Wednesday, 29 February 2012

US Stupidity in Afghanistan

How unbelievably stupid can you get?

A group of US soldiers in Afghanistan, charged with guarding Taliban suspects, first took away their Korans – in case they would use them to pass secret messages to each other – and then burnt them. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they were then careless enough to let other Afghans see them doing this and spread the happy news.

Let me just see if I’ve got this straight. The US armed forces – accompanied by the armed forces of many other nations – went into Afghanistan over ten years ago to kick out the Taliban who had given hospitality and support to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. They succeeded in doing that pretty quickly but, for reasons too complex to go into here but which had a lot to do with the fact that Dubya was more concerned with offing Saddam (something his daddy had wisely refrained from doing), finished up getting stuck there. Not a good idea, as the Soviets, the Brits, or even the ancient Greeks under Alexander the Great could have told them. Afghanistan is definitely not a country you want to get stuck in when you’re perceived as a foreign occupying power.

The Afghans don’t like any foreigners telling them what to do, and a large part of their obscure, complex tribal culture has to do with their young men learning to use guns and any other weapons available before they would be ready to shave (if, that is, they shaved, which they generally don’t). The longer the US and other foreign forces remained in the country, the more they were going to be resented and resisted. It is hard to believe that all the experts in the State Department and the Pentagon didn’t know this. Maybe they did, but just decided to ignore it. Or maybe it was just one of the things, as Rumsfeld put it, they didn’t know that they didn’t know.

At any rate, we have moved from a situation where, a decade ago, most Afghans were delighted to see the backs of the Taliban, to a situation where they are now back in a powerful position and gaining ever more support from many Afghans, who see them increasingly as potential liberators from foreign oppressors. What a wonderful example of winning the war only to lose the peace.

Ok, so Afghanistan has turned into a complete mess. To use a US military expression, SNAFU – situation normal all fucked up. In the wake of 9/11, the collective US leadership seems to have forgotten one of the major lessons of Vietnam; be careful about getting into a situation without a clear plan about how to get out of it again. This was something Daddy Bush and Colin Powell understood quite clearly when they sent their troops off to kick Saddam’s ass in Desert Storm over twenty years ago. Dubya never learned this and Powell, apparently, didn’t have the guts to make it clear to him. Anyway, the US – and all their allies – now want nothing more than to get out of there as quickly as possible. At least officially; the chances are that if they succeed in their current disengagement plans there will still be thousands of “advisors” left there, just as there are in Iraq. But that’s all right, it’s just part of the neo-liberal wave of privatisation – war can be privatised too; it passes off the nasty business to mercenaries, who aren’t subject to the same degree of public control and scrutiny as national armed forces, where influential private companies (like Academi, the Company Formerly Known as Blackwater) can earn lots of money, and where military veterans with diverse reasons for not wanting to return to civilian life can find well-paid work.

But even getting out officially isn’t easy. I believe that the US and its allies don’t really give a tinker’s curse about Afghanistan; as far as they are concerned, if the Afghans are intent on living in a barbaric medieval theocracy, where women are treated as chattels, those who don’t share the faith of the rulers live in fear of death, and there’re more or less continual low-level wars between various tribes, then they’re welcome to do so. Admittedly, there is the poppy problem – Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of non-pharmaceutical grade opiates (92% in 2007) and also, incidentally, the world’s largest producer of hashish – but, despite all the hype about the so-called War on Drugs, I have a feeling that (for all sorts of reasons, many sordid, which I won’t go into here) the US and most other countries can live with that. No, the real problems are the two 500 pound gorillas next door, Iran to the west and, especially, Pakistan to the east.

In the ordinary course of events, Iran would be the easier one. In terms of sympathy, the US and the west have little to lose there anyway. But, leaving aside the large number of people within Iran (many of whom are devout Muslims) who might just have been persuaded that the west could offer them moral support and an alternative model for organising their country, the last thing anyone could want right now is more propaganda fodder for Ahmadinejad and the Islamicist mullahs pulling his strings. Israel and Iran are playing a dangerous game of nuclear chicken at the moment, with vast possibilities of dire consequences and anything which adds fuel to that particular mix, you would think, would be something anyone sane would want to avoid at all costs. Maybe they forgot to tell that to the US soldiers who decided to do some book-burning, and their superior officers who were ignorant enough to allow the situation to develop where they could even consider the idea.

Pakistan is potentially an even bigger problem. While it is still officially seen as the West’s major ally in the area, it is hopelessly corrupt, increasingly unstable, and large areas of its territories bordering on Afghanistan seem to be factually under the control of the Taliban or groups sympathetic to them. After all, that’s where they finally got Bin Laden, in Abottabad in the province of Waziristan. An increasingly likely return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan might just push Pakistan over the edge into chaos, civil war and an ultimate Islamicist takeover there. It wouldn’t take much pushing. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It’s an open question as to how India, also a nuclear power, would (understandably) react to such a course of events.

The blatant ignorance which gave rise to this Koran-burning incident is simply mind-boggling. Apart from damaging any claim to some kind of moral high ground which the US might like to appeal to in this whole situation – a claim which actually had some justification in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but which has been steadily losing credibility ever since – it is abysmally stupid from a practical strategic point of view. If the US wants to ensure any kind of stability in the country and the region after the troops are officially pulled out, the struggle for the hearts and minds of as many Afghans as possible is more vital now than ever.

It makes me wonder about the mind-set prevalent within the US Armed Forces, when any trained soldiers would not be aware of the consequences of such an action. No matter what strength of suspicion about the level of involvement of the detainees with the Taliban, the burning of Korans is a gratuitous act of insane provocation which can only suggest that those responsible are seriously dehumanised. They are not the actions of troops who are fighting to defend the ideals of the American republic throughout the world, but rather of arrogant, imperial occupiers, who could best be compared to the Roman legionaries who played dice at the foot of the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, whom most of them regard as their Saviour and God.

NATO has apologised, Obama has apologised, but it’s not doing all that much good. Perhaps because the incident is not an isolated one. Only a few days earlier, pictures were released of US troops apparently urinating on the bodies of dead opponents. Not to mention all the “collateral damage,” particularly the various killings of innocent children since the ISAF forces arrived in Afghanistan over ten years ago. And then, of course, there was that highly publicised Koran burning by that mad pastor in Florida last year, though at least that one can’t be blamed on the military.

One of the frightening aspects of all this is that it doesn’t even seem to be creating much of a stir in the US, more occupied as it is with Whitney Houston, the Oscars and the ghastly, unreal comedy of the Republican presidential nomination campaign. It would offer some kind of hope if there were any real signals of some sort of public feelings of shame at the actions of its soldiers. But why should the Roman public be concerned about the doings of its legionaries in a remote country, mostly populated by religious fanatics; Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots – or raghead Salafists, Shi’ites and Talibans? Particularly when there are more interesting bread and circus issues at home.

Pictures retrieved from: 


  1. Yep, that was a pretty stupid thing to do, no doubt about it.

    Nice touch, with Springsteen at the end.

    Martha, also born in the USA.

  2. Rather than respond directly to your essay, I forward you this link to a blog I regularly read from a US Army officer.

    I have to say, this latest incident made me feel unusual sympathy with the plight of the US Army in Afghanistan.

    Here's a quote from the post linked above:

    "I may be out on a limb, but to me it's a basic human rights issue. People deserve to be treated with respect, for their culture, personalities, capabilities...just for being human.

    "This does not negate our mission to close with and destroy the enemies of our nation, in accordance with our Constitutional responsibilities. But, Soldiers need to know that while it's great they show respect for other Soldiers, the Army Values require them to show that same respect for those outside the Army as well.

    "Then there's the issue of strategy. Maybe it's time to admit we are not trained swell enough to have so much interaction with foreign partners who are so culturally different from us. SF troops and Civil Affairs types go through years of training in order to understand and work with foreign nation armies and peoples. To expect a 19-year old from Philly to be able to successfully negotiate the intricacies of Afghan culture after a 2-hour block of instruction and a tri-fold pamphlet is probably too much to ask.

    "I think it may be time to separate Soldiers from the Afghans, let the pros do the interaction, and allow our regular Joes to do what they do best--kill the enemy."

  3. To be honest I don't trust the US or the west to champion human rights in Afghanistan or anywhere. I remember not so long ago that women's rights in Afghanistan were decided to be a less important issue as opposed to accommodating the Taliban

  4. How unbelievably stupid can you get?

    The answer:
    How unbelievably stupid do you want?


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