18 February 2010 Edition

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Operation PR

British soldiers make their way onto helicopters as they prepare for Operation Moshtarak

British soldiers make their way onto helicopters as they prepare for Operation Moshtarak

Afghanistan war doomed to failure


After just three days of Operation Moshtarak there were already 20 civilians dead in Afghanistan – and those are just the deaths that we know about. They were killed in the name of a ‘coalition’ military offensive that is designed less to wrest territory from Taliban control, than to convince the Western public that this is a war that can be won and is being won.
Twelve of those 20 civilians died – six of them young children – when artillery shells were dropped without warning from several miles away. Like the Israelis in Gaza, the ‘coalition’ forces place a premium on minimising their own casualties and so wage war from a great distance whenever the opportunity presents.
And the natural consequence of that ‘strategy’ – akin to Gaza – is that civilian life is cheapened and has less value than military life. In that context, aimlessly lobbing high explosives into areas of civilian population raises neither questions nor doubts.
Another five civilians lost their lives when they were deliberately targeted in an air strike – the authorities later apologised for yet another mistake. Another civilian died in alleged crossfire and two others were shot dead after having been ‘mistaken’ for insurgents.
You can see a clear pattern emerging here – one that says the Afghan war is doomed to failure. Incidentally, Operation Moshtarak  – a title doubtless dreamt up by high paid consultants – means ‘togetherness’ in the local Dari language.
It is, as many media outlets have gushed in recent weeks, the largest offensive against the Taliban since Mullah Omar’s regime was toppled in 2001 and involves some 6,000 U.S., British, Canadian and Afghan forces. The suspicion must be that the latter’s inclusion is also part of the PR war and was yet another stratagem dreamt up by a well-paid advisor.
The objective was the town of Marjah, in Helmland province, and it was successfully captured late last week. Marjah has a strong symbolic value (which translates into a high PR value) as it was the largest population centre held by the Taliban.
And whether the ‘coalition’ secured a genuine military victory in the quick capture of their objective, or whether the Taliban simply melted into the surrounding countryside remains a matter of speculation. The ease with which Marjah was captured suggests the latter.

Echoes of Vietnam
Operation Moshtarak is perhaps the first clear manifestation of the “surge” strategy developed by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General McCrystal. It is the strategy adopted and supported by President Obama. And no matter how well it is packaged, it carries uncanny echoes of Vietnam 40 years ago.
The new U.S., sorry, ‘coalition’ strategy even comes with a snappy strapline – “Clear, Hold, Build”: the declared aim being that the military is used to clear a space in which civil society will then naturally thrive and flourish.
It is a strategy built upon a number of deeply flawed assumptions, not the least of which is that genuine democracy arrives from abroad, via a colonial gun barrel. History is littered with results of this delusion.
After all, how enamoured or accepting of Marjah’s nascent civil regime will be the families of those 12 innocents murdered by the ‘liberator’s’ artillery?
And then there is the remarkable assumption that there exists in Afghanistan a readymade civilian alternative which the general population hunger for and which only the brutality of the Taliban prevents emerging.
That, of course, would be represented by the government of Hamid Karzai, which enjoys the trappings of power by dint of fraud and corruption. The President’s extended family is heavily involved in the drugs trade, the combating of which is part of the ‘coalition’s’ mission statement. And then there were last year’s disputed Presidential elections, in which a remarkable one million of Karzai’s votes were found to be fraudulent.
His regime is utterly devoid of legitimacy and Afghans are not flocking to support it.
(It is worth noting that on the other side of the world, President Hugo Chavez has faced and won more elections than most Western leaders combined and he continues to be characterised as a demagogue and a dictator).

Strategy questioned
Last November, Washington’s man in Kabul  – the ambassador, not Karzai – sent a series of searingly honest cables that placed serious question marks over the entire ‘surge’ strategy.
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry – a former army officer – pointed out that the Afghan state as constituted (under Karzai) was deeply corrupt and utterly bereft of the skills required for nation building. The idea that the military could ‘clear’ a town of the Taliban and then see a sudden mushrooming of public services provided by the state - health, education – was utter nonsense, said Eikenberry.
The Afghan state had no such capacity, he pointed out, saying the status quo suited Karzai and his circle. They “do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further.”
It could well be that the Afghan disaster is what comes to define the presidency of Obama. What then for hope?

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