eumas Milne / The Guardian – 2008-10-17 22:46:04
(October 16 2008) — 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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