Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to soldiers assigned to Task Force Southwest at Camp Sharob in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, March 22, 2018. Photo: US Department of Defense. Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to soldiers assigned to Task Force Southwest at Camp Sharob in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, March 22, 2018.Photo: US Department of Defense.

The Taliban is advancing again, met by escalation from Trump and NATO. Amidst the devastation, our leaders still can’t recognise defeat, writes Stop the War’s Chris Nineham

Seventeen years ago, the newly founded Stop the War Coalition warned that an attack on Afghanistan would lead to the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians and devastation in the country. We predicted that Western troops would be bogged down there for years and that far from making the world a safer place, the invasion would lead to the spread of terrorism in Afghanistan and way beyond. Tragically, our grimmest warnings have proved to be understatement.

Tony Blair, George Bush and their supporters rejoiced at the fall of Kabul to their allies, the warlords of the Northern Alliance on November 13, 2001. This followed weeks of aerial bombardment and fierce fighting in various parts of the north of the country. The BBC’s John Simpson literally fronted up the liberation of the capital Kabul. Apparently forgetting he was supposed to be a journalist he and his crew walked into the city ahead of the tanks of the Northern Alliance waving to what he took to be adoring crowds.

The Guardian enthused that ‘the Taliban myth is dead’, claiming that ‘Just as Nazism vanished into the ether…the Taliban brand of insane fundamentalism may now ebb away’.

Resistance and reinforcements

But the Taliban was not dead, its leaders had simply ordered a retreat. Opposition to the Northern Alliance’s brutal rule of large parts of the country, and distaste for yet another foreign intervention in a country wrecked by foreign occupation and war since 1979 led to increasing resistance.

In 2003 the Western operation was handed over to NATO and the number of occupying troops began to rise. Despite this, in 2006 the Taliban started to make significant gains in various different parts of the country.

In response there were big Western troop surges in 2006 and again under Obama in 2009. Bizarrely recycling the military jargon of Vietnam, experts claimed that the aim was to “clear and hold” villages backed up by what were called “nation building” projects.

Announcing British participation in the first of these surges, Defence Secretary John Reid claimed sending more troops was not an act of war and that he would be happy if the soldiers returned without firing a single shot.

A horrific toll

By 2011, ten years after the initial invasion, and millions of live rounds later, there were 140,000 Western led troops in the country.

In depth Research by the Physicians for Social Responsibility suggested that 220,000 people had been killed in Afghanistan, and predictably, the death rate was rising with the number of foreign troops engaged. Western troop deaths peaked in 2010 and reached 3,000 by 2012, including more than 400 from Britain.

The shocking death toll cannot capture the full human horror of the occupation. Endless bombing and ground combat destroyed infrastructure, wrecked an already fragile economy and ensured that whole regions of the country were unsafe. Directly contradicting Cherie Blair’s claims that western bombs would prove liberating for Afghan women, the experience of the war for women was particularly devastating. Surveys showed that by 2011 Afghanistan was probably the most dangerous country in the world for women.

Virtually unreported, the agony of Afghanistan has continued since that time. In fact in recent months the situation has deteriorated. In 2016, an average of 22 people were dying per day in the war between the Taliban and the Western backed security forces. This figure was so bad that the Western alliance decided to stop publishing the figures.

The International Crisis Group suggests Afghanistan experienced the most intense fighting in the winter of 2017/18 than in any other winter since 2001. According to a New York Times special report Senior Afghan officials now estimate that the daily kill rate has climbed to between 50 and 60 in the last few months. Government figures show that the percentage of districts under ‘insurgent’ control has gone up by 50% since 2015.

Seventeen years after the Western invasion, the Taliban is gaining momentum, making territorial progress and winning battle after battle.  

“No hasty exit”

While reports circulate of diplomatic initiatives, there is, incredibly, a new Western military escalation. Donald Trump launched what he called a ‘new’ South Asia strategy in the summer of last year. He promised ‘no hasty exit’ from Afghanistan, promised to ‘pursue the Taliban and others more aggressively’ and added ‘we are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists’.

True to his word the US has led the new surge which has taken NATO troop numbers back up to 16,000 and sharply increased the number of US airstrikes on the country. In lock step with her transatlantic friend, Theresa May recently announced the deployment of 440 additional British troops to Afghanistan in the next few months, bringing British troop strength to 1,000.

Her defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, this week made the claim that Britain has become ‘too timid’ regarding military intervention. Most people in the country believe the opposite.

Terrified of global competitors, the US and their British allies are not just incapable of learning from history, they can’t even recognise defeat. Every extra day we stay in Afghanistan brings more pointless death and misery. Every day makes the world a more dangerous place.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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