Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Conn Hallinan, was posted to Foreign Policy in Focus, September 10, 2009
One of the oddest — indeed, surreal — encounters around the war in Afghanistan has to be a telephone call this past July 27. On one end of the line was historian Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History. On the other, State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The question: How can Washington avoid the kind of defeat it suffered in Southeast Asia 40 years ago?
Karnow did not divulge what he said to the two men, but he told Associated Press that the "lesson" of Vietnam "was that we shouldn't have been there," and that, while "Obama and everybody else seems to want to be in Afghanistan," he, Karnow, was opposed to the war.
It is hardly surprising that Washington should see parallels to the Vietnam debacle. The enemy is elusive enemy. The local population is neutral, if not hostile. And the governing regime is corrupt with virtually no support outside of the nation's capital.
But in many ways Afghanistan is worse than Vietnam. So, it is increasingly hard to fathom why a seemingly intelligent American administration seems determined to hitch itself to this disaster in the making. It is almost as if there is something about that hard-edged Central Asian country that deranges its occupiers. Delusion #1 In his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama characterized Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" against international terrorism. But the reality is that the Taliban is a polyglot collection of conflicting political currents whose goals are local, not universal jihad.
"The insurgency is far from monolithic," says Anand Gopal, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor based in Afghanistan. "There are shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits...made up of competing commanders and differing ideologies and strategies who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners."
Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi told Gopal, "We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination," adding, "Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their country."
Besides the Taliban, there are at least two other insurgent groups. Hizb-I-Islam is led by former U.S. ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyer. The Haqqani group, meanwhile, has close ties to al-Qaeda.
The White House's rationale of "international terrorism" parallels the Southeast Asian tragedy. The U.S. characterized Vietnam as part of an international Communist conspiracy, while the conflict was essentially a homegrown war of national liberation. Delusion #2
One casualty of Vietnam was the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the theory that an asymmetrical war against guerrillas can be won by capturing the "hearts and minds" of the people. Of course "hearts and minds" was a pipe dream, obliterated by massive civilian casualties, the widespread use of defoliants, and the creation of "strategic hamlets" that had more in common with concentration camps than villages.
In Vietnam's aftermath, "counterinsurgency" fell out of favor, to be replaced by the "Powell Doctrine" of relying on massive firepower to win wars. With that strategy the United States crushed the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War. Even though the doctrine was downsized for the invasion of Iraq a decade later, it was still at the heart of the attack.
However, within weeks of taking Baghdad, U.S. soldiers were besieged by an insurgency that wasn't in the lesson plan. Ambushes and roadside bombs took a steady toll on U.S. and British troops, and aggressive countermeasures predictably turned the population against the occupation.
After four years of getting hammered by insurgents, the Pentagon rediscovered counterinsurgency, and its prophet was General David Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. "Hearts and minds" was dusted off, and the watchwords became "clear, hold, and build." Troops were to hang out with the locals, dig wells, construct schools, and measure success not by body counts of the enemy, but by the "security" of the civilian population.
This theory impelled the Obama administration to "surge" 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, and to consider adding another 20,000 in the near future. The idea is that a surge will reduce the violence, as a similar surge of 30,000 troops had done in Iraq. Delusion #3 But as Patrick Cockburn of The Independent discovered, the surge didn't work in Iraq.
With the possible exception of Baghdad, it wasn't U.S. troops that reduced the violence in Iraq, but the decision by Sunni insurgents that they could no longer fight a two-front war against the Iraqi government and the United States. The ceasefire by Shi'ite cleric and Madhi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr also helped calm things down. In any case, as recent events have demonstrated, the "peace" was largely illusory.
Not only is a similar "surge" in Afghanistan unlikely to be successful, the formula behind counterinsurgency doctrine predicts that the Obama administration is headed for a train wreck.
According to investigative journalist Jordan Michael Smith, the "U.S/ Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual" — co-authored by Petraeus — recommends "a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with its population estimated at 33 million, that would mean at least 660,000 troops." And this requires not just any soldiers, but soldiers trained in counterinsurgency doctrine. The numbers don't add up. The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies currently have about 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that figure would rise to almost 100,000 when the present surge is completed. Some 68,000 of those will be American. There is also a possibility that Obama will add another 20,000, bringing the total to 120,000, larger than the Soviet Army that occupied Afghanistan. That's still only a fifth of what the counterinsurgency manual recommends.
Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly disillusioned with the war. According to a recent CNN poll, 57% of Americans oppose the war, a jump of 9% since May. Among Obama supporters the opposition is overwhelming: Nearly two-thirds of "committed" Democrats feel "strongly" the war is not worth fighting. Delusion #4 Afghanistan isn't like Iraq because NATO is behind us. Way behind us.
The British — whose troops actually fight, as opposed to doing "reconstruction" like most of the other 16 NATO nations — have lost the home crowd. Polls show deep opposition to the war, a sentiment that is echoed all over Europe. Indeed, the German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Jung has yet to use the word "war" in relation to Afghanistan.
That little piece of fiction went a-glimmering in June, when three Bundeswehr soldiers were killed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Indeed, as U.S. Marines go on the offensive in the country's south, the Taliban are pulling up stakes and moving east and north to target the Germans. The tactic is as old as guerrilla warfare: "Where the enemy is strong, disperse. Where the enemy is weak, concentrate."
While Berlin's current ruling coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives quietly back the war, the Free Democrats — who are likely to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's government after the next election — are calling for bringing Germany's 4,500 troops home.
The opposition Left Party has long opposed the war, and that opposition gave it a boost in recent state elections.
The United States and NATO can't — or won't — supply the necessary troops, and the Afghan army is small, corrupt and incompetent. No matter how one adds up the numbers, the task is impossible. So why is the administration following an unsupportable course of action? Why We Fight There is that oil pipeline from the Caspian that no one wants to talk about. Strategic control of energy is certainly a major factor in Central Asia. Then, too, there is the fear that a defeat for NATO in its first "out of area" war might fatally damage the alliance.
But when all is said and done, there also seems to be is a certain studied derangement about the whole matter, a derangement that was on display July 12 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that the war was showing "signs of success."
British forces had just suffered 15 deaths in a little more than a week, eight of them in a 24-hour period. It has now lost more soldiers that it did in Iraq. This is Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan.
The Karzai government has stolen the election. The war has spilled over to help destabilize and impoverish nuclear-armed Pakistan. The American and European public is increasingly opposed to the war. July was the deadliest month ever for the United States, and the Obama administration is looking at a $9 trillion deficit.
What are these people thinking?
This article, by Gaby Hinsliff and Mark Townsend, was published in The Obserever, September 6, 2009
Gordon Brown faces fresh questions over the war in Afghanistan at this month's Labour party conference, with grassroots activists circulating a motion demanding that troops be withdrawn.
The "contemporary issues motion", which lets grassroots members trigger debates at conference, concludes that "a majority of the public believe the war is unwinnable" and suggests Britain's involvement has fuelled the risk of terrorist attack. It follows damaging criticisms from the ministerial aide Eric Joyce, who resigned last week in protest at the handling of the war.
Lord Soley, former chair of the parliamentary Labour party, predicted that doubts over Afghanistan would come into the open. "I think there will be more people saying what Eric Joyce has said. The Labour party doesn't like war at the best of times."
Soley admitted he had doubts about the Afghan strategy, but said Brown's speech last week had "gone a long way towards answering the concerns". However, he said Brown still had more to do to win the argument.
This week the prime minister faces a new dilemma over whether to push for Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, to face a second round of voting following August's disputed elections. Officials are expected to confirm within days that Karzai got the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff, but allegations of fraud suggest the result may not be reliable. British officials signalled that patience was running out with the Karzai administration, but are not seeking a change. A Foreign Office source said: "There are a number of highly questionable characters in Karzai's government that we continue to have concerns about."
Joyce yesterday broadened his attack, telling the Observer that the government should be pressing Washington harder both for early withdrawal and a tougher approach to Karzai: "We are not in a position to make the Americans make the Afghans have a second round [of voting], but we should have much greater clarity about this."
The troop withdrawal motion is compiled by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, backed by Labour CND and the Campaign Group of leftwing MPs. Motions are not binding on Brown, but represent a serious warning shot in an election year.
This article, by Michael Evans, was published in The Times (London), Augiust 28, 2009.
Just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day, it was revealed yesterday.
The figures were released as the British Ambassador to Kabul admitted that troops could be engaged in combat in Afghanistan for five more years.
The Electoral Commission in Kabul said that early estimates of voting in the former Taleban stronghold of Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, indicated that few exercised their right to vote last Thursday. Several thousand people could have voted.
Four of the ten troops who died in Operation Panther’s Claw, the five-week offensive to drive the Taleban out of central Helmand before the presidential election, were killed in or around Babaji.
The ambassador, Mark Sedwill, did not deny the low vote count in Babaji, although he said that it was too early to be sure. He said: “Panther’s Claw, although timed to try to improve security for people to move around for the election, was not specifically itself about the election.”
However, the publicly stated aim of Panther’s Claw before it was launched on June 19 was to make the highly populated area between Lashkar Gah, Babaji and Gereshk safe for 80,000 Afghans to go to the polls without being intimidated by the Taleban.
Defence officials said that, if confirmed, the voting figures for Babaji would be “very disappointing”.
Mr Sedwill said that there was some anecdotal evidence that people from outlying areas travelled into more secure areas such as Lashkar Gah to vote “because they felt more confident in doing so”.
Speaking via video link from Kabul to a briefing at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he said that turnout was expected to be lower than the last presidential election and that he accepted that Taleban intimidation had an impact.
Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations), insisted that whether the voter turnout was low or not British troops had made dramatic progress in Panther’s Claw. “British Forces know exactly what they fought for,” he said. “They have seen with their own eyes the improved quality of life that security now enjoyed by thousands of Afghans in Babaji has delivered.”
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “If it’s as pathetically small as that [150 in Babaji] then one of the stated objectives [of Panther’s Claw] has not been met.”
Mr Sedwill’s prediction that the campaign could last another five years appeared to clash with the views of Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, who said ten days ago that the troops could begin to step back from the front line within “a year or so”, to be replaced by Afghan units.
The ambassador indicated that it would be between three and five years before Afghan soldiers were trained and ready to take over the security role in Helmand.
In the three years that British troops have been fighting the Taleban in Helmand, 202 members of the Armed Forces have died and about 800 have been injured in battle, 235 of them “very seriously” or “seriously”.
This article was posted to Military Families Against the War, August 23, 2009
The ‘Naming the Dead’ ceremonies, held in Edinburgh’s Princes Street and Glasgow’s George Square, came only hours after it emerged the son of a SAS hero is one of the latest British soldiers to be killed in Afghanistan.
Serjeant Paul McAleese, 29, of 2nd Battalion The Rifles, died alongside Private Jonathan Young, 18, of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment in Helmand province on Thursday.
Sjt McAleese's father John McAleese, who lives near Falkirk, was at the centre of the dramatic raid that ended a siege on the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980.
He was watched by millions of television viewers as windows were blown out moments before the building was stormed and 19 hostages rescued from fanatical gunmen.
The deaths of Sjt McAleese and Private Young took the number of UK troops killed in the conflict to 206. They came as voters went to the polls in Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Defence said the troops were on a routine patrol not connected with election security. It later emerged that Sjt McAleese died in a secondary explosion after going to the aid of Private Young, who was killed in the initial blast.
Sjt McAleese leaves a widow, Jo, and a son, Charley, who was born a week before his deployment to Afghanistan
This list was published by the Independent, 10 August 2009
Guardsman Christopher King a 20-year-old from Merseyside was killed in an explosion while on patrol in Helmand on 20 July. Private John Brackpool was killed by a gunshot wound on 9 July while attached to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. The 27-year-old from Sussex was shot near Lashkar Gah. Lance Corporal Dane Elson was 22 when he was killed by an improvised explosive device during an attack on a compound in Babaji, near Gereshk on 5 July. Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe was a 39 year old from Oxfordshire. He was killed by an IED in Lashkar Gah on 1 July. Major Sean Birchall a 33-year-old, was killed in an explosion on 19 June while on patrol in Basharan near Lashkar Gah. Lieutenant Mark Evison, 26-year-old from London, died in hospital in Birmingham on 12 May after being shot in Helmand. Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous was killed by an explosion while on patrol in Helmand on 28 April.
This article, the author whose name has been withheld by the paper, was published by The Independent, August 10, 2009
My motivation is simple. Writing this helps vent off some of the frustration at what is happening out here in Afghanistan to those serving in the British Army, where death and serious injury are sickeningly common occurrences.
Before coming here, I had done two tours in Iraq which saw fierce fighting against the enemy. But, sometimes out here I feel I might as well be on my first tour, as a novice second lieutenant instead of a so-called senior captain with over eight years experience in the Army, due to a shocking rate of attrition that I have never encountered before.
Commentators keep citing previous figures for casualty rates in the Falkland's conflict, as well as the years in Northern Ireland, suggesting that, spread over the time we have been in Afghanistan, the figures here are not that bad.
How reassuring. For a moment I thought the rates might be quite bad; but thank goodness I have been shown that what we are experiencing is in fact a tolerable "medium" number of casualties.
Can we really only analyse the death and injury rate, or view it as a cause for concern, once we get past a certain benchmark or once the average number outstrips a previous average? I had hoped that human progression was a bit more advanced than that, and that there might be more to the situation than a comparison of statistics.
Then there are the injuries. I am talking about limbs removed, double or even triple amputations, on a scale that we've never seen before.
When you read about a "very seriously injured" casualty, that person's life is never going to be the same, nor is it for the rest of their family, who will be sucked in and forever affected by the aftermath.
So what effect does this have on us all out in Afghanistan? My experience of this is from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guard's Battle Group, who have endured a significant number of fatalities and seriously injured personnel, including the death of their commanding officer.
With each death I think each of us experiences a feeling of total shock, powerlessness and impotence. Within your mind you feel you have to do something, especially if you knew the individual. Back at home that might be to jump in the car and drive to some secluded spot where you can get out and scream at the top of your lungs to let out all the anguish. But here nothing of the sort is possible. You are all enclosed within your camp or patrol base; there is no refuge, no private corner to go to, to deal with your grief.
Around you everything else has to continue, and cannot stop. The radios still have to be manned and answered, the patrols still have to be planned, the convoys have to be organised. It is not as if you can take a day off to deal with the grief, to come to terms with it. And even if you could, what good would that do?
Who wants to go and sit in their tent, sweating in temperatures in the high 40s, brooding on the possibilities: what were they thinking in those last few moments, did they know what had happened, did they know they were dying, how terrified and alone did they feel?
The only option available is to embrace the alternative: keep joking with your friends, maintain the banter levels, swapping smutty jokes and stories – literally forcing yourself to keep smiling.
I do not say that as a praiseworthy example of that renowned, age-old, plucky, English stiff upper lip. Far from it – it may be our worst enemy.
After death, life obviously has to go on, but I have always felt that life should go on having learnt a lesson from that death, improving your life as a testament to that life robbed – not merely moving on with a smile, whilst showing "fortitude".
I am just speaking for those of us who deal with the deaths and injuries in Afghanistan indirectly, as an explosion in the distance, followed by a report on the radio, then a helicopter coming in to pick up the casualty.
As for those who deal directly with the deaths and injuries, who have to go into the Viking vehicles after the explosion to pull out the casualties, who have to tourniquet the remaining stumps after both the legs of a person have been blown off, those who have to pick up the leftover pulpy fragments of a disintegrated body and put them into a bag, I am not sure how they react.
I would imagine in a similar way to the rest of us: you put it aside as soon as you can, as there is nothing to be achieved in thinking about it. All you will do is think yourself into a corner, where you are faced with the absurdity and horrid waste of it all. And if you let that take a hold, how are you meant to perform, drag yourself out of your tent at 4am after just three hours sleep, to go on another foot patrol, another 18-hour convoy, another 12-hour shift in the operations room? It does not work.
There is so much that still needs to be done, there are still weeks to get through, more patrols and convoys that need to be completed. So the event of each death is placed away, zipped up in a mental body bag, back in the recesses of your mind.
However, unlike a real body bag, which fortunately disappears, that mental body bag remains in the morgue of your sub-conscious, quite possibly to come out and be re-opened, once you return home and have the chance to think about each death, each injury, each friend gone.
Then there are the equipment shortages. Due to the pitiful numbers of support helicopters and Apaches needed to escort them, every day troops on the ground are forced to expend an enormous amount of hours and manpower just standing still. They sacrifice their reserves of energy, motivation and willpower securing and picketing routes for the never-ending vehicle convoys that have to keep happening in order to resupply the patchy spread of patrol bases with water, ammo and rations; as well as recovering the vehicles that invariably go into ditches and securing helicopter landing-sites for the evacuation of casualties from improvised explosive device strikes.
I think if Sisyphus (the Greek mythological character cursed to roll a huge boulder repeatedly up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, throughout eternity) could see us now, he would offer his sincere condolences and offer a friendly arm around the shoulder, saying that he knew what it felt like.
If someone provided one of those garishly coloured (army) pie charts depicting the percentage of time and effort sucked up into the black hole of orchestrating these road moves, it would provide a statistic that would be both shocking and embarrassing. It might also partly explain why the military is struggling to gain an advantage over the Taliban and cannot hold a significant amount of ground. Its energy, time and focus is bound up with those road moves, and our most vital asset, our troops, are either sweating on the sides of the roads, securing them, or sweating inside the vehicles of those often doomed convoys. I am not criticising the military on the ground, who have to deal with this dilemma. Everyone seems to already agree on this issue of the equipment, in particular the lack of support helicopters – which rather begs the question of how on earth is nothing done about it? And how does the fact that nothing gets done about it seem to be the status quo and keeps occurring year after year, budgetary policy after budgetary policy, operational tour after operational tour? If a magic genie were to appear in front of my eyes, who in keeping with the spirit of the present credit crunch cutbacks, could afford to grant me just one wish, I think I would simply choose a massive increase in helicopters and pilots – a wish that would have such a crucial influence on what is happening to the British Army out here.
We are dealing here with a tenacious and stubborn enemy. Despite our dropping bombs on compounds that the enemy is using as firing-points, the very next day, new enemy fighters are back.
On the one hand, perhaps the enemy command is so feared, authoritative and manipulative that they force unwilling fighters into those compounds as pure cannon fodder. On the other, perhaps, the fighters willingly go back, despite their comrades having been killed there, so strong is their faith in an afterlife, or so strong is their belief in the jihad they are fighting.
Whatever the reason, they come back undaunted to the same firing-points, despite our overwhelming fire power. Their numbers seem to stay constant, as opposed to decreasing – all of which gives a strong indication that we will not be able to reduce their numbers to a level where they are tactically defeated.
It seems increasingly true that a stable Afghanistan will only be possible with some sort of agreement, involvement or power-sharing deal with the Taliban.
However, as the British Army units here are increasingly sucked into the turmoil of the latest "fighting season" there seems little evidence that anything is happening on the political and diplomatic stage. In the meantime, tour follows tour, during which the most intense fighting appears to achieve not much more than extremely effectively inflicting casualties on both sides, whilst Afghanistan remains the sick man of Central Asia.
I think of a scene near the end of Pat Barker's novel The Ghost Road, set at the end of the First World War, in which a seriously injured soldier lies in hospital, gradually dying. The soldier regains consciousness but due to his injuries can only slur a sentence together, which he keeps repeating. His family agonisingly try to decipher what he might be saying, which sounds like "shotvarfet, shotvarfet". His doctor realises what he is trying to say and translates: "He's saying, 'It's not worth it' ."
The man's father, a retired Army major, in grief blurts out: "Oh, it is worth it, it is."
This incredibly powerful passage goes some way to articulating our response to this conflict. We seem to know and say that it is not worth it, whilst instinctively reacting and saying that it is worth it – it has to be worth it. If I am honest, I do not know what I think about it all conclusively; my reasoning is lost in the storm of media, opinions, analysis that are at play here.
However, I know that no matter how hard I try to see through the clutter of opinions and utter something of my own in order to explain or justify what I'm involved in, I just cannot shake off that nagging, repetitive voice in my head that says "shotvarfet, shotvarfet".
This article was posted to SocialistWorkerOnline, August 18, 2009
Clare Glenton’s husband, Joe, is a British soldier who has refused to return to fight in Afghanistan and is being charged with desertion. Clare spoke to Socialist Worker:
‘Joe’s stand is relevant to what is happening now—to what things are really like for troops in Afghanistan.
The recent deaths in Afghanistan show that the situation isn’t getting any better. I am not only referring to our soldiers. Many innocent Afghans are being killed too.
I was against this war from the start, but meeting Joe and going through this with him has made me read more into the situation and gain a deeper understanding of what is happening. All the troops should come home—there is no reason to keep them there.
I used to think the army could be helpful. Joe went out to Afghanistan with the intention of helping the people. But the soldiers there aren’t helping people.
When you look at the real situation in the country, the poverty, the appalling conditions people live in, and little access to healthcare,
I don’t believe we’re doing what the government said they set out to do.
There is no reconstruction happening. It is just young lads dying, which is tragic.
And the soldiers coming back now have had a really tough time. I think people need to look at what’s happening in Afghanistan and do what they think is right according to their conscience.
Joe is in barracks now during the week. He will have another preliminary hearing in two weeks, and then his trial will start.
All the support he’s been getting means so much to him. I hope people will keep that going.’