This week we registered a new stage of crisis for the NATO occupation of Afghanistan.
The dismissal of General McChrystal by President Obama is not a case of personal animosity, or of military arrogance towards civilians, although these factors undoubtedly are present. At the heart of the incident is a conflict of policy.
Last year, at the time of Obama’s review of US strategy in Afghanistan, McChrystal suggested that there should be an immediate deployment of 40,000 of troops, and a further 40,000 after that. The assumption was that an extended occupation was necessary. This was in line with the views of Senator General John McCain, who had spoken of an occupation that could last a 100 years.
In response, Obama agreed a surge of 30,000 additional troops. But in a concession to domestic concerns, Obama stated that by July 2011 a process of withdrawal would commence.
In practice then, McChrystal has been carrying out a policy that he did not agree with. But the implementation of the Obama policy was by a plan jointly drawn up by McChrystal, and his replacement, General Petraeus.
In his West Point speech in December 2009, Obama outlined the 3 themes which made up the new US strategy: “…..a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that re-enforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan”.
Six months on, all three elements seem to be failing. The military effort involved a combination of counter insurgency with the “Afghanisation” of security by a massive build up of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP).
The counter insurgency operation had its first big test in Operation Moshtarak where the aim was to inflict a defeat on the Taliban in the area around Marjah. Despite the deployment of 15,000 NATO troops and five brigades of Afghan forces, no effective engagement was achieved with the Taliban.
A spokesman for the Taliban said: “We have withdrawn tactically from some areas. We never flee”. TheTaliban claimed minimum causalities, despite the strength of the deployment against them.
Counter insurgency theory suggests that one solider is necessary for every 50 civilans in an area of operation. The area of operations in Marjah had a population of around 30,000. This operation involved a ratio of one solider for every two civillans, and was still ineffective.
McChrystal had notoriously claimed that after a military victory in Marjah, he had a replacement local government “in the box” which could be established to counter a return of the Taliban.
Three months after victory has been declared, the Taliban remains active in the area; McChrystal has characterised Marjah as “a bleeding ulcer”; and a stable local government remains “in the box”.
Nor has the process of the “Afghanisation” of security registered any success. The ANP is known to be corrupt and demoralised. McChrystal stated that only 25% had received any basic training.
However, the army was supposedly a more effective organisation. Yet on June 14th 2010, a Time Magazine report found:
“9 out of 10 Afghan enlisted recruits can’t read a rifle instruction manual or drive a car, according to NATO trainers. The officers corps is fractured by rivalries; Soviet-era veterans vs. the former mujahedin rebels who fought them in the 1980s, Tajiks vs. Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pashtuns. Commanders routinely steal their enlisted men’s salaries. Soldiers shake down civilians at road checkpoints and sell off their own American-supplied boots, blankets and guns at the bazaar – sometimes to the Taliban. Afghans, not surprisingly, run when they see the army coming.
Recruits tend to go AWOL after their first leave, while one-quarter of those who stay in service are blitzed on hashish or heroin according to an internal survey carried out by the Afghan National Army(ANA). One NATO major from Latvia stationed in the north, complained to a Time video team that when a battalion’s combat tour was extended, three Afghan officers shot themselves in the foot to get medevacked out.”
At the time when no military progress is being made, there can be no reinforcement via a “civilian surge”. There have been no increase in NGO or NATO reconstruction on the ground. One anecdote best illustrates this. All the tabloid and broad sheet newspapers in Britain, extensively covered the operation by the British Army to deliver a turbine to the Kajaki dam which would mean, we were told, the people of Kandahar receiving hydro electric power.
In its June 26th issue, months after the operation, the Economist reports: “Alas the turbine dispatched for this purpose, in an operation involving 5,000 British troops, still lays in the Kajaki dirt, the Taliban having made it impossible to truck in cement to install it”.
And the third theme, the greater involvement of the Pakistan Government, and military, has not led to the border becoming more secure. Despite intense pressure from the US, the Pakistan military has not launched a major offensive in North Waziristan.
But there are many signs of Pakistan assuming a greater influence, independently of the US Government. A spokesman for the Pakistani Army, Major General Athar Abbas said “The American time table for getting out makes it easier for Pakistan to play a more visible role”.
Indeed this assertiveness runs to the Pakistan Army outlining a policy which is decidedly out of line with US policy. A policy of negotiating peace with the insurgents is being actively pursued by the Pakistan Army.
In three trips to Kabul, Afghan officials have confirmed, that Pakistan Army General Kayani and General Pasha had offered to broker a peace deal involving the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani fighting force. This is not what Obama had anticipated.
Can we expect a difference approach from Petraeus? Although he drew up the current plan with McChrystal, Petraeus is a position to move away from Obama’s compromise.
Of immediate concern must be that Petraeus may set aside McChrystal’s policy of “courageous restraint”. This placed limits upon NATO utilising night raids, bombing and pursuit into populated areas and villages.
Although the number of civilian causalities reached its highest point in 2009, this is down to the general increase in fighting. If Petraeus sets the policy aside, the first change that will be registered will be a further escalation in civilian causalities.
Petraeus has not ruled out an increase in troop numbers. McCain recently suggested a further 10,000 US troops may be necessary. All surge troops will be in Afghanistan by summer, amounting to 105,000 US troops and 48,000 from NATO allies. So additional troops will be on top of these numbers.
Petraeus is probably of the view that an extended occupation is necessary. When asked this week whether he supported the July 2011 drawdown date, he offered a “qualified yes”. Obviously he could not blatantly contradict Government policy, but the qualification did so implicitly.
Obama himself is moving away from his previous policy. On June 24th, when questioned about the deadline, he said: “we didn’t say we would be switching off the lights. We said we would begin a transition phrase that would allow the Afghan Government to take more and more responsibility”.
This wriggle away from the commitment runs counter to government policy. Vice President Jo Biden gave a recent interview where he said: “….in July of 2011 you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it”.
Obama and Petraeus had indicated that there would be a “strategic assessment” of policy in December 2010. In the meantime the crisis deepens. June 2010 was the deadliest month since the war began for NATO troops, 79 killed so far, in comparison to the previous record of 77 in August 2009.
There have also been serious set backs for Obama with the Afghan political process. The clearest expression of this is the weakened connection to the Afghan Government.
In April, within the space of a week, President Karzai met twice with President Ahmadinejad – of Iran – and once with representatives of the Chinese Government. This prompted an unscheduled flight by Obama to Kabul to meet Karzai. Iran and China are the two border states to Afghanistan that the US administration believes have no role in its future.
Karzai has also publicly claimed that the US tried to fix the presidential elections in 2009; claimed that the US fired rockets at his Peace Conference; said he might end up joining the Taliban; sacked the two most pro-US Ministers, intelligence Chief Amrullah Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Atmar. These Ministers have been vocal in their public opposition to the Iranian and Pakistani Governments influence.
Karzai also lobbied Obama to retain McChrystal, presumably because he feared the loss of the “courageous restraint” policy.
In this growing assertiveness of Karzai and the Pakistan Government, we can see, albeit in a highly mediated manner, the strengthening of anti-imperialist forces in the region.
But if we are entering a new stage of crisis, there is no automatic resolution. The current issue of the Economist is titled “Losing Afghanistan”, this does not mean Afghanistan is yet lost for the occupiers. But it does mean that the anti-war movement must considerably step up its activity in Britain and the US.
There is the sense of growing disengagement internationally. The Netherlands Government are withdrawing their troops in August. The Canadian Government is committed to withdrawing combat troops by next summer. On Thursday 24th June, the acting President, and likely victor in Poland’s Presidential Election, Bronislaw Komorowski, asked the Polish Government to prepare for a Polish withdrawal by 2012. In all cases the US administration is seeking a reversal of policy.
In Britain, the election of the Coalition Government has brought out more in the open some tension about the future of the intervention.
From the point of view of the Coalition, there is a hole of £36 billion in the defence budget in the next decade. This in itself is a prompt for examining an intervention in Afghanistan which is running at around £5 billion a year.
But the Conservatives have always had a more pragmatic and business like attitude to colonial wars. This comes from the hundreds of years of accumulated experience of colonialism which exists in the Tory party. Labour politicians are much more concerned about ridiculous issues like being seen as unpatriotic, or weak on defence.
Consequently, the last couple of months have seen the first signs of real disquiet in Government. At the end of May, The Independent on Sunday quoted “senior military sources” as saying that talks were underway with US Commanders on scaling down the British commitment to war.
On the 9th May, the Times published the conclusions of an investigation with senior military figures, politicians and civil servants on the move of British troops to the south of Afghanistan in 2006.
The report said that the MOD and Whitehall departments had grossly under-estimated the threat from the Taliban. Warnings of inadequate troop numbers had also been ignored.
The original move was to send 3,300 troops to Helmand for 3 years and at a cost of a billion pounds. John Reid famously said, from military opinion given, that they would be able to leave: “without a shot being fired”. Four years later there are 8,000 British troops in place, along side 20,000 US Marines, with hundreds of causalities.
This sense of disquiet exists amongst Tory MP’s. Last year, Adam Holloway MP, in a report, wrote of an “ill conceived mission” and that “attempts to impose a central Government…..are over ambitious and likely to fail”.
Recently, Patrick Mercer MP said that it is “unsustainable for this number of troops to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan for an indefinite period”. This is true of course, but also is an admission of British Special Forces operating inside Pakistan.
Julian Lewis MP a former Shadow Defence Secretary, has spoken of “…..pointless patrols creating target practice for the Taliban”.
It is clear this disquiet is having an impact upon the Coalition Government too. In early June, Cameron held a strategy review. He has since ruled out increasing the number of British troops – a statement of inflexibility which reeks of concern about the future.
Cameron has also indicated that withdrawal from next year may be possible, in line with Obama’s initial policy. Cameron stated that Britain “cannot be there in 5 years times”, further reinforcing the impression of disquiet about the future.
The most obvious expression of policy tension in the Government came on a trip to Kabul by Ministers. Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary said “we are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education of a broken 13th century country. We are there to see our global interests are not threatened”.
This clearly came as news to Andrew Mitchell, the Development Secretary, who said at the same time “….providing basic education and health care facilities was crucial”.
The lack of coherence in the coalition Government is likely to become more pronounced as the crisis of the occupation becomes more apparent.
The Parliamentary Labour Party continues to lag behind the deepening crisis. Some on the right of the party, such as Eric Joyce MP and Denis MacShane MP, have realised how hopeless the intervention now is. But, of the potential leaders of the party, it is only Diane Abbott who has clearly called for withdrawal.
Yet the anti-war movement must be aware of how vital it is to increase its activity. Parliament is full of new MPs, many of whom can be placed under real pressure by organised lobbying.
In the coming weeks, facing a potential offensive in Kandahar, and perhaps a more aggressive pursuit of military goals, the anti-war movement is necessary now more than ever.
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