British imperialism sinking deeper into Afghan quagmire

The telling blows of the courageous resistance are creating significant splits in the ruling class.

When, in the spring of 2006, British troops were sent to the Helmand province of Afghanistan, John Reid, the then British Defence Secretary, said that he would be “perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”. In the six months that followed, the paras fired about half a million rounds.

Five thousand British troops have been slugging it out with the Taliban and other Afghan resistance forces for over three years in Helmand province for almost no gains. After Britain’s ignominious defeat in Iraq, and troubled by a sense of failure, the army commanders want to achieve something in Helmand – a province with a population of 700,000 people.

Since their exit from Iraq, more British troops have been transferred to Afghanistan. Britain, with 8,300 soldiers, has the second-largest contingent in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force. Another 700 British military personnel have been sent to Afghanistan temporarily to provide security for the charade that goes by the name of the Afghan presidential election, to be held on 20 August. The army chief, Sir Richard Dannatt had requested that 9,800 British soldiers be permanently stationed in Afghanistan, but so far the Brown government has turned down the request.


Afghan resistance to the occupation has become extremely fierce. In the first week of June, there were 400 attacks on the occupation forces – a level not reached even in 2001 (the year of the invasion).

So far this year, not taking into account the July casualties, 192 foreign soldiers, including 103 Americans, have been killed. Since the start of July, an average of 3.5 US and Nato troops a day have been killed. Fifteen British soldiers were killed in the first 10 days of July – eight of them in just one 24-hour period ending Friday 10 July. Thus far, 187 British soldiers have died fighting in Afghanistan – eight more than the 179 killed in Iraq.

US president Obama has sent 21,000 extra troops to fight in the Afghan predatory war, which he considers to be a “good war”. By the end of this year, the strength of US occupation forces in Afghanistan will total 68,000 and cost the US taxpayers in excess of $60bn a year. On top of its request for $75bn this year and $130bn next year for the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Obama administration has asked Congress for an increase of four percent in the Pentagon budget, which will now add up to a staggering $534bn – more than $23,000 per second.

Despite an increase in the deployment of US/Nato soldiers, the occupation forces continue to lose ground to the Afghan resistance, which now has a presence in three quarters of the country and effectively controls large swathes of territory. Nowhere – not even Kabul – is safe for the puppet Karzai regime and its imperialist backers.

There is growing unease and a sense of siege pervading the Afghan capital. In February this year, the resistance struck in Kabul and paralysed it for four hours. The 190-mile stretch of highway between Kandahar and Kabul, portrayed by the US State Department as “the most visible sign of America’s post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan”, is presently too dangerous for travel without a military convoy.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, Commander of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, having returned from a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, told the Daily Telegraph in October last year: “We are not going to win this.” It was the same Brigadier Carleton-Smith who, a mere three months earlier, had boasted that the leadership of the resistance had been “decapitated” and that the “tipping point” in favour of the imperialist coalition had been reached.

Disintegrating coalition

Although, in an attempt to confer some international legitimacy on this predatory imperialist venture, there is the pretence of a 43-nation coalition fighting the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, in actual fact this coalition is composed of troops from a tiny handful of imperialist countries – notably the US, Britain, France, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands.

And not all of these countries’ troops are engaged in serious fighting. Germany and France do their best to keep their soldiers out of harm’s way – far off from the areas of fierce combat. In the face of intensified Afghan resistance, and the failure of the occupation forces to make tangible progress, the coalition assembled by the US is beginning to disintegrate. The Dutch troops will be leaving Afghanistan next year, followed by the Canadians in 2011.

Now, in the aftermath of the bloody month in Helmand and a spike in casualties, the British public are agonising over the role and usefulness of British troops in the senseless Afghan slaughter.

Dissension within the ruling class

On Tuesday 14 July, in Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, close to RAF Lyneham, the bells of St Bartholomew’s church tolled, as they have done scores of times before, to signal the arrival of eight coffins carrying the bodies of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan in just one day.

An estimated 7,000 people had gathered on a sunny day to pay their respects to those sacrificial lambs of imperialist war. As the bodies passed, there were emotional scenes, with tearful relatives and friends of the dead held in tight embrace. The gatherings in Wootton Bassett, with the huge crowds they have increasingly attracted, have become a source of embarrassment to the authorities, for what had been envisaged as a way of honouring the dead soldiers and garnering public support for carrying on with the imperialist carnage, is fast turning into an occasion for questioning the legitimacy of the wars being waged by Anglo-American imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan and causing dissension within the camp of the ruling class in Britain.

A former soldier, wearing three campaign badges, who was part of the crowd on 14 July, said: “I am here to respect them young lads that lost their lives over what I consider an unnecessary war. They [Afghans] thrashed the Russians, and they are going to thrash us again.” This is a sentiment that is echoed far and wide – in Britain as well as in every belligerent imperialist country participating in these wars.

The mounting casualties in the disastrous Afghan war have forced this question to the top of the political agenda and begun to cause quarrels within the establishment. The chief of the army staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, in an act of unprecedented political defiance, openly accused the government of not providing sufficient men and kit to fight the wars that the army has been asked to wage.

At Westminster, the political consensus has been shattered. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader accused the government of waging a war which was “over-ambitious in aim and under-resourced in practice”, while Liam Fox, the Conservative defence spokesman, charged the government with “an ultimate dereliction of duty”, for having failed to provide enough resources, especially helicopters, to the army.

Within the armed forces, a relentless dog fight for resources is being waged, with each arm demanding more at the expense of the others. The present wars are being fought on land, and the cost of military equipment needed for those conditions amounts to billions more than is provided for in the defence budget, while mega sums are being spent mostly on fighter jets, ships and submarines.

In this conflict, while the Air Force and the Navy subscribe to the concept of ‘Fortress Britain’, which envisages and prepares for a war with a powerful country like Russia, the Army has nailed its colours to the mast of ‘asymmetric warfare’, under which imperialist Britain wages resource wars against weak people, with no matching defence capabilities, but who are able to turn their weakness into strength through guerrilla warfare, using to devastating effect methods ranging from the use of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) to suicide bombings.

The costs

Then there are the costs of these wars, which have been mounting over the years. In the US, by the middle of 2007, the Afghan war alone had cost it $78bn, while the total spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan comes to $1tr. According to the eminent economist, Joseph Stiglitz, taking into account lost production and the wherewithal needed for looking after returning wounded soldiers, the ‘war on terror’ has cost the US a staggering $3tr.

For Britain, a far smaller country, with a far smaller economy, the expenditure on these wars is becoming unbearable. Mr Stiglitz estimates that, by 2010, Britain could have spent £18-20bn. In 2008, the House of Commons Defence Committee reported that the budget for Iraq and Afghan wars had increased during the previous 12 months by nearly 100 percent to £3.297bn a year, of which £1.64bn had been for the Afghan war. Since then, the cost for Britain of the Afghan war alone has risen to £3bn a year.

At a time when budget deficits have soared to levels not seen since 1945, thanks to the crisis of overproduction and the near meltdown of the imperialist financial system, the government is struggling to get a grip on public finances through a combination of tax rises and cuts in social expenditure. In this context, the public quite rightly demands cuts in defence expenditure – which brings fabulous wealth to the imperialist monopolies but heaps increasingly untenable burdens on the general population. Higher taxation and cuts in social expenditure spell deterioration in working people’s standard of living.

The majority of the population in Britain oppose the Afghan war, just as it did the Iraq war. According to a recent Guardian/BBC poll, 56 percent of the British people are opposed to this war, while an ITV poll puts this opposition at 59 percent. The public are increasingly sceptical of the reasons given by the government for the war in Afghanistan. None of the official pretexts for this war stands up to a minute’s scrutiny.

Pretexts for the war

One of the pretexts for the war in Afghanistan is that there is a direct connection between that and security on Britain’s streets; that if the Taliban regained power, Afghanistan would become a base for attacks on us in Britain; and that, therefore, the defeat of the Taliban is a precondition for security in Britain.

This sorry excuse for an argument rests on a mere assertion, for the removal of the Taliban government in 2001 did nothing to prevent a string of attacks, including Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. Furthermore, the London attacks were the work of British-born muslims with no direct links to the Taliban.

If the truth be told, the occupation of Afghanistan by various imperialist countries, in particular the US and the UK, is only too likely to provoke retaliation by the patriotic forces drawn from the victims of imperialist aggression against targets in imperialist countries engaged in the war against the Afghan people. Equally, looked at from the opposite side, if the Afghan resistance were to crumble, it would be an open-ended invitation to imperialist forces to make regular frequent forays into Afghanistan and ride roughshod over the Afghan people.

‘Humanitarianism’ is sometimes put forward by imperialist spokesmen as another reason for this war, it being asserted that the removal of the brutal Taliban regime, and preventing it from regaining governmental power, is the only way to protect the Afghan people’s ‘human rights’.

The fact is, however, that in the course of invasion in 2001 by the ‘humanitarian’ imperialist forces, 20-30,000 Afghans were killed, including 5,000 prisoners who were massacred after the surrender of the Taliban at Kunduz alone. Women, children, wedding parties, funeral processions (some following earlier bombings) and family gatherings are regularly targeted by the imperialist war planes, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

While bombing civilians, and killing them by the hundred, government spokesmen make the sick claim that our soldiers “are winning hearts and minds” of the local people. Actually, such actions are acting as powerful recruiting sergeants for the Afghan resistance, whose strength is growing by the week. In the apposite words of a Daily Mail correspondent “only a fool would believe that villagers are won over by foreign soldiers in full combat gear fighting house-to-house and calling in air-strikes that kill women and children”. (‘Who has the guts to pull out?’ by Correlli Barnett, The Daily Mail, 11 July 2009)

Continues this correspondent: “I say ‘foreign’ soldiers, but the better word would be ‘alien’, given that very few of them are Muslim or Asian, and most are Christians and of European or American nationality.

They must make much the same impression on locals as Taliban fighters in black turbans and draped with machine-guns would make on entering a Norfolk village.”

Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, opium production and trade has registered a phenomenal boost. In 2007, Afghanistan produced 8,200 tonnes of opium, accounting for 92 percent of global opium production. And, of all the opium produced in Afghanistan, 80 percent is produced in Helmand province – the area of operation of the British forces.

In the very first year of the occupation, opium production rose by more than 100 percent. It would be surprising if it were to be otherwise, for the imperialist occupation is highly reliant on the support of warlords, drug traffickers, human-rights violators, female-hating feudal oppressors and other such medieval relics and unpleasant characters.

The position of women has worsened under foreign occupation. Rapes and honour killings have been rising steadily, and prostitution is rampant, while more families face huge discrimination in their attempts to gain access to health, education and employment. Many feminists and the imperialist left had supported this war and the overthrow of the Taliban as an act of humanitarianism in defence of women’s rights. In the light of the actual reality following the invasion, this noisy fraternity has, not surprisingly, gone rather quiet.

• Since 2003, life expectancy in Afghanistan has declined to 43.1 years.

• Infant mortality has risen since 2001 to 135 per 1,000 births.

• One third of the population has no access to clean water.

• Since 2003, adult literacy has declined to 23.5 percent.

• Nearly 7 million Afghans do not receive their minimum daily food requirement.

There is very little reconstruction taking place. With most funds allocated to fighting the war, what is left goes mainly to fill the coffers of large corporations from the imperialist countries and line the pockets of the corrupt coteries of local collaborators and traitors. The so-called PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) are no more than a façade to cover the brutality of this imperialist carnage and an attempt to give the appearance of a humanitarian concern for its victory.

War for domination

The Afghan war is not, any more than the war in Iraq, being waged to promote human rights, democracy or women’s rights. Nor is it being waged to bring security to the streets of Britain, the US, France or Germany. It is being waged for domination and for securing a monopoly of the mineral, especially oil and gas, resources of the vast mineral-rich region stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.

Afghanistan is strategically located at the centre of the huge Eurasian landmass, acting as a bridge between Russia to its north, Pakistan and India to the south and Iran to the west. Its strategic significance is all the greater for the reason that the oil rich states of Central Asia lie along its northern border and imperialist countries are determined to pump massive amounts of central Asian oil and gas via pipes running through Afghan territory, avoiding Iran, to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. Precisely for that reason, a pliant regime in Kabul is a necessary condition for imperialist hegemony of the region under discussion.

The centrality of the Eurasian land mass, and the crucial importance of Afghanistan, was underlined in 1997 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, in these words: “A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions … most of the world’s physical wealth is there … [including] about three quarters of the world’s known energy reserves.”

The war in Afghanistan was started for the sole purpose of regime change; and it is being continued for the same purpose – that of pacifying Afghanistan under a puppet regime headed by Karzai or some such other quisling. The 11 September 2001 attacks in the US merely provided US imperialism with the pretext for a war it had been preparing to wage for some time, for none of those involved in these attacks had any direct connection with the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar.

This aim was clearly expressed at the time by the then chief of the British defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, who a mere three weeks after the start of the war against Afghanistan brutally stated: “The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country recognise that this is going to go on until they get the leadership changed.”

The war against Afghanistan is little short of an attempt to colonise Afghanistan. Robert Cooper, a prominent advisor to the then British prime minister and war criminal, Tony Blair, who took Britain into wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, at the time wrote in the Observer: “The opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonisation is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century. Those left out of the global economy risk falling into a vicious circle. Weak government means disorder and that means falling investment … A world in which the efficient and well governed export stability and liberty, and which is open for investment and growth – all of this seems eminently desirable.” (‘The new liberal imperialism’ by Robert Cooper, 7 April 2002)

These few lines of a frank and cynical advocate of the cause of imperialism express more clearly the aims of the war in Afghanistan, as indeed of the war in Iraq, than all the volumes written on the subject by hypocritical and mercenary journalists, academic minions and left apologists of imperialism. Cooper stands out as a more honest, if cynical, imperialist among this gentry. His formula is simple: “liberty” and “stability” through colonisation; elimination of “weak government” though war and subjugation; and all this for the sole purpose of creating opportunities for the export of capital and a safe environment for investment and the extraction of maximum profit by imperialism. This is the sum total, the essence, of imperialist humanitarianism and democracy.

Nato bound to lose

Taking into account historical development in general, and the history of Afghanistan in particular, we can be certain of one thing: namely, that the imperialist powers are heading for a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, comparable to their defeat in Iraq, which is bound to result in the end in destruction of the war-mongering Nato alliance.

At the moment, Nato commands 80,000 troops in Afghanistan, but, to stand any chance of winning, it needs half a million soldiers from the imperialist countries. US overall commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McCrystal, says that he needs 400,000 Afghan soldiers and police – nearly double the number now envisaged. In Helmand there are just 3,000 Afghan soldiers, compared with 20,000 foreign troops. “I need 10 Afghans for every British soldier”, says one British commander. The meagre Afghan forces presently deployed are exhausted after three years of fighting without a break or rotation.

When David Cameron, the Conservative leader complains of a “scandalous” lack of helicopters in Helmand, which, he says, means that soldiers have to travel by road and undertake greater risk than if they travelled by air, he is, without even realising, putting his finger on the weakness of the occupation forces: namely, that they are so hated by the Afghan people, and are, therefore, so fearful of them, that they are mortally afraid to touch the ground. How, in heaven’s name, are such occupation troops to control the local population, let alone win hearts and minds, when they dare not put their boots on the ground?!

Besides, the Karzai puppet government is a collection of criminal war lords and narco-traffickers. The entire administration – every department, the police, the civil service and the judiciary – is corrupt to its finger tips. The Afghan police burgle people’s homes, grow poppies within police compounds, sell promotions and skim their subordinates’ wages. With such a corrupt, demoralised and immoral outfit, the very idea of fighting the Afghan resistance is simply absurd.

The Bush administration had formerly planned to increase the Afghan National Army (ANA) from 90,000 troops to 134,000; the US now proposes to expand it to 260,000. According to the latest Pentagon estimates, it will take seven years and $10-20bn to create and train a force of that size, but there are neither men nor money available for the indefinite commitment that the war in Afghanistan requires.

And yet without a massive increase in the number of soldiers, foreign and Afghan, American and British soldiers will continue to arrive home in coffins in ever-larger numbers. And for Britain it can only mean one thing: the people of Wootton Bassett will continue to line the road to honour their dead – until the day, that is, when the public sits up and says that it has had enough and demands that the troops come home.

That that time is not far off is clear even from the pages of the solidly conservative Daily Mail. Writing in the 12 July issue of that paper, Peter Hitchens almost called for a popular rebellion against the war in these words: “The nation is turning against the war in Afghanistan and it is right to do so. But disquiet and puzzlement must now become openly-expressed anger, or we shall have to endure years of grief and hundreds of sad processions before anything is done. Members of Parliament, struggling for a way to redeem themselves, now have the chance to do so by taking every possible opportunity to question this futile, ill-run and ultimately doomed operation. So far, they have disgraced themselves by allowing it to carry on without any proper debate.” (‘We DO need courage, Bob – the courage to pull out’)

In response to the statement by the British Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth, that we will need “courage and patience” to see the Afghanistan operation through, Mr Hitchens correctly retorted: “Why should we have any more patience with this stupid, discredited, warmongering Government? ” As to courage, Mr Hitchens said that, alas, at 57, Mr Ainsworth has no facility for providing proof of this by volunteering to participate in the “hard and dangerous” way forward of which he so glibly speaks. “This is a pity, ” said Mr Hitchens. “I for one should enjoy watching the entire Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet doing a stint of mine-clearing in Helmand”, adding that “there are other forms of valour and there is one way Mr Ainsworth could win an accolade for bravery. He could admit the truth – that British troops should not be in Afghanistan, that he has no idea what they are doing there, that his department let them down severely, and that they must come home.

Now that would be courage.”

Mr Hitchens is absolutely right. When a conservative paper like the Daily Mail puts forward the demand for a pull-out of British troops from Afghanistan, one may safely assume that the imperialist war in Afghanistan is at a dead end; that imperialist forces can never win it. The latest offensives launched at the beginning of July by the US and British forces will meet with the same fate as all their previous offensives – they are certain to fail.

Far from winning against the Afghan people, Nato imperialists have managed to spread the war to Pakistan and opened a door from behind which the Pakistani masses have surely some wicked surprises for them.

Anglo-American imperialism will soon discover that, in carrying on with the same Bushite policy in Afghanistan, it has bitten off more than it can chew. It has learned no more from the debacle in Iraq than did the previous imperialist governments from the humiliating defeats in other theatres of war.

The imperialists are, in fact, powerless to learn from history, for the economic crisis of imperialism is propelling and fuelling the drive to war as the only solution to capitalism’s crisis of overproduction. This being the case, the proletariat in the centres of imperialism and the oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America have but one choice – to take up the banner of struggle against imperialism and overthrow this rotten, decadent, parasitic and moribund system, which continues to subject humanity to the pangs of hunger and the torments of war.

In any case, the proletariat in the imperialist countries has a bounden duty to support the resistance of the Afghan and Iraqi people to the predatory wars and occupations being waged against them by imperialism, Anglo-American imperialism in particular.

Victory to the resistance!

Death to imperialism!