Brzezinski had the brilliant idea of channelling assistance to Islamist groups who were seeking to bring down the pro-Soviet leftist government.

Such assistance was intended to lure the Soviets into in a Vietnam-style conflict, and it succeeded.  But it also destabilised Afghan society completely and paved the way for the bloody power struggles which produced the Taliban and which are still being fought out today.

Asked by two French journalists in 1998 whether he had any regrets about that decision Brzezinski declared

‘ What is more important in world history?  The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?  Some agitated Islamists or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?’

No doubt Heller would have had a laugh about that, had he lived to see the planes flying into the World Trade Centre after September 11.  But even in his lifetime, Afghanistan was a rich source of black humour.

Heller reserved much of his satirical scorn for war profiteers, but the activities of his black marketer Milo Minderbinder pale into significance compared with the byzantine nexus of drugs and weapons smuggling and money laundering generated by the CIA/Saudi/Pakistani black ops in Afghanistan and the mindbogglingly corrupt BCCI ‘outlaw bank’ which facilitated these activities.

All this had catastrophic consequences for Afghanistan.  In 2010 Foreign Policy magazine published a moving photo-essay by Mohammad Qayoumi, which showed a very different country to the ‘failed state’ that NATO invaded in 2001.

It contains images like this…


 And this…

 And this…


That Afghanistan has been swept away by the dark power games that so many foreign powers have played and are still playing on the ‘roof of the world’;  by a brutal Soviet occupation and its equally brutal resistance; by warlords, Taliban and Saudi-backed jihadists, and by the vicious struggle between NATO and the various Talibans.

And now some of the same countries that were responsible for the dismembering of Afghan society are preparing to do something similar in Syria.  Only last week Saudi Arabia and Qatar called  for arms to be channelled to Syrian rebels,  and such routes have almost certainly been open for some time.

So even as NATO is losing a war in a country that the covert operations of the Cold War did so much to destabilise,  some of its members and allies are already preparing actions that may produce similar consequences in another.

And at this point Heller might struggle to find much room for irony and black farce.  He might even conclude that satire was pointless, and that nothing that he could invent could encapsulate the cynicism, recklessness and folly of  states that are not only incapable of learning lessons from history, but are not even interested in trying.



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