The "other occupation" unravels

Nicole Colson reports on the worsening crisis that U.S. and NATO forces face in Afghanistan--and the price being paid by the Afghan people.

AFGHANISTAN WAS hit by the worst suicide bombing since 2001 in mid-February, offering further evidence that the "other" U.S. occupation continues to falter--and that growing numbers of ordinary people are paying with their lives in the "war on terror."

More than 100 people were killed and another 100 injured in the February 17 bombing, which occurred at a crowded festival held on the outskirts of Kandahar, in the southern part of the country.

The next day, a car bombing that was targeted at a Canadian military convoy killed at least 35 civilians and wounded 28 others, including three Canadians, at a crowded market in the town of Spin Boldak, also in southern Afghanistan.

The attacks show that despite the presence of approximately 50,000 foreign troops (26,000 of them from the U.S. and the rest from other NATO countries) and some 140,000 Afghan soldiers, the Taliban have largely regrouped as a fighting force and continue to control many parts of the country.

Afghan civilians are increasingly caught in the middle--more than 11,000 people have been killed in the escalating violence, according to press reports. "Suicide bombings rose to 140 in 2007, compared with five between 2001 and 2005, according to official figures," the Washington Post reported. "U.S. and other foreign troop losses--as well as Afghan civilian casualties--reached the highest level since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban government in 2001."

The Pentagon announced in January that it would deploy an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan to help counter an expected spring offensive by the Taliban.

This "mini-surge" underscores the crisis that the U.S. and NATO are facing in Afghanistan.

The U.S., bogged down in Iraq, has relied increasingly on European allies to carry the burden of the fighting and occupation in Afghanistan. But many European governments are reluctant to send more troops, fearing the unpopularity of the war at home--a war that is largely seen as the responsibility of the U.S.

Germany, which has 3,500 soldiers in non-combat roles in the more stable northern part of the country, rejected significantly increasing its troop levels or sending troops to the south, where the Taliban is stronger, and the fighting is more intense. Canada, meanwhile, threatened to pull out its soldiers unless European countries send additional troops to the south.

As a result, U.S. officials have taken to browbeating their European counterparts. In testimony before the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized the NATO command in Afghanistan and warned that the alliance might split into countries that were "willing to fight and die to protect people's security and those who were not." He added: "My view is you can't have some allies whose sons and daughters die in combat and other allies who are shielded from that kind of a sacrifice."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Gates' rhetoric. On a recent visit to London, she told reporters, "I do think the [NATO] alliance is facing a test here. Populations have to understand that this is not just a peacekeeping fight."

Rice's and Gates' complaints aren't having much effect, however. "It seems to be a debate about casualties," said one European government official. "If there were 100 more German dead, would they be happier?"

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THE BUSH administration has been on the defensive about Afghanistan since late January, when a report by an independent commission chaired by Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO supreme commander, spelled out the bleak picture for the occupation.

Far from winning the war, as the Bush administration has repeatedly claimed, NATO forces in Afghanistan are in a "strategic stalemate," according to the commission's report--with the Taliban expanding its control of sparsely populated areas and an ineffectual central government led by the Bush administration's hand-picked stooge Hamid Karzai. "Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," the report concluded.

More importantly, the people of Afghanistan continue to suffer under the occupation--which has almost entirely ignored humanitarian needs and reconstruction.

According to a recent United Nations report, opium production and poppy cultivation--a desperate choice of poor farmers--is on the rise. Afghanistan is also facing the severest winter on record--with approximately 1,000 people having already died from the cold. Plus, according the International Committee of the Red Cross, there has been a growing refugee crisis as people caught between security forces and the Taliban try to flee.

But international aid to Afghanistan remains at paltry levels. According to a recent report by the humanitarian group Action Aid, "Donors have failed to deliver money pledged for aid, distributing $5 billion less than promised between 2002 and 2006, despite finding the many hundreds of billions necessary for military operations. Even when aid comes through, it is often late, and most of it sidesteps the Afghan government and parliament."

When it does arrive, the aid frequently has strings attached or carries excessive red tape--and so it ends up being funneled back to foreign governments. "It is estimated that up to 40 percent of aid to Afghanistan goes back to donor countries, and that is through corporate profits of contractors or through high consultant salaries," Matt Waldman, a policy adviser for the humanitarian aid organization Oxfam, told Voice of America.

The central government, presided over by Hamid Karzai, remains weak and ineffective, with warlords running much of the country with impunity. In fact, Karzai recently rejected the U.S. government's choice for a UN special representative to Kabul--British politician Paddy Ashdown--out of fear that such an unpopular choice might further undermine his government.

And this is only a pale reflection of the distrust of occupation forces by ordinary Afghans--who have good reason for their bitterness.

Following the car bombing in Spin Boldak, the governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khaled, denounced Canadian forces for patrolling in crowded places when there was a known suicide bomb threat. Khaled said Afghan security forces had warned the Canadian military that they had information that a suicide bombing was planned.

"We told NATO six times not to come in these areas because for the last two days a suicide bomber has been circulating," Khaled said at a news briefing. "But they continue patrolling the area."

It's clearer than ever: the occupation of Afghanistan is making life a nightmare for ordinary Afghans.