Sunday, November 29, 2009

Winning the War for Hearts and Minds

Lack of money is the root of all evil

George Bernard Shaw

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

There's a lot of talk of “a war for hearts and minds”, as there was in the Vietnam war, but, as in Vietnam and El Salvador, far more money and effort  is being spent blowing peoples’ hearts and minds out of their bodies and creating grief, rage and a desire for revenge in the hearts and minds of survivors than is spent on providing enough money to buy food to feed hearts and minds, clothing to cover them, medical care to keep them healthy or an education that gives them more than one extreme interpretation of a single book (the Quran) (1).

A “war for hearts and minds” may sound noble and idealistic. In fact in reality such wars by US forces from Vietnam to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Iraq have involved terrorism of a kind that even the Taliban or Al Qa’ida could not match for brutality. In Vietnam  the US ‘Phoenix programme” involved the torture and murder of vast numbers of civilians suspected of being “Communist sympathisers” (2). In El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala US military trainers like General Simeon Trombitas and Major James Steele trained right-wing militaries in how to break the will not only of armed guerrillas but trade unionists and school teachers by a campaign of massacres of entire villages involving torture, rape and murder. One favourite technique was to cut the foetus from the belly of a pregnant woman in front of everyone, then kill mother and child. The same men were training Iraqi ‘security forces’ in the same methods in Iraq from 2005 to 2009 – and probably still are, if they’ve not been moved to Afghanistan already (3), (4).

So the phrase “a war for hearts and minds”, as it’s used by the US government and its allies, is just Orwellian doublespeak; Like “counter terrorism” it means a war to instil terror and fear in the hearts and minds of anyone who might dissents from total domination of their country by those who collaborate with foreign firms and governments to rob them in return for a share of the loot. Some British officers also privately admit it can simply mean propaganda.

Airstrikes, suicide bombings and torture and murder by the Taliban and US and Afghan government forces, terrible as they are, are not the only killers in Afghanistan or Pakistan though. Cold and hunger, diseases caused by lack of clean water and a lack of medical treatment have killed many times more. During the 2001 invasion the airstrikes made aid truck drivers refuse to cross the border from Pakistan, out of fear of being bombed the way Kosovan Albanian refugees were in 1999 in Kosovo, mistaken for tanks and APCs by pilots ordered to bomb from high altitude to avoid any possible anti-aircraft systems. Their fears were well grounded – US planes repeatedly bombed the International Red Cross headquarters in Kabul, despite its roof being clearly marked with a giant red cross (5) – (10).

As a result by January 2002 hundreds of refugees were dying every night of exposure and hunger in the Maslakh refugee camp near Herat alone (11). In refugee camps and villages across the country desperate people ate grass to try to survive the withdrawal of aid workers due to a war begun in the middle of a famine in winter(12) – (15). At the same time US airstrikes and missile strikes killed more civilians in Afghanistan than died in New York on September 11th (16) – (22).

The Bush administration and the Pentagon made a great show of dropping food aid by parachute (which according to Medicins Sans Frontiers and others was far too little and much of it wrapped in the same yellow packaging as cluster bombs they dropped simultaneously, resulting in many deaths among children picking them up) (23) – (24).

The Taliban’s Afghan rivals of the ‘Northern Alliance’ meanwhile robbed many Pashtun civilians of the last of their food, using accusations that they were Taliban as an excuse (25).

You may think that this is the past, but nothing much has changed, except that starvation is increased by both airstrikes and Taliban suicide bombings and hijackings these days, as a result of NATO forcing aid workers to join military reconstruction teams, making them into Taliban targets.

NATO governments still haven’t provided most of the aid they promised. Hunger, cold and lack of medical attention remain killers on a scale at least as great as NATO offensives or Taliban suicide bombings in Afghanistan and there has been very little in the way of reconstruction. This is often blamed on insurgents, like the similar situation in Iraq. Take a look at New Orleans though, where there is no insurgency, and you’ll see there’s no reconstruction there either – unless you count locking people out of their public housing before demolishing it to let developers build flats to rent to the wealthy – something the poor of Kabul have also seen done by the Karzai government and the warlords allied to NATO, who demolished the homes of the poor with their inhabitants still in them to make way for luxury residences for government ministers (26) – (30).

“Reconstruction” is mostly simply a euphemism for theft. Much of the 'aid' pledged is never delivered, while 40% goes to firms from the donor country. The top management in the reconstruction consortia do well from it, so do major shareholders and some consultants. Ordinary Afghans and Iraqis see little or none of it. British and American forces don’t even get the armour and armoured vehicles available. Afghan army and police units are using equipment from the 1960s and 1970s.

There are exceptions, but they are the minority.

Petraeus’ supposedly brilliant “troop surge” in Iraq has not ended the civil war there because there is no military solution to problems caused by poverty, hunger, lack of education and a cycle of revenge creating sectarian kidnappings, murders and bombings. As in Afghanistan hunger, poverty and disease have been increased for Iraqis as a result of the corruption of the occupying governments and the new government they’ve installed.

By 2008 Iraqis were on a quarter of the food rations they received under Saddam Hussein and sanctions, many reduced to searching rubbish bins for food, like many of the people of the Phillipines, El Salvador and Nicaragua – whose hunger was similarly the result of brutal US military-led campaigns for “democracy”. Some of the continuing “insurgent” bombings in Iraq look suspiciously like those carried out by the CIA in Guatemala in the 1950s to justify a US backed military coup there. According to Professor Greg Grandin, they often made claims of responsibility for bombings and other attacks on behalf of non-existent terrorist groups they had invented like the ‘Organisation of Militant Godless’ – echoed by the many ‘previously unheard of’ groups claiming responsibility for bombings today (31).

A real war for Hearts and Minds can only be won by those who fire the least bullets and explode the least bombs; by the side who kill the fewest people and so create the fewest enemies seeking vengeance on them, whether as a result of airstrikes or suicide bombings or torture or summary ‘execution’. It will be won by the side that kills the least mothers, fathers, children, uncles, cousins, grandparents, lovers, neighbours and friends. It will be won by the side that provides decent jobs paying enough to feed a family; by the side that helps grow crops rather than spraying chemicals on them or burning them as part of a “war on drugs” carried out by a government proven by the US National Security Archive, and investigative journalists historians to have colluded with drug traffickers from Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua to Panama, Colombia and Afghanistan; by the side that provides people with a decent education; by the side that helps provide hospitals and the funding to pay doctors and buy or produce medicines (32) – (35).

It will be won by defeating the greatest killers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the world : hunger, cold, ignorance and illness. Every dollar or pound spent on bombs, bullets and fuel to transport them to the war zone is a dollar or a pound that could have been spent on saving lives and winning hearts and minds rather than destroying some and turning others against us.

A real war for hearts and minds can only be won by only firing in self-defence or the defence of others – and not by seeking to secure control of areas by offensives, nor by airstrikes, nor by assassination by missile strike or airstrike, nor by ‘counter terrorism’ or ‘counter insurgency’ operations’. US “counter-insurgency” methods are terrorism and brutality of a kind that even the Taliban has never matched.

A genuine ‘war for hearts and minds’ is won by the side that explodes the least bombs, fires the fewest bullets and provides the most food, education and medical care to allow others’ hearts and minds freedom to develop the way they want to – and not the way big companies and Pentagon planners in another country want them to.

(1) = Professor Marilyn B. Young (1990) ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990’

(2) = Professor Marilyn B. Young (1990) ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990’, pages 212-213

(3) = Professor Greg Grandin (2007) ‘Empire’s Workshop : Latin America, the United States and the Rise of Imperialism’, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2007, Chapter 3, especially pages 90-91, 101 and 116-117

(4) = See this post and Guardian 22 Nov 2009 'US pours millions into anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan',

(5) = Independent 19 Oct2001 ‘Blair in row with aid group over claim that Taliban are looting food convoys’,

(6) = AP 26 Oct 2001 ‘U.S. Jets Hit Red Cross in Kabul’, and

(7) = Independent 27 Oct 2001 ‘Kabul Red Cross is bombed again byAmerican jets again’,

(8) = BBC News 17 May 1999 ‘Nato pilot bombed refugees’,

(9) = Independent 14 May 1999 ‘Robinson criticises Nato'sbombing’,

(10) = Human Rights Watch Feb 2000 ‘CIVILIAN DEATHS IN THE NATO AIRCAMPAIGN’,

(11) = Guardian 3 Jan 2002 Refugees left in the cold at 'slaughterhouse' camp

(12) = Guardian 9 Jan 2002 ‘Afghans eat grass as aid fails to arrive’,

(13) = Observer 27 Jan 2002 ‘Hunger and vengeance haunt Afghanistan's sprawling tent city’,

(14) = The Ecologist March 2002 ‘Media indifference to Afghan crisis :
Why is the mainstream media ignoring the mass death of Afghan civilians?’,

(15) = Guardian 4 Feb 2002 ‘Aid packages ignore starving Afghans’,

(16) = Independent 27 Nov 2001 ‘Legacy of civilian casualties in ruins of shattered town’,

(17) = Independent 05 Dec 2001 ‘Civilians abandon homes after hundreds are casualties of US air strikes on villages’ ,

(18) = Independent  01 Jan 2002 ‘US accused of killing 100 civilians in Afghan bombing raid’,

(19) = Independent  04 Dec 2001 ‘A village is destroyed. And America says nothing happened’,

(20) = Guardian 7 Jan 2002 ‘Bloody evidence of US blunder’,

(21) = Guardian 20 May 2002 ‘Forgotten victims’,

(22) = Professor Marc Herold ‘A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan : October 7, 2001 thru March 2002’,

(23) = Guardian 9 Oct 2001 ‘Border stays shut to fleeing Afghans’,

(24) = Independent 21 Aug 2002 ‘Return to Afghanistan: Explosives that US knew would kill innocents continue to take their toll’,

(25) = Sunday Herald 24 March 2002 Eyewitness: Afghanistan - 'They took our food stocks and water pumps, then beat us',;col1

(26) = Mail & Guardian (South Africa) 21 Dec 2007, 'Housing protests grip New Orleans',

(27) = Klein, Naomi (2007), 'The Shock Doctrine' , Penguin , London, 2007, Chapter 20

(28)  = Washington Post 12 Jan 2007, ‘New Orleanians March to Protest Crime Wave’,

(29) = Independent 05 Sep 2003 ‘UN fears instability in Kabul after Mayor demolishes 'illegal' homes’,

(30) = Washington Post 16 Sep 2003 ‘Land grab in Kabul embarrasses government’ and several other articles reproduced at

(31) = Professor Greg Grandin (2007) ‘Empire’s Workshop : Latin America, the United States and the Rise of Imperialism’, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2007, p 48

(32) = Professor Alfred McCoy (1991) ‘The Politics of Heroin - CIA complicity in the global drug trade’, Lawrence Hill , New York ,1991

(33) = US National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 2, ‘The Contras, Cocaine,
and Covert Operations’,

(34) = See sources on this link



Kit said...

Obama on Afghanistan during his latest speech, "the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

Dave Semple said...

Which is a natural reaction, really, since Obama can hardly reconcile the mandate on which he was elected with handing the country over to a bunch of religious fundamentalists. The US public have enough trouble with that within their own borders to accept it being done elsewhere.

calgacus said...

Half the Afghan government are former Mujahedin fundamentalists. Ismail Khan, who governs Kandahar as an ally of the US and Karzai, is an Islamic fundamentalist. Nor is more war likely to reduce the number of religious fundamentalists in the country.

Plus the Obama administration are negotiating with Hekmatyar and the Taliban - all Islamic fundamentalists - on him joining a coalition government with Karzai, as the Times article quoted above says.

Kit said...

Hello Dave, I hope my recommendation brought you here.

I'm afraid I'm a bit confused - what is a natural reaction? And what is 'that'?