Obama must call off this folly before Afghanistan becomes his Vietnam
Senseless slaughter and anti-western hysteria are all America and Britain’s billions have paid for in a counterproductive war
By Simon Jenkins, guardian
If good intentions ever paved a road to hell, they are doing so in Afghanistan. History rarely declares when folly turns to ¬disaster, but it does so now. Barack Obama and his amanuensis, Gordon Brown, are uncannily repeating the route taken by American leaders in Vietnam from 1963 to 1975. Galbraith once said that the best thing about the Great Depression was that it warned against another. Does the same apply to Vietnam?
Vietnam began with Kennedy’s noble 1963 intervention, to keep the communist menace at bay and thus make the world safe for democracy. That is what George Bush and Tony Blair said of ¬terrorism and Afghanistan. Vietnam escalated as the Diem regime in Saigon failed to contain Vietcong aggression and was deposed with American ¬collusion. By 1965, despite Congress scepticism, American advisers, then planes, then ground forces were deployed. Allies were begged to join but few agreed – and not Britain.
The presence of Americans on Asian soil turned a local insurgency into a regional crusade. Foreign aid rallied to the Vietcong cause to resist what was seen as a neo-imperialist invasion. The hard-pressed Americans resorted to ever more extensive bombing, deep inside neighbouring countries, despite ¬evidence that it was ineffective and politically counterproductive.
No amount of superior firepower could quell a peasant army that came and went by night and could terrorise or merge into the local population. Tales of American atrocities rolled in each month. The army counted success not in territory held but in enemy dead. A desperate attempt to “train and equip” a new Vietnamese army made it as corrupt as it was unreliable. Billions of dollars were wasted. A treaty with the Vietcong in 1973 did little to hide the humiliation of eventual defeat.
Every one of these steps is being re-enacted in Afghanistan. Every sane observer, even serving generals and diplomats, admit that “we are not winning” and show no sign of doing so. The head of the British army, Sir Richard Dannatt, remarked recently on the “mistakes” of Iraq as metaphor for Afghanistan. He has been supported by warnings from his officers on the ground.
Last year’s denial of reinforcements to Helmand is an open secret. Ever since the then defence secretary, John Reid, issued his 2006 “London diktats”, described in a recent British Army Review as “casual, naive and a comprehensive failure”, intelligence warnings of Taliban strength have been ignored. The army proceeded with a policy of disrupting the opium trade, neglecting hearts and minds and using US air power against “blind” targets. All have proved potent weapons in the Taliban armoury.
Generals are entitled to plead for more resources and yet claim that ¬victory is just round the corner, even when they know it is not. They must lead men into battle. A heavier guilt lies with liberal apologists for this war on both sides of the Atlantic who continue to invent excuses for its failure and offer glib preconditions for victory.
A classic is a long editorial in ¬Monday’s New York Times, congratulating Barack Obama on “sending more troops to the fight” but claiming that there were still not enough. In addition there were too many corrupt politicians, too many drugs, too many weapons in the wrong hands, too small a local army, too few police and not enough “trainers”. The place was damnably unlike Connecticut.
Strategy, declared the sages of Manhattan, should be “to confront the Taliban head on”, as if this had not been tried before. Afghanistan needed “a functioning army and national police that can hold back the insurgents”. The way to achieve victory was for the Pentagon, already spending a stupefying $60bn in Afghanistan, to spend a further $20bn – increasing the size of the Afghan army from 90,000 to 250,000. This was because ordinary Afghans “must begin to trust their own government”.
These lines might have been written in 1972 by General Westmoreland in his Saigon bunker. The New York Times has clearly never seen the Afghan army, or police, in action. Eight years of training costing $15bn have been near useless, when men simply decline to fight except to defend their homes. Any Afghan pundit will attest that training a Pashtun to fight a Pashtun is a waste of money, while training a Tajik to the same end is a waste of time. Since the Pentagon ¬originally armed and trained the Taliban to fight the Soviets, this must be the first war where it has trained both sides.
Neither the Pentagon nor the British Ministry of Defence will win Afghanistan through firepower. The strategy of “hearts and minds plus” cannot be realistic, turning Afghanistan into a vast and indefinite barracks with hundreds of thousands of western soldiers sitting atop a colonial Babel of administrators and professionals. It will never be secure. It offers Afghanistan a promise only of relentless war, one that Afghans outside Kabul know that warlords, drug cartels and Taliba sympathisers are winning.
The 2001 policy of invading, ¬capturing Osama bin Laden and ¬ridding the region of terrorist bases has been tested to destruction and failed. ¬Strategy is reduced to the senseless slaughter of hundreds of young western soldiers and thousands of Afghans. Troops are being sent out because Labour ministers lack the guts to admit that Blair’s bid to quell the Islamist menace by force of arms was crazy. They parrot the line that they are making “the streets of London safe”, but they know they are doing the opposite.
Vietnam destroyed two presidents, ¬Johnson and Nixon, and ¬destroyed the global confidence of a -generation of young Americans. ¬Afghanistan – ¬obscenely dubbed the “good war” – could do the same. There will soon be 68,000 American troops in that country, making a mockery of Donald Rumsfeld’s 2001 tactic of hit and run, which at least had the virtue of coherence.
This is set fair to be a war of awful proportions, cockpit for the feared clash of civilisations. Each new foreign ¬battalion taps more cash for the Taliban from the Gulf. Each new massacre from the air recruits more youths from the madrasas. The sheer counterproductivity of the war has been devastatingly analysed by David Kilcullen, adviser to Obama’s key general – David Petraeus – no less.
Obama is trapped by past policy ¬mistakes as were Kennedy and Johnson, cheered by an offstage chorus crying, “if only” and “not enough” and “just one more surge”. He and Petraeus have to find a means and a language to ¬disengage from Afghanistan, to allow the anti-western hysteria of the Muslim world – which the west has done so much to foster – now to cool. It is hard to imagine a greater tragedy than for the most exciting American president in a generation to be led by a senseless intervention into a repeat of America’s greatest postwar debacle.
As for British politicians, they seek a proxy for their negligence in Afghanistan by staging a show trial of their ¬negligence in Iraq. Why do they fiddle while Helmand burns? Might they at least ask how they can spend £40bn a year on defence yet watch a mere 8,000 troops on their one active front having to be rescued by Americans?
Pentagon ‘rewrites’ airstrike atrocity
By Gareth Porter, atimes
WASHINGTON – The version of the official military investigation into the disastrous May 4 airstrike in Farah province made public last week by the Central Command was carefully edited to save the United States command in Afghanistan the embarrassment of having to admit that earlier claims blaming the massive civilian deaths on the “Taliban” were fraudulent.
By covering up the most damaging facts surrounding the incident, the rewritten public version of the report succeeded in avoiding
media stories on the contradiction between the report and the previous arguments made by the US command.
The declassified “executive summary” of the report on the bombing issued last Friday admitted that mistakes had been made in the use of airpower in that incident. However, it omitted key details which would have revealed the self-serving character of the US command’s previous claims blaming the “Taliban” – the term used for all insurgents fighting US forces – for the civilian deaths from the airstrikes.
The report reasserted the previous claim by the US command that only about 26 civilians had been killed in the US bombing on that day, despite well-documented reports by the government and by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that between 97 and 147 people were killed.
The report gave no explanation for continuing to assert such a figure, and virtually admitted that it is not a serious claim by also suggesting that the actual number of civilian deaths in the incident “may never be known”.
The report also claimed that “at least 78 Taliban fighters” were killed. The independent human-rights organization had said in its May 26 report that at most 25 to 30 insurgents had been killed, though not necessarily in the airstrike.
A closer reading of the paragraph in the report on Taliban casualties reveals, however, that the number does not actually refer to deaths from the airstrike at all. The paragraph refers twice to “the engagement” as well as to “the fighting” and “the firefight”, indicating that the vast majority of the Taliban who died were all killed in ground fighting, not by the US airstrike.
An analysis of the report’s detailed descriptions of the three separate airstrikes also shows that the details in question could not have been omitted except by a deliberate decision to cover up the most damaging facts about the incident.
The “executive summary” states that the decision to call in all three airstrikes in Balabolook district on May 4 was based on two pieces of “intelligence” available to the ground commander, an unidentified commander of a special operations forces unit from the US Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC).
One piece of intelligence is said to have been an intercepted statement by a Taliban commander to his fighters to “mass to maneuver and re-attack” the Afghan and US forces on the scene. The other was visual sighting of the movement of groups of adults moving at intervals in the dark away from the scene of the firefight with US forces.
A number of insurgents were said by the report to have been killed in a mosque that was targeted in the first of the three strikes. The “absence of local efforts to attempt to recover bodies from the rubble in a timely manner”, the following morning, according to the report, indicates that the bodies were all insurgent fighters, not civilians.
But the report indicates that the airstrikes referred to as the “second B1-B strike” and the “third B-1B strike” caused virtually all of the civilian deaths. The report’s treatment of those two strikes is notable primarily for what it omits with regard to information on casualties rather than for what it includes.
It indicates that the ground force commander judged the movement of a “second large group” – again at night without clear identification of whether they were military or civilian – indicated that they were “enemy fighters massing and rearming to attack friendly forces” and directed the bombing of a target to which they had moved.
The report reveals that two 1,100-kilogram bombs and two 4,400-kg bombs were dropped on the target, not only destroying the building being targeted but three other nearby houses as well.
In contrast to the report’s claim regarding the earlier strike, the description of the second airstrike admits that the “destruction may have resulted in civilian casualties”. Even more important, however, it says nothing about any evidence that there were Taliban fighters killed in the strike – thus tacitly admitting that the casualties were in fact civilians.
The third strike is also described as having been prompted by another decision by the ground commander that a third group moving in the dark away from the firefight was “another Taliban element”. A single 4,400-kg bomb was dropped on a building to which the group had been tracked, again heavily damaging a second house nearby.
Again the report offers no evidence suggesting that there were any “Taliban” killed in the strike, in contrast to the first airstrike.
By these signal omissions, aimed at avoiding the most damaging facts in the incident, the report confirms that no insurgent fighters were killed in the airstrikes which killed very large numbers of civilians. The report thus belies a key propaganda line that the US command had maintained from the beginning – that the Taliban had deliberately prevented people from moving from their houses so that civilian casualties would be maximized.
As recently as June 3, the spokesperson for the US command in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker, was still telling the website Danger Room that “civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen” and that the “Taliban” had “forced civilians to remain in places they were attacking from”.
The central contradiction between the report and the US military’s “human shields” argument was allowed to pass unnoticed in the extremely low-key news media coverage of the report.
News coverage of the report has focused either on the official estimate of only 26 civilian deaths and the much larger number of Taliban casualties or on the absence of blame on the part of US military personnel found by the investigators.
The Associated Press reported that the United States had “accidentally killed an estimated 26 Afghan civilians last month when a warplane did not strictly adhere to rules for bombing”.
The New York Times led with the fact that the investigation had called for “additional training” of US air crews and ground forces but did hold any personnel “culpable” for failing to follow the existing rules of engagement.
None of the news media reporting on the highly expurgated version of the investigation pointed out that it had confirmed, in effect, the version of the event that had been put forward by residents of the bombed villages.
As reported by the New York Times on May 6, one of the residents interviewed by phone said six houses had been completely destroyed and that the victims of the bombing “were rushing to go to their relative’s houses where they believed they would be safe, but they were hit on the way”.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.