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Afghanistan: the war the West can’t win

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
The so-called ‘just war’ has brought a nightmare, not liberation, for Afghan people, says Judith Orr
Issue 2272
Aschiana (Qargha) Refugee Camp, South West Kabul, March 2009 (Pic: Smallman )
Aschiana (Qargha) Refugee Camp, South West Kabul, March 2009 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Every night 40 raids take place. These attacks are led by the world’s richest nation deploying some of the most sophisticated weaponry ever invented. They are targetting one of the poorest nations on the globe. Yet after ten long years the wealth and weaponry is losing. This is Afghanistan in 2011.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks in the US, president George W Bush argued that the Taliban in Afghanistan were sheltering the culprits—Al Qaida.

The call to war in Afghanistan won the support of Nato, with Tony Blair in the lead as the US’s most enthusiastic ally.

The war began on 8 October 2001. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died—we’ll never know exactly how many because the occupiers refuse to count. Some 200,000 people are internally displaced and three million have become refugees.

Among the occupying troops there have been 2,670 casualties—including 1,717 from the US and 382 from Britain. Every year Britain spends £4.5 billion of public money on the war.

Pakistan, Afghanistan’s much bigger nuclear-armed neighbour, has been sucked into the conflict. The US systematically uses drones to bomb the border area.

Drones are unmanned planes dropping bombs controlled from a military base in the US. They have become Barack Obama’s weapon of choice. Up to 2,900 people have been killed by drones in the region.


Afghanistan has become the forgotten war, the background noise. It only gets attention when something extraordinary happens.

Like in August when Taliban suicide bombers stormed the British Council in Kabul and held it for eight hours as staff hid in a panic room. There was shock this month when former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated. He was key government official charged with negotiating peace with the Taliban,

Otherwise it’s no more than a roll call of casualties, with announcements from politicians of corners turned and land retaken.

The motives for war have been buried in ever-changing spin. We were once told it’s for women’s liberation.

United Nations general secretary, Kofi Annan, said the treatment of women under the Taliban was “an affront to all standards of dignity, equality and humanity”.

But Afghan feminist Malalai Joya denounced such talk as “dust in the eyes of the world” to win support for the war. She was right. This year Afghanistan was judged the world’s most dangerous place to be a woman.

All the reasons given over the past decade have been dust in our eyes. This was never a war to bring democracy, confront corruption, to stop heroin production or make the streets of Britain safe. Instead it is fought to impose the will of the West in a country that has the misfortune to lie on a faultline of imperialism for centuries.

The interests of the ordinary Afghans were never part of the motive for war. Coalition forces carry out lethal assaults every day. And try to cover it up. Nato finally admitted shooting dead five Afghan civilians in one night raid—having spent a month trying to cover up the murders in 2010.

Special forces soldiers pulled their bullets out of victims’ bodies and washed the wounds with alcohol, after shooting the three women and two men during a night raid.

They even plastered over bullet holes in the walls and repainted a hallway to cover their tracks.

The killings, near Gardez, south of Kabul, were exposed by Afghan investigators, who heard evidence from eyewitnesses. Nato had initially claimed that the people were found dead.

Much media coverage portrays Afghanistan as being a backward, almost medieval country. Its economy and infrastructure is shattered and 42 percent of its citizens live in appalling poverty, with income of £6.50 a month.

But the state of Afghanistan is not natural. It is a direct consequence of imperialist war and conflict. It has been a battleground for successive imperialist wars, invasions and occupations, from the British in the 19th century to the nine-year Russian occupation that ended in 1989.

Since Obama was elected he has tried to sell Afghanistan as the “good” war, as opposed to the “bad” one in Iraq. His distinction had a ­resonance.

This war was not an illegal invasion based on lies like Iraq. But most people in the US and Britain are now against the war and our governments have resorted to calls to support “our troops”.

Yet there has been dissent among some soldiers and military families too. The army’s imprisonment of Joe Glenton for refusing to go to Afghanistan was a warning to others that may be ready to defy them.

The lives and welfare of soldiers, let alone ordinary Afghans, are not a concern for Western leaders. They are willing for others to pay any price for victory.

But victory is out of their reach and they want disguise the truth— that the war is a bloody and expensive quagmire. They have tried different military strategies—troop surges and diplomatic surges and counter-insurgency. And they have paid warlords not to fight them.

Their ally and president of the country, Hamid Karzai, and his various warlord allies have rigged elections and siphoned off aid. The regime is the fourth most corrupt in the world.

And now they want to negotiate with the Taliban—the group they have thrown everything at to try and defeat.

And as the occupation goes on the stronger the Taliban become. Just five British soldiers had died in Afghanistan up to 2005.

In 2006 the British went into Helmand province. Labour minister John Reid said they might not even have to fire a shot.

He could not have been more wrong. Of the 382 British soldiers who have died in the war 340 died in Helmand, which is half the size of England.


The Taliban has come to embody resistance to foreign occupiers. Even 150,000 occupying troops can’t crush it.

This year is meant to be the beginning of the endgame. All the Nato forces are planning to draw down troops with the idea of handing over to Afghan forces in 2014.

Obama’s troop surge of 53,000 soldiers means there will be more troops there at the end of 2011 than at any time during the Bush years.

The plan to hand over is also slipping fast. Already there is talk of permanent Nato bases, of troops staying for “training and mentoring” of Afghan forces.

Only poverty and desperation drives Afghans to join up. Many escape after their first pay cheque. There is no enthusiasm for defending a corrupt regime.

There is no end in sight. The US is in a deep economic crisis and there is a fear that failure in a second war threatens to expose its weaknesses. That is one reason why Libya is so important to the West. The revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have left the US and its allies reeling.

The intervention in Libya is an attempt to regain the initiative. Western leaders think by appearing to side with a revolt they can rehabilitate the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”.

But there is never anything humanitarian about imperialist intervention as the history of Afghanistan shows. There is no hope of people in Afghanistan living in peace and rebuilding their lives until all foreign troops leave.

Drone wars

Air strikes using pilotless drones have increased four fold since Barak Obama was elected—up from 50 to more than 220.

Drones, used for both surveillance and bombing, fly from a base in Kandahar but are controlled by remote control from an air force base in the Nevada desert in the US.

Alongside the US air force and the CIA the RAF has a team of 90 to control the British fleet. Thousands of civilians have been killed by drone attacks.

Anti-War Mass Assembly 10 Years On Occupy Trafalgar Square London Saturday 8 October Protest Bring the troops home Stop the bombing

Ahdaf Soueif, John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Brian Eno, Jemima Khan, Tony Benn, George Galloway, Caroline Lucas MP and many more will be in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 8 October, 12 noon, at the anti-war mass assembly on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan.

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