Assessing the Afghan surge

June 17, 2010

The U.S. surge of soldiers to Afghanistan is only making the situation worse--and there's no end in sight, according to Iraq war veteran Phil Aliff.

WITH THE final units of President Barack Obama's surge arriving in the next few weeks, the U.S. military is preparing for its largest assault yet in the nine-year war on Afghanistan--and news from the battlefield is getting worse by the day.

As forces amass outside the southern city of Kandahar, 23 U.S. and 11 NATO troops have been killed so far in June, largely attributed to the increase in soldiers on the ground. And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admits that the U.S. and its allies are running out of time to show results.

This sentiment was made clear in Helmand Province, where the U.S. military launched a "clear, hold and build" offensive in the district of Marja a few months ago. Far from being able to roll out the "government in a box" that Gen. Stanley McChrystal talked about during the February operation, widespread corruption and the return of Taliban forces to the district have made it more difficult for the military to gain trust with Afghan locals.

Instead, McChrystal has been surprisingly honest about the results so far, calling Marja a "bleeding ulcer" in the continued war effort.

U.S. soldiers during an operation in Pana, Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers during an operation in Pana, Afghanistan (Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel)

Marja, a district of 35,000 people, was invaded by a force of 15,000 NATO soldiers. According to Gen. David Petraeus' counter-insurgency strategy, there should be one soldier for every 50 civilians. In Marja, there was nearly one soldier for every two civilians, but NATO forces have still been incapable of rooting out Taliban influence. This shows the extent to which the strategy put forward as a justification for the troop surge has failed.

And if the realities on the ground weren't bad enough, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in early June, 53 percent of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is "not worth fighting." It seems that with all the bad news coming from the battlefield, the war in Afghanistan may quickly be turning into a "bleeding ulcer" for the Obama administration.

THE MARJA experiment, like so many other supposed turning points in U.S. military efforts in the last decade, has proven once again that the U.S. will cause resistance anywhere in the world as long as its soldiers are being used as an occupation force.

This resistance in Afghanistan is clearly seen in the increased fighting, but also expresses itself in various ways through Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who rhetorically blasts the U.S. at almost every turn for supporting corruption and expanding a war that has officially become the longest in U.S. history.

Karzai's power is rooted in both the occupation and corrupt warlords that he rails against. But the Afghan president has growing doubts about America's ability to succeed in the war-torn country, according to Afghan and Western officials. This rift between Karzai and Obama began with Obama's saber-rattling about corruption in the Afghan government--despite U.S. support for some of Afghanistan's most powerful warlords, such as Karzai's brother.

This conflict has poured cold water on the plans of the U.S. military, which relies on Karzai's government and army to come in after NATO offensives to provide civil services and security.

Instead, the Afghan government has looked to making deal with other world powers in a bid to fix the situation on terms more appealing to Afghanistan's establishment and popular opinion. Countries such as China, Russia, Iran and even Pakistan have been courting favor with Afghan officials in order to spread their influence, undermine U.S. efforts in the region, and get a crack at the $1 trillion worth of minerals recently "discovered" in Afghanistan.

All of this will strengthen the pressure on U.S. imperialism to commit even more resources to a failing war.

The war effort, while causing political problems for the Obama administration, also has its share of military problems. Soldiers are being deployed numerous times in support of an occupation that seems to be spiraling out of control.

Soldiers on the ground seem to be the only ones who have a real grasp of the situation. "This week, our commander told us that we would be deploying to Logar Province, and told us that we should expect casualties," said an active-duty soldier, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by his chain of command. "He was clear that we are going to the belly of the beast, and the beast is hungry."

He continued:

You can't win with an occupation because you don't have any civilian support. It's clear that the people don't want us there, and therefore, it is easier for the Taliban to blend in with the population. Each of my deployments from 2001 to 2006 quickly deteriorated, and in my opinion, we aren't in a winning situation. We continue to fight a circular battle.

Afghanistan is a little different than Iraq. I quickly learned that we are fighting a different type of insurgency because the Taliban are more willing to come out and fight you. And to make it worse, we are getting a flood of unfit soldiers due to the recession, and it puts their lives as risk because [the military] wants numbers, and not quality soldiers. They will deploy you even if you have health problems.

THE WAR in Afghanistan, once touted by Obama in his speeches as "the good war," seems to be not only lost on the battlefield, but also increasingly in the court of public opinion. This shift in attitude toward the occupation of Afghanistan is happening, as the ideological justifications for launching the occupation in the first place seem to recede in importance.

Riding a wave of nationalism after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the war in Afghanistan with the justification that it would protect Americans and serve as revenge for the people who died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11.

In reality, the war had more to do with protecting the U.S.'s global interests than protecting the lives of Americans. The Bush administration saw Afghanistan as a stepping-stone to Iraq and the Persian Gulf, and as a way to place military forces in Central Asia in order to keep rivals such as Russia and China in check. This also includes placing an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, where a domestic uprising now threatens the gains made by the U.S.

A new justification for the war is also being put forward at a time when public support is eroding. The Pentagon announced the "discovery" of $1 trillion worth of minerals in Afghanistan. This discovery's timing is of interest when considering that China has been developing mining capabilities within Afghanistan since December 2007.

The China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC), which the Chinese government has 44 percent ownership of, signed a $2.9 billion contract with Afghanistan to extract copper from the Aynak Deposit, one of the largest untapped copper deposits in the world. Russia, another rival of the U.S., is also invested in mining because of its close relationship with China and Chinese mining companies.

U.S. corporations and other companies from NATO countries thus fear being left out in the cold. This is a clear threat to the objectives of the U.S., considering how much money U.S. companies can make from these mining operations. The Pentagon hopes to use the idea that Afghanistan is too important to walk away from as a way to shore up ongoing support, despite the many problems--political, economic and military--that plague the occupation effort.

The troop surge into southern Afghanistan has turned the occupation into a horrific quagmire with no end in sight, while simultaneously leaving no question that Obama has taken over responsibility from his predecessor for what happens there. Though the administration promises that withdrawal will begin in 2011, the fact remains that the U.S. government is determined not to lose the war to the Taliban--or to its rivals in Russia and China.

It is clear that the Obama administration and the Pentagon have no interest in ending the occupation. Instead, NATO soldiers and Afghans are paying the ultimate price for imperial rivalry, and working class people are left paying the bill.

Since 2001, the U.S. has spent $940 billion on the war in Afghanistan. Some $60 billion was recently approved to continue funding the occupation while the government continues to slash jobs and education here at home. The priorities of the Obama administration are clear: the U.S. cares more about occupation than jobs and education, and seems willing to continue crossing a bridge to nowhere, no matter the cost.

Further Reading

From the archives