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Afghanistan: America’s Longest War – A talk by Anand Gopal

July 3, 2011

In an afternoon session at the Socialism Conference, I attended a lecture by journalist Anand Gopal. Anand (who spoke in Grand Rapids last year) began his talk by telling the story of a village just outside of Kabul that was under the control of the Taliban. The US convinced a man to go to this village to act as Governor. He didn’t leave the government building for fear of being attacked.

After a period of time, he contacted the US military and told them that he would like to go to other villages to give a lecture on good governance since he now had a better understanding of what Afghanis need. The US military was excited and pleased to hear this news, so they came and got this man and took him to another village via helicopter. After the helicopter had dropped the man off, it began to fly away and was shot down because the man they delivered was working for the Taliban.

This story by Gopal was to illustrate a point about how much of a disconnect there is for the US military in terms of what is happening on the ground and how ineffective the counter-insurgency really is.

Anand then said he wanted to frame his talk around 5 major questions:

  1. How is the war going right now? Gen. Petraeus has recently said that the US military campaign has finally turned a corner and is making headway. The Taliban response, according to Gopal, was to orchestrate a massive jailbreak from Kandahar, assassinate a major drug trafficker and increase attacks. The Taliban attacks are higher than any other time since 2001, which certainly indicates that the counter-insurgency campaign is not being effective.
  2. What is the purpose of this war? Originally the reasons given were to make Americans feel safe and to defeat Al Qaeda. Anand said that he was in Afghanistan when bin Laden was killed and he got lots of calls from international media on how local Afghanis were responding. He said they were going about their lives in normal fashion because not only do Afghanis not care about bin Laden, they see the real enemy as the foreign occupier. Unfortunately since the US has invested so much in a victory, they are going to stay until they can determine there is a victory. This will mean permanent bases, putting in power a client state and maybe remove all troops by 2014.
  3. What is the status of women? Gopal began by referring to the Time magazine article, with a picture of an Afghai woman on the cover whom Time says was the victim of Taliban violence. Anand went to the village where this woman was from and found out is that it was an act of domestic violence, thus making the Time story a propaganda piece.  The reality is harsh for women in Afghanistan, according to Gopal, but it hasn’t always been that way. There were significant gains for women after 1979 just before the Soviet occupation. The US created the Mujahideen in the 1980s, which ended up being one of the most misogynist groups on the planet. Their views towards women became law after the Soviets left the country and have been practiced ever since. For Gopal, the US has done more to destroy the lives of women than help them. Right now the lives of women are worse, because they still live under oppressive local policies, but they also live with the realities of war.
  4. What happens if the US leaves? There is a good chance that there will be civil war; however, the longer the US stays, the more likely there will be a civil war. The reason, says Gopal, is the creation of an Afghani militia force that is similar to what they did with the Sunnis in Iraq. The problem with this is that they are corrupt and violent (a view which is supported by a report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network). He told the story of seeing a video while staying with militia forces in April/May of this year. The video showed militia members taking a taxi cab driver to a town square, stripping him down and raping him with a stick. Ultimately what the US created militia is doing is further fragmenting Afghan society.
  5. What does the future look like for Afghanistan? The only way to avoid the kind of future described in point four would be to have a real opposition group, but the only opposition group is the Taliban. Gopal also believes that there won’t be much of anything else as long as the occupation continues. “As long as the occupation continues and the US commits human rights violations against civilians, things will not improve in Afghanistan and the Taliban will only grow in numbers and gain more support.

After the presentation by Gopal, there was open discussion, numerous comments and questions from those present. Some of the issues raised dealt with the presence of mercenaries, US bases, how to revive an anti-war movement in the US, the Arab Spring impact on Afghanistan and the possibility of a regional peace settlement.

Gopal felt that regional players are necessary for a peaceful solution, but Pakistan is too fragmented and India actually doesn’t want peace, according to an Indian intelligence officer who spoke with Gopal.

On the issue of the lack of a US anti-war movement and Afghanistan, several people mentioned that too many people still have allegiance to the Democrats and have are “conceding” Obama’s complete withdraw of US troops by 2014 as a sign of “hope.” Many people in the room thought this was ridiculous and that there was the possibility of re-building an anti-war movement that made stronger connections with the current economic crisis and developed more solidarity with US soldiers/veterans.

In fact, there were several Afghan and Iraq war veterans in the audience who thought that it is important to make connections with veterans but that it is more difficult since the number of US troops in Afghanistan is still not as big as Iraq or Vietnam and more of the war is being fought by drones and other hi-tech means, which removes more of the human element from the brutal realities of the war.

However, one person did mention that some soldiers who know that there counter-insurgency missions are a complete failure are not really going out on patrol, but are just logging out with their units in what was termed as a form of passive resistance. Another person made the point that the harsh treatment of Bradley Manning sent a strong message to other soldiers that dissent would not be tolerated. However, this means that if more people joined the Free Bradley Manning campaign, it might build solidarity with soldiers by sending a message that there is significant support for soldier dissent.

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