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The New Air War in the Hindu Kush

Bombing and Spraying Afghanistan

by CONN HALLINAN

The rising tide of Afghan civilian deaths has opened a rift between the U.S. and NATO’s 37,000-member International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). According to NATO officials, the U.S.’s increasing use of air power has badly damaged support for the war in both Afghanistan and Europe.

Daan Everts, the senior NATO civilian in Afghanistan, says the U.S. has created "a fallout that is negative because the collateral damage and particularly the civilian casualties are seen as unduly high, certainly by the Afghan people. This is of concern to us."

German Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung said, "We have to do everything to avoid that civilians are affected. We are in talks with our American friends about this."

The issue has split German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s "Grand Coalition." While Merkel’s Christian Democrats generally support the war, their coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), is suddenly feeling pressure on its portside from the newly formed united Left Party. SDP leaders have come out against renewing the current mandate to deploy German troops in Afghanistan, a vote that will come sometime this fall.

The rising tide of Afghan civilian deaths-over 1,800 killed in 2007-has helped fuel a push for United Nations participation to end the conflict. Leading the drive is British Secretary of Defense, Des Browne.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Browne said the solutions to narcotics, security, and establishing the rule of law are political, not military. "An overarching campaign plan is required to develop all of these disparate strands together. It has to be a strategic plan, not just a military planand there is no organization better placed than the UN to take that role."

Browne said that if the international community cannot find a political solution, "then I say to you that we have no moral right to ask our young people to expose themselves to that danger."

In the meantime, in spite of opposition by the Kabul government, senior U.S. military officers and European nations, the Bush Administration is forging ahead with a plan to use massive aerial spraying of the herbicide glycophate to destroy Afghanistan’s opium crop.

More than 90 percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan, and the drug trade generates about one third of the country’s gross domestic product. Projections are that this year the crop will be larger than in 2006

The Germans are so opposed to the spraying that they say they will reconsider their participation in the NATO operation if it goes forward. Many military leaders are unhappy as well.

Gen. Dan K. McNeil, NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, says his forces are not equipped or trained to deal with drugs. "Eradication done improperly is counter-intuitive to running the counter-insurgency because it will alienate people and you may have more insurgent people appearing than you had before."

Many Afghans agree. According to Mirwais Yasini, a member of the Afghani parliament’s Committee on Counter-Narcotics, "Aerial eradication will maximize the antagonism against the government."

DynCorp, a private mercenary company that has done extensive spraying of coca plants in Columbia, has been contracted to do the job. Using DynCorp is hardly a coincidence. The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, oversaw the company’s aerial spraying campaign in Colombia

"The U.S. is hell-bent on eradication," Harvard University Professor Robert Rotberg, an expert on conflict resolution at the Kennedy School of Government, told the Financial Times. "They claim it worked in Columbia and so it will work in Afghanistan. It is not clear to anyone it worked in Columbia."

Actually, it is quite clear. Coca acreage in Columbia increased 9 percent in 2006, following a 26 percent increase in 2005. Coca acreage is the same today as it was when the spraying campaign began in 2001.

CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a winner of a Project Censored Award, and did his PhD dissertation on the history of insurrectionary organizations in Ireland.