Friday, October 17, 2008

Afghan Security Personnel Turn Against the US Occupation

In the above Al-Jazeera report (Oct 15, 2008), Dari/Farsi-speaking ex- Afghan security personnel, who are now fighting against the US-led occupation, speak their mind. Many recent reports are suggesting that an increasing number of Afghans are turning to the Taliban. But their numbers remains unconfirmed. As I see, the increasing support for the Taliban is mainly due to the foreign occupation and their indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. Marginalization of Pashtun groups is another reason. The foreign reporters need to understand that prostitution and alcohol is not new to war-ravaged Afghanistan. That alone cannot be a sufficient reason behind the radicalization of the locals. They also need to understand that there are various strands of Taliban in Afghanistan. Do the defectors in the above clip belong to the same pre-US-invasion Taliban? I would also like them to engage with the question/critique that an increasing trouble in Afghanistan is providing a pretext to the US for staying longer in the region. Some also argue that the real problem is Afghanistan is not that the Taliban are getting stronger, but that the central government is weak. In the last eight years or so the US has spent in Afghanistan only a fraction of what it spends in Iraq in six months. No serious efforts have been put to reconstruct civic institutions and local infrastructure. Afghanistan remains a country ruled by poppy-producing war lords.

In a previous IS post, I wrote:

"...neglecting two factors is augmenting support for the Taliban. One, you cannot marginalize a whole ethnic group, the Pashtuns, in the political process, especially if that ethnic group happens to be a majority in Afghanistan (according to various estimates, Pashtuns are between 36 to 42%. Tajiks seem to be the second largest majority with a population of 27-33%. In any case, the Pashtuns comprise a significant proportion of the Afghan population). At least some segments of the Pashtuns are seeing the Taliban as their channel to be heard in politics. The answer to this problem is a fair, proportional representation of various Pashtun groups, including even the Taliban, in the political process. Two, the US policy failures and occupation, particularly its inability to provide security and its arbitrary killing of innocent civilians, is radicalizing the locals, who get recruited by, what Tariq Ali calls, the 'neo-Taliban' movement. However, as Tariq Ali argues, their concerns remain quite local, and they should not be conflated with al-Qaeda. The answer to this second problem is a complete withdrawal of occupying forces from Afghanistan. I quote Tariq Ali: "If NATO and the U.S. were to leave Afghanistan, their [neo-Taliban] political evolution would most likely parallel that of Pakistan's domesticated Islamists." Further, "What is really required in the region is an American/NATO exit strategy from Afghanistan, which should entail a regional solution involving Pakistan, Iran, India, and Russia. These four states could guarantee a national government and massive social reconstruction in that country. No matter what, NATO and the Americans have failed abysmally."

The reality of war in Afghanistan
By Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe, October 15, 2008

DESPITE their differences over how to pursue the US war in Iraq, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both want to send more American troops to Afghanistan. Both are wrong. History cries out to them, but they are not listening.

Both candidates would do well to gaze for a moment on a painting by the British artist Elizabeth Butler called "Remnants of an Army." It depicts the lone survivor of a 15,000-strong British column that sought to march through 150 kilometers of hostile Afghan territory in 1842. His gaunt, defeated figure is a timeless reminder of what happens to foreign armies that try to subdue Afghanistan.

The McCain-Obama approach to Afghanistan, like much of US policy toward the Middle East and Central Asia, is based on emotion rather than realism. Emotion leads many Americans to want to punish perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They see war against the Taliban as a way to do it. Suggesting that victory over the Taliban is impossible, and that the United States can only hope for peace in Afghanistan through compromise with Taliban leaders, has been taken as near-treason

This knee-jerk response ignores the pattern of fluid loyalties that has been part of Afghan tribal life for centuries. Alliances shift as interests change. Warlords who support the Taliban are not necessarily enemies of the United States. If they are today, they need not be tomorrow.

In recent weeks, this elemental truth has begun to reshape debate over Western policy toward Afghanistan. Warlords on both sides met quietly in Saudi Arabia. The Afghan defense minister called for a "political settlement with the Taliban." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would not go that far, but said he might ultimately be open to "reconciliation as part of the political outcome."

Gates, however, struck a delusionary note of "can-do" cheeriness by repeating the McCain-Obama mantra: More US troops can pacify Afghanistan. Speaking days after a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the United States was caught in a "downward spiral" there, Gates asserted that there is "no reason to be defeatist or underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run."

In fact, long-run success in Afghanistan - defined as an acceptable level of violence and assurance that Afghan territory will not be used for attacks against other countries - will only be possible with fewer foreign troops on the ground, not more.

A relentless series of US attacks in Afghanistan has produced "collateral damage" in the form of hundreds of civilian deaths, which alienate the very Afghans the West needs. As long as the campaign continues, recruits will pour into Taliban ranks. It is no accident that the Taliban has mushroomed since the current bombing campaign began. It allows the Taliban to claim the mantle of resistance to a foreign occupier. In Afghanistan, there is none more sacred.

The US war in Afghanistan also serves as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. It is attracting a new stream of foreign fighters into the region. A few years ago, these jihadists went to Iraq to fight the Great Satan. Now they see the United States escalating its war in Afghanistan and neighboring regions of Pakistan, and are flocking there instead.

Even if the United States de-escalates its war in Afghanistan, the country will not be stable as long as the poppy trade provides huge sums of money for violent militants. Eradicating poppies is like eradicating the Taliban: a great idea but not achievable. Instead of waging endless spray-and-burn campaigns that alienate ordinary Afghans, the United States should allow planting to proceed unmolested, and then buy the entire crop. Some could be turned into morphine for medical use, and the rest destroyed. The Afghan poppy crop is worth an estimated $4 billion per year. That sum would be better spent putting cash into the pockets of Afghan peasants than firing missiles into their villages.

Deploying more US troops in Afghanistan will intensify this highly dangerous conflict, not calm it. Compromise with Al Qaeda would be both unimaginable and morally repugnant, but the Taliban is a different force. Skillful negotiation among clan leaders, based on a genuine willingness to compromise, holds the best hope for Afghanistan. It is an approach based on reality, not emotion.

Stephen Kinzer is author of "A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It."

Civilian dead are a trade-off in Nato's war of barbarity
By Seumas Milne, The Guardian, October 16, 2008.

The killing of innocent Afghans by US bombs is the result of a calculation, not just a mistake. And it is fuelling resistance

While the eyes of the western world have been fixed on the global financial crisis, the military campaign that launched the war on terror has been spinning out of control. Seven years after the US and Britain began their onslaught on Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden, the Taliban surround the capital, al-Qaida is flourishing in Pakistan and the war's sponsors have publicly fallen out about whether it has already been lost.

As the US joint chiefs of staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen concedes that the country is locked into a "downward spiral" of corruption, lawlessness and insurgency, Britain's ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, is quoted in a leaked briefing as declaring that "American strategy is destined to fail". The same diplomat who told us last year that British forces would be in Afghanistan for decades now believes foreign troops are "part of the problem, not the solution".

The British commander Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith was last week even blunter. "We're not going to win this war," he said, adding that if the Taliban were prepared to "talk about a political settlement", that was "precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this". The double-barrelled duo were duly slapped down by US defence secretary Robert Gates for defeatism. But even Gates now publicly backs talks with the Taliban, which are in fact already taking place under Saudi sponsorship.

This is the conflict western politicians and media continue to urge their reluctant populations to support as a war for civilisation. In reality, it is a war of barbarity, whose contempt for the value of Afghan life has fuelled the very resistance that western military and political leaders are now unable to contain.

In this year alone, for every occupation soldier killed, at least three Afghan civilians have died at the hands of occupation forces. They include the 95 people, 60 of them children, killed by a US air assault in Azizabad in August; the 47 wedding guests dismembered by US bombardment in Nangarhar in July - US forces have a particular habit of attacking weddings; and the four women and children killed in a British rocket barrage six weeks ago in Sangin.

By far the most comprehensive research into Afghan casualties over the past seven years has been carried out by Marc Herold, a US professor at the University of New Hampshire. In his latest findings, Herold estimates that the number of civilians directly killed by the US and other Nato forces since 2006, up to 3,273, is already higher than the toll exacted by the devastating three-month bombardment that ousted the Taliban regime in 2001. And over the past year civilian deaths at the hands of Nato forces have tripled, despite changes in rules of engagement.

But most telling is the political and military calculation that underlies the Afghan civilian bloodletting. "Close air support" bomb attacks called in by ground forces - which rose from 176 in 2005 to 2,926 in 2007 and are now the US tactic of choice - are between four and 10 times as deadly for Afghan civilians as ground attacks, the figures show, and air strikes now account for 80% of those killed by the occupation forces.

But while 242 US and Nato ground troops have died in the war with the Taliban this year, not a single pilot has been killed in action. The trade-off could not be clearer. With troops thin on the ground and the US military up to their necks in Iraq and elsewhere, US and Nato reliance on air attacks minimises their own casualties while guaranteeing that Afghan civilians will die in far larger numbers.

It is that equation that makes a nonsense of US and British claims that their civilian victims are accidental "collateral damage", while the Taliban's use of roadside bombs, suicide attacks and classic guerrilla operations from civilian areas are a sign of their moral depravity. In real life, the escalating civilian death toll is not a mistake, but the result of a clear decision to put the lives of occupation troops before civilians; westerners before Afghans.

Dependence on air power is also a reflection of US imperial overstretch and the reluctance of Nato states to put more boots on the ground. But however much the nominal Afghan president Hamid Karzai rails against Nato's recklessness with Afghan blood, the indiscriminate air war carries on regardless. Given that the US government spent 10 times more on every sea otter affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill than it does in "condolence payments" to Afghans for the killing of a family member, perhaps that shouldn't come as a surprise.

But nor should it be that the occupation's cruelty is a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban. As Aga Lalai, who lost both grandparents, his wife, father, three brothers and four sisters in a US bombing in Helmand last summer, put it: "So long as there is just one 40-day-old boy remaining alive, Afghans will fight against the people who do this to us."

That doesn't just go for Afghanistan. Gordon Brown recently told British troops in Helmand: "What you are doing here prevents terrorism coming to the streets of Britain." The opposite is the case. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq - and the atrocities carried out against their people - are a crucial motivation for those planning terror attacks in Britain, as case after case has shown. Now the US is launching attacks inside Pakistan, the risks of further terror and destabilisation can only grow.

Senior Pakistani officials are convinced Nato is preparing to throw in the towel in Afghanistan. Both Bush and the two US presidential candidates are committed to an Iraq-style surge, though the number of troops being talked about cannot possibly make a decisive difference to the conflict - and in Barack Obama's case may be as much about providing political cover for his plans for Iraq. But the strategic importance of Afghanistan doesn't suggest any early US withdrawal: more likely an attempt to co-opt sections of the Taliban as part of a messy and protracted attempt to rearrange the occupation.

It will fail. The US and its allies cannot pacify Afghanistan nor seal the border with the Taliban's Pakistani sanctuary. Eventually there is bound to be some sort of negotiated withdrawal as part of a wider regional and domestic settlement. But many thousands of Afghans - as well as occupying troops - look certain to be sacrificed in the meantime.

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