Manufacturing a “victory” in Afghanistan

February 22, 2010

David Whitehouse looks at the truth behind U.S. claims of a success in Afghanistan.

U.S. OFFICIALS scored a propaganda victory with operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that were universally hailed by the mainstream media as signs of real progress in Washington's war against the Taliban.

But beneath the charades and the celebrating, none of the war's basic features have changed. The Afghan revolt against the U.S. occupation has spread more widely than ever, and Western tactics of counterinsurgency, along with the brutality and corruption of President Hamid Karzai's government, are stoking further discontent.

A case in point was the slaughter of 12 Afghan civilians--five of them children--by two rockets fired by a U.S. artillery system on February 14 during the U.S.-led assault on Marja, a town in western Helmand province described as a "Taliban stronghold."

But the U.S. media were less interested in the latest killing of innocents by American forces than the announcement of the capture of the Taliban's top military commander, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Pakistan's port city of Karachi. This arrest was followed by the apprehension of two Taliban provincial "shadow governors" in the same city.

Marines launch artillery fire during the assault on Marja
Marines launch artillery fire during the assault on Marja (Sgt. Christopher R. Rye)

In Afghanistan, the Marja assault is intended to demonstrate that additional U.S. troops can make some kind of difference in Afghanistan. There was never any doubt about whether the offensive would succeed militarily, as 15,000 heavily armed U.S., British, Canadian and Afghan soldiers were battling a lightly armed Taliban force estimated by U.S. officials to number only 400 by the time the assault began.

The offensive was also supposed to demonstrate the strength of the Afghan government to an audience in Afghanistan, but that part hasn't worked out so well.

The story was that Afghan military forces would lead the fight against the Taliban, supported by U.S. troops, and replace the rebels with an "indigenous" Afghan government that could deliver services quickly. Thus, the offensive was named "Operation Moshtarak," which means "together" in Dari, one of Afghanistan's principal languages.

In reality, the government's Afghan National Army tagged along after U.S. forces. As the New York Times reported:

Scenes from this corner of the battlefield, observed over eight days by two New York Times journalists, suggest that the day when the Afghan Army will be well-led and able to perform complex operations independently, rather than merely assist American missions, remains far off...

In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

The effort to "Afghanize" the operation was limited mainly to paramilitary police, who were supposed to take control of the streets after U.S. Marines cleared out the Taliban fighters--a process that has taken far longer than predicted.

In any case, Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament and an antiwar activist, told the Britain's Independent that the police have little chance of winning acceptance:

The Afghan police force is the most corrupt institution in Afghanistan. Bribery is common, and if you have money, by bribing police from top to bottom, you can do almost anything. In many parts of Afghanistan, people hate the police more than the Taliban. In Helmand, for instance, people are afraid of police who commit violence against people and make trouble.

U.S. EFFORTS to parachute Afghan government officials into captured areas are also unlikely to succeed. The governor-to-be for Marja, Haji Zahir, is a businessman who lived in Germany from 1984 to 2002. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, hit the nail on the head when he said, "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in."

In case there was any doubt about who would really be in charge, the Financial Times reported:

Two U.S. and UK officials are poised to join [Zahir], then rapidly implement projects designed to persuade the population in Marja...of the benefits of siding with the government of Hamid Karzai. The U.S. plans to back the rehabilitation of schools, a clinic and a road linking Marja to Lashkar Gah, the nearby provincial capital.

But there's no reason to believe that the Zahir administration will be any better at carrying out development or delivering services than the national Karzai government, to which it's closely connected. The billions of dollars in foreign aid poured into the capital of Kabul rarely finds its way to the Afghan population, but rather is diverted into the staggeringly corrupt circle of warlords whom Karzai is allied with.

In fact, because the Western military plans to run the show in Marja, thus making reconstruction projects a likely target for insurgent attacks, United Nations officials said on February 17 that their aid workers wouldn't participate in NATO reconstruction plans.

Western forces plan to hand out jobs to key people who collaborate with the occupation. That's the real significance behind the much-publicized courtship with local tribal elders. Far from showing Afghans that the Karzai regime and its armed forces are defending the interests of ordinary Afghans, the Marja operation will reinforce the widespread impression that the U.S. is using a combination of violence and bribery in order to keep its troops on Afghan soil.

Can this strategy of killing and cooptation work? According to U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, some of the payola distributed to local big shots is supposed to trickle down to young men who might otherwise join the Taliban. As one British official explained, "We think many of the foot soldiers are in it for the money, not the ideology."

It's true that only a handful of those who have taken up arms in recent years have been motivated by radical Islamist ideology--and that unemployment is endemic to the war zone. But to focus on what the occupiers can achieve with money ignores what insurgents themselves say about why they fight.

Interviews of Taliban fighters conducted by the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2008 reveal that a high proportion joined because they personally knew civilians who had been killed or wounded in the U.S. war. Others were driven into desperation when U.S.-sponsored eradication of opium poppies destroyed their families' income. In a recent investigation in the Nation, Kabul-based reporter Anand Gopal showed that Afghans also turn against the U.S. presence when troops whisk away family or acquaintances, commonly in night raids, to be interrogated and tortured in secret prisons.

The offensive in Marja added to these grievances when the U.S. missile strike killed the civilians. Marja residents may have more horror stories to tell about the assault, but these are unlikely to get much play in the Western media, Gopal told the radio program Democracy Now! because the great majority of reporters on the scene are embedded with the attacking forces.

While the short-term news beamed to the West may convey the impression that the Taliban are on the run, the long-term effect of the assault may be to fuel the insurgency by stoking new rage at the occupiers and their Afghan clients.

MEANWHILE, IN Pakistan, the capture of the Afghan Taliban's top military commander provided a boost to speculation that the Taliban are now under such pressure that they could soon enter negotiations to end to the war. The significance and even the details of Mullah Abdul Baradar's arrest remain murky, however.

When the arrest was made public on February 16, apparently more than two weeks after it took place, initial news reports hailed it as a breakthrough for the U.S. in getting Pakistani officials to cooperate with the CIA in the pursuit of Afghan Taliban leaders.

Pakistan's security forces supported the Taliban from its earliest days in the 1990s as a way to extend Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, and they continued covert support even after officially signing on to Washington's "war on terror" in 2001. Pakistani military and civilian officials alike have tolerated the presence of top Taliban leaders in the country since then, on the assumption that the Taliban may have more staying power in Afghanistan than the U.S. does.

Given this background, real Pakistani cooperation with the CIA would signal a major shift in strategy--apparently a new tack in jockeying for influence against regional rivals, principally India.

Many commentators speculated that Pakistani officials felt left out of a potential negotiated settlement of the war, because Saudi Arabia has sponsored contacts between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Reva Bhalla of the Stratfor think tank told CNN: "Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. in capturing [Baradar] may be its way of telling Washington to deal with Islamabad--not Saudi Arabia--if it wants to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban."

There are a few problems with this theory. One is the reports on February 19 that Pakistani officials had begun saying the arrest was an accident--that Baradar was swept up while security forces were trying to capture other related, but less significant Taliban figures.

Another problem is that Baradar is reputed to be among the most flexible and conciliatory of the Taliban's inner circle--already a possible back-channel negotiator with Karzai. His arrest would thus set back negotiations, not advance them. Syed Saleem Shahzad remarked on the Asia Times, "As a result of the Taliban's strict code, once a powerful commander is apprehended, his influence is reduced to zero."

In fact, the New York Times quoted a Dutch researcher with connections to the Taliban, Alex Strick van Linschoten, who said that Taliban representatives were furious at Baradar's arrest and weren't likely to be open to an approach for negotiations.

Speaking to the Times, a White House official cast doubt on the idea that Pakistani regional strategy has shifted. "All this is not necessarily related to a rational decision at the top of the Pakistani military to see things our way," the official said.

Baradar's arrest may disrupt the Taliban's military chain of command for a time. But as Lindschoten remarked, "On a local level...Taliban fighters operate fairly independently...and they'll just keep fighting."

They'll keep fighting--because the events in Marja and Karachi haven't changed their reasons for fighting.

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