A continuing surge of violence

April 25, 2013

Helen Redmond reports from Kabul on the latest developments in the war as the date that Barack Obama has promised withdrawal of U.S. troops approaches.

THE SPRING fighting season in Afghanistan began this month with explosions of violence all over the country.

Taliban suicide bombers dressed as Afghan soldiers attacked a courthouse in Farah Province and killed 53 people. A NATO convoy carrying five Americans was blown up by suicide bombers in Zabul province. Among the dead was a U.S. diplomat. On April 7, a joint Afghan-NATO airstrike in Kunar Province killed 12 children and one woman, and injured six other women.

The civilian deaths triggered a by-now familiar response from the U.S. military, the mainstream media and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. A spokesperson for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) released a statement saying, "ISAF takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and we are currently assessing the incident." But much later, coalition forces will quietly, with little media attention, take responsibility for the slaughter, offer apologies to the families and offer cash payments.

In an attempt to justify the killing of civilians, the military claimed that the women and children were family members of senior Taliban commanders--guilty by association. And once again, the press reminded us that the Taliban and other anti-government groups are responsible for 81 percent of all civilian deaths--another way to minimize the death and destruction that NATO is responsible for. Never acknowledged, though, is that there wouldn't be civilian deaths caused by an insurgency if there wasn't a war and occupation by the U.S.

U.S. and Afghan forces blow up a building that they say was a Taliban firing position
U.S. and Afghan forces blow up a building that they say was a Taliban firing position

Per usual, President Karzai talked out of both sides of his mouth and accused the Taliban of using civilians as human shields and then condemned ISAF for killing innocent women and children. Two months ago, Karzai ordered a complete ban on Afghan security forces calling in NATO airstrikes in residential areas. But NATO doesn't answer to the president of Afghanistan. According to political analyst Habib Hakimi, airstrikes will continue when it's "tactically necessary." Which is often.

In the war on Afghanistan, civilian deaths are nameless and faceless collateral damage. There won't be heartfelt stories about 12 children's lives tragically cut short by a U.S. air strike.

In this recent round of casualties, the mainstream media focused on 25-year-old Ann Smedinghoff, who worked for the State Department as a public diplomacy officer. She was killed on a trip to deliver books to a new school in Qalat. Secretary of State John Kerry said she was "a brave American determined to brighten the light of learning through books written in the native tongue of the students that she had never met, but whom she felt compelled to help. And she was met by cowardly terrorists determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers."

As if the mission of the U.S. State Department is to deliver books to Afghan children. In fact, it is the U.S. war machine that has brought darkness and death to the people of Afghanistan for over 11 years.

THE SURGE of troops back in 2009 was supposed to be a turning point in the war. Obama dispatched 30,000 additional soldiers to Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, the traditional centers of Taliban power. The surge was sold to a war-weary American public by Gen. David Petraeus as necessary to defeat the insurgency. But did the surge work?

According to Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the surge did work:

but not permanently. There were three parts to the surge. The first was to weaken the insurgency, the second was to support the government and the Afghan armed forces, and the third was to clear areas of the Taliban so the government and the Afghan National Army (ANA) could move in and hold them. Then you get economic development. It was about enabling the Afghan state to attract its own people.

The problem with that is any foreign forces are very unpopular. International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) can't control the Afghan state. You've got to then rely on the Afghan state and the Afghan security forces coming up to the mark. The police are still taking bribes, you still have to buy a job, and there is drug smuggling. If the state isn't interested in the welfare of people, you can see that there is a gap there.

On all three counts, the surge and the strategy of "clear, hold, build" was a colossal failure that cost billions, killed thousands of Afghans and didn't hasten an end to the war.

The Taliban operate in and control large areas of the country. Their strategy of asymmetrical warfare has proven amazingly resilient against the world's most powerful military.

The second goal of the surge was to shore up support for the Karzai government. But President Karzai and his handpicked provincial governors and police commanders are viewed with contempt and mistrust, especially among rural Afghans who make up 80 percent of the population.

David Mansfield, a British researcher, recently released a report on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. He asked farmers to comment on what they thought of the government. The majority expressed negative views. One poppy farmer said, "In this area, no one knows the government--who are they? And no one has a relationship with them. Here there is the Taliban, and we support the Taliban."

The ability to hold territory hasn't been achieved either. In dozens of villages and towns that were initially cleared of insurgents, when troops left, the insurgents simply returned. Or the insurgency shifted to parts of the country where there were no surge forces. The Taliban view is that, "The Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time."

Provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), which are an arm of ISAF, were charged with building basic infrastructure: roads, clinics, schools and repairing irrigation systems. As a result of massive corruption, poor planning, theft and greed by private contractors and local Afghan elites, there has been little improvement in the standard of living for the majority of Afghans. And the Taliban attacked PRT projects in rural areas relentlessly because they were seen as bolstering the reputation of the corrupt Karzai government in Kabul and legitimizing the occupation.

NOW, THREE years after the botched surge, Afghan forces are expected to take over security in 100 percent of the country. The major goal of U.S. military operations, with the assistance of 2,000 private contractors and $4 billion a year, has been to train and support the ANA and Afghan National Police (ANP) to fight the war. The success of the transition hinges on the ability of these forces to take on the Taliban and defend the nascent Afghan state.

The big question is: Can they? By most accounts, the ANA and the ANP are doing poorly and aren't able to engage in or win battles without backup from NATO forces.

To start with, there is a tremendous amount of personal enmity between Afghan soldiers and the coalition forces training them. This has resulted in the so-called "green-on-blue attacks" (attacks on coalition forces by Afghan forces). The most recent data from the Long War Journal calculated 130 deaths and 150 wounded.

Last year, joint training operations were temporarily suspended because of insider attacks. A high desertion rate and a low re-enlistment rate mean that the ANA has to replace a third of its forces every year and over 90 percent of those recruited are illiterate.

In an article in the New York Times, Muhammad Fazal Kochai said he deserted the ANA after a year because of the rampant corruption of officers. "The army can do nothing on their own without the equipment and supplies of the Americans, without the air support, nothing," Kochai said.

Even the few Afghan units that have been rated by the U.S. military as independent and able to operate on their own without foreign advisers have been defeated by the Taliban. In a recent skirmish at a remote outpost involving the Third Battalion, considered to be among the best trained, all of its soldiers were killed, and the outpost was burned down.

As the ANA has taken over more of the frontline fighting, the numbers of casualties has climbed. According to Afghan government estimates, in 2012, over 1,000 soldiers and 1,800 police officers were killed. And that's just fine with U.S. Col. Thomas Collins. He called the deaths "tragic," but insisted that recruitment wasn't affected, and that the numbers would increase as the summer fighting season commenced.

But even with the imminent drawdown of more troops, the U.S. is not leaving Afghanistan. President Obama and President Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that will allow the U.S. to keep an unspecified number of troops in the country. And importantly, it allows the U.S. military to use Afghanistan as a base of operations to launch missions against enemies throughout the region.

The war in Afghanistan won't be over in 2014.

At the signing ceremony for the Strategic Partnership Agreement in Kabul, Obama declared, "Together, we're now committed to replacing war with peace." But for Malalai Joya, an outspoken opponent and critic of the U.S. war and occupation of Afghanistan, "In a country where we will have American military bases, we cannot say we are independent. In a country where there is no justice, peace is meaningless. Peace without justice is nothing."

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