Way To Go, NATO


Imagine that you woke this morning to discover a rocket had blown up 27 Victorian children as they travelled to school by bus. These were, of course, 27 children with parents and siblings who loved them, parents and siblings who will now grieve with the kind of grief that can’t be escaped; the kind of grief that prevents eating, thinking, living.

Imagine that the public statement made about the rocket attack was almost a pro forma. "I have made it clear to our forces," the relevant military officer said, "that we are here to protect the Victorian people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission."

Imagine that, a few days later, you learned that another eight children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, had been taken overnight from the school in which they were sleeping in rural Victoria, handcuffed and then executed by foreign soldiers.

Imagine that the teacher present had tried to explain that the children were just children but the soldiers didn’t speak English. Later, the teacher will explain, "First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the eight students. Then they killed them."

Imagine all of this, and you have a glimpse of life in Afghanistan in 2010.

The Washington Post has described the recent offensive in Marjah as more an attempt to garner domestic support for the war than a strictly military campaign. Nonetheless, a town of 50,000 people has been bombarded and devastated in what seems to be preparation for the bombardment and devastation of Kandahar, "the Taliban stonghold". As the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has said, "This is all a war of perceptions … This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."

For the average Afghan, caught in this "war of perceptions" between the Taliban and troops from Australia, the US, Italy, Germany and 40 other countries, life is becoming unbearable.

On Monday, another 10 Afghan civilians (and four NATO soldiers) were killed. On 23 February, eight civilians died after a bomb explosion from a major US-led offensive. On 21 February, 27 civilians, including four women and a child were killed. On that occasion General McChrystal apologised and then retracted the apology and blamed the Taliban for using "civilians for cover".

According to Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense, "The thing to remember is that we’re at war … General McChrystal is doing everything humanly possible to avoid civilian casualties but it is also a fact that the Taliban mingle with civilians; they use them for cover, which obviously complicates any decision process by a commander on the ground in knowing whether he’s dealing with the Taliban or innocent civilians, or a combination of the two … It’s what makes war so ugly."

If by "civilians", McChrystal means the residents who live and sleep in the towns where foreign forces are conducting offensives, then he is right. That’s because these "Taliban operatives" (a term generally now applied to any form of Afghan resistance) live in homes with their families. Yes, even the Taliban have homes.

On 14 February, five civilians were killed in a drone attack, explained as a case of mistaken identity. The day before, "two stray NATO rockets" had killed 12 people.

It’s difficult to get exact figures regarding civilian deaths but for the past four years of the war in Afghanistan, they have averaged 137 per month.

The UN records that 346 children were killed in Afghanistan last year. Of that total, 131 children died during air strikes and 22 were killed in "nighttime raids by international special forces". The UN also claims that Taliban forces killed 128 children. In 38 cases, it was not possible to determine which side of the conflict caused the children’s deaths. UNICEF has officially declared Afghanistan the worst country for a child to be born in — worse, now, than the war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

The year 2009 recorded, in fact, the highest rate of civilian deaths for the people of Afghanistan since 2001 with conservative estimates putting the death toll at 2412. Cautious estimates for the first two months of this year show at least 100 recorded dead civilians. The casualties from the offensive in Marjah averaged 50 lives per week of the offensive. What will we see when the "surge" reaches its goal, Kandahar?

All of this raises the question: what are we still doing in Afghanistan? As Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the US Institute for Policy Studies and author of Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer, put it succinctly; when Gates said that civilian deaths are what makes war so ugly, "[he]should have said, this is especially why an occupation war in another country, where you don’t know the players, you don’t know the culture, you don’t have good intelligence, and you’re participating in a civil war in someone else’s land, is inevitably going to reach these kinds of terrible results."

Killing civilians at this rate simply emboldens the Taliban and resistance in general. Undoubtedly, many Afghans now see foreign troops as the enemy. They have a similar view about Karzai’s puppet government with its corruption and obscene human rights record.

The United States alone has lost 1003 troops, with over 5000 wounded in action. Some 105 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in 2010, twice the number of this time last year. The 30,000 troops the Obama Administration recently sent in will cost America around US$1 million per soldier.

There’s no clear information about how many Afghan combatants have been killed.

Afghanistan is the second-longest running war the US and Australia have been involved in, outlasted only by Vietnam. Like Vietnam, "Operation Enduring Freedom" has become a quagmire of epic proportions.

The Obama Administration wants to intensify military operations in Afghanistan including troop surges and drone attacks. There will be 150,000 foreign troops in the country by the end of 2010. Meanwhile, death, displacement and despair for the Afghan people are on the rise.

This unrelenting war will, almost certainly, increase the number of civilian deaths, even as it drives people to the Taliban and other forms of resistance. As Najibullah Zazi, who pled guilty to planning a series of bomb attacks on the New York subway, said recently, "I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the US military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan."

Zazi’s reaction is extreme and unjustifiable.

But how would you feel if it were your child who was taken from their school in the middle of the night and shot?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.