Afghanistan has reached a turning point. Recent media headlines such as “where Empires go to die” and “Afghanistan: Tipping Point” signal that after eight years, the future of Western control of the country looks doubtful.
In September, NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal released a report saying that unless more troops are committed the war in Afghanistan is already lost.
The insurgency has grown and continues to gain momentum as civilian deaths have risen and the Karzai-led Afghan Government has lost any shred of credibility it might have had with a rigged election.
Combined with this is the ever more obvious parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam, and the choice facing Obama, who along with Kevin Rudd has described Afghanistan as “a war of necessity”, of whether to commit more troops.
President Lyndon Johnson faced a similar choice when he escalated the war in Vietnam.
The huge growth of the insurgency in Afghanistan over the past year is the US military’s biggest concern.
The Australian newspaper quoted sources reporting heavy insurgency activity in over 80 per cent of the country. In the last year insurgents have moved into areas of the north of the country where previously they had little support.
Why are Afghans turning against Western control in growing numbers?
Firstly, there are the constant NATO bombings and civilian casualties inflicted by the occupation forces.
Because the troops are stretched, the occupying forces have tried to fill the gaps using air power, which is far more likely to kill civilians.
At least 70 people were killed when German NATO troops ordered an air strike on villagers as they siphoned fuel from hijacked tankers stranded in the Kunduz River.
In the wake of this civilian massacre, General McCrystal ordered a ban on alcohol at his headquarters. According to sources, “staff at the Kabul headquarters were ‘either drunk or too hung-over’ to answer his questions” about what had happened.
In September, a box of propaganda leaflets dropped by the British RAF killed a small girl. Recent civilian deaths are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NATO’s troop presence fuelling anger at the occupation.
Karzai’s rigged elections
Secondly, there’s the corruption of the Afghan Government.The US and their allies hoped that the August 20 elections would bolster the Karzai government’s credibility.
The Western media held it up as an example of the democracy the occupation was supposedly bringing to the country, and which insurgents were trying to stifle.
But the scale of alleged fraud was incredible. In Karzai’s home province of Kandahar, more than 350,000 votes were counted, but election observers think only 25,000 people cast ballots.
The BBC reported: “Thousands of votes were recorded from the Babaji stations under suspicion. But one election observer has told the BBC that no more than 15 people voted throughout the day at the centre where he was based.”
In early September, Afghan election officials declared Karzai the winner, with 54 per cent of the vote—giving him the absolute majority he needed to avoid a run-off election.
But a UN commission that ultimately must certify the election results announced the same day that the official outcome will be delayed several more weeks because of recounts.
This is on top of the credibility hit Karzai took before the elections, when it was exposed that he had formed alliances with vicious warlords and drug barons, people who are just as oppressive as the Taliban, to shore up some sort of power base outside Kabul.
Karzai’s choice of ethnic Tajik warlord, Muhammad Qasim Fahim, as his vice-presidential candidate shocked human rights campaigners and even some of Karzai’s US backers.
According to Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, “He is one of the most notorious warlords in the country, with the blood of many Afghans on his hands from the civil war. He is widely believed by many Afghans to be still involved in many illegal activities, including running armed militias, as well as giving cover to criminal gangs and drug traffickers.”
Even the McChrystal report says: “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and [NATO’s] own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”
These “errors” are not just civilian casualties but a complete failure to provide any infrastructure with the billions supposedly put aside for construction as early as 2002.
Karzai’s position is like that of US puppet South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu during the Vietnam War. Thieu was an embarrassment. He was deeply corrupt and sometimes disagreed with US policy but the US needed him to justify the war. The same goes for Karzai.
So shallow are the claims that the West is bringing “liberation” and “democracy” that some are abandoning the pretence entirely.
In a recent interview on CNN, Rudd said: “My vision of success in Afghanistan is not the creation of a Jeffersonian democracy. Let us be clear about that. I think there’s been a bit of misty-eyedness about this from time to time. Remember, this country has essentially come from a feudal past.”
Implicit in such a statement is the racist idea that the Afghan people are somehow not ready for democracy.
The responsibility of the West for denying Afghanistan democracy by creating and backing the warlords during the Russian occupation is never mentioned.
Today the only difference between Karzai and dictators like Ahmadinejad or Mugabe is that he is not routinely denounced by the west.
Will Obama back a “super surge”?
The McChrystal report has put Afghanistan centre stage for the Obama Administration and for continuing US imperial power.
McChrystal’s report bluntly states that without another immediate troop surge the eight year occupation “will likely result in failure.” He is asking for 30,000 to 40,000 more soldiers, in addition to 21,000 extra troops already sent to Afghanistan by Obama earlier this year.
He says: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
The military is pushing so hard for troops that Admiral Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has publicly added his voice to the calls for more troops. The Obama administration is now considering the request.
The main argument of his report is to employ the “surge” strategy used in Iraq. The aim would be to provide some level of stability, strengthen the central administration and buy off some of the insurgents.
The problem is that this in no way helps the Afghan people. If Iraq is any example to go by it would mean dividing the country into sectarian enclaves. The insurgency and sectarian violence that existed a few years ago are simply simmering under the surface and could easily explode at any time—bombings have increased in recent months.
It would see Afghanistan further divided into petty fiefdoms controlled by the same criminal warlords that the invasion was supposed to liberate them from.
The question looms for Obama—is he prepared to commit yet more troops without any guarantee of success? In the short term at least such a strategy will result in higher US casualties.
If the McChrystal plan is accepted it will mean years more for the US in Afghanistan, while the political will for such a war among the US population is sliding rapidly.
A recent Washington Post survey found that a majority of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting, and only 24 per cent support sending more troops. In a country still reeling from the worst economic crisis since 1929 there is little enthusiasm for spending billions more on war.
On the other hand defeat in Afghanistan would dent US power, not just in the region but around the globe. The Afghanistan war may well define Obama’s presidency.
As Paul Kelly, editor-at-large for The Australian, said: “This decision penetrates to Obama’s essence. With the US economically weakened, facing serious spending constraints, still psychologically harmed by the Iraq venture and apprehensive about Afghanistan, does the President enshrine this as “Obama’s war”.
It is highly likely that Obama will accept some form of McChrystal’s strategy by committing more troops.
Afghanistan has become more important to the projection of US imperial power than Iraq or perhaps any other theatre of war. Obama committed himself to the war during his election campaign as proof he was tough on terrorism and would defend US power, calling it “the right war”.
The Afghan war has become Obama’s war. With the comparisons with Vietnam getting stronger and stronger Afghanistan so too are the contradictions within Obama’s presidency.
By Robert Nicholas