The Lost-Cause War in Afghanistan

By Alexander Cockburn

March 16, 2012 7 min read

In the wake of the lethal rampage by a U.S. sergeant who killed 16 Afghans in the early hours of March 11, the Taliban have put a halt to talks with the Americans and President Hamid Karzai, who has demanded that NATO troops pull out of the villages and return to their camps.

As with the burning of the Qurans last month, the Pentagon has been groveling in contrition. The acting commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, expressed "deep regret and sorrow at this appalling incident. 'I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorized ... military activity.'"

Afghans could be forgiven for suffering "massacre fatigue," precisely because "authorized military activity" by U.S. troops and Special Forces in Afghanistan has long since degenerated into a lethal culture of assassination, "revenge" sorties, desecration of bodies, and the harvesting of trophies such as severed fingers, ears and the like. In the recent past, Afghans have also been able to study photographs of laughing American soldiers pissing on the bodies of dead Afghans.

Back in April of 2010, after furiously denying responsibility for the deaths of three Afghan women in a messed-up Special Forces night-time raid, the U.S. commander in Kabul admitted U.S. forces had indeed killed the women after first killing two civilians — a district prosecutor and local police chief. The self-styled American "kill team" shot two men to death as they emerged from their homes armed with Kalashnikov rifles, to investigate as the raid began.

A bit later, the same unit killed three women, from the same house. With equal vehemence, the U.S. military denied charges by Afghans of evidence tampering, but a Sunday Times of London report asserted that the Afghan investigators had concluded that American forces not only killed the women but had also "dug bullets out of their victims' bodies in the bloody aftermath" and then "washed the wounds with alcohol, before lying to their superiors about what happened."

Late last year, four soldiers from a Stryker brigade at the base were convicted of deliberately murdering Afghan civilians in a series of killing sprees and of collecting their body parts as trophies in the Maiwand district. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging between three years and life, though the ringleader, Calvin Gibbs will be eligible for parole in 10 years.

A year ago, NATO helicopter gunships killed nine young boys who were collecting firewood near their home in the northeastern province of Kunar. The boys were all between the ages of 9 and 15. The dead included two sets of brothers.

The one survivor of the attack was an 11-year-old boy named Hemad. He told The New York Times, "The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting." The boy went on to say the helicopter gunships "shot the boys one after another."

This came on the heels of accusations by an Afghan government team of investigators that NATO forces were killing large numbers of civilians in air strikes, one involving some 65 people, including 40 children.

For public consumption, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been "population-centric counterinsurgency," or COIN, "winning hearts and minds," slowly building up trust among suspicious Afghans, all part of the great project of nation building.

The actual strategy was well described on March 3, 2011, on the Amy Goodman Show by journalist Rick Rowley who had spent months in the field in Afghanistan:

"After the surge was bogged down and COIN was failing in both Marjah and Kandahar, the U.S. has turned to a firepower-intensive kind of combat. They're resorting to air strikes. Night raids have risen to an astronomical level where there's a thousand raids a month happening, up from 30 raids a month in 2008. Decades after Vietnam, one decade into this war, we've gone back to body counts as our only way of measuring any kind of progress in the war." According to Rowley, "the covert, dark war has eclipsed completely the conventional war right now, that Special Forces is now killing and capturing, in completely covert, untransparent operations, more Taliban and Afghans than the entire conventional NATO force."

Throw into this mix obvious major deficiencies in leadership abilities by junior U.S. officers and you have the recipe for a constant diet of atrocities. As yet we are nowhere near the truth of what happened last Sunday. Was the unidentified killer actually acting alone or in concert with others in his unit? Some Afghan witnesses say there was more than one American soldier involved in the killing of the 16.

Throw into this mix the soaring death toll from drone strikes, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's border region.

"There's been real blowback from the burning of the Quran, but there has also been real blowback from the killings from continued drone strikes," says Ann Wright, a former State Department diplomat and retired Army colonel who stood trial last month for protesting U.S. drone attacks.

Absurdly, the CIA claims that since May 2010, drones have killed more than 600 carefully selected human targets and not a single non-combatant. Recently, the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded, after a long investigation, that this is nonsense. According to the Bureau, at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 drone strikes on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region during this past year alone. Between 282 and 535 civilians, including 60 minors, have been credibly reported as killed as a result of drone strikes since U.S. President Barack Obama took office. At least 50 civilians have been killed in second-wave drone strikes — shot down as they were helping the wounded. More than 20 other civilians were killed in strikes on funerals.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago. Today, a U.S. soldier is unwise to turn his back for long on the Afghan he is supposedly assisting to nationhood. We can brace ourselves for more horror stories like the one that came to light last Sunday until NATO's beaten armies clamber onto the planes and head for home.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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