War in Afghanistan and Pakistan escalates

FRFI 209 June / July 2009

When Britain sent its first major contingent of 4,000 troops to Helmand, Afghanistan, in 2006 the then Labour Defence Secretary John Reid said he hoped ‘not a shot would be fired in anger’. There are now more than 8,000 British troops in the province. They have fired over six million bullets. US, British and other NATO forces are escalating the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Top British military commanders want to send up to 4,000 more British troops. Defence Secretary John Hutton and Prime Minister Gordon Brown are believed  to agree, but the Treasury is resisting the demand.

The US has begun to send 17,000 additional troops, together with 4,000 training personnel, to what President Obama calls ‘the good war’. In the first week of May alone 150 civilians were killed in Farah province by US special forces. Previous top US commander in Afghanistan, Lt-General David McKiernan, requested an extra 10,000 troops by early 2010. The additional troops would bring the combined US/NATO force in Afghanistan to around 110,000. The imperialists plan to double the size of the Afghan army to 134,000 and, by 2011, to increase it to 230,000. Such numbers emphasise the importance of the region for US imperialism’s strategy of global domination.

The Taliban have extended their control of Afghanistan from 54% to 72% of the country since the imperialists’ decision in 2006 to increase occupying forces. Only one of four main roads out of Kabul is safe. The key imperialist supply route to the south is under constant threat. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban have reportedly signed a pact to fight occupation forces inside Afghanistan and to stop attacks on ‘fellow Muslims in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan’ which are ‘harming the war against US and NATO forces’. However, on 27 May the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for bombings in Lahore that killed at least 24 people, saying they were in retaliation for army operations in the Swat Valley.

The US is expanding major operations beyond Afghanistan into Pakistan. US Under Secretary of Defence Michelle Flannery said, ‘Afghanistan and Pakistan are two countries that comprise a single theatre for our diplomacy. The future of the two countries is inextricably linked.’

War in Pakistan
In March, President Obama said the US aimed to destroy Taliban and Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He promised that if the Pakistan government forces played their part the US would provide $1.5 billion aid a year for the next five years. If not, Obama threatened unilateral action in Pakistan. A few days later US Lt-Colonel Mark Wright offered joint military operations with Pakistan Frontier Corps in the northwest tribal areas. In fact, the US has been attacking this area for some time. Special forces have made secret incursions and, since August 2008, the US has launched over 60 unmanned drone attacks, some from inside Pakistan. They claim these missile attacks were aimed at Taliban and Al Qaeda bases, but no more than ten have hit their intended target and over 700 Pakistani civilians have been killed as a consequence. Obama plans to extend these attacks into Baluchistan. The Pakistani army has been fighting in the region for several months with over 1,500 soldiers killed. The war has cost Pakistan over $35 billion.

Mass depopulation
US air strikes on the border areas and the failure of the Pakistani ruling class to tackle its appalling poverty mean there is little support for the military actions. 89% of the Pakistani population oppose the war. A Pakistan government attempt to broker a truce by agreeing to introduce Sharia law in the Swat Valley and adjoining districts came to nothing when the Taliban advanced to within 60 miles of Islamabad, seizing the town of Buner in April. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Pakistan’s President Zardari of ‘basically abdicating to the Taliban and extremists’. The US has long known that elements in the Pakistan army and intelligence service support the Taliban and undermine efforts to defeat them. After Pakistani paramilitaries had been routed by the Taliban, the Pakistan army mounted a counter-attack from 8 May in the Swat Valley, Lower Dir and Buner. 18,000 Pakistan army troops backed by aerial support and heavy artillery attacked. The situation in Mingora, population 250,000, was likened to Fallujah in November 2004: 10,000 people were reported left in the city. The UN has registered 1.45 million people as refugees as they flee the onslaught. This is the biggest civilian displacement on the sub-continent since the 1947 partition.
In Britain, opposition to the escalating war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is feeble. Barbarism is becoming systemic; having been made acceptable, the atrocities increase.
Iraq: British retreat,

US bunkers down  
As British troops prepared to withdraw from Iraq at the end of April amid the usual flag-waving jingoism, Hassan Juma’a of the Oil Workers’ Federation delivered the verdict of the Iraqi people: ‘My final message to the British warmonger is “good riddance”. The curse of your Iraqi victims will always be with you, for you killed innocent people and tortured captives. Go to the dustbin of history, and never forget heroic Basra and the great struggle of the Iraqi people.’ 400 British troops will remain to train Iraqi army and naval officers but the occupation of Basra has been taken over by US forces. Hassan Juma’a pointed out, ‘The US will treat its junior partner with contempt – the master will no doubt seek to establish sole control of Iraq and its resources.’

Rising violence
Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government, US combat forces are supposed to withdraw from Iraqi cities by 30 June this year and leave the country by August 2010. However, rising violence and sectarian tensions, deliberately fuelled by the occupiers, have demonstrated that President Obama’s plans to withdraw US troops do not amount to the end of the war on Iraq.

The US claimed that the reduction in violence last year resulted from its military ‘surge’. The main factors, however, were the decision of Sunni resistance fighters to take pay and protection from the imperialists as part of the Awakening Councils, Al Sahwa, in return for suspending their opposition to the occupation, and a ceasefire called by the Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, under pressure from Iran. Working class opposition was suppressed by house to house searches and arbitrary arrests, by brutal attacks on the poor Shia districts of Baghdad and by continuing repression of the trade unions. Sectarianism, generated by the occupation, resulted in the division of the country largely along religious and ethnic lines, reinforced in Baghdad by a maze of concrete walls and military checkpoints. The Iraqi bourgeoisie, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish, looked forward to reaping the profits of this improved security, each within its own region. It gave the Iraqi government, dominated by the parties of the elite and merchant classes, strength to push its interests in the SOFA negotiations.

Iraqi government threatens Sunnis and Kurds
This state of affairs is breaking up because the Shia parties, forming the majority of the government, want to retain control of resources against demands of the Sunnis and Kurds. The Iraqi government has been arresting leaders of Al Sahwa since spring 2008. Many of them are former members of the Baathist Party and regarded by the Shia as a threat to their dominance. They want to finish Al Sahwa before the US troops draw down. When local Al Sahwa leader Adil Al Mashadani was arrested in Fadhil on 29 March, an uprising by local Sunnis was put down with help from US forces. The understanding when Al Sahwa was created was that members would receive work in the Iraqi security and state services as part of a wider integration of Sunnis into the government, but by the end of March only 5,000 had been given jobs. There are an estimated 100,000 members throughout Iraq. Most have not been paid for several months.

In the oil-rich north, the Kurdish regional government has threatened autonomous action. Clashes followed gains made by Sunni parties in recent provincial elections. Iraqi government troops were sent to the region and the Kurds threatened civil war. A promised referendum on the status of Kirkuk has been cancelled by the Iraqi government. At present there is an uneasy stand-off and the situation is exacerbated by the threat of a Turkish invasion should the Kurds declare an autonomous state.

SOFA loopholes allow US to stay
In the SOFA negotiations the US hoped for a stronger and more permanent military occupation but they were in no position, politically, to ignore the demands of an increasingly confident Iraqi government backed by the Iranians. They knew that while stability remained fragile, the Iraqi ruling class would require their protection. The result was an agreement with so many loopholes that the US could be confident of retaining strategic military bases in Iraq and consequently privileged access to its oil.

Operations against Al Sahwa have been defined as counter-terrorism, as have those against Turkish/ Kurdish PKK guerrillas operating in the north, thus triggering one of the conditions that permit US combat operations to continue beyond the date set by SOFA. Some combat forces have simply been renamed as ‘advisory and assistance brigades’. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, made it clear that US troops are prepared to ‘maintain a presence’ in Iraqi cities after the deadline if asked to do so. Sure enough, according to the New York Times, negotiations are already under way to create exceptions to the 30 June deadline. They include redefining the term ‘city’.

The US cannot afford to have many troops tied down in Iraq; it needs to reinforce those in Afghanistan. But it is in the interests of the US to be seen as the only force capable of preventing chaos, especially at a time when the Iraqi people are due to vote in a referendum on SOFA, defeat in which would mean all US troops leaving by next year. By keeping Iraqi security forces sufficiently weak the US hopes to maintain its military domination of the country. The US Government Accountability Office reported that, although the number of Iraqi army and police forces had almost doubled between January 2007 and October 2008, the proportion capable of undertaking independent operations remained about 10%.

Iraqi people continue to suffer
The suffering of the Iraqi people continues. The UN reports that only 40% of children have access to safe water and that water treatment plants are operating at just 17% capacity. There were 10,000 cases of cholera last year. The number of health professionals has halved since 2003. Families receive on average just three hours’ electricity per day. Two million Iraqi refugees live abroad. Despite their dreadful circumstances they are too fearful to return. The Iraqi government has withdrawn the meagre offer of free transport and $600 for those wishing to return. According to the International Organisation for Migration at least a further 1.6 million Iraqis have been internally displaced. They suffer overcrowded housing, food shortages, unsafe water, no electricity and lack of health and education services. Among them unemployment averages 66%, but rises to almost 100% in some areas.

So far the US government has offered $9.5 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. It provided over $700 billion to bail out Wall Street. The Iraqi government has reduced its modest social and infrastructure budget due to falling oil revenues. Bidding by the oil multinationals, including BP and Shell, for Iraqi oil is expected to commence at the end of June despite the government still not passing a law allowing this plunder. Iraq has known reserves of 115 billion barrels of oil, exceeded only by those of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Financial Times (7 May 2009) explains that the Iraqi government has become desperate to get the contracts signed as oil prices have fallen and the budget has consequently suffered: ‘For the companies, the drop in the oil price may have drastically reduced available cash but not enough to force them to forgo the biggest investment opportunity since the fall of communism.’

Jim Craven, Trevor Rayne
and Andrew Alexander

 

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