Foreign Troops and the Insurgency
by James Ingalls
www.zmag.org, September 27, 2006
[Talk prepared for Canadian book
launch of the book, Bleeding Afghanistan]
The debate about Canadian troops in Afghanistan
is a sign of a healthy democracy, at least compared to what is
happening in the United States. At least in Canada there are
actually members of the government (the NDP) who recommend a pullout
of troops from the current US-led mission. In the US, the so-called
"liberal opposition," exemplified by former presidential
candidate and Democratic Senator John Kerry, derides the Bush
Administration for not "finishing the fight" and recommends
an increased number of troops, redeployed from Iraq. So we have
the right wing US Administration that says that everything is
fine but we need more troops. And the "left" wing opposition
that says that everything is horrible so we need more troops.
The consensus among US officials seems
to be that the more troops in Afghanistan, the better the country
will be in terms of security, ending the violence and fostering
stability. But I have yet to discover any evidence to support
that claim. The south and east of Afghanistan, where most of the
US and Canadian troops are located, have seen a steady increase
in foreign troop numbers since 9/11. The US , Canada, and other
allies have increased troops in Afghanistan from about 23,000
at the end of 2001, including both non-US peacekeepers in Kabul
and US troops under Operation Enduring Freedom, to about 30,000
troops throughout the country in mid-2006. Has this increase led
to a more stable environment? Well, the number of attacks in
that region by non-state actors, called "terrorism,"
have increased dramatically during the same period. According
to the European think tank the Senlis Council, "Security
is at its worst since 2001Attacks are perpetrated on a daily basis:
several provinces, until recently quite safe, are now experiencing
suicide bombings, murders, ambushes and explosions." There
were about 5 such attacks per month in 2002. The number increased
fivefold to 25 per month in 2005. This July (2006), there were
over 100 attacks. This is directly attributable to the presence
of non-Afghan forces operating under the rubric of the US's Operation
Enduring Freedom. This is not my opinion, it is the military's
own assessment. James L Jones, commander of U.S.-European Command
and the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, commented back in
March that, "the upticks in violence are in part attributable
to the fact that we're actually going to more places and taking
the engagement to the enemy." So the very presence of foreign
troops is causing a violent response. Why?
Robust forces and dual-hatted officers_To
answer that, we should first look at the character of the foreign
military operation that is being responded to by Afghan militias
and suicide bombers. Prime Minister Harper recently commented
that a suicide attack on four Canadian soldiers offering candy
to Afghan children "illustrates the evil that [the troops]
are fighting and the goodwill and the nobleness of the cause that
they are taking to the Afghan people." When they're not
giving out candy, the Canadian troops have been involved in NATO's
Operation Medusa, which killed more than 500 so-called "militants"
(we'll get to who these militants are later) in southern Kandahar
The impression given in most NATO statements
and news coverage is that the NATO troops are there for "peacekeeping"
as opposed to the US's Operation Enduring Freedom, but that is
disingenuous. While it is true that some troops are limited by
so-called "national caveats" as to how aggressively
they can kill Afghans, the majority of troops, are continuing
the US's Operation Enduring Freedom, an unaccountable war against
guerrilla forces, under a different name. It isn't mentioned
very often in the media, but when pressed, US generals admit that
"there is no distinction between the United States and NATO"
in Afghanistan. (the Commanding General, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan,
Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry press briefing May 10, 2006).
For most NATO troops, the mission will
be very much a US-style operation. NATO spokesman James Apparathurai
explained that, "ISAF forces will not be sent with one arm
tied behind their backs [the common complaint with peacekeeping
among bellicose commentators]. They can engage to defend their
mission [and] to defend themselves. If that means they see a threat
looming in the hills, they do not have to wait to be attacked
[and] to take casualties. They can take action to defend themselves
-- including, if necessary, preemptively." To ensure that
the US approach is kept intact, a special command structure has
been imposed. While nominally the NATO mission is being run by
the UK, the "deputy commander of security" is a "dual-hatted"
US/NATO officer, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, who answers to John
Abizaid, responsible for Operation Enduring Freedom on one side
and answers to James Jones, the NATO supreme commander on the
other side (both US generals). In other words, the aggressive
military activities that have become hallmarks of Operation Enduring
Freedom (breaking down doors, air strikes, terrorizing villages,
indefinite detention and torture) will continue under NATO, with
more troops, contributed by Canada, Britain, and a few other countries,
and are still ultimately controlled by the United States.
Who are these troops fighting, the "threats
looming in the hills"? The news media persist in relying
on the label "Taliban" to denote the enemy of US troops
in Afghanistan. For example, "60 suspected Taliban militants
attacked a police checkpoint Friday" (AP, Sept 16) Why not
just say "60 Afghans attacked a police checkpoint"?
which is just as true, but it would imply that regular people
not involved with the discredited Taliban might have a problem
with the current situation in their country. A "senior Western
military official" told the Wash. Post (Sep 16), "We
have killed a lot of Taliban, but they are not running out of
foot soldiers, and for every one we kill, we create new families
that hate us."
That is a very crucial statement: "For
every one we kill, we create new families that hate us."
There are a couple of important questions here: (1) who are
we killing, and (2) why do "families" hate us?
Are these guys all Taliban? There is
of course no way of knowing for sure, since there is no official
Taliban uniform. The terminology used in the mainstream press
forces you to limit anyone the US and its allies might choose
to kill to either the Taliban or al Qaeda. These are the two
"legitimate" targets of US violence in Afghanistan,
right? After September 11, 2001, a weak case was built for attacking
those parties on the grounds of the atrocious human rights record
of the Taliban and retaliation for 9/11 in the case of al Qaeda.
Today, the original Taliban regime no
longer exists. According to the Senlis Council,
A significant number of the original Taliban
militants were killed during Operation Enduring Freedom's initial
phases, and the Taliban defeat was guaranteed by the defection
of the many warlords to the US-sponsored Northern Alliance. Since
late 2001, the remnants of the Taliban have been based mainly
in Pakistan, and have been supported by a loose coalition.
This new coalition includes "Afghans
loyal to the former Taliban regime, disenchanted and nationalist
Pashtuns [the largest Afghan ethnic group], religious conservatives,
criminal gangs, opium traffickers, and a new generation of Pakistani
and Afghan scholars educated in the madrassas along the Pakistan-Afghan
border." Senlis calls the new coalition, "the neo-Taliban."
Finally, according to Senlis, "The remnants of the Taliban,
related groups and new insurgent actors currently operating in
Afghanistan no longer have any clear ties to Al Qaeda or an unambiguous
relationship with those that carried out the September 11 attacks."
In other words, the initial reason for
the US invasion of Afghanistan is no longer valid, and the forces
now being fought are in many cases completely new militants not
carrying some fanatical generic hatred of other cultures, but
are people angry with the US presence in Afghanistan itself.
So, why would Afghan people be angry with
the US? The United States government took advantage of what it
thought was a blank check from the Afghan people to do whatever
it wanted in Afghanistan after 9/11. Unfortunately they attended
only to their own needs and interests. The US operation in Afghanistan
was conducted with very limited goals: revenge for 9/11 and the
need to show a violent response when attacked, and later the containment
of Islamic fundamentalism, which increased Islamic fundamentalism.
The Afghan people were extremely hopeful that the huge foreign
interest in their country would help them to turn back the clock
on warlordism and fundamentalism, and would provide enough money
to help them rebuild. Instead, the US supported a return to warlordism
through direct backing of warlords to fight the Taliban and the
prevention of international peacekeepers. Now, many warlords,
helped back to their feet by Washington, are in the Afghan government.
Over half of the new parliament is either military commanders
or religious conservatives. The US promised reconstruction, and
while some reconstruction was done, most of it occurred before
presidential elections in 2004 to bribe the people to vote for
Washington's favorite, Hamid Karzai. Where are the highways the
US said it would build? Only one, the Kabul-Kandahar highway,
exists, and it was by all accounts a rush job. Where are the
power plants, the water treatment plants? Most people in Kabul
don't have running water, and their lucky to have electricity
for a few hours a day, but at least there is a new Coke bottling
plant and a new five-star hotel in Kabul. Today, five years after
9/11, most Afghans see the US as a government that is only in
Afghanistan for its own interests, and those interests have nothing
to do with the interests of the Afghan people.
It's important to see the violence as
the result of a real lack of alternatives for the majority of
Afghans. People are attacking the US - we have to be clear that
the attacks on US and other foreign troops are not terrorist attacks
nor are they necessarily the attacks of overzealous religious
fanatics, although religion is the most common rallying point.
According to the Senlis report: "Current insurgents are
Afghan people[And] anti-government elements have been recruited
from the growing number of people dissatisfied with the Karzai
government or US and NATO-ISAF forces." The people are poor,
they are insecure, they are forced to harvest opium because its
the only crop that has a chance of giving them a living. And
more and more they blame Americans and their allies for invading
their country, invading their villages, kidnapping and torturing
civilians, bombing civilians, destroying poppy harvests, working
with warlords, and making life that much worse. The US is now
seen as the enemy by a large portion of the population in southern
and eastern Afghanistan. The Post quotes an anonymous Western
diplomat saying, "Nearly five years on, there is no rule
of law, no accountability. The Afghans know it is all a charade,
and they see us as not only complicit but actively involved. You
cannot fight a terror war and build a weak state at the same time,
and it was a terrible mistake to think we could."
We've been focusing mainly on the south
where the foreign troops are. The north of the country has up
until now been the most stable region due to the iron-fisted rule
of the warlords who the US helped back to power. According to
the Washington Post these commanders "are said to virtually
control daily life in many areas" (Sep 16). Most of the
warlords now support the central government of Karzai, but may
be jockeying for a larger piece of the pie. The Post reports,
"some commanders appear to be gaining further strength as
the Taliban threat draws closer and villagers seek powerful patrons
to protect them." A "Western diplomat" told
the Post, " 'In the north, they ask how they can be expected
to disarm if the south is arming itself.'..Ethnic divisions are
so deep in Afghanistan, the diplomat added, that if the Karzai
government were to fall, civil conflict might resume almost immediately."
This points to the horrendous civil war of the 1990s where up
to 50,000 Kabul residents were killed by rocket shelling by various
factions with the backing of the US and others.
Karzai's chances_Why would Karzai's government
fall? Like his foreign backers, Karzai has squandered the good
will of the Afghan people, who elected him with a landslide in
2004 (over 50% of the vote, compared to 16% for the second place
Yunus Qanooni). About 75% of registered voters voted, an amazing
achievement for a country that has withstood multiple coups, two
foreign invasions and one of the most violent civil wars in modern
history. One year later, with people already jaded by his poor
performance and sycophantic following of Washington's lead, only
50% of the electorate showed up for the parliamentary elections.
People were starting to realize the futility of this newly-imposed
"democracy." Mohammed Jan, a 50-year old tailor in
Kabul told the Washington Post (June 26, 06) he returned to Afghanistan
from Iran "because we were told there was democracy. Instead
the old warlords are back. At night people are robbed at home.
In the day they are robbed at the ministries. I feel cheated and
full of sorrow." Ahmad Fahim Hakim, vice chairman of the
Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told the New York
Times (Aug 22 06), "Nothing that he promised has materialized.
Beneath the surface it is boiling." The Times goes on to
say that "the costs of his compromises are becoming harder
to stomach for average Afghans and some foreign donors. Critics
say [the compromises] have insulated many people from the benefits
of democratic change..." Most recent among Karzai's compromises
include the appointing of a powerful warlord with links to organized
crime as police chief of Kabul and 13 other commanders to senior
police posts. This was in response to the Kabul riots of late
May, sparked by a runaway American military vehicle killed 3 Afghans
and then the US troops killed four more civilians when they fired
into the angry crowd. In another instance, the Afghan government
is considering the reinstatement of the Taliban's feared religious
police, the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention
Karzai's critiques of troops_Understanding
the source of the insurgency, Karzai has attempted to regain support
among his people with lukewarm criticisms of the foreign troop
operations, saying in June "It is not acceptable for us that
in all this fighting, Afghans are dying. In the last three to
four weeks, 500 to 600 Afghans were killed. [Even] if they are
Taliban, they are sons of this land." Karzai urged a "strategic
reassessment" of the fight against insurgents. An anonymous
"foreign military official" was quoted in the Washington
Post saying, "[I]f [Karzai] attacks us, we can't help him
project his vision. And if he goes down, we all go down with him."
The speaker declined to be identified, but its reference to a
foreign military "projecting" Karzai's "vision"
is similar to rhetoric used by US and NATO generals, who say that
their mission is "to extend the authority of the Afghan government."
Regardless, it was certainly not something the Bush administration
wanted advertised, since two days later, Secretary of State Condoleeza
Rice denied that such ideas were considered by her colleagues.
She was furious. She rejected the allegations that western officials
were dissatisfied with Karzai, who she called an "extraordinary
leader," declaring emphatically that the US "is going
to back him and back him fully." This is certainly not going
to help Karzai with his people, who already see him as a puppet
of the Americans.
It has to be understood that Rice's claim
that Washington will "back [Karzai] fully" does not
imply that Karzai's recommendations will be taken seriously by
the Bush Administration. His critique of the military operation
is not something Rice can be expected to follow up on. Indeed,
NATO spokesman James Appathurai made it clear "if they need
to fight to extend the authority of the Afghan government, they
will do it. They have the right to do it and will do it."
I'd like to close by noting that Karzai's
plea to stop killing Afghans actually make sense from a tactical
perspective. According to the US Army's own "Counterinsurgency
Doctrine," the objective of counterinsurgency is to build
the legitimacy of the government which derives from "the
consent of the governed" whose willing support is required
for the government's smooth operation. The doctrine is full of
interesting sayings, which the current US/NATO military establishment
would find appalling. Like, "the more force used, the less
effective it is"; or "Sometimes doing nothing is the
best reaction"; or "The best weaponsdon't shoot".
In short, don't make more enemies through your actions. These
statements are a little too close for comfort to prescriptions
for actual democratic development for the likes of Bush, Harper
and Blair, who with the logic of a bully see more violence as
the only proper response to an insurgency.