On October 15, US President Barack Obama announced that US troops would remain in Afghanistan through 2017, flying in the face of earlier claims that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
The extension of the military mission in Afghanistan will see 9,800 US troops remain in the country until early 2017 and 5,500 troops remain thereafter, stationed at bases in Kabul, Baghram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. Prior to this announcement, only a small embassy-based force was set to remain there. Following the US lead, the UK also pledged to keep its 450 troops in the country. Other NATO countries including Germany are looking at extending their missions as well.
Yet these numbers do not reflect the full extent of US/NATO presence in the country. In May 2015, Foreign Policy magazine reported that there were about three times as many US military contractors in Afghanistan as soldiers – about 30,000 of them, essentially operating as a paramilitary force. These estimates don’t even account for contractors supporting the CIA, USAID, and other government agencies. If the number of contractors in the country remains roughly the same, it will put the total US/NATO force in the country after 2017 at roughly 40,000.
In light of this announcement, which will undoubtedly cost more lives of both Afghans and foreign forces, let us make an assessment of what kind of progress has been achieved in Afghanistan in the last decade and a half in terms of stopping terrorism and bringing a better quality of life to Afghans.
The Taliban and ISIS on the Rise in Afghanistan
In his announcement Obama stated that, “as commander in chief I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.” Combating terrorism has been one of the supposed main objectives of the war in Afghanistan, yet the presence of terrorist and extremist organizations has been steadily rising in the fourteen years that the US and NATO have been occupying the country.
The Taliban have been gaining strength since they were ousted in 2001, and now control several districts in Afghanistan, operating as a de facto government in those areas. They recently took over and held Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city, for fifteen days. On October 13, the New York Times reported that “Previous Taliban attacks on major population centers had been limited to suicide attacks by individuals or small numbers of attackers. But in Kunduz, the Taliban appeared well trained and organized, making effective use of weapons like high-tech sniper rifles and armored vehicles they had captured.”
The US military and political establishment is blaming the capture of Kunduz on the draw-down of NATO troops and the lack of training and preparedness of the Afghan National Security Forces, using this as justification for the extension of the military mission. But in truth, the Taliban maintained a significant presence in Afghanistan even at the height of the NATO mission there, and an extension of the mission is unlikely to defeat them now. The Taliban have been able to maintain and expand their presence in the country despite intense pressure from foreign forces because of support from the Afghan people, many of whom support the Taliban’s fight against foreign troops in their country.
Not only has the presence of the US and NATO not defeated the Taliban, however, but the instability it has created in the country and the region as a whole has allowed the Islamic State (ISIS) to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Between June and September 2015, ISIS launched attacks in Farah, Helmand and Nangarhar provinces. They have also engaged in clashes with the Taliban, who have condemned the group’s brutality and demanded the foreign fighters leave Afghanistan. ISIS is now yet another deadly force with which war-weary Afghans have to contend.
Murder by Drone
According to official policy, the US/NATO combat mission in Afghanistan has ended, leaving troops there only for counterterrorism operations and to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces. But what exactly is the ‘assistance’ the US and NATO are providing to the Afghan National Security Forces? To date, it has included coalition soldiers ‘advising’ on the front lines of battles with the Tali ban and conducting air strikes at the request of Afghan forces. Make no mistake, US and NATO forces are still very much involved in combat in Afghanistan.
As for counterterrorism operations, the New York Times explains, “[Obama’s] announcement will allow the military to continue carrying out secret operations focused primarily in Eastern Afghanistan against people it suspects of being militant leaders. Those operations are intended to follow a ‘lighter footprint’ model of targeted strikes.”
This so-called ‘lighter footprint’ model was explained in more detail by online news source The Intercept, which in October published a series of articles titled “The Drone Papers” detailing the use of drones for assassinations by the US military and CIA. “The Drone Papers” were written based on classified documents leaked to The Intercept. One of the stories, ‘Manhunting in the Hindu Kush’, reveals the details of Operation Haymaker, a US military mission which was carried out between 2011 and 2013 with the objective of killing off key leaders of the Taliban and al Qaeda living in Afghanistan’s easternmost mountain range. The classified documents reveal that in one 14-month period, 56 airstikes were carried out, killing 35 suspects. However, these strikes also killed 219 others who were not specifically targeted. Some of these were innocent bystanders, shrugged off as ‘collateral damage’ when a suspect was targeted. Others were wrongly identified as the suspect by an operator working from a screen thousands of miles away. This ‘lighter footprint’ model may keep US soldiers out of harm’s way, but it shows a cold and callous disregard for the hundreds of innocent Afghans killed in these strikes.
US War Crimes in Afghanistan: Kunduz Hospital Bombing
Not only have the US and NATO failed to stop terrorism in Afghanistan, they have brought their own form of terrorism to the Afghan people through drone strikes, checkpoint shootings, and nighttime raids on homes. During the recent Taliban siege of Kunduz, twenty-two patients and aid workers were killed in a US bombing of the Medcins Sans Frontieres (MSF) trauma hospital. According to MSF’s press release, “From 2:08 AM until 3:15 AM local time [on October 3], MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids at approximately 15 minute intervals. The main central hospital building, housing the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward, was repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.”
The bombing occurred despite MSF providing GPS coordinates of the hospital to Afghan, US and NATO forces before and during the attack. While Obama provided a hollow apology to MSF and the families of civilians killed, the US military has tried to justify their actions by claiming the Taliban had taken over the facility and were shooting from it, despite testimony from MSF staff that this was not the case. MSF has called for an independent investigation into the incident as a war crime. Under international humanitarian law, medical facilities are to be protected from attack unless there is clear evidence that it is being used to support military operations – which MSF staff have repeatedly said was not the case. Even if it had been, international law would require MSF to be notified that there was a problem before any attack took place. It seems that mounting evidence is pointing to the US having committed at least one war crime in Afghanistan.
US/NATO Legacy in Afghanistan: Death, Destruction and Chaos
One of the hallmark goals of the war in Afghanistan has been to improve human rights in the country. But after a decade and a half of war, there is precious little to show in terms of real improvements to life for Afghans. Despite the hundreds of billions spent on the war, the access to the most basic necessities of life remain out of reach for the majority of Afghans. The United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) reports that only 30% of Afghans have access to improved sanitation facilities such as flush toilets or even outhouses. Just 22% have access to improved drinking water sources. The lack of these most basic facilities is a major cause of disease and a huge contributor to Afghanistan’s high child mortality rate.
Forty-two percent of the population still lives on less than a dollar a day, according to USAID. With unemployment sitting at around 40%, many struggle to feed their families. For the tens of thousands of families whose primary breadwinner – often the husband – has been killed in the war, the situation is even more dire. Children as young as five often must work to support their families. Many women are forced into begging or prostitution in order to feed their children.
The fighting between the Taliban and NATO troops, as well as the appearance of ISIS forces in Afghan towns has forced millions to leave their homes. Over four millions Afghans are refugees. After Syrians, Afghans are the second-largest contingent of refugees arriving in Europe. There are also hundreds of thousands of Afghans displaced within their own country, living in squalid conditions in refugee camps on the outskirts of major cities like Kabul.
After a decade and a half of occupying Afghanistan, the US and NATO have fundamentally failed to bring any kind of meaningful improvement to the lives of ordinary Afghans. Yes, some schools have been built here and there, but as we reported in the last issue of Fire This Time, many of those are unfinished, inaccessible, or so understaffed they cannot function. Hospitals have been built here and there as well – but again, are often undersupplied, understaffed, or inaccessible.
Yes, Afghanistan faces many challenges. But after a decade and a half of occupation by the militaries of some of the wealthiest countries in the world, one must ask why even the most basic human needs are still not being met. And if a war this long has failed to improve the lives of Afghans, can we really expect that yet another extension of the war will solve the problem?
Tragedy of Afghanistan: An Imperialist Project
The official reasoning for the extension of the mission in Afghanistan is to support and train the Afghan National Security Forces, which are not strong enough to maintain the security situation in the country without foreign support.
However, the truth is that ‘security situation’ in the country even now with 17,000 NATO troops and more than 30,000 contractors is tenuous at best. The Taliban control many parts of the country; warlords control most others. The US-backed Afghan government has little real power outside of Kabul, and faces attacks even there. The Afghan National Security Forces are weak, plagued by low recruitment numbers and desertions. There is little possibility of it being able to fend off Taliban attacks without foreign support anytime soon.
Like other foreign powers which tried to occupy Afghanistan before them, the US and NATO are facing a no-win situation in Afghanistan. The tenacity of the Afghan resistance to foreign occupiers has proved too much for even the greatest military powers in the world.
However, the US and NATO do not need to completely control Afghanistan in order to achieve their real objectives there. By maintaining a constant military presence in the country – even if it is shared with the Taliban – they can defend their military, strategic, and economic interests in the region. The indefinite presence of troops will essentially turn the country into a US/NATO base of operations.
Today, the US and their allies face growing competition for global political and economic power from emerging powers such as Russia and China. With Russia in particular playing a larger military role in the Middle East, the United States and their allies in NATO are doing all they can to make sure they maintain a permanent presence the the Middle East and Central Asia. Doing so will allow US corporations unhindered access to important resources and trade markets in the region and give the US military an upper hand over their global competitors.
A permanent US/NATO presence in Afghanistan also allows them to continue their policy of restricting the influence of Iran in the region. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has remained a thorn in the side of the US by pursuing a policy of independence and anti-imperialism, and providing an example for other countries who would do the same.
Only Way Forward is to End the Occupation
The problems facing Afghanistan, such as the lack of basic human rights, womens’ rights, or democracy cannot be solved by foreign occupation forces, no matter how long the mission goes on, how many boots are on the ground, or how many billions are spent. It is simply not in the interest of foreign forces to do so. The only real progress for Afghanistan will come from Afghans themselves coming together to decide the future of their country. And given their long and proud history of defying foreign interference, that future would be unlikely to involve US interests.
If the US and NATO countries were truly interested in helping the Afghan people, they would pull all troops and contractors out of the country immediately, rather than extending this tragedy and suffering. Those around the world who stand on the side of peace, democracy, and human rights should stand with the Afghan people in demanding their self-determination and the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces.
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