War Without End - Afghanistan
by Katherine Dwyer
International Socialist Review,
This past June, George W. Bush greeted
Afghanistan's visiting interim president Hamid Karzai with a speech
celebrating the liberation of Afghanistan. Bush commended Karzai's
"journey to democracy and peace" and announced, "Coalition
forces, including many brave Afghans, have brought America, Afghanistan
and the world its first victory in the war on terror."
No sooner were Bush and Karzai done congratulating
themselves than rockets were fired at NATO forces headquarters
in Kabul. In the countryside, continued violence-including attacks
on UN workers registering people to vote have forced the interim
government to push off elections that were originally slated for
June to September, and now to October. Many observers on the ground
question whether elections will be possible at all this fall given
the mayhem racking Afghanistan.
Ordinary Afghans face a war without end.
Despite Bush's claims about the U.S. bringing peace, democracy,
and an end to terror to Afghanistan, the truth is that Afghanistan
today exists in a state of total chaos. As journalist and filmmaker
John Pilger observed on a recent trip to Afghanistan:
In a lifetime of making my way through
places of upheaval, I had not seen anything like it. Kabul is
a glimpse of Dresden post-1945, with contours of rubble rather
than streets, where people live in collapsed buildings, like earthquake
victims waiting for rescue. They have no light and heat; their
apocalyptic fires burn through the night. Hardly a wall stands
that does not have pock-marks of almost every calibre of weapon.
Cars lie upended at roundabouts. Power poles built for a modern
fleet of trolley buses are twisted like paperclips. The buses
are stacked on top of each other, reminiscent of the pyramids
of machines erected by the Khmer Rouge to mark Year Zero.'
Outside Kabul, the situation is even worse.
Over eight hundred people have been killed in Afghanistan this
year alone.' Despite Bush's self-proclaimed success in the war
on terror, local government officials report that the Taliban
has taken back power over several areas, including the provinces
of Zabul and Oruzan, and half of Kandahar. As journalist Kim Sengupta
describes, "In the dusty town of Spin Boldak close to the
border with Pakistan in the east, where the Taliban was born,
black and green flags celebrate its rebirth."' In other parts
of the country outside Kabul, infighting between warlords-many
of them sponsored by the U.S.-is so bad that the international
security forces operating under NATO cannot leave the capitol
for fear of getting shot.
Two million Afghan refugees have been
driven into neighboring countries, and three hundred thousand
people are been forced to move out of their homes inside Afghanistan.'
Many have been displaced because of either warring in the countryside
by rival military leaders or because greedy land speculators-with
the help of government officials-have stolen their land.
Despite claimed improvements in health
care, education, and infrastructure, the average life expectancy
for adults has dropped from forty-six in 2001 to forty-three in
2004. An estimated 14 percent of all children born in Afghanistan
today will die before they reach the age of five. This year, only
9 percent of Afghans have access to electricity and 6 percent
have access to safe drinking water. According to the UN, polio,
scurvy, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and anemia rates all remain
"unacceptably high," and maternal mortality rates are
among the highest in the world.' Pregnancy and childbirth are
the leading cause of death for Afghan women. It is estimated that
one woman dies every twenty minutes in pregnancy and childbirth,
and outside Kabul, 11 percent of all women die in childbirth.
In the city of Herat, less than 1 percent of women give birth
with a trained attendant!
These facts fly in the face of the idea
that the war on terrorism has done anything to liberate women.
During the war, Laura Bush proudly claimed, "Because of our
recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer
imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also
a fight for the rights of women."' Unfortunately, many liberals
and even leftists who should have supported the antiwar movement
at the time bought into the idea that the U.S. would help Afghan
In reality; U.S. military gains in the
region have brought nothing but misery and fear for women. In
addition to the desperate conditions women face as a result of
the poverty perpetuated by the U.S. war, women continue to face
discrimination and oppression at the hands of U.S. allies in the
Northern Alliance. As Amnesty International reports,
Two years after the ending of the Taliban
regime, the international community and the Afghan transitional
administration, led by President Karzai, have proven unable to
protect women. The risk of rape and sexual violence by members
of armed factions and former combatants is still high. Forced
marriages, particularly of girls and children, and violence against
women in the family, are widespread in many areas.'
While the new government has passed laws
to end discrimination against women, it has virtually no power
to uphold those laws. As a consequence, women still cannot travel
alone, hold jobs, or safely attend schools. As Dr. Sima Samar,
the former minister of women's affairs who was kicked out of the
current government for alleged blasphemy after years of delivering
medical care to women under the Taliban regime told one journalist,
For the past 23 years, I was not safe,
but I was never in hiding or traveling with gunmen, which I must
do now... There is no more official law to stop women from going
to school or work; there is no law about dress code. But the reality
is that even under the Taliban there was not the pressure on women
in the rural areas there is now."
The condition of women in Afghanistan
cannot be separated from the overall immiseration of the country.
The infrastructure has been so decimated that, according to Dr.
Yon Fleekrackers of the World Health Organization, "in some
areas there is absolutely no basic health care available."
What health care and other basic services exist rely on aid organizations
rather than the central government. Independent aid groups, for
example, oversee 70 percent of all medical programs."
The Afghan economy shows no signs of improvement,
with a per capita GDP of $190. Eighty percent of the population
is employed in agriculture, with only 10 percent in services and
industry. The illegal opium trade valued at $2.3 billion last
year-is the only substantial area of growth." Afghanistan
accounts for 75 percent of the world's output of opium and opium
exports make up 50 percent of the country's GDP. In what amounts
to a desperately poor peasant economy, poppies-the basis for making
opium and heroin-is by far the most lucrative cash crop. Farmers
can make ten times the amount growing poppies that they would
earn growing wheat. As a result, farmers intend to increase production
in coming years. Last year, 69 percent of poppy farmers said they
would increase production in the future, and 43 percent of those
not now growing poppy said they planned to start. 13 Of course,
the majority of the profits from opium sales go to Northern Alliance
thugs-the warlord armies that helped the U.S. beat the Taliban-who
control the opium trade.
The war rages on
For the vast majority of Afghans, the
war launched in 2001 continues today. An estimated four hundred
children are killed each month by landmines. By some estimates,
landmines blow up or injure someone every hour." In rural
areas, people scavenging for food still frequently mistake unexploded
yellow cluster bombs for similar looking aid packages dropped
by the U.S. during the war.
No one knows how many civilians have died
because of the continuing "war on terror." According
to one report published in the Guardian newspaper, twenty thousand
Afghans were killed as an "indirect consequence" of
the U.S. invasion, in addition to the eight thousand killed directly
by bombs." Civilians continue to die as a result of raids
on alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban targets. In December 2003, sixteen
civilians were killed in a raid on a supposed terrorist target-fifteen
of them children. The U.S. military responded to the incident
by blaming the children for being in the way of U.S. bombs. As
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty explained, "If noncombatants surround
themselves with thousands of weapons... in a compound know to
be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for
That raid was part of "Operation
Avalanche," in which the U.S. collaborated with the Pakistani
military in an attempt to drive al-Qaeda and remaining Taliban
supporters over the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, where
coalition forces could crush them. This strategy has amounted
to declaring war on all Afghan civilians living in the area, who
are all treated as potential terrorists.
An open letter from the villagers of Lejay
to the UN explains, "The Americans searched our province.
They did not find Mullah Omar, they did not find Osama bin Laden,
and they did not find any Taliban. They arrested old men, drivers,
and shopkeepers, and they injured women and children.""
Thousands of these civilians have been
detained, imprisoned, and tortured as suspected terrorists. Many
are taken to a military prison at Bagram air base, where they
are held-often without any formal charges-until being released
or sent to concentration camps at Guantánamo Bay. According
to coalition forces, two thousand Afghans have been detained since
the war-four hundred were being held without charges as of June."
Many prisoners are subjected to what aid workers call "RPing,"
or "Rumsfeld Processing," in which their detention is
Recent reports have proven that the torture
and intimidation tactics made famous at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
under U.S. military supervision have been going on for years in
Afghanistan. Last March, two former prisoners told the New York
Times how up to 100 prisoners were "made to stand hooded,
their arms raised and chained to the ceiling, their feet shackled,
unable to move for hours at
a time, day or night."" Syed
Nabi Siddiqi, a former policeman who was detained without charges
for forty-five days described how he and others were taken away
blindfolded, made to kneel for long periods of time with hands
cuffed behind their backs, forced to roll over every fifteen minutes
during the night (to prevent sleep), attacked by dogs and photographed
naked. As in Iraq, coalition military personnel used sexual humiliation
as an intimidation tactic. Siddiqi describes his treatment in
the hands of coalition forces:
They were kicking me and beating me and
shouting like animals at me. They took off my uniform .... Then
they asked me which animals-they made the noise of goats, sheep,
dogs, cows-I had had sexual activities with. They laughed at me.
I said that such actions were against our Afghan and Islamic tradition,
but they asked me again, "Which kind of animals do you want
to have sex with?" Then they asked me to stand like this
[he indicates being bound to a pole] and beat me with a stick
from the back and kicked me. I still have pains in my back as
a result. They told me, "Your wife is a prostitute.""
Other prisoners have reported military
personnel touching their genitals and forcing them to defecate
in front of guards, who stood throwing stones and laughing. One
prisoner, Noor Aghah, was forced to drink twelve bottles of water
without being allowed to urinate during his interrogation."
So far, five detainees have died in military
prison-three under "suspicious circumstances." Of these,
two deaths at Bagram have been classified as homicides. One autopsy
conducted by a pathologist and U.S. officer showed "blunt-force
injuries" on the victim's lower extremities. Another victim,
Abdul Wali, was a former officer who voluntarily showed up for
questioning. He died after being interrogated by a private contractor
working for the CIA."
The extent of torture arid mistreatment
at Bagram and other prisons is not known since access to the facilities
is severely limited. The Red Cross has only partial access at
Bagram; other international human rights organizations like Amnesty
International are completely denied access. And Bagram is not
the only prison-there are nineteen detention centers operated
by the United States around Afghanistan that have never been monitored
by any human rights group or international agency.
The similarity between treatment of prisoners
at Bagram and Abu Ghraib is no mere coincidence. Captain Carolyn
Wood of the 519th military intelligence battalion was in charge
of interrogations at both Bagram air base and Abu Ghraib prison,
where she was sent last year. While it is not known what tactics
she condoned in Afghanistan, human rights groups think that they
were even worse than in Iraq, where, according to the Pentagon,
her official "rules of engagement" included "sleep
and sensory deprivation, stress positions, dietary manipulation,
and use of dogs.
If anything, Afghan prisoners have even
less protection than those in Iraq. As Human Rights Watch representative
John Sifton explained,
It should be noted that the detention
system in Afghanistan, unlike the system in Iraq, is not operated
even nominally in compliance with the Geneva conventions. The
detainees are never given an opportunity to see any independent
tribunal. There is no legal process whatsoever and not even an
attempt at one. The entire system operates outside the rule of
Roots of the "war on terrorism"
The United States was never interested
in human rights or democracy in Afghanistan. If they were, they
wouldn't have trained, armed, and funded the forces that gave
rise to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Northern Alliance warlords
now ravaging the country. All of these groups were developed as
a direct result of U.S. Cold War policy; when the U.S. backed
the mujahideen-groups of radical Muslim fighters (whom Ronald
Reagan called "freedom fighters") in an attempt to draw
the Soviet Union into an endless, costly conflict.
Starting in 1979, then-President Jimmy
Carter began secretly sending military aid to anti-Soviet forces
in Afghanistan. As Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew
Brzezinski put it,
That secret operation was an excellent
idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan
trap .... The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border,
I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving
the USSR its Vietnam War."
To that end, the U.S. collaborated with
Pakistan's military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, to set up camps
for training anticommunist, anti-Soviet forces. The CIA participated
by training Islamic militants, both in the camps in Pakistan and
inside the United States, where officers were brought to learn
"counterinsurgency" (in other words, terrorist) techniques.
The U.S. spent an estimated $3 to $6 billion training anti-Soviet
U.S. officials pointedly sought out the
most radical extremists they could find to attack Soviet forces,
and in the process fostered a highly conservative brand of Islam,
which often had no historic roots inside Afghanistan itself. They
sought out people such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was described
by State Department officials as "definite dictatorship material.""
Hekmatyar, who is currently considered one of the worst warlords
by the U.S., received a disproportionate amount of U.S. military
aid during the 1980s.
In addition, they helped to recruit mercenaries
and Islamic militants from around the world for training at the
camps-including Osama bin Laden, an engineer from a wealthy Saudi
family. The U.S. gave direct military aid to bin Laden, including
sending him a shipment of high-powered sniper rifles in 1989.
One year earlier, bin Laden formed the international terrorist
network al-Qaeda with the full knowledge of the United States.
In 1994, the training camps gave birth to a new group, the Taliban.
U.S. officials at the time were far less
concerned with the long-term consequences of their actions than
the immediate goal of defeating the Soviet Union and gaining influence
over a group of people that could potentially rule the area in
U.S. interests. As Brzezinski candidly told reporters in 1998,
winning the Cold War seemed more important in the long run than
the fact that the U.S. would create "a few stirred-up Muslims."
While the goal of maintaining control
over the region remains the same, the collapse of the Soviet Union
and the end of the Cold War meant the U.S. needed to alter its
strategy to ensure its top-dog status. Since the end of the Cold
War, new U.S. competitors have emerged, including China. The U.S.
has sought to maintain its dominance in this changing world with
a three-fold strategy. First, by maintaining direct political
influence over highly unstable areas like Afghanistan through
alliances with local leaders-no matter how brutal. Second, by
broadening their control over the Middle East and Central Asia's
most vital resource, oil. And finally, using direct military force
to achieve these goals and set an example to any current or potential
competitors who might attempt to defy U.S. rule.
Afghanistan was particularly important
for the U.S. not only because it had an interest in containing
and exercising influence over the military forces it helped to
create there, but also because the country stands between the
oil rich areas of the Caspian Sea and the deep-water ports necessary
to transport that oil. These are the second largest oil reserves
in world, after the Persian Gulf. For many years, U.S.-based Unocal
Corporation sought to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan through
Afghanistan and into Pakistan. While the project appeared stalled
by the Taliban's hostility to the U.S., the war has brought those
plans back to the table. At the same time, the war has provided
an opportunity for the U.S. to extend military bases throughout
Asia to protect their economic and political interests in the
region. The real aim of the United States is not simply to control
the oil, but to control the world market for oil, which forms
such a pivotal aspect of the world economy. In so doing, the U.S.
aims to keep the upper hand over competitors in Europe and Asia.
Oil, military, and political control of
the area, and the fact that the U.S. cannot simply walk away from
a war that it supposedly won and cede all control over the region,
are reasons why the U.S. remains in Afghanistan today. Yet the
U.S. and other coalition forces have made sure that their mission
is as limited as possible, especially given their need to take
the war against terror to Iraq while still occupying Afghanistan.
That is why the U.S. not only refuses to send more troops despite
the desperate pleas of President Karzai, but also has basically
turned its back on the promised "Marshall Plan" to rebuild
The United States is not the only country
to turn a blind eye to the devastation in Afghanistan. International
aid to Afghanistan does not come close to meeting its needs. Of
the $28 billion the Afghan government estimates it will need to
rebuild the country over seven years," so far only $4.4 billion
has been given for "humanitarian programs." To make
matters worse, most of the $2.2 billion earmarked for 2004 has
already been funneled into military rather than promised humanitarian
projects." As John Pilger explains,
Of all the great humanitarian crisis
of recent years, no country has been helped less than Afghanistan.
Bosnia, with a quarter of the population, received $356 per person;
Afghanistan gets $42 per person. Only 3 percent of all international
aid spent in Afghanistan has been for reconstruction; the U.S-led
military "coalition" accounts for 84 percent. 12
Most aid that is granted never even reaches
its target because of the chaos created and fostered by the U.S.
war on terror. Some observers estimate that less than 20 percent
of aid delivered to Afghanistan ever reaches its destination.
The majority is stolen by local warlords and factional leaders,
who are also the direct recipients of military aid from the United
Much humanitarian aid administered by
the government is given only in exchange for military intelligence.
As Lieutenant Reid Finn explained, "It's simple. The more
they help us find the bad guys, the more good stuff they get.""
As a result, aid workers are increasingly seen as political and
military targets by anyone hostile to the U.S. intervention. Because
so many aid workers have been assassinated or held hostage, many
independent agencies are simply pulling out of Afghanistan. Explaining
their decision to leave Afghanistan after twenty-four years, a
spokeswoman for the international group Doctors Without Borders
cited the fact that thirty aid workers have been killed this year
alone." While most aid goes directly to military projects,
there is also a substantial flow of international money into investment
in projects that only benefit the tiny, parasitic ruling class.
While most of Kabul and the surrounding countryside continue to
degenerate, aid flows in to finance boutique hotels, restaurants;
and to finance the cushy lifestyles of UN and other international
workers. As author Christina Lamb describes after visiting Afghanistan,
Kabul has become a city with two sides.
With as many as 1,000 nongovernmental organizations in residence,
rents are higher here than in much of Manhattan .... An agent
from the Marco Polo agency who drove me around last month told
me his company leases 10 houses to the World Food Program at rents
of $9,000 to $15,000 a month per house. The total comes to more
than $1.5 million a year. "Most Afghans feel angry that this
is our money, money meant for the Afghan people, which aid agencies
are spending on beautiful houses, carpets and drinking" while
schools and hospitals still need to be built, the agent said.
"Democracy" and the state in
At the NATO summit in Istanbul this year,
President Karzai begged the U.S. and coalition partners to send
more troops to Afghanistan, telling the assembled delegates, "I
would like you to please hurry. Come sooner than September, please.""
Karzai's desperate pleas to international forces reflect the fact
that he holds very little real power in the state he supposedly
Karzai's "election" at the Loya
Jirga in 2002 exposed the sham democracy put in place by the U.S.
and coalition forces. In fact, Karzai declared himself president
before any vote was even taken in 2002. Again, at the Loya Jirga
set to form a new constitution in January of 2004, positions were
bought and sold while ordinary Afghans were terrorized into abiding
by whatever backroom deals were made at the top. According to
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch (HRW):
Human Rights Watch documented many cases
of local military of intelligence commanders intimidating candidates
or purchasing votes. In Kabul, guarded by international security
forces, intelligence and military officials were openly mingling
with candidates at an election site. Many candidates complained
of an atmosphere of fear and corruption. In areas outside of Kabul,
many independent candidates were too afraid to even run .... The
majority of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga were members of
voting blocs controlled by military faction leaders, or warlords."
The horse-trading for political position
has resulted in a government that includes many of the same Northern
Alliance butchers who destroyed Kabul and the surrounding countryside
during the civil wars of 1992-1996-when factional fighting between
Northern Alliance rivals destroyed a third of Kabul and killed
over fifty thousand civilians. During the fighting, the same warlords
that the U.S. is currently aligning with ordered mass rapes and
ethnic cleansing. These warlords include Rashid Dostum, Ismail
Khan, and Gul Agha. Khan, a man whom Donald Rumsfeld praised as
"an appealing person... thoughtful, measured, and self-confident,""
continues to run the city of Herat as it was under the Taliban.
Human Rights Watch describes Herat as "a closed society in
which there is no dissent, no criticism of the government, no
independent newspapers, no freedom to hold open meetings and no
respect for the rule of law." In addition, HRW reported "a
pattern of widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings,
and torture by police and security forces under the command of
Ismail Khan."" Rashid Dostum, another darling of the
United States, murdered as many as five thousand surrendering
soldiers when he took over Kunduz, by stuffing them in groups
of two hundred to three hundred into unventilated metal containers
and shipping them across the desert."
Clearly, ordinary Afghans have little
allegiance to the leaders of the new national regime-who are also
the leaders of the old regime before the Taliban took power. As
James Ingalls explains,
The warlords are able to participate
[in the constitutional assembly] not because the majority of Afghans
want them there, but because Washington decided to use them first
as suppliers of ground troops to help oust the Taliban and then
as governors to help control the population once the Taliban rulers
In fact, the warlords of the Northern
Alliance only tolerate Karzai because he does not have a militia
of his own. According to Kathy Gannon:
This has meant that Karzai can do little
to impose his will on those who retain private armies .... Yet
even as Washington claims to support Karzai, it has continued
to rely on the independent warlords for help hunting down remnant
units of the Taliban and al Qaeda. This dual strategy has served
only to strengthen the former Northern Alliance, by giving it
U.S-supplied guns, money, and prestige, while eroding Karzai's
already weak central authority."
With U.S. military forces stretched in
Iraq and many in Washington, including Kerry, calling for more
troops, the Bush administration has no interest in committing
more forces to Afghanistan if they aren't forced to do so. But
the U.S. has no interest in leaving Afghanistan, either. In part,
the administration needs to prove that it can maintain several
wars and occupations at the same time in different parts of the
world. And the U.S. can't risk leaving a political void in such
a strategically important part of Asia. So for now, the U.S.-run
coalition manages Afghanistan in a state of malign neglect.
Yet the current U.S. strategy also runs
the risk of backfiring. By installing a powerless puppet regime
in Kabul while at the same time continuing to back and fund members
of the National Alliance to provide foot soldiers for the continuing
war on terror, the U.S. has laid the ground for a permanent state
of civil war inside Afghanistan. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans are
caught in a vice between coalition troops, dueling warlords, and
the resurgent Taliban, with little hope of rebuilding their lives.
The most important step for those who
want to see real democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wherever the
next target may be is to build a movement against the so called
war on terror that is in fact inflicting terror on millions of
people. George Bush sold the war in Afghanistan by appealing to
people's fear of terrorism in the wake of September 11 and to
their desire for human rights for Afghan people-especially women.
But the record of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan shows that
the U.S. creates only misery, poverty, and violence. No doubt,
the continued presence of the United States in the area is only
fostering the conditions in which groups it claims to be fighting,
such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, can flourish.
But George Bush is not the only problem.
Democratic candidate John Kerry has announced his commitment to
expanding the war on terror repeatedly-including a commitment
to stay the course in Iraq and expanding antiterrorism measures.
We must not forget that Kerry voted for the wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq, for the Patriot Act restricting civil liberties, and
has bent over backwards to prove that he will be "harder"
on terrorism than Bush. The upcoming election has squelched the
antiwar movement, as activists turn a blind eye to Kerry's pro-war
record and stop protesting in the hopes of defeating the "greater
evil," George Bush.
Ultimately, the only thing that will bring
peace and democracy to Afghanistan or Iraq is a movement of ordinary
Afghans and Iraqis to rebuild their own countries, choose their
own representatives, and govern themselves.