War Without End - Afghanistan

by Katherine Dwyer

International Socialist Review, September-October 2004



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 women.

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 the consequence.""

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 never recorded.

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 law."

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 forces."

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 country;

Total neglect

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 States.

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. 35

"Democracy" and the state in Afghanistan

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 presides over.

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 were gone."

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.

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