Afghanistan: Operation Moshtarak

Popular support sustains resistance in an unequal struggle that will end in victory.

Preceded by months of advance publicity and psychological warfare, 6,000 US, British and Afghan soldiers invaded the 80,000-strong town of Marja on Saturday 13 February. The aim of the operation, dubbed Moshtarak (‘together’ in Dari), is to flush the resistance out of the area, from which the latter have been staging attacks on the occupation forces and their Afghan puppets – the soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan police.

Further, the attack on Marja is part of a larger plan to secure a 200-mile arc that would bisect major cities in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which are the strongholds of the resistance and have become no-go areas for the US-led forces, including the ANA.

Operation Moshtarak, which is expected to last several months, is intended to reverse the momentum of the resistance, which has gone from strength to strength over the past few years. Five hundred and twenty US and Nato soldiers were killed in 2009, twice the number killed in 2008 and the highest since the start of Nato’s predatory war against Afghanistan in 2001.

Fierce resistance

In advance of the Marja invasion, although a few hundred fighters left the area to fight elsewhere, sufficient numbers stayed behind to confront the invading imperialist soldiery, who have encountered non-stop skirmishing, ambushes and sniper fire.

The defenders in Marja have been subjecting US bases and patrols to assault rifle fire and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) attacks. There has been fierce house-to-house fighting, with the resistance fighters hunkered down inside the city, laying thousands of mines and homemade bombs along the area’s roads and footpaths. Three days into the invasion, a New York Times report was forced to concede that the ferocity of the fighting on the ground indicated that there was no shortage of “insurgents” with the will and capacity to fight.

On 16 February, the paper reported that, while the Afghan government was attempting to portray the battle for Marja as all but over, with the resistance light and its defenders fleeing, this “characterisation … bore little resemblance to the facts on the ground … in northern Marja”, for the roads into the town “have only been partially cleared [of improvised explosive devices] and [the marines are] isolated and surrounded” by the resistance. (‘Soldiers keep up the push in Taliban stronghold’ by C J Chivers)

To make life miserable for the invaders, roadside bombs are reappearing as fast as the occupation troops can remove them, and the invaders have been unpleasantly surprised by the prowess shown by the resistance in the use of snipers, which had not been much in evidence hitherto.

Haji Abdul Zahir, the new governor of Marja, admits to the resistance holding meetings in randomly selected homes every other night, issuing ‘night letters’, posted at mosques or on utility poles, warning against collaboration, and receiving food and shelter from Marja’s residents. “After dark, the city is the kingdom [of the resistance]”, said a tribal leader, adding that “the government and international forces cannot defend anyone even one kilometre from their bases”.

Remarkably, a few hundred fighters are keeping at bay a massive force led by the US, with armaments far superior to any that the resistance could even dream of. This is because the defenders have the active or passive support of the local population.

Killing civilians

Finding themselves surrounded, the occupation troops resort to mortar and artillery fire, helicopter gunship attacks and airstrikes. This, however, creates its own problems. According to General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, using ‘fire’ – artillery and airstrikes – may kill some resistance fighters, but risks losing the war by killing innocent civilians, thereby alienating Afghans.

In a change of tactics last June, McChrystal announced that the forces under his command would in the future place less emphasis on killing resistance fighters than on saving civilian lives and on state-building. The population, he said, is not the enemy, but the prize. “We don’t want Fallujah. Fallujah is not the model”, said McChrystal, by way of reference to the wholesale destruction of Nazi proportions wreaked by the US forces on the Iraqi town of Fallujah, which only served to strengthen the Iraqi resistance to unprecedented levels.

In view of the large number of Afghan civilians done to death by US airstrikes, it is clear that either General McChrystal’s instructions to his troops not to harm civilians are strictly for propaganda purposes and are not meant to be obeyed, or his commanders are not taking much notice of them, especially as they know only too well that the attempt to win Afghan hearts and minds is already a lost cause.

With the resistance having established a ‘shadow government’ in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, it is not hard to reach such a conclusion. Here are just three examples of how McChrystal’s new tactics are working out in the battlefield:

On 14 February, at least 11 civilians sheltering in houses inside a mud-walled compound were torn apart by a rocket fired from four miles away. On 15 February, five civilians were killed and two wounded in an airstrike in Zhari (Kandahar province); these were farmers digging a ditch whom occupation forces took to be resistance fighters planting bombs. On 21 February, an airstrike by US Special Forces helicopters against what they believed to be members of the resistance killed 33 civilians (including women and children) and wounded 12 in Uruzgan province. Even the puppet Karzai administration was forced to condemn these killings, with McChrystal issuing an apology for the ‘mistake’.

As if these civilian casualties are not enough, seven Afghan policemen were killed and two wounded in a Nato airstrike during a joint patrol in the eastern Kunduz province – the same province where 90 civilians were killed last year when German forces requested an airstrike.

If winning hearts and minds is central to the present phase of the US war in Afghanistan – and General McChrystal says it is – the American military are going about it in a most bizarre way. Far from winning anyone over, the use of indiscriminate and overwhelming fire power is acting as a recruiting sergeant for the resistance.

Role of contractors

On top of the large number of intelligence agents and special forces, the US army is reliant to a considerable extent on contractors who act as covert spies for it. According to a report in the New York Times of 14 March, the US military has been hiring contractors for espionage, improperly financing them through the diversion of funds for a programme designed ostensibly to gather information about the region.

Michael D Furlong, a retired military officer but now a civilian employee of the US defence department, hired contractors from private security companies that employed CIA and Special Forces operatives. The contractors, for their part, gathered intelligence on members of the resistance and the location of their camps, which information was in turn sent to military units and intelligence officials as a basis for lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The use of civilian contractors is also an easy way of getting round Pakistani objections to the presence of US security personnel on Pakistani soil.

In the light of such revelations, it is hardly surprising that resistance forces make no distinction between the occupation armies and ‘civilian’ contractors, who are clearly legitimate targets for the Afghan resistance.

Secure and prosperous state

It is the alleged, and loudly proclaimed, aim of the US-led forces rampaging through Marja to build an enduring, stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state in Afghanistan. The following, however, are the most glaring obstacles in the way of its achievement:

First, and foremost, occupation and democracy do not go together – they are mutually exclusive. Occupation brings with it occupiers’ democracy, not democracy for the occupied.

The lack of security is consequent upon the occupation and the resultant resistance; there can be no peace and security while the occupation continues in place. Equally, in the midst of the death and destruction caused by this predatory war, there is no basis for bringing prosperity to the Afghan people.

Second, the current invasion of Marja alone has displaced upwards of 25,000 civilians. They are bereft of housing and medical assistance – in Lashkar Grah (the capital of Helmand province) as well as in Kabul. Such people, whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed in Nato’s brutal assault, are only too likely to end up as the bitterest enemies of the occupation forces and friends of the resistance.

Third, those who seek to govern Marja are totally disconnected from the local population. Its imperialist-installed district governor, Haji Abdul Zahir, has lived in Germany for the last 15 years and never set foot in Marja until the middle of February 2010, being an unassertive crony of Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor.

Zahir’s main power rival, Abdul Rahman Jan, is a fearsome former police officer, the notorious conduct of whose forces threw the population into the arms of the resistance.

Fourth, the economy is in a mess, and totally reliant on opium production. The new narcotics policies of the US-led forces will cause total havoc, for arresting or killing ‘drug traffickers’ will amount to killing local farmers. The timing of this offensive is most damaging for the occupiers, since the opium crop comes for harvesting in the spring.

Unless farmers whose crops are up for destruction get adequate compensation, the resultant anger will not be within the powers of the occupation to control. Meanwhile, the real drug barons (as opposed to the poor farmers, who have little choice over their crops) are being aided to ever greater fortunes by the occupation forces, whose allies they are.

Fifth, the ANA and Afghan police, in addition to suffering from high levels of illiteracy, drug abuse and corruption, do not get even their meagre wages, which are often skimmed by paymasters. No wonder, then, that its ranks opt for theft and looting to supplement their pay.

In a recent example, soon after the entry of US forces into Marja, their Afghan counterparts resorted to large-scale looting, refusing to stand post in defensive bunkers, instead spending much of their time in the bazaar, smoking hashish. Judging by their latest non-performance, it will be a long time before such forces are in a position to take control of Afghan security.

Sixth, the resistance will doubtless return, since Marja is merely an opening salvo in an 18-month campaign that is supposed to end with the capture of the neighbouring Kandahar province. As Kandahar is the second largest Afghan city, presumably many troops will have to be redeployed from Marja to serve in Kandahar – a repeat of an all too familiar pattern.

This is the third successive year that tens of thousands of new US-led troops have arrived in Afghanistan to ‘clear, hold and build’ areas controlled by the resistance. All previous surges have achieved little success. Thus far, there is no evidence that the present offensive would be any different.

Afghan people don’t trust their occupiers, especially after intrusive house searches, indiscriminate artillery fire and murderous air strikes. It is a sign of the times that in the middle of the present campaign, 24 Afghan police officers defected to the resistance with all their weapons – two trucks, machine guns and heavy weapons – in Chak, Wardak province, in central Afghanistan, just west of Kabul province.

Eight years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the resistance are fighting with greater vigour, and operating in more places than at any point since the start of the war.

Divide and rule

Unable to gain victory, the occupying powers are adopting divide-and-rule tactics, separating the ‘good’ resistance from the ‘bad’, attempting to come to a deal with the former, while isolating, weakening and defeating the latter.

This tactic of negotiating with the acceptable sections of the resistance was adopted at the London conference on Afghanistan in January this year, but it is a delusion to expect significant success from this tactic, for the resistance are committed to the withdrawal of all foreign forces and the restoration of the country’s sovereignty, and any leaders who did try to engage with the enemy on an unprincipled basis would be bound promptly to lose all influence among their followers.. It is laughable to suggest that the resistance would give up armed struggle for national liberation in return for money and job placements, as if they were mercenaries without honour, conscience or a sense of national dignity and patriotic pride.

Besides, they know they can win the war of attrition simply by continuing long enough to wear down the will of the occupying forces.

Imperialist coalition disintegrating

Over the weekend of 19/20 February, the Dutch government collapsed when one of the coalition partners, the Labour party, led by finance minister Wouter Bos, walked out of the cabinet after insisting that Nato’s request for Dutch troops to stay on in the restive southern Afghan province of Uruzgan be rejected, triggering a general election.

The caretaker government of the Christian Democrat Peter Balkenende does not have the authority to renew Dutch commitment to operations in Afghanistan. Of the 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan, 1,400 are deployed in Uruzgan, whose term had already been extended once before.

Apart from leaving a big security gap, the impending Dutch withdrawal deals a psychological blow to the warmongering Nato alliance, and might set a precedent for other partners in this criminal war seeking to minimise their involvement at a time when the Obama administration has been lobbying Nato members for more troops for duty in Afghanistan.

The Dutch pull-out will make it more difficult for Canada to reverse its decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan before the end of 2011.

The fight goes on

Meanwhile, as well as giving a good account of itself in Marja, the resistance has given fresh proof of its capacity to launch attacks elsewhere, including Kabul. A complex suicide and car-bomb attack in the heart of Kabul on Friday 26 February is proof enough of its ability to stage sophisticated operations in the heavily-guarded capital, with the aim of undermining international support for the Afghan war.

Whatever the Obama administration’s public stance, it is not preparing to leave Afghanistan any time soon. As Richard Holbrook, President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan put it on 2 March, July 2011 is the beginning of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan “at a pace and size [to be] determined by the situation”.

This is a very flexible formulation, capable of bearing any interpretation anyone may choose to put upon it. Those liberals who place any faith in Mr Obama’s alleged promise to quit Afghanistan in July 2011 are bound to be sadly disappointed. American forces will leave Afghanistan only when they have been beaten and kicked out of that country.

And the same holds good for Iraq. In both cases, the resistance is achieving steady progress and, in time, will oblige the imperialist armies to pack up their baggage and beat a humiliating exit.

> Afghanistan – occupation not corruption is the real problem – December 2009