Military offensive in Afghanistan: the population pays the price
In February ‘Allied' forces in Afghanistan began a new offensive against the Taliban, trading under the name of ‘Operation Moshtarak'. The stated aim of the operation was to drive the Taliban out of the Marja region of Helmand Province. British troops played a key role in the operation along with US and Afghan troops. ‘Moshtarak' is supposed to be the first of a series of a new type of operation that will enable the consolidation of control over all of Afghanistan, finally bringing the Taliban insurgency to an end.
British troops, in the meantime, have adopted new rules of engagement called "courageous restraint". This means that the gallant British Army has generously decided to use less heavy artillery in populated areas. The idea is that the Afghan population, no longer being quite so indiscriminately butchered, will be grateful to the Allies and line up behind the Karzai government.
Caught in the middle
The Allies are trying to shift from naked use of force to a more nuanced strategy designed to win over the ‘hearts and minds' of the Afghan population. The brutality of the occupation is well illustrated by one horrific incident (only reported by The Times in the UK) - the alleged massacre of several children by US troops in the Nurang province in December 2009: "Afghan government investigators said that eight schoolchildren were killed, all but one of them from the same family. Locals said that some victims were handcuffed before being killed". This atrocity triggered anti-American demonstrations in Kabul, as have numerous other ‘mistaken' shootings, executions, missile attacks and air raids on civilians.
But despite the new policy of ‘restraint, heavy weapons are still being used - during the first days of ‘Moshtarak' one missile destroyed a house, killing 12 people, 6 of whom were children. Initially, the US was very apologetic and blamed technical problems but later this was retracted, replaced by claims that the house was being used by the Taliban. This of course, is the logical result of the Allies encouraging the local residents to stay in their homes while the offensive takes place. Residents were warned through leaflet drops not to give shelter to Taliban militants.
Whatever the facts behind this incident, it is clear that innocent civilians are, once again, the real victims of the conflict. If they fail to resist armed fighters from entering their homes, they become legitimate targets of US missiles.
This is not to say the Taliban itself exercises ‘restraint' when it comes to killing civilians. Far from it. According to the UN mission in Afghanistan, civilian casualties in 2009 were 2412 with a further 3566 injured. 67% were directly attributable to anti-government forces (i.e. Taliban), 25% to pro-government forces, with the remainder unclear.
Prospects for success
Regardless of the different strengths of the forces at play there is no reason to suppose that Operation Moshtarak will come to a speedy conclusion. We've been here before. The original incarnation of the Taliban was largely crushed by the initial US offensive in 2001. This hasn't prevented it from reforming and returning to plague the Karzai puppet government. Indeed, part of the reason for the Taliban's resurgence, is the widespread corruption and gangsterism of the Karzai regime.
In a recent poll by Oxfam in Afghanistan "70 percent of people questioned viewed poverty and unemployment as the main drivers of the conflict. Nearly half of those surveyed said corruption and the ineffectiveness of their government were the main reasons for the continued fighting, while 36 percent said the Taliban insurgency was to blame".
The awful poverty of most ordinary Afghans is encapsulated in the 40% unemployment rate, a pool of potential recruits for the Taliban. As for corruption, in some polls this is highlighted as being even more of a concern than violence and poverty. Bribes account for nearly 23% of the country's GDP (roughly equal to the opium trade). It's not just Afghans with their noses in the trough: three quarters of all corruption investigations involve Westerners.
Far from resolving these deep-rooted issues, it is clear that the Western presence only exacerbates them. This potent mix will ensure that unrest will continue regardless of military victories or defeats.
The role of poverty in pushing young people into armed forces is also illustrated away from Afghanistan. Thanks to the continuing growth in unemployment, the British Army has met its recruitment targets for the first time in years. In reality the typical British soldier has been led to the battlefield by the same capitalism-created deprivation as their Taliban foes.
Both the Allies and the Taliban are enemies of the working class
Afghanistan encapsulates the reality of war in capitalism's epoch of decay. In the absence of hope that they can provide for themselves and their families, workers and other exploited strata are driven into the arms of the capitalists and their armies and reactionary militias. There they massacre each other in the service of the very ruling class that is responsible for their impoverishment in the first place.
The awful conditions of these conflicts, the indoctrination and discipline imposed upon them in order to overcome the natural human reluctance to kill, tend to dehumanise the military until the sorts of brutal massacres witnessed in Afghanistan become inevitable.
Communists do not support any side in these conflicts. We denounce the crimes of all sides while exposing the processes in capitalist society that produce them. Only when the exploited refuse to sacrifice themselves for their exploiters will the perspective of replacing capitalism with a truly human society without exploitation and without war begin to come into vision.