Ending the “Good War”

Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on June 13, 2007

by James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar
Editor: John Feffer

With primary election season in full swing, Democratic Party candidates have begun trying to distinguish themselves from each other and from the Republicans. The Iraq War has been one such dividing issue. Liberal groups like MoveOn.org praised both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for “showing real leadership” because they “stood up and did the right thing” by voting against the recent Iraq/Afghanistan war-funding bill. The main fight in Congress over the bill was whether or not to include a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But the issue of Afghanistan was not on the table. Neither the version Clinton and Obama supported nor the one they rejected had any stipulations on the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Both versions continued funding for the operation as is.

Indeed, the top tier of candidates with a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination expresses depressingly similar perspectives on the first front in the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” To them, Afghanistan is the “good war.” These supposedly anti-war men and women seem to have serious concerns with what is going on in Iraq, but they have no problem with our conduct of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, they want to enhance it. Barack Obama has said that the Iraq war has “distracted” us from Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton says she is “encouraged by the progress in Afghanistan, but the country is tottering” and needs more troops to “finish off the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” There is talk of moving troops out of Iraq and putting them in Afghanistan. This implies that our troops are doing awful things in Iraq but are doing good things in Afghanistan and therefore deserve support.

In fact, U.S. and NATO troops are doing the same things in both countries: bombing civilian areas, invading villages, rounding up people without evidence, torturing detainees, causing deaths in custody, and shooting into crowds. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering the civilians that they are supposed to be protecting, and turning the local population against them,” says Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

When it comes to war, most U.S. politicians are concerned not with whether a particular policy benefits the Iraqi or Afghan people but how successful the operation is from a strategic perspective, whether it improves U.S. global status and assets, and whether they can use it to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Thus, many Democrats criticize Bush’s war on Iraq as a distraction from the real war in Afghanistan. In reality, both major U.S. parties will probably nominate pro-war candidates whose only difference on military issues is which country represents the best recipient of American firepower, and which people it makes more sense to terrorize and kill: Afghans or Iraqis.

Progress for War Criminals

Life in Afghanistan did improve in the first year or so after coalition forces removed the Taliban. Voting for president in October 2004 and for parliament in September 2005, Afghans picked their own leaders for the first time in decades. But most of those who ended up in the government, both through elections and through appointments, were already powerful. They had money to run campaigns and hire bodyguards, and they possessed the firepower to intimidate the population. Most of them were also major U.S. allies; many were warlords with histories of war crimes. Hamid Karzai, the man chosen by the Bush administration to become president, was one of the few U.S.-backed leaders who was not a warlord. For this reason, he actually won the popular vote by a landslide. But his subsequent embrace of the warlords and his failure to bring promised improvements to the basic infrastructure of his country have made him almost universally reviled by Afghans.

Contrary to Senator Clinton’s talk of “progress in Afghanistan,” the life of the average Afghan has gone from bad to worse under American stewardship. Amid the re-entrenchment of abusive power brokers in Afghanistan, the people have little security, no jobs, and poor access to health care or a decent education. About 90% of Afghans do not have access to clean drinking water or electricity. Growing anti-U.S. and anti-Afghan-government protests, and numerous surveys show that the people see their lives as getting worse. According to a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based on interviews with over 1,000 Afghans, Afghanistan has stagnated or slipped backward on four out of five key development categories from 2005 to 2006.

The only improvement came in the category of “economic conditions.” As usual with mainstream assessments of the economy, the main concern is with the amount of money changing hands not the wellbeing of the average person. Afghanistan’s economy is certainly booming by the standard criterion: the GDP has doubled since 2001 as investment in the risky (but profitable) country has gone through the roof. But, according to the CSIS report, “these benefits have not translated into sufficient employment and income generating activities for the ordinary citizen.” Even when money is available, much of it is siphoned into the coffers of warlords and corrupt politicians. Since 2001, the warlords have evicted hundreds of poor residents to “make way for a ‘new Afghanistan’ of palatial homes—scores of four- and five-story mansions boasting gold-painted marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows flanking grand wooden doors.” Other signs of an economic boom that does not reach ordinary Afghans are the new Coke bottling plant and five-star hotel that have opened in Kabul.

In many ways, U.S. policies have brought Afghanistan back to the age of the Taliban. Since the parliamentary elections, warlords have used their positions to become even more powerful. In July 2006, Karzai’s cabinet approved the proposal to reinstate the Taliban’s feared Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In a more far-reaching move, the parliament on January 31, 2007 passed an amnesty bill that states, “all those political and belligerent sides who were involved one way or the other during the 2 1/2 decades of war will not be prosecuted legally and judicially.” This bill is so broad it even forgives the Taliban of war crimes. Supporters of the amnesty bill claim that it is “an attempt to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghan society.” This is reminiscent of former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s excuse that encouraging warlords to enter government was a way toward peace.

The amnesty bill is in distinct opposition to the aspirations of the Afghan people. In an important 2005 survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 69% of Afghans identified either themselves or immediate family members as direct victims of human rights violations perpetrated by the warlords in parliament and their ilk; 61% rejected amnesty for such crimes. In fact, 76% felt instead that bringing war criminals to justice would “increase stability and bring security” to their country.

Freedom of Speech Curtailed

The only member of parliament who openly echoes these sentiments is Malalai Joya, a 28-year old representative from Farah province. Joya is extremely popular for her well-known criticisms of fellow MPs on the parliament floor, but she has consequently received threats of death and rape, and has survived four assassination attempts. For a particularly scathing attack in which she unfavorably compared the parliament to a zoo, the warlord-dominated assembly invoked a little-known parliamentary rule on May 21 that bars members from “insulting” one another and suspended Joya from her post. In response, hundreds of Afghans have been demonstrating in cities across the country demanding her reinstatement. Human Rights Watch said the suspension of Joya “sets back democracy and rights” in Afghanistan, and that her “comments don’t warrant the punishment she received.” Members of the European parliament and Canada’s New Democratic Party also condemned the parliamentary move. Distinguished by their silence on this issue are both the Bush administration and the “anti-war” Democrats in Congress.

Joya is not the only one silenced by the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The parliament is reportedly considering amendments to the country’s media law that “could undo many of the gains made since the fall of the Taliban.” The current law is thought to be “the most liberal in the region,” at least on paper. These amendments are a continuation of systematic attacks on press freedom over the past few years. In particular, Karzai’s National Security Directorate circulated a memo to Afghan media last June, which stated that “the media must ban or restrict broadcasting those materials which deteriorate the morale of the public, cause security problems, and which are against the public interest.” Among the 18 actions to be banned are “publication of provocative articles which are against the Mujahideen [holy warriors] and call them ‘warlords’” and “Negative propaganda, interviews and reports which are provocative or slanderous and which are against the presence (in Afghanistan) of the international coalition forces and ISAF.”

Given the terrible reality of Afghan life, if journalists were to follow these edicts they would have little to report.

Choosing Military Solutions

Despite the the claims of the administration and most presidential candidates, military action cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan as even those implementing the policies admit. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates says of both Iraq and Afghanistan, “these conflicts cannot…be won purel y by military action.” NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says, “It is my strong opinion that the final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one.”

“The final answer in Afghanistan is,” Scheffer continues, “reconstruction, development, and nation-building.” Gates agrees that what is needed is “to help build a government and an economy that serves the interests of the people.” But the United States is not eager to take on that role. “I would urge others to step forward with assistance to Afghanistan in the areas of governance, reconstruction, and counternarcotics,” says Gates.

Most Americans do not realize that there are approximately 49,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about one-third the number in Iraq. Of those troops, 28,000 are from the United States: 15,000 operate under NATO and 13,000 are part of the Pentagon’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The U.S.-NATO dichotomy is misleading, however, because the largest contingent of NATO troops is from the United States (the second-largest contingent from the UK is much smaller, only 7,700 soldiers). In addition, the military head of NATO operations, U.S. General Dan K. McNeill, is also the chief of OEF. In other words, America dominates all foreign troop operations in Afghanistan.

For Washington the goal of these deployments is limited to ending sanctuary for “terrorists” who might attack U.S. and allied assets, which include Karzai’s government. But the overwhelming reliance on force has created more people willing to commit terrorism against the United States. Today, Afghanistan is plagued by a new insurgency funded by the remnants of the Taliban and drug lords and fueled by a new hatred of Americans and other foreigners.

Three recent examples illustrate what seems to be an inflexible US military strategy: when confronted by any perceived threat, respond with overwhelming force. Inevitably, this leads to heavy civilian casualties.

On May 8, 2007 in the village of Sarban Qala, U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with Afghan National Army troops were reportedly “under heavy attack by Taliban militants” and called in air strikes to “destroy…three compounds and an underground tunnel network.” The air strikes killed 21 civilians, according to the governor of Helmand province and the district chief. An Afghan official stated, “some Taliban were also killed.” In this example, the civilian casualties may have been a byproduct of a real battle between U.S. forces and insurgents, and hence the result of negligence.

In late April 2007, in a village in Zerkoh valley in Herat province, the U.S. military claimed that American forces “came under heavy fire from insurgents…and called in air strikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.” But villagers insisted there were no Taliban in the village. According to The New York Times, “the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials.” The U.S. air strikes were actually a response to the defiance of villagers who had been harassed on two previous occasions by foreign troops. One farmer said, “when the Americans came without permission—and they came more than once and disturbed the people—they searched the houses, and the second time they arrested people, and the third time the people got angry and fought them.” The U.S. strikes killed about 60 civilians, almost half of which were women and children, and displaced over 1600. So in this case, the air strikes targeted villagers who had taken up arms in response to previous U.S. aggression. As a result, the U.S. forces created an insurgency in a village where there was none.

In Nangarhar province in March 2007, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-filled car near a U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces convoy, wounding one soldier. According to military officials, this was part of “a complex ambush involving enemy small-arms fire from several directions,” whereupon U.S. soldiers returned fire and civilians were killed and wounded in the crossfire. An investigation by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission determined that this was a lie. “U.S. forces claimed that the suicide attack was part of a complex ambush…but…all witnesses and Afghan government officials interviewed uniformly denied that any attack beyond the initial [suicide car] took place.” The report describes what seemed to be random shooting by the U.S. soldiers into the surrounding crowd of Afghans. Then, as the soldiers resumed their journey, the report continues, “During the next 16 kilometers, the convoy in several locations opened fire on civilians traveling by foot or in vehicles, causing further deaths and injuries.” In all, 19 people were killed and 50 wounded. In this third example, U.S. troops were in no danger after an initial suicide bomb.

Col. John Nicholson, a commander in eastern Afghanistan, said of civilian death, “regrettably it does happen, because this is war, but we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.” The facts speak otherwise. Of all the NATO countries, the Americans are reputed for aggressive behavior. According to The New York Times, “many of the most serious episodes of civilian deaths have involved United States counterterrorism and Special Operations forces that operate separately from the NATO command.”

In some cases U.S. officials actively thwart outside scrutiny. On at least one occasion, Western troops deliberately prevented media from uncovering both their criminal actions and their false justifications. After the Nangarhar incident, U.S. troops returned to the area and removed all bullet shells and cartridges. They prevented Afghan National Police units from accessing the site until they were finished. In addition, seven journalists reported having their equipment confiscated or being forced to delete pictures and videos they had taken. A U.S. Marine told one cameraman to “delete the photographs or we will delete you.”

According to Human Rights Watch, there were “at least 230” civilian deaths in Afghanistan attributable to U.S. or NATO actions in 2006. The count will probably be much higher for 2007 (the three examples given here already add up to 100). Even so, the 2006 figure is probably an underestimate, given that U.S. and NATO officials claim many thousands of “Taliban insurgents” and “suspected Taliban” were also killed. In two of the examples above, officials masked the number of civilians killed by mislabeling the dead as “Taliban.”

Cracks in NATO

The growing number of civilian deaths are “threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance,” according to The New York Times. At a May 9 meeting in Brussels, the NATO secretary general met with the North Atlantic Council, the organization’s governing body, and had “intense discussion” on the subject. But “the conversation was less about how to reduce casualties,” reported the Times, “than about how to explain them to European governments.” To most officials, the criminality and injustice of the civilian deaths alone are not enough to condemn them. But when they undermine the support base at home or in the host country, and threaten the crucial “winning hearts and minds” portion of NATO’s counterinsurgency campaign, they become a strategic problem.

The Americans themselves seem to be slowly reconsidering their tactics. In an unusual move, Col. Nicholson made what seemed like a very sincere apology to the families of the people killed in the Nangarhar incident. In particular, he admitted that the Americans “killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” and asked for the people’s forgiveness, paying the families $2000 each. Such apologies and payments, regardless of how paltry or insulting, reflect a desperate desire to rebuild America’s image with the Afghan people.

Perhaps the newfound difficulty in understanding civilian deaths in Washington and Brussels has something to do with the increasing number of anti-U.S. and anti-Karzai demonstrations all over Afghanistan. Thousands “stormed a government district headquarters” in Shindand near a large American base, to protest the killings in the Zerkoh valley incident. On the other side of the country around the same time, about 2000 students blocked the highway from Kabul to Pakistan for four continuous days to protest a second killing of innocents in Nangarhar province at the end of April. People burning George W. Bush in effigy and calling for Karzai’s resignation is an obvious sign that Operation Enduring Freedom is not winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans.

Opening for Anti-War Movement

Afghanistan’s dire situation today is a direct result of U.S. policies over the past six years. The best time to change those policies would have been early on, in 2002 before the warlords were legitimized and before Operation Enduring Freedom became standard military procedure. Still, the failures of NATO’s destructive tactics and the growing, non-Taliban, grassroots resistance in Afghanistan may provide another opening for the U.S. anti-war movement to force a change in policy.

Unfortunately, the movement has been pitifully silent on Afghanistan, especially since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is true even though Afghanistan has one-third the number of foreign troops as Iraq, the bulk of which are American (nearly 60%), and the Americans are the worst perpetrators of violence. In contrast, the movements in Europe and Canada are outraged by the conduct of their militaries and force their governments daily to justify their continued presence in Afghanistan. In Canada, for example, which only has about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, anti-war coalitions have organized demonstrations and petitioned the government to withdraw their soldiers. Canadian public opposition is so high that Afghanistan is regularly debated on the Parliament floor. For example, members of the New Democratic Party have sponsored a motion “calling for the immediate…withdrawal of our troops from the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.” The American anti-war movement, on the other hand, has left it to the Democrats to be the only anti-Bush voice on Afghanistan. Thus the U.S. public is presented with only two options: send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, or (at best) reduce the number of troops in Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan. This is truly a failure of the American left.

Ideally, the U.S. antiwar movement should work in solidarity with Afghans attempting to meet their needs. Based on published polls and our own interviews with people in Afghanistan, most Afghans want primarily two things. They want security and justice, which translates into foreign troop withdrawal, warlord disarmament, and war crimes tribunals. And they want assistance to rebuild infrastructure and meet basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and jobs.

Many Americans who were moved by the plight of the Afghan people before September 11 wanted to support efforts to overthrow the Taliban and rebuild the country. The U.S. government responded by bombing the country and replacing the Taliban with equally rapacious warlords. The silence of the progressive movement on Afghanistan leaves unchallenged the claim that U.S. actions liberated the people and brought a new era of democracy. Unlike our Canadian and European counterparts, who have called for an immediate troop withdrawal, we have not made any solid demands of our government.

As a first step, Americans of conscience ought to join activists in other NATO countries to call for an immediate end to Operation Enduring Freedom and a withdrawal of combat troops.

Unfortunately a withdrawal of troops, while necessary, will not solve all the problems of the Afghan people. The immediate result will be a military power vacuum. Recall the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Soviet troops ended their occupation of Afghanistan. The power vacuum allowed U.S.-sponsored warlords to plunge the country into the worst violence in its recent history. If the power vacuum is filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force to help the country transition toward stability, a repeat of that violence might be avoided. In tandem, it will be necessary to fully fund the social and economic programs that Afghans desire. Ideally, the money should be unconditional. And it should come from countries that have played the most destructive role in Afghanistan, such as the United States. Anything less reveals a callous indifference to the victims of our country’s forgotten war in Afghanistan, and is an abrogation of our fundamental responsibility as Americans.


James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are the co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based nonprofit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They are also the co-authors of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, published in 2006 by Seven Stories Press.

We Just Moved! Site Under Construction

politicalconScience.net and SonaliAndJim.net are merging and moving to a new web host. Now both Sonali and Jim will be blogging on the same site, LoveAndSubversion.net. Pardon our mess as we get organized.

A note on the name. Originally we thought up “Love and Subversion” for our band, but we haven’t written or recorded music in about five years. Sonali started a new career and the both of us put a lot of time into our book that came out last year. Now with our first child on the way, it doesn’t look as if music-making is on the horizon. But we decided “Love and Subversion” both still drive our activities (or should when we get selfish and/or complacent). Plus it has a nice “online newsmagazine” feel to it.

Selective Outrage

Published on Alternet.org on March 30, 2006

by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls

Daily media reports over the case of Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman have revealed a sudden concern over Afghanistan’s repressive human rights environment. But routine human rights reports of the ongoing oppression of Afghan women, suppression of the media and underlying Western complicity have barely been noticed.

In the West, government officials, media pundits and right-wing commentators have expressed vocal concern over the life of one Afghan man who chose, 16 years ago, to convert from Islam to Christianity. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Rahman’s arrest for apostasy (renunciation of faith), a crime that carries the death penalty was “beyond belief.” U.S. President George W. Bush said he was “deeply troubled” by the case. The New York Times opined that “the case is more than deeply troubling, it’s barbaric.”

These same officials, whose governments underwrite the Afghan government, were apparently so moved by Rahman’s situation that they pushed for President Hamid Karzai to have Rahman released. In what the Associated Press called “an unusual move,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Karzai to convey “in the strongest possible terms” her government’s wish for a “favorable resolution.” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also appealed to Karzai and got positive results.

Three days before Rahman was released, Harper said, “[Karzai] conveyed to me that we don’t have to worry about [Rahman’s execution. He] assured me that what’s alarmed most of us will be worked out quickly ,T (Bin a way that fully respects religious rights, religious freedoms and human rights.” Not surprisingly, the case was dismissed on March 27 due to “insufficient evidence.

Prior to the dismissal, Bush boasted, “We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values.” In other words, the Afghan courts are free to come to their own verdict, so long as the U.S. agrees with it. On CNN’s Late Edition, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., warned, “Let’s hope they make the right decision. If they don’t, I think there are going to be a great many problems.”

Behind Roberts’ words was an unmistakable threat that the United States and other Western governments would withdraw their support for the fragile Karzai government. Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, sent an email to 250,000 supporters warning that Rahman’s execution would “result in a complete collapse in support for the war.” The New York Times echoed these sentiments: “What’s the point of the United States’ propping up the government of Afghanistan if it’s not even going to pretend to respect basic human rights?” The newspaper’s editors threatened, “If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taliban days, it can do so without the help of the United States.”

The implication is clear: By “liberating” Afghanistan, the Christian West now stakes a claim in its internal affairs. Recognizing this influence, vocal leaders have discovered a sudden interest in international law and universal values — but it is a piecemeal recognition, avoiding the systemic issues of human rights violations seen in Afghanistan on a daily basis. Before one applauds the outcome, it is important to understand that Rahman’s religious freedom case is a symptom of a much larger problem.

While Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins laments that “such a ‘trial’ is a flagrant violation of Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he does not cite Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to education. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reports that the number of educational facilities for women has actually been reduced in the past year. In southern Afghanistan, the United Nations reports about 300 girls’ schools were burned down in 2005. Nationwide, women’s literacy rates are half that of men. Some provinces report literacy rates of 3 percent for women.

For Afghanistan’s approximately 15 million women, “universal values” do not include women’s rights. A UNICEF report released last week warned of the grim statistics concerning Afghan women and children:

[A]n estimated 600 children under the age of 5 die every day in Afghanistan, mostly due to preventable illnesses, some 50 women die every day due to obstetric complications, less than half of primary school age girls attend classes, while a quarter of primary school age children undertake some form of work, and an estimated one-third of women are married before the age of 18.

In 2001, similar statistics were routinely reported as a justification for the war on Afghanistan and women’s “liberation.” Yet, five years later, the situation has scarcely improved.

The case of Abdul Rahman has drawn attention to Afghanistan’s judicial system, which has been in dire need of reform since it was set up at the end of 2001. But, other than Rahman’s case, most commentators have a meager understanding of how this system has affected the lives of Afghans, especially women, its greatest victims. Amnesty International notes that “the current criminal justice system is simply unwilling or unable to address issues of violence against women. At the moment (October 2003) it is more likely to violate the rights of women than to protect and uphold their rights (emphasis added).”

The main legal document of Afghanistan is the constitution, drafted and passed in early 2004 with the oversight of then U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. In March 2004, we warned of the constitution’s ambivalent stance toward women’s rights:

[P]ossibly negating any rights of women is the ominous inclusion of the supremacy of Islamic law in the constitution: “in Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” As if to underscore the threat this statement presents, the Chairman of the constitutional convention, … Sibghatullah Mojadidi, said to the women delegates at the convention, “Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man.”

Islamic law in the constitution was meant to appease extremist right-wing factions, including the Chief Justice Fazl Al Shinwari. Shinwari is a close ally of the fundamentalist warlord and U.S.-Saudi protege of the early 1990s Abdul-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, now a member of the Afghan parliament. Human Rights Watch reported that Shinwari and his deputy “do not appear to act independently, the first requirement of a judge, instead making political judgments in close collaboration with warlords like Sayyaf.”

Shinwari has taken full advantage of his position and the new constitution to appoint judges who share his extreme beliefs to the lower courts, and handing out misogynist decisions on cases involving women, particularly in family law. He refuses to appoint women to high court positions, saying, “If a woman becomes a top judge, then what would happen when she has a menstruation cycle once a month, and she cannot go to the mosque?”

Shinwari has banned cable television in Afghanistan, arrested journalists for blasphemy, and forced Women’s Affairs minister Sima Samar to resign her post after she was charged with blasphemy for making “irresponsible statements” criticizing Shari’a law. As with apostasy, the penalty for blasphemy is death. Yet, we hear no criticisms from the West regarding the court’s numerous medieval blasphemy accusations.

The consequences for women of such a repressive justice system have been dire. The AIHRC noted 150 cases of self-immolation among women in the western region of the country in 2005 alone. Women who burn themselves to death often do so as a result of forced marriages, which are sanctioned by extremist interpretations of Shari’a law and are occurring at an alarming rate. Cases of violence against women are also rising. A young woman named Gulbar in the Baghdis province was repeatedly abused by her husband, who finally set fire to her. While she attempts to recover from extreme burns covering 40 percent of her body, no steps have been taken by local authorities to hold her husband accountable.

In late 2005, the well-respected 25-year-old poet Nadia Anjuman was beaten by her husband and died of injuries. U.N. spokesperson Adrian Edwards condemned the killing: “The death of Nadia Anjuman ,T (Bis indeed tragic and a great loss to Afghanistan. It needs to be investigated, and anyone found responsible needs to be dealt with in a proper court of law.”

The New York Times sarcastically commented that if Rahman was to be executed, “maybe Afghanistan should also return to stoning women to death for adultery.” Perhaps the Times will recall last spring, when 29-year-old Amina of Badakhshan province was stoned to death after being accused of adultery by her husband and convicted by local officials.There was no international outcry from the United States or other foreign countries and no attempts to get President Karzai to enforce universal human rights.

It is likely that, given the current atmosphere in Afghanistan, justice will not be served for Gulbar, Nadia Anjuman, Amina or the uncounted women who have been stifled by a judicial system that was designed to work against them. The complicit silence from Western media and government officials indicates that Bush’s “influence in Afghanistan” is not worth exercising to protect women’s rights.

Note that Bush administration officials have remained entirely silent on the fate of a brave Afghan woman named Malalai Joya. Joya is one of the youngest members of Afghanistan’s parliament and a fierce critic of U.S.-backed fundamentalist warlords. She has survived four assassination attempts and has received over 100 death threats. The only action the Karzai government has taken recently is to withdraw the security guards that she was previously provided.

In early 2005, the position of U.N. independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan, held by Cherif Bassiouni, was eliminated at the request of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Just before he was fired, Bassiouni had published a report describing “arbitrary arrest, illegal detentions and abuses committed by the United States-led coalition forces,” as well as activities by these forces which “fall under the internationally accepted definition of torture.”

Abdul Rahman’s case is not unique — it provides an example of the fear with which most ordinary Afghans, especially women, live. Even if one were to take seriously the Western concern for religious freedom, there appears to be less concern for the everyday violations of women’s humanity ensconced in the Afghan legal and political system, or for the criminal behavior of Washington’s own troops in Afghanistan. Most expressions of outrage at Rahman’s plight disregard the human rights violations for which the West is directly responsible and reveal an unstated contempt for the rights of women, the most common victims of the current Afghan justice system.

Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and the authors of the forthcoming book, “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence” (Seven Stories, 2006).

Giving Democracy a Bad Name

Afghanistan’s Parliamentary Elections

Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on September 16, 2005

by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls

The United States has supposedly created new “democracies” in Afghanistan and Iraq, but these endeavors give democracy a bad name. Sure, the two countries have some ingredients of representative democracy, such as elected officials and a constitution. But both countries are still beset by grinding poverty, insurgencies, and entrenched militia forces that make the exercise of democracy either impractical or dangerous. Both countries have high numbers of foreign troops occupying their land and terrorizing the population while hunting “terrorists” And both countries’ governments answer to their respective U.S. ambassador on most issues. In the midst of such a violent and coercive environment, Afghans are pressing ahead with the latest in a series of “democratic” exercises imposed by the United States: the first Afghan parliamentary elections in four decades will take place this Sunday, September 18. Even though many Afghans hope that the elections will empower them to end their troubles, the fear is that the elections will probably be as undemocratic in practice as every other U.S.-inflicted Afghan institution.

Entrenching Warlord Rule?

Warlords, most of whom have past or present U.S. backing, still rule much of the countryside and will play a big role in the elections. A survey by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC) found that a majority of Afghans are fearful that the elections will be used by the “commanders,” to cement their power. One respondent said, “The only concern that we have is commanders’ misuse of their power.”1 According to election rules, any individuals commanding private armies are to be disqualified. In July, the Electoral Complaints Commission (EEC) drew up a list of 208 “blacklisted” candidates who had ties to illegal armed groups. As of this week, only 45 lower profile candidates have actually been disqualified from running. Meanwhile, warlords like Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, whose criminal past has been documented by groups like Human Rights Watch, are openly running for seats in the Parliament. So are former Taliban officials, like the ex- deputy interior minister Mullah Khaksar.

U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai has defended the right of warlords to run for parliament, in the interests of “national reconciliation.” This is just the latest in a series of concessions that Karzai has made to warlords. Last October, he ran for president on an ostensibly anti-warlord platform, saying, “Private militias are the country’s greatest danger.” To back up his rhetoric, Karzai sacked two warlords in his cabinet and pretended to fire Ismail Khan by removing him from the post of governor of Herat. After he won the elections, Karzai appointed Khan Minister of Energy, and brought in the feared warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Defense Minister and presidential candidate, as Afghanistan’s Army Chief of Staff. U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (now ambassador to Iraq) endorsed Karzai’s decision, commenting in March that the “decision to give a role to … regional strongmen is a wise policy.” In addition, Karzai’s government has promised former Taliban fighters immunity from prosecution for war crimes. Under this program, initiated with the approval of the United States, even Mullah Omar, the notorious Taliban chief, would be granted immunity if he recants his ways.2

Widespread Violence

Besides the repression of entrenched warlords, violence carried out by “remnants” of the Taliban, al-Qaida, or other Afghan formations, as well as U.S. soldiers, is making it harder for Afghans to exercise their democratic rights. More than 1,000 people, including civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan this year alone. It has been the bloodiest year for the U.S. military, with 65 soldiers killed since January 2005. In addition to the U.S. and international troops, anti-government groups have targeted moderate Islamic clerics, government officials, foreign aid workers, and people involved with the upcoming elections. Citizens have been killed for carrying voter registration cards, electoral workers have been attacked, and candidates, particularly women, have received death threats. A total of 6 candidates and 4 election workers have been killed.

Although much of the violence is an attempt to disrupt elections, the U.S. military attributes this year’s dramatic increase in fatalities partly to its own violent provocation. According to the magazine Stars and Stripes, “the recent surge in fighting could be attributed more to American aggressiveness than anything al-Qaida is doing.” U.S. troops have conducted “a series of operations in areas where U.S. presence has been minimal or nonexistent” to try to provoke attacks on themselves and thereby catch “terrorists” in the act. “I think we’re initiating the overwhelming majority of the actions,” said Brigadier-General James Champion. The attackers “would not be firing the first shots if we weren’t in the area.”3

The U.S. troop presence is something a truly democratic Afghanistan would surely eliminate or curtail. In July, over 1,000 demonstrators outside the main U.S. base at Bagram called for an end to arbitrary house break-ins and arrests and for treating Afghans with more dignity. This was the largest protest since a wave of anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country in May led to 16 deaths. During his May 2005 visit to the United States, President Karzai requested more Afghan control over U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the handing over of Afghan prisoners, and the end of home searches without government permission, all of which were rejected. U.S. president George W. Bush told Karzai, “Of course, our troops will respond to U.S. commanders.”

A recent report by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Justice Project cited “grave abuses” by U.S. troops, “many of them of the same sort used by their counterparts in the communist, mujahidin, and Taliban regimes that preceded them.” These include “crude and brutal” methods of torture that have sometimes led to death and the use of secret detention facilities that facilitate torture; and unacknowledged detentions that are tantamount to “disappearances.” Particularly relevant to the parliamentary elections, the report concludes that “U.S. forces have jeopardized prospects for establishing stable and accountable institutions in Afghanistan, have undermined the security of the Afghan people … and have reinforced a pattern of impunity that undermines the legitimacy of the political process.”4

What Will Change?

Given current conditions, many analysts are suggesting that the September 18 elections will probably result in very little change. There will be 5,800 candidates running for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), and 34 representatives on provincial councils. Rules set up by Karzai, with the approval of the United States, allow political parties, but disallow the party affiliations of candidates to be printed on electoral ballots. In other words, 5,800 candidates are running as independents. Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group predicts that the assembly will be a “weak and fractured, possibly even paralyzed body.” Barnett Rubin of New York University says that the elections won’t make much of a difference because, “Until Afghanistan has a functioning, legal economy and basic institutions, there’s nothing really for a parliament to do except act as a kind of puppet platform for people’s views.”

Even so, about half the Afghan population has registered to vote and expects important changes to come from these elections. The elections have the potential to be the most democratic events in Afghanistan since the budding of women’s, student, and leftist organizations in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, there is a slim possibility of the civilian, non-fundamentalist majority in Afghanistan gaining a measure of political power. Women have 68 seats reserved for them as per the new constitution, guaranteeing at least some non-patriarchal views in the assembly.5

In a recent trip to Afghanistan we interviewed Noorani, the editor of a weekly Kabul-based newspaper, Rozgharan, who described three groups that will be represented in the parliamentary elections: “Firstly, Karzai and his technocrats, another group belonging to Qanooni, Dostum, and Mohaqiq, [warlords] and the third: a group of intellectuals, who are unhappy with the failure of Karzai and the warlords.” He complained that the third group had no support from the world community. In addition, they have little economic power and are under threat from the warlords.

Among this third group, there are numerous parties organizing against fundamentalism and for social justice and democracy. The Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, for example, criticizes both Karzai and the warlords. We met with one of the party representatives, Wasay Engineer, who told us that his party has members in 25 of Afghanistan’s 35 provinces. The party’s platform is based on “women’s rights, democracy, and secular society, a disarming of the country, and freedom of the press.” Between 30 and 40% of its members are women. The Solidarity Party is putting up about 30 candidates for the Parliamentary elections “to show that there are some in Afghanistan who still work for the people.” Engineer says that the Solidarity Party is not alone—they are part of a forum of 16 anti-fundamentalist parties throughout the country.
We also met independent candidates. Malalai Joya and Qasimi represented the province of Farah at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in December 2003. Both live under threat to their lives because of their outspoken criticism of the warlords. Qasimi did not allow us to photograph him and uses a pseudonym to protect himself. He says he has been threatened many times by the government, police, and security forces.

Malalai Joya became famous overnight when she caused an uproar at the Constitutional Loya Jirga by denouncing fiercely the warlords who were present, saying they “turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars … [They are] the most anti-women people in the society who brought our country to this state.” She told the assembly, “They should be taken to national and international court.” ( Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2003) Now Joya wears a burqa to disguise herself when she travels and has six full time security guards. Her house and office were attacked by armed men after her speech at the Constitutional meeting. But she has no intention of disappearing from public life, believing her activism will inspire others. In her office she posed for a photo in front of a poster with the following words: “If I arise, then you will arise, we will all arise.”

Washington likes to highlight its contributions to Afghanistan’s progress toward “democracy,” but U.S. actions in the name of democracy undermine real democracy-building. After having hopes of a fundamentalist-free government crushed many times over by Karzai, many ordinary Afghans consider the parliamentary elections their last chance to exercise some power over their lives. But many activists realize that their fight for justice will not end with elections. Malalai Joya promised us, “Whether I will be a member of parliament or not, I will continue my struggle while my enemies, meaning the enemies of the country, are alive and are working against the women and men of Afghanistan.”

End Notes:

  1. “Afghan Voters Worry ‘Guns and Money’ Will Affect Election,” Noticias.info, September 13, 2005.
  2. Paul McGeough, “ Old Ways Linger Beneath a Veil of Votes,” Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, September 10, 2005.
  3. Kent Harris, “Vicenza-based Troops in Afghanistan Aggressively Taking Fight to the Enemy,” Stars and Stripes, June 28, 2005.
  4. The Afghanistan Justice Project, Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 1978-2001, July 2005.
  5. “Facts and figures about Afghanistan’s elections,” Reuters, September 12, 2005.

Sonali Kolhatkar and Jim Ingalls are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They visited Afghanistan in February 2005.

Demonstration Elections in Afghanistan

Published in Z Magazine November, 2004

Now that the October 9 U.S.- sponsored Afghan presidential elections are over, a huge sigh of relief is probably being heaved in Washington. As of this writing, the vote counting has not yet begun and, according to news outlets, the outcome will not be known for at least two weeks. But the Bush administration got a huge boost for two reasons.

First, people came out to vote in large numbers. If even half of the 10.5 million people who are reported to have registered actually voted, then the act of voting was an incredible achievement in a country where elections for head of state have never occurred. Despite rampant violence prior to the election and threats of violence during—and despite a history of war and destruction—the Afghan people were hopeful that the elections would improve their lives. A September 2004 report by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium describes interviews with over 700 Afghans “not heard or heeded in the corridors of power.” Many of those interviewed reflected the belief that the elections would improve things significantly. One woman in Kandahar said, “If the new government is fair, it will bring great changes to our lives. We will feel more secure; women will be able to work without any fear; our country will be free from bad people.” A man in Kabul expressed the hope that, “If there is a permanent government, the guns will be collected [and] people will have jobs. Afghanistan will be a safe, comfortable society.”

The second reason the Bush administration received a boost is that the anti-election violence threatened by the Taliban and other groups largely did not materialize, due to a heavy military and police presence. There were only “scattered rocket and grenade explosions across the country and a smattering of attacks on election sites,” according to the Los Angeles Times (October 10, 2004). “A great thing happened in Afghanistan,” Bush said. “Freedom is beautiful. Freedom is on the march.”

Also on the march were soldiers. The United States and Afghan governments deployed over 100,000 security personnel (mostly Afghan, with 18,000 U.S.troops and 7,000 NATO forces backing them up) to polling places and at checkpoints on important roads. The deployment was part of “a sophisticated, nationwide security strategy.” In a year in which security has been “deteriorating,” according to NATO public relations, with the number of violent attacks steadily increasing, people should be asking why the U.S. waited until the election to show that all along it could have brought desperately needed security to the country. It is unlikely that this security will remain once the vote-counters finish their job.

Despite U.S. propaganda, the Afghan elections were not an opportunity for real democratic choice, they were an act of extortion. Bush took advantage of the Afghan people’s hope for a better future by offering them a cruel choice between two possibilities: a U.S.-controlled Hamid Karzai government with fascist fundamentalist warlords in subordinate positions; or a government completely controlled by the warlords. Of the 15 candidates challenging incumbent President Karzai on October 9, most were either warlords (the second-most likely winner was Northern Alliance commander Yunus Qanooni) or had serious connections to warlords.

Furthermore, none of the candidates had Karzai’s access to U.S. government aid, such as it is. Indeed, the blackmail has paid off: exit polls show that Karzai will likely win more than the 50 percent of votes required to avoid a runoff. Shahir, the head of the Kilid media group, describes the importance of the elections to him: “I see a chance even if I know that most of the game is fake and most people are unaware of their rights. But this is the first step in the process. Our warlords will see how much they are ‘cherished’ by the people.”

It would be a mistake to say Afghans were charmed by Karzai. Rather, they decided to pick “anybody but warlords.”

Given Karzai’s record over the past three years, it is unlikely that he will be able to improve the lives of Afghans without drastic changes in U.S. policy. After decades of war and poverty, Afghanistan lacks the basic building blocks of civil society such as roads, schools, hospitals, adequate housing, etc. Security is likely to worsen as U.S. troops return to their hunt for “terrorists.” With a weak economy and outside donations slowing to a trickle, the infrastructure that Afghanistan needs to survive, let alone flourish, is nowhere in sight.

Most Afghans agree that, since the fall of the Taliban, security has been the most serious problem. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) complains, “The president is being protected by U.S. bodyguards, but who will protect the vulnerable innocent people from the bullets of the warlords?” The violence of tyrannical warlords, Taliban terrorism, and U.S. raids in the southeast hamper every aspect of people’s lives, including their freedom of movement, distribution of aid, and the safety of women, who remain special targets. The two most formidable military powers in the country are (1) “coalition” forces (mostly U.S. troops) and (2) heavily armed private militias led by unaccountable warlords. While the former does nothing but hunt for “terrorists” in the southeast and buy the “hearts and minds” of villagers with aid, the latter frequently turn their guns on the Afghan people. The antidote to insecurity as proposed by the U.S. government has been the training of the Afghan National Army, meant to empower the central government of Hamid Karzai to secure the country. But with AK47 rifles a common sight on Afghan streets, a national army is still meaningless. After three years the ANA is only 13,000 strong, less than 20 percent of its intended size, and still much smaller than the private militias of warlords like Ismail Khan. Even though Khan was recently fired from his post as governor of Herat, he was allowed to keep his 30,000 troops. One important solution to the problem of insecurity, disarmament, is not being taken seriously by the U.S. The UN disarmament effort has been dubbed a “big failure” by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

The Afghan economy is also in shambles, largely because of the security situation. In particular, the largest single component of the economy is the booming warlord-controlled drug trade. Afghanistan’s legal economy is more or less controlled by the central government now that Ismael Khan is no longer governor of Herat. But this is so small that the presidential elections were a large expenditure, costing the country 10 percent of its annual revenue. The illegal trade in opium earns 8 times more than the government takes in as tax revenue. Thus the warlords are better financed than the central government, making it extremely difficult to pry them from power, regardless of who wins the election. In order to address the economic incentives of poppy cultivation to affect the warlords’ financial base and their consequent political power, Karzai will have to significantly undermine the drug trade. This is unlikely since drug production has wildly increased under his tenure and there is every indication that the trend will continue.

A White House press release cites as part of Bush’s “record of achievement” the fact that Afghanistan is now a country in which women can vote for president. Laura Bush told the Republican National Convention, “look at Afghanistan for an example of women who were totally disenfranchised in every way, who weren’t even allowed to leave their homes and now a lot of them are registered to vote in their election.” But even if the ability of women to cast votes was fully realized on October 9 (and it was not), it has little bearing on their day-to-day lives. With sexual violence at an all time high, maternal mortality rates still at epidemic levels, and education denied to married women, Afghan women have become pawns in Bush’s re-election bid. Decades of fundamentalist forces being empowered by the U.S., Pakistan, and other allies have either preserved or worsened patriarchal attitudes—leaving women oppressed within their own families. Amnesty International has documented very high levels of forced or underage marriages, imprisonment for those who escape them, “chastity checks” for women by roving street teams, and self-immolation by traumatized women. These incidents are at markedly higher rates than during the Taliban’s reign. Karzai has been unable and, in some cases, unwilling to address such issues in the past three years and has instead condoned oppressive values by encouraging men to control their wives’ votes. Further, he has appointed a religious extremist as chief justice, with the result that the constitution and its relationship to Islam are interpreted in the most misogynist ways. In post-election Afghanistan, given the trajectory over the last three years, there is little hope for women.

U.S. government and media pundits have sold the elections as a test of the ability of Afghans to embrace democracy. The secretary general of NATO said, “The enthusiasm with which the Afghan people went to the polls is an unmistakable sign that they are ready to take forward the democratic process.” Now that the Afghans are deemed “ready” to make their own decisions, the U.S. may claim even less responsibility for what happens. International attention is likely to wane, isolating the nation even more.The Afghan elections may represent a success for the Bush model of imposing imperial “democracy” via bombs and war, but they are a dismal failure by any real standard of democracy.

Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission. Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology. Kolhatkar is host and co-producer of “Uprising,” a daily public affairs program on KPFK.

Afghan Elections: US Solution to a US Problem

Published in Foreign Policy in Focus on October 6th, 2004

Afghanistan will undergo the first presidential elections in the country’s history on October 9, 2004. As if surprised by the fact that Afghans could want a voice in their country’s future, George W. Bush touted the fact that over 10 million Afghans registered to vote as “a resounding endorsement for democracy.” The real surprise is that, despite rampant anti-election violence and threats of violence, so many people were brave enough to register. This certainly indicates that Afghans are desperate for a chance to control their own lives. But, even though many will risk their lives to vote, the majority of Afghans played no part in decisionmaking regarding the schedule and structure of the elections, and will not benefit from the results. This election process was imposed by the United States to solve “Afghan problems” as defined by the United States. In reality, the problems facing Afghans are the results of decisions made in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s.1

Test for Bush, Not for Afghans

To the Bush administration and media pundits, presidential elections in Afghanistan will bring the country closer to being a “democracy,” where people decide their own fate. Business Week describes the elections as a “first test” of Bush’s claim that Afghanistan and Iraq “are on the path to democracy.” In a Washington Post opinion piece, Andrew Reynolds of the University of North Carolina similarly described the elections as a “Test for Afghan Democracy.” In this view, any failure of the process will be caused by a lack of readiness of Afghanistan and its people for “democracy,” not a failure of external players to fulfill their responsibilities to the country. What is being tested is solely the capacity of Afghans to embrace democracy. Indeed, Business Week describes only indigenous threats to the elections exercise: “Power brokers are trying to cut deals to eliminate competitive elections. Violence against election workers and politicians is on the rise…Hardly anyone expects the voting to meet international standards.” A commonly cited statistic indicating voter fraud is the estimated 10% over-registration countrywide. According to Business Week, “some areas have registration rates as high as 140% of projected eligible voters.” This is definitely disturbing, and is a blow to Bush’s own election propaganda, since he uses the “over 10 million registered” figure in campaign speeches as an example of the success of his foreign policy. The focus on voter fraud, however, keeps the emphasis on the Afghan failure to measure up to international standards. Few media outlets have dared to blame the United States for the more egregious fraud of imposing early elections on a still war-ravaged country where Northern Alliance warlords legitimized by Washington will continue to hold real power, regardless of who wins the vote. If the Afghan elections fail, Afghans will be blamed and Afghans will continue to suffer, seemingly as a result of their own actions.2

Another point rarely mentioned is that elections do not equal democracy. J. Alexander Thier, a former legal adviser to Afghanistan’s Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions, is one of the few commentators who dares to utter the simple fact: “Elections themselves are only a small part of democracy.” In Thier’s opinion, “Effective government service, protection of individual rights, accountability – these are the true fruits of democracy. Holding elections without the rule of law can undermine democracy by sparking violence, sowing cynicism and allowing undemocratic forces to become entrenched.” Elections are merely “the end product of a successful democracy.” Regardless of who wins the elections and by what means, civil society in Afghanistan is at the moment anything but democratic. Foreign influence, particularly US influence, has ensured that insecurity, warlordism, and a severely curtailed media are entrenched features of the political landscape.3

In reality the Afghan presidential elections will be a test not of “Afghan democracy,” but of Bush’s ability to impose his political order on a country. An editorial in Newsday holds that, “Historic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq are key goals of U.S. foreign policy, especially for President George W. Bush, who is campaigning on his determination that they be held on schedule.” Reynolds says the elections will be “a watershed moment, equal in importance to the post-Sept. 11 ousting of the Taliban.” Since the warlords that now run most of the country are as bad as or worse than the Taliban, the ousting of the Taliban was more a watershed for Washington than for the Afghan people. Similarly, the Afghan elections are really a benchmark for Bush’s foreign policy.

Reynolds says, “A legitimately elected administration in Kabul would not just be good for the Afghans; it would be much more likely to carry out the reforms the United States so keenly wants.” It is clear that the only outcome that would be considered “legitimate” by the US is a win by the incumbent transitional President, Hamid Karzai. While there are 18 candidates running, the US media have focused almost exclusively on Karzai, frequently dubbed “the favorite” in news reports. For the Bush administration it is imperative that their hand picked and well-trained candidate wins. Not only will the anticipated victory of Karzai cement the current order of US influence, it will signal a victory for the “war on terror” as Bush defines it. Reynolds says, “Karzai’s victory…would shine a ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy series of U.S. foreign policy misadventures.”4

Women are Pawns in Election

The Bush administration constantly calls attention to the fact that 4 million of those who registered to vote in Afghanistan were women. Just as the “liberation” of Afghan women was used to justify the bombing of Afghanistan three years ago, women’s participation in US imposed election is again used to justify the US approach. While the administration deals in broad statistics to paint a rosy picture, a closer look reveals that the Afghan political environment, controlled by US-backed warlords and a US-backed president, remains extremely hostile to women. Women comprise 60% of the population but only 43% of registered voters. Additionally, sharp differences in literacy between men and women put women at a huge disadvantage. Only 10% of Afghan women can read and write. While school attendance of girls has increased to about 50% nationwide, it is too early to affect women voters. Furthermore, under Karzai’s presidency, married women were banned from attending schools in late 2003.

While much mileage has been squeezed out of the notion that the US “liberated” Afghan women, only one dollar out of every $5,000 ($112,500 out of $650 million) of US financial aid sent to Afghanistan in 2002 was actually given to women’s organizations. In 2003, according to Ritu Sharma, Executive Director of the Women’s Edge Coalition, that amount was reduced to $90,000. At the same time, women have increasingly been the targets of violence. New studies by groups like Amnesty International reveal that sexual violence has surged since the fall of the Taliban, and there has been a sharp rise in incidents of women’s self-immolation in Western Afghanistan. Amnesty International has documented an escalation in the number of girls and young women abducted and forced into marriage, with collusion from the state (those who resist are often imprisoned).

US policy has empowered extreme fundamentalists who have further extended women’s oppression in a traditionally ultra-conservative society. In a public opinion survey conducted in Afghanistan this July by the Asia Foundation, 72% of respondents said that men should advise women on their voting choices and 87% of all Afghans interviewed said women would need their husband’s permission to vote. On International Women’s Day this year, Hamid Karzai only encouraged such attitudes. He implored men to allow their wives and sisters to register to vote, assuring them, “later, you can control who she votes for, but please, let her go [to register].” Most of the candidates running against Karzai have mentioned rights for women in some form or another as part of their campaign platforms. While this is obligatory in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it is little more than lip service. Latif Pedram, a candidate who went slightly further than others by suggesting that polygamy was unfair to women, was barred from the election and investigated by the Justice Ministry for “blasphemy”.

Just like the Afghan constitution signed earlier this year, which gives equal rights to women on paper, this election will probably have little bearing on the reality of Afghan women’s lives. Denied an education and underrepresented in voter rolls, with little control over the patriarchal justice system and sexist family attitudes, women are once more simply pawns within the US-designed Afghan political structure.

Warlords: Now a Problem for Bush

A recent countrywide survey of Afghans by the International Republican Institute found that “over 60 percent cited security as their primary concern, followed by reconstruction and economic development.” According to 65% of respondents, “warlords and local commanders are the main sources of instability in the country.” While most women may need the permission of their husbands to vote, their choices will be extremely limited, since most Afghans are being intimidated by US backed warlords into voting for them. According to Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, “Many voters in rural areas say the [warlord] militias have already told them how to vote, and that they’re afraid of disobeying them.” The intimidation tactics of Abdul Rashid Dostum and others are no secret, having even raised the ire of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.5

The wider context of the warlords’ power is rarely mentioned. As part of Bush’s “War on Terror,” the US made deals with Northern Alliance warlords in his crusade against the Taliban. Warlords were appointed to high-level government posts and allowed to regain regional power. As many factions fought one another for regional dominance, the US actively denied the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force from Kabul to the rest of the country, thereby closing a crucial window of opportunity to undermine the warlords early on. One should hardly be surprised at the current situation, a natural outcome of US policy over the last three years.

When their actions only affected the lives of ordinary Afghans, warlords were not a problem for Bush. Only now is Washington beginning to hold some of the warlords at arms length, as their presence reflects badly on the carefully staged demonstration of “democracy” via elections. Even worse, a warlord may become president, thwarting the carefully planned outcome. Yunus Qanooni of the Northern Alliance is seen as a major challenger to Karzai. If Karzai doesn’t win, Afghanistan could spiral out of US control. To preserve control, or at least validate the propaganda that Afghanistan is a victory for the US “war on terror,” the Bush administration is actively lobbying Karzai’s opponents to not run. According to the Los Angeles Times, thirteen of the 18 candidates, including Qanooni, have complained about interference from Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador. Khalilzad has reportedly “requested” candidates to withdraw from the race, attempting to bribe them with a position in the cabinet. Senior staff members of several candidates were described as “angry over what many Afghans see as foreign interference that could undermine the shaky foundations of a democracy the U.S. promised to build.”6

United States, Soviet Union Responsible for Current Predicament

Andrew Reynolds claims that the Afghan presidential election “will present a choice between the old and the new, between a state corrupted by private militias and self-enriching warlords; and a new type of government that bases its legitimacy on national rather than ethnic identity.” Unfortunately there is little in the Karzai government that is new, unless your view of history reaches back only a decade. Reynolds’s “new type of government” is simply a reworking of what operated in Afghanistan prior to 1919 under the British, and from 1979 to 1989 under the Soviet occupation: a client regime whose major decisions were to a greater or lesser extent controlled by a foreign power. In the Karzai government, it is obvious that Washington runs the show. According to the New York Times, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has “possibly as much influence” in Afghanistan as L. Paul Bremer has in Iraq. Khalilzad is known as ” ‘the Viceroy’ because the influence he wields over the Afghan government reminds some Afghans of the excesses of British colonialism.” Times reporter Amy Waldman commented, Khalilzad “often seems more like [the] chief executive” of Afghanistan than Karzai. As Khalilzad “shuttles between the American Embassy and the presidential palace, where Americans guard Mr. Karzai, one place seems an extension of the other.”7

It is the warlord-dominated situation in Afghanistan that is the relatively new dynamic. Reynolds’s assertion that a client regime under Karzai would be “new” is particularly chilling coming from an American, since the warlords were first helped to power by the United States as a “solution” in the 1980s to the Soviet-run client state. The CIA and its counterpart in Pakistan, the ISI, pinned most of their hopes on the ruthless Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now working with the Taliban against the US. Other warlords being supported with US cash, weapons, and logistical support included the fundamentalists Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Burhannudin Rabbani, both big players in today’s Afghanistan. Current Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was then, as he is now, “a participant in US government deliberation” on support for these factions.8 Current US ally and presidential candidate warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum was once a Soviet ally. If the Afghan warlords are to be blamed for hindering democracy in Afghanistan, ultimate responsibility lies with the US and the Soviet Union for empowering them in the first place.

When the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime fell in 1992, the US-sponsored factions turned their weapons on each other in an attempt to gain control of the capital. Most Afghans remember the period from 1992-1996, the time between the fall of Najibullah and the coming to power of the Taliban, as the most terrible in lived history. Significantly it was during the period that US-backed protégés were reducing Kabul to rubble that Washington lost interest. By the time the Taliban arrived, there was little left of Kabul to govern.9

The foreign-backed Taliban (supported chiefly by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) were initially seen as an antidote to the anarchy caused by the foreign-backed warlords, saving Washington the trouble of cleaning up its own mess. According to the Washington Post, the Clinton administration believed that “a Taliban-dominated government represents a preferable alternative in some ways to the [current] faction-ridden coalition.” The Los Angeles Times opined that, “The American aim [in Afghanistan] was ultimately met by the Taliban.” As today, solutions were seen in the light of how they solved American, not Afghan, problems.10

The Clinton administration eventually distanced itself publicly from the Taliban, while behind the scenes cutting a deal with them on behalf of US company UNOCAL to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. With his finger ever in the Afghan pie, Zalmay Khalilzad was hired as an adviser to UNOCAL.

It was not until the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania traced to bin Laden that Washington’s relationship with the Taliban really soured. The US then reinstated covert support to some of its former warlord allies. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 allowed the US to bring old friends, now known as the Northern Alliance, back to power, giving them a new lease on political life. The warlords who are today considered a problem were legitimized and entrenched in the government three times in the past three years under orders from Washington (at the 2001 Bonn meetings, at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga, and the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga).11

Prospects for the Future

Likely Scenarios

Post election Afghanistan will look very much as it does today, if not worse. If Karzai wins with the backing of some or all Northern Alliance factions, their leaders will be awarded high-level positions, further entrenching and legitimizing them. If Karzai wins without enough support from his opponent warlords, the losing parties may attack the central government, reverting the country to civil war. If Karzai loses, the warlords might form an alliance government, a horrible thought to contemplate considering the 1992-1996 “coalition government” of many of the same factions. In the latter two scenarios, it is not clear whether the US would intervene and re-install Karzai as President (as it has done in Iraq with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi), or allow Afghanistan to fester and implode (as it did in the early 1990s). What is certain is that none of these scenarios will lead to peace or real democracy.

Imaginary Scenarios

If the United States wanted to be truly bold, it would create the conditions for peace, justice, and democracy in Afghanistan. The first step would be to completely end all support for the Northern Alliance warlords and anyone else with a poor record on human rights. The US would then assist the United Nations in disarming warlords and their private armies, and work towards reducing the number of available weapons. Coupled with disarmament would be a “justice and reconciliation process” defined by the Afghans, by which those responsible for human rights violations would be held accountable. Ideally, US and Soviet officials would be reprimanded, if not criminally prosecuted.

Instead of focusing on the failed “hunt” for Al Qaeda and Taliban members, the US could save lives by ending its own military campaign.

Instead of restricting the international peacekeepers to Kabul, the US should fund the expansion to the entire country, sending a clear signal to warlords and the former Taliban that the war is over. This would provide a sense of security for Afghans interested in participating in democratic exercises like elections. International peacekeepers that truly keep the peace, instead of fighting “wars on terrorism” or buying “hearts and minds” would enhance the trust in aid agencies and allow them to remain impartial while they handle the needs of ordinary Afghans.

Instead of holding aid to rural Afghans hostage to information on “terrorists,” or conducting expensive, wasteful token reconstruction projects, the US should shut down its “Provincial Reconstruction Teams.” These PRTs have militarized the distribution of aid, jeopardizing the safety of real aid workers who are for the first time associated with US military goals (Colin Powell calls them “force multipliers”). This in turn jeopardizes Afghans’ access to aid.

Instead of pouring money into keeping only Kabul safe for Karzai, the US could fully fund reconstruction and the basic human needs (food, shelter, health care, education) of Afghan people, especially women. The healthier and safer the people of Afghanistan, the better able they would be to exercise democratic rights and organize against religious fundamentalist forces and women’s oppression. This aid should be unconditional, given as reparation for the damage caused by US-backed factions over the past two decades.

Sadly, it is highly unlikely that the United States, with either Bush or Kerry at the helm, would embark on such a constructive series of projects. For that to happen, the US would have to, for the first time, put the human needs of the Afghan people over the military needs of its empire.

Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are Co-Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Jim is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology. Sonali is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily public affairs program on KPFK Pacifica Radio. Together they have published many articles on Afghanistan and are working on their first book about US policy in Afghanistan. For more information visit www.afghanwomensmission.org and www.rawa.org.


  1. For excellent reviews of the circumstances of the Afghan elections, the problems, and the human rights and moral issues, that go beyond mainstream headlines, see A. E. Brodsky, “America is Playing a Dangerous Game with Afghanistan,” The Gadflyer, September 14, 2004, http://gadflyer.com/articles/?ArticleID=206; M. Sedra, “Afghanistan: Democracy Before Peace?,” (Silver City, NM & Washington DC: Foreign Policy in Focus, September 2004), http://www.fpif.org/papers/2004afghandem.html; Human Rights Watch, “The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression inthe Run-up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election,” September 2004, http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/afghanistan0904/.
  2. S. Crock, “A Treacherous Test for Afghan Democracy,” Business Week, October 4, 2004; A. Reynolds, “A Test for Afghan Democracy,” Washington Post, September 25, 2004
  3. J. A. Thier, “What Elections Mean for Afghanistan,” Stanford Daily, September 28, 2004, http://daily.stanford.edu/tempo?page=content&id=14657&repository=0001_article.
  4. Editorial, “Don’t Let Violdence Halt Balloting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Newsday, September 28, 2004; Reynolds, “Test for Afghan Democracy”
  5. Media Release, “Afghans Most Concerned About Security,” International Republican Institute, July 27, 2004, http://www.iri.org/7-27-04-afghans.asp; Human Rights Watch, “Rule of the Gun”; M. Albright and R. Cook, “The world needs to step it up in Afghanistan,” International Herald Tribune, October 4, 2004, http://www.iht.com/articles/541849.htm.
  6. On the warlord challenge to Karzai, see Sedra, “Democracy Before Peace”; On Khalilzad bribery, see P. Watson, “U.S. Hand Seen in Afghan Election,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2004
  7. Reynolds, “Test for Afghan Democracy,” A. Waldman, “In Afghanistan, US Envoy Sits in Seat of Power,” New York Times, April 17, 2004; Watson, “U.S. Hand Seen”
  8. By his own admission: Z. Khalilzad, “Afghanistan: Time to Reengage,” Washington Post, October 7, 1996
  9. J. Burns, “With Kabul Largely in Ruins, Afghans Get a Respite from War,” New York Times, February 20, 1995
  10. M. Dobbs, “Analysts Feel Militia Could End Anarchy,” Washington Post, September 28, 1996; Editorial, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1996
  11. E. Sciolino, “State Dept. Becomes Cooler to the New Rulers of Kabul,” New York Times, October 23, 1996; J. Ingalls, “The United States and the Afghan Loya Jirga: A Victory for the Puppet Masters,” Z Magazine, September 2002; J. Ingalls, “The New Afghan Constitution: A Step Backwards for Democracy,” (Silver City, NM & Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, March 2004), http://www.fpif.org/papers/2004afghanconst.html.

Shattering Illusions: Kerry Doesn’t Need or Want Anti-War Activists

In the first minute of his July 29 Democratic National Convention (DNC) acceptance speech, John Kerry told us that the Democratic party has “one simple purpose: to make America stronger at home and respected in the world.” The Republicans have set the standard by which a US President will be judged, and listening to peace and social justice activists is not one of the desired qualities. Regardless of who gets elected, the two parties tell us, the next president will be a “Commander-in-chief”: tough on terrorism, national security and Homeland Security, and easy on corporations, while paying lip-service to jobs, healthcare, and education. According to Democrats quoted in the New York Times (July 25th 2004), this year’s DNC was designed so that you “think you’re looking at a Republican Convention.” Kerry is reaching out to the same base that Bush is, so this election year there is hardly even the pretense of progressive values coming from the Democratic elites on the podium.

The thousands of people who mobilized four years ago at the Los Angeles DNC to critique the Democrats are a very different crowd from the mainstream or liberal wing of the party that will vote for John Kerry this November. Kerry and the Democratic Party elite do not need the votes of activists ­ they do not constitue a significant or influential voting block like corporations or other Republican constituencies that appear to be the targets of most Kerry campaigning. Furthermore, Kerry and the Party elite do not actually want peace activists to campaign for them, at least not as peace activists. This was demonstrated most tellingly at the DNC where not only was criticism of the war discouraged, but peace activists among the delegates were not allowed to bring literature or clothing that expressed an anti-war stance. Medea Benjamin, who advocates voting for Kerry in swing states, was thrown out of the convention hall after unfurling a banner calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq. Other activists were barred from entering with headscarves that read “Delegates for Peace” and one California delegate with a flyer entitled “No War on Iraq” was prevented from bringing it onto the floor of the convention hall.

Anti-war views were by no means rare at the Convention. Even within the narrow spectrum of the Democratic Party, ninety percent of delegates oppose the war in Iraq (according to a recent CBS/NY Times poll). Their views were barely reflected in the choreographed speeches of their elite “representatives.” Outspoken anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich justified ignoring the divide: “we’re going to unite our party to elect John Kerry and then we’re going to continue the debate within the Democratic Party.” (PBS Interview) So, ninety percent of the party’s rank-and-file have to compromise their position on the war to comply with the 10 percent who are represented by the powerful elite of the party. Instead of the party taking a stand based on the majority sentiment, the crucial debate over war has been relegated to internal party discussion, where it will probably fizzle out. Those on the left who advocate blind support for Kerry hand responsibility for the debate over war and occupation to the Democratic Party, whose elites have more in common with Republicans than with their own rank-and-file.

The irresponsible idealism with which the antiwar movement is throwing its support behind a pro-war Bush-like candidate is disturbing. Little attempt is being made by the Party itself to reach out to those who are unregistered or uninterested, but private groups like MoveOn.org and individuals like filmmaker Michael Moore are doing it for them, under the slogan “Anybody But Bush.” The MoveOn Political Action Committee just sent a letter to its members that “hope is on the way” in the guise of John Kerry, parroting Kerry’s own refrain (“help is on the way”) during his DNC acceptance speech. After he wins, MoveOn tells us, “we’ll wake up that morning able to dream big dreams for a country and a world that are once again headed in the right direction.” Unless voters are aware of the problems of backing Kerry for President most will go home after election day, either happy that their candidate won or cynical that their actions had no effect. Being realistic about Kerry’s background may prepare activists to begin organizing now, regardless of who wins, determined to involve themselves in struggle for the long haul, if that’s what it takes.

The constituency that Kerry actually listens to includes those who want the good old days of a glorious America that had “credibility” in the world and could enforce genocidal sanctions on Iraq with a smile. They want the Democratic Party to back a candidate that “appears” to respect international law even as we repeatedly violate it. Kerry voters will include Republicans who are disgusted with the Bush administration’s overt imperialism, choosing instead a stealthy approach to world domination. Kerry would forego Bush’s blatant unilateralism in favor of a more nuanced version. Just like Bush, Kerry would ” never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security,” but he would at least have “the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden.” To Kerry, the US must be feared and respected, “not just feared.”

“We need John Kerry to restore life to the Global War on Terrorism,” said Jimmy Carter on the first day of the DNC. If the war on terrorism needed any more life than Bush gave it in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world is in for a disaster. As we saw by the State Department’s (revised) Patterns of Global Terrorism report, countries subjected to the US “war on terrorism” showed increasing rates of terrorism. If Kerry wanted to address sources of terrorism, he might work to end the US occupation of Iraq and theUS-backed occupation of Palestine. Instead, he is insistent on continuing the brutal legacy of the Clinton era in Iraq and has allied himself unequivocally with Israel. If he becomes President, Kerry will clearly act at least as center-right as Clinton, and maybe worse. His positions on Afghanistan and Cuba are Clintonesque as well.

Carter and others have emphasized Kerry’s tour of duty as a soldier in Vietnam as evidence that “He is a proven defender of national security.” The implicit emphasis is on his blind obedience to US imperial policy. Kerry himself said he learned his values “on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta,” without mentioning his eventual public stand against the war. Rarely is Kerry’s past anti-war activism invoked, except by some anti-war supporters who blindly ignore his more recent pro-war record as Senator.

Knowing that public disenchantment with Bush’s foreign policy will not be enough to elect him (especially since he does not have much that is different to offer), Kerry has decided to highlight domestic issues like jobs, healthcare, and education. Outsourcing is a hot-button issue that Kerry has promised to reduce, despite his vote for NAFTA. Little mention is made of the inherent contradiction between his support of “free trade” and protectionist measures to preserve jobs at home-or the contradiction between wooing organized labor by backing environmental and labor standards in trade agreements, and his support for corporate power. Kerry is unambiguous that his real constituency is Big Business. In an interview with BusinessWeek (August 2nd) Kerry revealed, “I am going to bring Corporate America to the table to say: How do we make you more competitive? How do we get out of your way? Research-and-development tax credits? I’d make them permanent and larger. Manufacturing tax credits? That’s a smart way to help I am 100% in favor of companies going abroad to do business.”

It is true that a small amount of positive change will accompany a Kerry administration­most certainly fewer people will die in the short term. If Kerry wins in November it will definitely be a blow to the ultra-facist Neoconservatives and their allies. But those who are interested in long term radical social change, an admittedly marginal slice of the population, should not waste their time and effort in propping up the Democratic Party elite and their Republican-like agenda. There are plenty of people who are doing that already. Activism should focus on exposing Kerry before he ascends to the White House so that there will be few illusions that the Kerry era will be any better than the Clinton era; and so we can lay the groundwork for opposing Kerry’s policies as soon as possible. Kerry should be put on notice that the rabble-rousers who see through his compromises will not for long indulge in a sigh of relief if he wins. Instead activism ought to focus on constantly pushing the discussion to the left, wresting it from the rightward trend of current political discourse. We should be clear: activists who want serious social change, like those who mobilized 4 years ago to hold Gore and the Democrats accountable, will not find it in backing Kerry.

Sonali Kolhatkar is co-producer and host of Uprising, a morning drive-time radio program on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles.

James Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Space Telescope Science Center, California Institute of Technology. They both are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission.

What Lies in Afghanistan’s Future? Prospects for the Loya Jirga

Published on June 10, 2002 by CommonDreams.org

A New Afghan Democracy?

As Afghanistan continues to receive the brunt of US military attention in the post-September 11th world, the first Afghan Loya Jirga in decades will meet for six days in June 2002. Hailed as a step towards a new Afghan democracy, this “grand council” of 1500 delegates, based on a traditional (read patriarchal) Pashtun grand assembly, will be held on June 10-16 this year. During the meeting, delegates are expected to vote for the first internationally recognized government of Afghanistan since the Peshawar (Pakistan) Accords of 1992.

At the 1992 meeting, Burhannudin Rabbani, a top figure in the Taliban opposition called the Northern Alliance, was declared transitional President for six months. He later had his term extended for two years by a “Council of Wise Men,” but it was reduced to 18 months under the 1993 Islamabad Accord. Under the same decree, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the recipient of the bulk of US/CIA aid during the 1980s, became Prime Minister. Rabbani and Hekmatyar are enemies who have spent more time fighting one another and killing tens of thousands of Afghans, than governing the country. There is little evidence to suggest that the upcoming Loya Jirga, which both Rabbani and Hekmatyar have threatened to disrupt, will bring serious progress.

Abdul Rashid Waziri, a former minister in the 1980’s Soviet-backed regime, doesn’t have much faith in the process which is for many Afghans the only hope for expectations of peace and democracy. The Loya Jirga could, in theory, be a major turning point away from decades of brutal and traumatic war. According to Waziri, many powerful fundamentalist groups, “particularly [former president] Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami, were trying to hijack the process by bribing tribal leaders, the clergy and other prominent people around the country.” Former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also reportedly planning to sabotage the proceedings. An unconfirmed plot to topple the interim government of chairman Hamid Karzai was supposedly led by Hekmatyar. While it is certainly true that Hekmatyar is behind plans to destabilize the regime, the government is eager to use the Hekmatyar threat to stifle any potential challenge. Afghan security officials arrested over 700 people in connection with the alleged bomb plot. “With details of the plot so sketchy, the fact that the roundup focused on well-known opponents of Mr. Karzai’s government seems certain to prompt suspicions that the government fabricated the threat to crush its opponents.” This sends a message about the willingness of Karzai’s government to tolerate dissent.

The interim government is “politically weak, surrounded by potential saboteurs, and dependent on international charity and protection,” so Karzai is taking no chances. “Only happy questions, please,” is his standard refrain at news conferences.”International charity and protection” means money from rich countries and military backing by mostly the United States. For example, the US has invented charges of conspiring with the Taliban and al Qaeda to justify the recent CIA assassination attempt on Hekmatyar. “There has been some evidence that Hekmatyar has certainly provided some support to Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” said General McNeill, the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps. The probable truth of the charges is irrelevant. There is more than “some” evidence that members of the Saudi royal family and the Pakistani government have supported those same groups but the CIA has not sent unmanned Predator drones after them

“We are a very poor and deeply fragmented society, I am afraid that people with money and weapons will dominate the Loya Jirga,” says Abdul Rashid Waziri. In a world where money and weapons, mostly of US origin, dominate politics, this is an uncontroversial statement. In fact, it was easily explained by Zbignew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter when the CIA began its covert program in Afghanistan, a program that would ultimately provide billions of dollars of weaponry and training to fundamentalist warlords in Afghanistan. Brzezinski says: “America’s economic dynamism provides the necessary precondition for the exercise of global primacy…[Its] assertive military capability…enables it to project its power…in politically significant ways.”

Bombing as Development Aid

We are told by US officials and media pundits that the US has bombed Afghanistan to help kick start a post-Taliban democratic rule. Or, to use the more colorful language of Christopher Hitchens, “The United States of America has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age.” The benefit of such “ends justify the means” ideology is that whole villages become statistics on a balance sheet. Consider, for example, a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof, which begins,

One of the uncomfortable realities of the war on terrorism is that we Americans have killed many more people in Afghanistan than died in the attack on the World Trade Center…So what is the lesson of this? Is it that while pretending to take the high road, we have actually slaughtered more people than Osama bin Laden has? Or that military responses are unjustifiable because huge numbers of innocents inevitably are killed? No, it’s just the opposite. Our experience there demonstrates that troops can advance humanitarian goals just as much as doctors or aid workers can. By my calculations, our invasion of Afghanistan may end up saving one million lives over the next decade.

In a world where money and weapons dominate, the slaughter of innocents becomes a form of development aid. One obliterated village here pays for two saved villages there. Perhaps it is comforting to know that villages like Mudoh, near Tora Bora, were sacrificed for a good cause. “A new cemetery carved from a rocky bluff where the village once stood holds the remains of 150 men, women, and children…they were killed, and the village obliterated, by American warplanes.” Strangely, Janat Khan, the mayor of Mudoh, is not happy with his village’s role in bringing Afghanistan out of the Stone Age. “No one should ever have to bury a baby’s hand,” he told reporters as he recovered fragments of corpses in the aftermath of the bombing.

With a landscape littered with landmines, an agriculture dominated by lucrative poppy production, a population traumatized, disabled, and starving from decades of war, non-existent infrastructure and economy, the new government of Afghanistan, or whatever emerges from the Loya Jirga, has a near impossible task in store for itself. It is difficult to imagine a valid democratic process taking place when most of the people are starving, homeless, and uneducated. The Afghan people have needed basic survival assistance from foreign agencies since well before 11 September 2001. If anything, they are in worse condition now. In the capital Kabul, poverty is so severe that many families have begun turning their children over to orphanages, desperately hoping that they will provide the necessary food and shelter. The situation in rural areas is even worse. Some villagers are “surviving on a diet of boiled grass and tea” and “selling all their land, livestock, in many cases even the tools they use to plant and harvest” to survive. Numerous reports describe villagers selling their daughters in exchange for a few bags of wheat. A US Agency for International Development report “based on interviews with 1,100 households across Afghanistan found that the level of ‘diet security,’ a measurement of vulnerability [sic] to famine, has plummeted from nearly 60 percent in 2000 to just 9 percent now.” Tragically, the World Food Program has been forced to scale down some food aid programs in Afghanistan, as it is 48% under funded.

Less than $1 billion of the $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan promised at the Tokyo conference in January 2002 has been delivered. Kieran Prendergast, the UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs said that while “it was understandable that donors might wait for greater stability before committing to long-term projects…We must also recognize that implementing rehabilitation and reconstruction projects will greatly help bring about that stability.” Apparently, social infrastructure is not considered a precondition to a viable political process. Instead, the aid is being intentionally withheld until after the Loya Jirga. According to the administrator of the United Nations Development Program Mark Malloch Brown, “The countries are ready to post the money” but won’t do so until after the meeting because, “The international community is waiting for a political stabilisation of Afghanistan.” Brown says that “a rapid acceleration of financing” will follow the meeting. Essentially, wealthy donors are holding the Afghan people hostage to an “appropriate” outcome to the Loya Jirga

At the Mercy of Warlords

The “appropriate” outcome, of course, hinges on the good behavior of the warlords. Afghanistan is dominated by war criminals such as Rabbani and Dostum who, with backing from the US and other governments, have reconsolidated their old feifdoms after the Taliban’s demise. Those controlling the December 2001 Bonn Conference that formed the interim regime sought to balance Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, with the mostly Panjsheri Tajik Northern Alliance, whose leaders have occupied 17 of 30 government posts, including the key ministries of Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs. Karzai himself came to power only after “enormous pressure from the American government…delegates in Bonn chose a different leader, Abdul Sattar Sirat…[but] pressure from American and United Nations officials resulted in the naming of Mr. Karzai.” Initially Karzai got no votes, “But all the delegates understood that the Americans wanted Mr. Karzai.” The inclusion of the Northern Alliance in the upper echelons of the interim government is likely to mean a major role in the Loya Jirga process as well. Already Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most notorious Afghan warlords (backed by Turkey, who now heads the international peacekeeping mission in Kabul), has been elected as a delegate to the council, despite guidelines barring participation by those responsible for killing civilians. The inclusion of criminals like Dostum is a slap in the face of those Afghans who have suffered their depredations and greatly undermines the effectiveness of the Loya Jirga in setting standards of peace.

The delegate selection process leading up to the Loya Jirga has been wracked with problems. According to a UN Election observer, “We have found some illegal methods in the elections and interference by the Northern Alliance, such as sending money and mobile phones to their supporters” to garner votes. When UN election observers entered the city of Gardez, the local commander fired rockets at them. Eight delegates to the Loya Jirga were murdered in May and there has been a general increase in violence in the months leading up to the meeting. For example, in Mazar-e Sharif, the city ruled by Dostum, “armed men broke into the home of an Afghan aid worker and raped the women and looted all the household assets,” in February. In the same city in April, a UN employee was dragged from his bed and killed by gunmen.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch explains, “Warlords are making a power grab by brazenly manipulating the loya jirga selection process. If they succeed, Afghans will again be denied the ability to choose their own leaders and build civil society.” The CIA agrees. In a leaked report the agency warned, “Afghanistan could once again fall into violent chaos if steps are not taken to restrain the competition for power among rival warlords and to control ethnic tensions.” Human Rights Watch advocates an end to the US use of warlords “to provide security,” and an extension of the international peacekeeping presence to all of Afghanistan. Clearly, “improved security in Afghanistan would greatly raise the chances for the successful Loya Jirga.” The lack of security was already frustrating the distribution of aid. Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Afghanistan’s lack of a nationwide peacekeeping force is allowing local warlords to jeopardize efforts to…deliver humanitarian supplies…Outside Kabul, warlords and bandits have become so pervasive that aid agencies are unable to deliver relief supplies to large swathes of the country.”

The CIA’s Kind of “Outreach”

Rarely admitted is the fact that “the power of the warlords…has been enhanced by the money and weapons that the United States has funneled to regional leaders who have helped Washington.” To support the bombing campaign, the CIA indiscriminately enlisted the help of leaders who “could quickly put men in the field and were willing to follow US orders…Payments ranged from $5,000 for village elders who could supply personnel to more than $100,000 for warlords who could field hundreds of troops.” An intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, “We were reaching out to every commander that we could.”

This closely parallels past US actions in Afghanistan in the 1980s when seven factions of Mujahadeen warriors were armed and trained to fight the “menace” of a communist threat. During this period, Hekmatyar came into his own. By the CIA’s own description, he was a “facist” and “definite dictatorship material.” Hekmatyar’s misogynist fundamentalist attitudes were well known – he was notorious for throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. The fact that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the chief beneficiary of CIA arms and military training to Afghan factions in the 1980s cannot be understated.

Prior to 1993, Afghans and people in the Middle East were the major victims of the CIA-trained terrorists in Afghanistan, so it wasn’t really worth paying attention to what was happening there. Then the World Trade Center was attacked with a truck bomb, and the men involved were linked to CIA-sponsored factions in Afghanistan. The Washington Post published an article entitled, “Aid to Afghan Rebels Returns to Haunt US: Washington Created a Monster by Arming Zealots, Many Say.” The article called the first WTC bombing “a sour last chapter to one of the great US foreign policy success [sic] stories of the 1980s.” Of course it wasn’t the last chapter, nor the most sour, for Americans or Afghans. With the CIA reprising its 1980s “outreach,” it is little wonder Afghanistan remains so insecure.

Today the capital Kabul is safer than the rest of the country, largely due to the presence of 4500 international peacekeeping troops. The opinion of many Afghans, aid workers, the US State Department, and even Karzai himself, is that the international peacekeeping mission in Kabul should be expanded throughout Afghanistan. In contrast, Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld has said, “There’s one school of thought that thinks that’s a desirable thing to do. Another school of thought, which is where my brain is, is that why put all the time and money and effort in that?…If it’s appropriate to put in more forces for war-fighting tasks, the United States will do that [but] there are plenty of countries on the face of the earth who can supply peacekeepers.” Once again the US shows that it is only interested in promoting war in Afghanistan. In this vein, Rumsfeld advocates “helping them develop a national army so that they can look out for themselves over time.” In the mean time, Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan has said, “American military forces might intervene in local conflicts in the absence of international troops stationed around the country.” This absence of peacekeeping troops the Bush administration deliberately maintains, which ensures that the United States, rather than an international body, has control.

A Time for Optimism?

What is striking about the current situation is the level of engagement by ordinary Afghans, who are enthusiastic about participating in the rebuilding of their country after decades of war. For example, 250,000 refugees from northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border, have demanded representation at the Loya Jirga. In the Kandahar, a surprising number of women turned up to nominate themselves for the Loya Jirga delegate elections. “I want to help my sisters in Kandahar. We have all suffered the pain together and now it is time to give a voice to women,” said one candidate. Close to 1,000 nomadic Afghans representing 12 tribes from provinces in central and south-central Afghanistan elected representatives for the Loya Jirga. “I am relatively optimistic, devastation of the past has changed our attitudes and people have every reason to pin hopes on any peaceful political developments,” Ghulam Nabi Chaknowri, an elderly Afghan refugee said of the Loya Jirga.

Afghans are naturally excited about a process that has been touted as a turning point towards peace and democracy. However, the success of the Loya Jirga is based on the assumption that the numerous and well-armed warlords will simply melt away and allow a transparent and democratic process to occur. But either the warlords will participate (like Dostum), which would run counter to basic standards of human rights, or they will attempt to disrupt or subvert the meetings (like Hekmatyar, Rabbani, and others).

At best, the Loya Jirga is unlikely to be anything more than a public relations stunt to legitimize the current regime and the US bombing campaign that led up to it. Karzai “is expected to win an easy victory and lead the new government, Afghan officials and Western diplomats said.” This is because, “He is being strongly backed by the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah…and he has solidified his ties with several powerful former leaders of the Northern Alliance.” But he could not have reached his current level of power without “the enormous influence of the country that is backing him-the United States.” The key combination of money and weapons was crucial in leveraging Karzai’s rise to power: “many leaders [in Afghanistan] see American money and military clout as the ultimate source of power here. But the Americans cannot dictate events, or they risk making the council appear to be under foreign control, a situation that could boomerang in this nation that is fiercely resistant to foreign domination.” Clearly, the risk is in the Loya Jirga appearing to be under foreign control, regardless of who is actually in control.

For the thousands of Afghans who are optimistic about the Loya Jirga, its outcome could be one more devastating disappointment. Mr. Stanekzai, a former air force pilot under the Taliban, expressed the general sentiment of Afghans: “the people are very tired of fighting and war and they will participate. In sha’allah (God willing), this election will be honest.” But the honesty of average Afghans may not be enough to fight the power of money and weapons, the most often used tools of the warlords and their Western benefactor. “We thank the US for helping us against the war on terrorism,” says Abdul Sameem, director of the Alauddin and Tahia Maskan orphanages in Kabul, “but we want them now to help us in our war on ignorance and poverty. That’s more important to us than a war on terror.”

James Ingalls is an Advisory Board member of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for and awareness of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. He is also a Staff Scientist at the California Institute of Technology. Sonali Kolhatkar is Vice President of the Afghan Women’s Mission. She is also the host and co-producer of a daily drive time public affairs and political radio show at KPFK Los Angeles, part of the Pacifica Network.