Afghanistan: Failing war breeds poverty

August 20, 2011
Afghan children collect rubbish in Kabul. The UN World Food Program estimates that 7 million Afghans suffer food insecurity and

On August 19, a Taliban suicide squad attacked the Kabul offices of the British Council, a government-funded institution that “promotes educational and cultural relations” between Britain and other countries.

The August 20 Guardian said at least 12 people were killed, including a New Zealand SAS soldier and three “security contractors” working for multinational security outfit G4S.

The company was contracted to guard the offices.

Six G4S employees were wounded, including three Nepalese, veterans of the British Army’s Gurkha regiments.

August 19 is Afghanistan’s Independence Day holiday, marking the ejection of the British from the country in 1919.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP: “Today is our independence day from Britain. They recognised our independence 92 years ago.

“Today’s attack was marking that day. Now the British have invaded our country again and they will recognise our independence day again.”

The 9500-strong British contingent in Afghanistan is the second largest component of the occupying force. US soldiers still comprise the bulk of the force.

Despite the “drawdown”, there are 70,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The occupation forces have not made themselves popular. Afghan feminist and democracy activist Malalai Joya said in a May 11 interview with “Western governments are bombing and killing innocent civilians of my country, most of them women and children …

“During the 10 years of occupation they have killed thousands of innocent civilians and shamelessly decreased this number in mainstream media by calling them insurgents and terrorists.”

British PM David Cameron made the predictable condemnation of the suicide squad’s cowardice, and vowed to maintain the presence in Afghanistan of the British Council and the British Army.

But “experts” on the BBC somehow managed to maintain straight faces while pondering on what possible motives the Taliban could have for choosing the British Council as a target.

In fact, it was just one of a series of recent Taliban attacks on high profile targets in areas that the occupation forces are trying to portray as securely under the control of their Afghan puppet state.

With US President Barack Obama sticking to the line that the occupation force is on target to withdraw in 2014, leaving behind a functioning Afghan state, civil society and security forces, the Taliban’s motive is clear.

The Taliban’s shooting down of a US helicopter on August 6 — killing 38, including 30 US soldiers, some of whom belonged to the Navy SEAL Team 6 that assassinated Osama bin Laden — achieved a similar objective.

Furthermore, the Taliban are generally unpopular with the Afghan population who have had more than enough experience of their parochialism, misogyny, intolerance and, most of all, their ultra-violence.

Ironically, however, when directed at the occupation forces, their violence becomes a political asset.

For the Taliban to have any relevance in post-occupation Afghanistan, they need to be perceived as having physically driven the invaders out.

This gives the Taliban very little motive to make a deal with the Western powers that would allow the West to make a face-saving withdrawal — even if such a deal promised the Taliban considerable governmental power.

Bizarrely, negotiating such a deal is another pillar of Obama’s strategy for a 2014 withdrawal.

In their condemnations of the August 19 attack, Western politicians and media made much of the British Council’s work in Afghanistan: promoting education, particularly for women and girls, linking Afghan youths to the outside world and so on.

Along with the ubiquitous “sustainable development”, “economic empowerment” and “promoting entrepreneurship”, similar aims are being pursued by myriad foreign aid and development organisations — governmental, non-governmental and multinational.

Their work is an important part of the Western project in Afghanistan — which is what is wrong with their work.

War is not an effective means for delivering aid and development, yet in Afghanistan aid workers are literally embedded with the military.

Two things stand out from the West’s “nation building” project in Afghanistan.

The first is its phenomenal expense. The second is its manifest failure to achieve its stated aims.

Western efforts to create an Afghan state — even an oppressive and kleptocratic one — have been farcical.

In all areas where the Western presence has supposedly been benefiting Afghans (particularly, of course, women), the indicators are horrific.

A report by the Brussels-based think tank the International Crisis Group estimated US$57 billion had been spent on aid to Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, Reuters said on August 6.

Of this, $29 billion has gone to the Afghan security forces who, the report notes, “have thus far proved unable to enforce the law, counter the insurgency or even secure the seven regions” in which the occupation forces have officially handed over responsibility for security.

This is not surprising. The US-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was achieved by combining “shock and awe” military tactics with making alliances with various Afghan warlords and militia commanders.

These forces differed from the Taliban in terms of being more ethnically broadly-based, more divided, and more linked to the illegal drug trade.

In other respects, they were identical.

Joya explained in a June 23 interview with Russia Today TV: “These fundamentalist warlords are mentally the same as the Taliban. They were in power before the domination of the Taliban and in Kabul alone they killed more than 65,000 innocent people.

“They destroyed our national unity … They committed many crimes against our people similar to the Taliban.

“And with their bloody hands, but under a mask of democracy, they came in power after 9/11, imposed on our people.”

Of course, much of the remaining $28 billion of this money would also find its way into the hands of warlords, many of whom maintain militias outside the structures of the Afghan security forces.

One such warlord is Matiullah Khan, who the August 9 Age reported was made police chief of Oruzgan Province after years of his militia working closely with Australian troops, including joint missions with Australian special forces.

“Matiullah has earned more than $50 million from Australia, the US and other governments, by charging to protect NATO road convoys and winning lucrative construction projects,” the Age said.

When Dutch troops were in Oruzgan they refused to work with him because of his human rights abuses.

The $57 billion spent on aid is dwarfed by the expenditure on the purely military aspects of the occupation.

A study by Brown University in June estimated the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to US taxpayers so far at a staggering $3.7 trillion — a far greater contribution to the US deficit than the domestic welfare spending the US Congress has decided to axe.

Far from bringing development, the war is bringing poverty that is killing more Afghans than the occupation forces, their warlord allies and Taliban opponents combined.

The UN World Food Program estimated that 7 million Afghans suffered food insecurity and by the northern autumn this will have increased by 2 million, IRIN reported on August 9.

Reuters said on August 6: “A quarter of children die before the age of five and the average Afghan life expectancy is 44 years.”

In occupied Afghanistan, a woman dies in childbirth every 29 minutes, the ABC reported on July 27.

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