Afghanistan – Pride & Prejudice – Part IV

Part IV of a multi-part dossier

Mark Tran in the Guardian, 31st August 2009: “The west must change its strategy in order to prevail in Afghanistan, the top US commander in the country said today as he handed over to US and NATO commanders a sweeping review of operations that may lead to a demand for more troops….at an event last week, according to the BBC, he likened the US military to a bull charging at the matador-like Taliban and slightly weakened with each ‘cut’ it receives.

US officials have spoken openly about the failing war effort in Afghanistan and McChrystal’s report will be a distillation of their strong misgivings.

…Officers in Afghanistan consider much of the effort of the last eight years wasted, with too few troops deployed and many of them placed in the wrong regions and given the wrong orders.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent, 24th August 2009: “….The Government thought it would be good for national resolve if more visible public ceremonies marked the arrival back of dead soldiers. This is backfiring. Each incredibly sorrowful individual story makes people ask why we are there, soldiers included. This is seen now as a quagmire, as squalid and misguided as Vietnam was. Public opinion the world over is falling. Polls show dropping support in France and Germany.

A recent worldwide PEW survey found that only 46 per cent of Brits want to carry on. The figure for the US is 57 per cent. The country which most supports the war is Israel. In 2002, six per cent of Americans were against the action. Today that figure is above 40 per cent. Key figures in the Obama administration admit the American people are tiring of this adventure. Labour’s Kim Howells senses the same fatigue: “I don’t think the public are up for it any more.”

It has cost British taxpayers £2.5bn and that figure is expected to rise fast. The inept and ineffable Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, says it should take one more year while a number of army chiefs think we need to be planning for decades of engagement. Does anyone know really or do they just make up the lyrics as they go along?

So now we have had a dodgy election not worth the ‘indelible’ washable ink on the fingers of voters. Karzai in his dashing gear and aristocratic demeanour is a catastrophic leader  – useless, corrupt and an appeaser of those who want to legalise the total degradation of females. The most odious warlords – like ‘General’ Rashid Dostum –  are back in business. Hundreds of girls and women self immolate rather than succumb to this surge against them. After eight years their ashes are a sign off, the verdict on an abysmal military expedition. And I am not sure at all I should ever have supported it.”

Lt Col Stuart Tootal in the Sunday Mirror, 23rd August 2009: “There is a real risk that we could lose the war in Afghanistan.

If it is lost, it will not be in places like Helmand, but in the corridors of power in cities such as London and Washington…

I believe the Afghanistan conflict is winnable. But mounting casualties and a muddled and under-resourced strategy paint a gloomy picture. These, combined with a long history of military failures in Afghanistan, will reinforce doubts in the minds of many….”
Charles Ferndale in the Guardian, 23rd August 2009: “…The claim that we are in Afghanistan to keep terrorists off our streets is false; our presence there increases the threat of terrorism here.

Afghanistan has not been an important planning area for any attacks on western countries and the Taliban have shown no inclination to conduct war against NATO countries outside Afghanistan (so far, but we seem to be doing our best to change their practices)….”
Sean Smith in The Guardian, 17th August 2009:”Knowing that fighting was inevitable, all the civilians had fled this part of Helmand; the walled compounds were silent and locked, the lush irrigated fields, now largely empty since the opium crop had finished, seemingly abandoned. There was no question that the people who were in the building were fighters. A missile was launched, either with programmed co-ordinates, from nearby Camp Bastion, or dropped from an aerial assault; I didn’t see. But a few days later as we came back from a patrol I noticed a head in one of the fields. As soon as we got close to it we could see it had a pigtail.

It was a girl, a young girl of perhaps 14 whose body had been flung out of the building by the force of the bombing. But why was she there? Had the fighters kept her there to do their cooking? Why had no one come looking for her? I don’t suppose anyone will ever know….

When the attacks came, as they almost always did, they were probably five or six people in one position shooting from 600m away, sometimes co-ordinated with another group of four or five in another position. The response was to fire a rocket or call in a missile and take out the position. You are firing missiles that are the price of an expensive Porsche car on one person, a couple of people, who may or may not be hit. These are not Queensberry rules.”
Victor Sebestyen in the New Statesman, 13th August 2009: “Listen to a NATO commander talking about the difficulties of fighting the Taliban and you could almost think it was a Soviet soldier from 25 years ago speaking. ‘Much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the political centres, but we cannot maintain control over territory we seize . . . Our soldiers have fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.’

It could easily be the voice of a NATO spokesperson on the Today programme. In fact, these are the words of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of the Soviet armed forces, at a meeting of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo on 13 November 1986.

The Soviets searched over many years for an “exit strategy” from Afghanistan, as well as for something that could be described as a ‘victory’. Both were elusive. ”
Flore Galaud in Le Figaro, 11th August 2009: “General Stanle McChrystal, in post since June, considers that the Taliban have gained the upper hand in the country, compelling the US to review its strategy on the ground …”this is an enemy very much on the offensive at the moment”….according to the General, heavily armed Talibans are launching sophisticated and deadly attacks combining home-made bombs and rockets…” translated from the French —————————————————–
Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian, 8th August 2009: “Four years later, as a resurgent Taliban mounts daring operations in Kabul itself, the western mission in Afghanistan looks more doomed than ever. Desk-bound columnists, such as John Lloyd in the Financial Times this week, may continue to speak of western ‘honour’ and warn that defeat in Helmand will embolden jihadists in Bradford. But no Taliban has been implicated in any terrorist conspiracy in Britain, and perhaps even Lloyd, a staunch supporter of Tony Blair’s wars, doesn’t assume that killing many more Muslims of southern Afghanistan would impress the Muslims of West Yorkshire.

When ill-conceived military adventures look doomed, their advocates tend to grow more strident about honour, especially if it can be upheld to the last drop of other people’s blood. Richard Nixon’s “peace with honour” primarily consisted of devastating Cambodia in addition to Vietnam; for some years now, maintaining honour in Afghanistan has amounted to little more than the Talibanisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Finally, the endgame in Afghanistan is in sight. Endorsed by the US state department, Britain’s Foreign Office now speaks openly of talks with the Taliban. But thousands of British soldiers continue to fight, and the war, certain now to peter out in some face-saving compromise, has only just entered the most terrible phase for those still in the thick of battle. ”
BBC News report, 5th August 2009: “Three children and a man have been killed in an overnight air strike by international forces, angry villagers in southern Afghanistan say.

The bodies were taken to the city of Kandahar to be displayed in front of officials. US and NATO-led forces said they were investigating the reports.

The issue of civilian casualties at the hands of foreign troops has caused deep resentment among Afghan people.”
Kim Sengupta in the Independent, 5th August 2009: ” ‘Having to peddle ‘government lies’ about the safety of soldiers in Iraq led to a Ministry of Defence press officer suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, an employment tribunal will hear.

John Salisbury-Baker will claim that he suffered ‘intolerable stress’ through having to ‘defend the morally indefensible’ when responding to media inquiries about the ability of army vehicles such as the ‘Snatch’ Land Rover to protect soldiers.”
Tom Hayden in, 2nd August 2009:
“After a May 4 bombing that Afghan officials said killed 147 civilians, including 90 women and children, Pentagon officials gathered to address the June conference of the Center for New American Security, where General David Barno, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said, ‘We’ve got to be careful about who controls the narrative on civilian casualties.’

Acknowledging that specific levels of civilian casualties are calculated in advance, as an integral part of the air war, would raise the level of Afghan rage and even some congressional eyebrows.
Tom McTague in the Mirror, 2nd August 2009: “This is one of the toughest insurgencies we’ve ever fought. The only thing comparable in modern memory is the Falklands and the Taliban  is a much tougher enemy.”

L/Cpl Glenton’s letter to PM Gordon Brown:
“…I have seen qualities in the Afghan people which have also been for so long apparent and admired in the British soldier. Qualities of robustness, humour, utter determination and unwillingness to take a step backwards. However it is these qualities, on both sides, which I fear will continue to cause a state of attrition. These will only lead to more heartbreak within both our societies.

I am not a general nor am I a politician and I cannot claim any mastery of strategy. However, I am a soldier who has served in Afghanistan, which has given me some small insight.

I believe that when British military personnel submit themselves to the service of the nation and put their bodies into harms way, the government that sends them into battle is obliged to ensure that the cause is just and right, i.e. for the protection of life and liberty.

The war in Afghanistan is not reducing the terrorist risk, far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country. Britain has no business there.

I do not believe that our cause in Afghanistan is just or right. I implore you, Sir, to bring our soldiers home.”
Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian, 28th July 2009:” Concerted effort to start unprecedented talks between Taliban and British and American envoys was outlined yesterday in a significant change in tactics designed to bring about a breakthrough in the attritional, eight-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Senior ministers and commanders on the ground believe they have created the right conditions to open up a dialogue with ‘second-tier’ local leaders now the Taliban have been forced back in a swath of Helmand province.

They are hoping that Britain’s continuing military presence in Helmand, strengthened by the arrival of thousands of US troops, will encourage Taliban commanders to end the insurgency. There is even talk in London and Washington of a military ‘exit strategy’.

….For more than a year, British intelligence officers have been instigating contacts with Taliban commanders and their entourage. But their task has been very delicate given the sensitivities of the Karzai administration in Kabul.

…But the fact that senior ministers and military commanders seized on the apparent success of Operation Panther’s Claw to highlight the possibility of talks with the Taliban reflects their concern about the lack of progress so far in NATO’s counter-insurgency. Significantly, and as if to counter public aversion to talks with the Taliban, ministers and military commanders alike compared the current campaign in southern Afghanistan to anti-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland.”
James Kirkup and Caroline Gammell in the Daily Telegraph, 27th July 2009: “David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has said ‘moderate’ members of the Taliban insurgency killing British forces in Afghanistan could be given seats in the Afghan government. …Douglas Alexander, the development secretary, admitted that some people might be unhappy about political engagement with insurgents, but insisted that most would back the strategy”.
Leonard Doyle in the Daily Telegraph, 25th July 2009: “The battle [of Wanat, July 2008] showed the increasing military sophistication of the Taliban, and highlighted the vulnerability of combat forces which are now fanning out across Afghanistan in small units with orders to engage with villagers. …

Named after a remote wooded valley near the Pakistan border north east of Kabul, the battle began just before dawn when a force of guerrillas estimated at between 50 and 200 in number, threw themselves at the remote US outpost.

Volleys of rocket-propelled grenades rained down as the Taliban swarmed across the steep valley.

They quickly knocked out the American heavy weapons – a 120 millimeter mortar, a TOW missile system, and a .50 calibre machine gun. The 45 soldiers and three Marines at the base along with a small Afghan National Army contingent were soon in a fight for their lives.

It felt like ‘about a thousand Rocket Propelled Grenades at once,’ Army Specialist Tyler Hanson later told an Army investigator. The Taliban moved in to within feet of the Americans, making it impossible to call in airstrikes.

They threw rocks into the Americans’ foxholes, hoping the soldiers would mistake them for grenades and jump out. ‘The whole time we were thinking we were going to die,’ said Specialist Chris McKaig.

When the fighting ended, an hour later, nine US soldiers were dead and 27 were wounded, a 75 per cent casualty rate, which has not been suffered since the Vietnam War. ”
Malalai Jola in the Guardian, 25th July 2009: “This week, US vice-president Joe Biden asserted that ‘more loss of life [is] inevitable’ in Afghanistan, and that the ongoing occupation is in the ‘national interests’of both the US and the UK. I have a different message to the people of Britain. I don’t believe it is in your interests to see more young people sent off to war, and to have more of your taxpayers’ money going to fund an occupation that keeps a gang of corrupt warlords and drug lords in power in Kabul.

What’s more, I don’t believe it is inevitable that this bloodshed continues forever. Some say that if foreign troops leave Afghanistan will descend into civil war. But what about the civil war and catastrophe of today? The longer this occupation continues, the worse the civil war will be.

The Afghan people want peace, and history teaches that we always reject occupation and foreign domination. We want a helping hand through international solidarity, but we know that values like human rights must be fought for and won by Afghans themselves.

I know there are millions of British people who want to see an end to this conflict as soon as possible. Together we can raise our voice for peace and justice.
Robert Fox in the Guardian, 24th July 2009: “….We seem to have lost sight of the strategic purpose of the fight in Afghanistan’ [said a recently retired General]….

The army’s belief that it is now fighting for its life in Helmand is not lost on Gordon Brown, apparently. He has assembled a full-blown war cabinet, which meets in emergency session each Friday.

The reason for the concentration of the prime minister’s mind on Helmand, despite unpalatable diversions like the economy and the Norwich North bye-election, is a grim statistic now doing the rounds in military circles. For every British soldier killed in Helmand these past few weeks, around ten have been injured, many seriously.

Since the troops of the 19th Light Brigade began Operation Panther’s Claw at the beginning of the month, 22 servicemen have been killed in as many days. If ten times as many have been injured, the UK forces have sustained around 250 casualties in three and a half weeks. This is a high price by the standards of modern war.

It raises the question of how long the fight can be sustained in the way the government has chosen to. The longer this goes on, public unease will turn to public anger. The government will have to state its clear strategic aim ñ of which we have heard precious little of late. To say that by fighting the Taliban, space is being denied to al-Qaida for recruiting and training, and so we are making the streets of Birmingham and Brighton safe from terrorism, is wearing pretty thin now.

The government has to say why it is prepared to commit so much blood and treasure ñ in that order ñ and why it is a British vital interest. The government has only a few weeks to do this…
Martin Jacques writing in the New Statesman, 16th July 2009: “There is one certainty concerning the British and western military presence in Afghanistan: it will fail. Only when is in doubt. It may yet stumble on for a few more years, but sooner or later there will be a general recognition that the mission cannot succeed.

This is one of the stranger military escapades of the past few decades. Without the attacks of 11 September 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan would never have happened. The United States needed to find a military outlet for its anger and desire for revenge and Afghanistan was the chosen target; the objectives were to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. This was the (always absurd and overblown) “war on terror”. The first objective has never been achieved, the second remains as elusive as ever, and meanwhile the NATO troops have become embroiled in a war without end against the Taliban.

Apart from capturing or killing Bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda, the aims of this war have never been clear. Over the years they have embraced such heady and forlorn ideas as transforming Afghanistan into a western-style democracy and liberating Afghan women from the chadri. Dream on.
The problem with military adventures such as this is that they are relatively easy to initiate, but extremely difficult to escape from…

The Obama administration has made the misconceived decision to intensify the war in Afghanistan, probably because it did not feel that, for obvious domestic reasons, it could withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. The price will be heavy indeed. While the Americans are involved so, too, to judge by Britain’s supine relationship with its ally, will be the UK. The most breathtaking feature of British foreign policy since 1945 has been the profound loss of any kind of independent will or initiative. This remains the most striking aspect of Britain’s post-imperial legacy: the need to hang on to America’s coat-tails as a means of affirming our continuing global importance and relevance.”
The New Statesman, 16th July 2009: “We warned in 2001 that this conflict could put Britain and the US on the wrong side of the moral argument, firing missiles and dropping explosives from a safe distance and risking civilian lives, rather than those of their own professional soldiers on the ground. The tragedy is that the deaths have been indiscriminate, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and hundreds of British soldiers alike. Where will it end?”

Julian Borger & Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian, 3rd July 2009, “The US poured 4,000 marines into Afghanistan’s Helmand province today in its biggest operation for five years …..Anthony Cordesman, one of the best-known military strategists in the US, who is based at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the US was shifting its strategy to a ‘shape, clear, hold and build’ one that focused on lasting security and development of population centres rather than simply defeating insurgents in the field and remote areas. Crucial to its success would be a bigger effort by the Afghan government, he said. There was disappointment among American forces that only 600 Afghan government troops were available to join the operation….

Gilles Dorronsoro, in a new report this week for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, sees the focus on Helmand as a mistake. He argues that the US should concentrate instead on fighting them in the north and around Kabul where they are making alarming progress before taking them on in their strongholds in the south and east.

He said: ‘The Taliban have a strategy and a coherent organisation to implement it, and they have been successful so far. They have achieved most of their objectives in the south and east and are making inroads in the north. They are unlikely to change in the face of the US troop surge’.”
Channel 4 News, 1st July 2009: “A freedom of information request by this programme has revealed a large number of claims by Afghan civilians against British forces in one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan, in which UK forces have been the main Nato force for five years.

Between December 2007 and May 2009, the UK has paid out for – or is still processing – claims that relate to at least 104 deaths.

They have also rejected claims – in the same period – that relate to 113 civilian deaths. The more recent months have seen a spike in claims over fatalities – 27 were made in April and May of this year.

The figures offer one of the most revealing insights yet into the human cost of Britain’s fight against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Yet many observers say they refer to only a small fraction of the likely total of civilian casualties…”

Jon Boone in the Guardian, 25th June 2009: “The plan was simple: with overwhelming force, the British soldiers would arrive in Babaji ñ one of the most dangerous insurgent strongholds in southern Afghanistan – and scare away the local Taliban without a fight, leaving a permanent military presence in the area for the first time, winning over local people and persuading them to stand up to their Taliban masters .

But Operation Panchai Palang (Panther’s Claw) – the biggest air assault mounted by British troops since 2001, involving hundreds of soldiers being dropped from Chinooks  did not go quite according to plan.

But, despite the strict secrecy that cloaked the operation, the local people seemed to have got wind of it and scared by the prospect of intense fighting ñ voted with their feet.

The day before the soldiers began their operation, drones monitoring the area showed people evacuating their homes, leaving Babaji in the hands of militants.

…During the first three days of their two-week stay in the area, which will end when troops from the Welsh Guards relieve them, the men of the Black Watch battalion endured persistent attacks of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. With the enemy hiding at a distance, in bushes and abandoned compounds, most soldiers never saw their foes. Only the snipers and the men monitoring the live video feeds from circling drones got sight of their quarry.

….’They are so well camouflaged you can’t see anything,” said Rob Colquoun, a section leader…’.

The first sign of resistance – 15 men carrying a belt-fed anti-aircraft machine gun – was quickly spotted and dealt with by the constellation of planes, helicopters and unmanned drones circling the night skies. The men were annihilated by an attack from the sky of which they could have had no warning.

‘Serves them right. They weren’t out doing the shopping, were they?’ said a voice in the darkness, watching through night vision goggles….”
Marie Woolf in The Times, 14th June, 2009:
“British agents are to be given formal permission to pay bribes to recruit informants or buy off Taliban warlords.

Agents working for MI5, MI6 or GCHQ, the government eavesdropping centre, will be exempt from anti-bribery legislation and, with ministerial approval, will be able to give financial inducements. ”
Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian, 11th June 2009:
“To meet a threat which shows no real signs of lessening the US is deploying thousands of its soldiers to Helmand to help out the British. There will soon be about 12,000 US troops in the province, more than the number of their British counterparts there.”
Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian, 28th May 2009: “British pilots in Afghanistan are firing an increasing number of ‘enhanced blast’ thermobaric weapons, designed to kill everyone in buildings they strike, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.

…Its wider use was disclosed by John Hutton, the defence secretary, in answer to a parliamentary answer from Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman. ‘Given the MoD’s reluctance to admit they were even going to use these weapons, they now seem to be getting rather more trigger-happy’ Harvey said yesterday. ‘If these controversial weapons are being fired on a weekly basis in Afghanistan, we need to know that they are being used according to strict rules of engagement.

Human rights groups have serious concerns about the effect of these weapons in populated areas, and their legality seems to be a grey area. The last thing we need in this counter-insurgency campaign is the allegation that civilians are dying at the hands of some kind of terror weapon. Parliament must be reassured these are a weapon of last resort’.”
Jerome Starkey in the Independent, 16th May 2009: “Troops from the US Marines Corps’ Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, were responsible for calling in air strikes in Bala Boluk, in Farah, last week ñ believed to have killed more than 140 men, women and children ñ as well as two other incidents in 2007 and 2008. …An article in the Marine Corps Times described the MarSOC troops as ‘cowboys’ who brought shame on the corps. ”
New York Times, 14th May 2009: “…There was particular anger among the villagers that the bombing came after, they say, the Taliban had already left at dusk, and the fighting had subsided, so much so that men had gone to evening prayers at 7 p.m. and returned and were sitting down with their families for dinner.

The police chief said that sporadic fighting continued into the night and that the Taliban were probably in the village until 1 a.m.

Whatever the case, American planes bombed after 8 p.m. in several waves when most of the villagers thought the fighting was over; and whatever the actual number of casualties, it is clear from the villagers’ accounts that dozens of women and children were killed after taking cover. ..”
Chris Hedges in Common Dreams, 11th May 2009: “The bodies of dozens, perhaps well over a hundred, women, children and men, their corpses blown into bits of human flesh by iron fragmentation bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes in a village in the western province of Farah, illustrates the futility of the Afghan war. We are not delivering democracy or liberation or development. We are delivering massive, sophisticated forms of industrial slaughter. And because we have employed the blunt and horrible instrument of war in a land we know little about and are incapable of reading, we embody the barbarism we claim to be seeking to defeat.

We are morally no different from the psychopaths within the Taliban, who Afghans remember we empowered, funded and armed during the 10-year war with the Soviet Union. Acid thrown a girl’s face or beheadings? Death delivered from the air or fields of shiny cluster bombs? This is the language of war. It is what we speak. It is what those we fight speak…..”
Lord Lawson’s remarks on 7th May 2009 reported by the BBC: “Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, has suggested British troops leave Afghanistan as a way of cutting government spending. The Afghan mission was ‘wholly unsuccessful’, he told the BBC, and unjustifiably costly given the cuts in public spending needed in the future.”
Ewen Macaskill in The Guardian, 6th May 2009: “The Pentagon yesterday promised to launch a joint investigation with the Afghan government into reports that ?dozens of civilians were killed in US air strikes on Monday night….Villagers brought truckloads of bodies, most of them women and children, to the provincial capital….A US spokesman in Afghanistan, Colonel Greg Julian, confirmed that US coalition forces had participated in the fighting on Monday night….”
Jeremy Scahill, Common Dreams, 4th May 2009: “New video evidence has surfaced showing that US military forces in Afghanistan have been instructed by the military’s top chaplain in the country to “hunt people for Jesus” as they spread Christianity to the overwhelmingly Muslim population. Soldiers also have imported bibles translated into Pashto and Dari, the two dominant languages of Afghanistan…”