Truth of a scandalous war

Obama faces a stark choice in Afghanistan: leave now with some dignity or await the humiliation that befell the Russians, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*

And we all thought we had read and said all that needed to be read or said on Afghanistan! We have heard so much on the shenanigans of the "coalition of the willing" over the past few years that nothing seems to shock us anymore. Yet the shock and awe of the Wikileaks disclosures takes your breath away.

This is the mother all of all exposes, and perhaps the biggest news story of our time, even for the whistleblowers who have made a name for themselves with stories like the raw video footage of US soldiers gaily firing on a group of Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, from the safety of their Apache gunship in the air.

All three publications — The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — that got exclusive access to the archive before Wikileaks released it on the web agree that the West’s Afghan mission is in far worse shape than admitted so far. Nine years after the cowboy coalition walked into the Afghan morass, eyes wide shut, and after even spending $300 billion of US taxpayer’s money, it remains a mission as impossible as ever.

While not even the most ardent America apologists have dared to suggest the West is faring well on the Afghan front, clearly no one in the Western media in their wildest dreams ever thought things could be this bad. The disclosures, based on daily logs of US military operations, paint a picture of the war that is truly mind-boggling and far more harrowing than ever imagined by anyone, including blissfully clueless Americans. In its intensity, geopolitical ramifications, and the utter pointlessness of it all, this war is far more disastrous and deadlier than Vietnam, a war whose memory still shocks Americans out of their wits. From the friendly fire between the US and NATO troops to fierce fighting between Afghan and Pakistan soldiers along the border, it’s a complete mess out there. In the thick fog of war, nobody seems to have a clue what is going on down on the ground.

The coalition totters from crisis to crisis and from disaster to disaster, insisting it will stay the course as precious billions are poured down the bottomless pit that is Afghanistan. The insurgents get bolder, deadlier and more effective as they hone their skills in a game that they have played for centuries. But we have already been familiar with most of these facts, despite the endless propaganda blitz of the US military establishment and the unquestioning US media.

Thanks to some courageous whistleblowers and independent bloggers, the world is not totally ignorant of the deepening mess in Afghanistan. Only we underestimated the extent of the trouble. The highlight of the Wikileaks expose, however, is the humanitarian tragedy of the war, a story that has found little space in international reportage of the war.

While many of us, including yours truly, have occasionally protested, for what it’s worth, against civilian killings and reckless coalition bombings of wedding parties and funeral processions etc, none of us thought the rot was as widespread as has been revealed by Wikileaks. The picture that emerges is spine chilling. The logs record at least 150 incidents of trigger- happy coalition forces bombing unsuspecting civilians, including women and children.

These incidents have never been reported before. They are besides the incidents reported by international media like the airstrike in Azizabad, in Western Afghanistan, that killed as many as 92 civilians in August 2008. In May 2009, another airstrike killed 147 civilians. "Bloody errors" include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers. And in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing an entire wedding party, including a pregnant woman.

The logs detail an unusual cluster of four British shootings in Kabul in the space of barely a month, in October-November 2007, culminating in the death of the son of an Afghan general. These are just some of the many "incidents" that haven’t been reported or recorded by anyone.

One couldn’t muster the courage and patience to go through it all. As the New York Times puts it, "incident by incident, the reports resemble a police blotter of the myriad ways Afghan civilians were killed — not just in airstrikes but in ones and twos — in shootings on the roads or in the villages."

This is not all. The war logs also detail how a secret "black" unit of special forces hunts down Afghans for "kill or capture" without so much as a trial. Not surprisingly, many of these "Taliban leaders" happen to be innocent civilians. The diary also reveals how the coalition has been using Reaper drones to hunt and kill "usual suspects" by remote control from the safety of a base in the remote Nevada desert in the US. So much for America’s mission to promote freedom, democracy and human rights in the Muslim world!

Commenting on the Wikileaks story, a White House spokesperson has pointed out that the "time period reflected in the documents is January 2004 to December 2009," suggesting most of it took place under Bush. But can this fig-leaf help the Obama administration justify what has been going on in Afghanistan for years?

Having inherited this mess from his predecessor, this president had a historic opportunity and all the means at his disposal to turn around America and its troubled relationship with the Muslim world by getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama squandered that opportunity, just as he has squandered all the goodwill he had generated with his historic election and soaring rhetoric. Instead our hero chose to perpetuate the poisonous legacy of his predecessor. So much for the "audacity of hope" and so much for the promise of "change we can believe in!"

I know, I know. Obama didn’t start these wars and he’s not to blame for much of the madness. But the least the Nobel laureate president could have done was put an end to the shame of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Wikileaks logs illustrate in terrifying detail, some of the worst human rights abuses, including old-fashioned murder, rape and torture, have taken place during these wars fought in the name of freedom, human rights and democracy. If the same were to happen under some other regime, the coalition of the willing would have bombed them back to the Stone Age.

The two wars have claimed more than a million innocent lives. What for? And who’ll pay for these crimes? But who can confront the superpower and its powerful allies with these questions? For all our talk of democracy and fine- sounding international institutions, ours is still a world where might makes right.

President Obama faces a stark choice in Afghanistan: leave now with some dignity intact or await the humiliation of total and comprehensive defeat, the kind that came the way of the Russians. For one thing is certain. The Afghans’ legendary patience and their never-say- die spirit will outlive the persistence and fortitude of the invading armies. Ask the Russians and the British.

No matter how hard the West tries to pretend all’s well, it will have to leave Afghanistan, sooner or later. This war has been already unravelling faster than you could say Mission Accomplished! It’s up to Obama if he wants to leave now or stay the course and lose thousands of more precious lives and burn billions of hard earned dollars in the "Graveyard of Empires" that is Afghanistan.

* The writer is opinion editor at Khaleej Times .

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