The Truth About Afghanistan

by Nicole Colson

Internationalist Socialist Review, April 2003


After the supposed liberation of Afghanistan in 2001 at the hands of the U.S. military and their warlord proxies, the Bush administration gloated over their quick ousting of the Taliban. The U.S. had, according to the Bush administration, placed the country squarely back on the path of democracy and freed it from the oppressive fundamentalism of the Taliban regime. As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer boasted in October: "[I]f you take a look at Afghanistan...under the loya jirga and the helping hand the United States and others are providing in the rebuilding of Afghanistan they certainly are more free and more democratic than before."'

The idea that the U.S. was fighting a legitimate war in Afghanistan was not limited to the U.S. government. Nothing prompted more calls to support the Afghan war-even from progressive and liberal camps-than the idea that the Bush administration's war would not only deter "terrorism," but it would also free the long-suffering women of the country.

As the Bush administration prepared to go to war in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, the liberal Nation editorialized that "There is a real threat of further attacks, so...action designed to hunt down members of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who collaborate with it is appropriate." Nation editorial board member Richard Falk went on to write that the war in Afghanistan is "the first truly just war since World War II." Nor did the Nation stand alone as a left supporter of the U.S. war. Many other liberals called on Washington to prosecute a "just war" in Afghanistan, including Robert Kuttner, who declared in the American Prospect that only the far left could believe the war was not reasonable.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has recently written scathing reports exposing the current horrors in Afghanistan, skirted both sides of the issue at the time, arguing that although war was unfortunate, a war carried out under the auspices and guidelines of the international community could ultimately have the beneficial conclusion of liberating Afghan women and restoring democracy. The collapse of the Taliban regime, they said, was "an opportunity for positive change."

At the time, the International Socialist Review argued differently. The ISR argued that the war was about the U.S. using September 11 as an opportunity to expand its geostrategic power in the region: "Any serious antiwar movement has to proceed from the starting point that it must oppose this war- not offer up suggestions to Bush and Co. about how to fight it more cleanly. Anyone concerned with ending terrorism should be concerned with ending the terrorism of the U.S. and its allies raining death and destruction on one of the poorest countries on earth," not advising it on how to build a kinder-gentler empire.

More than one year later, our analysis has been confirmed. The "new" Afghanistan looks eerily like the old Afghanistan. Factional violence from rival warlords erupts continuously, and in cities outside of the capital of Kabul, there are real questions about who actually runs the government. In Kabul itself, the U.S. puppet president Hamid Karzai remains an impotent ruler at best- the object of assassination attempts guarded by a coterie of U.S. bodyguards. Ethnic violence, far from disappearing, has increased in many rural areas, particularly against Pashtuns. Women throughout Afghanistan remain draped in blue burqas. The promises of independence and freedom remain elusive for the most oppressed members of Afghan society. Assurances from the West about helping the country rebuild have proven hollow. The U.S. in particular has been slow to deliver economic and reconstruction aid-abandoning the Afghan people once again to the poverty, misery and instability it helped to create.

The civilian cost

"No military in the history of war has done more to protect the innocent than we have in Afghanistan," Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, told a reporter last December. Predictably, the opposite is true. As many as 3,666 people, according to research by University of New Hampshire Professor Marc Herold, were killed by U.S. bombs. According to HRW, the U.S. military indiscriminately dropped cluster bombs on populated areas. HRW found that the U.S. military dropped close to 250,000 duster bomblets that killed or injured scores of civilians, especially children, both during and after they were initially released. Using the Pentagon's own (conservative) "dud" rate of 5 percent, that leaves more than 12,400 explosive duds-

what HRW calls "de facto landmines" strewn across the country. As of November 2002, the International Committee of the Red Cross had linked 127 civilian casualties to cluster bomb duds. An astonishing 69 percent of these casualties were children.

Beyond the alleged bombing "mistakes" of the U.S. military, there's also evidence that U.S. forces may have participated in-and almost certainly have known about-the massacre of thousands of prisoners of war following the capture of the city of Kunduz in November 2001 by troops of Northern Alliance warlord, and U.S. ally, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. According to witnesses, after Kunduz fell, surrendering soldiers were blindfolded, sometimes handcuffed and then beaten-before being crammed 200 or 300 at a time into metal shipping containers with no air holes and no water. The containers were then driven by dozens of trucks across the desert to Sheberghan prison, near Mazar-e-Sharif-a 24-hour trip. As many as 5,000 may have suffocated along the way. As the allegations came to light last year, even Newsweek was forced to ask the question, "Does the United States have any responsibility for the atrocities of its allies?"

The war is not over

Today, despite the massive fire power and show of force that the U.S. military brought to bear on Afghanistan during the war, there is renewed fighting between U.S. and fundamentalist forces that appear to be regrouping into small guerrilla units. In January and February, for example, U.S. and coalition forces were engaged in the heaviest fighting in the country since "Operation Anaconda" of March 2002. In late January, 18 rebels, possibly Taliban fighters, were reportedly killed by U.S. troops in combat around Bagram.

Assassinations and bombings have also continued to escalate in the new Afghanistan. In the first weeks of 2003, two separate bus bombings near Kandahar killed at least 24 people. Assassination attempts of government officials are also on the rise, including the February 24 wounding of a police chief working near Kandahar and the February 26 killing of Habibullah Jan, a district administrator in Nimroz province in Afghanistan.

Today, Taliban leaders as well as former mujahedeen leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-a man armed and funded by the U.S. during the 1980s war against the Soviets-are operating within the country. They are reportedly responsible for circulating pamphlets declaring a jihad, or holy war, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as against Afghans working with the U.S.-backed government.

Civilians are still being targeted by the U.S. military. In early February, for example, U.S. military spokesmen claimed that rebel forces had been spotted in the area of Baghran Valley, and that in response, a Danish F-16 dropped a 500 pound bomb, while U.S. bombers dropped 2,000-pound "smart" bombs. In this incident, however, the Afghan government says that 17 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed. "The people came crying, saying their relatives had died or were missing," said Haji Mohammad Wali, a spokesman for the government of Helmand province. The bombing of civilians was so outrageous that government officials were reduced to pleading with coalition forces to cease bombing, at least during the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha. "In general, the government prefers they shouldn't bomb in respect of Eid days, unless it is very necessary," Karzai spokesman Tayab Jawad said. "The government has asked them to avoid bombing during this time."

Since the fighting is still going on, and the Afghan government is reduced to pleading with the U.S. to stop killing innocent civilians, doesn't it beg the question: How liberated is Afghanistan, really?

With Washington's sights set squarely on Iraq, the answer is one the Bush administration might like to ignore. But, as HRW commented in October 2002, "Far from emerging as a stable democracy, Afghanistan remains a fractured, undemocratic collection of 'fiefdoms' in which warlords are free to intimidate, extort and repress local populations, while almost completely denying basic freedoms.""

Warlords in control-backed by the U.S.

In most parts of the country, security and local governance has been entrusted, with the approval of the U.S., to regional warlords. Many of these men have human rights records just as revolting as the worst commanders under the Taliban. Things are so bad that in December a turf war broke out between rival groups in the west of the country, killing at least 13 people. A U.S. B-52 bombed the battle zone when U.S. special forces posted close to the Iranian border were caught up in the clash.

That hasn't stopped the U.S. military from backing men like Dostum, the Uzbek commander responsible for the atrocities cited above. Likewise, the U.S. remains friendly towards Ismail Khan-the warlord who controls the western city of Herat and its surrounding areas. "The international community says it wants to reduce the power of the warlords and bring law and order back to Afghanistan," said John Sifton of HRW. "But in Herat, it has done exactly the opposite. The friend of the international community in western Afghanistan is an enemy of human rights."

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of instances in which Khan personally ordered politically motivated arrests and beatings. Victims of Khan's forces describe beatings with thorny branches, sticks, cables and rifle butts. Some say that they were hanged upside down, whipped or subjected to electric shocks.

Still, none of that would appear to be a problem for Washington. As Sifton said, "The United States and Iran have a great deal of influence over Ismail Khan. They put him where he is today." In fact, Khan received U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Herat on April 29, 2002. Rumsfeld later publicly commented about his meeting with Khan: "It's helpful for me to meet the players, to get a sense of them and to hear from them what they're thinking publicly and privately.... [Khan's] an appealing person. He's thoughtful, measured and self-confident."

This "appealing" man has forced tens of thousands of Pashtuns to flee western Afghanistan to Kandahar, Iran and Pakistan in the last nine months in order to escape ethnic persecution from the forces of Khan and other warlords. The prisons in Herat are now full of Khan's political enemies. "What has changed in Afghanistan?" one Herati resident asked HRW in September. "All our hopes are crushed. We are completely disappointed. Look: all the same warlords are in power as before. Fundamentalism has come into power, and every day they strengthen their power."

But don't look for the U.S. to pull the reins in on the monsters that they helped create. According to Army Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, the American commander in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has no problem working closely with Afghan warlords. "For the near term," said McNeill, "these regional leaders-while they might appear unsavory to some, and some accuse them of having sordid pasts-they are providing a degree of security and stability out and away from Kabul."

U.S. support of Afghanistan's thugs and butchers follows "the same logic that led American forces, in the early days of the Afghan war, to cooperate with-and, according to recent revelations, pay large sums of money to-some decidedly unsavory characters: better they be allies than enemies," and, according to the New York Times.

At the same time, the tacit approval of the U.S. for warlords like Dostum and Khan has served to further undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai-himself handpicked by Washington to run Afghanistan, and installed as a result of backdoor U.S. dealings at the country's loya jirga election last year. Karzai has so little power outside of the country's capital of Kabul that he is reportedly referred to as the "mayor of Kabul." It's one reason why, according to the UN Afghanistan is once again the world's largest opium producer-something that came about because of "the total collapse of law and order in the autumn of 2001," the very time that the U.S. claimed to be restoring stability to the shattered country.

The liberation lie

More than a year later, the promise of liberation for Afghan women has failed to materialize. As HRW official Zama Coursen-Neff, put it, "Many people outside the country believe that Afghan women and girls have had their rights restored. It's just not true."

The warlords that the U.S. military continues to tacitly support in Afghanistan subscribe to many of the exact same proscriptions against women's rights as the Taliban before them. In many parts of the country the situation is as bad, and in some cases worse for women since the fall of the Taliban and the so-called liberation of the country at the hands of the U.S. military. "Women and girls are still being abused, harassed and threatened all over Afghanistan, often by government troops and officials,'' said Coursen-Neff.

According to HRW, around the western city of Herat, Ismail Khan and his troops have been responsible for forcing women back into their burqas. Worse, Khan's forces have apparently set up both a religious police and a youth police to haul women and girls to hospitals for gynecological examinations for the purpose of "chastity checks." As one Herati woman told HRW, "Only the doors to the schools are open. Everything else is restricted."

Although some women and girls have been able to go back to school or work, many are still cut off from any independence. In late October, several girls' schools in and around Kabul were attacked with rockets and grenades-and at least a dozen more have been burned to the ground in arson attacks in the months since women were liberated in Afghanistan. In January, even the doors to the schools began to close once again, as new rules on female education in Herat were announced prohibiting men from teaching women or girls in private educational courses, and upholding strict gender segregation in all schools. With a severe shortage of female teachers, the new rules will result in the inability of most girls in the region to receive an education.

Women are still little more than chattel in many areas of the country. "Outside the capital, Kabul, and large, once-cosmopolitan cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, parents continue to sell their daughters to future husbands, women are not allowed to run shops, and when they go to a restaurant, they must eat separately from men," reported the San Francisco Chronicle. "Even in Kabul, where women travel by car more than by donkey, they are more likely to squat in the trunk than to sit comfortably inside the car like men."

Things are so bad for women, in fact, that in November the Afghan Supreme Court actually dismissed a female judge for not wearing an Islamic headscarf when she and 14 other female government officials met with George W. and Laura Bush as part of a celebration of the liberation of Afghan women. Around the same time, the Taliban's "Police for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" reportedly had begun once again to patrol some remote districts of southern Afghanistan-beating and threatening women for showing their faces in public. The systematic rape of women-particularly of Pashtun women in the southern regions of the country-has also become a common occurrence.

Recent reports suggest that young Afghan women are so desperate to escape arranged marriages that they are turning to self-immolation-setting themselves on fire. Reports suggest that an average of three young women each week are brought to the regional hospital in Herat after setting themselves on fire. Hospital staff say that the typical victim is 14 to 20 years old and is trying to escape a marriage arranged by her father. Often, the marriage is to an older man who has another wife and children-like, for example, the 14-year-old who arrived at the hospital in early November in critical condition with only her palms unscorched. She had been given in marriage to a 60-year-old married man with grown children. "It's like the girls are animals being sold," commented Dr. Saleha Hekamt, a female surgeon at the hospital.

For those who don't commit suicide, a bleak future often awaits-just as bleak as they would have faced under the command of the Taliban. Nargiz, for example, was forced into an arranged marriage after her husband, Mahbuhhullah, bought her from her parents last year for $ 12,000. In September, Nargiz told a reporter that-although she was once a schoolteacher living in an urban town-she has resigned herself to not working, to sharing a house with Mahhuhhullah's other wife, Najiba. The once vibrant and outgoing woman has learned, she says, to shun male strangers and to hide her face under a burqa whenever she leaves her husband's compound. "Life is good," she told a reporter, "I am used to my burqa now."

Women all across the country are facing a similar, grim situation. Despite repeated promises of Western aid, for example, recent reports suggest that health care for women in Afghanistan continues to be some of the worst in the world, with more Afghan women dying during childbirth than any other country on earth except Sierra Leone.

Economic disaster

The country is in the midst of a growing refugee crisis, a harsh winter, a three-year drought and a food shortage. Afghanistan still has an estimated 700,000 internally displaced people-many of whom are in danger of both starving and freezing to death. Two million refugees returned to the country in 2002, with another 1.5 million expected in 2003-placing enormous additional strain on already overburdened resources. According to a recent survey by the UN environmental program, the country remains environmentally devastated by decades of war, with more than half of the water supply of Kabul going to waste, and more than half of the forests in three provinces having been destroyed over the past 25 years. As many as 88 percent of people living in urban areas lack access to safe drinking water.

The report admits that decades of war have led to the "collapse of local and national governance, destroyed infrastructure, hindered agricultural activity and driven people into cities already lacking the most basic public amenities." In one factory in Kabul, UN workers "found children working without protection from toxic chemicals and sleeping at machines, or in factory alcoves, between their 12-hour shifts."

In the first two weeks of December alone, at least 41 children died of severe cold at camps for Afghan refugees on the border with Pakistan. Haji Abdul Ghani, of the Pakistan-based Edhi Welfare Trust, told reporters that as many as 1,200 children-most under the age of eight-were in danger of dying from squalid living conditions and cold camps around the southern Afghan town of Spin Boldak

These desperate conditions aren't just limited to Afghanistan's rural areas. In November, hundreds of students in Kabul clashed with police in two days of violent demonstrations because of a lack of food and electricity in their dormitory. Authorities later blamed officials' graft as the cause of the deplorable conditions, but that didn't stop police from firing on the crowd, killing four students and injuring dozens more. "I sent him to Kabul to study, and instead he was killed," said Qazi Abdul Hakim, whose son Rahim was among the dead. "Not by the communists or the Taliban, but by the police of a "democracy."

The bitter conditions experienced by ordinary people in Afghanistan are likely to get worse in the coming months as well. The Bush administration-after making rhetorical promises for a "Marshall Plan"-did not even request a single dime of money for humanitarian or reconstruction projects in Afghanistan in the latest budget. Congress subsequently stepped in to find $300 million, but experts say that this is a drop in the bucket of what will be needed to make any real impact in the country. Comparing this to the more than $5 billion in U.S. economic and military aid delivered to Israel each year, the picture that emerges is one of a country and people tossed aside once again by the most powerful government on earth.

Of the $1.8 billion in foreign aid that was promised to Afghanistan by the international community in 2002, only $600 million had been delivered by September-a fraction of what will be necessary to actually rebuild the country. Worse, little of the money that has come in has actually gone to improving the lives of ordinary Afghans. As one reporter commented in December:

Much of the money seems to have gone toward gleaming new offices and air-conditioned jeeps for the 1,025 United Nations agencies and international aid groups that have taken over many of the villas in the Wazir Akbar Khan suburb where Osama bin Laden's Arab acolytes used to dwell.

Some Afghans have gotten jobs as translators and drivers-and some are getting rich by charging outrageous rents-but for most people the 'U.N. Effect' has been an overload of an at best sporadic electricity supply and a rise in living costs. In fact, the Aschiana school, a highly regarded program for street children, is likely to lose its building. The landlord can earn far more in rent from a foreign aid organization that wants to convert it into a staff guesthouse.'

Hamid Karzai himself recently was reduced to begging the U.S. not to abandon Afghanistan. "Don't forget us if Iraq happens," Karzai implored the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 26. "If you reduce the attention because of Iraq...and if you leave the whole thing to us to fight again, it will be repeating the mistake the United States made during the Soviet occupation."

As Washington turns its eyes toward Iraq, the lawlessness and desperation in Afghanistan has become so apparent that journalist Robert Fisk was moved to compare the situation in the country today to the situation in the country one year after the Soviet invasion.

It's a sign of just how seriously America's mission in Afghanistan is collapsing that the majestically conservative Wall Street Journal, normally a beacon of imperial and Israeli policy in the Middle East and Southwest Asia-has devoted a long and intriguing article to the American retreat, though of course that's not what the paper calls it.

"Soldiers still confront an invisible enemy," is the title of Marc Kaufman's first-class investigation, a headline almost identical to one which appeared over a Fisk story a year or so after Russia's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-80. The soldiers in my dispatch, of course, were Russian. Indeed, just as I recall the Soviet officer who told us all at Bagram air base that the "mujahedin terrorism remnants" were all that was left of the West's conspiracy against peace-loving (and Communist) Afghans, so I observed the American spokesmen-yes, at the very same Bagram air base-who today cheerfully assert that al Qaeda "remnants" are all that are left of bin Laden's legions.

A smash-and-grab for oil and imperialism

Although Afghanistan itself lacks oil resources, oil companies and Washington have long viewed Afghanistan as a potential conduit for transporting the estimated $4 trillion worth of Central Asia's oil reserves out of the region. Unocal Corp., in particular, has long sought a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and into Pakistan. In the past this has been impossible due to the lack of a stable central government in Afghanistan.

However, once Karzai-himself a former Unocal consultant-became president of the new Afghanistan, a pipeline deal was once again suddenly in the works. On December 31, 2001, Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed by the Bush administration as the special envoy to Afghanistan. Khalilzad was Unocal's chief consultant on the Afghan pipeline project in the 1990s, and wasted no time in helping to arrange a tentative deal in May 2002 for a $2 billion pipeline to bring gas from;Central Asia to the subcontinent. The deal was officially signed on December 27, 2002, by Karzai, Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, with Karzai assuring reporters that the "security situation" in Afghanistan would not be a barrier to protecting a pipeline. On December 2, Khalilzad was appointed to be the "Special Envoy and Ambassador at Large for Free Iraqis," a job in which he will help make "preparations" for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Aside from the material prize of Caspian Sea oil, Washington's "war on terror" and, specifically, the war in Afghanistan has served a larger purpose. While oil itself is attractive for U.S. business interests, the larger prize for Washington is an ability to dominate the region militarily and politically (as evidenced, in part, by the fact that the U.S. has seized the opportunity to increase its military presence in Central Asia, establishing a string of military bases throughout the region).35 As Asia Times writer Pepe Escobar commented last year: "Oil and gas are not the U.S.'s ultimate aim. It's about control.. . If the U.S. controls the energy resources of its rivals-Europe, Japan, China and other nations aspiring to be more independent-they win."

The Bush administration's claims to have liberated the people of Afghanistan are a lie-a lie that they will try to use again and again as they take their "war on terror" on the road to Iraq, the Philippines and wherever else. As Bush once again trumpets tired rhetoric about bringing "democracy" to the Middle East through war with Iraq, we should ask, "Have U.S. bombs brought democracy to Afghanistan?" When Democrats and Republicans talk of protecting human rights, we should point out the human rights of Afghans that are being violated on a daily basis. When pundits and politicians scoff that this is not a war for oil or profit, we should remind people that Washington's only tangible result from war so far has been the deal for an oil pipeline.

Ultimately, this is not a war for liberation, it is a war for domination and imperialism-and the dismal condition of Afghanistan shows the catastrophic potential awaiting the population of Iraq, and any other country that the Bush administration decides to target down the road. Now is precisely the time that the left should seize upon the catastrophic consequences of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in order to build the antiwar movement-and particularly the anti-imperialist wing of that movement-even stronger.


Nicole Colson is a reporter for Socialist Worker newspaper.

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