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NATO’s mass slaughter of Afghan civilians puts war in the headlines

Published Sep 11, 2009 7:26 PM

As the decision day for escalating the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan grows closer, a mass slaughter of Afghans in northern Kunduz province has put the war on center stage worldwide and sharpened popular opposition within the NATO countries, including inside the U.S. itself.

The events threaten another major challenge for the administration of President Barack Obama, which in the coming weeks will have to reach a decision regarding Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s expected request for as many as 20,000-40,000 additional combat troops plus thousands of “contractors” to provide logistical support. McChrystal commands NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Berlin, Brandenburg Gate,
Sept. 8: 'Armed forces out
of Afghanistan.'
Photo: Gabriele Senft

If the reports in the media regarding the mass slaughter are accurate, events unfolded as follows.

Fighting units from the Afghan resistance seized two NATO fuel-supply tanker trucks. Unable to move the trucks across a river, the resistance left the trucks on a small island. Civilians and resistance fighters were then unloading the fuel in small containers.

A U.S. plane doing reconnaissance spotted the trucks and the people around them. A NATO unit’s commander in the region said later he considered the fuel a threat to the safety of his unit. Without knowing who was around the truck, he requested a strike on the trucks.

Then, early on Sept. 4, U.S. warplanes hit each truck with a 500-pound bomb. The fuel exploded and burned quickly, killing or wounding hundreds of people anywhere on the island. Many were civilians, some of them children, who had come to siphon off fuel.

According to a Sept. 7 report on BBC news, the Taliban, which is the leading force in the resistance, said that 150 people were killed, and demanded a United Nations and human rights investigation into the air strike.

For the Afghan people, this was another in a long series of tragedies that U.S. intervention has imposed on them over the last 30 years. It began with the Carter administration’s subversion of the pro-socialist government in Kabul in 1979, followed by over a decade of CIA support for the most backward and reactionary forces in the country. It has reached a new peak since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

This tragic event, however, also illustrates the current political situation and will have broad political consequences.

The German commander of the NATO unit involved defended his decision to call in the bombing raid. He said he needed to protect the German occupation soldiers in his command. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung has backed up the commander, saying that the Taliban is targeting German troops because of the upcoming national election in Germany.

The bombing confronts the conservative-led incumbent regime of Chancellor Angela Merkel with a new problem just when she had hoped to keep the Afghan question on the back burner. The risk stems not from Merkel’s partner Social Democrats, who also quietly support German military participation in the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan, but from other more progressive parties and from the German population.

The relatively new party called “The Left,” which did well enough in recent local elections to possibly form two state governments, has opened a struggle against the Afghan war in the Bundestag (Parliament). It has also called anti-war demonstrations at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and in other cities.

In Germany and in many of the other European NATO member states, as well as in Canada, there is growing opposition to the Afghan adventure. The massive deaths from the bombing will likely set off a new wave of protests.

Role of McChrystal and the U.S.

The mass slaughter of civilians has put Gen. McChrystal on the defensive. McChrystal had issued orders to avoid attacks from a distance that could alienate the Afghans. The general made a point of risking a trip to the bombing site. He then publicly expressed concern for the victims.

This doesn’t mean that Gen. McChrystal is kinder and gentler than the German commander. It’s simply that McChrystal’s vision of counter-insurgency war comes from his experience in Iraq: The brutality must be hands-on and more discriminating in choosing its targets.

According to an article by Tom Hayden in the March 13 issue of The Nation, McChrystal ran a program in Iraq where operatives from units like the so-called Delta Force or Navy Seals went on secret missions at night to slit the throats of resistance leaders. The general considers this approach more cost-effective than carpet-bombing an entire village.

A recent action by units of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division—they raided a Swedish-run hospital in Shaniz in Wardak Province in east-central Afghanistan, tied up the staff and sought out guerrilla fighters among the wounded—fits into McChrystal’s vision. He may not be as quick to apologize for this U.S. war crime as he was to express concern over the air strike the German commander called in.

On Labor Day the Obama administration’s focus was on its health-care initiative. But Afghanistan keeps pressing itself into the headlines and the op-ed columns. Unlike his critical position toward the Iraq intervention, President Obama has called the Afghan intervention “necessary” and tried to justify it politically.

Militarists, Pentagon generals and the Republican right wing who attack Obama for everything else stand behind him regarding Afghanistan—as long as he holds to his position that the war is necessary and escalates the U.S. military intervention. In contrast, the popular mood, especially among Democrats and Obama voters, is that the U.S. should find a way out of the war. This means the administration must either escalate the war and alienate its supporters or refuse to escalate and become the scapegoat for the “loss” of Afghanistan to the Afghans.

Those opposing the war from outside the administration must debunk the main myths used to justify the war.

First of all, the 9/11 attack is repeatedly used as a pretext for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The truth is, no Taliban fighters and no Afghans were among those alleged to have carried out that action.

The second major pretext is that U.S. and European intervention is somehow improving the horrible conditions faced by women in Afghanistan. The truth is that Afghanistan’s occupation government has passed laws reducing the already meager protections for women, making them virtual slaves of their husbands under the law. The only real advances for women came during the 1978-1992 pro-socialist and secular government, which the CIA did everything in its power to overthrow and finally succeeded.

The third pretext is that the world’s “democracies” are bringing democracy to Afghanistan. The blatantly fraudulent election, held under occupation, is currently debunking that myth.

In the U.S., a series of demonstrations has been called for early and mid-October protesting the continued U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan. For progressive people in this country, these actions are the places to be.

E-mail: [email protected]