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

published in on April 6, 2009

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

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

A Brief History of “Saving” Afghan Women

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Rights Systematically Eroded During US Occupation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power

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

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

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

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

Killing Afghan Civilians: A Little Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feds Try Afghan Drug Lord, Former US Ally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stick With the Taliban?

bush bin ladenThis morning I was a guest on a Grit TV with Laura Flanders, alongside a number of other Afghanistan experts – we were discussing the proposed increase in US troops in that country and Flanders (who, by the way, is one of my favorite radio/TV hosts!) asked the question, “Is this the right war?” as many Americans across the political spectrum often proclaim. I said what I’ve said publicly before: that a military solution to Afghanistan is not the answer, that US/NATO troops are doing more harm than good, that Afghans have turned against the occupation, and that the occupation should end. I added several more details to what should happen instead but you can get all the gory details by watching the show here.

And then tonight I received a cute little email, I’m assuming in response to the interview, which I’ve pasted below:

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Stick with the Taliban.
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:29:36 -0500
From: Go Isolationist!!!!! (

Since you are so incensed at the US killing civilians, then why are you here in the US? You seem to have liked life when the Taliban Ruled in Afghanistan, correct? We are just looking for the head ring guy Bin Laden. You bring us him, and we\’ll leave your country and you can welcome the Taliban back with open arms. Is that a deal?

DATE/TIME : 2008-09-11 10:29:36

It always makes me smile to receive such messages – they speak for themselves. It affirms my increasing suspicion that those who blindly support war and in fact, well, not so bright.

But maybe I should humor Mike. So Mike, if you manage to read this, perhaps you could respond to the following questions that struck me while reading your email:

Q. Is the US searching for bin Laden or defeating the Taliban? Because you see those are two separate goals and bin Laden sure must be one smart guy to elude so many US troops for so long.

Q. How does killing thousands of civilians, including women and children, help us get closer to finding bin Laden?

Q. If the US hates bin Laden so much, why did the CIA work with him in the 1980s to help recruit jihadi fighters to Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation?

Q. If the US hates the Taliban so much, why did we not speak up when three of our key allies and weapons buyers recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan in 1996 (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.)?

Q. What if the Taliban offered bin Laden to Bush and he turned them down?

Q. Why do you assume I’m from Afghanistan?

Thanks Mike!

OK to offend Muslims, not USA

Luckovich Cartoon

Guess what? It’s okay for Danish Christians to print racist anti-Muslim cartoons, but cartoons critical of well-documented US torture are “a disgrace” and require an apology. Mike Luckovich’s 22 June political cartoon in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (reprinted above) depicts an American torturer, giving lessons in “torture etiquette” to an Al Qaeda torturer. According to the newspaper’s public editor Angela Tuck, the cartoon resulted in a powerful “backlash,” with 90% of 18,000 readers disapproving of the piece in an online poll. Tuck all but apologized for the publication of the cartoon, saying it was “ill-timed,” since it was published alongside photos of the mangled remains of two US servicemembers who had been tortured and killed in Iraq. Luckovich himself apparently “believes now that allowing some distance between the murders of Tucker and Menchaca [the mutilated US soldiers] and the cartoon’s publication would have been better.” [1]

One reader wrote in to the Cumberland Times of Maryland/West Virginia, which also carried the Luckovich piece, saying the paper’s editorial staff has “reached a new low.”

I believe in freedom of the press, but I also believe that it comes with a responsibility to print the truth, and also to maintain some measure of character, class, and dignity…[W]e have more than our share of families who currently have loved ones “in harm’s way” still fighting, as all of those other veterans have done down through history, to protect the rights of you and your staff to be mouth breathing, drooling, idiots whenever you choose. What a disgrace! You should all be ashamed. When you guys awake from your collective moronic stupor, you owe all of us an apology. [2]

An advertiser to the Journal-Constitution, the Mercedes-Benz dealership RBM of Atlanta, printed a full page ad apologizing for Luckovich’s cartoon. The ad reads in part:

To Our Clients: We are sorry!

While we strongly affirm the right of free speech, the June 22, 2006 Mike Luckovich cartoon depicting the U.S. as torturers on par with Al-Qaida was very offensive to us. Moreover, to publish this cartoon directly above the pictures of the two brave men who gave their lives, willingly, and were tortured and mutilated in service to their country (and each of us) is unacceptable.[3]

The Hawaii Reporter published an op-ed by Jeff Emmanuel that finds “revolting” the “hinting at moral equivalence between the U.S. and bloodthirsty terrorists.” Emmanuel considers this “another shot in the mainstream media’s seemingly unending battle to blur the moral line between America and the brutal, barbaric enemy we are facing.” According to him, “America DOES NOT torture prisoners, and America DOES NOT target civilians; no nation in history has been more of a global force for good than America.” [4]

Remember the Western pontifications in favor of the free speech rights of newspapers that wanted to publish the Jyllands-Posten anti-Muslim cartoons, one of which shows the Prophet with a bomb for a turban? [5] Some considered those cartoons racist, since they painted all Muslims as terrorists [6]

Many commentators thought the cartoons deserved to be printed, and many publishers did so, simply to make a point about freedom of speech, or because the cartoons were “news.” The Hawaii Reporter published an op-ed by Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute, that described a “fear of criticizing Islam,” and expressed contempt for governments that took offense at the cartoons. According to Ghate, governments should instead “defend our freedom of speech by force,” because “an individual’s freedom of speech is sacrosanct, no matter who screams offense at his ideas.”[7] Ghate rightly criticized the death threats that were issued by ultra-conservative clerics and others, but his disdain seemed to encompass all Muslims who demonstrated against the cartoons, as if nonviolent protest was not also covered by free speech rights.

The two cartoon controversies are not equivalent. Here are some significant differences:

  1. Some of the anti-Muslim cartoons are racist, painting an entire group of people with a negative stereotype; the Luckovich cartoon could only be said to generalize US military policy
  2. The anti-Muslim cartoons were drawn by non-Muslims, outside of the criticized community; Luckovich is a member of the society he is criticizing
  3. The anti-Muslim cartoons, being racist, are by definition false; the truth of the Luckovich cartoon is at least worth debating

I think point 3 is important. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons were not designed to inspire debate on the merits of violent resistance (for example), only to insult Muslims. Luckovich’s cartoon, on the other hand, should be debated. Does the US torture prisoners? Is it any better than Al Qaeda in that regard? Emmanuel’s claim that “no nation in history has been more of a global force for good” is an attempt to stifle the debate that the people of this country need to have about the role of the US in the world. His statement that “America does not torture prisoners” hurts his credibility and calls into question the rest of his argument against the printing of Luckovich’s cartoon.[8]

Pakistan Drives Thousands from Homes for US

People Flee Miran Shah - Photo by Inam Khan, AP About ten thousand ethnic Pashtuns were forced to leave their homes when Pakistani forces attacked the village of Miran Shah in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. Over 100 have been killed, labeled “militants” by the press, although opposition parliamentarian Imran Khan described the operation as a “massacre of our citizens” by “indiscriminate force.” The operation began two days before President Bush visited Pakistan, and continued throughout his trip, “fueling speculation Pakistan was flexing its military muscle in the border regions to signal its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism.”[1]

Mohammed Anwar, a resident who fled the fighting, told AP, “We were waiting for the day. It was fighting all night and we feared that we might be hit by fire from a helicopter.”[2] Noor Nawaz, another villager, said, “People are extremely scared. Nobody has slept. Children were crying.”[3]

Bashirullah Khan of Associated Press described the scene:

On Sunday, Miran Shah’s streets and bazaars were empty. Smoke billowed from a bank building hit by an artillery shell. Another shell tore a hole in the home of a doctor who lived on the premises of a state-run hospital. Shells also pocked the side of the hospital. Both sides were using mortars and other heavy weapons, and it wasn’t known who hit the buildings.[4]

Col. Jim Yonts praised the Pakistani action. “We see this as a very positive move. This issue in Waziristan is an example that they are fighting the war on terrorism.”[5] The government attacks were made with “US-built Cobra gunships,” according to the Taipei Times.[6]
With the new US-Pakistan “Strategic Partnership” we can look forward to more government strikes against villages and internal displacements of this kind.[7]

As the fighting went on, the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan traded public insults regarding how to fight the “war on terror.”[8] Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul claims that the semiautonomous tribal belt that is officially part of Pakistan is where anti-US and anti-Karzai forces have their “safe haven.” Pervez Musharraf’s government in Islamabad responds that Karzai’s intelligence is faulty and recommends fencing the border regions to stop militants from crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan.[9] Both in their way are playing a game of showing to their benefactor in Washington that they are “doing something” about terrorism, but Karzai’s claims are closer to the truth. The Miran Shah fighting underscores this.

An escalating series of suicide and other attacks against Afghan government activities and support forces, including US and other foreign troops, has originated from the border regions throughout 2005 and into 2006. It is an open secret that the Pakistani government, with US support, has encouraged (or in more recent years turned a blind eye to) the rise in fundamentalism in its semiautonomous tribal belt, to support military operations in Afghanistan. Such operations backed the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then kept the Taliban regime well stocked in the 1990s.

Nothing seriously has changed since the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. In fact, according to Asia Times, North Waziristan has been declared an “Islamic State” by the Taliban, who are extremely powerful, and even somewhat popular in that region.

By taking control of virtually all of Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan, the Taliban have gained a significant base from which to wage their resistance against US-led forces in Afghanistan. At the same time, the development solidifies the anti-US resistance groups in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, which will now fight under a single strategy.[10]

The ordinary people of the region are as usual caught in the middle. Maulana Abdul Malik, a cleric and member of parliament from neighboring South Waziristan, told the Washington Post, “Scores of innocent civilians have been killed to earn a medal from America. This campaign will turn every tribesman into an anti-Musharraf and anti-U.S. militant.”[11]

Senators Defend US Terrorism

No official response yet in the US on Friday’s Predator attacks in Pakistan, supposedly targeting Ayman al-Zawahri, that have instead killed 13-18 civilians (see yesterday’s post). This is the second such strike in two weeks. There is no evidence that al-Zawahri was even in the homes that were destroyed. The ISI or CIA is expected to do DNA testing to check, although one Pakistani intelligence official didn’t think it was a good idea. “What do you think, that the families of the victims would let us or the Americans dig the graves of their loved ones for FBI tests? An absolutely crazy idea.”[1]

Three US senators have defended the acts of terrorism.

John McCain (R-Arizona): “We apologize, but I can’t tell you that we wouldn’t do the same thing again. We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al-Qaeda, particularly the top operatives.”[2]

Trent Lott (R-Mississippi): “My information is that this strike was clearly justified by the intelligence..Maybe they should have launched the strike sooner.”

Evan Bayh (D-Indiana): “It’s a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do? It’s like the wild, wild west out there. The Pakistani border is a real problem.”

Both Lott and Bayh are on the Senate Intelligence committee. When asked if they had a problem with illegal, extrajudicial assassination attempts, Lott said, “I’d have a problem if we didn’t do that.”

“I agree wholeheartedly,” Bayh joined in.[3]

Protests in neighboring village of Inayat Qala.  Photo by AP/Mohammad Zubair Tens of thousands have taken to the streets around the country, condemning the attacks. In the largest protest, 8,000 marched in Karachi alone. Liberals are joining with religious conservatives, “in a rare gesture of solidarity.”[4]

One protester, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, called for US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan, since Washington is a “security threat to the area.”[5]

Pakistan Bombings: Our Terrorism

The CIA just bombed a village in Pakistan using one or more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), killing 17 civilians. Remember, UAVs are the weapons Colin Powell warned that Iraq was going to use against us. The only country that has ever used UAVs to kill people is the United States. Damage in Damadola, Photo by AP/Mohammad Zubair

The purported goal of the assault was to kill Ayman al-Zawahri, supposedly al Qaeda’s “Number 2” and the real brains behind Osama bin Laden.
So far, no apology has issued from US officials, no insincere platitudes which at least would show that the US cared what people thought.

An AP reporter who visited Damadola about 12 hours after the attack saw three destroyed houses, hundreds of yards apart. Villagers had buried at least 15 people, including women and children, and were digging for more bodies in the rubble.

Villagers denied hosting al-Zawahri or any other member of al-Qaida or Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime, and said all the dead were local people.

More than 8,000 tribesmen staged a peaceful protest in a nearby town Saturday to condemn the airstrike, which one speaker described as “open terrorism.”[emphasis added] Police dispersed a smaller protest in another town using tear gas. A mob burned the office of a U.S.-backed aid agency near Damadola, but nobody was injured, residents said.[1]

This attack confirms that the US is just as willing to make an example of a group of civilians as the anti-US insurgents and “terrorist” cadres it is fighting. This hit on “soft targets” enforces the message: if we even suspect you or your village has had dealings with a “terrorist,” you should fear for your life. An added bonus for the CIA would be the actual death of al-Zawahri. An unnamed law enforcement official told Associated Press that, “The FBI anticipates performing DNA tests on the victims” to determine if al-Zawahri was indeed among the dead. If he was, “it would be a devastating blow to al-Qaida.”[2]

A prescription for US-style “counter-terrorism”:

  1. Show that you can be more fearful and more of a terrorist than your enemy.
  2. Kill a bunch of people and you may actually kill one of your enemies

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,”, 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.

Ignoring 459 bombs

The US media and government have said very little about what is probably the most dramatic and well-organized attack by jihadist terrorists since 9/11, the August 17 explosion of 459 bombs in a span of 30 minutes in Bangladesh.

The attacks were subtle (if that can be said of bombings), and very well-organized. The targets were government buildings and populated areas, but apparently the intention was not wanton destruction — only 2 people were killed and a couple hundred injured. According to Reuters, the bombs “caused little damage and appeared to have been aimed chiefly at spreading panic.”[1] The attackers used “homemade bombs – explosives in small tin cans,” many of which were “cushioned in sawdust, apparently intended to limit the damage they caused.” [2]

Map of Bangladesh with bomb blast locations The bombs went off in 63 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh, and were timed to go off inside of a 30 minute period. The group responsible must have been incredibly well-organized.[3] The country’s Daily Star newspaper called the operation “Grassroots Clockwork,” saying it was carried out by “some 400 activists and leaders” who planned it in exquisite detail.[4]

There is practically nothing on this event in the US media, in sharp contrast to the front page circus around the London attacks, or Madrid. I found three articles so far in the New York Times [5] and four in the Washington Post [6] You would think that the sheer scope of the attacks would draw a lot more media attention, especially from the Bush “anti-terror” crowd. So why isn’t the media paying attention to these bombings?
Perhaps the fact that the people terrorized were mostly poor and brown might have something to do with the weak outpouring of sympathy, concern, and solidarity. Since the terrorists were home-grown, there is certainly less fear that we might be next, always a factor in how a disaster story is pitched.

The lack of carnage made room for attention to be paid to the alleged perpetrators’ political message, something our own media and government tend to avoid as much as possible. Unlike the Bush/Blair standard ignorant and racist response to Islamist terrorism (“they hate our way of life”), Bangladesh’s State Minister for Home acknowledged that these bombings were “done in an organised way with an objective.” The message itself is similar to that of other jihadist groups who we have heard from in recent years. The leaflets left at the bomb sites by Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh addressed two groups of people, first “Muslims in Bangladesh,” and second “Muslims of the world.” The first part of the document called for an Islamic state and labeled the present democratic government a creation of “kafirs,” or infidels. In the second section, key points include the following: [7] [8]

  • The “biggest terrorist of the present world is George W Bush, who launches attacks on innocent Muslims by resorting to terrorism, and tries to make the Muslim into nonbelievers by forcibly imposing a Kufri [evil] Constitution.”
  • “Democracy is the main weapon to establish evil forces in the world. This evil order allows the arrest of Mujahideen who are on Allah’s path.”
  • Bush and his allies “want to bring the whole world under their control through a new world order by establishing a Kufri concept of democracy. It seems to be a neo-Pharaonic ambition.”
  • Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and other leaders of Muslim majority countries who act as agents of Bush are “kafirs.”
  • To Bush and Blair: “The Muslims across the world are rising up. If you don’t stop repression forthwith, you will not be allowed to live in safety anywhere in the world.”

Coincidentally (or not?) one of the architects of the Bush/Blair policy, Paul Wolfowitz, is in Bangladesh for a visit in his capacity as president of the World Bank. Even some of Wolfowitz’s natural allies among the country’s elites lambasted his presence. A meeting of NGO officials and academics convened to criticize World Bank projects in Bangladesh as “mass destructive.” Most of the speakers protested Wolfowitz’s visit and complained, among other things, that the poverty rate in their country had doubled (from 30 to 60 million) between 1972, when Bangladesh first began receiving World Bank “aid,” and 2005.[9] It is likely that the anti-US component of the jihadist message resonates deeply with the concerns of the Bangladeshi people. Even if the bombings had been covered in more detail by the US media, this point would surely have been lost.

Thanks to Angsuman Chakraborty for bringing this story to my attention.


  1. Reuters
  2. Australian Associated Press – registration required
  3. Daily Star [Bangladesh]
  4. Daily Star
  5. New York Times archive search for ‘bangladesh’
  6. Washington Post archive search for ‘bangladesh’
  7. Simple Thoughts – Abridged translation of the leaflet by Angsuman Chakraborty
  8. The Daily Star [Bangladesh]
  9. The Daily Star [Bangladesh] – On his first tour of South Asia since he became the Bank’s head, Wolfowitz has been unwelcomed in other places too. Activists in Andra Pradesh, one of the first Indian states to receive World Bank loans, also protested in advance of his visit [BBC News]