Afghanistan: Imperialists divided / FRFI 216 Aug/Sep 2010

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FRFI 216 August/September 2010

The imperialists’ strategy in Afghanistan is in chaos. On 21 July British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the House of Commons: ‘Let me be absolutely clear that we will see our troops withdrawn from Afghanistan from a combat role by 2015.’ On the same day, in the US, Prime Minister Cameron said that Britain could begin to reduce troop numbers in Afghanistan from July 2011, but only on condition that Afghan forces take the lead in security operations. The day before, speaking after a conference of foreign secretaries in Kabul, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed the conference a ‘turning point’, and, while endorsing Afghan President Karzai’s proposal that from 2014 Afghan forces take responsibility for security, suggested that US troops might stay in the country for decades.  The divisions within and between the different ruling classes of the occupying powers result from their failure to subdue the anti-occupation forces, and the realisation that they face defeat in Afghanistan. JIM CRAVEN and TREVOR RAYNE report.

This summer is the deadliest period since the 2001 invasion for US/NATO troops, with 102 killed in June and rising numbers of casualties in July. Twenty British soldiers were killed in June and 15 killed in the first three weeks of July. The rate of occupation forces’ deaths in the first six months of 2010 is twice that for the same period in 2009. Significantly, the proportion killed by small arms fire has tripled since last year, indicating that the anti-occupation forces are strong enough to operate at close range and find protection among the local population. US intelligence estimates that 75% of anti-occupation fighters operate within five miles of their home village. A US Department of Defence survey of 121 priority districts found 50 actively support or are sympathetic to the anti-occupation fighters, compared with just 28 sympathetic to the Afghan government. The US Government Accountability Office says that the Taliban has set up a ‘widespread paramilitary shadow government... in a majority of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.’ The plan to hand over security to the Afghan government is implausible.

In June US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the occupying forces in Afghanistan, was sacked, supposedly for criticising members of the US administration in a Rolling Stone magazine interview. In reality, he was removed because his counter-insurgency strategy is failing and he was honest enough to admit it. McChrystal described the insurgency as ‘resilient and growing’ and warned NATO not to expect any progress in the next six months. He considered Marjah, the area ‘captured’ by the imperialists in April and meant to be a model for the counter-insurgency strategy, to be a ‘bleeding ulcer’. McChrystal’s Chief of Operations, Major-General Bill Mayville, commented, ‘It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win. This war is going to end in an argument.’

McChrystal’s dismissal

McChrystal’s dismissal underlines the increasing divisions within and between the ruling classes of the imperialist nations. US Vice-President Biden opposed the troop ‘surge’ and expects Obama’s July 2011 deadline ‘to see a whole lot of people moving out’. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, however, insisted: ‘That, absolutely, has not been decided.’ Head of the US Republican National Committee Michael Steele said he believes the war is unwinnable, provoking the anger of conservative Republicans such as former presidential candidate John McCain, who insist the war can and must be won with greater aggression.  Britain’s ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has been put on ‘extended leave’ after disagreements with the US/NATO military and calling for the removal of President Karzai and talks with the Taliban. British General Sir David Richards, who also suggested talks with the Taliban would be useful, is nevertheless to be promoted to Chief of the Defence Staff, replacing the discredited Sir Jock Stirrup, who will take early retirement. A Taliban spokesman contemptuously rejected Richards’ approach.

The Netherlands, Canada and Poland will withdraw their troops from Afghanistan within the next 18 months. A Polish military official described the situation as getting ‘systematically worse’. There is a growing feeling among many coalition nations that there is no longer much to be gained economically or politically by supporting US imperialist ventures. German defence minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg recently argued for the Afghanistan war to be scaled down and measures put in place to ensure that NATO is never again committed to an open-ended mission. Significantly, the British government, which depends on US military power to defend British overseas interests (second only to those of the US), disagreed, arguing that counter-insurgency warfare was the shape of the future.

McChrystal’s plan had been to clear Marjah of anti-occupation fighters, impose sound local government and win the hearts and minds of the local people with aid and reconstruction. The intention was that local support for the occupying forces would then spread to the surrounding areas while US/NATO forces cleared another area of insurgents and so on until each of the ‘oil spots’ joined up into a secure zone overseen by Afghan security forces. In the event, the anti-occupation forces, employing the usual guerrilla tactics, mainly withdrew and then re-infiltrated at a later date. Haji Mohammed Hassan, a tribal elder who has left the area said, ‘There was no security. By day there is government. By night it’s the Taliban.’ The occupying forces are attacked every day; never knowing who will attack them or when. One British soldier told the Financial Times, ‘Whoever’s in the area will decide what they want to do, if they want to hit us or not. The Taliban are probably watching us.’ Another said, ‘I’m sure I’ve shaken hands with them on a daily basis and not even known who they were.’ Counter-insurgency theory usually insists that a successful operation requires about one soldier for every 50 members of the local population. In Marjah, 15,000 troops were used against a population of about 35,000. Little wonder that McChrystal postponed the planned attack on Kandahar, a city of half a million, saying, ‘When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them.’

The Afghan army went on the rampage in the local bazaar after the attack on Marjah. General McChrystal rated only 30% of the Afghan army and 12% of the police as ‘effective’ and even fewer capable of acting independently. Arnold Field, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, reckons even these figures are overestimates. He found some army units as low as 59% of their supposed size. On average, only 74% of Afghan soldiers in combat units were found present for duty. In some areas 50% of police failed drug tests. Field said there was a shortfall of more than 200 training teams. Whereas ISAF claim 234,000 Afghan army and police are trained and ready, Field put the figure at barely 34,000. A purge of the police force by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior led to more than one in five senior officers being sacked or prosecuted for corruption or misconduct. Afghan forces have been infiltrated by anti-occupation fighters. In July, three British soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier they considered reliable; the second such incident in eight months.

The Medical Research Council calculates that British casualties are running at four times the rate of US forces. British troops are being withdrawn from Sangin, where almost a third of their casualties have occurred, amid US criticisms that they underestimated the Taliban threat and were prepared only for a peacekeeping role. When British troops were first deployed to the area in 2006, then Labour Defence Secretary, John Reid, said he hoped they would return without a shot being fired.

The new US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said that he would relax the rules of engagement and limits on air power that McChrystal had supposedly introduced to try and reduce civilian casualties. US troops complained that the rules hindered them. Petraeus indicated his forces would be given more scope to kill by saying ‘[fighting] may get more intense in the next few months’. The new US chief of Central Command, replacing Petraeus, is General James Mattis, known as ‘Mad Dog Mattis’. In 2005 he told an audience, ‘It’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot [Afghans].’ The rule he gave his troops to live by was, ‘Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet’. Defending Mattis’s appointment, Robert Gates described him as, ‘One of our military’s outstanding combat leaders and strategic thinkers.’ Petraeus plans to pay for local anti-insurgent militias, as he did in Iraq. President Karzai opposes the idea, believing it to be a recipe for endless conflict, which may be precisely the imperialists’ reason for doing it. Petraeus says ‘we are in this to win’ but the imperialists are playing for time, intensifying and prolonging the slaughter in the hope of bringing the anti-occupation forces to the negotiating table on terms more favourable to the invaders.

The New York Times revealed that many members of the Afghan government have already moved large fortunes and their families to safe havens outside the country. Something like a quarter of Afghanistan’s GDP goes in bribes to these people and others such as Karzai’s brother, the so-called ‘King of Kandahar’. These parasites are despised by Afghanistan’s people; it is nonsense to propose that they can provide the country with a stable government or lead the security forces; McChrystal said as much.