Afghan Women: Enduring American “Freedom”

Based on Conference Presentation at Afghan Women’s Mission Conference, October 2002. Published in Frontline Magazine (India), Z Magazine, and Foreign Policy in Focus

In January 2002, George W. Bush told us in his State of the Union address, “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free …” Almost a year later (11 Oct 2002), Bush again congratulated himself: “We went into Afghanistan to free people, because we believe in freedom. We believe every life counts. Every life matters. So we’re helping people recover from living under years of tyranny and oppression. We’re helping Afghanistan claim its democratic future.” The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was called “Operation Enduring Freedom”. With all this talk of freedom, it is important to ask the question, how are Afghan women enduring American-style freedom? When we think of women’s rights in Afghanistan, we think of the imprisonment of the Burqa, the traditional Islamic head to foot covering that the Taliban forced women to wear. George Bush certainly seems to subscribe to this view. But many Afghan women wore the burqa before and after the Taliban. In the rural areas of Afghanistan, the majority of women covered themselves. Contrary to what President Bush would have us believe, the problems facing Afghan women run far deeper than clothing. Food security, access to healthcare, and safety from physical violence are key aspects of women’s rights that the US intervention has largely ignored or even jeopardized.

Coming Winter Brings Starvation

By November, Afghanistan’s harsh winter will return and thousands of Afghans, devastated by three years of drought and 23 years of war and civil unrest, will be facing winter and starvation. Take the Badghis province of Afghanistan for example — one of the poorest. Roughly 50 percent of Badghis’s approximately 400,000 population cannot obtain enough food this winter. Fatema, a resident of Bagdhis, doesn’t know how she will feed her six children this year. Her 15 year old son is the only one in the family who can earn any money and he does it by selling grass for fuel and food. Two months ago they were refugees, but they recently returned. They are among the millions of refugees that have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, the millions who have been counted as a measure of success by the U.N. of the U.S.’s Operation “Enduring Freedom” (World Vision, October 17th).

When George Bush promised us that Afghan women were free he assuaged our guilt as the bombs rained down on Afghanistan, picking off wedding parties, cutting off crucial winter aid routes, delaying spring plantings of wheat. According to Bush, at least women can now walk around without a burqa if they want. But what good is an uncovered face if it is starving to death? Women’s rights are human rights: survival is more important than clothing and survival has been the most difficult challenge facing women both before and after the U.S. action in Afghanistan..

Women’s Health Still in Crisis

A recent report released by the US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) entitled “Maternal Mortality in Herat Province: The Need to Protect Women’s Rights”, said, “The rate of maternal mortality in a society is a critical indicator of the health and human rights status of women in a community.” The report documented 593 maternal deaths in every 100,000 live births, with the majority of the cases in rural areas. This maternal mortality rate is far worse than in all of the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The second worse neighboring country is Pakistan, with 200 deaths per 100,000 births. A researcher with PHR concluded, “What appears to be simply a public health catastrophe in Herat Province… speaks of the many years of denial and deprivation of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

Today one of the most vulnerable groups of women in Afghanistan are widows. In Kabul alone there are an estimated 40,000 widows who have lost their husbands in the decades of war in Afghanistan. Nationwide, the number of widows is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, since about 1.5 million Afghans were killed during the ten year Soviet occupation and the cross fire from warlordism that followed in the early 1990s. “While the plight of Afghan widows has improved psychologically, the main problems of finding shelter, food and income remain thesame,” says Awadia Mohamed , the coordinator for CARE International in Afghanistan. “Indeed, in some cases they have worsened.” Widows have very limited access to food and health services despite the absence of the Taliban. In fact, “51 percent of widows surveyed reported being unwell, of whom 57.6 percent had fever, 13.6 percent had diarrhoea and 10 percent leishmaniasis wounds…Furthermore, calorie intake was insufficient, with most of the women and their children subsisting on little more than bread and tea, resulting in malnutrition problems and micronutrient deficiencies”. (“Afghanistan: Focus on the plight of widows”, IRIN, 21st October, 2002).

Hunger and lack of healthcare indicate the deprivation of the basic rights of mothers, daughters, and widows. Where are the media and their cameras now?

Warlords Threaten Security for Women

Article 3 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” If the right to survival is a fundamental principle of women’s rights, freedom from insecurity is another. But insecurity is a euphemism for war, for conflict, for more violence and bloodshed. Unfortunately, “territorial skirmishes between heavily armed warlords” (“Fighting breaks out in troubled eastern Afghan province”, AFP, October 17th) are all too common.

Practically speaking, since the Taliban fell and warlords of the past returned to their old fiefdoms, they resumed fighting one another, exactly what they were doing when the Taliban first came to power. According to Agence France-Presse, “Northern Afghanistan remains plagued by factional and ethnic rivalries despite loose allegiances between warlords controlling the area, most of whom have offered pledges of support to the central Afghan government.” (“Violence in northern Afghanistan deterring refugee returns: UN”, Agence France-Presse, 20th October, 2002). Such clashes are frequent and deadly, in the northern and eastern part of Afghanistan.

The media fail to report prominently that many of these warlords, now members of the Northern Alliance, were first empowered by the United States in the 1980s to repel the Soviet invasion, and then again during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghansitan (RAWA) spelled out last year what empowering war lords will do for Afghanistan: “The Taliban and Al-Qaeda will be eliminated, but the existence of the NA [Northern Alliance] as a military force would shatter the joyful dream of the majority for an Afghanistan free from the odious chains of barbaric Taliban. The NA will horribly intensify the ethnic and religious conflicts and will never refrain to fan the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to retain in power.” (“RAWA’s appeal to the UN and World community”, November 13th, 2001). Rather than heed the words of RAWA and others,the U.S. engaged the services of the Northern Alliance, with the CIA paying warlords $100,000 each to gather armies (“Caught Off Guard, the CIA Fights to Catch Up,” Cloud, D. S., 15 April 2002, Wall Street Journal). Today, the three Vice Presidents of Afghanistan are all members of the Northern Alliance – General Mohammad Fahim, Karim Khalili and Haji Abdul Qadeer. And, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former Mujahadeen warrior, is now Defense Minister of Afghanistan.

The Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who recieved a plaque of appreciation from US forces for help against the Taliban last year, can add ethnic cleansing to his achievements. Dostum’s troops recently forced 180 Pashtun families (people who are the same ethnicity as the Taliban), from villages in northern Afghanistan in early October. Some of the women said they had been raped by his men and had their homes looted. (“Pashtuns driven from northern Afghan villages”, 7th October, 2002, Reuters).

While Afghan women are desperate for security and for the International Security Armed Forces (ISAF) to be expanded from Kabul to all of Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to deny this. Even Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, a puppet of the U.S., has asked for the ISAF to be expanded to all of Afghanistan, so that warlords can be disarmed and a transition to peace can begin. Instead the U.S. has been focusing on training a national army of Afghans which is undermined by the fact that Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim himself has a private army of 18,000 men. (“Afghans ask: ‘Whose army is it?,'” David Buchbinder, 17th October, 2002, Christian Science Monitor). With the U.S. empowering warlords, and undermining the ISAF expansion, there is little hope for peace and security in the country. Afghan women will pay the highest price as they have always done.

Girls Schools Still Under Attack

In March of this year the Washington Post happily ran a story headlined “The Girls Are back in Afghan Schools”. One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across America — the knowledge that our good war, meant to liberate Afghan women was working. But are the media reporting the recent spate of attacks against schools in Afghanistan? Schools have been burned down in Kandahar, Wardak and Sar-i-Pul. In the seventh incident in a series of attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan, gunmen forced a school in the Wardak province that served 1,300 girls to close. In recent weeks girls schools have been burned and bombed. (“UNICEF denounces violent attacks on schools in Afghanistan, 17th October, 2002, UN News Service).

“Saving” Afghan Women

It is crucial for us to understand that women’s rights are always politically manipulated by the powerful, to justify almost anything. In the late 70s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and claimed to be saving Afghan women. Then, they began assassinating men who opposed the invasion, leaving thousands of women widowed. The U.S. backed Mujahadeen (many of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance) claimed to be saving women, from the “godless” communists. Then, they simply raped women, forced them into marriages, and tortured their husbands. The Taliban took over from the Mujahadeen, claiming to save Afghan women. Then they forced them to stay at home (for their own good), stop going to school, and be denied access to medical care. And finally, George Bush came riding on a white horse to save Afghan women. Perhaps it is time to rethink promises made by powerful men to save Afghan women.

Afghan women don’t need saving. They know perfectly well how to save themselves: the brave work of RAWA in the fields of education, health care, political agitation and demands for secularism, democracy and women’s rights, is a testament to this. The West does not hold a monopoly on these issues. What Afghan women need is for the U.S. to stop imposing freedom through bombs, stop backing human rights violators and warlords, and stop hindering the security forces from expanding to the rest of the country.

The struggle of Afghan women has been reduced here in the United States to a simplistic discussion about the Burqa. Don the burqa and you’re oppressed, take it off and, lo and behold, you’re free. But what does this really mean? It means that to constantly portray Afghan women as weak, covered up, defenseless, needing our help, makes us feel good about helping Afghan women, about saving them. To express solidarity with Afghan women, we need to understand what affects them, starting with what we are responsible for and have the power to change — the use of bombs and warlords as tools of US policy. We need to begin treating Afghan women with dignity and not reduce them to a piece of clothing. Afghan women’s rights are a crucial part of the equation of Afghanistan. One year later, it is clear that Afghan women are not “free” — they are simply enduring American freedom.

Afghanistan: The First Puppet Regime in the Post September 11th World

Based on Conference Presentation at Afghan Women’s Mission Conference, October 2002. Published on Znet ( in November 2002

As the United States government and the United Nations Security Council debates the invasion, occupation, and “regime change” of Iraq, it makes sense to assess the first US exercise of power after Sept 11, namely the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

Before I go on I want to comment on what seems to be fashionable terminology these days, the use of terms like “regime change” and “nation building” to describe the US imposing its will on other countries. There’s never any question of whether or not we have the right to do it. When asked about the term, “regime change,” Bush said it “sounds more civil.” More civil than what he didn’t say, but we can speculate. The US invasion of Afghanistan could be described as follows: “a radical and agressive…step…using…great military power against a relatively defenseless nation.” This is actually how Jimmy Carter referred to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he called Russia’s “attempt to extend its colonial domination of others.” We rarely look at ourselves through the same lens that we use to look at others. Clearly, the US does not “extend its colonial domination of others,” it engages in “regime change” followed by “nation building.”

Prior to the bombing of Afghanistan, which began on October 7th 2001, there was practically no debate in our country, or in the corridors of power anywhere in the world. After September 11, the US found it quite easy to set the agenda for the world without going through the United Nations Security Council. Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Weekly Standard (12 November 2001), said “not a single Great Power on the planet lies on the wrong side” of the US. He was glad that we could finally give up pretenses of working within international law, what he called a “decade-long folly” based on “norms rather than…national interest.” Krauthammer includes weapons nonproliferation treaties and human rights conventions among the “norms” he derides as “refined nonsense.” Last month Bush submitted his National Security Strategy to Congress, a document that supports Krauthammer’s view and promotes the “Bush Doctrine,” i.e., we have the right to a first strike, to act unilaterally when we please, and to maintain military dominance over the rest of the world. Business Week criticized the document for its “Texas-style swagger and go-it-alone message.” (7 October 2002) But if we think in terms of the US as an empire exercising its power, a “go-it-alone message” and lots of posturing makes sense because you want to show the world who’s boss.

Krauthammer claimed that the real goal of the war in Afghanistan was simply “demonstrating that the United States has the will and power to enforce the Bush doctrine.” For the case of Afghanistan, he said that this requires “making an example of the Taliban”

Every day that they remain in place is a rebuke to American power…The future of Islamic and Arab allegiance will depend on whether the Taliban are brought to grief…

Krauthammer’s perspective on Arab allegiance seems to be shared by members of the US government. In April, Saudi prince Abdullah warned Bush that he might end the “strategic partnership” between the US and Saudi Arabia, so Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers threatened him using Afghanistan as an example of what we might do to those who “rebuke” American power. A US official told the NY Times, “This was to give him some idea what Afghanistan demonstrated about our capabilities…the idea was, if he thought we were strong in Desert Storm, we’re 10 times as strong today.” (25 Apr 2002)

There were a number of reasons given publicly for the US campaign in Afghanistan. Concern for the plight of Afghans was high on the list, although the US record demonstrates otherwise. Prof Marc Herold of the UNH estimated that over 3,000 civilians were killed in the first eight weeks of the bombing. He noticed how careful the US was to avoid getting its own soldiers killed, whereas Afghan soldiers and civilians were expendable. Herold concluded that “US military planners and [the] political elite” put a “very low value” on Afghan lives, exposing the tacit racism involved in “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Eliminating the Taliban was considered by many to be worth the price in civilian casualties.

President Bush asserted in his “State of the Union” speech in January that the United States had “saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression,” but the facts show that the US bombing actually exacerbated many of the dangers that existed in pre-Sept 11 Afghanstan. On September 6 2001, the World Food Program described, “widespread pre-famine conditions.” They were just about to start a new project to provide food aid to 5.5 million people, but five days later (Sept 11), all aid convoys were stopped at the borders to prevent “terrorists” from escaping. This put at risk the millions of Afghans who were in danger of starvation, since refugees could no longer leave, and aid couldn’t get in. A month after Bush’s State of the Union announcement that we “saved a people from starvation” Doctors without Borders reported (21 Feb) that “The food crisis in northern Afghanistan is reaching alarming proportions.” Mortality rates in one Northern camp have doubled since August. That is, twice as many people are dying per day now compared to before the US bombing.

The relief agency CARE has just issued a policy brief (end of September 2002) entitled, “Rebuilding Afghanistan: A little less talk, a lot more action,” in which they complain that “promises [to rebuild the country] now look increasingly suspect.” This is what is called “nation building.” Reconstruction needs in Afghanistan are, according to the report, “significantly higher” than in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, or East Timor, where international donations averaged $250 per person per year. And yet, in Afghanistan only $75 has been pledged per person for 2002, and $42 per person per year over the next five years. CARE estimates that Afghanistan needs at least $10 billion over the next 5 years to rebuild, which is not at all forthcoming.

Over $10 billion has been spent on Afghanistan since October 7 2001, mostly by the US government, 84% of it was spent to bomb the country and to finance anti-Taliban fighters. Part of the US plan included a “regime change” and that meant shifting the balance of power away from the Taliban and towards the “Northern Alliance.” That meant paying warlords $100,000 each and supplying them with truckloads of weapons. “We were reaching out to every commander that we could,” an intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal (15 Apr 02). Presently the warlords that we supported are “the greatest threats to stability in Afghanistan,” according to the aid organization CARE.

In addition to spending $10 billion to destroy the country, the US also propped up its chosen leader, using the vehicle of the traditional Loya Jirga, or “Grand Council.” This meeting, which convened in June, was actually considered to be one hope for weakening the power of the warlords. It was potentially an unprecedented opportunity for the Afghan people to have some say as to how their country was to be run. Over 1500 delegates met for 6 days, and the expectations were that finally diplomacy, not violence would take center stage. This is not to say that it was thought to be a miracle cure, but as a former member of the Afghan parliament said, “People have every reason to pin hopes on any peaceful political developments.” (IRIN, 1 April 2002). A lot of people enthusiastically tried to get involved. In Pakistan, 250,000 refugees demanded a voice in the Loya Jirga (AFP, 31 May 2002). In 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 (IRIN, 27 May 2002). One man who was chosen as a delegate said, “I am proud to be going to Kabul. I want to go there and give my vote toward ending the power of the warlords and bringing peace to Afghanistan.” (NYT 3 June 2002).

Just prior to the meeting, a group of delegates put together a “wish list” that “emphasized access to food, education, and health services in neglected rural areas” but above all else the delegates were united in “the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government.” Delegates Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi wrote, “The sentiment quickly grew into a grassroots movement supporting the former king, Zahir Shah, as head of state. The vast majority of us viewed him as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords.” Upon arrival in Kabul, more than 800 loya jirga delegates (out of 1500) signed a petition supporting the nomination of the former king as head of state (Starr & Strmecki, NYT 14 Jun 02).

But even allowing Zahir Shah to be nominated wasn’t on the US agenda. Soon after the start of the meetings it became apparent that the only true purpose of the Loya Jirga was to legitimize Hamid Karzai’s interim government, and confirm him as President of Afghanistan. This was engineered by eliminating the former king as a possible competitor for head of state. According to a NYT op-ed piece by Frederick Starr and Martin Strmecki (14 Jun), “America’s envoys pressed the king to withdraw himself from consideration, in effect pre-empting the loya jirga from selecting the nation’s leader by itself.” Then, before Zahir Shah could even make his own announcement, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan told the press: “The former king is not a candidate for a position in the transitional authority. He endorses Chairman Karzai.” From that point on, an atmosphere of threats and intimidation by supporters of the interim Karzai government dominated the Loya Jirga. It came as little surprise when Karzai was re-elected. In picking Karzai, the “council did what had been expected of it,” according to the NYT.

This shows the true love for freedom and democracy that permeates US “nation building” efforts. When it really matters, even minimal democracy is not allowed. Compare this with Iraq. When 100% of the Iraqi population “voted” for Saddam Hussein with nobody else on the ballot, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “[it’s] not a very serious vote and nobody places any credibility on it.” (AP 16 Oct 2002) But in Afghanistan, the “rubber stamp” vote for a US-backed leader was hailed by the NYT as “a resounding endorsement of national unity” and “the first broadly representative election in over 20 years” (13 Jun 02).

This wasn’t the worst of it. Most of the delegates thought they would at least get to vote for the cabinet, but Karzai made it clear that it was only up to the assembly to ratify his choices. I’ll quote from the NYT piece by delegates Zakhilwal and Niazi:

“our hearts sank when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another. A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: ‘This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?’… Three powerful Northern Alliance commanders…have been made vice presidents…These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the mujahedeen government…As the loya jirga folded its tent , we met with frustration and anger in the streets. ‘Why did you legitimize an illegitimate government?’ one Kabul resident asked us. The truth is we didn’t…[W]e delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process.”

That was in the op-ed pages, i.e., it’s only someone’s “opinion.” In contrast. the “news” section of the New York Times (23 Jun 2002) was upbeat, praising the cabinet as “a careful balance of factions and ethnic groups.” In this context one has to read between the lines. “Factions and ethnic groups” is shorthand for “factions and ethnic groups with guns”– in other words, “warlords.” Human Rights Watch said, “Afghanistan’s warlords are stronger today than they were…before the loya jirga started.”

The United States has eliminated the Taliban, but what is in its place? The president Hamid Karzai has little popular support. He relies on the backing of the US (even his bodyguards are mostly US Special Operations soldiers) and is at the mercy of various warlords, also backed by the US. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution calls him “basically the mayor of Kabul during daylight hours.” So the US has eliminated one source of instability in Afghanistan, and replaced it with another, which it (partially) controls. The prospects are just as bleak for Iraq, if the US decides to engage in the kind of “regime change” and “nation building” it implemented in Afghanistan.