a book review of
Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington,
Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence
by Sonali Kolhatkar and James
Seven Stories Press, 2006
a book review by Richard Alan
Leach, March 21, 2007
Less than four weeks after 9/11, on October
7, 2001, the US attacked Afghanistan in the opening salvo of what
was later justified as a new "war on terror." The US
dropped more than 10,000 bombs, including air strikes from B-2
and B-52 stealth bombers and cruise missiles from submarines in
the Arabian Sea.
During a period that ultimately led to
between 3000-3400 civilians killed (1) outright - and thousands
more from starvation and disease as a direct consequence of the
attack - then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked by
an admiring press corps if the US was running out of targets.
He responded with a characteristic quip: "We're not running
out of targets. Afghanistan is." The assembled journalists
thought this marvelously funny. A cynic might say that certain
journalists were deemed worthy of assemblage because they passed
the laugh test.
Thus began the latest of well-intentioned
Western efforts to "help Afghans." Of course, if the
US had really wanted to help Afghans, they would have started
by cleaning up the mess left in 1989, after the disastrous invasion
and failed occupation by the Soviet Union, which some analysts
cite as a major factor in its demise. In the unvarnished history
that Bleeding Afghanistan relates, the US used Afghans
to fight a proxy war against the invaders, and after both Cold
War adversaries wrecked the country, US policy entailed leaving
the Afghans to fend for themselves. A CIA-originated comment (well
known to the locals) has it that "the US was willing to fight
the Soviets to the last Afghan." Today, the Taliban are attempting
to win Afghan hearts and minds by citing this recent history,
arguing that the Soviets failed to win their war against Afghanistan
even though they were not bogged down elsewhere.
The authors of Bleeding Afghanistan
are Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, the co-directors of the
Afghans Women's Mission, a US-based grassroots organization that
is affiliated with the Revolutionary Association of the Women
of Afghanistan, or RAWA, a collective of courageous Afghan feminists
working for social change within the country. In their research,
Kolhatkar and Ingalls spent most of 2005 in Afghanistan conducting
interviews that form much of the groundwork for Bleeding Afghanistan.
Their book provides a nuanced corrective to recent history, which
is submerged under a mainstream media whitewash. Kolhatkar and
Ingalls cite the self-serving (and largely ignored) reasons for
the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan: to "restore imperial
prestige" undermined by 9/11; to pave a "stepping-stone
to Iraq"; to demonstrate that "imperial democracy"
can be imposed by force to turn a failed state "into an upwardly-mobile
democracy"; to shore up future Republican gains with "election
propaganda"; and to provide a "war on terror demonstration."
After the splintering of the Soviet Union,
the US and its allies began jockeying for position in a region
that is a strategic prize in the new "great game" -
for petroleum resources. The old Great Game was played in the
19th and early 20th century by the major world powers (Britain,
France, Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey). During this period,
Great Britain fought three failed wars against Afghanistan.
Recognizing that increasing amounts of
oil and natural gas must be imported from Central Asia within
the next twenty years, the US has made deals with authoritarian
regimes in the region since the Clinton era. The world's richest
untapped oil source is the Caspian Basin, which includes parts
of Russia and Iran, and the five independent republics of Tajikistan,
Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (which houses
the largest US base in Central Asia). The authors of Bleeding
Afghanistan reiterate what many analysts have long warned
against: that this provocative period of US adventurism "may
spark a new era of Cold War-style tension with China and Russia."
As the US extends its reach from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian
Sea Basin, new alliances are being formed among Russia, China,
and India in a region that was formerly Russia's backyard. On
July 13th, 2006, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline (which
reaches the Mediterranean by bypassing Russia) was formally opened.
In March, 2007, Russia countered with a new pipeline deal with
Greece and Bulgaria to host a pipeline to the Mediterranean from
the Black Sea.
Historical ironies abound: after the former
Soviet Union invaded in 1979, Moscow emphasized its construction
of schools and clinics, while its military worked to feed hungry
Afghans and free the women from misogynist oppression. The West
rightly dismissed such actions as public relations tactics: the
"evil empire" could not disguise the fact that it was
an invader against the will of the Afghan majority and a recognized
government. The humiliating pullout by the Soviets in 1989 was
followed by a civil war and the advent of Taliban rule. The US
soon recognized the Taliban because, as the authors assert, "an
internationally recognized government would enable World Bank
funding for Unocal oil and gas pipelines." Bleeding
Afghanistan also emphasizes that realpolitik trumped
As long as the Taliban resisted Russian,
Iranian, or Chinese influence, brought their country under unified
control, and confined their mayhem to within the border of Afghanistan,
they were acceptable to the US.
- but that was before September 11th 2001,
which provided the opportunity for "regime change" in
Kabul. Early that same year, the Taliban fell out of favor with
Washington after rejecting a bid from Unocal for pipeline construction
(in favor of an Argentinean firm).
As the writings of Bob Woodward, Seymour
Hersh, and Richard Clarke have documented, Afghanistan was selected
as a test-case before the main event: an invasion of Iraq. September
11th also provided the US with a convenient opening to justify
the use of force to its people while attempting to gain a stronger
foothold in the region. While Central Asia is estimated to contain
46% of the world's gas reserves, Afghanistan also has a large
supply of recently discovered natural gas (1.6 billion barrels,
mostly in the Afghan-Tajik basin). One pipeline route (dubbed
the "new Silk Road") reaches from Uzbekistan to Karachi,
Pakistan, via Kabul. Such crass commercial considerations are
central, yet are usually hidden. The neocons felt that the American
people must remain innocent of the knowledge of US long-term geopolitical
goals for the region - and their likely human cost - as the reality
would not sell well. So the Bush administration billed "Operation
Enduring Freedom" (OEF) as a military action that would capture
or kill Osama Bin Laden, and overthrow the Taliban.
Washington's post-9/11 goals were furthered
by the US mainstream media's presentation of them. Military officials
explain why we should support the mission while journalists interviewing
them largely ignore such matters as the priority of military base
construction over reconstruction, trans-Afghan pipeline routes,
or long-term US geopolitical goals.
Among the Western public, only the naïve
believe that "helping Afghans" could be a priority either
then or now - but, of course, Western propaganda induces naïveté.
As cheap symbolism is preferable to nuanced explanations, the
burqa was ideal for the image-makers. The fact that Afghan women,
especially in rural areas, actually preferred to wear this traditional
garment, was ignored. Naturally enough, they regard the covering
as a minor issue compared to their lack of access to health care
In Afghanistan, "cultural backwardness"
is a trait shared by many rival tribes: as bad as he is, the Taliban
is only one of many offenders. A broader context from the media
would have revealed that the abuse of women is no better in other
parts of central Asia, such as eastern Turkey, rural Pakistan,
and India. Of course, during the Soviet occupation, it was off
the agenda to reveal the attitude towards women of the US-backed
mujahedeen or "freedom fighters" (and forerunners of
The new Western campaign against the burqa
turned it into a simplistic symbol of women's oppression. As Kolhatkar
and Ingalls point out, it reinforced negative stereotypes and
failed to reflect the contemporary history of women's movements
in Afghanistan. RAWA, for example, has extended its mandate by
opposing both indigenous fundamentalism and Western imperialism.
Clearly, for the Western media, this would not do. Kolhatkar and
Ingalls point out that "Militant and vocal Afghan women are
not as easy to 'liberate' as those who are voiceless and faceless
and can be portrayed as dependent on the benevolence of foreigners."
The authors remind us that, after the impending invasion of Afghanistan
was announced, a spate of "blue burqa books" soon appeared
which condemned Taliban repression against women. However,
the narrow focus of this curiously-timed new industry implied
that Afghan women's problems began with the Taliban. This selective
moral outrage was highly serviceable to US policy.
On January, 2002, in his State of the
Union address, President George W. Bush remarked that "the
last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of
Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working
or going to school Today, the women of Afghanistan are free"
Thus, the media were signaled by Washington to provide coverage
of a liberated people. On the ground in Afghanistan, TV journalists
paid Afghan women to remove their tent-like garments, toss them
into a bonfire, and parade their newly-liberated selves before
the TV cameras. After the cameras were switched off, the women
promptly donned new burqas. Such propaganda works. Among US Congress
members who opposed the war and occupation of Iraq, virtually
all have supported the war in Afghanistan; among US soldiers who
applied for conscientious objector status in Iraq, most indicated
a willingness to serve in the "good" war in Afghanistan.
Little has changed for women or impoverished
Afghans under the rule of our new warlord friends, for whom Hamid
Karzai serves as front man. The US media now engages in what Kolhatkar
and Ingalls call "the propaganda of silence" (shifting
focus elsewhere to reinforce the belief that Afghanistan's problems
were solved by the US). These days, the subject of women's oppression
is "no longer fashionable to discuss, as it is perpetrated
by US allies and is inconsistent with the supposed 'liberation'
of Afghan women [so] there are few if any such books published."
The notion that foreign troops can elevate
a society from cultural lag is an absurdity. In reality, a legacy
of lawlessness has been restored under another faction, the former
Soviet collaborators of the Northern Alliance, whose warlords,
drug lords, and unpunished war criminals serve as part of Afghanistan's
fledgling "democracy," to the outrage of many Afghanis.
In Canada, roughly half the population is skeptical of its leading
role in support of Washington's geopolitical designs, and greater
numbers of Americans are now beginning to oppose the Afghan mission
In a stage-managed election held in December,
2004, Washington's man was sworn in as the newly elected President.
All parties opposed to the American occupation were excluded,
including the Pashtun majority. To his credit, Hamid Karzai is
a liberal Pashtun and no warlord, yet not only was he an unknown
figure on the world stage, he was largely unknown to Afghans as
well. An oft-heard charge against Karzai concerns his possible
ties to Unocal. After one year of research in the country, the
authors of Bleeding Afghanistan found that the charge
is without foundation. However, Karzai's previous utility as a
CIA asset explains why the "Mayor of Kabul" was hand-picked
by Washington to be the face of the new US- and NATO-backed coalition
government. Recently, Afghanis have begun to chant "Death
to Karzai" alongside "Death to America." The paid
hirelings who protect him will be needed for as long as he pretends
to represent people who overwhelmingly regard him as an American
This book also gives the lie to the claim
that soldiers can assist aid workers in reconstruction. Médecins
Sans Frontières pulled out of the country in 2004.(3) Such
organizations as CARE have also complained of the increased dangers
to their workers when the distinction between them and soldiers
is blurred. The military have sometimes offered "conditional"
aid to Afghans in exchange for their cooperation in identifying
insurgents. What our media don't tell us is that rural Afghanis
often claim that their lives were better under Taliban rule, since
they now have less security, electricity, or clean water than
before the US-led war and occupation. Such a perspective is elided
here, as it would encourage cognitive dissonance in the Western
The "propaganda of silence"
can easily be seen following the Soviet pullout in 1989, which
resulted in a catastrophic civil war (1992-1996). This corresponded
to a drastic decline in coverage. Kolhatkar and Ingalls searched
an online database representing the five major newspapers comprising
the prestige press (the New York Times, the Washington
Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street
Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor). Reviewing
the extent of news coverage between 1975 and 2005, their quantitative
analysis reveals a pattern whereby coverage reflects the strategic
importance of Afghanistan to Washington policymakers (not concern
about the plight of Afghanis). The authors cite an editorial from
the conservative newsmagazine The Economist, which revealed
the underlying values:
The war may be sad for Afghans, but does
it matter to the rest of the world? For nine years, while the
Soviet army was in occupation it had the status of an international
problem then, suddenly, the invaders were gone, driven out by
the mujahedeen anyway, problem over.
- that is, our problems were over, not
theirs. After the Soviets left, Afghanistan's internecine civil
war was of little concern to Western governments, so it became
irrelevant to media managers as well: those who see nothing wrong
with jumping on the bandwagon to help "clarify" our
strategic interests at other times.
The record of the warlords of the Northern
Alliance during the Soviet occupation revealed them to be even
more brutal than the Taliban. Their depredations were so extreme
that the Taliban was initially welcomed by Afghans hoping for
the restoration of some kind of order. Yet it has never been Washington's
goal to tamp down the ethnic rivalries that plague such countries.
As noted, Kolhatkar and Ingalls make clear that "the primary
concern was the Soviet presence and its threat to US influence."
Then, as now,
The price of this for the Afghan people
was never considered. Progressive or secular groups interested
in gaining control over their own country might not be willing
to shed enough blood. To the US, the Afghans were cannon fodder.
It is easy to predict that the failed
campaign in Iraq will prompt the US government-media axis to resume
Afghanistan coverage in order to consolidate Washington's "war
on terror" there. Against an impending PR blitz, this book
is an essential antidote to the skewed media picture of a "successful"
occupation undertaken by a benevolent Western coalition.
The authors counsel against the arrogance
of paternalism. If the major powers really wanted to "help
Afghans," they emphasize, instead of deciding which warlord
faction to support in our own interest, we would ask the Afghan
people what they want. Such a standpoint, of course, is
remote from that of our political and military establishments,
whose mantra is that "we" will decide what is best,
both for Afghans and for our "national interest" (and
when these conflict, it is easy to guess whose interests will
Surprisingly, Kolhatkar and Ingalls do
not suggest that all foreign troops should simply go home. They
remind us that we have a collective responsibility to face up
to the crimes of our governments against the Afghan people. By
way of restitution, foreign troops not operating under OEF or
NATO could gradually return, but solely as peacekeepers with the
goal of preventing another civil war, not to hunt down designated
"terrorists." Such troops could assist Western aid workers
to provide security, disarm warlords, and help to rebuild infrastructure.
Of course, this is what Western propaganda
claims the soldiers are doing now, but the reality is that the
US and NATO have prevented the introduction of an international
peacekeeping force. The insurgents recognize what we do not: that
the goal of propping up the puppet regime in Kabul and consolidating
a Western presence in this strategic area has priority over all
humanitarian endeavors. Like the Iraqis, the Afghanis know their
history, and recognize that, like every invader before it, the
US-led NATO alliance acts in accordance with the self-interest
of its member states. Washington has promised NATO members privileged
access to the area's energy resources in exchange for their cooperation
in the humanitarian endeavor of helping Afghans by hunting Afghans.
Today, Afghanistan is a US- and NATO-controlled
narcostate, which actively prioritizes search and destroy missions
(which kill innocent civilians) over anti-poverty or reconstruction
programs. In 2006, more than 4000 Afghan civilians died in the
violence: twice as many as the previous year. The number of attacks
against troops skyrocketed in 2006 as well. As is well known,
the focus on a military solution is the problem. For every insurgent
killed, a dozen more are recruited. The year 2006 witnessed as
many US aerial bombing campaigns in Afghanistan as the previous
five years, yet NATO forces suffered their highest casualty rate
since the beginning of the occupation.
We are bleeding the Afghans, but not to
death: these fierce tribal warriors represent a long history of
resistance to would-be conquerors. As a result, the current spring
offensive is not another Western response to what used to be a
"low-intensity war." The resurgent (4) Taliban are assisted
by new recruits who do not share the sectarian religious ideology
of the Taliban but concur with their anti-imperialist goals. The
Iraq debacle is a foretaste of our future in a doomed occupation
in Afghanistan as well, with increasingly hated Western forces
facing xenophobic nationalists who comprise the Pashtun majority.
All foreigners who arrive to "help Afghans" - while
propping up a non-representative, puppet government - eventually
learn this lesson, from the Macedonians of Alexander to the former
Soviet Union. As former Soviet soldier and veteran Afghan fighter
Sergey Kirjushin (5) recently remarked: "Every nation that
goes to fight in Afghanistan discovers [that] nobody has ever
conquered that place. Even children were involved. They would
blow up our tanks."
Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords,
and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls,
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006.
Contributor Richard Alan Leach most recently
taught at the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)
in South Korea. He writes on Asian and English literatures, East
Asian politics, and defense and security issues. In addition to
his academic writing, he has written numerous newspaper and magazine
articles, book reviews, and editorials.