The reality of Britain’s War in Afghanistan

As the conflict in Afghanistan enters its tenth year, a report by War on Want exposes the truth behi

As the US-led occupation of Afghanistan enters its tenth year, casualties have risen among Afghan civilians and Nato forces alike, making the past 12 months the bloodiest of the conflict to date. US and British forces are engaged in a dirty war in Afghanistan, using aerial bombing, drone attacks, torture prisons and corporate mercenaries against the Afghan people, all of which are fuelling further insecurity and fostering human rights abuse.

Afghanistan has become one of the most militarised countries on earth, with the security sector far and away the largest single element of national expenditure. Recent years have seen UK suppliers export arms worth £32.5m to Afghanistan. Alongside the US and British military in Afghanistan is a "shadow army" of private military and security companies (PMSCs). Between 2007 and 2009, the UK government spent £62.8m on these PMSCs in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has borne the brunt of decades of foreign intervention and conflict, and as a result is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy is 44.6 years, among the lowest in the world. Yet development policy is being used to pursue military goals and to privatise the country's economy, while multinational companies profit at the expense of one of the least developed countries. Of the $38.6bn given in US aid to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2009, 56 per cent was spent on "security", primarily building up the army and police.

The future of Afghanistan is being determined by the self-interest of the USA, UK and other occupying powers. In July 2009 the then defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, stated that "the entire region in which Afghanistan sits is of vital strategic importance to the United Kingdom". British interests in the region are closely aligned with those of the United States. The US considers Afghanistan of critical geopolitical importance for its long-term interests in central and south Asia, as well as for the country's significance as a neighbour of Iran.

In addition to its other strategic interests, the US has long promoted a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan. in December 2010. The US assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher confirmed in 2007 that "one of our goals is to stabilise Afghanistan . . . so that energy can flow to the south".

As it becomes increasingly clear that the US and UK military presence is a central part of the problem in Afghanistan, not the solution, we need a new debate on the occupation of Afghanistan. Over 70 per cent of British people favour a withdrawal of British troops either soon or immediately. Yet all three major UK political parties are committed to continuing the military offensive and keeping British forces in Afghanistan until 2015 as well as maintaining a strategic presence for an undetermined period thereafter.

It is time for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and a negotiated settlement that guarantees self-determination, security and human rights for the Afghan people. We owe it to the people of Afghanistan to stand up for their rights and to end the occupation of their country, so that the process of reconstruction can at last begin.

Yasmin Khan is senior campaigns officer for War on Want.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage