Afghanistan: US surge slowly deflates
In a June 22 televised speech from the White House, United States President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 US soldiers from Afghanistan in 2011 and a further 23,000 in 2012.
This would leave US soldier numbers at about 70,000 the same as before the official "surge" by occuyping forces began at the end of 2009.
Britain’s Channel 4 said on June 24 that the reduction in soldier numbers would be partially compensated for by increased use of armed, pilotless drones.
When Obama took office at the start of 2009, there were about 50,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan. He immediately raised soldier numbers by 21,000.
This was followed by the 33,000-strong “surge” in December 2009. however, this was accompanied by a commitment that the extra soldiers would be withdrawn in July 2011.
This commitment was later changed to begin the withdrawal of the extra soldiers in July 2011. Obama’s speech fulfilled this revised commitment.
The occupation force also includes 50,000 soldiers from other Western powers and 100,000 mercenaries, both foreign and Afghan.
Some of the nations involved in the US-led occupation, including France, Germany, Spain and Britain, used the occasion of Obama’s speech to foreshadow soldier reductions of their own.
Others have already gone further. Canada will withdraw all its forces in July and the Dutch left in December 2010.
Australia, however, is not withdrawing any soldiers. There are about 1500 Australian soldiers helping occupy Afghanistan.
The ABC reported on June 23 that Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “As recently as today the Chief of the Defence Force has confirmed to me that those 1,500 Australian personnel are required to acquit our mission in Uruzgan province.”
Defence minister Stephen Smith was quoted in the June 25 Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “we remain committed to getting our job done there”.
“And we’re still of the view that 1500 is about the right number to effect that job by 2014,” Smith said.
The 2014 deadline mentioned by Smith was set by Obama in 2009 when laying out his timetable for the soldier surge to be followed by the soldier “drawdown”.
The “drawdown” announced on June 22 will leave more US troops in Afghanistan at the start of 2013 than there were in 2008.
This makes it difficult to see how Obama can achieve the 2014 deadline without appearing to be “cutting and running” ― something any US administration would want to avoid.
Moreover, the “surge” did not achieve its military objectives, as even attempts to give it a positive spin reveal.
In the June 24 Daily Mirror, Gareth Price, senior research fellow at the British liberal establishment think-tank Chatham House, said: “But while there have been significant successes [in the surge], there have also been civilian casualties, each of which provides new recruits for the Taliban.
“A couple of years ago, the best guesstimates of the Taliban’s strength suggested around 8,000 to 10,000 fighters. Now it is thought to number 35,000.”
It is difficult to take seriously Gillard’s and Smith’s confidence in the Australian contingent’s ability to complete “the job” in Oruzgan province by 2014.
“The job” is usually defined as leaving behind a functioning provincial administration with Afghan military and police forces providing effective security. This is no closer in Oruzgan today than it was in 2001, when the occupation began.
An article in the June 18 Age described the co-dependent relationship between the Australian forces and the province’s leading warlord, Matiullah Khan.
“In a country where the average yearly wage is less than $1000,” The Age said, “this semi-literate man has ― according to Australian government sources ― earned more than $45 million from NATO and others, with many overt and covert streams of payments that inextricably link Australia's fate to his”.
“He is paid for his fighters to work with the US and Australia, he makes millions charging high prices for security on key roads used by coalition supply trucks, and he cashes in on fuel contracts and major construction projects often run by the civilian arms of Western governments.”
The article said Matiullah “holds no formal government position, and no operational command in the regular police force”, but he holds more power in Oruzgan than any government official.
Matiullah has been implicated in serious human rights abuses.
“Independent analysts have previously reported claims that Matiullah has planned the assassination of rivals, and been involved in acts of extortion, killings, arrest, harassment and even torture against others who try to muscle in on his business ― some of the reasons Dutch troops have refused to work with him,” the Age said.
His 2000 fighters often take part in joint missions with Australian special forces.
This situation is repeated throughout Afghanistan. The June 21 British Daily Telegraph reported that US-funded militias in Kandahar province, “raised to protect villages from the Taliban have begun to prey on residents and in some cases are beating, robbing and even killing with impunity”.
The war was never about bringing democracy or human rights. When the US-led coalition invaded in 2001, the appalling oppression of women under the Taliban regime was used as a justification.
But after 10 years of occupation “targeted violence against female public officials, dismal healthcare and desperate poverty make Afghanistan the world’s most dangerous country in which to be born a woman”, the June 15 SMH said, reporting the results of a global survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Antonella Notari, head of the NGO Women Change Makers, told the SMH: “Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place for women.
“Women who do attempt to speak out or take on public roles that challenge ingrained gender stereotypes of what is acceptable for women to do or not, such as working as policewomen or news broadcasters, are often intimidated or killed.”
The June 15 New York Times said: “Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate and one in 11 dies in childbirth, Unicef estimates. As many as 8 in 10 face forced marriages.”
Obama’s soldier reduction has received some predictable criticism from some on the US right for showing insufficient commitment to the war, but this has been balanced by criticism for the slow pace of the “drawdown”.
The June 21 National Journal reported a Pew Research Centre poll that said 56% of US people want US troops to return immediately.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, wrote in Counterpunch on June 23: “This year alone, US taxpayers will pay about $122 billion for those US soldiers to kill and die in Afghanistan.
“That money could instead provide health care to more than 62 million children here at home. Or provide 2.4 million new green jobs for a year.
“If we just look at Wisconsin, where the state budget deficit sparked this year’s first massive mobilization for jobs and against wars and cutbacks, the state deficit totalled about $1.8 billion … this year alone, the taxpayers of Wisconsin paid almost exactly that same amount ― $1.7 billion to be exact ― as their share of the war in Afghanistan.”
Obama used his speech to once again gloat about the US Navy SEALs May 2 assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan/ But, ironically, this has further undermined support for the war.
Obama could point to the assassination as the successful accomplishment of one of the primary goals of the “war on terror”, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly in no way aided its accomplishment.
Obama’s “drawdown” timetable is structured so that a soldier withdrawal will have started, but not be very far advanced, at the time of the 2012 US presidential elections.
The dilemma for Obama is that the main achievement of the war for the US ruling class ― an ugly demonstration to the world of the West’s coercive military power ― will be undermined if the US leaves without imposing any durable state, allowing the Taliban to claim victory.
Without the occupying armies’ presence, warlords such as Matiullah will have no motive to serve Western interests.
The “drawdown” is aimed at achieving an outcome similar to Iraq. There, a fine balance between rival religious sectarian and ethnic militias and a “residual” occupying force of 50,000 US troops has created some semblance of normality ― although not democracy, peace or functional basic infrastructure such as electricity and water.
In Afghanistan, however, achieving even this would be unlikely. This is the motivation for the US negotiations with the Taliban that Afghan puppet president Hamid Karzai revealed on June 18 and US defence secretary Robert Gates confirmed the next day.
British foreign secretary William Hague told the BBC on June 23: “It is fair for us to say officially that contacts [with the Taliban] do take place and Britain, let me put it this way, is connected to that and supportive.”
In fact, contacts between the Taliban and the occupiers are long standing. In a November 2010 interview with Green Left Weekly, Afghan feminist and democracy activist Malalai Joya pointed out that the US covertly supported the Taliban in the 1990s and that the disputes between the Taliban and the Western-allied warlords and militias were not over ideology or principle, but division of the spoils of power.
However, there is little motivation for the Taliban to join a power-sharing arrangement to facilitate a face-saving departure for the US.
The Taliban’s backwards ideology, misogyny and ultra-violence have made them unpopular with most Afghan people. Being seen to fight the invaders is their one political asset.
“The US will not be successful in reconciling with its past stooges any time soon,” Joya said.