The Afghan Quagmire: Imperialism Stays the Course

3-16-09, 10:11 am

Original source: People's Voice (Canada)

After Canadian taxpayers have paid more than $11 billion for our military mission, Stephen Harper has publicly conceded that the NATO war in Afghanistan is 'unwinnable.' But despite his admission, Harper is now waffling on recent commitments that Canadian troops would be withdrawn by 2011. The PM seems to be hedging his bets as the so-called 'surge' of 30,000 more US troops enters Afghanistan.

The death toll for Canadian soldiers in the occupation has now hit 111, after more road attacks against military vehicles. Public opinion in Canada remains solidly against extending the occupation, which will enter its second decade by 2011.

But the decisive factor in this war will be the Afghan people, who are deeply war-weary and sickened by the deaths of thousands of civilians. Opposition to the 'surge' tactic is growing stronger inside Afghanistan, where support for a diplomatic and political end to the fighting is growing.

Most of this crucial story gets little coverage in Canada's mass media, which remains utterly focused on Canadian casualties and 'feel good' reports on the noble endeavors of 'our brave troops.'

An excellent source of real news about Afghanistan is found on the website of, Vancouver's broad-based anti-war coalition. A blog compiled by StopWar activist Dave Markland presents daily news that rarely makes it into the Canadian media. Here are some recent examples.

Al Jazeera reported on Feb. 26 that 'secret' Taliban talks, taking place in Dubai, London and Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, have proposed the return of Gulbaldin Hekmatyar, the former Afghan prime minister, who has been in hiding for seven years. During the 1980s, Hekmatyar was a prominent leader of the US-backed feudal forces fighting the progressive government in Kabul, which had strong Soviet support. He is the leader of the Hezb-Islami forces, which fight alongside the Taliban and are now considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

James Bays, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul, said: 'The plan is to widen these talks and to bring in elements of the Taliban.'

This is not the first time that such talks have been attempted. Last year, Ahmed Jan, an intermediary for the Taliban and tribal elders from Helmand province, was sent to Kabul for talks with the government. Al Jazeera reports that Jan was arrested after US officials discovered talks were to take place, and is now being held in US custody at Bagram military base.

What about public opinion regarding the 'troop surge'? As Markland says 'it seems that the majority of people in Pashtun areas (i.e. the targets of our hearts and minds campaign) oppose the surge.'

A recent article by Anand Gopal in The Christian Science Monitor quotes Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai, who says she has an 'innovative amendment' to Washington's planned surge: 'Send us 30,000 scholars instead. Or 30,000 engineers. But don't send more troops – it will just bring more violence.'

Gopal says that a growing number of Afghans, especially in the Pashtun south, oppose a troop increase.

'At least half the country is deeply suspicious of the new troops,' says Kabul‑based political analyst Waheed Muzjda. 'The US will have to wage an intense hearts‑and‑minds campaign to turn this situation around.'

Much of the opposition comes from provinces which seen the most fighting and where the new troops will be deployed. A group of 50 mostly Pashtun MPs recently formed a working group aimed at blocking the arrival of new troops and pushing for a bilateral military agreement between Kabul and Washington, which currently does not exist.

'I can't find a single man in the entire province who is in favor of more troops,' Awal Khan, a tribal leader from Logar province, told the Monitor reporter. 'They don't respect our tradition, culture, or religion.'

The Markland blog gives regular examples of civilian casualties, a major grievance among the Afghan people. A recent NATO press release tells of one such tragedy: 'On the morning of 1 March an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) vehicle rolled over resulting in the death of an Afghan citizen. The accident occurred in Jalalabad City, Nangarhar province at approximately 10:30 am, when the ISAF vehicle swerved to prevent a collision with a local vehicle that had pulled out in front of the convoy. The Afghan male killed in the accident was riding a bicycle in the vicinity...'

But far more often, civilian casualties are the direct product of police and military action.

Here is the February death toll compiled by Markland:

* Feb. 5‑6: US‑led coalition forces in Zabul kill 6 civilians in an attack which targeted insurgents, say Afghan officials.

* Feb. 6: US‑led coalition forces shoot and kill one man and wound a woman and child at a checkpoint in Khost province.

* Feb. 11: A provincial spokesman says NATO airstrikes kill four civilians in Logar province.

* Feb. 12: Five children are killed as Australian special forces battle militants while searching a house in Uruzgan province.

* Feb. 15: Unverified reports say three civilians are injured (one fatally) when NATO troops and insurgents clash in Sangin district, Helmand.

* Feb. 16: In Herat US forces kill 12‑16 civilians in air attacks. An American investigation claims that 13 civilians and three militants were killed.

* Feb. 17: Two civilians in a vehicle are killed by NATO‑led troops on patrol in the Maywand district of Kandahar.

* Feb. 22: A motorcyclist is shot and injured by NATO troops in Sangin district of Helmand.

* Feb. 23: Villagers report that Canadian weaponry killed three children in Panjwai district.

* Feb. 23: A number of civilians are injured in a clash between NATO forces and insurgents in Sangin district, Helmand. Reuters later reports that more than one of them died.

Late last year, the top Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, Lt.‑Gen. Michel Gauthier, said 'The insurgents are on their back foot, have been, and that's in part why we went almost three months without casualties. They did get a couple of ‑ I would say lucky – attacks on us...'

Since then, about a dozen more Canadian soldiers have died. But Gauthier is not the first over-confident imperialist in Afghanistan. Here are a few more quotes:

'I'm not making a prediction, but I think temporarily they're on their back foot, and we need to keep them there.' ‑ Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Sept. 29, 2004.

'[The Taliban] have been set on their back foot recently.' ‑ Canadian General Rick Hillier, Sept. 29, 2006.

'[Canadian soldiers] believe they need to keep the Taliban on their back foot until they can help the Afghans build their own army'. ‑ Rick Hillier, Dec. 26, 2007.

'[T]he Taliban are on their back foot with the recent arrival of aggressively on‑the‑offence U.S. Marines'. ‑ Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star, May 19, 2008.

'It's become apparent that the Taliban are very much on the backfoot.' - British Brigadier Gordon Messenger, June 1, 2008.

History will tell who is on the 'back foot.' In the meantime, as the Canadian Peace Alliance and Echec a la Guerre say in their call for April 4 protests against NATO, after more than seven years of occupation, there is still no end in sight to the killing in Afghanistan, and the war is expanding into Pakistan, threatening to create massive social and political instability.