Afghan War: Problems deepen as more troops are promised

In October, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, told the Daily Telegraph, ‘We’re not going to win this.’ He had just returned from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. Three months earlier Carleton-Smith had claimed that the Taliban leadership had been ‘decapitated’ and that the ‘tipping point’ in favour of the occupation forces had been reached.

The imperialist’s exasperation was emphasised by Major Will Pike, a former serving officer in Afghanistan, saying, ‘No real thought is going into what we are doing and why. Who is in charge of the campaign in Afghanistan – the Secretary of State for Defence, the Foreign Secretary or the Minister for International Development?’ Major Pike highlighted the dilemma for British imperialism, the second biggest imperial power in terms of overseas assets, yet militarily too weak to defend its global interests without riding on the back of the US. He said, ‘If the UK wants to play on this stage, across the world, then the will has to be backed by the resources. Otherwise it’s a bit of a con.’ Jim Craven reports.

Afghanistan is central to US ambitions of global domination. It is at the crossroads of Eurasia. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, wrote in 1997, ‘A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions … most of the world’s physical wealth is there … [including] about three quarters of the world’s known energy reserves’. The US wants to replace Russian influence in the central Asian republics and secure an oil pipeline from them through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the sea, avoiding an alternative route through Iran.

NATO and the Afghan government want to delay or even scrap next year’s elections. One option is to call a Loya Jurga, a tribal council of (all male) warlords and elders, that would overrule elections. A NATO official said they wanted to avoid ‘that whole messy business of democracy’. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, remarkably claimed, ‘The foreign forces [ie US and NATO] are ensuring the survival of a regime that would collapse without them. In doing so they are slowing down and complicating an eventual end to the crisis.’ He stated that ‘an acceptable dictator’ would be the best solution!

Problems have deepened for the occupying forces in recent months. Despite an increase in US/NATO troops of 7,000 since the spring, bringing the total to around 52,000, they continue to lose ground to the Afghan resistance, which now controls large parts of the country in the south and east. The 190-mile highway from Kandahar to Kabul, described by the US State Department as ‘the most visible sign of America’s post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan,’ is now impossible to pass safely without a military guard. The number of imperialist forces killed in 2008, 254 by the end of October, is likely to be close to the number killed in Iraq by the end of the year.

The imperialists have increasingly relied on air power. The number of bombs dropped – 1,853 in the first half of 2008 – was more than in the whole of 2006. This does not include cannon and rocket fire from aircraft or helicopter raids. Air attacks have caused indiscriminate death and destruction among Afghan civilians. According to UN figures, 1,445 civilians were killed between January and August 2008, up 39% on 2007. At least 577 deaths were due to pro-government forces. Deaths from air strikes have tripled since 2006. On 8 November, 40 people attending a wedding party at Shah Wali Kot in South Kandahar were killed by a missile attack. The US military invariably denies the evidence, claiming only Taliban fighters have been killed in such attacks, even when faced with photographs of shattered bodies and distraught relatives. The Shah Wali Kot dead included 24 children.

Ineffective government
The Afghan puppet government has little power outside Kabul. It is dominated by tribal warlords and corrupt officials, many of them drug dealers. President Karzai’s brother is among them. The top police officer in Kabul, it is believed, has a property portfolio worth $2 million accrued from bribes. The last head of the Afghan anti-corruption office was jailed in Las Vegas for selling heroin.

Government ministers and their cronies have stolen most of the aid intended for reconstruction. They have done little or nothing for the Afghan people. Unemployment is at least 40%. Life expectancy is just 43 years, while infant mortality is 135 per 1,000 live births. 60,000 Afghan children are addicted to opium and 100,000 have been disabled or severely physically affected due to the war. Tuberculosis levels, indicating poor diet and living conditions, are among the highest in the world. Over eight million Afghans face hunger this winter. The adult literacy rate is 23.5% and 12.6% for women. These are appalling facts. Not surprisingly, the puppet government is intensely unpopular among Afghan people.

Imperialists attack Pakistan
The imperialists claim that the semi-autonomous tribal areas between Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and the Afghan border are being used to train resistance fighters and provide them with safe passage into Afghanistan. Since March, US and British special forces have been carrying out reconnaissance missions in the tribal areas. US unmanned drones have launched rocket attacks there, at least 20 this autumn, with devastating consequences for the local people. Several massacres of civilians, including many children, have occurred. In two days at the end of October at least 42 people were killed in three attacks in North and South Waziristan.

Earlier in 2008, President Bush gave orders to allow US special forces to undertake ‘raids on the soil of an important ally without permission’. In September, the US admitted that their ground forces had carried out an attack inside Pakistan. Forty US Special Operations Forces killed 15 to 20 people in the village of Musa Nika in South Waziristan on 3 September.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called the US attacks ‘a form of terrorism’. President Zardari warned the new US head of Central Command, General Petraeus, that the attacks caused ‘outrage’ and were creating a credibility gap between US rhetoric and reality. Briefly Pakistan’s government cut the supply route from Peshawar to the Khyber Pass through which passes 85% of the oil for NATO troops. These were empty gestures to try and satisfy the intense anti-Americanism growing among the Pakistani people. The new Pakistani government knows it would not last long without US backing. The US could dump President Zardari whenever it liked, just as it abandoned his predecessor, President Musharraf.

The US demands that the Pakistan armed forces take stronger action against those in the tribal areas supporting the Afghan resistance. They believe that sections of the Pakistan army and the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) support the Taliban. Benazir Bhutto’s government supported the Taliban government in the 1990s. Indeed, the Taliban were more or less the creation of the Pakistanis and the CIA at the time of the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Sections of the Pakistani ruling class regard Afghanistan almost as another province of Pakistan and the Taliban as one of their assets.

New heads of the Pakistan army and of the ISI have been appointed. Since mid-August up to 120,000 Pakistani troops have been fighting in parts of the tribal areas and the Swat Valley. At least 200,000 Pakistani villagers have had to flee their homes because of the fighting. Some 20,000 have gone to Afghanistan. The Taliban control about 80% of the Swat Valley. In October, Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for around 40 Taliban groups offered talks with the Pakistan government, but it refused.

US imperialists may think they are receiving more support from the Pakistani forces but they face huge problems in the country. Suicide bombings in Pakistan in the first eight months of 2008 killed more people than in Iraq or Afghanistan. There have been over 100 since July 2007. The destruction of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad by the Pakistani Taliban followed news of US attacks in Pakistan.

Crisis for Pakistani people
Together with hostility to the US/ NATO occupation of Afghanistan and their attacks on Pakistan, there is growing anger among Pakistanis at the divide between rich and poor. Officially, 25% of the Pakistani population live below the poverty line of $1 a day. Oxfam calculates that the number of poor has grown from 66 million to 77 million out of a population of 169 million. 60% of all Pakistani children are born underweight due to malnutrition.

The capitalist economic crisis is hitting Pakistan hard, reducing foreign reserves to $4.5 billion, equivalent to six weeks’ imports. Foreign investment has fled the country and government borrowing has risen 100% in three months. Inflation is running at 25-30% and the value of the rupee has fallen by a third during 2008. There are frequent power blackouts and food prices have doubled. Equity values have plummeted and small investors have been ruined. The police were called in to guard the stock exchange. The US National Intelligence Council’s assessment of Pakistan is ‘no money, no energy, no government’. Pakistan, it claimed, was ‘on the edge’.

The potential for social unrest worries the Pakistani ruling class. Main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said, ‘Pakistan is going through the worst crisis of its history’. The anger of the Pakistani poor directed against a ruling class seen to be co-operating with the US could bring with it greater opposition to US military action in the country and further support for the Afghan resistance.

Change of strategy?
The imperialists are being forced to reassess their strategy in Afghanistan. A year ago the US was adamant that they would not talk to ‘terrorists’ and two British/UN diplomats were forced to leave the country after holding secret talks with the Taliban. Now US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General Petraeus say they could ‘ultimately’ contemplate talks with the Taliban and reconciliation as part of a political outcome. A British Ministry of Defence spokesman claimed, ‘We have always said there is no military solution in Afghanistan. Insurgencies are ultimately solved at the political level, not by military means. We fully support President Karzai’s efforts to bring the disaffected into the mainstream’. This is a reference to Karzai’s talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who was backed by the US and Pakistan against the Soviet forces but who has supported the resistance for the past couple of years. Karzai is also said to have asked Taliban leader Mullah Omar to stand in next year’s presidential elections. Saudi Arabia has offered to broker further talks. Karzai’s brother and former Pakistan Prime Minister Sharif met members of the Taliban at a dinner at King Abdullah’s palace, though the Taliban denied talks had taken place. The official Taliban position is that there will be no talking until all foreign troops have left the country.

Despite its rhetoric about ‘terrorists’ the US would have no qualms about working with a Taliban government in Kabul. After all, it negotiated with the previous Taliban government about the oil pipeline and, as late as May 2001, approved $40 million in aid to help the Taliban regime act as a Sunni buffer against Iran. Russia, China and Iran, unhappy at the prospect of a long-term US presence in Afghanistan, have been holding joint talks.

NATO rivalry
The imperialists will want to negotiate from a position of strength. The Bush administration has said it will send another marine battalion and a combat brigade to Afghanistan and has asked NATO to contribute as well. General David Richards, new head of the British Army, called for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Most NATO countries show little inclination to contribute further. As imperialist rivals as well as sometime partners, they see the US in difficulties while they stand to gain nothing themselves. French Defence Minister Herve Morin confirmed France will not send any more troops. A meeting of NATO countries in October failed to agree a funding plan for more helicopters in Afghanistan. The imperialists want to double the size of the Afghan army over five years but have had to ask Japan and NATO to pay the $17 billion costs; unlikely in the present economic crisis.

President-elect Barack Obama considers Afghanistan a ‘good war’. He always wanted to ‘get more troops into Afghanistan, put more pressure on the Afghan government to do what it needs to do, and eliminate some of the drug trafficking that’s funding terrorism’. He did not criticise the recent attacks on Pakistan and Syria and has said he is willing to order unilateral attacks anywhere that is ‘harbouring terrorists’. Obama proposes sending two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan and will ask Britain to send 3,000 more troops.

Lest he falter, three weeks before the election, the New York Times, main mouthpiece of the so-called liberal section of the US ruling class, demanded that the next president ‘end the downward spiral…the breakdown in central authority and the Taliban’s rising power…the rampant corruption …and begin a swift and serious build-up of troops’.

All British, US and NATO forces out of Afghanistan!

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009