Kandahar’s Summer of Blood

October 21, 2010

This summer, NATO forces began an offensive in the region around Kandahar. 23,000 American, Canadian and Afghan troops were to be deployed, supposedly to relieve the city of Kandahar of a virtual siege implemented by the rapidly rising strength of anti-occupation forces.

Gen McChrystal, then leading the counter-insurgency effort, spoke of creating “rings of security” around the city and “bringing in an inclusive structure.”

“Orchestrating that is the complex part” he told the BBC. “It’s not impossible but it won’t come out perfectly. Afghans won’t feel it every day but as months pass there will be an increasing sense of a better future.”

It turns out, that was a lie. Ordinary Afghans felt, and feel it every day, through bullets, missiles, IEDs and shrapnel.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) runs the Mirwais regional hospital in Kandahar. In August and September, Mirwais admitted over 1,000 Afghan civilians with weapons injuries. The same hospital admitted “just” 500 over the same period in 2009.

But as Reto Stocker, the head of the ICRC’s delegation in Kabul says, “This is just the tip of the iceberg, as those who suffer other sorts of injuries or contract disease as an indirect result of the conflict far outnumber weapon-wounded patients.” The lucky ones get hospital treatment.

These casualties are the inevitable result of such tactics. As the Afghanistan NGO Security Office warned in July, the operation would most likely “cause a significant rise in support for the armed opposition in Kandahar and, with that, make eventual Taliban ascendency feasible.” By using local people to defend their own villages, the operation was essentially recreating the conditions of South Vietnam in the early 1960s.

Yet this is not quite true. The brutal Phoenix Program, which launched thousands of assasinations in the Vietnamese countryside and assaults on whole villages, has long been replicated in Kandahar’s hinterland. In May 2010, for example, the chief military prosecutor in Kabul produced an arrest warrant for a U.S. Special Forces commander working in Kandahar province. Brigadier General Ghulam Ranjbar accused the U.S. of arming Afghan militiamen, who killed Kandahar’s chief of police, and hinted at grizzlier crimes still.

“If you go to Kandahar, people say these guys pretend to be interpreters but they carry out night raids and assassinations” he told Channel 4 News, “We hear lots of strange and shocking stories.”

Many of those stories would involve units like the U.S.-equipped Kandahar Strike Force, which raided the courthouse in Kandahar, demanded the release of a member on trial for a traffic offense and fired on police sent to prevent them from freeing him.

The press generally describes NATO operations in the region in euphemistic terms. The troops are targeting “mid-level” Taliban forces, or erecting the aforementioned “rings of security.” But the reality, as attested by the number of people treated for weapons injuries by the ICRC, is brutal.

Although the assault in Kandahar is being organized by American and Canadian troops, the British government has managed to insert itself into the fight, and into complicity with another war crime. In August, under cover of supporting elections, Liam Fox sent out two Tornado aircraft at the request of General Petraeus. Stationed in Kandahar, Fox gushed that “The intelligence these assets provide to coalition forces will enable commanders to have the eyes in the sky that they need to protect their troops and help increase security for local people.”

A slight deception perhaps. In truth, the Tornados are in place because the ground offensive is backfiring badly, and death from above is required as a fall-back measure.

The fight continues, nonetheless. In late September, with the hospitals groaning, NATO launched “Operation Dragon Strike” which marked an escalation of the summer-long offensive into further regions, to Zhari and Panjwai to Kandahar’s west, and to Aghandab in the south (“where forbidding terrain of drainage canals and orchards makes ideal guerrilla territory”).

In response, insurgents have launched attacks on targets in Kandahar itself and mocked to U.S.-led offensive. Local people long for peace. As Naseebullah Ghamjam told the AP, “When only the Taliban were ruling our land there was peace and tranquility. Since the Americans have set foot on our land, we don’t have work and our health is no better…All we have seen is that Americans have constructed exceptionally massive compounds for themselves.”

Or, as Azizullah Saiyal put it, “We hear that millions and billions of dollars are coming in our country, but where does all of the money go? I believe these years of war and loss of innocent lives makes it obvious that war can never bring in peace. We should start looking for alternatives now.”

Much of the carnage that the offensive has been causing has been poorly reported, but at least embedded reporters have been present. For the conclusion of Dragon Strike, however, only the stream of injured Afghans into Kandahar can bear witness.

As NPR reported last week, although U.S. planes were dropping 2,000lb bombs on Taliban control centres and hundreds of American troops were on the ground, “no journalists were there to witness the operation.”

Ben Gilbert reported that “U.S. military officials told journalists who had arrived to Kandahar Airfield for embeds in the Arghandab district between Oct. 1 and Oct. 15 that logistical problems had caused their embeds to be canceled.”

Of course.

It was left to a coalition official to relate that the attack was “big army” in the sense that “Artillery and other heavy weapons were employed, including bombers to drop thousands of pounds of explosives on bomb-making factories and other Taliban infrastructure.” As the unnamed official put it, “The Taliban took a scrubbing.”

Swedish radio reporter Richard Myrenberg said that “Between the mountains I could see the sky light up.”

And the hospitals continued to fill.

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