Be Afraid: Trump Is Planning His Next Moves in Afghanistan
Chris Nineham: From blanket bombing to targeted counterinsurgency, every strategy in Afghanistan has failed
Almost every day there are reports of more killing in Afghanistan. Incidents like the recent Taliban assault on an air base near Kandahar and the terrible car bombings in Kabul are testimony to the ongoing horror of life in the country. They also underline the fact that Afghanistan’s Western backed government is losing what limited control of the country it has ever managed.
Worryingly there are reports that, in his first policy statement on the situation in Afghanistan, Donald Trump is considering a major increase in US troop deployments to the country. This would be a disaster and it would display a supreme level of denial about the failure of military intervention in Afghanistan since 2001. Given Theresa May's willingness to be seen side-by-side with Trump at every occasion, any troop increase would inevitably add to the 500 British troops still stationed in the country sixteen years after invasion. Any serious analysis of the situation in Afghanistan must conclude in fact that Western intervention has been a major factor in the crisis besetting the country.
The level of violence in Afghanistan has reached a record high as part of an almost unbroken decade long trend. In the last six months 1,662 civilians have been killed, a two per cent rise according to the UN. The headline figures conceal a 9% increase in child casualties, and a 23% increase in the number of women killed or wounded.
Most mainstream commentary puts all this down to a sharp spike in attacks, particularly roadside bombings, by the Taliban. The UN report attributes about two-thirds of casualties to the Taliban and other anti-government groups such as Islamic State.
But this is far from being the complete picture. A sharp increase in US and Afghan government airstrikes has boosted civilian victims. There has been a 43% increase in casualties from aerial bombing. In June, the US conducted 389 aerial attacks in Afghanistan, putting last month on a par with June 2013, in the middle of Obama’s surge, when there were nearly 50,000 US soldiers in the country. The number of bombing raids this year is up three times on the figure for the same period in 2016. Even according to official statistics - almost certainly underestimates, at least two hundred civilians have been killed by these attacks.
The figures confirm that after sixteen years of occupation there is a continuing war in Afghanistan in which the West is playing an increasing role. And it is a war which the government and their Western backers are losing. The Taliban control well over half the country, their attacks are creating deep insecurity in the capital Kabul, and Kandahar, the second city, is under threat. As a CNN reporter had to admit after a recent tour embedded with US troops:
‘The country is in one of the most violent periods of its recent history, and its challenges are deepening. But the sense of exhaustion, of solutions long having lost their sparkle, pervades.’
Causes and consequences
The US-led alliance has indeed tried the complete range of strategies, from blanket bombing, proxy war and targeted counterinsurgency to the Obama surge and the current phase of training, supplying and directing Afghan forces against the Taliban. All have failed.
The root causes of this full spectrum failure are not terribly complicated, but they are rarely considered. The Afghans have suffered from 38 years of war, mainly driven by foreign powers, who have invaded, occupied and backed different groups in their quest for control.
The US, for example, backed the Mujahidin fighters against the Russian occupiers in the 1980s and some Mujahidin militias later morphed into Taliban brigades. The US’s initial, post 9/11 attack on Afghanistan in 2001 involved backing the Northern League warlords, before turning in to direct occupation a few years later. The result has been a population that is has not just suffered almost unimaginably from war but has become deeply cynical and bitter about foreign intervention and prepared, if necessary. to back any groups who oppose it.
Partly as a result of this experience, President Ghani’s Western-backed government has very little legitimacy. It includes people with known records of atrocities. Ghani has for example brought General Dostum, a former warlord with a history of accusations of human rights violations and abuse back into politics. This is just one example among many as documented by Patricia Gossman, senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch.
“When Ghani brought Dostum onto his ticket in 2014, he repeated the same mistake that has plagued Afghanistan since 2001: subordinating human rights and governance to political expediency,”
More generally, the regime the West has appointed has structurally discriminated against the Pashtun majority. Its top-down, highly centralised constitution allows for next to no regional representation. So the views and wishes of the Pashtun population in which the Taliban is primarily based is ignored by the government in Kabul and excluded from any power.
Overall, the experience of the Western occupation has been one not just of death and destruction but of decay. On most measures from literacy to death in child birth and hospital provision, development is well behind the abysmal average for countries in the ‘low human development group’ and way below the average for countries in South Asia.
Levels of inequality have risen steadily during the occupation. This is an entirely predictable result of sustained military intervention. But it is also an outcome of the sheer contempt in which Afghans are held by Western leaders, famously displayed by our very own Liam Fox who sneered at the idea of spending money on helping the Afghan people in an interview with the Times saying,"we are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country."
Time for change
The US has spent more than a trillion dollars on Afghanistan and it continues to spend more on the country than on all of its Middle East War’s put together. Britain has almost certainly over spent over 40 billion pounds there – more than in Iraq. The West’s priorities are made starkly clear by the fact that according to some estimates as much as ninety per cent of these budgets have been spent on the military.
This is money that has not just been wasted but has generated misery, instability and hatred in a country that has suffered at the hands of the West for generations. More of the same just isn’t an option.