Foreign Troops and the Insurgency

by James Ingalls, 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 province.

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 of Vice.

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.

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