by Larry Everest
On Saturday, February 13, the U.S. and its allies launched their largest military offensive in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Some 6,000 U.S. and Afghan government forces moved—on foot and in the air—toward Marjah, a town of 80,000 located in Helmund province in southern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. This assault is part of a larger offensive involving 15,000 U.S., British, Canadian, Danish, Estonian, and Afghan government troops. It's the opening salvo of Barack Obama's new war strategy and 30,000-troop escalation, which he announced in December.
The U.S. claims it's doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, but in the first several days of the offensive at least 19 civilians were killed, including 12 whose home was hit by a U.S. missile. Ten were from the same family; six were children. Initially, the U.S.-NATO forces claimed that a missile had missed its target by 300 yards.
Two days later, NATO changed its story, saying the missile had not misfired and that there had been Taliban fighters in or near the house. As this was taking place, five more civilians were killed and two others injured by a U.S. air strike in neighboring Kandahar province. The U.S. also claims to have killed 120 Taliban fighters, many who may turn out to be civilians. ("NATO says its rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians," Reuters, 2/14; "Missile that killed Afghan civilians not faulty: NATO," Reuters, 2/16; PBS Newshour, 2/18)
There are conflicting reports concerning how many residents of Marjah fled their homes before the offensive, but it may be as many as 4,000. And those remaining in their homes could be trapped indoors or caught in house-to-house searches or fighting. They could face U.S. troops kicking in their doors, or suffer from lack of access to food, water, and medicine. The Italian NGO Emergency has stated that 22 patients were not able to reach the closest hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, because of military checkpoints and blockades. Six died because their evacuations were hindered. NGO Emergency denounced what it called "severe war crimes" by U.S. forces. (Democracy Now!, 2/16, 2/17)
One Marjah resident evacuated his family because he feared "the worst attack ever... Always when they storm a village the foreign troops never care about civilian casualties at all. And at the end of the day they report the deaths of women and children as the deaths of Taliban." ("Thousands of Civilians Flee Afghan Region as Nato Plans Onslaught," Guardian/UK, 2/6)
Since news from Marjah comes either directly from U.S.-NATO military forces or from bourgeois reporters embedded with the military, it's possible that the level of death and injury is far higher than what is being reported. And the nightmares may be just beginning for the people of Marjah and southern Afghanistan. The U.S. has encountered significant resistance and has called in helicopter gunships for support. House-to-house clearing operations, fighting, and the blockade of Marjah may go on for weeks. And there are reports that the next U.S. target will be the much larger city of Kandahar. All this points to the likelihood of many more dead or injured, and much more deprivation and suffering. (Washington Post and LA Times, 2/17)
Background to the Offensive
The U.S. has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan (and increasingly in Pakistan) for the last eight years. The Taliban are reactionary Islamic fundamentalists who enforced barbaric social relations and punishments—especially on women—and caused horrific suffering when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
The U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia had built and organized the Taliban and other fundamentalist or jihadist forces during the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union—which had become an imperialist power and was occupying Afghanistan. It succeeded: the Soviets were defeated and forced to withdraw in 1989. Two years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, giving the U.S. imperialists an historic victory and radically altering the world's political and ideological terrain. Ironically, over the following decade the clash between U.S. imperialism and Islamic fundamentalist forces—previously fighting together against the Soviet Union—grew in scope and intensity.
Many factors were involved. Islamists were emboldened by the Soviet defeat, while increasingly angered by the U.S. and its Middle East allies. After the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. rulers turned their attention elsewhere, abandoning their former allies to wage a bloody civil war for control of Afghanistan. Israel's vicious suppression of the Palestinian people; the U.S.'s 1991 invasion and destruction of Iraq; and the basing of massive U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states all helped fuel anti-U.S., pro-Islamist sentiment.
Meanwhile, deeper American economic and social penetration of the region modernized certain aspects of the societies there, while undercutting traditional relations; this also stoked religious fundamentalist anger and opposition. Taken together, all this led to the beginning of open conflict between the U.S. and Islamist forces, who began carrying out guerrilla operations against the U.S. in the region.
(It is also the case, although beyond the scope of this article, to fully explore the defeat of the first wave of communist revolutions following the 1976 death of Mao Tsetung, and the subsequent restoration of capitalism in China. This was followed by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union—at the time an imperialist power masquerading as a socialist state. These developments had a major impact on the global political and ideological terrain and provided an opening for reactionary Islamist forces to lead opposition to the U.S.)
By 1996, the Pakistani government had helped install the Taliban in Afghanistan to both stabilize the country under extremely repressive Islamic rule, and to use it as a counterweight to Indian ambitions in Afghanistan and the region. The U.S. attempted to build a relationship with the Taliban regime in order to advance its regional objectives, but didn't succeed. A consensus was emerging in the U.S. ruling class—which was solidified by 9/11—that Islamic fundamentalism was becoming a prime obstacle to U.S. objectives. The U.S. rulers concluded that it would need to be defeated, and that a radical restructuring of the whole region was needed to undercut these forces and secure U.S. hegemony. In October 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban as part of an overall plan to achieve these objectives.
Since 2001, the reactionary brutality of the U.S. "war on terror" and its Afghan occupation has fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the region, including a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Many there have been driven to oppose the U.S. occupiers and their client Karzai regime, or to tolerate or support the Taliban.
U.S. forces have killed thousands of Afghans, and detained, imprisoned and tortured many more. The U.S. installed a hated cabal of reactionary warlords and power brokers who prey on the Afghan people and whose power is based on preserving feudal and patriarchal social and economic relations, and Islamic strictures, particularly toward women (which differ very little from those enforced under Taliban rule). So, after eight years of occupation, life remains a horror for the people: life expectancy has fallen to 43.1 years, adult literacy has dropped to 23.5 percent, and one of every three children under five is now malnourished.
Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women suffer abuse in their homes, honor killings and rape are on the rise, and the vast majority of women remain enslaved in their homes—under the control of male relatives. Last year the U.S.-installed Karzai government passed a law governing Afghanistan's Shi'a population (10-15 percent of the total) giving men the right to starve their wives if they refused the husband's demands for sex. The law also forces Shi'a women to obtain their husband's consent to leave their homes—"except in extreme circumstances." ("As Obama Sends More Troops...Afghanistan: Lackies of U.S. Legalize Marital Rape and Other Anti-Women Laws," Revolution, April 19, 2009, revcom.us/a/162/afghan_rape-en.html; "Afghan Husbands Win Right to Starve Wives," New York Times, 8/17/09)
So today, the Taliban reportedly have a strong presence in Marjah, Helmund province and neighboring Kandahar province. These provinces border Pakistan, whose government has, at least until now, allowed the Taliban to have a safe haven from which to operate. (The Pakistani government has supported the Taliban to advance its own interests in Afghanistan and the region, and its covert support has also been key to the Taliban resurgence.) Meanwhile the authority and control of the pro-U.S. Afghan government headed by President Hamid Karzai has been largely absent in this region. The Marjah offensive is part of a larger offensive, expected to take several months, which is aimed at taking control of a 200-mile arc encompassing the main cities in Helmund and Kandahar, and driving the Taliban out of their main base areas. (And this particular offensive is part of a broader escalation of the war Obama has ordered, including in neighboring Pakistan.)
The U.S. is waging a propaganda offensive to portray its military operation as a just and humane effort to help the people of Helmund. The U.S. military insists it is doing all it can to avoid civilian casualties, including limiting air and missile strikes. Over the past several weeks, U.S. forces met with tribal elders, warned people of the coming offensive, and told them to stay in their homes to avoid casualties. The U.S.-NATO forces say they have stockpiled food and other supplies for those who flee Marjah as well as those who stay—to be delivered as soon as the fighting ends. Afghan government and police forces are reportedly poised to take control and remain permanently to maintain the peace and deliver needed services.
U.S. officials say that the presence of thousands of Afghan troops shows that this offensive—which they've named "Moshtarak" or "Together"—isn't aimed at strengthening a foreign occupation, but helping Afghans run their own country. The U.S. military is reportedly even providing medical aid to wounded Taliban fighters. "We don't want Falluja," said U.S. commanding General McChrystal, referring to the Iraqi city the U.S. conquered in 2004 by reducing much of it to rubble and causing enormous death and suffering. "Falluja is not the model." (New York Times, 2/13)
An Unjust, Imperialist Offensive
If the U.S. military is trying to avoid civilian casualties, while supplying food, medicine and other aid to the people of Marjah, it's not out of humanitarian concern for the Afghan people. It's because the Pentagon has reportedly summed up that massive civilian casualties—like those caused by bombing Afghan wedding parties—and indifference to the lives of the people have made it harder for the U.S. to defeat the Taliban and control the country. And no matter what strategy the U.S. comes up with, it will not change the unjust, imperialist nature of the U.S. war and occupation or the reactionary character of the U.S. military. And these realities dictate that the U.S. must and will rely primarily on overwhelming military force, and that many innocents will inevitably be massacred even if the Pentagon tries to more precisely control its violence.
The U.S. is compelled to rely on its technological advantages—including massive firepower and air power—which will inevitably bring death from a distance, and death from above. The U.S. is an occupying army fighting for reactionary aims with a fundamentally antagonistic relationship to the Afghan people. So it cannot rely on—or trust—them; instead it is operating in a sea of well-founded suspicion, distrust, resentment and hatred (no matter what villagers may say when interviewed by U.S. reporters or military officials). So the U.S. military will inevitably kill and brutalize people—even as they realize that such crimes may backfire.
Two recent news stories illustrate the U.S.'s ongoing reliance on brute military force, as well as the savage violence it's carrying out. First, the U.S. now has 400 military camps, outposts and bases across Afghanistan, while the Afghan military has 300 (many built by the U.S.). (Nick Turse, "The 700 Military Bases of Afghanistan—Black Sites in the Empire of Bases," TomDispatch.com, 2/10; Democracy Now!, 2/12)
Second, journalist Anand Gopal paints a chilling picture of the secret war being waged against the Afghan people. U.S. forces are staging "night raids" and breaking into Afghan homes, seizing suspects, and then taking them to one of these hundreds of bases or secret prisons in Afghanistan where they are often tortured, abused, and sometimes disappeared:
"It was the 19th of November 2009, at 3:15 am. A loud blast awoke the villagers of a leafy neighborhood outside Ghazni city, a town of ancient provenance in the country's south. A team of U.S. soldiers burst through the front gate of the home of Majidullah Qarar, the spokesman for the Minister of Agriculture. Qarar was in Kabul at the time, but his relatives were home, four of whom were sleeping in the family's one-room guesthouse. One of them, Hamidullah, who sold carrots at the local bazaar, ran towards the door of the guesthouse. He was immediately shot, but managed to crawl back inside, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Then Azim, a baker, darted towards his injured cousin. He, too, was shot and crumpled to the floor. The fallen men cried out to the two relatives remaining in the room, but they—both children—refused to move, glued to their beds in silent horror.
"The foreign soldiers, They threw clothes on the floor, smashed dinner plates, and forced open closets. Finally, they found the man they were looking for: Habib-ur-Rahman, a computer programmer and government employee. They took the barefoot Rahman and a cousin of his to a helicopter some distance away and transported them to a small American base in a neighboring province for interrogation. After two days, U.S. forces released Rahman's cousin. But Rahman has not been seen or heard from since.... Of the 24 former detainees interviewed for this story, 17 claim to have been abused at or en route to these sites." (Anand Gopal, "America's Secret Afghan Prisons," The Nation, 2/15)
And these are only glimpses of the horrific violence Barack Obama and the U.S. military are inflicting on the Afghan people.
U.S. "Success"—A Nightmare for the Afghan People
he stated goal of this operation is to put the Karzai government in charge of Helmund and Kandahar provinces and to strengthen its military forces overall. But what is the Karzai government: a reactionary gang of warlords, drug dealers, mass murderers and rapists. Afghanistan's current rulers were put in power by the U.S. to serve U.S. interests, and they remain completely dependent on and subservient to the U.S.
The Karzai regime has been running Afghanistan for the past eight years and has done nothing but exploit and oppress the Afghan people—including by maintaining the suffocating and oppressive religious strictures and social relations that imprison Afghan women. While the U.S. claims the Taliban is behind Afghanistan's rising drug trade (Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin), Karzai and his allies in the Afghan government are responsible for most of it, with likely U.S. complicity if not direct aid. For instance, the New York Times reports that President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is a major drug dealer—and also on the CIA's payroll. ("Brother of Afghan Leader Said to Be Paid by C.I.A.," 10/27/09)
The Karzai regime's Afghan troops may end up occupying and controlling Helmund province. But contrary to U.S. claims, this would not represent a step toward national independence from foreign imperialist domination. Nor would it be a step toward uprooting the sources of poverty and oppression in Afghanistan. The Karzai regime and its military have been put in place and built up as a national "face" for U.S. imperialist dominance, and to further U.S. objectives in the region—not to represent the interests of the Afghan people.
"The Afghan police force is particularly feared by Afghan civilians who view it as corrupt and liable to use violence against people passing through its checkpoints," writes journalist Patrick Cockburn. "Its men have been frequently accused of the homosexual rape of boys, a tradition which has tended to alienate villagers whose sons have been violated and lead them to support the Taliban." ("The Assault on Marjah," Counterpunch, 2/15)
(Building up a local, pro-imperialist and reactionary military is a key element in U.S. neo-colonial control of many countries around the world. It's the purpose of institutions like the notorious School of the Americas—where the U.S. military and CIA train pro-U.S. Latin American leaders and military officers in the tactics and strategy of controlling their populations—including through bloodbaths and torture.)
Extending the control of the Afghan government could also heighten longstanding ethnic rivalries and oppression in Afghanistan (which is one contradiction driving the ongoing war), including leading to revenge killings in Pashtun areas like Helmund and Kandahar, where the Taliban draw most of their support. While Pashtuns make up 42 percent of the Afghan population, they comprise less than 30 percent of the Afghan army, while Tajiks (25 percent of the population) dominate the Afghan military and comprise 41 percent of its forces. ("A Code for Ethnic Cleansing in Afghanistan?" Counterpunch, 2/15)
U.S. objectives in this offensive also point to the reactionary character of its occupation and goals in Afghanistan. "We are trying to take away any [Taliban] hope of victory," General McChrystal has stated. This, according to the New York Times, "would set the stage for a political settlement that General McChrystal believes is the only way the war will end." By political settlement, McChrystal means cutting deals with Taliban elements who break ties with global jihadists and bringing them into the government. If one's goal was liberating the Afghan people, how could one see any role whatsoever for pro-capitalist, Islamic fundamentalist oppressors like the Taliban? ("Afghan Offensive Is New War Model," New York Times, 2/13)
Time to Take Off the Obama Blinders
The Marjah offensive is being used by the U.S. government and the bourgeois media to increase support for Obama's Afghan escalation (which former Vice President Dick Cheney "wholeheartedly" supports). But people need to take off the blinders and face the fact that while Obama may have changed some U.S. tactics and rhetoric, he's unleashing just as much—and in some cases more—horror and violence on Afghanistan and the world than George Bush and Dick Cheney did.
People also need to face the fact that this is being driven by the urgent necessities and challenges facing the U.S. rulers in maintaining and strengthening their global dominance—which is what shapes what Bush did, what Obama is doing, and what any U.S. president does. As the Financial Times recently noted, "It is a measure of the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan that a four-star general who led a clandestine project to remove insurgent leaders in Iraq is now speaking so openly about talking to the Taliban." ("Race against time for Nato strategy," 1/24)
The U.S. position in Afghanistan is precarious. The war has bled into neighboring Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, which now faces its own growing Islamist insurgency and other deep and volatile internal and external contradictions. And the U.S. is facing real obstacles and challenges to its dominance in the Middle East (such as Iran) as well as globally. It is responding to these challenges by escalating its violence against the people.
All this shows that the U.S. is about dominating the world—not doing anything good for it. It shows that this domination is based on extreme and massive violence. And it shows that these crimes can only be ended by getting to their source or roots: the system of capitalism-imperialism itself, and overthrowing that system through revolution and bringing a new system into being that does not rest on exploitation and oppression.
This is something we'll be digging into in relation to Afghanistan in coming weeks.
Anyone who cares about the people of Afghanistan—and the world—should actively and vigorously oppose the U.S. offensive and escalation in Afghanistan—and other U.S. threats around the world.
This article originally appeared on the site of Revolution newspaper.