In a grim piece of political theatre that is becoming more frequent, and more surreal, a sombre PM Julia Gillard on October 30 acknowledged the latest three Australian fatalities in Afghanistan by claiming that Australia was winning a just war there.
The death toll of Australian soldiers in the decade-long war is now 32.
Military deaths in Afghanistan are unusually bipartisan events in Australian politics. Gillard’s claims were unreservedly backed up by the Liberal-National opposition.
Much of the mainstream media coverage, as always, implied that to question the justness of the war in which the soldiers died was both disrespectful and unpatriotic.
None of this, however, made Gillard’s claims convincing.
She said: “Attacks like this are designed to … corrode trust … It’s an attempt by our enemy to strike at the core of our training and mentoring mission in Afghanistan.”
“Our enemy” refers to the Taliban.
But the Taliban were not responsible for the October 29 attack in which three members of the Australian Training and Mentoring Taskforce and an Afghan interpreter were killed and seven Australians injured.
As Gillard acknowledged: “This is the second occasion this year that we face the very bitter spectre of our soldiers being attacked by someone who was in the Afghan National Army and someone who was apparently participating in our training mission.”
She nonetheless insisted: “We should not judge the progress of our mission from this one incident Despite the gravity of this incident and the horror of this incident we are making progress in training members of the Afghan National Army. We are making progress in training members of the Afghan National Police.”
The Afghan soldier who carried out the attack was killed when the Australians returned fire. He had been in the Afghan army for several years.
The unit the Australians were training and mentoring, the 6th Kandak unit of the Afghan National Army’s 4th Brigade, was disarmed and confined to barracks.
In May, an Afghan soldier turned his gun on his Australian mentors, killing one. He escaped but was later tracked down and killed by US-led forces.
The precise motivations of the attacks may never be known, but their context is that the 142,000-strong US-led occupation force (including 1550 Australian soldiers) is extremely unpopular.
Also, the Afghan forces they are training are, for the most part, drug-addicted and illiterate members of various warlord militias.
Afghanistan was invaded in October 2001 as part of former US president George W Bush’s “war on terror”, which used the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as a pretext to project military power in the oil and gas-rich Middle East and Central Asia.
Afghanistan had given refuge to Osama bin Laden and other leaders of al-Qaeda. However, the Taliban regime was prepared to negotiate on bin Laden’s extradition and was not in any way directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.
War for the 1%
One of the poorest nations in the world, torn apart by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, Afghanistan was a soft target.
The real target of the war was not Afghanistan itself. Rather, the invasion was seen as the start of an offensive to extend and shore up US power in the broader, oil-rich region.
The economic power of US corporations (the interests called “the 1%” by the Occupy movement) is backed by US military might.
Pro-US imperialism commentator Thomas Friedman pointed out in a 1999 New York Times article: “For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is … The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.
“And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
This is the context in which the Afghan War needs to be viewed. It was not a war for directly for resources — in the way the Iraq War was for oil — but to strengthen US power.
This is not in the interests of most US people — “the 99%” — who are suffering the effects of harsh spending cuts despite the federal government planning to spend more than US$1 trillion on the military.
The horrific police shooting and severe injuring of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen when he protested at Occupy Oakland on October 25 brought home to many that the rank-and-file soldiers sent to fight these wars are as mistreated at home as other ordinary people.
Australian corporations, for their part, see their interests best served by Australia allying itself with the dominant superpower. For that reason, Australian soldiers are killing and being killed halfway around the world.
Bush required a quick victory in Afghanistan, so his government could move on to attacking Iraq.
The war aimed to project US global military dominance to rivals such as Russia and China — and to a lesser extent some allies in Europe. The US priority was therefore to simply destroy the Taliban regime.
Killings and abuses
The easiest way to do this was to combine massive aerial bombardment with arming and buying the loyalty of Northern Alliance warlords — just as brutal and fundamentalist as the Taliban.
When Barack Obama was elected US president at the end of 2008, it was by a population tired of war. However, Obama has presided over a rise in troop numbers in Afghanistan (only partially reversed by this year’s much-publicised drawdown) and an extension of the war across the border in Pakistan.
The unpopularity of the US-led occupation force can partly be understood by the violence of the feuding warlords they placed in power.
Like the Taliban, they impose brutal and misogynist policies. But corruption, banditry, violent feuding, drug trafficking and rape are worse under these warlords than under the Taliban.
Sometimes, these forces are too much for some of the occupiers to stomach. Dutch forces in Uruzgan province refused to work with Australian-allied warlord Matiullah Khan on account of his corruption and human rights abuses, which include mass executions, torture of prisoners and highway robbery.
But the unpopularity of the US-led forces is primarily due to the violence they directly perpetrate against civilians.
Anger is so high even Khan (promoted to provincial police chief by Australian forces) condemned his Australian allies after the October 29 shooting of a civilian by Australian soldiers at Tarin Kot, the ABC’s AM program said on November 2.
The main cause of civilians being killed or injured by the US-led forces is air strikes. Occupation forces’ night raids also generate resentment.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are not counted. What studies have been made have often been skewed to undercount casualties inflicted by the occupation forces and their allies. In July, a United Nations report estimated 30 civilians had been killed in night raids during the first half of 2011.
Inter Press Service said on October 25 this “reflected only a very small fraction of night raids in which civilians were killed, according to officials of the independent Afghan commission which had co-produced the 2010 report on civilian casualties with the UN Mission.”
A report by Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations, found that night raids also involve large-scale arbitrary detention.
“In a single three-month period earlier this year 1900 individuals were detained, most of whom were eventually released, raising questions about whether they should have been detained in the first place,” Rogers wrote in an October 18 Foreign Policy article.
“We also documented a number of large-scale detention or ‘clearance’ operations in which multiple compounds or entire villages were cordoned off, and male civilians indiscriminately rounded up for screening and questioning ...
“To the Afghans we interviewed, this makes night raids look more like indiscriminate intimidation, not specifically targeted, intelligence-driven actions.”
What happens to those detained is horrific. In August, the UN alleged abuse at a detention centre with the Orwellian name Department 124.
The October 30 Washington Post said: “With chilling detail, the United Nations recounted detainees’ stories of interrogators hanging them by their hands for hours, beating them with metal pipes, shocking them with electricity and twisting their genitals until they passed out.
“Of the 28 detainees interviewed who had spent time at the facility, 26 told the United Nations that they had been tortured.”
Department 124 belongs to Afghan police, but is used by the occupation forces.
The Post said: “US Special Operations troops brought detainees there, and CIA officials met with Department 124’s leadership on a weekly basis, reviewed their interrogation reports and used the intelligence gleaned from interrogations to inform their operations …
“The detainees’ physical characteristics were entered into an American biometric database. They wore orange jumpsuits — as detainees do at the US-run prison at Bagram air base, but not at other Afghan prisons.”
On October 22, National Public Radio in the US reported that in Panjwai district, Kandahar province in September, “Afghan troops, accompanied by American soldiers, pulled [civilians] out of their homes one evening in early September … The soldiers detained a group of villagers, lined them up and forced them to walk in front of the soldiers for over a mile, through areas believed to be mined by the Taliban.”
Such crimes make the occupation increasingly unpopular among Afghans, caught between the brutality of the Taliban on one side and the occupation forces and their warlord allies on the other.
The war drags on with no end in sight. Despite the inability of the occupiers to win, to accept defeat would be to accept a blow to the power of the US rulers and their allies. And so the Afghan people continue to pay the price for the folly of the 1%.