Labor tiptoes around sending more troops to Afghanistan

By Hamish Chitts

Australian soldiers of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) were searching through homes in southern Uruzgan province on February 12, when, they claimed, they were fired on by Afghan resistance fighters. The troops returned fire, killing five children and wounding two children and two adults. In a slightly conflicting report, the Afghan Defence Ministry said one woman and two children were killed and eight other people wounded. However, its condemnation of the Australian Special Forces was clear: “The Defence Ministry condemns the martyring of one woman and two children and the wounding of eight others ... in an operation by international forces ... and asks international forces not to conduct operations without the coordination of Afghan forces.”

Australian troops help occupy Afghanistan as part of the nobly named International Security Assistance Force. The ISAF is led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which in turn is dominated by the United States. Last September, due to mounting anger in Afghanistan over civilian casualties, the ISAF issued a directive saying its soldiers should not enter an Afghan house or mosque uninvited without having the lead from the Afghan army. The directive also said ISAF troops should retreat if they were able and there was a risk of civilian casualties. While this directive sounds like an important concession for minimising civilian casualties, the recent actions of the Australian SOTG and other ISAF forces prove that the directive does not reflect the tactics still being employed.

In order to minimalise their own casualties the foreign forces (as in Iraq) are ignoring the presence of unarmed civilians and using greater firepower than ever in their military operations. So-called advances in weapons technology have not only made hand-held weapons, like grenade launchers, more deadly but have also made rapid assaults like air strikes more readily available to the ground forces occupying Afghanistan. If troops approaching a village are fired upon, they can call on the air force to bomb the building (and surrounding buildings) where the shots came from rather than fighting house to house. If the troops are already in a built-up area they can employ their own devastating weapons in a similar way.

The killing of unarmed civilians by the occupation forces has turned more and more Afghans against the occupation and its puppet government in Kabul. On February 18, US President Barack Obama ordered that an additional 17,000 US soldiers be sent to Afghanistan. The US plan to increase the number of occupation troops in Afghanistan will only lead to an increase in the numbers of those taking up arms against the foreign occupiers.

Canberra under pressure

Since Obama’s announcement, the US has been pressuring its allies to increase their occupation troop numbers. The day after Obama’s order, US war secretary Robert Gates said: “The [US] administration is prepared ... to make additional commitments to Afghanistan, but there clearly will be expectations that the allies must do more as well.”

Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the ISAF, but Australian war minister Joel Fitzgibbon downplayed this in order to point the finger at other nations for not rallying to the US call. On February 18, Fitzgibbon said: “Australia could double its troop numbers tomorrow, and without significant additional contributions from others it would make no difference. We have always said this is not about numerics. It’s about ensuring, [before] we even consider doing more, that those NATO countries, which I believe are under-committed, are prepared to do more.”

Fitzgibbon has tried to sidestep whether the Australian government will add to the 1090 troops it already has in Afghanistan by saying other countries have to commit first. The pressure is now back on the Australian Labor government because other countries are increasing their troop commitments. Germany has announced it will send an extra 600 troops, while Italy said it would add an additional 500. The February 21 London Daily Telegraph reported that Britain, which has 8300 troops in Afghanistan, is considering sending 1500 more.

British foreign minister David Miliband said on a recent visit to Kabul that Britain was already paying a high financial and human cost for its role in Afghanistan: “The high level of British casualties is something which brings trauma to Britain.” London wants to spread more of this trauma to its NATO allies by announcing plans for a 3000-strong permanent defence force for NATO in central Europe. In an interview with the Financial Times, British war secretary John Hutton said the force could persuade some reluctant NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan, by assuring them that there were enough NATO troops to defend alliance home territory.

At a February 20 meeting in Krakow, Poland, NATO war ministers agreed to make “election security” in Afghanistan a top priority. The US and especially its NATO allies are using the excuse of a “constitutional crisis” in Afghanistan to justify a troop surge. Hamid Karzai’s “mandate” as Afghanistan’s president runs out in May, but there will not be elections until August. The NATO powers are citing the potential political instability from this “constitutional crisis” as the reason more NATO troops are needed, rather than the reality of a growing popular resistance to the occupation.

The February 19 British Independent reported that a confidential NATO document that it had seen gave clear evidence of this reality. Summarising the document, the Independent reported: “Direct attacks on the increasingly precarious Afghan government more than doubled last year, while there was a 50 per cent increase in kidnappings and assassinations. Fatalities among Western forces, including British, went up by 35 per cent while the civilian death toll climbed by 46 per cent, more than the UN had estimated. Violent attacks were up by a third and roadside bombings, the most lethal source of Western casualties, by a quarter. There was also a 67 per cent rise in attacks on aircraft from the ground, a source of concern to Nato which depends hugely on air power in the conflict.”

‘Tough year’ ahead

The top US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, gave an unusually frank assessment after Obama’s surge order was announced: “Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you, 2009 is going to be a tough year”. This year will be tough for the occupiers, and so will the next one because the longer the occupation goes on, the more Afghans take up arms to resist. McKiernan indirectly admitted this, saying: “We’re not going to run out of people that either international forces or Afghan forces have to kill or capture.”

On February 19, asked how long Australian troops would remain in Afghanistan, Fitzgibbon replied: “No one believes we will meet with success any time soon. The reality is we are talking years.” McKiernan said: “For the next three to four years, I think we’re going to need to stay heavily committed and sustain in a sustained manner in Afghanistan.” He also said that the bolstered number of US soldiers in Afghanistan — about 55,000 in all — was two-thirds of what he has requested.

The US-led occupation has already lasted more than seven years, at an enormous physical and mental cost to both the people of Afghanistan and the foreign troops. Add McKiernan’s prediction, and that means that the occupation would last for at least 10 years.

The US government is ignoring the lessons from Vietnam, Iraq and Palestine. Popular organised resistance to foreign occupation cannot be defeated by more troops or greater force; it only results in greater loss of life and a protracted, bitter conflict that the occupiers end up losing anyway. After the Vietnamese resistance was able to withstand US troop surges in the late 1960s — which took the US occupation force to over 569,000 troops — the surge in the US anti-war movement, particularly within the ranks of the US military, forced Washington and its allies to withdraw their forces from Vietnam. Without their presence, the US-installed puppet regime in Saigon and its million-strong army began to disintegrate, finally collapsing completely on April 30, 1975 in the face of a six-week offensive by the Vietnamese national liberation forces.

The defeat and withdrawal of the imperialist occupation forces in Afghanistan is inevitable; the people of Afghanistan are making sure of that. But it is the responsibility of the working people and soldiers of the occupying countries to organise to make this happens sooner rather than later.

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