Challenging the myths of the "good war"

Eric Ruder talks to veterans of the war on Afghanistan about why they want the U.S. to end its occupation.

U.S. soldiers deployed on a mission in Afghanistan returning to their Kandahar airfield (Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis)U.S. soldiers deployed on a mission in Afghanistan returning to their Kandahar airfield (Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis)

CORPORAL BRYAN Casler served with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines Fox Company as an infantryman from 2002 to 2006. In those four years, he was sent to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once. He came back profoundly changed by his experiences, joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and dedicated himself to building the antiwar movement.

But since his return and throughout his organizing activities, he says that he's rarely been asked about his time in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan was a high-stress environment," explains Casler. "We worked 100-plus hours a week with a skeleton crew.

"Most of us had already deployed to Iraq, and one of the striking things is that our training for Iraq and Afghanistan wasn't any different. We treated the situation exactly like it was Iraq. If it was really a different war with different things happening there, they would have trained us differently, but they didn't."

When President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, he has pledged to withdraw a battalion a month from Iraq--and begin a surge of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. He has called for a renewed focus on a military victory in Afghanistan, as well as capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.

But to antiwar U.S. soldiers, Afghan civilians and even a growing portion of the Afghan elite, the consequences of a sharp increase in foreign troops in Afghanistan are predictable and dire--more civilian deaths, more soldiers in harm's way, and more damage to what little remains of Afghan society.

As Casler puts it, "It's time for us to start talking about Afghanistan."

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THE OCCUPATION of Afghanistan is entering its eighth year, and yet the situation for the U.S. is getting worse, not better. American casualties are rising. The Taliban is resurgent and newly confident about challenging both U.S. troops and government forces under the command of U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

At the same time, segments of the Afghan population that once expressed gratitude toward the U.S. for removing the Taliban from power and took a wait-and-see attitude toward the ongoing U.S. presence are growing increasingly angry.

The reasons are many. First and foremost, the U.S. has increasingly relied on air strikes to suppress the growing influence of the Taliban--to a jaw-dropping extent. U.S. fighters flew only 86 bombing raids in all of 2004; in 2007, the number of air strikes grew to nearly 3,000. The bombing continued to rise in 2008, with 600,000 pounds of bombs dropped on Afghanistan in June and July alone, almost equal to the amount dropped in all of 2006.

While the Taliban has carefully avoided causing harm to civilians in areas under its control and thus succeeded in winning some new bases of support, the U.S. has used its air superiority with a recklessness that undermined what little reserve of good will remained among the Afghan population.

In early November, U.S. air strikes killed 65 civilians in a wedding party--a horrific toll but not unprecedented, as such parties, with their large concentrations of people, have been targets of air strikes in the past.

"The Americans are hitting civilian houses all the time," exclaimed Mohammad Tawakil Khan, a provincial council member in Baghdis, whose two sons and a grandson were killed along with four others in a U.S. air strike the same week as the wedding party massacre.

"They don't care, they just say it was a mistake...Afghan officials are only offering their condolences. After some 100 times that they have killed civilians, we have to take revenge, and afterward say our condolences to them."

Beyond the carnage caused by bombs dropped by their supposed liberators, Afghans also seethe at the U.S. partnership with the warlords, militias and gangsters who make up the Northern Alliance.

Noting that Obama recently told a reporter that he felt no reason to apologize to the Afghan people, Eman, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), expressed disbelief, bitterness and anger.

"Didn't he feel the need to apologize for the occupation of our country under the banner of democracy, the so-called 'war on terror,' and women's rights, but then compromise with terrorists like the Northern Alliance, who cannot be distinguished from the Taliban in the history of their criminal acts?" Eman said on KPFK's Uprising Radio, hosted by U.S.-based Afghan rights activist Sonali Kolhatkar.

"In fact, these murderers were the first to destroy our nation. And even after seven years of a very long and very costly 'war on terror,' terrorism has not been uprooted in Afghanistan, but has become stronger, and the Taliban are becoming more powerful. From his statements during his election campaign, we don't think that Obama's position is different from the Bush administration; it is the continuation of Bush's foreign policy...

"RAWA strongly believes that whatever happens, a withdrawal of foreign troops should be the first step, because today, with the presence of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, with the presence of many foreign countries in our nation, for the majority of our people, particularly poor people in the other provinces of Afghanistan outside Kabul, the situation is so bad that it cannot get any worse."

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TED GOODNIGHT served in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 with the North Carolina Army National Guard and was stationed primarily at the Bagram Air Base, and for a time at a forward operating base near the Pakistani border.

Like Casler, his time overseas--combined with his horror at deploying to Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina fully armed to repress the people he thought he was supposed to be helping--persuaded him to end 15 years of service with the National Guard after he returned, and to join IVAW.

What he saw and heard in Afghanistan shocked him. "Despite all the planning and flawless execution of all the elements of a combined arms task force, based on supposedly actionable intelligence, we continually came up short--no one captured of any value," says Goodnight.

"I thought there's something wrong with this picture, so I asked my company commander why we kept coming up short. Was it an intelligence failure? Or something else? And the response that I got was that these were simply shows of force, that in reality there were no legitimate targets.

"I also remember the various snatch-and-grabs of Afghans that the military carried out. They would come off the helicopters with their handcuffs and leg shackles and hoods over their heads, and were led into this compound, where they were never seen or heard from by us again.

"I remember being in the dining facility and overhearing conversations between military police personnel who were in charge of interrogations, and they were bragging among themselves about their brutality--who could be more intimidating and more demeaning to the detainees.

"This was about dehumanization. They weren't people. They were acronyms, PUCs, 'persons under control.' So we were not only harassing the population through giant shows of military force, but also through thuggish intimidation, kidnapping and abuse of detainees. We were there simply as an occupying force."

Goodnight says that the U.S. totally failed to deliver on any of its promises to provide humanitarian relief. "We haven't provided any significant assistance to the farmers who make up the majority of the labor force in Afghanistan," he said. "We haven't put forth any real effort to provide alternative crops, so the only option has been to turn to opium production, which the Taliban had largely eliminated before the U.S. came in and kicked them out.

"The humanitarian efforts that we have undertaken have been primarily carried out by contractors who perform shoddy work with foreign workers. The majority of the population needs that income and those jobs, so how are we supposed to win hearts and minds with construction efforts using foreign contractors and foreign workers when the population, which is capable of skilled construction work, is left by the wayside?"

The bombings and callous disregard for civilian life, the routine abuse and mistreatment of detainees, the lack of humanitarian assistance--all of this explains, according to Goodnight, why the Taliban has been able to reassert itself in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban represents an alternative," says Goodnight. "They say to the people--you know what we've done. We provided stability and security, and yes, we were brutal in the enforcement of religious laws, but we provided more for the people and the farmers than the U.S. has or will. So the people figure that they prefer the lesser of two evils--which in this case is in the Taliban."

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BUT DOESN'T the U.S. have the right to pursue Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to wipe out the terrorist threat?

As Casler says, it's a mistake "to hold an entire country responsible for the actions of a few people. It wouldn't make sense to hold the entire American population responsible for Timothy McVeigh's actions or the Unabomber, would it?

"Retaliation against Afghanistan for the attack by Osama bin Laden never made sense to me, but during my time in the military, I never questioned what I was told to do. So when we went to Afghanistan, it didn't matter why. They could have told me we're going into Wisconsin, and I would have done it. The definition of discipline is instant willing obedience to orders, and you strive to have discipline in the military."

Matthis Chiroux was sent to Afghanistan for a week as an Army reporter in 2005, and he is now fighting the U.S. military's attempt to reactivate and deploy him involuntarily to Iraq. He echoes Casler's sentiments.

"Osama bin Laden is not Afghani, and he wasn't acting on behalf of the Afghani people or the state of Afghanistan," says Chiroux. "He was supported by their government, which we ourselves also supported, just as we supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq. How many more Afghanis must die for us to stop being terrified?"

In fact, every Afghan killed by the U.S. is used as a recruiting pitch by both the Taliban and al-Qaeda--and it's working. "The inherent and unjust nature of foreign occupation does far more to foment terrorism than cool it," says Chiroux. "An occupied Afghanistan will never submit, and it shouldn't."

Even before the September 11 attacks, the U.S. had issued threats against Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which Washington once considered benign but later deemed an obstacle to its plans for controlling the shipment and distribution of oil and natural gas resources in Central Asia.

The 9/11 attacks became more than just a pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan. The "war on terror" has become the justification for a series of interventions and potential military interventions in the service of an American empire.

This is the crucial context for understanding the meaning of an escalation of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

"Obama's plan to shift troops into Afghanistan and then bring the aerial war into Iraq is bringing another failed policy and a failed tactic into a country already devastated by occupation," says Casler. "I'd personally like to see the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and some real reparations for the people of both these countries, not just 'reparations' at the end of the barrel of a gun.

"I'm actively campaigning to include Afghanistan as part of IVAW's points of unity, but if the organization as a whole doesn't vote that through, I'm of course going to continue my organizing against the war in Iraq. But we have to understand that there are a lot of Afghanistan veterans who want to see immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and reparations for the Afghan people, just as in Iraq.

"It's up to everybody to educate themselves about Afghanistan. We've been so hyper-focused on Iraq that the issue of Afghanistan hasn't been brought up as much as it should have. But we are fighting two wars every single day.

"Whether we like it or not, Afghanistan is going to be thrust into the public eye, and I hope we're prepared to provide context for what's going on there when that happens."