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Afghanistan: the Catastrophic Quagmire

As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, [the point] isn’t just getting them beaten; it’s keeping them beaten [to] have this victory stick.

— US Defense Secretary Carter, statement onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea,  November 5.

The insurgents are losing . . . and they’re desperate.

— General John F Campbell, senior foreign commander in Afghanistan, speech in Kabul on December 28, 2014

The security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical. . .  Militant attacks throughout the country continue, with many of these attacks specifically targeting U.S. and other foreign citizens and entities . . . Extremists associated with various Taliban networks and members of other armed opposition groups are active in every province of the country.

— Current US State Department travel advisory for Afghanistan

In Afghanistan on December 28 last year there was a large military ceremony in Kabul. It marked replacement of  the US-NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat mission by a NATO “training and support” organization called Resolute Support.  It was the most significant military-political event in the country since President George W Bush ordered his military forces to attack Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.

The senior figure at the ceremony was US Army General John F Campbell, commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, who declared to those present that “we have lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future. You’ve made Afghanistan stronger and our countries safer.”

He ignored the staggering irony of the fact that for his own safety he could not give his speech in an open forum.  There was no possibility that this US General could appear in a location accessible to the public anywhere in Afghanistan.  As recorded by Fox News “the ceremony had to be organized in secret due to the threat of a Taliban attack, the number and intensity of which have increased in recent months,” which is hardly an indication of a “stronger” Afghanistan.

Campbell was effusive in his praise for “those who planned and organized this ceremony — I thank you for your hard work. An event like this requires a great deal of organization, preparation, and rehearsal.”

Certainly it would require a lot of effort — especially when you can’t let news of the event be made public in order to avoid being blown up by insurgents. In similar fashion, the visits to Afghanistan in 2014 by President Obama (May), British Prime Minister Cameron (October) and NATO’s Secretary-General Stoltenberg (November) had to be kept secret.

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It is strange that these people do not consider it utterly bizarre that they couldn’t openly visit a country in which their troops had been fighting — and dying — for all these years.

This sums up the entire horrible charade in Afghanistan. The country is a deeply corrupt, politically incoherent, economically insolvent, insurgent-ridden shambles that leads the world in production of heroin. As Al Jazeera notes, “Not only is Afghanistan the global leader in opium production, but Afghans are now the leading consumers of their own drugs. The number of Afghan drug addicts now stands at nearly three million, up from less than 500,000 just two years ago.” According to the  United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2014 Afghan Opium Survey, there was opium poppy cultivation over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) and by 2014 it had exploded to 224,000 hectares.

It makes one wonder why the most senior foreign military commander in Afghanistan can declare that the exertions and sacrifices of his forces for thirteen years have “made Afghanistan stronger.”

The US State Department’s ‘Travel Warning’ notes that “the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all US citizens remains critical.”  That’s clear enough — and it sums up the entire horrible charade in Afghanistan. The country is a deeply corrupt, politically incoherent, economically insolvent, insurgent-ridden shambles that leads the world in production of heroin. As Al Jazeera notes, “Not only is Afghanistan the global leader in opium production, but Afghans are now the leading consumers of their own drugs. The number of Afghan drug addicts now stands at nearly three million, up from less than 500,000 just two years ago.” According to the  United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2014 Afghan Opium Survey, in 2001 there was opium poppy cultivation over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) and by 2014 it had exploded to 224,000 hectares.

It makes one wonder why the most senior foreign military commander in Afghanistan declares that the his forces have “made Afghanistan stronger.”

President Obama acknowledges that drug production in Afghanistan “is among the most difficult international drug-control problems,” but slides round the facts and figures with all the skill of a heroin addict seeking another vein.  His statement that “for 15 of the last 16 years, Afghanistan has been the world’s largest producer of opium poppy” is contemptible in its avoidance of precision, because he avoids admitting that the appalling drug production and addiction problems have rocketed during his presidency.  When he took over in 2009, opium production was 4,000 tons.  Last year it was 6,400 tons.  Of even more importance : when he took over in 2009 the UN recorded that 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,556 injured in that year;  in 2014 the numbers were 3,699 and a staggering 6,849.

So this is progress?

Another irony concerns the strength that can be brought to bear against Taliban insurgents by the Afghan military.  Overwhelming airpower is regarded as a vital part of warfare and it is considered that nothing can be accomplished without it. So the US is equipping the Afghan Air Force with 16 gunship helicopters and 20 Super Tucano ground attack aircraft because they are considered an essential element in combating the militants.

But in March 2015 General (‘hope for the future’) Campbell told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that “the first thing I always get asked for [by Afghan commanders] is close air support. We’re building their close air support . . . What I tell the Afghans is, ‘Don’t plan your operations wholly dependent on close air support. You have the capability. The Taliban doesn’t have close air support, the Taliban doesn’t have up-armored Humvees, the Taliban doesn’t have D-30 howitzers.’ So a part of it is just leadership, again.”

The US-NATO commander in Afghanistan does not consider it essential for the Afghan army to have close air support because “the Taliban doesn’t have close air support.”

When US-NATO-ISAF troops were fighting against the Taliban they had massive air support. Ground forces didn’t plan a single mission of any significance without ensuring that air attacks could be called in. They had thousands of up-armored Humvees and countless batteries of artillery and squadrons of tanks and scores of rocket launchers and death-dealing drones and other amazing devices that can detect and destroy a travelling ant from fifty miles.

Here’s what I wrote in CounterPunch in January 2014 :

Here we have the most technically dazzling military force in the world, with every conceivable martial contraption of the most amazing efficiency, and a bottomless pit of money, and it hasn’t been able to defeat “a bunch of dudes in bed sheets and flip-flops” as the Taliban are so well described by one of the few American military officers who has dared to speak truthfully about the Afghanistan disaster: Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis.

The barbaric “dudes in bedsheets” have shown how powerful they are in many ways, but one particularly fascinating revelation came from the New York Times on November 3 when it

reported that “If there had been grumbling before about the deafening intrusion of low-flying American helicopters in the Afghan capital, the discontent has surely multiplied along with the number of flights: packs of them now, coming two, four, six at a time, starting around 7 a.m., then again at midday and at dusk. Why so many?”

The reason is simple. The Times concludes that “after 14 years of war, of training the Afghan Army and the police, it has become too dangerous to drive the mile and a half from the airport to the embassy.”

So much for US-NATO having made Afghanistan “stronger” after fourteen years of war.

President Obama continues to be bright and optimistic, at least in public.  On October 15 he said he is going “to support President Ghani and the national unity government as they pursue critical reforms. New provincial governors have been appointed, and President Ghani is working to combat corruption, strengthen institutions, and uphold rule of law.”

It is probable that Campbell, Obama, Ghani and the intellectually arrogant US Defence Secretary Carter will fail in Afghanistan, just as did their pathetic predecessors.

And, alas, Afghanistan will most likely decline into further corruption, turmoil and torment. It might be too late to save it — unless, perhaps, these people would condescend to take advice from people who know about the country.

It would be a good thing if they talked to and considered taking advice from real Afghans.

Not a hope.

More articles by:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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