Afghanistan: Bloody conflict continues

9 years after invasion and occupation

Nine years after the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by US-led forces was meant to have brought peace, stability and growing prosperity, the war against the Taliban resistance is not only clearly not being won but is intensifying.

Barack Obama’s US administration has beefed up its troop numbers this year by 30,000 to 100,000. They are fighting alongside some 50,000 Nato and 97,000 Afghan troops. Yet an estimated 28,000-strong Taliban is proving to be fierce opposition and growing stronger.

The conflict entered a new bloody phase in late September, with the launching of ‘Operation Dragon Strike’ – a US-led offensive against ‘insurgents’ around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan. In a matter of days, thousands of families were forced to uproot and seek refuge in Kandahar due to the US-led assault.

The offensive was postponed from June, after US and Afghan troops failed to “pacify” Marja, a much smaller city in Helmand province, and because of warnings from Afghan leaders concerned about the consequences of high civilian casualties.

But indiscriminate killings of innocent men, women and children continue relentlessly, as do growing Afghani outrage and protests. On 25 September, hundreds marched in Mihtarlam, the capital of Lagham Province, in the east of the country, after Nato air strikes killed 30 people.

The Kandahar operation, involving some 30,000 US and other foreign troops in the largest offensive since the occupation began, is bound to lead to many more civilian and troop deaths. 2010 is already the bloodiest year since the occupation started, with over 500 foreign troops killed.

Over 300 British soldiers have now died since 2001. Commenting on the dire prospects for the Western forces, retired US General Barry McCaffrey said last year: “This thing is going to be $5 billion to $10 billion a month and 300 to 500 killed and wounded a month by next summer”!

There is no attempt even to keep accurate records of the many civilian deaths. Last year, the Independent on Sunday estimated that 30,000 have been killed, with many casualties directly due to military action, including use of air strikes by the US forces. As well as this, possibly tens of thousands of civilians have died indirectly from the war, as a consequence of displacement, starvation, disease, exposure, lack of medical treatment and crime. The bloody conflict has caused a mass exodus from Afghanistan, with over three million refugees, mainly in Pakistan and Iran.

US-led forces occupied Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, supposedly to end Al Qaeda terror. In reality, the invasion was to further US imperialism’s geo-strategic interests in energy-rich Central Asia. The puppet, corrupt Kabul regime of Hamid Karzai, propped up by hundreds of thousands of Western troops and Afghan security forces, presides over mass joblessness, poverty and endemic corruption, which fuels the Taliban opposition.

In 2009, more than $170 billion was spent by the US and £12 billion by Britain on this unwinnable war, while living conditions for Afghanistan’s majority are hardly different than under reactionary Taliban rule. More than 40% of the population survive on less than $1 per day. Over 70% have no access to clean water. The great majority living in rural areas have no electricity and in Kabul power is only available for a few hours a day.

Neither has imperialist occupation brought any relief to the drugs epidemic in the region and the West, as promised by the occupiers back in 2001. Afghanistan still produces 90% of the world’s opium, the main ingredient in heroin. According to the United Nations, production was almost halved in the past year. But this had nothing to do with Western policy – it was largely due to a plant infection which has drastically reduced yields. The UN warns that production is likely to rise again, as higher prices tempt impoverished farmers to cultivate more opium poppies.

The recent fraudulent parliamentary elections reveal just how little authority the corrupt Karzai regime holds. With 4.3 million votes cast, this was the lowest turnout of the four national elections held since 2001. Even then, it is unclear how many of these votes were cast legitimately.

The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan reported ballot stuffing in nearly every province. Even sources within the misnamed Independent Election Commission – Karzai appoints its members – report that turnout in some polling stations exceeded 100%! Nato sources were forced to admit that the number of violent incidents surrounding polling increased by a third compared with presidential elections held last year.

The character of the Karzai government – popularly perceived as run by warlords and racketeers – and the huge resentment felt by Afghanis towards foreign occupying troops, results in an insurgency that is “…popular among Afghans even where the Taliban is not”, according to an Afghan expert quoted by the journalist, Patrick Cockburn.

In a response smacking of desperation, the US and its allies are hugely increasing the Afghan army and police at breakneck speed – the so-called “Afghanisation” of the conflict – as well as organising local militias, which are, in effect, death squads.

There are also reportedly 500 SAS personnel, and its naval equivalent, the SBS, in southern Afghanistan, who boast of killing Taliban commanders on an “industrial scale”. But for all their awesome killing power, Western forces find they are not winning militarily.

In fighting the Taliban, the US and allies also have to take into account neighbouring Pakistan. Imperialist support, particularly from the US, to Afghan mujahedeen groups, via the Pakistan military, that fought Soviet forces in the 1980s, succeeded in ‘regionalising’ or spreading the conflict. Long before 9/11, the Pakistan army and Taliban had very close links and Pakistan was the main supporter of Taliban-run Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

This intimate relationship is personified by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who was recently re-appointed Pakistan army chief of staff. As the former head of Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Kayani oversaw the ISI’s aiding of the Taliban’s recovery, after it was overthrown by the US-led allies in 2001.

Karzai and Zadari, Pakistan premier

Pakistan directly involved

The Afghan war also now directly involves Pakistan. The Taliban leaders are based in Pakistan and its fighters find sanctuary across the 2,500 mile long border. The Pashtun areas on both sides of the border are in revolt. The Pakistan military, under US pressure, is conducting a brutal offensive against the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ in the ‘federally administered tribal areas’ in the country’s North West frontier.

US military actions on the Pakistan side of the border have greatly increased under Obama, who paradoxically won the presidency in 2008 partly by appealing to the widespread anti-war mood in the US. Since the Democrats took office, air strikes by pilotless drone aircraft have quadrupled, causing over 1,300 deaths in 2009 and 2010, so far.

For all the Western propaganda about eliminating ‘insurgent suspects’, women, men and children are amongst those massacred. With his legal background, Obama must surely be aware that these attacks amount to war crimes under international law.

But the US must be wary of how far they can push nuclear-armed Pakistan. In late September US attack helicopters killed over 50 people inside the country, which Pakistan described as violating their sovereign territory. Following the killing of three Pakistani soldiers in a Nato helicopter attack near the border with Afghanistan on 30 September, Pakistan blocked one of two vital supply routes for US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, leading to an escalation in tensions with the United States.

The latest strikes have set a new pattern in the US-led "war on terror" in Pakistani tribal areas, with the US and allies following a ‘hot-pursuit’ option as well as drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. In response, the Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik pointedly stated about Pakistan-US relations: "We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies".

Aggressive US military intervention in crisis-ridden Pakistan threatens to further destabilise the country and region. Every US drone attack adds yet more pressure on the already weak and corrupt Islamabad regime. President Zardari is held in open contempt by the Pakistani masses for his government’s indifference, corruption and incompetence during the recent catastrophic floods. In contrast, the Pakistan army’s stock has risen in the eyes of many due to its aid intervention, bolstering the three quarters of a million-strong army that dominates Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan.

Some commentators call for the US, Britain and allies to negotiate an end to the intractable conflict by calling for talks with Pakistan, the Taliban and the Karzai regime, rather than attacking Pakistan’s “quasi-control of the Taliban”. They point to the huge problems facing the West’s current ‘Afghanising” strategy. The plan is to increase the Afghan army to 134,000 by the end of next year. But it is estimated the real current figure is about 60,000 not the official 94,000.

The highly corrupt Afghan police are also expected to grow at a frantic pace, despite the fact that many recruits only last in the force until they get some money and a meal. Most police recruits are non-Pashtun, yet this ethnic group, from which the Taliban are largely based, makes up over 40% of the country’s population. A police force dominated by Hazara, Uzbeks and Tajiks sent to Pashtun areas will only increase Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions.

Obama’s Vietnam?

On coming to office, Obama changed tactics in Afghanistan in a tacit admission that the strategy pursued by the Bush presidency – to try to smash the Taliban and enforce the rule of the puppet Karzai government by military means – had failed and indeed badly backfired.

With Western think-tanks warning that Afghanistan could become "Obama’s Vietnam", the new president had no choice but to change strategy. In June, Obama dramatically sacked the US and Nato commander in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal. This followed the general’s controversial comments in Rolling Stone magazine, in which he and his aides sharply criticised senior US officials.

The incident brought into the open the US’s military crisis in Afghanistan and the serious divisions in the military and political establishment. It was clear that McChrystal’s much vaunted ‘counter-insurgency’ strategy was failing. The Afghan conflict is now America’s longest war and has no end in sight.

President Karzai, reflecting his regime’s isolation and the lack of confidence in the US and allies to defeat the insurgency, has repeatedly made overtures to the Taliban. He refers to them as “brothers” and “dear Talibs” and calls for their leaders to be removed from the UN sanctions list.

Although British prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg extend Obama’s date for Western forces withdrawing from July 2011 to 2015, Karzai allegedly suffers from a “Najibullah syndrome”. This is a reference to the abandonment of the last ‘communist’ head of state of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, after which the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996 and tortured and hanged Najibullah.

On 28 September, Karzai tearfully launched a “high peace council”, the Process of Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration. The Afghan president reportedly hopes to entice Taliban fighters away from the battlefield with money and work, while aiming to make deals with the movement’s leaders. However the make-up of the 68 person council (involving just eight women) – dominated by government sympathisers and former warlords associated with war crimes and corruption – shows the reactionary, anti-female basis on which Karzai would like to make ‘peace’.

Currently, the US and its allies are prioritising a renewed military offensive and Afghanisation of the conflict. But the war remains unwinnable. Obama’s strategy is clearly failing to shift the balance of forces against the Taliban. This fact is reflected in the language now used by the US and its allies; the ‘international mission’ in Afghanistan has fallen back from “defeating” to “degrading” the Taliban and there are hints at eventually trying to make deals with the insurgents.

The disarray of the US and its allies no doubt emboldens the resistance. But the Taliban cannot win over the majority of Afghanis, who are non-Pashtun, and the movement faces widespread hostility to the prospect of its reactionary rule of terror.

Reports that Nato has had behind-the-scenes contact with Taliban figures indicates that both sides are concluding they will eventually have no choice but to try to make a negotiated deal. Former leading US diplomats call for the de-facto partition of Afghanistan, which would see Taliban control over many of the Pashtun-majority southern provinces, and former Mujahideen leaders controlling the north.

Such a ‘solution’ makes a mockery of Western claims of bringing peace, security and women’s and children’s rights to Afghanistan. It is also pregnant with huge ethnic, religious and national problems that could embroil Pakistan, Iran and the region.

What alternative?

An alternative for the masses of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are paying a terrible price for decades of imperialist intervention, is desperately needed. This entails the people of the region finding a way out, alongside building the anti-war movement internationally.

In common with most people in Britain, the US and all over the world, The Socialist calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The billions wasted on war and occupation should be spent on jobs and public services.

Socialists can have no illusions in the new Labour leadership to support the anti-war movement. Ed Miliband appears to have had a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion over Iraq during his successful bid for Labour leadership. He opportunistically says now it was “wrong” to go to war, though when he became Labour leader, Miliband moved quickly to reassure the interests of imperialism over Afghanistan, stating he would work in a “bipartisan way” with the government to support “our mission”.

Opposition to the war also entails fighting for basic democratic and human rights. The Iraq and Afghan wars were accompanied by an assault on democratic rights in the West. A recent armed FBI raid of six peace activists’ homes in Minneapolis and Chicago are examples of the increased state surveillance and repression started by Bush and Blair and continued by Obama and Cameron.

The US and its allies’ stated aims of bringing peace and prosperity to the Afghanis is shown to be just so much empty rhetoric and a cover for imperialist objectives. Afghanistan is a country that was rich in culture and heritage. To really transform the lives of Afghanis, independent and democratic organisations of the workers and poor in Afghanistan need to be created. They would campaign for genuine democratic rights, an end to the oppression of women and for a massive reconstruction programme, under the democratic control of the masses.

A strong, united movement of Afghanistan’s working population and impoverished people would fight for the public ownership of key industries and resources, including the nearly $1 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits. With a socialist programme, independent class organisations would stand for the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government, on a democratic socialist programme, as part of a socialist federation of the region.

No doubt apologists for the war in Afghanistan and defenders of the system will dismiss this as ‘Utopian’. But what is the alternative on the basis of capitalism, landlordism and imperialism? It has proven to be military oppression by foreign troops and local regimes or domination by reactionary religious zealots and warlords.

The struggle for the independent political representation of the working masses and the poor in the conditions of Afghanistan is no easy task but it is the only ‘realistic’ way to bring about lasting peace and an end to mass poverty, joblessness and wars.

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October 2010