New Afghan Law Comes as No Surprise: Women’s Rights Have Always Been Traded for Political Power

published in on April 6, 2009

The proposed new Afghan law requiring (among other things), women to have sex with their husbands on demand and not leave home unescorted, has shocked the West. But for women in Afghanistan whose rights have always been bargaining chips to be given or taken away for political gain, it comes as no surprise. Despite the rhetoric from the Bush Administration in 2001 that “to fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women (Laura Bush),” Bush’s own military strategy set the stage for the new Taliban-like law today. In hiring the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban, the US knowingly sacrificed women’s rights for political gain.

The Northern Alliance warlords were notorious misogynists, criticized harshly by women’s rights groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). In statement made days after the fall of the Taliban, RAWA urgently declared that “[t]he people of the world need to know that in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from ages seven to seventy, the track record of the Taliban can in no way stand up against that of [the] ‘Northern Alliance’.” It was a warning that went ignored to the detriment of all Afghan people, but especially women, who time and again have been promised liberation by (mostly male) warlords, foreign and domestic.

A Brief History of “Saving” Afghan Women

In 1979 the USSR invaded its Southern neighbor in part, it was said, to free women from the tyranny of Afghan fundamentalists. To that end, the Soviets even instituted some reformist laws during their brutal decade-long occupation granting city-dwelling women greater access to employment and education than before.

In response to the occupation and its reforms, extremist “Mujahadeen” leaders, taking advantage of the popular sentiment against the Soviet occupation, and of the billions of dollars of weapons and training from the US, waged a fierce war, again partly to “save” Afghan women from the “Godless communists.” After the Soviets left, these fundamentalist warlords turned their weapons on their own people, particularly women. According to Amnesty International, rape was “condoned as a means of terrorizing conquered populations and of rewarding soldiers.”

When the Taliban emerged in the mid-90s, sponsored by Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, Pakistan, they quickly swept into power, taking over the majority of the country. As expected, part of their mission was to “save” Afghan women from the violence of the Mujahadeen. They “fulfilled” their promise by being much better at enforcing many of the same harsh anti-woman edicts that were instigated by their Mujahadeen predecessors.

Enter Bush in October 2001, fresh from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ready to wage a “war on terror” to, (you guessed it) “save” Afghan women from the medieval-minded Taliban.

This pattern continues to the present with the Obama Administration making the same claims. At the March 2009 International Conference on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that “women’s rights are a central part of American foreign policy.”

Women’s Rights Systematically Eroded During US Occupation

Every step of the way, instead of being liberated, Afghan women have suffered: from the devastation of war and foreign occupation, to nation-wide oppression by indigenous and regionally imported fundamentalists. The past seven years have been no different since the launch of the US war in October 2001. Granted, at first many women were encouraged to start reentering civil society. But any progress made on the rights of women and girls was mostly on paper and has since been dramatically eroded. This regression began when the Northern Alliance warlords were rewarded for their role in the war with top posts in the new government in 2001/02. With their political power, these warlords began strengthening their militias, and repeating their crimes against women. In 2002 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally met the notorious warlord of Western Afghanistan Ismail Khan, referring to him in the press as “an appealing man.” Khan preserved Taliban-style edicts against women from 2002-2005 in Herat, arresting women for driving cars, appearing outdoors without a burqa, and speaking to journalists. Under his rule, local police even ordered hospital “chastity tests” on unescorted women.

Also in 2002 the US-backed then-interim president Hamid Karzai appointed a fundamentalist chief-justice, Faisal Ahmad Shinwari, who began interpreting Islamic law in a Taliban-like manner. Shinwari moved to reinstate the Taliban’s infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice under a new name: the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs. As a result women were systematically denied justice, particularly when it involved so-called “honor” crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in a 2003 report, “No-one listens to us and no-one treats us as human beings.” More recently, there have been reports of women being imprisoned for being victims of rape. The Independent (UK) reported in August 2008 of rape victims serving 20 year sentences for the “crime” of “illegal sexual relations.”

In 2004 while women were buoyed by the declaration of their equality to men in the new Afghan Constitution, at the last moment their joy was marred by the inclusion of an all-encompassing clause that made all laws of the land subordinate to Sharia law. This clause was an obvious gesture to the fundamentalist power structure that was reinforced, not weakened, by the US intervention. A Human Rights Watch report “Women Under Attack for Asserting Rights,” detailed the constant intimidation facing women’s democratic participation by both the anti-government Taliban and the warlords.

While a token minority of women is allowed to serve in Parliament due to quotas, those who have spoken out about the domination of fundamentalists have learned the hard way that democratic representation is just a façade. Malalai Joya, the popular young representative from Farah province, is the only MP who has dared to openly criticize the warlords. She has survived 4 assassination attempts, been publicly threatened with rape, and ultimately kicked out of Parliament for her views. Afghans across the country demonstrated against her suspension.

Violence against women and girls has surged as fundamentalism has spread. Sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and forced marriages to women and young girls, were denounced publicly in 2005 by the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. Last December, the UN Population Fund conducted a survey that concluded that 1 in 4 Afghan women face sexual violence. The violence has led to unprecedented numbers of women, particularly in the Western province of Herat, to literally burn themselves to death. Doctors had never before witnessed such large numbers of self-immolation by women.

Even though after the fall of the Taliban government, many girls across the country began attending school, over the past several years a majority of schools have been systematically burned down or shut down out of fear of being burned down. In the south of Afghanistan, over 600 schools were shut down in the first few months of 2009. In recent months a group of girls in Kandahar was attacked by Taliban with battery acid on their way to school. According to UNICEF, fifty percent of Afghan children do not attend school.

All Afghans, including women, suffer from grinding poverty. While Afghanistan has been impoverished for decades now, over the last 7 years the situation has worsened to the point where 1 in 3 Afghans now suffer from severe poverty, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The poverty is marked by a severe lack of adequate healthcare, particularly for women. Afghanistan suffers from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1 in 55), second only to Sierra Leone.

Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power

Most of these widely reported heinous abuses and overall oppression of Afghan women during the US/NATO occupation have failed to incite outrage from the West. It is no wonder then that President Hamid Karzai seemed taken aback by the righteous shock aimed at him by Western leaders for signing the new law reviving Taliban-like edicts against women. Karzai is simply continuing to implement a policy set down for him by his guides in Washington: appease misogynist fundamentalists to obtain “stability.” In 2002 then-US-Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad declared: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which requires accountability.”

Karzai has clearly forsaken justice, but along the way has lost the peace as well. He has earned the ire of his people for subjugating their interests to those of the warlords’. Recently he has also fallen out of favor with his US/NATO benefactors, whose bombs have exacted a terrible civilian toll that he has publicly criticized. Thus, he has turned to his only power-base, the mostly Shia warlords in Parliament, in exchange for their support in this summer’s election. It is for these men that the new “family law” circumscribing women’s rights was quickly pushed through Parliament and signed.

Karzai’s actions are a direct result of the past seven years of Western policy. He is only doing what many others have done before him: trading Afghan women’s rights for political gain. For those of us who have seen this dirty game played many times over, it comes as no surprise.

Sonali Kolhatkar is Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. Sonali is also co-author of “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.” She is the host and producer of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program with the Pacifica Network.

Palin Not Ready Now, Or Ever

Two Montreal-based radio hosts pulled a prank so obvious on Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin that I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

The Masked Avengers, comprising comedians Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel convinced the gullible governor that she was being graced by a personal call from the French premier Nicolas Sarkozy. Not several seconds until after they revealed their prank openly to her did she realize what had happened.

The fake French accent didn’t give it away. Neither did the joke about Sarkozy being able to see Belgium from France, like she can see Russia.

Palin did not realize she was the butt of a joke when “Sarkozy” said he could see her as president. She replied, giggling, “maybe in 8 years.” God help us.

She didn’t get it when he joked about liking hunting and enjoying killing animals – instead she responded by wanting to join him on a working hunt – literally “killing two birds with one stone.”

She didn’t get it when he discussed his wife Carla who is “hot in bed” and jealous that he was having a conversation with Palin. Palin said, “give her a hug from me.” Aww…

But the absolute worst moment was when the the comedian playing Sarkozy joked about liking the “edgy documentary” about Palin’s life – the shameless Hustler porn video, Nailin’ Palin. Palin responded by saying, “good”!

How could a woman who falls for such an obvious prank be ready for the VP post of the wealthiest, most armed country in the world? In six minutes of obvious prank-like comments by a bubbly sounding, fake-accented comedian, she remained star-struck and awed.

How did this woman get to be mayor of a small town, forget about governor of a state, or VP candidate of a major party? She does not even have the brains to lead a PTA chapter in Wasilla.

If this prank is not enough to convince the 43% of voters who support McCain that Palin was the worst possible choice, I don’t know what is.

Even More Republican Hypocrisy – Spending, Earmarks, and Taxes

A nice piece of reporting in USA Today exposes yet another aspect of Republican hypocrisy: with all of McCain’s talk of “reigning in spending,” “cutting taxes,” and “eliminating pork barrel legislation,” it appears as though his running mate has done exactly the opposite during her tenures as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska.

Apparently John McCain lied about Palin not seeking earmarks as governor. In fact Palin “asked Washington for $197 million in earmarks this year, down from $254 million the year before.” As mayor of Wasilla, Palin acquired $27 million in earmarked federal funding – Wasilla had a whopping 5000 residents when Palin was mayor!

On the issue of spending, Palin’s list of expenses make for entertaining reading. According to reporter Ken Dilanian:

As governor, Palin has signed off on $402,000 to study the arctic fox; $154,000 for renovations to three gun clubs and $125,000 for the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, state records show. Her budgets have funded $44,500 to spruce up a ski resort, $75,000 for the Arctic Thunder Air Show and $50,000 to improve a Little League field in the Mat-Su Valley near her hometown of Wasilla.

(Sounds just as bad as spending hundreds of thousands on a planetarium in Chicago, no?)

Palin also increased taxes on oil companies – a laudable act that should be mimicked nationwide, but that is now decried by the McCain-Palin campaign as being antithetical to capitalism, perhaps even socialist (gasp!).

Perhaps McCain should have checked Palin’s record against his own campaign platform before her picked her.

More on Republican Hypocrisy – Sarah Palin’s Outrageous Clothing Bill

palinSomeone needs to remind Sarah Palin that chief on the Republican talking points memo are the words: “reigning in spending.” By now everyone who pays any attention to the news has heard of Palin’s outrageous $150,000 fashion tab at the RNC’s expense (read the sickening breakdown of expenses here). It seems as though her smugness at recent campaign rallies may be tempered with a serious dose of reality: most Americans are not so stupid to see past this one. There are so many angles to this story that I hardly know where to begin…

First, the obvious one: with all the talk of Joe-six packs, and Walmart hockey-moms, Palin’s splurges are hardly becoming of the “every-woman” or “girl-next-door” image the McCain campaign has cultivated. How much can one actually buy at a single spree for $75,000???? The LA Times blog attempted to load up an imaginary shopping cart with a gazillion designer suits and precious jewels on Neiman Marcus’ online store in the exact amount Palin spent. Read the gory details here.

palinSecond, and also plainly obvious: How can the governing of this country and its deep economic crisis be left in the hands of someone with the spending habits of a millionaire? How can anyone who claims to be concerned about the state of the economy justify splurging so much cash on something so frivolous? Granted, it was not on the tax-payer’s tab, but still, the sheer act of dropping SO much money (it would take me 4 years to earn $150,000!!!!) must make one nauseous while families are scrounging pennies to buy baby formula at Wal-mart for their children in these hard times (and, some Republican donors are asking for their money back). This just further points to Republican hypocrisy in light of all the claims made about Barack Obama being too elitist and out of touch with average Americans.

Third, the McCain campaign has made a fuss about Obama’s forsaking of public financing of his campaign (a fact that is actually worth criticizing), but his VP’s fashion expenses are barely legal themselves.

Fourth, the McCain-Palin spokesperson, Tracey Schmitt had the audacity to respond to the findings with the following statement: “With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it’s remarkable that we’re spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses.” Imagine if it was revealed that the DNC had spent over $150,000 on dressing Michelle Obama up! I’m sure the Republicans would put the story aside and instead discuss serious issues. Issues like Bill Ayers, socialism fantasies, Jeremiah Wright, arabic-sounding middle names, and more. Certainly not issues like the US economy and how fat cats made and spent billions while the middle class vaporized. That wouldn’t do. Schmitt had the audacity to add, “It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign.” Yeah right.

Fifth, this story revealed that Palin is indeed the perfect choice for John McCain, who, with his wife owns more homes than he can count and defines “rich” in America as someone making more than $5 million a year.

Sixth, even though some of the $150,000 was spent on Todd Palin and the Palin children, the vast majority of it was to clothe and primp Sarah Palin. What does that say about how the Republican National Committee views its female candidates? Would Palin not have been electable were she to campaign in her more down-to-earth pre-VP garb? The Republicans have banked on Palin’s so-called “hotness factor” and proved it with the willingness to splurge on designer clothing for their model VP, even as they accuse the media of sexism. Peddling Palin in all her primped up glory seems to have worked – within days of her announcement as VP candidate, buttons in various shades of girly pink sporting “hottest VP, coolest state” popped up.

There are still 13 days left before the election. Will more Republican hypocrisies rise to the surface before then? More importantly, will Republican voters start to see the mountains of evidence undermining their party’s representation of average Americans?

Will Republican Hypocrisy Know No Depths?

hypocritesBarack Obama has a cult of celebrity but Sarah Palin’s popularity is legitimate because she’s just “one of us.”

Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists, but John McCain, who has links to a group that supported terrorist death squads in Central America, is above board.

Barack Obama is a “Chicago politician,” with implied ties to the mob, while Sarah Palin’s questionable conduct as Governor, under an ethics investigation for improper abuse of authority, is not relevant.

Barack Obama is not being “forthright” with voters, even though he has written books and has had years of public scrutiny, while Sarah Palin, who burst onto the public scene less than 2 months ago, is completely transparent and trust-worthy.

Barack Obama would be bad for the economy, even though he’s proposing tax cuts to the middle class, while John McCain, who pushed and continues to push deregulation, would somehow strengthen this failing economy.

I suppose desperate poll numbers call for desperate, underhanded measures. But, I think this time Americans won’t fall for the hypocrisy.

Someone Sit Obama Down and Make him Watch ‘Boogieman’!

boogiemanI had the pleasure this morning of interviewing Stefan Forbes on my radio program, Uprising, about his new documentary, Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story. I had only heard vague mentions of the name Lee Atwater but really had no idea how influential to American political campaigning he was, until I watched the film. This young Republican upstart from South Carolina, wrote the script-book for today’s GOP election tactics. Not surprisingly he was Karl Rove’s mentor.

Coming of political age in the College Republicans, Atwater learned early in life that he enjoyed engineering political wins rather than winning himself. He compared politics to war and decided that winning at all costs was worth it. In that spirit, Atwater spread rumors about people’s personal lives, played to the racism of white working-class Americans, manipulated the media, and even planted lies. All, in order to win an election.

Atwater helped Reagan win election, earning a place in the White House while only in his thirties. Eventually he came to be George H W Bush’s chief campaign strategist, a role that marked the zenith of his career. Engineering a win for an unpopular candidate meant discrediting rival Democrat Michael Dukakis using any means necessary. Including the racist Willie Horton ads.

Eventually his disgraceful behavior and extremely high stress caught up with him. In 1991 Lee Atwater was diagnosed with brain cancer and in the last years of his life was thought to have apologized to his political victims. According to Boogieman film maker Stefan Forbes, this is debatable and in fact Atwater was spinning lies all the way to his grave for political effect.

But think about it for one moment. If the Republican Party needs to resort to such low-down dirty tricks in order to get candidates elected, it follows that they would lose election after election if Americans started to see through them. The party’s platform is so unpopular among ordinary Americans, that they have to be driven by their basest fears into voting Republican. What does this say about so-called Republican values?

Still, Republican strategists like Atwater and Rove would never be able to pull off what they do, without such an easily manipulated and lazy media. The smears only gain traction because they are reported uncritically. When they are retracted it is often too late to matter.

Atwater may be dead but his ugly legacy lives on. Think Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, Valarie Plame, Swiftboat Veterans, and on and on. Even John McCain himself has been a victim of the type of disgusting underhanded political campaigning that Atwater exemplified. During his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, Karl Rove started a rumor that McCain fathered an illegitimate bi-racial daughter – a stain that contributed to his loss in favor of George W Bush. In fact that dark-skinned daughter was adopted by McCain and his wife from Bangladesh. Despite McCain’s vow never to resort to that type of negative political campaigning himself, once his poll numbers started sinking in this year’s election, he shamefully hired a man named Tucker Eskew, a close friend of Atwater who was interviewed extensively in Boogieman, to prepare his running mate Palin for prime-time.

The ghost of Lee Atwater lives on in this year’s presidential election. His colleagues and apprentices have managed to turn the Black, deeply Christian candidate with middle class roots and a background in community organizing, into an elite professorial type who is out of touch with the middle and working classes. Oh, and he’s a closet Muslim too. And he plays the “race-card.” Meanwhile, McCain has been transformed into a God-fearing man of the people, despite his lack of devoutness, despite losing count of the vast number of houses and cars he owns, despite being married to one of America’s wealthiest women who flies around in her own private jet. Shockingly, it is McCain who is portrayed as having become the victim of Obama’s reverse racism.

Near the end of the film Boogieman, a contrite Michael Dukakis reveals the major lesson of his political life – when mud starts slinging, don’t just stay silent and weather the storm: fight back. Trying to “rise above it” as he tried to do during the 1988 race against George H W Bush, Dukakis remained tainted by Atwater’s ghastly smears and lost the election.

Quick, before its too late, someone sit Obama down and force him or his aides to watch Boogieman.

Bombing Pakistan: Candidates Debate a Moot Point

McCain ObamaWhen Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama said last year that air strikes against Pakistan were a viable option, much controversy was made of it. The Senator was called naive and inexperienced in foreign policy. But Obama’s mistake was not the strategy he proposed, but expressing that strategy out loud.

That’s what his rival John McCain said during last Friday’s Presidential debate: “[Obama] said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud.”

Apparently McCain’s problem is that when you bomb an ally, you do it on the sly. Like his fellow Republican, President Bush is already doing.

Yes, we are already bombing Pakistan. But the foreign policy advisers of both candidates apparently failed to inform them.

Not only are we dropping bombs into Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province from unmanned drones, but the Pakistani Army is now firing back. A few days ago, they shot down an unmanned drone. Most recently, NATO helicopters were fired at as they strayed into Pakistani territory.

Embarrassingly for John McCain, his running mate Sarah Palin, who appears increasingly clueless, was caught on tape saying exactly what Barack Obama said – that the US should bomb Pakistan if it needed to. Watching the McCain campaign do numerous double flips to retract her comments and defend her is dizzying to watch.

‘Take Out’ Proves Movie Making On a Dime

The newest indie film, Take Out, about an undocumented Chinese worker and his struggle to make ends meet, is proof positive that telling a good story is far more crucial to the success of a film than props, set design, or even quality of film used. Shot entirely on a digital hand-held camera, writers and directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou have made Take Out‘ a winning combination of perfectly sparse writing and powerful acting.

ming dingRelatively new to the US, Ming Ding, a delivery boy for a divey New York Chinese restaurant, owes a loan shark a lot of money. He borrowed it to send back home to the family he left behind so they could pay back the debt they incurred in paying his way to the US. The shark deploys thugs to demand $800 toward the debt by nightfall or else the debt will be doubled. Ming Ding goes to work bruised from a beating and depressed. His jovial friend Young, played by Jeng-Hua Yu, who it seems has been smarter about getting into dicey debts, offers to help him with some cash and his share of the deliveries on a very rainy day the Big Apple.

The deliveries that Ming makes, and the various customers’ reactions are just as interesting as the story itself. On full display is New York’s racial and class diversity, complete with a smattering of racist behavior toward the stoic and monosyllabic Chinese immigrant who hides well his desperation for the tips he’s counting on. What actor Charles Jang, who plays Ming, does not say in words, is made tangible by the slump of his shoulders, and the grim set of his jaws. When a customer fails to tip, the viewer can’t help but take it personally.

This day in the life of Ming Ding captured in Take Out exposes how little most of us think of the daily travails and struggles of migrant labor. What makes Take Out exceptionally powerful is the quiet determination of Ming, who refuses to expose his dilemma except to his close friend, and even then he does it reluctantly. The more experienced immigrant workers in the restaurant’s kitchen pitch in to help their brother – they know full well the pain, fear, and desperation he is going through.

youngDespite the clearly depressing premise, Take Out has its moments of humor, particularly from Ming’s friend Young, who appears nonchalant about the kindness he has bestowed on his friend. Young loiters in the kitchen of the grimy restaurant – a setting as real as most of the actors and even customers – and ribs his fellow employees. He plans to own a restaurant in six years, like the owner of the one he works at – a middle aged Chinese woman known only as “Big Sister.”

Take Out’s only real downside is the severe motion sickness it can provoke in some theater-goers (like me), whose brains respond negatively to a constantly jerking camera (think “Blair Witch Project” set in the daytime rainy bustle of New York).

While Take Out ultimately falls prey to a cliched twist near the end, it defies the temptation to perpetuate the myth that in the US, the hard work and perseverance of immigrant workers is always rewarded with a slice of the American dream. Ming says he sometimes wonders why he had come to the US at all. Seeing how his hard labor is exploited to uphold an American lifestyle that includes cheap Chinese food delivery on whim, we wonder why immigrants endure such a life. And then, perhaps, we take them less for granted.

More information about the film at:

Killing Afghan Civilians: A Little Context

Much attention has been paid to the numbers of US troops being killed in Afghanistan this year – surpassing the numbers killed in Iraq despite there being about a third as many troops in Afghanistan as in Iraq. But what of the Afghans killed?

The Taliban and the US/NATO forces were competing with one another this year for who could kill more civilians. Members of the Taliban use suicide bombers as weapons, while US/NATO forces use bombs, and in some cases, snipers and grenades. Wikipedia, using a variety of reliable sources (Associated Press, United Nations, Human Rights Watch, etc), has tallied that since the start of the war, “insurgent actions” have resulted in 2,016 – 2,449 direct deaths, while “US-led military actions” have led to 3,922 – 4,841 direct deaths.

As analyst and Afghanistan expert Conn Hallinan pointed out in an interview I did with him this morning on Uprising, all those killed by the Taliban who are not US/NATO troops are assumed to be civilians. While those killed by US/NATO forces are always assumed to be “insurgents” unless proven otherwise. This implies that the civilian death toll at US/NATO hands is likely a vast underestimate.

Still, it is worth it to extrapolate the number of deaths caused by the US and NATO to numbers that Americans can relate to. Using the low end of the range mentioned above – 3,922 deaths at the hands of US-led military efforts – that number is proportionally equivalent to a foreign-led military operation killing about 37,000 civilians in a country the size of the US over the past seven years.

Another aspect of the tally above is that the US-led military actions have led to twice as many deaths as the Taliban over seven years! Using deaths alone as a measurement of the impact of the two occupations – a Taliban occupation is less dangerous for the average Afghan. If accounting for the fact that the Taliban’s killings are in response to the US/NATO occupation, that’s nearly 8000 Afghans killed directly or indirectly as a result of a Western occupation for the past seven years.

However, the Taliban are no friends of Afghanistan (and neither are the warlords in parliament for that matter). While they may enjoy some popular support that is increasing, their rule in the 1990s was among the worst periods for Afghan people. If more Afghans are choosing the Taliban today, it is as the lesser of two evils, rather than a desire to see this fundamentalist extremist regime in power – the nation-wide jubilation at the Taliban’s defeat in 2001 is a testament to their real unpopularity.

Still, it is worth it to examine the impact of the US/NATO occupation, to counter the myth that “we aren’t doing enough in Afghanistan.” We’re doing enough alright – in fact, we’re doing far too much. And it’s time we stopped.

Feds Try Afghan Drug Lord, Former US Ally

noorzaiA suspected Afghan druglord went on trial this week in New York for attempting to smuggle tens of millions of dollars worth of heroin from Afghanistan into the US. Afghanistan is currently the world’s most prolific producer of heroin. Not coincidentally, Afghanistan’s drug trade has gone hand-in-hand with US policy in that country.

In the 1980s, the US backed and financed, along with its Saudi allies, a massive holy war on Afghan soil against the Soviet occupation. It was at that time that heroin production in Afghanistan peaked globally. Narcotics were the untraceable currency which paid for weapons on the black market. These weapons eventually ended the Soviet occupation and helped the US win the Cold War. Nearly two decades later, under a US/NATO occupation, Afghanistan has earned the distinction of world’s greatest heroin producer for the second time.

Ironically heroin production under the Taliban slowed drastically as that regime responded to UN sanctions. My partner-in-crime, James Ingalls, wrote all about it in December 2000 in an article called Smart Sanctions on Afghanistan: The Real Target is Peace, as Afghans Suffer. But those sanctions were hypocritical – they only sought to curb drug production by the Taliban, not our allies, the Northern Alliance (or, as they used to be called: The United Front). The Northern Alliance (NA) warlords have hideous pasts as war criminals and jihadi drug lords, and were the very same men who led the drug-financed operation against the Soviets in the 1980s followed by massacres of ordinary Afghans in the early 1990s. Fast forward to a year after the UN sanctions were in place: after the 9-11 attacks, the NA helped the US defeat the Taliban and, as a reward, were given high positions in government. As an added bonus, there was a tacit understanding that their poppy farms would be overlooked.

Seven years later, Haji Bashir Noorzai is in New York, facing life imprisonment for drug smuggling into the US. In fact he is a minor player in Afghanistan’s landscape of corruption, crime, and political intimidation and is distinguished by not being a member of the central government. Warlords far more powerful and even more clearly linked to crimes hold power in Afghanistan’s parliament, part of the central government supported by the US. Men like Yunus Qanooni, Barhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, whose crimes are documented by Human Rights Watch, wear a mantle of democracy in today’s Afghanistan. Additionally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, is linked to serious drug smuggling. And, worse, Izzatullah Wasifi, the current head of the Afghan government’s anti-corruption authority, once spent more than three years in a Nevada prison for selling heroin in Las Vegas.

While Noorzai fought in the US-financed jihad against the Soviets, he eventually allied himself with the Taliban, hoping that they would stabilize Afghanistan during the bloody 90s. As is the case with most of the corrupt militia leaders in Afghanistan that the US has worked with, Noorzai went the way the wind seemed to be blowing and once more changed his allegiance back to the US in 2001 when he helped defeat and disarm the Taliban. Now, he is puzzled as to why the Americans would treat an ally with such disrespect and has offered to share information about the notorious Taliban leader Mullah Omar in exchange for leniency in his case.

According to the New York Times (9/8/08), the US government is accusing Noorzai of aiding the Taliban:

He also provided weapons and manpower to the Taliban, the indictment says. In exchange, the indictment says, the Taliban provided him with protection for his opium crops, heroin laboratories and drug-transportation routes.

At the time of his arrest, Karen Tandy, then chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the operation had “removed one of the world’s top drug traffickers,” and someone, she added, who “for too long, devastated the country of Afghanistan.”

Not surprisingly, Tandy takes no responsibility for the US encouragement of Afghan heroin sales when it has been beneficial to Washington. An excellent history lesson on the US role in the Afghan drug trade can be found in Alfred McCoy’s 2003 book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.

Further in the same New York Times article, Noorzai’s version of the story is found through the words of his defense lawyer, Ivan Fisher and his own affidavit:

Mr. Fisher wrote that Mr. Noorzai was an ardent supporter of the United States-supported government in Afghanistan, and cooperated with American military and intelligence agencies in the years before and after the 2001 terror attacks.

Mr. Noorzai, in his own affidavit, said that in 1982 he began to lead a small force that grew to 1,000 mujahedeen fighters in the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

In 1990, he said, he used his network of tribal contacts to help the C.I.A. recover Stinger missiles that the United States had provided to the Afghan rebels. He eventually turned over about 12 missiles, he said.

While Noorzai maintains that he was not paid by the US for his help in defeating and disarming the Taliban, he was likely the exception. The majority of Afghan drug lords and warlords were hired with financial and political incentives to help defeat the Taliban. In an October 2003 article I published in Foreign Policy in Focus, I detailed some of the financial ties:

The cooperation of warlords such as Fahim and Qanooni was central to U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom and in fact they were paid off by the United States and Britain in return for supporting Karzai and fighting against the Taliban. In July 2002, the UK Observer “learnt that ‘bin bags’ full of U.S. dollars have been flown into Afghanistan, sometimes on RAF planes, to be given to key regional power brokers who could cause trouble for Prime Minister Hamid Karzai’s administration. Paying the warlords for their services has triggered clashes among groups eager to win patronage from the United States. In some areas commanders have been told they will receive a top-of-the-range $40,000 pick-up truck–a local status symbol–if they can prove they have killed Taliban or al Qaeda elements.”

So why would the US go out of its way to lure an Afghan drug lord to the US and put him on trial now? Is it possible that the war/druglords have abused their illegitimate power in Afghanistan so seriously over the past 7 years that they are jeopardizing the central government’s credibility and, by extension, the US government’s credibility? Is it possible that the US hopes to make an example of Noorzai, both to scare his colleagues in Kabul, and to appear as though it is doing something, anything, about a drug trade that has flourished under its troops’ noses?

Regardless of what happens to Bashir Noorzai, what will likely remain unchanged is the ages-old American policy in Afghanistan of this government selfishly pursuing its own interests at the expense of everything and everyone else.

There is a slim chance that the trial may have the unintended consequence of actually revealing the US’s moral compromises in Afghanistan. A Reuters article hints at the possibility:

Besides focusing on Afghanistan’s drug trade, the case may explore U.S. dealings with drug smugglers for political or security purposes.