So Australian forces in Afghanistan have recently killed a Taliban leader called Mullah Noorullah. Noorullah’s death has been mostly reported as an admirable achievement, a manifestation of the fighting prowess of those scrappy Aussies. But Mark Dodd’s account in the Australian contains a remarkable couple of sentences:

The incident occurred in Deh Rafshan district in southern Oruzgan, where the Australian Special Operations Task Group is based. The SOTG tag is commonly used by defence as a synonym to describe elite Special Air Service operatives authorised to hunt and kill Taliban leaders in an Afghan variation on the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program.

Say what? When did we decide to revive Phoenix, the most notorious US assassination program of the twentieth century? The Phoenix Program was synonymous with the normalisation of murder and torture throughout Vietnam — and we’re using it in Afghanistan?

Here’s a participants’ account of Phoenix in Vietnam:

The normal procedure would be to go into a village and just grab someone and say, “Where’s Nguyen so-and-so?” Half the time the people were so afraid they would say anything. Then a Phoenix team would take the informant, put a sandbag over his head, poke out two holes so he could see, put commo wire around his neck like a long leash, and walk him through the village and say, “When we go by Nguyen’s house scratch your head.”

Then that night Phoenix would come back, knock on the door, and say, “April Fool, motherfucker.” Whoever answered the door would get wasted. As far as they were concerned whoever answered was a Communist, including family members.

One would like to say that such things couldn’t be happening now — except that we’ve heard so many stories from both Afghanistan and Iraq about misguided house raids that leave civilians dead. Consider the raid by Australian commandos trying to kill a Taliban leader called Mullah Baz Mohammed. According to Time magazine, a witness described commandoes bursting through doors and gunning down six members of the same family. The problem there was false information — the same difficulty that led the SOTG in September to kill a man named Rozi Khan, who subsequently turned out to be the district governor and close ally of Hamid Karzai.

It’s not just the Australian involvement in Afghanistan that seems to be going through a prolonged and brutal process of Vietnamisation.

You might recall how, in August 2008, Barack Obama caused howls of outrage from the American Right by arguing that US troops in Iraq should be sent to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country. He explained: “That requires us to have enough troops that we’re not just air raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there.”

It’s now May 2009, and President Obama’s running the war. So what’s the latest news?

Afghanistan is in an uproar following US airstrikes that may have killed more than 100 civilians in the western part of the country. Reports from Farah province said that on Thursday a mob of several hundred protesters chanted anti-American slogans and threw rocks outside at provincial governor’s office before being disbursed by police gunfire.

In Kabul, outraged lawmakers called for new laws to clamp down on foreign military operations. Ahead of talks with President Obama in Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai bluntly said the deaths were “unjustifiable and unacceptable.”

Naturally, Hilary Clinton has apologised. What she didn’t mention is that Obama has authorised a massive escalation of the air war in Afghanistan.

In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever. April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July. The munitions were released during 2,110 close-air support sorties.

The actual number of airstrikes was higher because the AFCent numbers don’t include attacks by helicopters and special operations gunships. The numbers also don’t include strafing runs or launches of small missiles.

We saw the same thing in the latter stages of Vietnam, and for precisely the same reason. Air power promises victory without casualties. Or, at least, without American casualties — the results for the local population are predictably disastrous. Though the latest strike represents the greatest civilian death toll in a single incident since 2001, over the last year 2 118 non combatants have been killed in Afghanistan.

In their study of the bombing of Cambodia, Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen argue that the huge civilian toll was directly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Something similar seems to be happening today, with the equally odious Taliban making a remarkable resurgence both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan (where the renewed fighting within the Swat valley is expected to produce half a million internal refugees).

Given all of this, the insouciance with which Australia has just signed up for greater involvement in this bloody mess seems all the more remarkable.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey