“The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State… The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber.
“The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State… The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency… and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.”
This was how author Peter Forbath described the brutal manner in which Belgian soldiers, occupying the Congo in the late 19th century, used to sever the hands of the native population, thereby introducing to Africa one of the most barbaric practices of warfare —bodily mutilation. The exposure of this horrific reality of racially-driven colonialism shocked the world to the extent that it was the catalyst that triggered the end of colonialism.
In September 2010, over a century later, it emerged that a dozen US soldiers of the Stryker infantry brigade based in Qandahar, Afghanistan had formed a “kill team” that allegedly killed Afghan civilians in an arbitrary fashion and collected the victims’ body parts as trophies of war. Documents outlining the charges against the soldiers reveal that the most senior ranking defendant, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, was found in possession of “finger bones, leg bones and a tooth taken from Afghan corpses.” Despite the enlightened values of modern Western society, colonialism is back and even more depraved than ever before.
In July 2010, Wikileaks released documents called The Afghan War Diary, an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to the end of 2009. The never-before-seen documents expose the true face of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how hundreds of civilians have been killed by coalition forces in unreported incidents and how Taliban attacks have soared as they increasingly grow in popularity. Some reports mentioned in the logs reveal how French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, how a US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and how in 2007, Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack. Last April, Wikileaks exposed a secret video from July 2007 showing US aircrew falsely claiming to have encountered a fire-fight in Baghdad and then laughing at the dead after launching an air strike that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqis working for the Reuters News Agency.
US and allied commanders frequently deny allegations of mass civilian casualties, claiming they are Taliban propaganda or ploys to get compensation, which are contradicted by facts known to the military. But the logs demonstrate how much of the contemporaneous US internal reporting of air strikes is simply false. For example, in September 2009 there was a major scandal in Kunduz, north Afghanistan when a German commander ordered the bombing of a crowd looting two hijacked fuel tankers. The contemporaneous archive circulated to NATO allies records him authorising the airstrike by a US F-15 jet “after ensuring that no civilians were in the vicinity.” The “battle damage assessment” confirmed, it claims, that 56 purely “enemy insurgents” had died. Media reports followed by official inquiries, however, established something closer to the real death toll. It included 30 to 70 civilians.
These are but a few examples of the atrocities committed in Afghanistan by coalition forces. For the Afghans, they have become part of their daily lives, continuously stoking anger, hatred and resentment at an exponential rate. Support for the Taliban has dramatically increased, for some perhaps not because of ideological reasons but because they are resisting the occupation. The official figures since the war started nine years ago are that in total, 2,080 coalition forces have been killed in Afghanistan with over half of these occurring in the last two years. These include 1,282 American and 335 British soldiers, almost one third of them killed this year alone. Despite the enormous number of Afghan casualties, support for the resistance is increasing due to widespread belief that it is the only solution; that Western troops will not leave of their own volition. Is it any wonder that US President Barack Obama has set a deadline of July 2011 to withdraw from Afghanistan?
Nine years after invading the country to overthrow the “worst of the worst”, Western governments are now desperate to strike a political deal with the Taliban. In July this year, the Taliban told the BBC that there was no question of their entering into negotiations after US commanders and the British army chief of staff, General David Richards, suggested that it might be useful to talk to them. The suggestion came following the month in which NATO suffered its highest losses in any month — 102 soldiers dead, an average of more than three a day. A Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, released a statement insisting that talks with the US Afghan puppet Hamid Karzai or anyone else would only begin after the withdrawal of all 150,000 foreign troops from Afghanistan. Mujahid went on that there was no advantage in the Taliban participating in any talks since it was clear they were winning the war.
Recently however, Karzai set up a High Peace Council to facilitate talks with the Taliban leaders. The initial talks have covered two main areas: the issue of about 60 Pakistanis in Guantanamo, the US detention facility on the Cuban island, and al-Qaeda. Another aspect touched in the talks was the US demand that it maintain military presence in northern Afghanistan while ceding control of the south to the Taliban. The Taliban have rejected this; they will settle for nothing less than complete US withdrawal. This remains a point of major disagreement. The British government has welcomed the negotiations with the Foreign Office releasing a statement that it had “always said that a political process is needed to bring the conflict in Afghanistan to an end.” Indeed.
This about turn by the coalition forces is a simple recognition on their part that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily due to a number of factors. Firstly, the border with Pakistan is and will always remain open for fighters. In reality, despite their best intentions, there is little the Pakistani government can do about this. Secondly, the insurgency has now spread throughout the country and cannot be contained in two or three provinces. The current coalition strategy cannot succeed because of the immense resources it requires. In a marginal, strategically unimportant district such as Marjah, the coalition would have to keep thousands of troops for years to prevent the Taliban’s return. To replicate such a strategy, even in one province, would overstretch the US military. Thirdly, efforts at weakening the Taliban through the creation of militias, co-opting Taliban groups and targeted assassinations, fail to strengthen the Karzai regime’s legitimacy and only serve to undermine whatever little credibility it may have.
Most importantly, the figures speak for themselves. More and more coalition troops are being killed every day as the Taliban power and influence increases. In October 2001, the Americans were confident of a swift victory; nine years later, they fear the Taliban. Just look at General David Petraeus’ pleas to Pastor Terry Jones following his threat to hold a Qur’an burning day on the anniversary of 9/11. Petraeus stated that “it could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort. It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.” Petraeus was not of the opinion that the desecration itself was a despicable act but spoke only out of fear of what could happen to US troops in Afghanistan as a result.
What Petraeus should realise is that more than the burning of the Qur’an, it is the daily atrocities experienced by the Afghan people at the hands of his troops, as detailed in the Wikileaks report that enrages Muslims and endangers his soldiers. Tales of US soldiers collecting civilian body parts as trophies in acts reminiscent of the most barbaric incidents of colonial history reveal the savagery behind this occupation which will be fully resisted as long as a single foreign soldier remains in Afghanistan.