Fighting thin air

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FRFI 167 June / July 2002

Britain’s contribution to the ‘war on terrorism’ looked a sorry picture by mid-May. The Royal Marine commandos sallied forth only to find no one there. An arms cache had been located and destroyed, but it belonged to an ally and not an enemy. Eventually al-Qaida forces were located, attacked and killed but they turned to out to be celebrants at a wedding party. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon pronounced ‘every confidence’ in the officer in charge of British forces in Afghanistan. A day later Brigadier Roger Lane was being returned to a posting ‘at headquarters’. Behind this farce the tragedy of Afghan people continues and the undertow of menace threatens the world. TREVOR RAYNE reports.

Between October 2001 and April 2002 the US military claim to have dropped 22,000 bombs and missiles on Afghanistan, averaging over 100 a day. The number of civilians killed by the US and allied intervention is put by aid organisations at up to 8,000 killed directly by explosives and over 20,000 killed indirectly by disease, starvation and cold accompanying displacement from their homes. By mid-May 37 US military personnel had been killed in or around Afghanistan. British casualties in ‘peacekeeping missions’, including Afghanistan, under the Labour government since 1997 have reached approximately 60 dead.

While the US ruling class attempts to assert its global domination and prevent the economic crisis of imperialism turning into a political crisis, the British government uses its alliance with the USA and the prowess of its armed forces to ‘punch above its weight’ in the world. It is precisely this political ambition that has led to the British fiascos in Afghanistan.

‘The hills have eyes’

With much fanfare Geoff Hoon announced on 18 March the biggest British combat troop deployment since the 1991 Gulf War. 1,700 soldiers were being sent to fight al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The decision was taken after the US lost eight soldiers, killed in battle at Shah-i-kot, and local Afghan allies were considered unreliable. Operation Snipe followed Operation Ptarmigan but the Royal Marines were fighting thin air, ‘the hills have eyes’ as one US officer put it. By May the British soldiers were taking casualties from a ‘mysterious illness’ (which turned out to be gastric flu). On 8 May Brigadier Lane said, ‘I expect over the next few days that offensive operations akin to Operation Snipe will be coming to an end...the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan is all but won.’ This was a statement that British troops should be withdrawn from their current role. Hoon rebuked the Brigadier: ‘Our exit strategy is that we will leave when the task is completed.’ US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld said there was ‘a job still to be done’.

For the British government this job is necessarily ‘high profile’ and meant to impress. So, rebuked by their political masters, the Royal Marines duly ‘discovered’ the arms cache and had it filmed being destroyed and raced off on Operation Condor to help out their beleaguered Australian allies who mistook the wedding celebration gunfire for an al-Qaida attack. With presentation of the war as important to the British government as its substance, this least reported of wars faces even tighter censorship. British journalists have been threatened with expulsion from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Daily Mirror correspondent Tim Newton Dunn was accused of ‘damaging morale’ and told he was persona non grata for writing an article entitled ‘Humiliated’, calling for the Royal Marines to return to Britain.

The catalogue of errors continues to reap its grisly toll on the 14 allied forces in Afghanistan. On 9 April a British soldier was accidentally shot and killed by one of his colleagues patrolling in Kabul and landmines have injured eight British soldiers. On 18 April a US plane bombed and killed four Canadians, injuring eight others; the first deaths sustained in combat by Canada since the Korean War in 1953.

The allies want the Loya Jerga (Grand Council) scheduled in June to select a new government for Afghanistan. It is surrounded by claims from former mujahideen, who fought the Soviet troops, that it discriminates against them and by Pashtuns that it favours the northern Tajiks who dominate the interim administration. In April the mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Afghanistan from exile in Iran. Scores of his followers were arrested and accused of plotting a coup. The US tried to assassinate him with a missile fired from a drone plane but failed. Hekmatyar is a former CIA asset in Afghanistan. Rival factions continue to fire on and shell each other, the worst instances being in Gardez in the south and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, with over 100 people killed and wounded. As the US has attempted to buy the loyalty of these bands with money and equipment, their murderous feuds are turning the people against the USA, seen as sponsoring their miseries.

When the allies set about removing the Taliban regime, peasants were promised that future authorities would turn a blind eye to opium poppy cultivation if they deserted the Taliban. The interim government’s subsequent attempts to eradicate poppy cultivation have met violent protests, resulting in deaths.

In the midst of this, interim leader Hamid Karzai continues to complain that ‘no one is interested’ in funding rebuilding projects and that Afghanistan’s educated elite are being lured away by foreign corporations.

Tensions grow around the world
After 11 September, when President Bush said he did not know where the war would end or when it would end, he sent a warning to the world. However, the direction in which the march to war proceeds is not entirely under US control. First it has spread, presumably with the Taliban and al-Qaida, to Pakistan and India. By late April British Special Forces were reported operating alongside their US counterparts inside Pakistan. On 1 May US troops came under rocket attack 10 miles inside Pakistan from the Afghan border. In Karachi on 8 May a suicide bomber killed 14 people including 11 French engineers who were working on submarines for Pakistan’s government. The New Zealand cricket squad, due to tour Pakistan, left the country immediately. On 14 May 34 people were killed by ‘Islamic militants’ at an Indian army camp in Kashmir. The prospect of war between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, flared up, with daily artillery exchanges across the ceasefire line in Kashmir between the two armies.

Indian military threats to Pakistan have been encouraged by renewed military co-operation between India and the USA. During May the US and India conducted their first joint military exercises in 40 years. The US Navy has begun docking at Indian ports and, with Indian vessels, will jointly patrol the Malacca Straits – the busiest waterway in the world. Over 20 weapons deals have been signed between the USA and India since the USA lifted its arms embargo on India after 11 September. India’s defence budget has increased 14% this year. The US government views India as a crucial ally in encircling and restricting China.

Almost gratuitously, in April the US government repeated Bush’s phrase that the US would do ‘whatever it takes’ to defend Taiwan against China. That same month the Japanese government proposed changes to its ‘pacifist constitution’ that restricts its preparations for war and limits its use of weapons in the event of attack. The leader of the Liberal opposition party said China’s ‘bullying...could provoke Japan into producing thousands of nuclear weapons at short notice’.

Predictably the US expanded its ‘axis of evil’ to target Cuba, Syria and Libya. At the end of April the US Congress linked Irish, Basque and possibly Iranian and Cuban agents to training FARC revolutionaries in Colombia. On 6 May US Under Secretary of State John Bolton, in an address entitled ‘Beyond the Axis of Evil’, accused Cuba of developing biological weapons and sharing its weapons technology with the US’ enemies. Libya was accused of improving access to nuclear technology and of producing chemical weapons and Syria of producing chemical and biological weapons. Syria infuriated the US government by insisting that Palestinian resistance to Israeli aggression is legitimate. The latest US global report on terrorism published in May has a chart of ‘rogue states’. Cuba makes the top ten for the eighth year running. Thus does the US ruling class demonstrate that it will brook no opposition and will say anything to isolate and threaten those it wants to destroy.

The chief of the US Central Command General Tommy Franks visited London in April saying that the USA was ready to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. Both the US and British governments have stated that whatever UN weapons inspectors do in Iraq they want ‘regime change’. The RAF and US Air Force continue to bomb Iraq, as they have done since the 1991 Gulf War. However, British military officials said they did not anticipate a full-scale attack on Iraq until next year. The Saudi foreign minister told Bush that Iraq was already complying with US demands by guaranteeing Kuwait’s territorial integrity and offering to support the return of UN inspectors. Kuwait is the only Gulf country that backs a new war on Iraq. The other states understand that escalating US and British aggression could ignite the entire region whose people are in fury at Zionist and US treatment of the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, US C-130 Galaxy aircraft are reported to be arriving daily in Kuwait. From 8,000 to 10,000 US troops are now in Kuwait. 600 German Special Forces and several hundred Czech germ warfare specialists are also stationed in Kuwait. The US troop contingent in Qatar has been increased from several hundred last year to 2,000 now.

The freshly forming alliance between the USA and Putin’s government in Russia must greatly encourage the US ruling class. Any diminution of Russian opposition expands the US government’s manoeuvrability against Iraq and the world. The USA offered to release $750 million of contracts with Iraq, frozen by UN sanctions, in exchange for Russian support for renewed sanctions against Iraq. Russia agreed. Despite opposition from within his government Putin has accepted the US bases recently established in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russia has agreed to co-operate on the US National Missile Defence programme and on a new arms control treaty that will stockpile, rather than destroy, US and Russian nuclear warheads. As a reward Russia has been invited to join the new NATO-Russia Council proposed by Prime Minister Blair in November. China will become the only permanent UN Security Council member not affiliated to NATO.

Shell, BP and TotalFinaElf are increasing their investments in Russia. Russia’s oligarchs and new bourgeoisie want to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). They seek to form an alliance with multinational corporations and share in the imperialist plunder of the former Soviet people and the oppressed nations of the world.

While the Russian bourgeoisie is trying to climb on board, the alliance of plunderers threatens to turn into a squabble amongst thieves. World trade grew at an average of 8% a year from 1996 to 2000. In 2001 it shrank by 1%. This contraction may now accelerate and plunge the world into depression. The EU has threatened $336 million tariffs in retaliation against the US steel tariffs and the US government has threatened retaliation against retaliation. The USA now proposes to increase farm subsidies by 80% over 10 years. The WTO has ordered the USA to remove tax relief for US companies’ exports. If it does not follow the ruling the permitted retaliation will be $1-4 billion of tariffs.

Looming trade war takes place in a context where the US current account deficit is running at a record $34 billion a month. The US has funded its trade deficits with capital inflows. These are now falling. In 2001 net portfolio inflows into the US averaged $43 billion a month. They are now down to $9-15 billion. Foreign purchases of US corporate debt, that funded much of the US current account last year, fell from $15.5 billion over the first two months of 2001 to $7.3 billion this year. US industrial sector employment has dropped by 1.3 million since 11 September – 7%. The US dollar fell 5% against other major currencies since early April. If this slide continues, the retreat from US assets will turn into a rout and the world’s stock and money markets will plunge. Lies, bribes and bombs will then be as effective as Royal Marines fighting thin air.