Afghanistan occupation quagmire enters ninth year

By Hamish Chitts

October 7 marks eight years since the US-led coalition of imperialist powers and their client states invaded Afghanistan. Using the shock of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as a smokescreen, the invasion of Afghanistan was the first major step in the US rulers’ “Global War on Terror” — the official name of a sustained campaign of Pentagon and CIA operations aimed at crushing all opposition in the Third World to US political and economic dominance.

While most people in the US were mourning the deaths of the thousands of victims of al Qaeda’s attacks, the central figures in the Bush administration was plotting how to exploit 9/11 to rally support for an invasion of Iraq. While then-president George Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to launch an immediate US attack on oil-rich Iraq, then-secretary of state Colin Powell persuaded Bush that “public opinion has to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible”. Instead, it was agreed to first authorise a war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was providing sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The collapse of the Taliban regime after a short US Air Force bombing campaign seemed to demonstrate the invincibility of US military power. However, as Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward revealed in his 2002 book Bush at War, it was due largely to the CIA’s bribing of local Afghan warlords to turn against the Taliban regime. According to Woodward, six CIA paramilitary teams distributed US$70 million to the traditionally mercenary Afghan warlords during the last three months of 2001. With local warlords turning their militias against them, the Taliban leaders and their militia fled to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. With the “victory” in Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned to the real objective of the War on Terror — a “regime-change” invasion of Iraq, aimed at establishing US control over its large and cheaply extractable oil resources.

Eight years later, Afghanistan has become a military quagmire for the US-led occupation forces, with a resurgent Taliban-led armed resistance movement inflicting increasing casualties on the occupation forces, which now number 62,000 US and 34,000 allied foreign troops, including 1550 Australian troops. By the end of September, the occupation forces had suffered 1415 deaths since their invasion of Afghanistan, 77% of them since the end of 2005. Last year, there were 294 coalition military fatalities in Afghanistan; in the first nine months of this year there were 370.

Fraudulent elections

On August 20, a presidential election was conducted in Afghanistan. So far, due to widespread fraud, officials in Afghanistan have been unable to declare a result. In the lead up to the election, Australia, the US and UK all increased their troop numbers supposedly to ensure a “safe” and “fair” election. According to the September 21 Washington Post “only 39 percent of registered voters turned out, compared to 70 percent in the 2004 Afghan elections”. This 39% figure is based on a count of the number of ballots that were supposedly cast — 5.7 million. But this number gets even smaller as, day-by-day, more revelations surface of ballot box stuffing, individuals voting multiple times and many other incidents of electoral fraud across Afghanistan. The Press TV website reported on September 21 that election observers from the European Union “said that around one and a half million votes in favor of incumbent President Hamed Karzai could be fraudulent” and “that 300,0000 of the votes cast in favor of Abdullah Abdullah (main opposition candidate) are also suspicious”. The EU observer mission also said that another 100,000 suspicious votes were cast for other candidates.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting for the London Guardian daily on September 18, met an election official from the district of Ahmad Aba in Paktiya who showed him “a series of photographs taken inside a brown cardboard voting booth in a village in Paktiya province of Afghanistan. One shows a man marking a big pile of ballot papers in the name of Hamid Karzai. Another shows a pile of election ID cards spread in front of an unidentified man wearing black shoes. ‘This man brought 120 cards and he used each of them to vote three times’, said the official.” He told Abdul-Ahad that he had taken the photographs to hand to his superiors but as election day unfolded he realised that his superiors were themselves taking part in the fraud. “I thought I would give the pictures to the election committee. But they were all working for Karzai.” The same official also said: “Everyone was cheating in my polling station. Only 10% voted, but they registered 100% turnout. One man brought five books of ballots, each containing 100 votes, and stuffed them in the boxes after the elections were over.” 

A preliminary tally has put Karzai in the lead with 54% of the total vote — 3.1 million of the 5.7 million votes cast. Abdullah has 27.7% of the total vote. But with nearly 2 million of those ballots labelled suspect by observers and countless reported incidents of electoral fraud, the UN-backed Election Complaints Commission says it cannot announce a winning candidate until it has investigated all the complaints.

With US, EU and UN officials openly arguing with each other over how this electoral impasse should be resolved, even Afghans supportive of the occupation are turning against foreign interference in Afghan affairs. Ghulam Abbas, a shop assistant at a menswear store in central Kabul, told the Washington Post that he did “not understand how an election monitored by tens of thousands of international troops and observers could have been bungled so badly … In every other country, the results are known in three days, five days, at least a month. It shows the weakness of our government that they still can’t show a final result. And we don’t know the reason. Was it too much fraud? Or something else?”  

Majority opposition

While the US-led occupation is being resisted by more and more people in Afghanistan, support for the occupation is also declining in the countries whose working people are being asked to fight, kill and die for it. CNN reported on September 15 that a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released that day “indicates that 39 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, with 58 percent opposed to the mission. The 39 percent figure is down from 53 percent in April, and marks the lowest level of support since the start of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan”.

In Australia the corporate media and government haven’t conducted any opinion polls on the occupation of Afghanistan since an Age/Nielsen poll in March, which showed 65% were opposed to PM Kevin Rudd’s decision to send more troops and 51% opposed Australian involvement outright. A BBC poll last November found 68% of Britons opposed the war and the September 10 Channel 4 News reported a survey by Britain’s National Army Museum that found only 25% of voters supported the war.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, majority opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan is the overwhelming sentiment around the world, including in countries involved in the occupation. On August 31, the Washington-based Pew Research Center reported that 54% of Germans oppose it, as did 58% of Italians, 64% of French voters, 74% of Dutch voters, 52% of Canadians, 52% of Portuguese, 54% of Spaniards, 68% of Poles, 61% of Slovaks, 71% of Romanians and 72% of Bulgarians. There is majority opposition in nearly all countries not involved in the occupation, the exception being the racist, apartheid state of Israel, where 59% support the occupation of Afghanistan.

In the face of this global opposition to their occupation of Afghanistan, how have the US rulers and their allies responded? Washington and London have decided to send more troops and are pressuring other governments to do the same. This troop escalation will be additional to the major troop “surge” earlier this year by most occupying nations, including Australia. That surge was supposed to bring decisive victories for the occupation forces and “stabilise” the country for the August election. It did not and now the military top brass are saying another surge is needed to stop the first surge from failing.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, was reported in the September 22 Australian as saying, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term, while Afghan security capacity matures, risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible”. The number of US forces in Afghanistan is already slated to reach 68,000 by the end of this year, twice as many as were deployed there last year. According to the September 20 New York Times, McChrystal wants at least 45,000 more US troops deployed to Afghanistan.

In previous issues of Direct Action, comparisons have been made between the US-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the failed surge-after-surge strategy employed during the 1961-75 Vietnam War by the US and its allies. Now, in another echo of the failed Vietnam War strategy, McChrystal is saying that the increased troop numbers are needed to change tactics. “We must do things dramatically differently — even uncomfortably differently — to change how we operate, and also how we think. Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population”, he wrote in a leaked 66-page report. McChrystal is proposing concentrating on more, smaller-sized counter-insurgency groups operating in conjunction with “hearts and minds” reconstruction operations — the same tactics used in Vietnam!

It seems that the rewriting of the history of Vietnam War in the US has gone so far that US generals believe they won it and that application of the same tactics will work against the anti-occupation resistance fighters in Afghanistan. The failure of the occupiers to bring even a shadow of formal democracy to Afghanistan has lost them support among those originally favourable to the occupation. The Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Afghanistan, signed by McChrystal and US ambassador Karl Eikenberry on August 10, noted that while most Afghans reject the reactionary “Taliban ideology”, “Key groups [of Afghans] have become nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided”, as compared to the arbitrary and corrupt rule of Karzai’s drug-running warlord-backed regime.

If most people in Afghanistan are against the occupation, if most people in the countries with occupying troops are against the occupation and if most people in the rest of the world are against the occupation, how can Kevin Rudd or Barack Obama say this war is being fought for “democracy”? Just as the people of Vietnam defeated foreign invasion and occupation so too will the people of Afghanistan. The question is how long and how many people will die before this happens?  Workers and soldiers in occupier countries like Australia need to take a stand and work together to make sure the end of the occupation of Afghanistan happens sooner rather than later. We are the anti-war majority! Bring all the troops home now!

[Hamish Chitts is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and one of the founders of Stand Fast — a group of veterans and military service people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For information about Stand Fast visit the Stand Fast website or phone 0401 586 923.]