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Kandahar: The Latest Casualty of an Invisible War

Posted on Nov 16, 2010
AP / Rodrigo Abd

An American soldier on patrol outside Kandahar City earlier this year.

By Juan Cole

Not only is it unclear that the U.S. and NATO are winning their war in Afghanistan, the lack of support for their effort by the Afghanistan president himself has driven the American commander to the brink of resignation. In response to complaints from his constituents, Afghanistan’s mercurial President Hamid Karzai called Sunday for American troops to scale back their military operations. The supposed ally of the U.S., who only last spring petulantly threatened to join the Taliban, astonished Washington with this new outburst, which prompted a warning from Gen. David Petraeus that the president was making Petraeus’ position “untenable,” which some speculated might be a threat to resign.

During the past two months, the U.S. military has fought a major campaign in the environs of the southern Pashtun city of Kandahar, launching night raids and attempting to push insurgents out of the orchards and farms to the east of the metropolis. Many local farmers were displaced, losing their crops in the midst of the violence, and forced to become day laborers in the slums of Kandahar. Presumably these Pashtun clans who found themselves in the crossfire between the Taliban and the U.S. put pressure on Karzai to call a halt to the operation.

That there has been heavy fighting in Afghanistan this fall would come as a surprise to most Americans, who have seen little news on their televisions about the war. Various websites noted that 10 NATO troops were killed this past Saturday and Sunday alone, five of them in a single battle, but it was hardly front page news, and got little or no television coverage.

The midterm campaign circus took the focus off of foreign affairs in favor of witches in Newark and eyes of Newt in Georgia. Distant Kandahar was reduced to an invisible battle in an unseen war, largely unreported in America’s mass media, as though it were irrelevant to the big campaign issues—of deficits and spending, of taxes and public welfare. Since it was President Obama’s offensive, Democrats could not run against it. Since it is billed as key to U.S. security, Republicans were not interested in running against it. Kandahar, city of pomegranates and car bombs, of poppies and government cartels, lacked a partisan implication, and so no one spoke of it.

In fact, the war is costing on the order of $7 billion a month, a sum that is still being borrowed and adding nearly $100 billion a year to the already-burgeoning national debt. Yet in all the talk in all the campaigns in the hustings about the dangers of the federal budget deficit, hardly any candidates fingered the war as economically unsustainable.

The American public cannot have a debate on the war if it is not even mentioned in public. The extreme invisibility of the Afghanistan war is apparent from a Lexis Nexis search I did for “Kandahar” (again, the site of a major military campaign) for the period from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15. I got only a few dozen hits, from all American news sources (National Public Radio was among the few media outlets that devoted substantial airtime to the campaign).

The campaign in the outskirts of Kandahar had been modeled on last winter’s attack on the farming area of Marjah in Helmand Province. Marjah was a demonstration project, intended to show that the U.S., NATO and Afghanistan security forces could “take, clear, hold and build.”

Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine depends on taking territory away from the insurgents, clearing it of guerrillas, holding it for the medium term to keep the Taliban from returning and to reassure local leaders that they need not fear reprisals for “collaborating,” and then building up services and security for the long term to ensure that the insurgents can never again return and dominate the area. But all these months later, the insurgents still have not been cleared from Marjah, which is a site of frequent gun fights between over-stretched Marines and Taliban.

There is no early prospect of Afghan army troops holding the area, or of building effective institutions in the face of constant sniping and bombing. Marjah is only 18 square miles. Afghanistan is more than 251,000 square miles. If Marjah is the model for the campaign in the outskirts of Kandahar, then the latter will be a long, hard slog. Kandahar is even more complicated, since the labyrinthine alleyways of the city and its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants offer insurgents new sorts of cover when they are displaced there from the countryside.

Counterinsurgency requires an Afghan partner, but all along the spectrum of Afghan institutions, the U.S. and NATO are seeking in vain for the “government in a box” once promised by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The people in the key provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are largely hostile to U.S. and NATO troops, seeing them as disrespecting their traditions and as offering no protection from violence. They see cooperating with the U.S. as collaboration and want Mullah Omar of the Taliban to join the government.

Although the U.S. and NATO have spent $27 billion on training Afghan troops, only 12 percent of them can operate independently. Karzai and his circle are extremely corrupt, taking millions in cash payments from Iran and looting a major bank for unsecured loans, allowing the purchase of opulent villas in fashionable Dubai. It is no wonder that Petraeus is at the end of his rope. The only question is why the Obama administration is not, and how long it will hold to the myth of counterinsurgency.

Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is “Engaging the Muslim World.” 


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By gerard, November 21, 2010 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment

Thanks to TaoWalker again, and to heavyrunner for this:  “Every dime spent on Afghanistan should be being spent here at home developing a green economy with electric powered transit and solar and wind power generation.”

TD editors seem reluctant to pick up news from community-level efforts, of which there are literaly thousands going on, and increasing every day, hitting on many issues.  Many people—probably millions—are trying to take effective action locally.  One reason why they are invisible is because places like Truthdig don’t pay any attention to them.  Why is that?

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By heavyrunner, November 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm Link to this comment

The American people have been subjected to relentless propaganda for three generations, at least. First to fear “Communism” whatever that was and now “Terrorism.” Our bankers financially supported the Nazis so we don’t hear about fascism much. (Read “Conjuring Hitler” for a detailed analysis of the financing of the Third Reich).

The terror is in the hearts of the American people after all these years. The man in charge at the San Diego office of the TSA made the claim yesterday that the “4th amendment gives the TSA the right to feel up your balls or vagina.”

Could anything be more twisted? The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the Constitution, were put there to protect the citizens from overreaching by the government. They in no way were intended to infringe on people’s rights. And if feeling up your balls or vagina is not overreaching, I don’t know what is.

But the real reason I am writing this comment is to say that there is scant awareness among the American people of the geography of Afghanistan. Khandahar is in the more open, desert part of southern Afghanistan. It is in the accessible part of the country that is less amenable to guerrilla warfare. If ten years into the war the imperialist troops there are unable to control the area around Khandahar there is no chance whatsoever of ever controlling or dominating the country.

If the imperialist troops cannot control the flat, open areas along the Helmond River there is no chance of them winning in the mountainous areas of the north. If they ever do start to dominate the south, the Taliban and other guerrilla forces will surely move into the mountains where helicopters become sitting ducks and caravans easy targets from above. If the imperialists can’t win in the plains of the south there is no chance of winning in the mountains.

It’s is a tremendous boondoggle and one we can hardly afford. Every dime spent on Afghanistan should be being spent here at home developing a green economy with electric powered transit and solar and wind power generation.

In just a few years we could be independent of foreign oil. There would be plentiful, good jobs. But don’t expect the Wall Street banks to be anything but obstructionist. After all, they have a lot of money to make off oil and coal.

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By tedmurphy41, November 17, 2010 at 8:21 am Link to this comment

Well, you Americans should know that the only involvement needed from you is just to pay for it.

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miroslav's avatar

By miroslav, November 17, 2010 at 7:20 am Link to this comment

the ny times, whose war this is too,
has a news black out in kandahar,
and two of their correspondents there, whom i know, won’t reply to me to tell me why - perhaps they file negative reports and they are not published??

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By Geoff Shaw, November 17, 2010 at 5:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think one of the ironies of both the Iraq war and
the Afghanistan war is that our favorable outcome in
both conflicts probably means that Iran has to have a
major influence.  In Iraq this is fairly obvious
since the Shiites are the majority and if the
situation is ever going to be stable it is because
they can finally control their destiny.  In
Afghanistan the Iranians don’t trust the Taliban so
they have an interest in seeing that they don’t come
to power again. In the long run if we want peace in
this region we have to figure out how to get along
with Iran because they are the local government that
can help our cause the most.

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fearnotruth's avatar

By fearnotruth, November 17, 2010 at 3:22 am Link to this comment

RE: The USA is stubbornly carrying out Osama bin Laden’s plan for us

no so fast

your quoting the CIA’s premiere mountbank - whatever is attributed to OBL, is
fully scripted and when you hear it or see it on tape, know this: the character is
from Central Casting

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By SteveL, November 16, 2010 at 11:59 pm Link to this comment

Think it is because those that control the news are making huge profits from continuing the war?

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, November 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

QUOTE (Gerard):
“If a couple million people stood up and visited their Congresspersons’ local offices or local TV stations, on any given day, demanding that US get out of Afghanistan and stay out of future illegal wars “of convenience”, the worst of our problems would begin to be solved.”

People who have Congressperson’s are corporate party voters.

The votes that “progressive” liberals’ cast for war are truly effective. The world gets the wars that liberals and conservatives keep voting for… together, in perfect harmony.

Liberals reliably vote for candidates whom, if elected, the liberal voters then need daily urgently beg them to not be the fucking fascists they were when those begging and pleading liberals voted for them.

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By gerard, November 16, 2010 at 6:08 pm Link to this comment

“It is no wonder that Petraeus is at the end of his rope. The only question is why the Obama administration is not at the end of its rope.”

Not a question at all. Why not?  Because the country just voted in a bunch of pro-war Republicans, and is owned by a bunch of corporations, all of whom think it is okay to make money out of war against “Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan.” Their cause is aided by inadequate information and an exaggerated opinion regarding the eternal righteous power of the U.S., whatever it has done, is doing or will do. Oh yes, and of course, “we” must win.  In other words,  a ruinous definition of “false patriotism,”  which is the last refuge of scoundrels.

Superficial articles like this obscure much more than they reveal, obviously.  Why?

If a couple million people stood up and visited their Congresspersons’ local offices or local TV stations, on any given day, demanding that US get out of Afghanistan and stay out of future illegal wars “of convenience”, the worst of our problems would begin to be solved.

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By TAO Walker, November 16, 2010 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment

Isn’t trying obsessively to make “sense” of insanity itself a species of madness?  Even granting the good intentions of the obsessed, is there still some doubt about where the road paved therewith takes those who travel it?

It’s sickness that grips you, tame Sisters and Brothers.  You need Medicine, not yet another make-believe rationale for your misery, to get well.

Here it is.  Get together where you’re living and breathing in aid of our Mother Earth.  Help each other heal the many manifestations of the disease in your Personal lives and the life of your Communities….right where you are.  Give your precious attention to what’s right in front of you at any moment, and do it with all the organic integrity you can muster.

Follow the Tiyoshpaye Way to wholeness and health.  Or keep roaring down the highway to hell you’re on now….where insanity ends finally in oblivion.

As us surviving free wild Human Beings say:  It’s up to you.


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By felicity, November 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment

Invisible war?  We have declared war on an unknown
enemy (the guy next door? the guy sitting next to me on
the plane? the guy eating at the next table…?) and an
abstract noun.  Terrorism is an existential threat.

Iraq has cost us $1 trillion, killed at least 4500
Americans and who was the enemy?  Right.  The
existential threat, terrorism.

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By Michael, November 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The USA is stubbornly carrying out Osama bin Laden’s plan for us, i.e., to bleed ourselves to death. We know what his plan is, we know it is working, and yet we can’t stop!

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By skulz fontaine, November 16, 2010 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment

If Lindsey Lohan were getting her heroin from the Afghaniscam well, that’d
make front page news.
If Mel Gibson were ranting about Eric Cantor’s ‘Jew-stapo’ and they’re pounding
on Jewish supporters of Palestine in San Francisco well, that’d make front page
news. Not Jewish supporters of Palestine NOR Eric Cantor’s ‘Jew-stapo’ but,
Gibson’s ranting.
If P Diddy or whatever in hell that fool calls himself these days, were selling ‘P
Diddy Brand Body Armor’ and it failed well, that’d make the front page. Not the
failing of Diddy’s Brand Body Armor but, Combs. Combs? Isn’t that his name?
Shawn or Shaun or whatever, Diddy Combs? Eh, close enough.
Amerika LOVES that distraction. Any distraction. Because you know, war is icky
and ‘we the people’ shouldn’t have to see it. Or know about it. Or share in the
responsibilities for war crimes. Or crimes against humanity. Or treason. You
know, like Eric Cantor pledging allegiance to Israel.
Did you know that the Transportation Security Administration is funding Eric
Cantor’s ‘Jew-stapo’? Well TSA certainly is.

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By Ed, November 16, 2010 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The military adventure in Afghanistan was a complete failure by the end of 2001. The United States has over stayed for 8 years and needs to get out.

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By WarrenMetzler, November 16, 2010 at 11:52 am Link to this comment

Doesn’t it say something about the American people, that the major media
don’t inform regarding this monstrosity in Afghanistan? Years ago, almost two
decades now, I was involved in a situation that received local media attention;
and I stated before the television report came out, that if it was favorable it
indicated to me the American people were becoming fed up with the status quo
approach to that situation; and it was favorable.

Much I have observed since has told me that the media report what the
American people want; picked up through what would be called unconscious
communications; the media doesn’t choose for the public what they become
aware of. So I suggest we recognize most of the entire country is in on this

Further, it is impossible to pick and choose which particular aspects of the
status quo you don’t like, because all aspects are part of the current status quo
approach. So to eliminate actions like Iraq and Afghanistan, you also have to
eliminate actions like social security, medicare, unemployment, welfare, your
favorite earmarks, farm supports, collective bargaining, a huge military budget
(and all the employment it brings to many of your local businesses), etc. etc.

The evil actions we take can be eliminated, but only through a system wide
renovation, not through piece meal picking and choosing.

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By balkas, November 16, 2010 at 9:48 am Link to this comment

to me, it appears as a myth that an u.s govt is not part of u.s governance and of
which even a hobo is a part.

in practise, a hobo, houseperson, or even a young soldier is not allowed to be
part of u.s system of rule.
soldier’s right to live is never glorified but his opportunity to kill and get killed
always is glorified; i.e., as long as his death aids the mafia.

a given soldier may get punishment if mafia deems it benefits them in some
one way mafia benefits from punishing a soldier for his crimes is to make
americans believe that the wars they wage against usually weaklings or much
dysfunctional empires, is being waged in accordance with own ‘laws’ and int’l

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By balkas, November 16, 2010 at 9:23 am Link to this comment

what war? and what will, say, onepercenters, lose in afgh’n? and aren’t u.s raids
very successful? puppetization and dismeberment of the evil empire still
and all this can go on for decades or even centuries. but chunks of land u.s/nato
had obtained thus far, is now their territory.

and aren’t the one percenters—or mafia as i call them—getting richer?

what juan is doing is to simplify complexities, when needed in order to
[deliberately ?] confuse people and complexifying a simplicity.
simplicity being that the engine of all u.s crimes to date committed against
‘aliens’ [koreans, s.e.asians, indigenes, nuking japan], bailouts, etcetc., is a set of u.s laws or really diktats; includes constitution
constitution or ‘laws’; commanding the army to win every war and by any means

in short, one cannot have an infallible [or almost a holy] constitution and a wrong-lost war, bailout, nuking japan,

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, November 16, 2010 at 9:09 am Link to this comment

QUOTE (Juan Cole):

“That there has been heavy fighting in Afghanistan this fall would come as a surprise to most Americans, who have seen little news on their televisions about the war.”

Although war bleeds, it doesn’t lead, because it’s not news.

It’s normative behavior for America to be invading and occupying other nations… just the boring day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade drudgery of a decadent empire.

The decadent American “public” doesn’t want any debate about war. That public’s electorate eagerly regularly provides 99% corporate (R) & (D) party supporting popular vote mandates for a continuum of war. Those consistently popular vote mandates for war are as near unanimous as mandates can be.

The crass conservative half of those providing the popular vote mandates doesn’t care if the wars waged are called “dumb” or not. But the refined and sensitive liberal half of those routinely providing popular mandates for perpetual war insists that dumb, dumber and even their dumbest wars must all be labeled “necessary” wars.

When Americans debate war it’s just about PR packaging, cost/benefit calculation, profit margins, and other managerial decisions:

How many at a time?



How best to advertise them?

Embed “journalists”? Shoot real reporters? Both?

For America, war is just business, as usual. There’s no news there.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, November 16, 2010 at 6:28 am Link to this comment

War?  I thought only congress could declare war.

Glorified star spangled police action with killer robotic drones. 

All out warfare on innocent men, women and children living in mud huts without electricity, oh yes and the occaisional Canadian or SF trooper.

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