Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 38-39

Special Report

The Beginning of the End in Afghanistan

By Rachelle Marshall

altAfghan women gather around tombs in a graveyard of Mazar-i Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, March 30, 2012. (Qais Usyan/AFP/Getty Images)

In the end it may not be the Taliban who force the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, but the growing anger of the Afghan people at the actions of those troops. On the night of March 11, 17 residents of a village near Kandahar were shot or stabbed to death and some of their bodies burned. Almost all of the victims were women and children. The army withheld the name of the suspected killer for a week, then charged Staff Sgt. Robert Bales with the deaths. Bales was serving his fourth tour of duty after suffering a head wound and losing part of his foot in Iraq. It was assumed he was suffering from battle-related stress.

Soon, however, testimony from local villagers suggested that the massacre was not the work of a single battle-worn soldier but an act of revenge by several members of his unit for the nearby bombing of a U.S. convoy earlier in the week. According to Justin Raimondo of Anti-war.com (see this issue's "Other Voices" supplement), at least one tribal elder and several villagers testified to President Hamid Karzai that soldiers had come to their village, called the people together, and warned that at least 20 of them would be shot. The accusation, while yet to be verified, is in keeping with the record of criminal behavior by U.S. soldiers toward Afghan civilians. In the last year, American soldiers were discovered to have been killing Afghans for sport; a group of boys tending sheep were shot dead from a NATO helicopter hovering overhead; a video was circulated showing soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses; and American troops burned several copies of the Qur'an in a trash fire. Two days before the mass killing by Bales, a NATO helicopter fired on a group of Afghan civilians, killing four of them.

These were not isolated incidents. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in February that since January 2009, from 282 to 535 civilians had been killed in drone attacks, including some 60 children. The report said that many of the strikes were aimed at rescuers who responded at the scene, and even at mourners atttending the subsequent funerals. American officials speaking anonymously admitted that missiles were often aimed at any men carrying weapons, even if they were not on a list of suspects.

A senior American counterterrorism official blamed such reports on "elements who would like nothing more than to help al-Qaeda succeed," but in fact the terrorist group has long been gone from Afghanistan. It is the Taliban that is benefitting from the anger aroused by the actions of NATO troops.

More and more Afghans are asking why they should go on allowing foreign soldiers to shoot at their children, tear up their fields with armored vehicles, break into their homes at night, and take away a husband or son. The billions of dollars in aid that have poured into the country have brought little benefit to ordinary Afghans but has mainly enriched a small elite. Afghanistan receives $15 billion a year in foreign aid, and some $4 billion a year leaves the country headed for foreign bank accounts.

The signals coming from Kabul, from Washington and from NATO commanders are confusing, if not contradictory. The Obama administration's plans call for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by December 2014, but the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, told Congress in late March that the pace and number of troop reductions will depend on the success of the next six months of fighting. Meanwhile, the administration is attempting to achieve an agreement with the Afghan government that will allow the U.S. to maintain military bases, and troops, in that country indefinitely.

Popular anger at NATO's intrusive night raids has prompted President Hamid Karzai to demand that NATO troops immediately end such raids and move from the countryside back to their military bases. General Allen, however, has declared that the night raids and similar operations are necessary in order to defeat the Taliban, and will remain at current levels or increase.

Analysts agree that the Taliban now controls large areas of Afghanistan, and that the U.S. is no closer to creating a trustworthy Afghan security force. Desertions are common, and attacks by Afghan soldiers on their NATO counterparts have increased at an "alarming rate," according to NATO commanders. The angry response of thousands of Afghans to the burning of the Qur'ans and to the repeated killing of civilians leaves no doubt that all but the few who profit from foreign aid want NATO troops out of their country.

Such realities have failed to move policy makers. "The critical issue," said Vali Nasr, until recently a State Department official, "is for the president to make the case that the military picture is good, the insurgency has been weakened, and the Afghan security forces are ready to take over." As a senior European official put it, "The most important thing now is the messaging."

But Anatol Lieven, who has conducted extensive interviews with Taliban leaders, disagrees. In the Feb. 9 New York Review of Books, he writes that peace will only be achieved through an agreement with the Taliban that calls for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and a new constitution that gives the Taliban a role in government. In return the Taliban must pledge to exclude al-Qaeda from areas it controls.

Such an approach is based on the recognition that the forces the U.S. and NATO call "insurgents" are in fact indigenous Afghans, most of them strict Muslims, whose goal is to rid their country of foreign invaders. It is certain that neither "messaging" designed to whitewash NATO's failures, nor persistent efforts to defeat the Taliban, will succeed in ending this war or preventing Afghanistan's descent into greater corruption and poverty. Given the mood of the Afghan people, the U.S. will sooner or later have to withdraw from their country. A peace agreement negotiated and endorsed by all Afghan factions would allow the U.S. to do so in orderly fashion and without further waste of lives.

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.