The deployment of 3300 British troops, mainly from the 16th Air Assault Brigade, in the southern Helmand province of Afghanistan has been given the usual government and media spin. They will supposedly bring the resurgent Taliban under control, enforce law and order, and reduce opium production. We are reassuringly told by the BBC that the Taliban “operate in small groups of 10 to 20 although they can collect up to 70 fighters for bigger attacks”. Thus, ‘our boys’ should be able to bring the ‘benefits’ of democracy to the poorest province of Afghanistan. This is the same government that told us everything was going to be fine in Iraq after the fall of Saddam.
Bordering Pakistan the area is a focal point for the machinations of the sub-continent’s two main imperialist powers: India and Pakistan. “Afghanistan has become the new battleground for the 59-year proxy war between India and Pakistan; Afghan anger at the Pakistanis is returned in kind, as Islamabad accuses Kabul of allowing Indian spies access to Pakistan’s western border, while Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad are accused of funding an insurgency in Baluchistan province. In turning a blind eye to the Taliban, Pakistan is pressuring Karzai, America and Nato to accede to its demands” (Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghanistan, Daily Telegraph 30/5/06). The destabilisation of the province accentuates the instability of the whole country.
A country whose US puppet government has only tentative control of the capital and few other cities is coming under increasing pressure from a multitude of opposing forces. Such fragility is another demonstration that the US might be the only super power but it cannot even impose its order on a land of war-ravaged rubble. The US’s only answer to growing chaos is naked military barbarity.
This spring the US launched its largest military offensive in the country since the invasion of 2001. This military onslaught saw thousands of US troops sweeping through the region carrying out search and destroy missions against the Taliban, backed by the B-52s and other jets that fly permanently over Afghanistan so they can be called in for air strikes at any time. This military sledgehammer has brought levels of destruction not known since the height of the civil war in the early 1990s. “Over 500 Afghans have been killed in the past six weeks in the south where some 6,000 US, Canadian and British troops under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are battling the Taliban. Afghans remember that a similar death rate in 1992-93, amidst civil war, heralded the arrival of the Taliban who promised peace and security” (‘Afghanistan and its Future’, Ahmed Rashid. 26/6/06. www.eurasianet.org)
The outcome of this orgy of destruction? “’Our research shows that the local perception is that the only ones showing any real understanding for the people of Helmand and responding to their needs are the insurgent groups, notably the Taliban,’ said Emmanuel Reinert, Executive Director of The Senlis Council. ‘The Coalition troops are increasingly perceived as the invader and less and less as people who are there to help.’”(Report by the Security and Development Policy group).
The offensive was intended to show Pakistan and the other countries in the area that are questioning its domination what the US is prepared to do to maintain its hold over any area it deems important. It knows dropping laser guided weaponry on mud huts is ‘overkill’, but brutal destruction of parts of the Taliban sends a message to those who are backing them or thinking of going the same way.
This is a warning that goes beyond India and Pakistan, to Russia and China. As the US has looked weaker and weaker in Iraq the central Asian republics have begun to move towards Russia and China and they have taken full advantage; “Russia and China are working on making sure that America and Nato surrender all their remaining toeholds in Central” (Rashid, Daily Telegraph 30/5/06)
It was also a warning to Iran not to retaliate against any US attack. “Iran is spending large sums out of its windfall oil income in buying support among disaffected and disillusioned Afghan warlords. The day America or Israel attacks Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, these Afghans will be unleashed on American and Nato forces in Afghanistan, opening a new front quite separate from the Taliban insurgency” (ibid)
British imperialism understands this objective and that its role is to continue trying to impose order in the area. They are not happy that they have to take over a region that is so hostile to the US and its allies, and where the strength of the Taliban is growing. The BBC talks about small bands of unpopular Taliban, but, according to Paul Roger, (Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University) “In early 2005, these units were regularly composed of groups of up to a hundred. That alone suggested a much greater degree of organisation and logistic support than would be expected from a sporadic insurgency; but, in 2006, the Taliban are fighting in groups of around 400 “ (‘Afghanistan’s new war season’, 22/6/06, www.opendemocracy.org.). This has led to the Taliban now controlling many parts of the region with ‘popular support’.
The British forces have shown that their much-publicised ‘hearts and minds’ method of occupation is a front for the same sort of overwhelming force as the US uses. On the 27th June, two members of the Special Boat Services were killed in an ambush when then tried to capture two leaders of the local Taliban. “105mm light artillery and air support from British Harrier jets, Apache attack helicopters and American A-10 “warthog” low-flying jets” (The Guardian 28/6/06) were deployed. This turned into a day-long battle, as have other conflicts in the area. These battles have taken place in villages where civilians must have been killed in the cross fire or by the destructive fire power of the air cover, but as in Iraq, the British and the US don’t report civilian deaths, even under pressure.
The politicians may not call it a war, but that is what it is, and it looks like it could become another quagmire like Iraq. The Taliban have already been sending personnel to Iraq in order to learn the techniques of the insurgents. This is an interesting reversal of roles, as, in the 1980s and 90s it was Afghanistan that was the source of radicalised and war-hardened fundamentalists, now Iraq is the supplier. There are plenty of regional powers who are willing to back the Taliban, just as the US and UK did in the 1990s. This can only pour more fuel on the fire
Growing imperialist conflict in the area could see British imperialism bogged down for years. “The British realise they are in for a long fight ... They realise that the timetable of three years, laid down by Tony Blair, to turn things round in Helmand and the south is way too optimistic. A plan for commitment for 10 or even 15 years would be more realistic, some suggest” (The Guardian 30/6/06). The US will be quite happy about this because it will curb perfidious Albion’s ability to get up to mischief. The British bourgeoisie understands this but also know they have no option, unless they want to make an open break with the US. This would undermine its ability to play a role, based on its good relations with the US, where it plays the US off against Europe. No one knows how many economically conscripted workers or the poor and dispossessed of Afghanistan will be killed or wounded in this operation, but suffer they will, in order to keep the British ruling class’s bloody snout in the imperialist trough. The call from leading generals for the government to provide more planes and helicopters for the mission is just the latest evidence of this. Phil 1/7/6