Escalating a disaster

January 6, 2009

British socialist and author Mike Marqusee examines the disastrous plans the U.S. and its allies have in store for Afghanistan.

THERE IS one sad, near certainty about 2009: the war in Afghanistan will grow bloodier, more brutal and more dangerous to the region as a whole.

Barack Obama has coupled his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq (a pledge already heavily qualified) with an insistence on escalating the war in Afghanistan, promising to send more troops and step up incursions into Pakistan. In the coming year, the 70,000 NATO troops currently fighting in Afghanistan (including 33,000 U.S. and 8,000 British) will be augmented by perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 additional U.S. troops, plus another 2,000 from Britain.

No one seems to believe that this "surge" will bring the Western allies closer to victory. Its most likely consequence will be to re-enforce all the grievances arising from foreign military occupation and widen the base of recruitment for the insurgents.

Judged by its stated aims, the U.S.-led mission has been a failure on all counts. Bin Laden has not been captured, Islamist terrorism has not been quelled, women have not been liberated, security for ordinary Afghans has deteriorated, and economic development has been stymied. Only the opium trade has flourished.

U.S. troops fire mortars in Zabol province in Afghanistan
U.S. troops fire mortars in Zabol province in Afghanistan

According to the International Council on Security and Development, the Taliban now have a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country, up from 56 percent a year ago. They mount, on average, more than 100 attacks every week.

Yet when Afghan President Hamid Karzai congratulated Obama on his election victory, Karzai appealed not for more troops, but for an end to the civilian casualties caused by NATO attacks.

As the war has intensified, the numbers of civilians killed and injured has risen steeply. While the Taliban is responsible for its share of these, the principal cause for the escalating toll has been NATO's increasing reliance on air power. In the first half of 2008, close air support strikes in which munitions were used rose to 2,368--as much as in all of 2007. One analyst described "the sheer tonnage of metal raining down on Afghanistan" as "mind-boggling."

On the ground, the costs have been horrific. In July, an air strike in Nangahar province killed 52 members of a double wedding party, including 30 children and both 18-year-old brides. In August, a NATO attack on a village in western Herat caused 92 civilian deaths, including 62 children, according to the UN. Last month, British helicopters killed 15 Afghan road construction workers, which elicited yet another futile protest from Karzai, who faces an election in September.

U.S. and British spokespersons respond to these embarrassments by complaining that the Taliban "hide" among the people and use them as "human shields." But the reality is that the enemy in this case is largely indistinguishable from the broader population.

To make war on one requires making war on the other: the dismally familiar dynamic of a cruel, corrupting war of counter-insurgency, whose inherent destructiveness has been illustrated from Algeria to Vietnam and beyond. Tragically, in this regard, Obama and his disturbingly right-wing foreign policy team seem oblivious to history's lessons.

A REVEALING vignette from a poorly reported war appeared a few weeks ago in the London-based Independent. Around midnight on November 30, U.S. Special Forces raided a small village near Gardez, south of Kabul. Their target was an alleged militant named Saeed Alam, whom they found in his bed, with his mother and 3-year-old son cowering at his side. Both were hurled out of the way, and Alam was killed with four shots to the chest.

Villagers denied that Alam was a militant. A member of the local tribal shura commented:

We are not Taliban. We do not support al-Qaeda, but if these searches continue, we will definitely join the anti-government elements. What laws allow them to kill him without an investigation? There are no courts, there is no justice. We are Muslims. Maybe they are from another religion, but there are international laws and customs. Who will tell me that killing this person was legal?

He complained that the U.S. and its allies "want our support, but they have done nothing for us."

Under NATO occupation, and despite Western leaders' promises of a new era, Afghanistan continues to be among the poorest nations on earth: one-quarter of the population does not have enough to eat and depends on emergency aid supplies to survive the winter.

Yet over the last seven years, the Western powers have invested at least 10 times as much on military efforts as on aid for civilians. According to a report prepared for the U.S. Congress, for every $100 spent on military efforts in Afghanistan, a trifling $4.50 has been allotted (and less actually disbursed) for reconstruction and development.

These wildly distorted priorities are not accidental. Like the civilian casualties, they are ingrained in the nature of the conflict. When a great power seeks to impose its will on a foreign population, it will claim to be acting in that population's best interests, but its behavior will always be guided by what it considers to be its own best interests.

The same dynamic can be seen in the deteriorating position of Afghan women. "The U.S. government and its allies exploited the plight of Afghan women to legitimate its so-called 'war on terror' and attack on Afghanistan," commented Afghan member of parliament Malalai Joya. "The medieval and brutal regime of the Taliban was toppled, but instead of relying on Afghan people, the United States and its allies pushed us from the frying pan to the fire."

She describes her country's current rulers, NATO's allies, as "sworn enemies of democracy and human dark-minded, evil, anti-women and cruel as the Taliban."

PERHAPS THE most disturbing facet of the war is its overspill into Pakistan. U.S. military strikes across the border have become routine. Since September, the use of unmanned drones--launched and targeted by computer from U.S. soil--has been stepped up. Along with raids by heavily armed units flown in and backed by helicopter gunships, they have taken a regular toll of Pakistani civilians.

Protests from the democratically elected government are to no avail. The superpower's contempt for the sovereignty of other countries has been utterly brazen, an example of international lawlessness at its most arrogant.

It should be obvious by now that the deterrence of violent extremism requires the nurturing of Pakistani democracy. Instead, U.S., British and Indian governments have placed it in a vice and are turning the screws.

According to a BBC survey, 68 percent of the British public favor withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sadly, this view goes largely unarticulated in Parliament or the mainstream media. It is acknowledged that the war is difficult and forecasts are downbeat, but there is a reluctance to question the premises or justice of NATO's intervention, or to consider the alternative.

As a result, more soldiers, more munitions, more bombs are to be spewed at Afghanistan, and more human lives are to shredded. It is an insane and criminal policy, and if it persists with Barack Obama, he will become as tainted as his predecessor.

First published in the Hindu.

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