US’s Afghan War – II

Imperialism’s limits exposed

Farooque Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, Dec 13,2019


— CommonDreams/Getty Images/Scott Nelso

BY ALLOWING corruption to fester, US officials told interviewers, they helped to destroy the popular legitimacy of the Afghan government they were fighting to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureaucrats extorting bribes, many Afghans soured on democracy and turned to the Taliban to enforce order.

‘Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption’, Crocker, who served as the top US diplomat in Kabul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, told government interviewers.

In China, the US had almost the same experience with Chiang while they,  Chiang and the US, were fighting the Chinese people under the leadership of Mao.

Year after year, US generals have said in public that they were making steady progress on the central plank of their strategy: to train an Afghan army and police force to be capable of defending the country without foreign help.

In the interviews, however, US military trainers described the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. They also accused Afghan commanders of pocketing salaries, paid by US taxpayers, for tens of thousands of ‘ghost soldiers.’

More than 60,000 members of Afghan security forces have been killed, a casualty rate that US commanders have called unsustainable, said the report.

A US military officer estimated that one-third of police recruits were ‘drug addicts or Taliban.’ Yet another called them ‘stealing fools’ who looted so much fuel from US bases that they perpetually smelled of gasoline.

With this force, imperialism cannot win its war.

The report said: Afghanistan became the world’s leading source of opium. The US has spent about $9 billion on fighting the problem over the past 18 years, but Afghan farmers are cultivating more opium poppies than ever. Last year, Afghanistan was responsible for 82 per cent of global opium production, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Former officials said almost everything they did to constrain opium farming backfired. Douglas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar from 2007 to 2013, said: ‘I thought we should have specified a flourishing drug trade — this is the only part of the market that’s working.’

Bravo, enterprise with drug trade! And they instruct and accuse many countries of drug dealings.

The report finds: US never figured out ways to incorporate a war on drugs into its war against al-Qaeda. By 2006, US officials feared that narco-traffickers had become stronger than the Afghan government and that money from the drug trade was powering the insurgency.

Their drug war is an amazing story: at first, Afghan poppy farmers were paid by the British state to destroy their crops, which only encouraged them to grow more the next season. Later, the US government eradicated poppy fields without compensation, which only infuriated farmers and encouraged them to side with the Taliban.

An intelligent brain they have!

US military officials, according to the report, have resorted to an old tactic from Vietnam — manipulating public opinion. In news conferences and other public appearances, those in charge of the war have followed the same talking points for 18 years. No matter how the war is going, they emphasised the progress they were making progress.

Rumsfeld had received a string of unusually dire warnings from the war zone in 2006. After returning from a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, Barry McCaffrey, a retired army general, reported that the Taliban had made an impressive comeback: ‘[W]e will encounter some very unpleasant surprises in the coming 24 months.’ ‘The Afghan national leadership are collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan […] and the whole thing will collapse again into mayhem’, McCaffrey wrote in June 2006. Two months later, Marin Strmecki, a civilian adviser to Rumsfeld, gave the Pentagon chief a classified, 40-page report stuffed with worse news. It said that ‘enormous popular discontent is building’ against the Afghan government because of its corruption and incompetence. It also said that the Taliban was growing stronger, thanks to support from Pakistan, a US ally.

Yet with Rumsfeld’s personal blessing, the Pentagon buried the bleak warnings and told the public a very different story.

In October 2006, Rumsfeld’s speechwriters delivered a paper — ‘Afghanistan: Five Years Later.’ Overflowing with optimism, it highlighted more than 50 promising facts and figures, from the number of Afghan women trained in ‘improved poultry management’ (more than 19,000) to the ‘average speed on most roads’ (up 300 per cent).

‘Five years on, there is a multitude of good news’, it read. ‘While it has become fashionable in some circles to call Afghanistan a forgotten war, or to say the United States has lost its focus, the facts belie the myths.’

Rumsfeld thought that it was brilliant.

‘This paper’, he wrote in a memo, ‘is an excellent piece. How do we use it? Should it be an article? An Op-ed piece? A handout? A press briefing? All of the above? I think it ought to get it to a lot of people.’

His staffers made sure that it did. They circulated a version to reporters and posted it on Pentagon web sites. Generals followed their boss: Present picture of ‘progress’ on the war front.

Thus, they market ‘facts’ and groups of politicians in countries rely on them.

During US’s Vietnam war, it was the same story. The report recollected: ‘US military commanders relied on dubious measurements to persuade Americans that they were winning.

‘Most notoriously, the Pentagon highlighted “body counts”, or the number of enemy fighters killed, and inflated the figures as a measurement of success.

‘In Afghanistan, with occasional exceptions, the US military has generally avoided publicising body counts. […] [T]he government routinely touted statistics that officials knew were distorted, spurious or downright false.’

Since 2001, an estimated 157,000 people have been killed in the war in Afghanistan. This includes Afghan civilians and security forces, humanitarian aid workers, Taliban fighters and other insurgents, US military contractors, journalists and media workers, US military personnel, NATO and coalition troops.

A person identified only as a senior National Security Council official said there was constant pressure from the Obama White House and the Pentagon to produce figures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was working, despite hard evidence to the contrary, said the report.

‘It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture’, the senior NSC official told government interviewers in 2016. ‘The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.’

Even when casualty counts and other figures looked bad, the senior NSC official said, the White House and the Pentagon would spin them to the point of absurdity. Suicide bombings in Kabul were portrayed as a sign of the Taliban’s desperation, that the insurgents were too weak to engage in direct combat. Meanwhile, a rise in US troop deaths was cited as proof that American forces were taking the fight to the enemy.

In other field reports sent up the chain of command, military officers and diplomats took the same line. Regardless of conditions on the ground, they claimed they were making progress.

‘From the ambassadors down to the low level, (they all say) we are doing a great job’, Michael Flynn, a retired three-star army general, told government interviewers in 2015. ‘Really? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?’

Bob Crowley, the retired army colonel who served as a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers that the ‘truth was rarely welcome’ at military headquarters in Kabul.

‘Bad news was often stifled’, he said. ‘There was more freedom to share bad news if it was small — we’re running over kids with our MRAPs (armored vehicles) — because those things could be changed with policy directives. But when we tried to air larger strategic concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it was clear it wasn’t welcome.”

John Garofano, a Naval War College strategist who advised Marines in Helmand province in 2011, said military officials in the field devoted an inordinate amount of resources to churning out colour-coded charts that heralded positive results.

But Garofano said that nobody dared to question whether the charts and numbers were credible or meaningful.

‘There was not a willingness to answer questions such as, what is the meaning of this number of schools that you have built? How has that progressed you towards your goal?’ he said. ‘How do you show this as evidence of success and not just evidence of effort or evidence of just doing a good thing?’

Other senior officials said that they had placed great importance on one statistic in particular, albeit one the US government rarely likes to discuss in public.

‘I do think the key benchmark is the one I’ve suggested, which is how many Afghans are getting killed’, James Dobbins, the former US diplomat, told a Senate panel in 2009. ‘If the number’s going up, you’re losing. If the number’s going down, you’re winning. It’s as simple as that.’

What are these: war-facts? Is this the way the public is informed? Is this the way the public is informed in a ‘free’ society that claims the fostering of free flow of information? Why are facts manipulated? It is the fear of the public and public opinion. Imperialism fears public and public opinion, at home and abroad.

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, told the investigators in a 2016 interview, ‘You just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption.’ He added that the same thing happened in Iraq, where corruption is ‘pandemic and deeply rooted’ and where ‘it’s hard to see how a better political order can ever be established.’

A big problem, Crocker said, was a perennial ‘American urge’, when intervening in a foreign conflict, to ‘start fixing everything as fast as we can.’ Pouring in billions of dollars and that flows in the pockets of the powerful. The report estimates that 40 per cent of US aid to Afghanistan was pocketed by officials, gangsters or the insurgents.

Sarah Chayes, who served as an adviser to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and who had lived in Afghanistan for several years, told the investigators in 2015 that the problem was rooted in Washington. A major obstacle here, she said, was the ‘culture’ in the state department and the Pentagon, which focused on building relationships with their counterparts abroad. Since Afghan officials at all levels were corrupt, officials feared that going after corruption would endanger those relationships.

Chayes also said that it was a big mistake to be ‘obsessed with chasing’ the Taliban, to the point of neglecting the country’s political dynamics. We did not realise that many Afghans were ‘thrilled with the Taliban’ for kicking corrupt warlords out of power. Instead, we aligned ourselves with the warlords, on the adage that ‘the enemy of our enemy is our friend’ — and, as a result, further alienated the Afghan people and further enriched the corrupt powers, which in turn further inflamed the anti-government terrorists.

It is a question that why a political leadership was moving in the way while a number of officials were identifying the problem realistically: neglecting the political dynamics?

In September 2009, as the Obama administration was debating a new policy toward the Afghanistan war, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, testified at a Senate hearing that the main problem ‘is clearly the lack of legitimacy of the government’ in Kabul.

Senator Lindsey Graham pushed the issue. ‘We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?’ he asked.

‘That is correct’, Mullen replied. The threat of corruption, he added, ‘is every bit as significant as the Taliban.’

Around this same time, during the closed-door National Security Council sessions, Mullen was urging then-president Obama to create a counterinsurgency strategy based on helping the Afghan government win the hearts and minds of its people — not addressing how to do this if the government lacked legitimacy.

Almost all of Obama’s advisers sided with Mullen, a notable exception being then-vice president Joe Biden, who thought counterinsurgency would npt work.

It is impossible for imperialism to win hearts and minds of a people against whom it wages war while depends on corrupt allies.

When General David Petraeus became commander of US troops in Afghanistan in 2010, he appointed an anti-corruption task force. Sarah Chayes was one of its members. The task force concluded that corruption, from Kabul on down, was impeding the war effort and that the US should cut off aid to the entire network of corruption. Petraeus sympathised with the findings, but he needed then-Afghan president Karzai’s cooperation to fight the war at all, and so he rejected the recommendation.

However, the Pentagon released a statement saying there has been ‘no intent’ by the department to mislead Congress or the public.

On October 11, 2001, a few days after the US started bombing the Taliban, a reporter asked Bush: ‘Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan?’

‘We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam’, Bush replied confidently. ‘People often ask me, “How long will this last?” This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.’

‘All together now — quagmire!’ Rumsfeld joked at a news conference on November 27, 2001.

‘The days of providing a blank check are over…. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan’, said then-president Barack Obama, in a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, NY.

‘Are we losing this war? Absolutely no way. Can the enemy win it? Absolutely no way’, said Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, in a news briefing from Afghanistan.

But, what does the reality say today? (1) Afghanistan is a quagmire for the US. (2) Lessons from Vietnam have not been learned by the US. (3) US hirelings in Afghanistan are failing to take responsibility of their security. (4) US is not winning its Afghan war.

The questions are: (1) Why imperialism is failing to learn the Vietnam-lesson? (2) Why imperialism is bogged down in its Afghan-quagmire? (3) Why imperialism’s hirelings are failing to take charge of its security?  (4) Why imperialism is embedded with its Afghan-corruption? (5) Why such manipulation of facts while presenting Afghan-picture to its public?

The brief answer to the questions is: these are part of imperialism’s working mechanism, which its economic interests define.

It cannot move away although rationality tells differently. Imperialism has its own rationality, which is fundamentally different from rationality of other economic interests. It has to depend on its hirelings. It cannot depend on others. That is because of economic interests. Moreover, the way taxpayers see reality is completely different from the way imperialism sees. Imperialism’s way of looking at incidents and processes are determined by its interests; and it is impossible for imperialism to ignore its interests, which makes it impossible to act differently. And, this does not depend on personal choice/preference or characteristics of this or that political leader.

Imperialism’s Afghan war is not a war conducted by the US only. There is the involvement of other NATO powers. Keeping this, NATO’s Afghan war, in mind helps perceive the imperialist system’s involvement and failure in the country. It is not the US’s war only. It is imperialism’s war against a people; and a war, which is part of imperialism’s world strategy.

The failures, the lies, the manipulation with facts, the ‘non’-understanding with political dynamics are not of a few persons/ generals/ bureaucrats/ politicians, or of a single imperialist country. It is part of a political process that connects particular type of economic interest ingrained among armaments industry, military contractors, suppliers of military hardware, lobbying firms, political interests bent on dominating others for self-interests, and thus making a system with complex connections, a system based on particular characteristics of an economy.

Only a people politically organised and mobilised can change this course of imperialism if imperialism is correctly identified with all its characteristics. And, in today’s world, it is difficult to perceive any people’s struggle without taking into consideration imperialism’s anti-people role.



Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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