Marjah Most Horrid

February 14, 2010

The NATO assault on Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province has begun to generate civilian casualties which, if they mount up (as they most likely will) will make the whole operation a murderous waste of time. According to the office of Afghan PM Hamid Karzai, ten civilians died when an American rocket his their house, which was then confirmed by the head of NATO forces, Stanley McChrystal.

Prior to the release of that information, NATO PR officials had sought to suggest that the operation had been a total success. As the NY Times Dexter Filkins puts it, “American commanders said the troops had achieved every first-day objective” which included “advancing into the city itself and seizing intersections, government buildings and one of the city’s main bazaars in the center of town.” Until Karzai made his statement, NATO had denied that any civilian casualties had occurred.

This was unsurprising. Having announced the operation in advance, NATO has been met with diminished resistance in what has been designated a “Taliban stronghold.” But, as Afghan defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told the NY Times, “Actually, the resistance is not there. Based on our intelligence reports, some of the Taliban have left the area.” It is, in fact, likely that the bulk of the resistance has left the area of Marjah or “melted” into the population from which it comes, making a full scale battle unlikely. But, as soldiers told Times journalist Miles Amoore, announcing the operation beforehand served only to “allow the Taliban more time to lay IEDs” so casualties are likely.

Officially speaking, the operation is tasked with securing territory in order to then win “hearts and minds” – a familiar goal of counter-insurgency warfare and one which often obscures the actuality of threats and violence which become necessary when hearts and minds are resistant. Evidence from Helmand does not inspire confidence in the ability of American troops to win either.

The AP’s Christopher Torchia has been shadowing Army 1st Lt. Daniel Hickok, who has been trying to enlist local help in order to repair a broken irrigation canal and the road that lies beside it. Torchia suggests touchingly that “For American soldiers here, their days are often a mix of winning hearts and minds and fighting a determined enemy” but Hickok’s “search for laborers” is not a humanitarian gesture. Or, if it is, then it is a spectacularly incompetent one.

“Once we’re up here, just kind of spread out and try not to look menacing” Hickok told his men, as “A rumble of explosions could be heard” shortly before he arrived. Then, when Hickok got down to business, he immediately laid bare the hypocrisy of his mission. Torchia doesn’t make this clear, but when Staff Sgt. Christopher Wootton asked a farmer to repair a section of dirt road “that became unstable in recent rains and restricted movement of the heavy Stryker infantry vehicles” he was actually demanding labour of native people so that an imperial occupation can continue.

With heavily armed soldiers in his home, and explosions nearby, the farmer “whose construction skills seemed a big question mark” then “agreed to travel to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah about 15 miles (24 kilometers) away to buy pipes and other building materials for the road.”

For Wooton and Hickok, this was a victory in the battle for hearts and minds, but for the farmer things must seem different. As Torchia reports, “The farmer, however, wasn’t sure whether American troops on the road to Lashkar Gah would allow him to pass, and whether there were roadside bombs, a lethal threat to American forces.” So, to fix the road that their Stryker vehicles require, American troops have made a poor farmer travel over extremely dangerous roads, buy materials (with American money), transport them back and then carry out the repair work. And this is supposed to win either his heart or his mind?

The man was dispatched to Lashkar Gah with “an English-language note of safe passage” which Wootton told him “to conceal it in case any Taliban found it and called him a collaborator.” This is insane, deranged imperial nonsense which will achieve nothing. The morality at work is staggering, as is the willingness of the AP to cast it in its very best light. As Torchia concludes after witnessing a firefight, “In this one village in southern Afghanistan, a day that began with a peace gesture ended on a note of war.” The “peace gesture” entailed sending a man on a death mission to carry out what amounts to forced labour. Madness. But that’s what is happening in Helmand.

Operation Moshtarak (“Together”) officially aims to capture Marjah, opening roads from the capital of the province at Lashkar Gah and enabling “development” projects to begin. But, as Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, “The Afghan state is just a network of warlords [and] opium dealers – to think that these people are going to take Marjah and build a solid state there, I don’t think so.” So the Americans and the British may be forced to deepen their administrative role if their promises of development are to take any vaguely real form.

Taliban leaders seem to have recognised this early on, having chosen to focus heavily upon the foreignness of the operation and its aftermath. As one unnamed leader told Al Jazeera, “Our decision is that there will definitely be resistance because foreign invaders have come to invade our country” and that resistance may wait until foreign troops are forced to take on development roles. There is no sense in overplaying their hand while military power is focused on the town of Marjah – and so far Taliban casualties have been slight.

But there is no guarantee that the Americans will decide to take on a deeper role in the Helmand valley. Marjah can quite easily be forgotten about and delegated to opium barons in the Karzai government and, in that case, the alienation of the Afghan people will continue as “development” eludes them.

In Kandahar, for example, electricity is almost non-existent and occupation forces have all but given up trying to recuperate a dam in Helmand province that would supply the city and (potentially) get now idled factories working. U.S. officials have spent perhaps $100 million on the Kajaki Dam for no reward, as their efforts have been scuppered by insurgent activity. $50 million more is now lying in storage, ready for a time when conflict ceases and roads, power lines and contractors can all be protected from kidnapping or sabotage. The Americans are coming to learn that reconstruction and development is expensive. Industrial parks (built in Kandahar using U.S. money) are not going to kickstart the city’s economy on their own.

Nation building, from schools, healthcare, political institutions, security, power, agriculture – all of this is costly, perhaps too costly for the American empire, which has traditionally shied away from such commitments. As people demand decent lives from occupiers, resistance will grow. But if funds are provided to genuinely improve Afghan lives, resistance will grow within America and its client states as costs spiral. And development can often lead to unintended consequences – nationalism and political structures which reject tutelage and seek to pursue foreign policies at odds with their imperial masters. But this is the dilemma that the Afghan War has created.

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6 Responses to “Marjah Most Horrid”

  1. kiosa Says:

    A massive force of some 15,000 US, British, Canadian and Afghan puppet troops has been mobilized for Operation Moshtarak (Operation Together in the local language), approximately 15 times the number of Taliban fighters said to be in the area.

    Reports in the British press, beginning with the Sunday Times of London February 7, claimed that British SAS troops, the equivalent of US Army Rangers or Navy Seals, had been sent into the area around Marjah and had killed as many as 50 Taliban commanders.

  2. kiosa Says:

    Do please everyone recall that [thank you M. Parenti]:

    Over the years the United States and Saudi Arabia expended about $40 billion on the war [against the Soviet Union] in Afghanistan. The CIA and its allies recruited, supplied, and trained almost 100,000 radical mujahideen from forty Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan itself.

    The Pakistani ISI, a close junior partner to the CIA, set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan. Within two years of the CIA’s arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland became the biggest producer of heroin in the world.

    As recently as 1999, the US government was [openly] paying the entire annual salary of every single Taliban government official.

  3. kiosa Says:

    Whenever you hear “Taliban”, think “Blackwater” — generically speaking at the very least.

  4. kiosa Says:

    U.S. officials have spent perhaps $100 million on the Kajaki Dam for no reward?

    I don’t THINK so.

  5. kiosa Says:

    Happy New Year, btw (Chinese).

    Nice post. Thanks.


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