US troops, backed up in a small way by British troops, have launched a big offensive in the Helmand district of southern Afghanistan.
The offensive is part of US president Barack Obama’s military build-up in Afghanistan. He has sent 21,000 extra troops already this year, and by the end of 2009 US forces are due to number 68,000, double the 2008 level.
The immediate objective of the offensive is to secure the area so that voting for the scheduled Afghan presidential election can take place on 15 August.
According to press reports, Taliban fighters in Helmand have mostly ducked the blow, slipping over the border into Pakistan. The new US commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, says that he will use aerial bombing “in most cases” only to help US troops at threat of being overrun. So far no large civilian casualties are reported from the US offensive.
But what is the perspective? Obama signals that he wants to use the military build-up to get some limited stability in Afghanistan and thus secure good terms for negotiating US withdrawal. But will it work that way? It seems not.
On the record since 2001, even if the 15 August election runs smoothly, there is little chance any time soon of the Kabul government establishing any normal, routine rule in areas like Helmand.
Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. Even the US makes little secret about Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s administration being corrupt and mainly based on Islamist gangs from the northern peoples of Afghanistan.
There has been only a token representation for the Afghan army in the Helmand operation.
Once the election is over, will the US troops withdraw from Helmand? So the Taliban take over again? Will the US try to bomb the Taliban in Pakistan, thus further destabilising Pakistan and driving more people into the arms of the Taliban?
Or will the US troops stay in Helmand for a long time, trying to establish a de facto US military administration there?
The peoples of Afghanistan are even more refractory to foreign rule than to centralised administration from Kabul, and an effort to establish long-term US military rule in Helmand would most likely draw the US troops into a spreading guerrilla conflict with local people.
The Taliban represent no sort of “national liberation” or “peace”. They have shown their attitude to democracy by threatening to kill anyone who takes part in the 15 August voting.
Socialists in Britain should support democratic and secularising forces in Afghanistan, such as the women’s movement which demonstrated in Kabul in April this year. In the event of a US withdrawal, we would side with the defence of the cities, where some tiny democratic space exists, against the Taliban and similar. We sided with the defence of Kabul, even under Afghan-Stalinist administration, against Islamic clerical-fascist militias after the Russian troops withdrew (as we demanded they should) in 1988.
Today, it is likely that Kabul, with its population much increased since 2001 and a fairly large Afghan army at its disposal, could indeed defend itself against the Taliban, whose main base lies in areas of Afghanistan further south, or negotiate a stand-off. We would support the setting up of people’s militias in the cities for their defence.
Despite the absence of a strong workers’ movement in Afghanistan, to favour US troop withdrawal does not equate to supporting (explicitly or tacitly) Taliban conquest of the country.
The Pakistani workers’ movement may be able to marginalise the Taliban (mainly based in Pakistan). The US military show no sign of doing so.
Although the Taliban fled in disarray in 2001, over eight years of US military efforts to “pacify” Afghanistan since then have left the country in a worsening chaos of local Islamic-warlord rule. On the evidence, Obama’s new offensives can reverse the trend only patchily and episodically. Overall they are likely to make it worse.
Socialists cannot but oppose the new US offensive and the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.