Long-time Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn explains that the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the recent massive bombing in Kabul are the result of contradictory US support for Sunni factions in the region and will not end until US pressures Pakistan
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AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Afghanistan has suffered one of its worse attacks in over 15 years of war. A truck bombing in the capital Kabul on Wednesday killed over 100 people and wounded at least 460. This comes days before multi-nation peace talks on Afghanistan are set to begin. The explosion could derail those talks as the Afghan government blames the Haqqani wing of the Taliban. It’s also set off public anger. On Friday, thousands of protesters held a rally calling on the government to improve security but at least four people were killed when police opened fire. Patrick Cockburn is a long term Middle East correspondent for the newspaper The Independent. Patrick, welcome. PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you. AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. If you could talk about this attack and the context in which it occurred. PATRICK COCKBURN: The attack was right in the heart of Kabul. It was just on the edge of the diplomatic zone there where all the embassies are situated. The vehicle, which seems to have been a sewage tanker was packed with explosives so there was this enormous crater afterwards. You have to visualize, the streets in Kabul are full of people. The people basically get anywhere by walking. When you have a bomb go off like that in the middle of the street, you’re going to kill an awful lot of people and they did. But even by Kabul and Afghan standards this is pretty devastating. AARON MATE: In terms of who carried it out, the Taliban has denied responsibility even though the Afghan government has blamed it for the attack. ISIS has been silent so far, at least as I understand it. Who do you think carried it out? PATRICK COCKBURN: Well the answer is one doesn’t know. It’s interesting that the Taliban denied it. They probably have an interest in doing so because the heavy civilian casualties. You know it might be the Haqqani network. It might be, it might be Islamic State. The problem is this has become almost a traditional method of warfare in, not just in Kabul but in Baghdad, you know. In Manchester, in England, of the perpetrators know that you can have a devastating impact on world opinion by one fanatical person prepared to get killed, driving a vehicle full of explosives. It’s pretty impossible to stop because the target is civilians. It’s the entire civilian population. Security isn’t that good in Kabul when I’ve been there but even where security is good, as may have happened when this bomb went off, that the vehicle can’t get through a checkpoint, the guy just blows himself up. This is what happens in Baghdad all the time. Often there are a lot of people waiting at that checkpoint so it still kills a lot of people. AARON MATE: Patrick, can you talk about where the Afghan war is at right now, heading into these multi-nation peace talks that are scheduled for next week? The Taliban has been gaining ground for many months now. The ISIS affiliate has lost territory and meanwhile you have President Trump and the US considering sending a few thousand more American troops. PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah it’s kind of a stalemate, you know with the Taliban making gains on the ground but they haven’t taken any provincial capitals. It’s difficult for them to do that as they’re going to come under air attack. They’ll lose a lot of people. Islamic State, always much smaller there in Easter Afghanistan. Have been losing quite a lot of territory recently. Overall you know you could say it’s going somewhat in the direction of the Taliban but they don’t look like winning, nor do they look like losing. And both sides, it’s not just the Kabul government and the Afghan army against the Taliban. It’s, you know they have their outside support. The Taliban essentially has always been very dependent on Pakistan and having sanctuaries in Pakistan. You have this enormous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Right since the nineties when the Taliban was started that’s always been their ace card, is to be able to come backwards and forwards from Pakistan. Of course the Pakistanis deny this but I think it’s generally accepted as true. On the Afghan government side they depend very much on the US and some other states, mostly on the US for weapons, for money, for finance. Again that’s what helps keep them in business. If Trump sends a few thousand more troops, is that going to really make much difference? It will make some, but it’s not, the experience since 2001 is that this war doesn’t end. You need to have negotiations and you need have all the parties there. Difficult to do. Hasn’t happened yet. No real sign of it happening. AARON MATE: Okay. On the point of Pakistan and the US, if it’s true that Pakistani support for the Taliban or at least elements of the Pakistani state support the Taliban is critical to keeping this war going, can the war be ended unless the US is willing to put pressure on its key ally, Pakistan? PATRICK COCKBURN: I don’t think so. I’ve never thought so. You know I started covering this war in 2001. Just after 9/11. I, like a lot of other people, knew that there was going to be a US-backed attack on Afghanistan so I went there but from a very early stage it was pretty obvious that so long as the Taliban has Pakistan backing, it wasn’t going to go out of business. Of course it has got indigenous support inside Afghanistan, in the Pashtun community, which is the largest community, but this Pakistani support is crucial. This is what I think is so amazing, not just in Pakistan, but about the whole war on terror in so-called since 9/11 in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, is that they’ve, although it was obvious even when there were very large numbers of American troops and British troops fighting in Afghanistan after 2006, unless they confronted Pakistan, they weren’t going to win, but they never did that. They’ve always kept priority in retaining their alliances. I’m talking about the US and its allies, retaining their alliances with the big Sunni states like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, or in the past, Turkey. Although that meant that they weren’t going to be beat the Taliban. They weren’t going to beat al Qaeda and for a long time it wasn’t likely they were going to be able to beat ISIS. There’s been extraordinary contradiction in American policy, which never seems to have struck home in domestic politics, that they had a government that was sending big forces abroad but in politic circumstances, that whatever losses they inflicted, or losses they suffered, they couldn’t win the war. AARON MATE: Hey Patrick can you talk to us a bit about the issue of blow back? It’s well known that the forces that became the Taliban and al Qaeda were once supported by the US when they were fighting the Soviet occupation in the seventies and eighties, but specifically the Haqqani network, which the Afghan government blames for this week’s Kabul bombing, Haqqani network also which is an offshoot of the Taliban, was nurtured and grown by the CIA. PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah you have this sort of fatal and repeated circumstances, first in Afghanistan. Later we saw it in Iraq and Libya and Syria, that you have local, what are now called sulafi jihadis, what are basically fundamentalists drawing on the Wahhabi version of Islam, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, drawing on that tradition, a very fundamentalist puritanical and violent tradition, to basically wage war on anybody who disagrees with them. People like that were used in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later they were used against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. They were used by Saudi Arabia and the others initially in Syria. There isn’t, they’re always the West, and local Sunni allies have been trying to use these guys and then finding that they’re not just going to fight people who Saudi Arabia doesn’t like. They’re going to fight anybody that they don’t like. It’s pretty extraordinary that the war on terror, despite these billions and billions of dollars spent, the armies sent overseas. Al Qaeda used to be a small organization prior to 9/11. Now it’s a very big organization. ISIS likewise. AARON MATE: Finally Patrick, if you could comment on the state right now of Afghan civilians. Last year, according to the UN was one of the worst if not the worst for Afghan civilians in terms of killings, casualties and displacements. How the people of Afghanistan are faring right now? PATRICK COCKBURN: Well it was before and it’s getting worse. You know half a million people were displaced within their own country, turned into refugees within their own country last year. The number of civilians killed and wounded was about 11,000 which is higher than any year since 2009. It’s going up. It’s getting worse, not getting better. AARON MATE: Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. Thanks for joining us. PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.