Afghanistan: truth from the embers

IssueOctober 2011
Feature by Milan Rai

It is hard to grasp the horror of the US-led war in Afghanistan. It is also hard to grasp the depth and scale of the lies that the war has been based on. How do things look to the masters of war? Watch a chilling leaked night vision video recorded in October 2001 by a US AC-130U Spectre gunship. The seven-minute video (link at the end of this article) documents an attack on an Afghan village.

There is a soundtrack: calm, unhurried conversation between the men in the plane. You also hear their controller at their base, who warns them that the village mosque (“the rectangular building”) is off-limits. He gives them permission to “engage” vehicles, “personnel” (moving white dots), and “the large square building” in the centre of the village.

Massive triple explosions follow, demolishing the “square building” and many others. White dots flee, only to be followed and targeted. At one point, one of the gunners says: “Let’s have a look around... them three guys – I saw them flying apart.”

In a similar attack, perhaps the same attack, on 23 October 2001, US forces bombed the village of Zazi in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktia. According to China’s Xinhua news agency, the public hospital, which had been hit by bombs the previous night, was completely destroyed. The mosque in the village was also damaged by the bombing.

Around the same time, in the west of Afghanistan, US bombs struck a mosque and a military hospital in a compound near the city of Herat, according to a UN report on 24 October. A village not far from the military compound was hit with cluster bombs. Landmine Action, which campaigns against cluster bombs as well as mines, said: “The unexploded bomblets effectively turn into landmines, ready to detonate on contact, causing death and injury to civilians and ground forces. As many are bright yellow and the size of a drinks can, they are particularly attractive to children.” The United Nations reported that people living in the village of Shaker Qala were afraid to leave their homes because they were surrounded by unexploded bombs.

Night raids

Today, Afghans do not fear only bombs and bullets fired by invisible gods in the night sky. They also fear ground attack “night raids”. In our last issue, we carried some reflections on US “night raids” by US activist Kathy Kelly, who has led several peace movement delegations to Afghanistan over the past two years. Kathy considered the case of a US joint special operations (JSO) night raid in the Nangarhar province, on 12 May this year.

JSO forces came in the middle of the night to the home of a 12-year-old girl, Nilofer, who was asleep on her cot in the courtyard. They began their raid by throwing a grenade into the courtyard, a grenade that land at Nilofer’s head, killing her instantly. Nilofer’s uncle, who worked with the Afghan local police, raced into the courtyard, only to be shot dead on sight. Later, NATO issued an apology.

The human rights group, Open Society Foundations (OSF), noted in September: “A dramatic upsurge in night raids in the last year has brought Afghan anger on this issue to a boiling point.” Night raids increased five-fold from February 2009 to the end of 2010.

US-led forces carried out, on average, 19 “capture-or-kill” night raids a night at the beginning of the year. They may have become even more frequent since. In April, a senior US military advisor told the OSF that as many as 40 raids might take place on a given night across Afghanistan. Roshanak Wardak, a doctor and a former member of the Afghan parliament, told a western reporter in May that night raids occur “every night”: “We are very much miserable.”

Built on lies

The war continues despite the fact that the British public – and, since late 2010, the US public – have turned decisively against the war. The British public’s opposition has been neutralised, in part by a stream of official lies, repeated and reinforced by the mainstream media. Ten years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, three official lies stand out. As politicians and the mainstream media mark the anniversary, the very least we can do as anti-war activists is use every channel to expose these lies.

There is indisputable evidence that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was not an unavoidable “last resort” effort to catch Osama bin Laden. There is indisputable evidence that the war in Afghanistan increases the risk of terrorism in Britain rather than reducing it – according to the government’s own security experts. There is indisputable evidence that the majority of Afghans want a negotiated end to the war – and that the west is blocking this possibility.

These facts should be the basis for our national debate about Afghanistan. Whether or not people oppose the war, there are certain realities that we need to grasp if we are to have a sensible discussion about Afghanistan. Instead, easily-available, basic facts are censored, distorted, misrepresented and forgotten.

It is our job, as people concern-ed for peace and justice, to make sure these facts are as visible as possible. This could be through letters and phone calls to local and national newspapers, to local and national radio stations, to news programmes on TV, even to MPs and MEPs. It could be through emails to news sites or comments on opinion-formers’ blogs. It should be our job to circulate these facts to our fellow citizens in our neighbourhoods, in our faith communities, in our workplaces and unions.

Ignoring extradition offers

The first lie about the invasion of Afghanistan is that the war was inevitable, that it was the only way of bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. While the media portrayed the “fanatical” Taliban as refusing point-blank to extradite Osama bin Laden, the truth was quite different. The Taliban repeatedly said that they were willing to consider extraditing bin Laden, if evidence of his involvement in 9/11 was provided by the US – exactly as any country would say when presented with a demand for a suspect where no extradition agreement exists.

One of the most surreal experiences of my life was standing outside the houses of parliament on 4 October 2001, protesting against the then prime minister Tony Blair, who was inside the building presenting his case for war against Afghanistan, and opening the Daily Telegraph. Inside parliament, Blair was saying that there was no alternative to force. Outside parliament, it was becoming clear to me that not only had the Taliban offered in principle to extradite bin Laden to a third (Muslim) country if evidence could be produced against him, they had agreed in fact to extradite the head of al-Qa’eda to Pakistan.

According to the Telegraph, the deal had been brokered by two Pakistani religious parties, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam. Leaders from the two parties, together with Hamid Gul, former director of Pakistan’s powerful ISI intelligence agency, had negotiated directly with Taliban supreme leader mullah Omar.

The Telegraph reported that Omar – and bin Laden himself – had agreed that the al-Qa’eda leader would be taken to Peshawar and placed under house arrest, awaiting a tribunal that would hear evidence against him, and that would be empowered, if the evidence was strong enough, to extradite bin Laden to the United States to stand trial.

Tellingly, this deal was scuppered not by the Taliban, or by bin Laden. It was cancelled by the Pakistani government – after the US government got wind of the plan. It may be that the extradition agreement would not in the end have produced bin Laden for trial. Either the Taliban or bin Laden might have pulled out.

The basic fact, however, is that the deal was not tried. Western leaders made no effort to explore or pursue or support extradition as a nonviolent alternative to war. Tony Blair and US president George W Bush dismissed and denigrated all Taliban extradition offers. Military action was not the last resort.

More terror not less

The second great lie about the war is that it somehow reduces the threat of terrorism. After the death of marine Richard Hollington on 20 June 2010, as the result of injuries sustained in Afghanistan, the new prime minister David Cameron said: “We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place.”

It is plainly the case that British involvement in Afghanistan has increased rather than decreased the risk of an al-Qa’eda attack in Britain.

The statement of responsibility for the 7 July 2005 attacks in London said that it was “time to take revenge against the British Zionist Crusader government in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan” (emphasis added). This was the year before the major UK deployment to Afghanistan.

Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 7/7 bombers, said in a video that the attacks “will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

It’s not just that a reasonable person can see that the war is increasing the threat from al-Qa’eda: this is the considered view of the government’s own terrorism experts.

In 2004, the home office and the foreign office collaborated on a study of “Young Muslims and Extremism”. Their report, drawing on advice from the police and intelligence services, concluded that a major driver of “extremism” among young British Muslims was “a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of western governments... in particular Britain and the US”. The report stated: “the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam” (emphasis added). There’s what people inside the government admit to each other in private, and there’s what they pretend to believe in public.

Negotiate now

The third lie is that this war is being fought for the people of Afghanistan. If policymakers cared at all about the wishes of the Afghan people, they would pay heed to the polls that have shown time and again that a majority of Afghans, while strongly opposed to the rule of the Taliban, want a negotiated settlement.

For example, in December 2009, a poll for the BBC and other international broadcasters found that 65% of Afghans wanted the government in Kabul to “negotiate a settlement with Afghan Taliban in which they are allowed to hold political offices if they agree to stop fighting.”

The US and Britain say that they want a negotiated solution. In fact, a classified White House review of strategy leaked in late 2008 instructed US negotiators to talk to lower- and mid-level Taliban commanders, but not the senior Taliban leadership. A US official told the Wall Street Journal: “We’ll never be at the same table with mullah Omar.”

The US strategy is to use talks as a way to divide and demoralise the enemy, “peeling off” the less-committed, in the words of the Telegraph. In other words, talks are being used as a tactic in a strategy for victory, not compromise.

The US recently sabotaged Pakistani efforts to institute genuine negotiations with the Taliban by refusing to agree to a temporary ceasefire during Ramadan. “The US position seems to be that they’re happy to talk to the Taliban, but only when they’ve got a boot on their neck,” one Western observer told The Times in August.

The recent five-fold ramping up of “capture-or-kill” night raids in Afghanistan is clearly directed at disrupting the Taliban command structure. It also helps to undermine the chances of a negotiated end to the war.

Three lies

These facts are easily available and easily checkable, which means these lies are also very easy to expose. Every adult in the UK who has an opinion about the war ought to be aware of these basic facts. Every anti-war activist in the UK ought to play their part in exposing these three lies as widely as possible.