The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

U.S. War:
Surging from Iraq into Afghanistan and Pakistan

Oct 15, 2008

The U.S. troop surge in Iraq, engineered under General David Petraeus, has been portrayed as a big success and has been credited by the news media and Republican and Democratic politicians with rescuing U.S. imperialism’s disastrous war in Iraq from becoming another Viet Nam, that is, an ignominious defeat. During the electoral campaign, John McCain, an early proponent of the surge, tried to ride its supposed success as far as he could, claiming that it confirmed his own military prescience and competence. Obama, who tried to tap into the overwhelming unpopularity of the war by picturing himself as an early war opponent (despite the fact that he voted for every war appropriation), has nonetheless gone out of his way to praise the results of the surge, even telling Fox News’ Bill O’Reilley that the“surge succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

Now the U.S. military has announced that it is planning another surge for Afghanistan. And this too is being enthusiastically cheered by the news media, and of course, the Democrats and Republicans, with many dubbing Afghanistan, “the right war.”

Iraq: A Disaster Dressed up as a Success

Certainly, all claims that the surge in Iraq was a success only show the height of cynicism and depravity of U.S. politicians and the media.

The U.S. troop surge in Iraq increased U.S. troop levels by 30,000. These troops did not supply greater “security” to targeted sections of Iraq, as advertised. On the contrary, U.S. troops carried out an enormous escalation of the war against the Iraqi people, and they supported vast amounts of ethnic cleansing. In Baghdad, U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies bombed and destroyed entire neighborhoods, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. Refugees from Baghdad then joined a human flood that today encompasses one-sixth of the Iraqi population, or close to five million people. Baghdad was divided up and segregated by enormous blast walls into Sunni and Shia enclaves, which are patrolled by murderous police, gangs and troops. In other words, Baghdad was bled dry... and then turned into a virtual prison.

In the following months, the war escalated in other parts of the country, most especially in the South around Basra. Last March, the U.S. military supported the disastrous offensive launched by the Iraqi military against a rival Shiite militia, Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The Iraqi Amy is dominated by the Badr militia, which is the military wing of different Shiite party, ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which formerly was called SCIRI). The battle between these two rivals wreaked such havoc that the U.S. had to call in Iranian mediators to broker a temporary cease fire.

U.S. authorities often point to Anbar Province as the proof of the surge’s supposed success. Anbar is at the heart of what the U.S. called the Sunni Triangle, that is the insurgency against the U.S. coming from such cities as Ramadi and Fallujah. Today, the U.S. claims that those cities are so quiet and peaceful, the U.S. military can lift a big part of its troop presence. What the U.S. authorities don’t say is that the U.S. had reduced these cities to rubble after years and years of intense war. In other words, they are quiet... like a cemetery.

The U.S. also credits the role played by the Sunni-led Awakening movement with providing security and opposing the insurgency. In fact, the Awakening movement was little more than armed gangs made up of about 100,000 former Baathists, ex-military officers from the Saddam Hussein era and assorted insurgents from the 2003-2007 Iraqi resistance. The U.S. paid each of the armed militia men $300 per month to patrol the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin, Diyala and the mostly Sunni western suburbs of Baghdad. The U.S. promised them that after U.S. payments ended in September, one-fifth of the men serving in the Awakening movement would be hired into the Iraqi state apparatus.

This was supposed to be part of the effort to get all the different sides to peacefully resolve their conflict and make the Iraqi state and government – which today is dominated by the Shiite party, the ISCI and its Badr militia – more inclusive, bringing in competing parties and militias, including al-Sadr’s party and the Sunni parties. Provincial elections were to be held as another step in the peaceful reconciliation process. These elections were originally scheduled for October, but have been deferred once again until January 2009 – that is, until after the U.S. presidential elections.

Promises of reconciliation were soon shown to be completely hollow. On the contrary, the Iraqi police and death squads connected to the ISCI and Badr militia stepped up their efforts to consolidate their monopoly control over the state apparatus and government by targeting the leaders of the competing factions and parties. Almost no members of the Sunni Awakening movement were hired into the state apparatus. But many of the leaders were assassinated and a list was issued to arrest another 600. Meanwhile, a powerful member of the Iraqi parliament loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr was killed in a carefully planned assassination.

Over the last months, there may be fewer of the enormous car and suicide bombings. But there are many more assassinations by snipers and magnetic bombs, which are easily attached to the victim’s car and detonated at the moment chosen by the assassin.

The U.S. authorities have from time to time issued public condemnations of this new wave of assassinations and arrests. But behind the scenes it has continued to work with the Iraqi state dominated by the ISCI and Badr militia, threatening even worse violence if any of the targeted groups try to retaliate, thus holding these groups in check.

Iraq: War without End

The country continues to seethe with violence and ethnic conflicts. In Mosul, north of Baghdad, the Kurdish militia has carried out a campaign of terror against the Christian minority, assassinating a dozen Christians, firebombing their homes and provoking the exodus of thousands of Christians from the city. In the northern city of Kirkuk, which is in an important oil-producing region, competition has been heating up. In Kirkuk, there is a mixture of various ethnicities, including Kurdish, Sunni and Turkoman. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis were sent to displace Kurds there in order to build up a base of support for Saddam. Since 2003, the Kurdish authorities have encouraged Kurds to return to Kirkuk in order to displace the Sunnis. Thus, there is unending conflict over who lives where, complete with assassinations and bombings. This situation is so explosive, Iraqi politicians have agreed to cancel the upcoming provincial elections in Kirkuk, fearing that an electoral fight could break out into open civil war.

In addition, the Turkish military has been regularly carrying out incursions into northern Iraq. Under the guise of fighting separatist Kurdish guerrillas, the Turkish government is trying to position itself to grab some of Iraq’s oil wealth.

Iraq is still so dangerous, almost none of the five million refugees have felt safe enough to return home, despite the truly harsh conditions they have to endure as refugees. Those few who returned were most often confronted by the violent hostility of one gang or another, which left them with the usual choice: leave or die. Certainly the mixed neighborhoods and cities, where people of different ethnic origins used to live together and intermarry, appear to be a thing of the past.

The terrible violence of these past years has enabled the U.S. oil companies to have a free hand to exploit the entire country’s vast oil wealth whenever the opportunity finally arises. Meanwhile ordinary Iraqis have been left to fend for themselves under the most hellish conditions: little or no electricity, sewage and putrefying garbage everywhere, little or no access to safe drinking water, several outbreaks of cholera in the last year, no medical care, no jobs... nothing.

In fact, the only issue really being debated inside the U.S. state apparatus is how many U.S. troops to leave in Iraq to keep the lid on and ensure U.S. control. According to leaks of the latest U.S. National Intelligence Analysis – a much anticipated document produced by 16 intelligence agencies that is not slated to be officially released until after the U.S. election – U.S. troop levels, which are currently at 146,000, should remain at comparable levels into the foreseeable future, due to the continued explosiveness of the situation in Iraq. In September President Bush confirmed that he is not reducing U.S. troops levels in Iraq for the rest of his term.

Nonetheless another war is on the way, even if this squeezes the army. Democrats and Republicans have both been talking up escalating the war in Afghanistan. Obama and McCain have even used their presidential campaigns to prepare the U.S. population for a big U.S. troop escalation in Afghanistan. Typically, Obama says that he considers Afghanistan to be his top priority, what he calls “the central front in the war against terrorism.” And he says, “We need more troops there. We need more resources there...This is a war we have to win.” According to McCain, “The status quo is not acceptable. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and our enemies are on the offensive.” In fact, as early as August 2007, Obama crossed a kind of verbal Rubicon when he said he was also prepared to send U.S. troops into Pakistan as well – if he had what he called “actionable intelligence” that would justify it. In other words, under the guise of calling the U.S. surge in Iraq a success, both candidates said that as president, they would carry out a much bigger war in Afghanistan and even parts of Pakistan.

Afghanistan: the Second Front

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has been facing a growing insurgency from the Taliban and forces allied with it. Since 2006, the Taliban, which had been based in the Pashtun heartland south of the Hindu Kush mountains, has been able to expand its insurgency to the West, North and Northeast of the country, where it gained support from other ethnic minorities, which hadn’t supported the Taliban before.

As their forces grew, the Taliban insurgents were able to go beyond the classic guerrilla hit-and-run tactics and sustain major standing battles of hundreds and even thousands of fighters. This last summer, the Taliban mounted some of their more spectacular attacks. In July, a large force of Taliban fighters carried out a bold assault on a remote American base in Kunar Province, close to the Pakistan border. Nine American soldiers were killed. That attack followed another daring attempt to threaten a major southern city, Kandahar. NATO officers in Afghanistan began to compare the intensity of the fighting to that of the Korean War.

This insurgency has been able to expand right up into the outskirts of Kabul, the capital. Due to heavy concentration in Kabul of foreign troops, it is doubtful that the insurgency will soon be able to actually conquer Kabul. But the Taliban already has been able to stage several attacks that demonstrated its reach inside the city, including the bombing of the Indian embassy and attacking a parade reviewing stand where President Hamid Karzai sat.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have responded to the growth of the Taliban by boosting troop levels. The U.S. went from 20,000 to 33,000 troops in about two years, and other NATO countries increased their combined troop levels from 20,000 to 37,000. However from the point of view of militarily occupying a country the size of Afghanistan, this force is not considered to be nearly big enough. Compare it to Iraq, where there were close to 200,000 U.S. troops during the surge. Moreover, Afghanistan is a country with a land mass 50% larger than Iraq, while at the same time, Afghanistan has about 5 million more people. Other factors, such as Afghanistan’s much more rugged terrain with a scattered rural population, also pose big problems for the U.S. confronting the growing Taliban insurgency.

As usual, the U.S. and NATO have compensated for military weakness on the ground by escalating the war in the air. In 2006, U.S. air strikes and bombings increased by a factor of 10 over the previous year. In 2007, the number of air strikes almost doubled again. At the same time, U.S. and NATO forces also stepped up large-scale house-to-house searches and raids.

These brutal responses brought the usual results. In the last 15 months, more civilians have been killed than in the previous four years combined. This, in turn, sharply increased the anger and hatred amongst the people of Afghanistan against the U.S. and NATO occupation forces – thus providing a growing reservoir of recruits for the Taliban insurgency.

A U.S. Fiefdom

Widespread hatred of the extremely corrupt and weak Afghan government headed by the U.S.’s hand-picked president, Hamid Karzai, also helped feed the growth of the Taliban. Most of Karzai’s ministries are run by war lords, who have divided up the country into their own private fiefdoms. His government, just like the Taliban in its areas, imposes sharia, that is fundamentalist Islamic law. In fact, Karzai’s Supreme Court is a direct inheritance of the Taliban.

The Afghan government is little more than a U.S. puppet. The main decisions over the running of the country, starting with the government’s finances, are openly made in agencies based in Washington. Americans decide who rules the country, what the government budget is, and how it is spent. “The closest parallel may be found in those parts of colonial Africa where European states conjure up chieftainships to whom they assigned nearly autocratic authority over local subjects, but whose power was never great enough to interfere with the political aims of their foreign patrons,” wrote Atiq Sarwari and Robert Crews, two scholars on Afghanistan based in the U.S.

The U.S. and the Karzai government have been able to make Afghanistan, already one of the poorest countries on the planet before they took over, even poorer. Afghanistan is now ranked by the U.N. as the fifth least-developed country in the world, a one-position drop from 2004. At least half of the economy is once again based on the production of opium, supplying more than 90% of the opium for heroin in the world. In other words, Afghanistan is a now one-crop economy, with the two added plagues of skyrocketing heroin addiction and AIDS. Of course, just as in other U.S. client states, such as Colombia and Mexico, important figures in the Afghan government profit greatly from the trafficking in drugs, while U.S. drug eradication efforts are merely the cover for carrying out a war against not just the insurgency, but most of all against the population. The other main economic engine is the trade in arms, given the enormous military presence inside the country.

There is no aid for the population. Washington spends about 36 billion dollars a year on this war. Of that, only five cents of every dollar is actually earmarked for aid. And hardly a penny filters down to the population, since 40% of the aid money is soaked up by profits and salaries. That is why most people see the aid organizations as simply another mechanism to absorb money merely to pay for their own functioning.

Kabul itself lies in tatters. There is electricity and running water at the center of the city where the government resides, along with the offices of U.S. and international military authorities, the U.N. and various aid organizations and housing and shopping for their staffs. But poor Afghans live in crumbling warrens with no electricity and often without safe drinking water. Kabul, a city built for 800,000 people, now holds more than four million, most squeezed into informal settlements and squatters’ shacks. There are massive craters from decades of war.

Living conditions are deplorable. Most estimate unemployment as high as 80% in some parts of the country. More than 42% of the Afghan population lives in extreme poverty and the average Afghan family earns about 10 dollars per month. Given the skyrocketing food and fuel prices over the last year, it means that half of the population is not able to purchase enough food to guarantee bare minimum health levels, according to the Brookings Institute. Reports are emerging of parents selling their children simply to make ends meet. In one district of the southern province last spring, things got so bad, villagers started eating grass. This winter, Oxfam has warned that hunger may kill up to 80% of the population in some northern provinces caught in a vicious drought.

The situation of women is especially dire. After Sierra Leone, Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world with at least 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births. Thus, a staggering 24,000 women die every year – 60 pregnant women every day.

Caught in a Trap

Usually the press explains the growth of the Taliban by foreign support – foreign jihadists, supporters from Pakistan and other countries, and its involvement with the opium trade. However, these factors alone would not have allowed the Taliban to become anything more than cross-border nuisance raiders. The U.S. war, repression and absolutely barbaric economic and social conditions are what pushed more of the Afghan population toward the Taliban, broadening its support in the country.

This growth is reflected by the fact that the Taliban insurgency is also attracting some of the same cast of war lords, who have a long history of changing sides in their quest to gain power. These include the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, along with his son, Sirajuddin. Hekmatyar, for example, is a former favorite of the CIA. When he lost power in the early 1990s, Hekmatyar bombarded the city of Kabul for four years.

In other words, the Afghan population is caught in a trap. They are caught between the dictatorship of U.S. imperialism, along with the corrupt and venal Karzai government, and the Taliban, which undoubtedly would impose the same kind of despotic regime as it did before.

A Widening War

Escalating the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has gone past the porous border into the tribal regions of neighboring Pakistan. Its attacks in the Pakistani tribal region began from the air by helicopters, missiles, jets and drones. By this summer, U.S. commando units were going into Pakistan to carry out raids and assassinations. In July, the Bush administration confirmed that it had given the formal go-ahead for the U.S. military to go into Pakistan.

With U.S. imperialism using many of the same methods in Pakistan that it has in Afghanistan, it risks getting the same results. By murdering civilians, wreaking wanton destruction in their villages, forcing hundreds of thousands to become refugees, U.S. imperialism’s incursions into Pakistan only produce greater hatred. Instead of weakening the insurgency, U.S. imperialism is very likely spreading it – first of all, throughout the Pakistani tribal areas on the border of Afghanistan and then into other parts of Pakistan.

Pakistan is already a powder keg. The corrupt, despotic Pakistani regime, which has been one of U.S. imperialism’s main bulwarks of support in Central Asia for at least the last three decades, has become ever more parasitic, imposing worsening poverty, a collapsing economy and infrastructure on the great mass of the poor. The U.S. attacks on the Pakistan border regions risk discrediting that regime even further, inflaming other parts of the population, thus increasing the chance of a bigger social explosion and a bigger war in Pakistan, a country of 170 million people.

This widening war from Iraq to Afghanistan to parts of Pakistan recalls what, under very different historical circumstances, U.S. imperialism did in Southeast Asia four decades ago. By pursuing the Vietnamese National Liberation Front into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, U.S. imperialism only spread the war and destruction.

The U.S. is not at the end of its wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. The wars are spreading. Just as the U.S. bourgeoisie is engulfing the world in the greatest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is also feeding a regional war in the Middle East and Central Asia that could generalize.