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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

Marjah: The Long Haul and Naked Truth

Friday 19 March 2010, by Bashir Mohammad

Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the once-Taliban refuge, Marjah, a town of 80,000 residents in the southwestern province of Helmand, along with top US and Afghan officials on March 7. However, the visit, as has been noted in a recent report in The New York Times News Service, “made clear how much further there was to go if the people of Marjah were ever to throw their loyalty behind the Afghan Government.â€

Why? Because despite Karzai trying his best to play to the crowd, that is, hundreds of local residents thronging a mosque in the town, the latter gave sufficient expression of the hatred with which they look upon his government for whatever its corrupt and violent officials did in terms of suppressing them for almost a decade before the Taliban emerged on the scene.

As Haji Abdul Aziz, one of Marjah’s leading elders, blurted out: “…the warlods who ruled us for the past eight years, those people whose hands are red with the people’s blood—they are still ruling over this nation.†He pointed the accusing finger at the Afghan officials, not the Taliban, and also blamed Karzai while the latter spoke to the people of Marjah: “For so many years there were only promises, and the people have run out of patience.†Aziz and others, some of them shouting at the Afghan head of state, recalled the abuses by the Afghan authorities they had to suffer in the past, and gave detailed accounts of sexual assaults as well.

Their complaints against the American occupiers were no less severe. They spoke of innocent farmers arrested by the Americans, the absence of doctors, destruction of irrigation canals, schools and homes taken over by US troops, several houses razed to the ground. Aziz raised a pertinent query: “… how could we educate our children when their schools are turned into military bases?†And then he drew the contrast with the Taliban: “The Taliban never built their military bases in schools.â€

Though the crowd wanted the Americans to leave the country immediately, a view that reverberates across Afghanistan due to the fact that US presence circumscribes Afghan sovereignty, Karzai cautioned against American withdrawal, warning that in that eventuality Afghanistan would fall prey to evil influences from neighbouring states. In his opinion, “We need their (the Americans’) help to rebuild ourselves. As soon as we do so they will leave.â€

What was striking was a question from the crowd revealing the eagerness with which the average Afghan is waiting to see the US quit Afghanistan: “Are they promising to leave?†Karzail instantly quipped: “They would leave now, but we are holding them back.â€

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There are solid reasons behind the Afghan public’s intention to throw the Americans off their back. Despite the massive offensive to recapture Marjah since February 13 through what is known as ‘Operation Moshtarak’ (Operation Together), NATO forces and Afghan National Army personnel have met with fierce resistance from the side of the Taliban. In fact the dogged Taliban fightback despite the magnitude of the NATO directed offensive has come as a surprise bringing into focus the local support the Taliban enjoy. People have turned against the US-led troops also because of the mounting civilian casualties that have prompted even the Afghan President to demand protection of civilians by the NATO forces. In fact as The Hindu pointed out, the US’ high tech electronic war has killed “innocent children, women and men in an unprecedented variety of ways†. And then it informed:

Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire... has assiduously developed a database that seeks to account for every Afghan civilian killed by the US/NATO forces since the 2001 invasion. A master table he has made available to The Hindu indicates that there have been close to 10,000 civilian impact deaths resulting from US/NATO military actions in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001. Shockingly, the data reveal, in the words of Professor Herold, that “more Afghan civilians died under the Obama clock in 2009 than under his predecessor, George W. Bush during 2008†.

It further observed:

NATO may take Marjah but holding it will be another matter. It will make the putative capture of Kandahar province, a more important Taliban stronghold than Helmand, far more difficult. As the civilian toll months, as the dossier of war crimes grows fatter, the entire US project of creating a reshaped Afghan body politic so that it can depart in 18 months is in deep trouble.

This falls in line with what was written by Patrick Cockburn sometime back.

The largely mythical US success in Iraq is now to be replicated in Afghan towns like Marjah and skirmishes there will be heavily reported. A NATO spokesman says the people of the town will soon “feel the benefits of better governance, of economic opportunities and of operating under the legitimate authorities of Afghanistan†. But according to a leaked cable from the US ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry to President Obama three months ago, no such Afghan authority exists at any level. Instead he warned that US troop reinforcements, which are now going into action, will only ensure “an indefinite, large-scale US military role in Afghanistan†.

These fears may not be baseless. As the US-led NATO forces are increasingly drawn into the quagmire of the Afghan war, the 18-month time-frame for US withdrawal from Afghanistan is more and more becoming a remote possibility. The developments in and around Marjah bring out this naked truth in bold relief.

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