Jul 29, 2012
At the May 20 NATO summit in Chicago, President Barack Obama proclaimed that “we’re now unified behind a plan to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan,” promising that by the end of 2014, all U.S. combat troops would be out of the country. He conceded that the U.S. had not met all of its goals. “But think about it. We’ve been there now 10 years,” said Obama, who insisted that the plans to withdraw are “irreversible.”
Obviously, the U.S. wants out of Afghanistan. The war has already lasted close to 11 years, the longest war in U.S. history. When the U.S. government decided on war in Afghanistan, it was supposed to be quick, a demonstration of just how powerful the U.S. military machine is. Instead, the U.S. got caught up in a war that became a demonstration of its vulnerabilities.
Obama’s announcement was obviously timed for the November elections, so that he can take credit for “winding down the war.” But the fact that the deadline has been put off until the end of 2014 is a good indication that, despite all their assurances, U.S. officials are still not sure how they are going to accomplish that. Just as telling is the fact that Pentagon officials already say they plan to keep several thousand non-combat troops in Afghanistan as “trainers and advisors” for 10 years after 2014. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) cites anonymous U.S. officials who say that the U.S. military is planning on keeping from 10,000 to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, in other words, an entire army. And the CRS report says that many of these troops will include Special Forces in “a counterterrorism focused mission” (“Afghanistan: PostTaliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” May 3, 2012). That means a continuation of combat after the 2014 deadline.
The mighty U.S. superpower continues to flail around in Afghanistan, still unsure of how or when it will be able to extricate itself from this, its longest war.
The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan because the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington struck at the heart of the U.S. financial and military establishment, showing that the U.S. superpower had an Achilles heel. The U.S. state apparatus decided it needed to lash out in a major show of force.
Afghanistan was targeted. The Bush administration may have pretended the terrorist attacks came from there. And it charged the ruling Taliban with harboring Osama bin Laden. That was all sheer nonsense, since the Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11. As for bin Laden, Taliban officials had offered to hand him over – which the Bush administration sneeringly refused.
The real reasons for going to war against Afghanistan had to do with military expediency. The U.S. wanted to pose, flexing its muscles, and Afghanistan was considered to be a pushover. One of the poorest countries on earth, it had already been devastated by two decades of war. Moreover, the ruling Taliban didn’t even control the whole country. There was already a fighting force on the ground that the U.S. could rely on to do most of the fighting: the Northern Alliance, which was a band of warlords with longstanding ties to the CIA. The Bush administration calculated that at a minimal cost to the U.S., it could make quick work of Afghanistan, and thereby provide the world with a demonstration of U.S. strength.
The war that the U.S. military put together against Afghanistan was quick and purposely spectacular – broadcast for all the world to see on every television. The U.S. began massive bombing on October 9, less than a month after 9/11. In several weeks of air strikes, U.S. aircraft and cruise missiles slammed Afghanistan with carpet bombing, cluster munitions and napalm. The U.S. fielded only a small ground force, about 1,000 CIA and Special Forces who worked with the Northern Alliance, which actually did the fighting. The Taliban did not offer much resistance, and by early December, Taliban forces gave up Kandahar, their last stronghold, without a fight. The war lasted two months. While the war produced thousands of Afghan casualties, no U.S. troops were killed. It was celebrated by the U.S. media as a great victory.
The U.S. proceeded to put together a new government and a new army for Afghanistan, which it based on the forces of the Northern Alliance, granting the warlords top positions in the new ministries, with their control extending down to the local governments. Their militias became the basis of the new Afghan military. There were certain “drawbacks” in relying so heavily on the Northern Alliance: the Northern Alliance was based mainly among ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, excluding the largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, based in the south, from which the Taliban sprang. To overcome this deficiency, the U.S. anointed Hamid Karzai, from a prominent Pashtun political family in the Kandahar region in the south, as the new president. Since Karzai had been out of the country for years, U.S. special forces and CIA had to sneak him in during the fighting.
Most of the governments of the world blessed the entire operation. On December 6, ten days before the Taliban left Kandahar, the U.N. had already opened a conference in Germany to nominate a new government for the country. Two weeks later, the Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. The resolution was the first to give legal cover to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, even though the Americans had already been there for more than two months. The next month, the governments of 60 countries pledged different kinds of support for Afghanistan, especially money.
The U.S. government wrapped up the entire Afghanistan War and its aftermath within months, allowing the Bush administration to pivot to what it really coveted: Iraq and its oil. And just as quickly as the news outlets had descended on Afghanistan to cover the war, they pulled up stakes for Iraq. Afghanistan dropped out of sight completely.
The Karzai family and the warlords quickly moved to consolidate their power. They carried out ethnic cleansing and reprisals against thousands of Pashtuns in villages in the north and west, killing some, while forcing the rest to flee south, landless, homeless and jobless. In the southern provinces, where the Taliban was strongest, they handed power to regional strongmen who had lost out to the Taliban. In Kandahar, Karzai handed power over to his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
The warlords used their positions to smuggle, plunder, rob and rape, cloaking themselves in brutal religious fundamentalism. Most of all, the Karzai family and the warlords got their hands on all that occupation money, which they began to salt away in bank accounts in such places as Switzerland, Dubai and the U.S.
The warlords revived poppy production, that is, opium, which the Taliban had almost completely eradicated. In May 2001, barely five months before the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell had even announced a 43-million-dollar grant to the Taliban government for their anti-opium effort. Once the warlords took over, opium production skyrocketed from 190 metric tons in 2001 to 3,000 metric tons in 2003, or 60% of the world’s supply. By 2007, production grew to 8,200 metric tons, spreading to every province.
However, fighting in southern Afghanistan never died out completely. Small U.S. troop outposts in southeastern Afghanistan regularly came under fire by rockets and mortars. In March 2002, the U.S. launched a major offensive to try to finish off the Taliban. The operation was considered a success. But several months later, Afghan border posts in southern Afghanistan started coming under frequent attack. By the spring of 2003, the U.S. military reported seeing fighting groups as large as 50 attacking Afghan police posts in the south. “Soft targets,” that is, foreign civilians working for the U.N. and various aid groups and NGO’s, also came under attack.
The U.S. slowly boosted its forces. In 2002, the U.S. doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan to 9,000 by the end of the year, and increased them again by another 4,000 in 2003. Certainly it was a relatively small number of troops, especially compared to the size of the country, which is about 50% larger than Iraq. But obviously, with the U.S. preparing for war with Iraq, it had few troops to spare. So U.S. officials began to strong-arm “allies” in NATO, Latin America and elsewhere, to “contribute” more troops. Most of the U.S. and foreign troops were concentrated in Kabul.
The Bush administration pretended that things were going well in Afghanistan. On May 1, 2003, the very day that Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq from the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pronounced that “major combat operations are over” in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld added, “...we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities. The bulk of this country today is permissive, it's secure.”
The U.S. authorities were pretending they had an exit strategy for getting out of Afghanistan. But they didn’t. Less than a month after Rumsfeld’s bombastic statement, a suicide bomber in a taxi drove into a bus outside Kabul, killing four German soldiers and an Afghan bystander. Insurgencies were spreading beyond the Pashtun heartland into much of the rest of the country. Between 2005 and 2006, the U.S. military reported that the number of insurgent armed attacks nearly tripled, and then increased again the following year.
Thus the U.S. military found itself bogged down in a burgeoning civil war and insurgency. The Afghan government and state apparatus that the U.S. government had put together wasn’t keeping order; instead it was sowing disorder – with the warlords using their positions to enrich themselves. They provided no services, no security, running roughshod over the population.
The Bush administration had replaced the Taliban, which had at least been able to impose some form of order throughout much of the country, with a group of venal warlords and mujahedin. Their former domination over Afghanistan had already produced a devastating civil war from 1992 to 1996.
The U.S. government had a long relationship with these warlords and mujahedin, religious fundamentalists and fanatics, dating back to the 1970s. The U.S. had helped to arm, finance and train them to fight against Soviet forces during the Soviet war and occupation of Afghanistan, which lasted from 1979 to 1989, in order to give the Soviet Union its own Viet Nam. When the Soviet Union finally left Afghanistan, the U.S. continued to support the warlords’ and mujahedins’ efforts to overthrow the existing Afghan government, which the Soviet Union continued to support with munitions, fuel and supplies. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, all its support to the Afghan government ended on January 1, 1992. Four months later, the Afghan regime fell, and the rule of the U.S.-backed warlords and mujahedin opened up a new period of civil war, with various forces attempting to impose themselves on each other in a contest to see who would reign supreme. The warlords and mujahedin killed tens of thousands and destroyed much of the country, including Kabul.
To restore order, the Pakistan military, with the financial support of the Saudi Arabian monarchy, created the Taliban in 1993-94 with its own brand of virulent religious fundamentalism. Former fighters in the mujahedin and young men in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, who were mainly Pashtuns, were recruited into the Taliban. In November 1994, the Taliban took control of the southern city of Kandahar in their march to power.
The Taliban held out the hope of ousting the much-hated warlords and mujahedin and providing a sense of order and security, thus gaining popular support. By September 1996, the Taliban controlled Kabul, and began their reign. The Taliban were never entirely able to defeat the warlords and mujahedin, as former enemies who had fought each other during the civil war banded together to form the Northern Alliance.
The U.S. government opened talks with the Taliban, holding out the promise of diplomatic recognition. But the U.S. government never granted it. But neither did the U.S. openly oppose the Taliban. Sometimes the U.S. even granted the Taliban financial support – such as the reward for the poppy eradication program. By continuing to give a small amount of aid to the Northern Alliance through the CIA, the U.S. was keeping open all its options in Afghanistan.
What all of these U.S. policies had in common was to treat Afghanistan and its people as mere pawns in a bigger power game that has lasted for three decades. First the U.S. supported the warlords and mujahedin against the Soviet Union and the Afghan government. Then, the U.S. client states, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, used the Taliban against the warlords and mujahedin. In a further turn of the screw, the U.S. used the warlords and mujahedin against the Taliban.
Eventually, the war and disorder in Afghanistan, which U.S. imperialism fomented and fed, crept up on the U.S. Just as the Soviet Union was once caught in a quagmire of its own making in Afghanistan, so today is the U.S.
By 2006, Democrats were castigating the Bush administration for supposedly being distracted from the war in Afghanistan by the war in Iraq. Typical was a 2006 speech by then- Senator Barack Obama. “(President Bush’s) decision to go to war in Iraq has had disastrous consequences for Afghanistan... instead of consolidating the gains made by the Karzai government, we are backsliding toward chaos.”
The U.S. was already escalating the war. From 2003 to 2006, the number of U.S. troops increased from 13,000 to about 20,000. 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 stepped up largescale housetohouse searches and raids. Entire villages were destroyed by “surgical” strikes. When a village was suspected of helping the insurgents, it was bombed. Teams of special forces with “hit lists” carried out night raids, assassinations and mass arrests, filling prisons and detention centers, such as the massive one at the U.S. Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.
With the economy in a shambles, with agricultural production of most fruits, vegetables and grains destroyed and with so many people having lost their land and often their families, many were left with no other prospects than to join up with local guerrilla commanders, gangsters and smugglers.
The U.S. was carrying on a real war that had severe consequences for the Afghan population, unleashing its own brand of terrorism, pushing increasing parts of the population to fight against the U.S. and its allies. And the very means by which the U.S. forces tried to put down the insurgencies in Afghanistan only spread them further.
Local fights in the south had spread by 2008 to most parts of the country, including the north, which had been the base of the Northern Alliance, an alliance that formerly had supported the Karzai government.
By the time Obama took office, U.S. and NATO allies had already boosted troop levels. From 2006 to 2008, the U.S. had gone from 20,000 to 33,000 troops, and other NATO countries had increased their combined troop levels from 20,000 to 37,000. In the first 10 months of Obama’s term, U.S. troop levels doubled, from 34,000 to 68,000, much of this already prepared under the Bush administration.
In his long-awaited speech of December 2009, which Obama delivered at West Point, he finally laid out the strategy for his “surge.” He announced that he would raise troop levels to close to 100,000, and carry out a civilian surge as well, which included a contingent from the CIA and other agencies. But he promised that his surge was “temporary,” and that he would begin drawing down troop levels in 18 months, that is, by July 2011, with the goal of eventually getting out of Afghanistan completely.
At the heart of the surge was the much advertised counter-insurgency program, the brainchild of General David Petraeus, which was supposed to “win the hearts and minds of the population” by protecting them from insurgents and providing them with security. In fact, counter-insurgency was nothing more than the usual kind of pacification programs that colonial and imperialist forces have used for centuries, including during such bloody wars as Algeria and Viet Nam.
U.S. forces were concentrated in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south and east of the country, which were considered the heartland of the insurgency. The U.S. initiated the first big battle in February 2010 in a district called Marja, which was really just a series of impoverished hamlets in an area slightly larger than the cities of Cleveland or Washington, D.C. It became the biggest joint operation since the war began. More than 15,000 U.S., Afghan, Canadian, and British troops swept through Marja within a few days and supposedly chased out the Taliban and set up an instant government, flown in by the U.S. Air Force. General Stanley McChrystal called it “government in a box, ready to roll in,” a complete absurdity, about which the population exhibited deep suspicion and distrust. Insurgent operations picked up as soon as most of the troops were withdrawn, thus forcing the U.S. and its allies to come back and fight the same battle over and over again during the next months. “By day there is a government,” a village elder told a McClatchy reporter (May 24, 2010). “By night it’s the Taliban.”
Marja was supposed to serve as the preview for the big battle of the surge, Kandahar, the second biggest city in the country, and the surrounding farming villages. But after the Marja fiasco, the U.S. delayed the Kandahar offensive by three months. Finally, it began with a series of operations in Kandahar City and its surrounding districts throughout the late summer and fall in 2010. Villages were bombed and thousands were arrested in night raids. The U.S. military declared some vague success. But a year later, Taliban forces launched their own offensive in Kandahar. They hit the governor’s office, police buildings and local offices in a string of high-profile attacks. “The Taliban are more active in the city than at any time since 2001,” Hajji Atta Mohammed, a former police general who heads the Kandahar council of former mujahedin commanders, told the Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2011). “They’ve brought the war inside Kandahar.”
This year, the U.S. has met reversals to its offensive in districts surrounding Kandahar. A report by the Wall Street Journal (May 16, 2012), “Attacks by Taliban Rise in Surge Areas,” quotes U.S. General James Huggins, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan. Huggins said “enemy activity” in three farming areas outside Kandahar had increased by 31% in the last year. The U.S. military provided the explanation for this: “In Zhari, Panjway and Maiwand, most Taliban are locals, operating within three miles of their homes – and often enjoying support within their communities, American commanders said.”
At the same time, the U.S. was trying to bolster the Afghan regime. For example, in 2010, U.S. Special Forces were used to set up or expand local militias, ostensibly to fight the Taliban, turning the militias into the Afghan Local Police (ALP). In fact, it was just an excuse to hand over bundles of money to the same old warlords. In the July 9 issue of The New Yorker, reporter Dexter Filkins described how the district of Kunduz is divided into nine fiefdoms, each controlled by a new militia. They are given carte blanche to tax residents. And a blind eye has been turned on them as they carried out armed robberies, rapes and assaults against the population.
“We created these groups, and now they are out of control,” Nizamuddin Nashir, the governor of Khanabad, told Filkins. “The government does not collect taxes, but these groups do, because they are the men with the guns.”
In fact, the U.S. occupation has over and over fed into more corruption... which eventually backfires. Take, for example, the multi-billion-dollar trucking contracts that the U.S. grants to private companies to transport U.S. military supplies. One of the main trucking contracts was given to Hamed Wardak, the son of the Afghan Defense Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, whose company is based in northern Virginia. A 2010 Congressional report called “Warlords, Inc.” explained how his and other companies pay protection money to private security subcontractors “that are warlords, strongmen, commanders and militia leaders” to prevent attacks on convoys. Often, these subcontractors paid off the Taliban and other insurgent forces as well. “It may be a significant source of funding for insurgents,” the report concluded. In other words, the U.S. military provides a lot of the financing to the very insurgencies the U.S. is fighting.
The year 2012 was supposed to be the big turnaround year, when the surge was supposed to show success. But everything the U.S. has done has pushed the Afghan population to express widespread anger against the U.S. occupation. In February, big demonstrations throughout the country broke out after reports that U.S. bombs slaughtered eight shepherd boys, aged six to 18, in Kapsia Province in northern Afghanistan. Those were followed by more protests after American troops burned Korans. Angry protesters, armed with nothing more than rocks, pistols and wooden sticks, took to the streets and battled U.S. and Afghan security forces, which killed 30 protesters and wounded hundreds more.
Attacks on U.S. troops come from within the Afghan state apparatus itself. On February 25, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and a major in Kabul were shot in the back of the head while working in the command and control center of the Afghan Interior Ministry, an area of restricted access for only an elite group of Afghan officers using a special code. Immediately afterward, the U.S. and NATO responded by pulling all advisers out of Afghan ministries. When Afghan Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak called Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to offer his condolences, “Secretary Panetta ... urged the Afghan government to take decisive action to protect coalition forces and curtail the violence.” The irony couldn’t be more obvious: the most powerful military in the world was asking the rag-tag Afghan military to protect U.S. forces!
The futility of such a plea was illustrated on March 1. At a joint AfghanNATO base in Kandahar province, an Afghan platoon leader and a literacy instructor at the base killed a tower guard and attacked a barracks with gunfire and a rocket, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding four others in a battle that lasted almost one hour.
Such assaults have become so common, they are widely referred to in shorthand as “green on blue” attacks. A classified study for the U.S. military, which was reported in The New York Times (January 20, 2012), said that these “fatal altercations” are “of a magnitude which may be unprecedented between ‘allies’ in modern military history.” The report said that official NATO pronouncements downplaying their significance were “disingenuous, if not profoundly intellectually dishonest.” The report made it clear that these were not isolated incidents nor due to supposed Taliban infiltration, which is the usual official explanation for the killings. Instead, the report drew attention to the deepseated animosity and mistrust between the supposedly allied forces in the unending and brutal occupation.
In 2012, the frequency of these attacks increased. As of early July, Afghan police officers or soldiers had killed 26 coalition service members this year, compared with 35 in all of 2011. One-third of all U.S. and its coalition partners’ fatalities have been at the hands of their Afghan allies.
In 2012, the turnaround year, the surge has borne its poisonous fruit.
Claiming to leave no stone unturned in their quest to leave Afghanistan “responsibly,” U.S. officials have occasionally announced that they are carrying out negotiations with the Taliban or other so-called insurgent leaders. But, so far, nothing has come out of them. One of the difficulties for U.S. diplomats and military officials is that they don’t always know who they are talking to. In November 2010, for example, NATO officials claimed to be facilitating high-level talks with Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour, a senior leader of the Taliban, a big breakthrough. They paid the man a lot of money – their usual form of inducement – and flew him to Kabul to meet with President Karzai and NATO officials. Only later did NATO and Afghan officials discover that the man was an imposter, an ordinary shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan, who took the money and ran.
Neither did the much hyped assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 by U.S. Navy Seals change the course of the Afghan war. But the assassination did create a public uproar in Pakistan against the U.S., which has been assassinating people there with impunity for years. The uproar was also against the U.S. puppets at the head of the government of Pakistan.
The war that the U.S. government entered into so blithely – to flex U.S. military might – has turned Afghanistan into a bloody quagmire. It has also spread to neighboring Pakistan.
This war has had horrifying human consequences in Afghanistan. The very conditions that made Afghanistan such an attractive target for the U.S. military – the fact that it is one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth and that it had already undergone two decades of war before the U.S. invaded – are what made the human catastrophe of the U.S. war so much greater. The U.S. military laid waste to what had not been already destroyed in the previous decades of war.
The U.N. says that slightly less than 13,000 Afghans were killed from 2006 to 2011. Of course, this has to be a whitewash, limited to the number of those who have actually been counted. Unknown are how many people have not been counted. In a country at war, with almost no infrastructure, there have been no attempts to make a serious estimate.
Certainly the war has brought immense dislocation. About one fifth of the population are today refugees who live in either Iran and Pakistan, with more than half considered “illegal,” which makes their existence even more precarious. Even in areas where the war has subsided in their home country, many Afghans have chosen not to return because of the sheer destruction and lack of services. The Afghan government admits it is not able to re-integrate many returning refugees. Added to that are the half a million internal refugees, those who lost their homes or land and have no place to go. According to the U.N., “There is neither a legal framework nor appropriate mechanisms to respond to their protection and assistance needs.”
Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries on the planet. It takes its place among the most desperate, destitute nations like Burkina Faso and Somalia whenever any international organization bothers to measure. There are practically no jobs, except those provided by the occupation authorities or the warlords. And much of the population is starving. Approximately 45% of the population is now unable to purchase enough food to guarantee minimum health levels, according to the Brookings Institution.
And despite claims by the U.S. government that it has spent 90 billion dollars since 2001 on “reconstruction,” the infrastructure in Afghanistan remains practically non-existent. Afghans’ access to electricity is among the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank. Only 13% of Afghans have access to safe drinking water; only 12% have access to adequate sanitation.
Is it any surprise that life expectancy in Afghanistan is only 44 years, which is at least 20 years lower than neighboring countries and among the lowest in the world?
When the U.S. invaded in 2001, the invasion was accompanied by a relentless propaganda from both Democrats and Republicans condemning the Taliban for its treatment of women. But the government that the U.S. put in place has carried out the same policy. According to Human Rights Watch, more than half the Afghan women in prison today are there for “moral crimes,” including running away from impending forced marriages, fleeing abusers and having premarital sex. Oxfam reports that 87% of Afghan women have experienced intimate violence, whether in the form of forced marriage, or physical, sexual or psychological abuse. And public executions of women continue, as a recent video of a woman being executed for adultery shows. The execution took place not in some out of the way area under Taliban control, but in Parwan – less than a two-hour drive from Kabul.
There has also been a huge cost on the American side, as well – although of course, tiny in comparison to the Afghans losses . About 2,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the war, a relatively low number considering how long the war has been going on. However, the number of suicides among soldiers is larger than the number killed in the war, and it is skyrocketing. Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs says that 18 veterans kill themselves each day, or one suicide every 80 minutes.
This represents the invisible toll of a war in which soldiers are pushed into impossible situations, in which death and brutality are constant companions, in which many witness or participate in atrocities – inevitable outcomes of war. And what’s worse, these soldiers are serving in combat longer than almost any U.S. soldiers in the nation’s past. The cycles of combat have been so long and so frequent that tens of thousands of soldiers now have spent three to four cumulative years at war in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Army records.
“What is exceptional ... is the repeated deployments,” says Civil War historian James McPherson. He says the average Civil War tour of duty was about 2½ years, with small numbers serving for the duration. “These [current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan] may take a greater physical and psychological toll than a single deployment, even if the latter is longer,” says McPherson.
The invisible scars and wounds can sometimes twist and turn these ex-soldiers into terrible monsters or walking time bombs. As a result, domestic violence against both spouses and children are on the rise. Also rising are rates of mental illness and prescription drug abuse. Given the number of wounded soldiers, painkillers are now the most abused drug in the Army.
The people of both countries have paid the price for this war, its destruction, chaos and inhumanity. They will continue to pay that price for a long time after this war ends, and it’s far from over.