Why the US is losing the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan population:
- Between 1-2am on the rainy night of 16 January 2008, a large number of international military personnel wearing desert camouflage surrounded the house of two brothers living in a two-family house in Kandahar.
According to various family members, the soldiers knocked loudly on the door.
One of the brothers, Abdul Habib, went to answer it and was shot.
Numerous soldiers (“the Americans”, say the family) dragged Abdul out into the courtyard and shot him at least five more times.
Then, inside the house, the soldiers saw the other brother — Mohammed Ali — running up the stairs from his basement dwelling and he too was hit by at least seven rounds and killed instantly.
Members of the household say that soldiers then searched everywhere (“they even opened a package of biscuits”), found nothing (no weapons, nothing else) and left.
And no accountability from anybody.
- The UN expert Philip Alston has tried to investigate the case, noting that the victims “are widely acknowledged, even by well-informed government officials, to have had no connection to the Taliban.” He’s got nothing out of the US commander about what happened.
In fact Firebase Gecko is widely perceived as untouchable, not least because US special forces (“other government agencies” like the CIA) operate from there.
In Ahmed Rashid‘s words, the Taliban see themselves “as the cleansers and purifiers of a social system gone wrong.”
If international forces come to seem like part of the social system gone wrong, then they’ll be easy prey for the Taliban propaganda machine.
Into this upside down environment President Obama is sending more US troops — 17,000 to start — and this without any game plan, much less an “end game,” to try and bring under control a conflict gone really, really bad the last couple of years.
Despite the nose on the face, it has been reported again and again, the military alone will not win in Afghanistan (the latest here) and a conflict solution requires doing something about the Afghan/Pakistan border.
One thing, however, must not happen: Compare Afghanistan with Iraq and a “surge” of more US troops.
Noted Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote yesterday that idea would be an enormous mistake.
- The greatest source of error for the Americans in Iraq was not a policy mistake but an abiding belief that they alone made the political weather.
Anything good or bad which happened was the result of American action.
If the US intervention in Iraq proved anything it was that the Americans never had the strength to shape the political and military environment to their own liking.
Yet well-reviewed books on Iraq still appear in which Iraqis have a walk-on role and when somebody pushes a button in Washington something happens in Baghdad.
These misconceptions are important because the mythology about the supposed success of the “surge” is being promoted as a recipe for victory in Afghanistan.
This would not be the first time that false analogies between Iraq and Afghanistan have misled Washington.
I was in Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002 and one of the most striking features of the conflict was the lack of fighting.
The warlords and their men, who had previously rallied to the Taliban, simply went home because they did not want to be bombed by US aircrafts and they were heavily bribed to do so.
There was very little combat.
Yet when I went to Washington to work in a think-tank for a few months later that year the Afghan war was being cited by the Bush administration as proof of America’s military omnipotence.
It is difficult to believe that the Obama administration is going to make as many crass errors as its predecessor.
So amazed were the Iranians to see President Bush destroy their two most detested enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 that some theologians held that such stupidity must be divinely inspired and heralded the return of the Twelfth Imam and the Shia millennium.
The reinforced US military presence in Afghanistan risks provoking a backlash in which religion combines with nationalism to oppose foreign intervention.
It is this that has been the real strength of movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Mehdi Army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan which the US wants to eradicate.
Read all of Cockburn’s piece here.
Obama and his generals need a blueprint for Afghanistan, and quick.