Saturday, 11 July 2009

Afghanistan is an error of more than just strategy

Yesterday, the front page of every single national newspaper in Britain announced that 8 soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in just 24 hours. This loss of life brings the British death toll in the country to 184, overtaking the toll in Iraq.

The Independent declared the Friday on which this happened as "the most deadly 24 hours of the Afghan campaign," declaring that the Government must "face questions about the way it has responded to the call from military commanders to send reinforcements to Afghanistan." The Daily Mail said that this was "our darkest day in the war on the taliban" and emphasised the "pressure growing" on the Government "over the mounting death toll and shortages of equipment."

The other papers reflected similar sentiments, whilst on news broadcasts and in the comment pages debate continues to rage over strategic factors and whether the cost - to us, as invaders - is worth paying. Gordon Brown has reiterated that although it has recently been "extraordinarily difficult," the "current operations are succeeding in their objectives" and although "there are some who have questioned our strategy, I continue to believe our strategy is the right one." His sentiments were echoed by David Miliband, who has insisted that the cost of pulling out was that Afghanistan became an "incubator for terrorism" and that the army was fighting for "the future of Britain." Tim Collins and Major General Julian Thompson were given op-ed space to express similar sentiments.

Meanwhile, Peter Hitchens sums up the contrary argument against what he calls a "futile, ill-run and ultimately doomed operation." The reasons that "the nation is turning against the war" are the "appalling rate of loss" to the British Army, the fact that the Government has "no idea what they are doing there" in the first place, and that "the operation has no real aim, apart from a pitiful desire to suck up to Washington DC." Other critics tone down the bellicose retoric, but hold to the basic preconception that there is a fundamental error of strategy or that the war is ultimately unwinnable.

That the war, from its outset, was an illegal act of aggression remains utterly off the agenda.

Across the entire "spectrum" of media opinion, the basic doctrinal precepts - that British and American goals are "democracy," "freedom," and "security" - go unquestioned. That the original precept for the war - catching Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 planners - fell by the wayside even before the war began is written off as inconvenient and consigned to the memory-hole. In October 2001, the Taliban offered to turn over bin Laden to the United States. Their demands were that the bombing of Afghanistan stop and that evidence of his guilt was produced. According to the Guardian report from that date, "President George Bush rejected as "non-negotiable" an offer by the Taliban to discuss turning over Osama bin Laden if the United States ended the bombing in Afghanistan."

Moreover, any notion of "loss" or "mourning" other than our own is an alien concept. British casualties in the war thus far amount to 184, yet the United Nations announced in February that 2008 saw the highest number of civilian deaths since the Taliban were ousted, with 2,118 dead in that year alone, 39% attributable to "pro-government forces." Such facts pass almost without comment in the mainstream, where "losses" and "casualties" are defined strictly as those sustained by "our" side.

A pertinent example of this standard arose even before the ground invasion began. On 16th September 2001, the New York Times reported that "Washington has also demanded [from Pakistan] a cutoff of fuel supplies...and the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population." The result - exacerbated by the September 27th decision to "seal off the country's 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan" - was the death and suffering of enormous numbers of Afghans, many already on the brink of starvation, trapped in the brutal dominion of the Taliban. The main concern of the articles was that Pakistan "carefully avoided any specific commitment to provide the United States with military assistance" and the "frenzied attacks" on "the abandoned American Embassy" by protesters. No laments, in the American or British press, on this "darkest" and "most deadly" period in the conflict.

Even now, eight years later, the reality of the horror and suffering caused by the American and British war passes without serious comment. Undoubtedly, the Taliban regime was a brutaldemonstration of the worst excesses of militant Islam. That it remained so before 9/11, when the West was willing to deal with them in the hopes of a pipeline deal providing us with strategic natural resources, is forgotten. Also dismissed for its inconvenience to prevailing doctrine is that the Northern Alliance, mobilised by the US in the run-up to the war and since instaled in government, is at least as bad. Joost Hilterman, executive director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, describes their 1992-1995 stead in power as "the worst in Afghanistan's history." The present government's reinstatement of the harsh sexual morality enforced in the 1976 penal code, and the attempts - averted only after massive international outcry - to legalise marital rape and execute religious converts, as well as the continued incarceration of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, testify to the validity of this assesment.

Undoubtedly, any and all loss of life in war is tragic, and one cannot for a single second blame the families and friends of these latest dead soldiers for their grief. However, that it takes the death of these "worthy victims" for mainstream commentators to call the war into question, whilst thousands of "unworthy" Afghan civilians pass into statistical history without comment or lament, and whilst the crimes committed by the US and UK from the outset of the war are passed over, is utterly unconscionable.

Contrary to the doctrine promoted by the state, we are not in Afghanistan fighting for "freedom" or "democracy," and "combatting terrorism" went off the agenda at almost the first instance. Our achievements in the region are the installation of a government friendly to Western corporate interests, whilst the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan endure a brutal war between two terrorist forces deliberately fostered by us, one now out of favour for reasons that should not need stating.

This basic fact should put questions of "strategy" and "objectives" in their proper perspective.