Jihad Comes Full Circle: US and Pakistan in the Hunt for Bin Laden

Published on Wednesday, March 24, 2004 by CommonDreams.org and by ZNet

In January 2004, the Chicago Tribune cited military sources in Washington planning a “spring offensive” on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan “that would reach inside Pakistan with the goal of destroying Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network”[1] That offensive has clearly begun with recent troop deployments in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, also known as the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). But the troops are not just American, they are mostly Pakistani. In fact, Pakistan seems to be the US’s new best friend, having recently been declared a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) which would enable it to benefit from defense cooperation and loan guarantees to pay for arms deals. Secretary of State, Colin Powell has already announced new loan guarantees awarded to Pakistan and arms sales can proceed within weeks[2]. But arms sales are a violation of the 1985 “Pressler amendment” to the US Foreign Aid Act which asserts that “no military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Pakistan” unless Pakistan is certified to be free of nuclear weapons technology[3].

Major news media are referring to the current operation in the NWFP as “Pakistan’s Campaign Against Al Qaeda” (New York Times), “Pakistan’s Al Qaeda Offensive” (Al Jazeera), the “Pakistani Offensive” (LA Times), “Pakistan’s Al Qaeda Hunt” (BBC), etc. While Musharraf has expressly denied there any US troops on Pakistani soil, “senior American military officials said that small numbers of [US] commandos . have conducted cross-border operations”[4]. This is not a Pakistani operation – it is Made in the USA. Washington planned the offensive this January, has arranged weapons sales, and is using Pakistani troops as “proxy forces in that area”[5].

The US eagerness to work with Pakistan and even clear arms sales in violation of its own laws seems surprising — it comes on the heels of a revelation that the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been selling nuclear secrets to countries like Libya, Iran and North Korea. Additionally, only three years ago Pakistan was one of three countries that recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, and is widely known as having actually nurtured and sponsored the Taliban.

In fact, US-Pakistan “cooperation” should come as no surprise. The US already pays almost $100 million a month to Pakistan for providing logistical support in the war against terrorism[6]. While transitions to democracy are lofty US goals for Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan is an exception: Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan, is Washington’s close ally and dutifully choreographed an about-turn after September 11th 2001 on his sponsorship of the Taliban. Most recently Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed content with the conditional amnesty that Musharraf granted the nuclear proliferator, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Today Musharraf is doing his part by cooperating with Washington’s current offensive in the NWFP. But the cooperation comes at a hefty price: last December Musharraf was the target of a failed assassination attempt by an alleged Al Qaeda suspect.

The U.S. has convinced Musharraf to contradict himself on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. According to Musharraf in early 2002, bin Laden was dead or possibly “alive in Afghanistan”[7]. By July 2002 Musharraf went further in asserting: “I doubt he is alive, and if he is alive he cannot be in Pakistan”[8] But today, “facing intense pressure from Washington”[9] Musharraf was convinced that “bin Laden and his followers likely were hiding in the mountains along the Afghan border”[10].

Recent excitement in the U.S. over bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri has also revealed contradictions in Pakistan. While U.S. and Pakistani troops combed the mountainous South Waziristan district for al-Zawahiri, Pakistani officials now admit they were simply guessing his presence: Mehmood Shah, the head of security in the NWFP admitted “We have no indication [of al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts]. Our guess was based on the amount of resistance we faced and the number of foreign fighters. Later on, many people started guessing names, and that’s how his name came up”[11]. Now underground tunnels in the NWFP reveal escape routes which were probably utilized in response to the US’s announced offensive[12].

President Bush says, “the best way to defend America . . . is to stay on the offensive and find these killers, one by one.[13]” Bush fails to state clearly who “these killers” are. Are they Al Qaeda or the Taliban? What about the primary inhabitants of the NWFP — Pashtun tribals and Mujahadeen warriors? What about their family members, wives and children? According to US military sources, the “spring offensive” is “designed to go after the Taliban and everybody connected with it”[14]. This is a very broad definition which likely includes ordinary Afghan and Pakistani civilians.

With Pakistan visibly taking the heat for the offensive, US troops are poised in Afghanistan with “what the military calls “blocking positions” at strategic junctions along the frontier”. These are designed to “trap and kill militants fleeing the Pakistani attacks”[15]. So far 25 civilians have been killed with half of them women and children[16]. The head of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno praised Pakistan’s terrorist tactics: “I’ve seen some very positive developments from Pakistan, and I’m going to continue to encourage them to do more in those areas.” For example the “destruction of homes and things of that nature…we’re watching that with great interest.[17]” Taken together these facts reveal a picture of a US offensive via Pakistani proxies targeting anyone and everyone in the area, and trapping those that try to flee into Afghanistan.

The locals are not happy. In response to the civilian casualties, tribesman Mukhtar Wazir said “Musharraf is evil, Bush is Satan”[18]. Hundreds of people responded to the civilian casualties with a demonstration in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP, chanting “Get out FBI” and “Stop the War in Tribal Areas in the Name of Al Qaeda”[19]. Maulan Khalil-ur-Rehman, a tribal leader and a member of parliament, claimed that “The ‘foreign fighters’ living in Wana were heroes of Islam when they were fighting the Soviets, but now we are told by Musharraf and America they are terrorists”[20].

The late Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed went further in clarifying the connection between the US and the mujahadeen or “foreign fighters” of Pakistan and Afghanistan in a 1993 interview with David Barsamian:

All of them are former allies of the United States. All of them have been armed by the United States. All of them were described as “mujahid,” holy warriors, by the United States. The same media which are now calling them fundamentalists called them freedom fighters only four years ago. Those same freedom fighters are now “fundamentalists.”[21].

In addition to Osama bin Laden and his allies it seems clear that the US’s targets include all its old fundamentalist friends and their families. Residents of the NWFP have dismissed the Pakistani actions “as a stunt aimed at “appeasing America””[22]. This puts the Pakistani prime minister between a rock and a hard place: Musharraf is being forced to aim an army nurtured on “jehadi” rhetoric against the “jehadis” themselves[23]. Jihad has come full circle with the U.S. and Pakistan (acting on U.S. orders) terrorizing the very people they nurtured, and these very people turning their terrorist tactics back on their benefactors and their allies. Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid describes his country’s situation best: “Either way, whether Bin Laden is captured or not, there will be serious consequences for Pakistan’s domestic peace and stability”[24].

Sonali Kolhatkar (sonali@afghanwomensmission.org) is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily morning public affairs program with KPFK, Pacifica, Los Angeles. She is also the Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that works in solidarity with Afghan women on humanitarian and political work.


[1] Spolar, Christine, “U.S. plans Al Qaeda offensive”, Chicago Tribune, 01/28/04.

[2] “US to Reward Pakistan With New Arms Status”, Los Angeles Times, 03/19/04.

[3] The Pressler Amendment and Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program, US Senate Hearing, 07/31/92.

[4] Schmitt, Eric, “U.S. Quietly Aiding Pakistan Campaign Against Al Qaeda”, New York Times, 03/23/04

[5] Spolar, Ibid.

[6] “Pakistan gets $100M per month from U.S.”, United Press International, 03/22/04

[7] “Pakistan’s Musharraf: Bin Laden Probably Dead”, CNN, 01/18/02.

[8] “Musharraf: Bin Laden not in Pakistan”, BBC News, 08/01/02.

[9] Rashid, Ibid.

[10] Spolar, Ibid.

[11] Lynch, David, “Pakistan: Zawahiri hunt just a ‘guess'”, USA Today, 03/21/04.

[12] Wazir, Ahsanullah, “Did Pakistan tunnel help terrorists to flee?”, Associated Press, 03/23/04.

[13] Spolar, Ibid.

[14] Spolar, Ibid.

[15] Schmitt, Ibid.

[16] Ali, Zulfiqar, “At Least 25 Civilians Die in Pakistani Offensive”, Los Angeles Times, 03/21/04.

[17] Defense Department, “Special Department Of Defense Briefing on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan,” 02/17/04.

[18] “Pakistan to try new tack in al-Qaida hunt”, Associated Press, 03/21/04

[19] Ali, Ibid.

[20] Foster, Ibid.

[21] Barsamian, David, “India, Pakistan, Bosnia, etc.”, an interview with Eqbal Ahmed, Z net, 08/04/93.

[22] Foster, Peter, “Pakistan’s border campaign ‘a stunt'”, The Age, Australia, 03/23/04.

[23] Hoodbhoy, Pervez, Interview with Sonali Kolhatkar, KPFK, Pacifica Radio, 03/23/04.

[24] Rashid, Ahmed, “Musharraf’s Bin Laden headache”, BBC News, 03/17/04.

The New Afghan Constitution: A Step Backwards for Democracy

Published by Foreign Policy in Focus, March 10, 2004

On January 4, 2004, 502 delegates agreed on a Constitution for Afghanistan , an act many have described as a positive step toward democracy. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad wrote: “Afghans have seized the opportunity provided by the United States and its international partners to lay the foundation for democratic institutions and provide a framework for national elections.” 1 Judging by who was allowed to participate, their manner of participation, and the document itself, the foundation set by the delegates and their foreign overseers was precisely antidemocratic.

Legitimizing Afghan Warlords

The constitutional Loya Jirga (grand council) was the third in a series of events prescribed at the December 2001 Bonn meetings for building a post-Taliban Afghanistan consistent with the interests of the United States. The first event was the Bonn meeting itself, the second was the emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, and the fourth will be presidential elections, scheduled for June 2004.

Like the first two milestones in the Bonn process, the constitutional meetings were notorious in that the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, and other jihadi (holy warrior) factions were allowed to participate as legitimate representatives of the people. 2 At the Bonn meetings and in the emergency Loya Jirga, warlords had been awarded prominent seats in the government of President Hamid Karzai in exchange for compliance with U.S. goals. Their documented history of terrorism forgotten, the Afghan warlords, not the Afghan people, were liberated by U.S. intervention and empowered to participate in the new political process. 3

The constitutional meeting this winter did nothing to reverse the trend. According to John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, the process of selecting representatives for the assembly was characterized by “vote-buying, death threats and naked power politics.”

“Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of local military or intelligence commanders intimidating candidates and purchasing votes. In Kabul, guarded by international security forces, intelligence and military officials were openly mingling with candidates at an election site. Many candidates complained of an atmosphere of fear and corruption. In areas outside of Kabul, many independent candidates were too afraid to even run. In a few cases, factional leaders themselves were elected–despite rules barring government officials from serving as delegates. The majority of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga were members of voting blocs controlled by military faction leaders, or warlords. Some good people were elected, but they were outnumbered–and scared.” 4

The warlords are able to participate, not because a majority of Afghans want them there, but because Washington decided to use them first as suppliers of ground troops to help oust the Taliban and then as governors to help control the population once the Taliban rulers were gone. In the emergency Loya Jirga of June 2002, the U.S. and UN ensured that Northern Alliance leaders became entrenched in power as ministers of the transitional government, an illegal outcome according to the Bonn rules. In exchange for top ministerial posts, the warlords put their support behind Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice for president. Washington envoy Khalilzad ensured that the popular former king Zahir Shah did not stand for office, precluding any viable challenger to Karzai. 5 Khalilzad rationalized his choice as follows: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which require accountability.” Accountability ranking last on Washington ‘s list of priorities, the envoy’s intention was that Afghans would have to continue suffering injustice, but at least they would experience “peace” in a country run by warlords.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agrees with the view that warlords are good for Afghanistan . “[I]n the bulk of the country the armies, the militias, the forces that exist there, almost all of which have U.S. Special Forces involved with them and advising them and participating, are by their presence contributing to stability.” The kind of “stability” that Mr. Rumsfeld appreciates can be found in the city of Herat, run by Ismail Khan, considered “an appealing person” by the defense secretary. A November 2002 report by Human Rights Watch found that Herat “has remained much as it was under the Taliban: a closed society in which there is no dissent, no criticism of the government, no independent newspapers, no freedom to hold open meetings, and no respect for the rule of law.” The report documents “a pattern of widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings, and torture by police and security forces under the command of Ismail Khan.” 6

U.S. leaders show deep sensitivity toward their allies whose proxy troops control the population of Afghanistan. “Pentagon officials refrain from using the term ‘warlord’,” the New York Times informs us. 7 Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz told the U.S. Senate in 2002: “I think the basic strategy here is first of all to work with those warlords or regional leaders, whatever you prefer to call them, to encourage good behavior.” U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch Northern Alliance supporter for over a decade, angrily came to the defense of “supposed warlords” who were being criticized at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June 2003:

I’ve heard a lot of negative posturing about…these people who happened to have been the guys who sided with the United States …Dostam, Atta, Khan…these were the people who defeated the Taliban… Just keep that in mind if you’re an American. They came to help us defeat people who slaughtered our own people [September 11, 2001]. And I’m grateful for that. And I’m not about to label them in these pejorative terms [as warlords], especially when the Taliban are still on the border…I would admonish [you] not to go so quickly in getting rid of people who helped us defeat the Taliban.

Rohrabacher’s point enlightens us as to the motives of U.S. officials. Criminals who “sided with the United States ” are to be defended and given power, while those who don’t are cast out, persecuted, and recognized as criminals or terrorists. The consistency of this approach is remarkable, and, when understood, it clarifies a commonly perceived inconsistency in U.S. behavior; namely, the transformation from support to denouncement of thugs like Osama bin Laden, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Saddam Hussein.

The converse is also true. Outcasts can be brought back into the fold, provided they obey. The Washington Post reported in December a “new strategy” that includes “wooing some Taliban members.” The head of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno maintains: “Those who are criminals must be held accountable, but for the rank and file, the noncriminals, there will be opportunities for reconciliation and reintegration.” 8 In practice, however, the criminality of the Taliban extends only to those who defy Washington. Those who obey, no matter how highly placed, are allowed “reintegration,” that is, power. For example, the former Defense Minister of the Taliban Mullah Abdul Razzak has joined Jaishul Muslim, an offshoot of the Taliban based in Peshawar, Pakistan. According to Asia Times Online, the group developed as a result of an effort by “the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence establishments” to create “a proxy organization” that would “split the Taliban and reduce the intensity of its resistance movement.” The goal is to use Jaishul Muslim “to sway Taliban commanders with the offer of a place in the government.” The organization “has little, if any, support within Afghanistan itself,” 9 but as far as Washington is concerned, popular support has never been a necessary condition for governing a country.

An alternate, equally consistent approach would have been to disarm and weaken all armed factions, refusing to deal with any group guilty of human rights violations, including both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. This approach, based on principles rather than power, is foreign to Washington power brokers but has practical underpinnings. A recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank, finds that the current process, “based on impunity,” is “inherently unstable and unsustainable.” According to the report, “it is past perpetrators of violence who are the cause of insecurity today and the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s futureÂ,T (B[I]f perpetrators are not punished for their violations, they will repeat their acts and the cycle of impunity and insecurity will continue endlessly.” 10 The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a political and humanitarian organization outspoken in its denunciation of fundamentalist groups like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, goes further: “Unless the West stops backing the Northern Alliance fundamentalists and starts supporting the independence-loving and freedom-loving forces, it …will be haunted by the threat of inhuman incidents like 11th of September” 11

The Most Powerful Warlords

While their Afghan allies were bullying candidates for the constitutional Loya Jirga, the warlords in Washington were engaging in their own form of intimidation, directed at the Afghan population residing in the extensive border with Pakistan. A week before Afghan warlords and bureaucrats assembled under a tent in Kabul’s soccer stadium (a public execution site under the Taliban) to discuss the Constitution, the Pentagon began Operation Avalanche, its largest military campaign in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The operation was part of a security plan to keep the Loya Jirga free from terrorist attacks, which have been rising dramatically throughout the country. 12 “We want to take the offensive…to keep them busy protecting and defending themselves,” U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad said. Here “them” was intended to mean terrorists, but anyone in the way of Operation Avalanche was unlikely to be spared.

The title was surprisingly (although perhaps unintentionally) frank in evoking the U.S. military as an unstoppable force of nature, indiscriminately destroying anything in its path. In the first week of the assault U.S. forces proved that assessment correct, killing 15 children in two separate aerial attacks aimed at single individuals. Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty absolved U.S. soldiers by blaming the children for being in the path of Operation Avalanche: “if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons Â,T (Bin a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences.” Hilferty did express regret for the massacres, not because they were war crimes, but because “such mistakes could make the Afghan people think ill of the coalition.” After the first air raid killed nine children, the UN envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi said, “[it] adds to a sense of insecurity and fear in the country.” The Washington Post reported that the U.S. airstrikes, together with antigovernment terrorist attacks, “have cast a jittery pall over preparations” for the constitutional assembly. 13

In the next stage of the Bonn process, Afghan presidential elections slated for summer 2004, the violence will only increase. (More on the elections below.) A highly publicized “spring offensive” is planned by Washington to keep antigovernment forces on the run until after elections, just as Operation Avalanche was used to provide security for the constitutional Loya Jirga. The probable consequences for people living in the regions under attack will be as devastating.

The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, claims that in the border areas with Pakistan the Pentagon is “moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy,” which means in practice that the Afghan population itself is considered a potential enemy. Barno explained that currently “battalions, and oftentimes companies and sometimes even platoons, now own specific large chunks of the countryside; stay in those areas, operate continuously out of those areas; maintain and develop relations with the tribal elders, with the mullahs, with the local government officials.” An unnamed senior Afghan government official told the New York Times, “There is a widening gap between the Afghan people and the Americans,” which is a polite way of saying that Afghans are not happy with the U.S. presence. Reuters describes “confusion and mistrust” that often has “turned to hatred” because of “aggressive search tactics and a general sense among Muslims of being under siege.” An open letter from the villagers of Lejay to the United Nations mission reads, in part: “The Americans searched our province. They did not find Mullah Omar, they did not find Osama bin Laden, and they did not find any Taliban. They arrested old men, drivers, and shopkeepers, and they injured women and children.” One resident of Sher-o-Aba, Haji Allah Dad, told Reuters: “On the slightest suspicion, they arrest us and treat us like animals. Their treatment is so inhuman that sometimes we even think of joining the ‘jihad’ (holy war) of the Taliban against them.” 14

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the Pakistani military is apparently stepping up its own intimidation of frontier citizens. In Barno’s words, this is part of a “hammer and anvil approach” to “crush the al Qaeda elements between the Pakistani and the coalition forces.” No comment is made about the innocent people crushed along with them. The Boston Globe reports that this is the “largest joint effort to date” conducted by the U.S. and Pakistan, with “thousands of troops” deploying to the “lawless northwestern frontier, pressuring tribal elders and allowing American soldiers from neighboring Afghanistan to make forays across the border.” 15 Barno praised the results: “I’ve seen some very positive developments from Pakistan, and I’m going to continue to encourage them to do more in those areas.” For example, “destruction of homes and things of that nature…we’re watching that with great interest.” 16

Guaranteeing Long-term U.S. Interests

Molesting villagers and razing their homes may ensure temporary deference to Washington’s power in the “lawless” frontier region, but such forays are costly and, because they are based on fear, cannot have a lasting effect. That is why the new Afghan Constitution is important for planners in Washington. In addition to its propaganda value as “proof” that U.S. actions lead to democracy, the Constitution cements a political power structure that legitimizes Washington’s long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Despite the fact that there will be a National Assembly with the ability to enact laws, overwhelming political power is currently allocated to the president. A strong presidency is not necessary for democracy, but it is a lot easier for an external empire to exert control if one person holds most of the power. According to an op-ed article in Gulf News: “A centralized presidency in Kabul must be the surest way of maintaining the Afghan government’s support for U.S.-led policies … diluting authority is bound to bring in voices of dissent on matters [bearing on] Washington ‘s interests.” 17

A paper by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a mainstream Brussels-based think tank (board members include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Wesley Clark, and George Soros), analyzed the draft Constitution presented by Karzai to the delegates. (This draft was accepted with minor changes.) 18 According to the report, that version of the Constitution “would fail to provide meaningful democratic governance, including power-sharing, a system of checks and balances, or mechanisms for increasing the representation of ethnic, regional and other minority groups.” The ICG criticized “the manner in which the draft has been prepared and publicised, as well as its content,” all of which “raise serious questions about whether it can become the first constitution in Afghanistan ‘s history to command genuinely deep popular support.” An earlier draft described a prime ministerial position to balance the power of the president. But, according to the ICG, President Karzai changed the draft because of a “strong desire … for a purely presidential system.” Apparently it was not Karzai’s idea alone. It is “the perception of many Afghans” that the notion of a strong presidency grew out of “the U.S. desire to ensure Karzai is in firm control, or at least unchallenged while he struggles to assert his authority over other powerful players.”

Many Afghans also found fault with Karzai’s draft. Controversy over presidential power actually threatened to shut down the constitutional Loya Jirga when 48% of the delegates boycotted the vote. Karzai was furious, declaring: “There won’t be any deals on Afghanistan’s system of government, neither with jihadi leaders nor with anyone else.” 19 That’s an interesting choice of words, since in the end it was a backroom agreement brokered by U.S. and UN officials that led to the withdrawal of objections to a strong presidency. 20

Karzai and his backers in the U.S. and the UN portray the proponents of a more representative system as “rivals of Karzai, mainly from the Northern Alliance.” 21 In other words, they are warlords with independent fiefdoms anxious to legitimize their power at Karzai’s expense. Although it is true that the warlords stand to benefit from a decentralized government, there are many problems with the view that a strong presidency is the only way to weaken the power of the warlords. First, it ignores the tacit legalization and bolstering of warlord power resulting from U.S. strategic decisions (continuing today), and it puts the burden for disempowering local warlords on Afghan shoulders. Second, although the lack of a prime ministerial position ensures that a warlord figure will currently not be able to share power with Karzai, a presidency with few checks and balances predisposes Afghanistan to a takeover by such a figure in the future–e.g., a Musharraf-style coup or an authoritarian regime like those in Central Asia. And third, the boycott was instigated and joined by many Afghans who are not members of the Northern Alliance or other warlord factions. For example, Mustafa Etemadi, a member of the Shiite Hazara minority, who said: “We did not go to vote, because our people’s desires were not respected. We want far-reaching democracy in this country, we want our Parliament to have more authority.” Habiba, a teacher from Kabul had a similar message: “We want a strong Parliament alongside the president, equal rights for men and women, democracy among all the ethnic groups, and recognition of all the languages of the nation. The Constitution is not for one tribe or one people; it belongs to all the people of the country.” 22

Although the assembly was dominated by Karzai and his U.S.-backed elite on one hand and the Northern Alliance warlords on the other, there were “less-powerful groups: women delegates, ethnic Hazaras, former communists, and ethnic Uzbeks” who strove for a parliamentary system. They also fought for the few lines in the Constitution giving women some recognition–women’s rights are declared equal to those of men, and over 25% of seats in the lower house of Parliament are reserved for women. In contrast, U.S. concerns at the constitutional Loya Jirga were strictly power-related, centering on the need to control the people with a dominant president. Other issues, such as human rights and bringing warlords to justice were not considered important enough to advocate. According to the Christian Science Monitor: “Neither Karzai nor his American backers publicly made a point of emphasizing women’s rights.” 23

Elections in Afghanistan and the United States

Though not in the way he intended, Zalmay Khalilzad was right when he said that the constitutional meetings “provide a framework for national elections,” due to happen this summer. Like the framework used for the first three stages of the Bonn process, this final event will probably consist of a preordained decision presented to the people by the United States and the United Nations (through their intermediaries, Karzai and the warlords). The people will be given few choices, if any, so the intended presidential candidate, Hamid Karzai, will be ratified. And finally, the results will be proclaimed to the world as a triumph for democracy.

But although the gathering of votes might take place, that act will not constitute democracy. Holding elections under current circumstances in Afghanistan will at best insult democracy and at worst spark a civil war. Most credible analysts assert that the summer timetable does not allow enough time to create the necessary conditions for free and fair elections. Currently, only 10% of Afghanistan’s eligible population has been registered to vote, and no political parties have been recognized. Furthermore, crushing poverty and physical insecurity in much of the country will prevent many Afghans from registering. UN spokesperson Manual de Almeida e Silva asserts that “it is close to impossible to meet the June date with the current security conditions, which do not permit the registration to take place all over the country.” Taliban leaders have promised to attack Afghans who participate, and the dominance of warlords in many regions will surely lead to intimidation and vote buying, as occurred in the election of delegates to the emergency and constitutional Loya Jirgas.

A recent briefing paper by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) notes, “elections could well legitimise the very individuals deemed the most illegitimate by the majority of Afghans.” The paper mentions lessons from other countries that underwent “peaceful elections held in ‘postconflict’ ” situations, such as South Africa, El Salvador, and Mozambique. Polls in each of those countries “were preceded by strong international peace agreements, disarmament, a sound constitution and stable grassroots political movements,” none of which exist in Afghanistan. On the other hand, “elections held in countries before peace was secure, as in Liberia, Angola, and Bosnia legitimised the very forces they were meant to remove from power and sowed the seeds for further conflict.” 24 The possibilities are just as dire for Afghanistan, though the Bush administration rejects this possibility. Zalmay Khalilzad insists: “I am not of the view at this point that elections cannot take place this June, or this summer… There is a way for this to happen.”

According to the director of the AREU, the push for early elections is motivated primarily by “domestic political reasons within the U.S. ” 25 The AREU briefing paper states that Washington’s “enthusiasm for 2004 [Afghan] elections is a result of the Bush administration’s need for a foreign policy and ‘war-on-terror’ success ahead of the November 2004 presidential elections in the U.S., particularly as Iraq appears to be [be]coming less of a success by the day.” The New York Times affirms that, “there is little doubt that President Bush would like to claim an electoral success in Afghanistan as he runs for re-election himself.” According to a January Washington Post article, the “biggest single factor” in Mr. Bush’s election bid will be foreign affairs. “This is the first presidential election perhaps since Vietnam that is going to turn on the way the public views the success or failure of foreign policy,” predicts Mark Snyder, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. Success in Afghanistan is a benchmark whereby the U.S. electorate can judge Bush’s actions, and Afghan elections would be the most visible sign of U.S. engagement with the country. 26

Ambassador Khalilzad maintains that Karzai, not Bush, would be the one to lose out by delaying elections in Afghanistan. “Khalilzad said Karzai would be…damaged by an election delay, which he said could create a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ if [Karzai’s] transitional mandate ends before the voting takes place.” 27 In other words, if Mr. Karzai is not seen to be duly elected by the majority of Afghans, his illegitimacy will be recognized. Clearly, if Karzai runs an uncontested race with very few people voting, it would also weaken the validity of the elections. But it looks as if the Bush administration is interested in Karzai winning–regardless of the context–in order to impress the U.S. electorate before November.

The AREU lamented that “it seems virtually certain that the [Afghan] elections will be won by those with the greatest power to intimidate voters and to buy their way into power.” In his own way Karzai is as guilty of this as the warlords. While his Washington patrons use their military to engage in “classic counterinsurgency” against residents of the “lawless frontier” areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to eliminate Taliban influence, the buying of Afghan votes for Karzai is also underway. A $1.6 billion spending package was approved by the U.S. Congress last October to “accelerate success” and “demonstrate to the Afghan people the concrete, visible programs that are improving their lives.” It is certainly better to sponsor reconstruction than destruction, but this assistance is much smaller than required (the Afghan government estimates reconstruction costs at $28 billion over seven years) and is obviously geared toward superficially improving Karzai’s clout before the elections.

In an attempt to salvage his credibility, Mr. Karzai is finally appearing to squelch the power of the warlords, or at least those that defy him. Zalmay Khalilzad was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “Afghan warlords, whom Washington previously tolerated as allies against the Taliban, would be ‘marginalized’ if they continued using guns to impose their will.” 28 In October Karzai passed the Political Parties Law, which “bans political parties from having their own militias or affiliations with armed forces.” The law also bans “judges, prosecutors, officers, and other military personnel, police, and national security staff” from joining a party while still in office. This narrows the spectrum of possible challengers to Karzai’s candidacy. 29 Technically Karzai himself is ineligible to run for office, since the law also forbids parties that “receive funds from foreign sources.” But apparently, the most powerful global empire is not regarded as a “foreign influence.”

While the Bush administration collaborates with its hand-picked Kabul leaders to ensure that neither the Taliban nor the warlords challenge Karzai’s continuance as president, all armed parties (the U.S., the Afghan government, the warlords, and the Taliban) have in common the goal of keeping the elections free from another, more unpredictable influence: the people of Afghanistan. Unless they have guns, those who fight for their rights in Afghanistan are either disregarded or attacked. Student protests have been met with bullets from the Kabul police. Women who assert themselves are ostracized, as was Malalai Joya, a delegate to the constitutional meeting who accused many of her fellow delegates of war crimes. In the middle of her speech, her microphone was shut off, and she was removed from the conference “for her safety.” Celebrated as a hero in her hometown, her calls for justice were ignored by the country’s “representatives” and their foreign masters.

Although Afghanistan ‘s new Constitution asserts the right of freedom of the press, journalists who question the current order are arrested and intimidated. “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us,” is the title of a Human Rights Watch report, referring to a threat received by an editor who published a political cartoon lampooning Defense Minister Fahim. 30 One story that received some mention in the U.S. press involved the editors of the weekly newspaper Aftab, Mir Hussein Mahdawi and his assistant Ali Reza. The two were arrested last June for “blasphemy” after publishing an editorial entitled “Holy Fascism” criticizing the Afghan warlords and some mullahs for “crimes committed in Islam’s name.” The article denounced many U.S.-backed leaders of the Northern Alliance, including the current Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili. The journalists were released on orders from President Karzai, but the blasphemy charge still stands. Karzai said he believed in press freedom, but he explained: “It is our job to protect the Afghan people’s…religious beliefs… We will naturally take measures whenever we see that the foundations of the Afghan people’s beliefs are violated. This does not mean a disregard for the freedom of the press, it is rather respect for the freedom of the press.” 31

A Fearful Future

Far from building the “foundations for democratic institutions,” U.S. operations in Afghanistan are an assault on democracy, devastating people’s lives and increasing insecurity. With every violation, the return of the Taliban becomes more likely. Surely the recent statement by Mullah Omar, former Supreme Leader of the Taliban, resonates widely: “The American, shaky transitional government in Afghanistan has completed its two years but so far it has not achieved anything. Where is the democracy that was to accompany peace, freedom, human rights and reconstruction? For Muslims, that fraud democracy is bringing the gifts of killings, bombings, destruction of homes.” 32Washington’s response to such critiques is only more violence and subversion of democracy. The chief interests upheld at the constitutional Loya Jirga this winter were those of the Bush administration and its puppet Hamid Karzai as well as the Afghan warlords who were legitimized officially for the third time. Meanwhile, Afghans continue to wait for reconstruction, justice, and lasting peace.

Since Bush began his “war on terrorism,” the Afghan people have been allowed to choose only between U.S.-backed puppets and a gang of fundamentalist ruffians. An independent, nonviolent grassroots movement advocating true democracy is not one of the options. It is ironic, but expected, that the Pentagon terrorizes villages along the borders with Pakistan in an effort to “fight terrorism” while supporting warlords, most of whom are tyrants, drug lords, and terrorists in their own right. A first step in promoting democracy and stifling terrorism in Afghanistan would be to cut off aid to the Northern Alliance and other Afghan warlords. A second, more difficult step might be to address the root causes of terrorism; namely, deprivation of fundamental rights and anger at an arrogant imperial power.

1. Zalmay Khalilzad, “Afghanistan’s Milestone,” Washington Post, January 6, 2004.
2. “Guerrilla Chiefs to Undercut Karzai,” Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2003.
3. Sonali Kolhatkar, “In Afghanistan, U.S. Replaces One Terrorist Regime with Another” (Silver City, NM & Washington: Foreign Policy In Focus, October 3, 2003 ).
4. John Sifton, “Flawed Charter for a Land Ruled by Fear,” International Herald Tribune, January 6, 2004.
5. J. Ingalls, “The U.S. and the Afghan Loya Jirga: A Victory for the Puppet Masters,” Z Magazine, September 2002.
6. “All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch vol. 14, no. 7, November 2002.
7. T. Shanker, “Rumsfeld Meets Warlords in Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 4, 2003.
8. P. Constable, “New Strategy Calls for Wooing Some in Taliban,” Washington Post, December 21, 2003.
9. S. Saleem Shahzad, ” U.S. Revives Taliban Tryst in Afghanistan,” Asia Times Online, September 23, 2003.
10. Rama Mani, “Ending Impunity and Building Justice in Afghanistan” (Kabul: AREU), December 2003, http://www.areu.org.pk/publications/justice/
11. RAWA, “Establishing Human Rights and Democracy Is Possible Only with the Destruction of Fundamentalism Domination,” December 10, 2003, http://rawa.fancymarketing.net/dec10-03e.htm
12. In a January 15, 2004 press release, the aid organization CARE cited “more attacks on civilians in the past three months than in the 20 months following the Taliban’s fall.”
13. P. Constable, “Attacks, U.S. Airstrikes Cast a Pall over Progress Toward Constitutional Assembly,” Washington Post, December 8, 2003; P. Haven, ” U.S.: Taliban Would Attack Afghan Council,” Associated Press, December 9, 2003; C. Gall, “U.S. Acknowledges Killing 6 More Afghan Children,” New York Times, December 11, 2003.
14. C. Gall, “In Afghanistan, Violence Stalls Renewal Effort,” New York Times, April 26, 2003; S.A. Achakzai, ” U.S. Troops Provoke Anger, Fear in Afghan Villages,” Reuters, August 19, 2003.
15. B. Bender, “Pakistan Intensifies Aid for U.S. in bin Laden Chase,” Boston Globe, February 21, 2004.
16. Defense Department, “Special Department Of Defense Briefing on Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan,” February 17, 2004, http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2004/tr20040217-0446.html
17. F. Bokhari, “Centralised Presidency in Afghanistan Suits U.S. best,” Gulf News, December 25, 2003.
18. International Crisis Group, “Afghanistan: The Constitutional Loya Jirga” (Kabul/Brussels: ICG), December 12, 2003, http://www.crisisweb.org/home/getfile.cfm?id=1050
19. W. Massoud, “Karzai Refuses to Compromise as Afghan Assembly Threatened by Boycott,” Agence France-Presse, December 31, 2003.
20. “Last-Ditch Effort Secures Afghan Charter,” Associated Press, January 4, 2004.
21. Ibid.
22. C. Gall, ” Afghanistan’s Constitution Council Adjourns in Disarray,” New York Times, January 1, 2004.
23. “Afghans’ First Stab at Democracy,” Christian Science Monitor, January 6, 2004.
24. AREU Briefing Paper, “Afghan Elections: The Great Gamble” (Kabul: AREU), November 2003.
25. ” U.S., Karzai Push for Afghan Elections Despite Warnings,” Agence France-Presse, January 11, 2004.
26. R. Wright, “Bush Faces a Challenging Year: The Turn From War to Peace,” Washington Post, January 1, 2004.
27. P. Constable, “Afghan Elections Could Be Delayed,” Washington Post, February 17, 2004.
28. P. Constable, “Envoy to Afghanistan is a Force of Nurture,” Washington Post, October 11, 2003.
29. J. Ingalls, “Buying Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan,” Z Magazine, December 2003.
30. “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, vol. 15, no. 5. July 2003.
31. Hamid Karzai, press conference, Radio Afghanistan, June 25, 2003 (translated from Dari and Pashto).
32. S. Graham, “Karzai: Bin Laden Alive, Still in Region,” Associated Press, January 31, 2004.

Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at www.irc-online.org) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at www.ips-dc.org).©2004. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
James Ingalls, “The New Afghan Constitution: A Step Backwards for Democracy,” (Silver City, NM & Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, March 2004).
Web location:
Production Information:
Writer: James Ingalls
Editor: John Gershman, IRC

Afghan Women Continue to Fend for Themselves

Published in Foreign Policy in Focus, March 4, 2004

Bombed into Liberation

A recent New York Times article accurately portrayed two Afghan women from the poor farming village of Haji Bai Nazar, as “heroines” for de-mining their village. 1 Khairulnisah and Nasreen have the United States military campaign in Afghanistan to thank for a deadly legacy of cluster bomblets that litter their village and that recently killed two young boys. These small yellow canisters are part of the “liberation” of Afghan women by a Bush administration that reminds us continually of the feminist achievements of Operation Enduring Freedom. The United States dropped over 1,200 cluster bombs over Afghanistan. Wrapped in an innocuous package each bomb deploys its deadly load of 202 bomblets, of which 10-22% remain unexploded, strewn over villages such as Haji Bai Nazar. 2 Afghan women are left to take responsibility for the U.S.’s unexploded cluster ordinance which has added to Afghanistan’s ten million existing land mines from previous wars.

For anyone who was under the impression that the bombings of wedding processions and other Afghan civilian gatherings were a thing of the past, this January, a U.S. helicopter murdered 11 civilians in their home, among them 3 women and 4 children. The district chief, Abdul Rahman told Associated Press, “They were simple villagers, they were not Taliban. I don’t know why the U.S. bombed this home.” 3 Even the U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai agreed with this assessment. 4 The official U.S. response to this was an insistence that in fact “five armed anti-coalition militia members” had been killed. 5 Impunity allows such a response to go unchallenged.

There has been a continuous, steady trickle of a few deaths here, a few there, in Afghanistan–not enough to warrant news headlines. According to the BBC this January, “In early December, six Afghan children died during a U.S. assault in eastern Paktia province. The next day, nine more died in a field in Ghazni province after a U.S. air attack.” More than two years after “Operation Enduring Freedom” began in Afghanistan, Afghan women and children are still enduring death by U.S.-style freedom.
The U.S.’s destructive role in Afghanistan goes back many years from the fueling of extremist fundamentalism in the “jihad” against the Soviet Union, to the lukewarm engagement with the Taliban. 6 And every step of the way Afghan women faced a worsening climate of fear, repression, and misogyny as a result. Today, the countryside is overrun with Afghan warlords, resurrected from the pre-Taliban era–these warlords, who also targeted women, were the main reason for initial widespread public acceptance of the Taliban’s promise of peace and stability in 1996. The warlords, many of whom hold high-level positions in the interim government thanks to the intervention of U.S. officials, are just as disrespectful of women’s rights today as the Taliban. 7

Rhetoric Versus Reality

An October 2003 Amnesty International (AI) Report entitled “‘No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings’: Justice denied to women” concludes that “Two years after the ending of the Taleban regime, the international community and the [U.S.-backed] Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA), led by President Hamid Karzai, have proved unable to protect women.” In fact, AI claims that “In parts of Afghanistan, women have stated that the insecurity and the risk of sexual violence they face make their lives worse than during the Taleban era” and that “women and girls in Afghanistan are threatened with violence in every aspect of their lives.” 8

In the meantime, desperately needed and promised aid has trickled in far too slowly. A report released by the international humanitarian organization, CARE last year declared, “Much of the country remains a tinderbox, with reconstruction all but stalled, and ordinary Afghans wondering if reality will ever match the rhetoric.” 9

But U.S. officials still repeat the lie of “liberation.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said this February of the Afghan and Iraqi people, “Under President Bush’s leadershipÂ,T (Bour men and women in uniform have delivered freedom to more than 50 million people in the space of two-and-a-half years.” 10 More specifically to Afghan women, a White House press release this January asserts that “Millions of Afghan women are experiencing freedom for the first time.” 11 The rhetoric extends to the spreading of democracy: Vice President Dick Cheney declared on February 7th, “Under President Karzai’s leadership, and with the help of our coalition, the Afghan people are building a decent and a just and a democratic society.” 12U.S. government officials seem to occupy a separate plane of existence from the rest of us. Amnesty International’s research revealed last year that the Afghan criminal justice system, the police, and the Afghan National Army are all implicated in women’s oppression. 13 Mariam Rawi of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan agrees that in addition to warlords, the Afghan government itself threatens women: “In spite of its rhetoric, the Karzai government actively pursues policies that are anti-women.” 14

Another example of rhetoric versus reality in Afghanistan is the hubbub over “Osama,” the first feature film from post-Taliban Afghanistan , which recently won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was written and directed by Siddiq Barmak, an aide to Ahmad Shah Masood. Masood was the late charismatic warlord leader of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, which may explain why the Bush administration and others such as Hillary Clinton are giving rave reviews and even arranging screenings for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell commented that the movie “will teach you why President Bush is right about waging the war on terrorists until there are no more of them.” 15

Despite being used to promote the Bush administration’s agenda, the actors in the film, played by untrained, poor, Afghan children, remain miserably poor–even after the international success of the film. Marina Gulbahari, the 13-year-old girl who plays the main character in the film was begging on the streets of post-Taliban Kabul when she was first noticed by the filmmaker. Today Gulbahari’s life remains about the same as it was before: “She still lives in the one-room mud house, and though she will be moving next month to a bigger house that Barmak bought for her, it is still a mud home without electricity or waterÂ,T (Bher youngest brother and sister still go out on the streets, to collect cans, she says, although it seems likely that they are begging.” 16 Ariff Herati, a 14-year-old who plays Marina ‘s friend in the film, was found at a refugee camp and, after the release and promotion of the movie, he “still lives in a windowless mud hut in the camp.” 17

Aid Eludes Afghans

Even the filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, whose film is being promoted by U.S. government officials, speaks of “friends” in “different countries” who “promise us a lot of things for our country, but they didn’t employ these promises [sic].” 18 CARE, which operates several programs in Afghanistan , agrees with Barmak: “Despite constant requests from the Afghan government for more reconstruction funds, and months of positive “signals” on funding from the United States and Europe, sufficient funds have yet to flow to reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.” 19

At a Tokyo donors’ conference in 2002, when aiding Afghanistan was a valuable public exercise, the international community pledged $4.5 billion over five years for reconstruction projects (excluding humanitarian assistance). More than half of these pledges have been diverted to humanitarian assistance rather than reconstruction projects over the past two years, and even that has not been adequate to fulfill needs. Less than $1 billion of international aid has actually come through for reconstruction projects. 20 Today, Afghanistan’s Finance Ministry has estimated that the country now needs roughly $28 billion over the next seven years! Meanwhile the U.S. has allocated $1.6 billion dollars to Afghanistan this year, a disproportionate amount compared to its investment in the higher-profile case of Iraq. The U.S. allocated $22 billion to Iraq, a country about the same size and population as Afghanistan, and whose “standard of living is decades ahead of Afghanistan.” 21

Researching the actual dollars set aside by the U.S. for humanitarian and other aid specifically for Afghan women is a tough exercise: the projects are high-profile but very small in scope. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently launched a new program in Afghanistan called “Learning for Life,” which according to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad “will raise Afghan literacy rates and health training and will help reduce high maternal and child mortality rates.” These lofty goals could fulfill some dire needs of Afghan women and give the impression that the U.S. is perhaps actually interested in Afghan women’s rights. But a simple examination will reveal why Ambassador Khalilzad does not provide specific numerical goals: only $4.9 million has been set aside for this program by USAID. For a country whose needs run into the tens of billions of dollars, a few million will do no more than make a negligible dent in health, literacy, and education. Compare this to $700 million allocated for “police and army training, and counter-narcotics efforts” (see below). More importantly, programs like “Learning for Life” will raise the profile of the beneficiary.

Examining the details of the paltry amount of U.S. aid this year reveals that most of the money is set aside for economic enterprises rather than specific humanitarian projects that would benefit women. According to a State Department press release, the $1.6 billion from the U.S. is designated to generate “visible, measurable, on-the-ground results” to be completed by the June elections. Of this, $700 million will fund “police and army training, and counter-narcotics efforts.” Certainly better security could do wonders for Afghan women’s safety, but the more important consideration, according to the State Department, is that “improved security Â,T (Bis needed for an improved investment climate and for raising economic growth.” Much of the remaining aid will go toward stimulating “private sector economic activity,” and “building 100 market centers and 5 new industrial parks.” 22 Impoverished Afghan women will simply have to find ways to take advantage of the “improved investment climate” and fit into the U.S. ‘s free market model of development after decades of U.S.-sponsored wars.

New Afghan Constitution Inadequate

One wonders how Afghanistan can dive headlong into elections sponsored by a power that is currently bombing it, or while Afghans are awaiting aid. Still, the United States is determined to push ahead; in early January 2004, a constitutional convention ratified a draft constitution presented by the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai, enshrining a strong presidency for Afghanistan. The constitution also asserted equality for men and women, something that even the U.S. constitution does not claim: “The citizens of Afghanistan–whether man or woman–have equal rights and duties before the law.” However, possibly 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, or Loya Jirga, 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.” 23 One young Afghan woman stood up to these misogynist sentiments: Malalai Joya denounced the presence of warlords, suggesting instead that they be tried in a court of law. In response, Chairman Mojadidi labeled her a “communist” and “infidel” and ordered she be thrown out of the meeting.

Despite the inhospitable atmosphere Afghan women faced at the convention, the constitution is being touted by the Bush administration as an indication of the arrival of democracy in Afghanistan . But, according to writer and filmmaker Meena Nanji, the document is inadequate for any implementation of democracy: “While on paper it does make sweeping enunciations of equality, democracy, economic, civil, and political rights, there is little about creating the institutions to uphold or implement these provisions. Without the means to actually enforce laws, the constitution carries little authority–perhaps none in the face of armed warlords.” 24

The U.S. and interim U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai are currently moving toward a June 2004 timetable for elections. But with U.S. bombs still dropping overhead, and warlords threatening to fracture the country, what is the hurry? The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) released a report in November 2003 saying “there are real risks in allowing foreign agendas to become the driving force pushing for elections within a timeframe that may jeopardize Afghanistan ‘s future.” The AREU hints that U.S. enthusiasm for this timeline is a “result of the Bush administration’s need for a foreign policy and ‘war-on-terror’ success ahead of the November 2004 presidential elections in the U.S. ” 25 The election of a U.S.-friendly puppet such as Karzai, would be just the feather in Bush’s cap come November.

Where does this leave Afghan women? At the writing of this commentary, less than 10% of an estimated 10.5 million voters have registered to vote in this election. Of these, only one quarter are women. 26 This is no surprise in a country where only approximately 4-15 % of women are literate (estimates vary). Even women who can read the ballot are expected to register to vote in an election they have had no say in or been kept out of by fundamentalist forces. Additionally, for some women, the election probably takes lower priority than obtaining adequate food, medicine, and other life-giving necessities.

Women candidates who try to work within the current election system face co-optation. Masooda Jalal is the only female presidential contender in the elections. The election of a woman as president provides no guarantee that women’s rights will be upheld, and is no indication of free and fair elections. However, it can be a strong indication of support for women playing a role in politics. Jalal won second place votes the last time she challenged Karzai at the summer 2002 Loya Jirga and is gearing up for a second attempt. Hamid Karzai, who, like the U.S., claims to uphold women’s rights, apparently tried to convince Jalal to run as his deputy instead of against him, ahead of the vote at the summer Loya Jirga. 27

“U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women”

Two years ago, with much fanfare, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (UAWC) was announced in post-Taliban Afghanistan . According to their website, the UAWC was founded “to promote private/public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions and mobilize private resources to ensure Afghan women gain the skills and education deprived them under years of Taliban misrule.” Headed by Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, and Habiba Sarabi, the Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs, this Council is a perfect showcase for the Bush administration’s rhetoric of liberation.

A year ago, in 2003, a delegation of American women from the UAWC, including Karen Hughes, former Counselor to President Bush, visited Kabul . At that meeting, Hughes was asked about the Afghan burqa by a reporter, to which she acknowledged that Afghan women still live in fear. The burqa is still considered by U.S. feminists and the media as the most important measure of Afghan women’s freedom, despite strong public critique of this type of cultural imperialist logic. Hughes’ sympathy knew no bounds and she offered her own presence as an antidote to the fear represented by the burqa: “One of the things that we heard in the meeting is that there is still a substantial amount of fear and so I think one of the whole purposes of a delegation of largely women visiting from the United States of America is to maybe provide some small sense of encouragement to the women of Afghanistan.” 28

The delegation is a yearly exercise–this February, a similar high-profile delegation plus Defense Secretary’s wife Joyce Rumsfeld, and others, paid a visit to Afghanistan. There they informed Afghan women that the women of the United States have not forgotten them. Afghan women are still useful tools for U.S. feminists to employ in their public relations campaigns, especially on the eve of International Women’s Day.

Apparently the words of Karen Hughes in 2003 made such a difference to the lives of Afghan women that a year later according to one news report, Ms. Hughes was impressed by the “different shades of dark hair visible on burka-free Afghan women.” She remarked “There’s a big change hereÂ,T (BThere’s more shops, there’s more energy. There’s more women on the streets [sic].” 29 But the yearly trips of the UAWC are largely restricted to the capital, Kabul, where International Security Assistance Forces have ensured a relatively secure atmosphere and spared the ladies the trauma and violence of the countryside. Operating mostly inside Kabul enables high-profile U.S. women to highlight their benevolent efforts toward Afghan women without addressing the reality of most Afghan women’s lives.

Consistent with the Bush administration’s main interest in stimulating “private sector economy” in Afghanistan, the UAWC’s core mission is to “develop and foster partnerships between the private and public sectors,” according to a U.S. State department press release. 30 In fact, the title of this press release underscores the real value of the UAWC to the U.S.– “U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women: The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council.”

So committed is the U.S. to Afghan women that the Council has no formal budget and instead “relies on its members–White House aides, State Department experts, businesswomen, and educators–to raise money, either U.S. government or private funds.” 31 So far the U.S. government has provided only $2.5 million, while corporate sponsors such as AOL/Time Warner, Daimler-Chrysler-Benz, and other various organizations have provided a few tens of thousands of dollars each.

The UAWC has also partnered with several organizations for skills and training resources for Afghan women. One partner of the UAWC is the particularly troubling University of Nebraska . The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska received funding from USAID for a program designed by the CIA in the 1980s to promote anti-Soviet propaganda among Afghan Mujahedin through text books that “promoted and strengthened an era of jihad violence” and teacher trainings. More recently the Center won a contract with the oil corporation Unocal, to train hundreds of Afghan men under the Taliban to construct an oil pipeline. 32 The pipeline project was protested vehemently by American feminists, who condemned Unocal for doing business with the misogynist Taliban. Today, the UAWC “has initiated a teacher training exchange that is bringing 30 Afghan women teachers to Nebraska every 6 months for training.”

In addition to ignoring the reality of Afghan women’s lives outside Kabul, the UAWC is a convenient showpiece of the Bush administration’s self-described “commitment to Afghan women,” and is consistent with the historical and current consequences of U.S. actions toward Afghan women.

If the U.S. Were Really Interested in Afghan Women’s Rights…

In 2001, a month after Operation Enduring Freedom began, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “if we do everything we can to help reconstitute Afghan society and give people hope for a better future, we will not fail.” 33
But “we” have failed Afghan women, and in fact, failure seems almost deliberate. Putting aside for a moment the physical and political destruction of the U.S. military and government campaigns, a few concrete steps could have done much more in practical terms to help Afghan women. For example:

1. Instead of arming and empowering fundamentalist warlords who threaten women’s safety, the U.S. could have participated in disarming them. After all, the U.S. was the original benefactor to most of these armed men during the jihad of the 1980s. Today, the government of Japan , not the United States , is funding the crucial ” Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration” project supervised by the United Nations. This program has already disarmed 1,000 men from each of the armies of two rival warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Atta. The program registers the disarmed men to vote, provides them with a little cash and food, and informs them of their employment options. 34 Since the U.S. is still actively working with the warlords, the effectiveness of such a program is sadly in question.
2. Malnutrition, maternal mortality, and other treatable conditions still plague Afghan women. Instead of funding paltry private enterprise through the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and U.S. AID the Bush administration could have pledged billions of dollars in aid toward hospitals for women, food assistance, girls’ schools, and other life-saving actions throughout Afghanistan . If spending on the occupation of Iraq is any indication, the U.S. can clearly spare such amounts of money.
Colin Powell made a promise in 2001: “The rights of the women of Afghanistan will not be negotiable.” 35 Yet, more than two years later, the number and manner of dollars spent, and the actual situation on the ground reveals that Afghan women’s rights have been clearly negotiated in exchange for political gains, manipulated for public relations success stories, under-funded, or ignored altogether.

1. Carlotta Gall “Risking Death, 2 Afghan Women Collected and Detonated U.S. Cluster Bombs in 2001,” New York Times, February 22, 2004.
2. “Steel Rain: U.S. Cluster Bomb Use In Four Recent Campaigns,” Marc Herold, www.cursor.org, June 16, 2003.
3. “11 killed in U.S. helicopter attack on Afghan house,” Associated Press, January 19, 2004.
4. “Karzai: U.S. Airstrike Killed 10 Afghans,” Stephen Graham, Associated Press, January 31, 2004.
5. “Afghan villagers ‘killed by U.S.’,” BBC, January 22, 2004.
6. Sonali Kolhatkar, “The Impact of U.S. Intervention on Afghan Women’s Rights,” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, June 2002.
7. Sonali Kolhatkar, ” In Afghanistan, U.S. Replaces One Terrorist State with Another,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 3, 2003. [http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2003/0310afghan.html]
8. Amnesty International, “Afghanistan: ‘No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings’: Justice denied to women,” Amnesty International Report, AI INDEX: ASA 11/023/2003, 10/06/03.
9. CARE ” Good intentions will not pave the road to peace,” Afghanistan Policy Brief, September 15, 2003.
10. Remarks by National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice to the Reagan Lecture,” Press Release from the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, February 26, 2004.
11. “Progress in the War on Terror,” Press Release from the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, January 22, 2004.
12. ” VP Remarks at Missouri Republican Party Event,” Press Release from the Office of the Vice President, February 7, 2004.
13. Amnesty International, op. cit.
14. Mariam Rawi, “Rule of the rapists: Britain and the U.S. said war on Afghanistan would liberate women. We are still waiting,” Guardian, February 12, 2004.
15. Daily White House Press Briefing with Richard Boucher, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2004/29698.htm, February 19, 2004.
16. “Street girl still in struggle after starring in Afghan film,” PakTribune, February, 20, 2004.
17. Thomas Wagner, “Danger: girl at work,” The Age, Australia, December 10, 2003.
18. “Foreign film illustrates Afghan plight,” Interview with Fred Topel, about.com, http://actionadventure.about.com/cs/weeklystories/a/aa020604.htm .
19. CARE op. cit.
20. Barnett R Rubin, Humayun Hamidzada, and Abby Stoddard, “Through the Fog of Peace Building: Evaluating the Reconstruction of Afghanistan,” Center on International Cooperation, June, 2003.
21. Barnett R. Rubin, “Afghan Dispatch,” Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2004.
22. “U.S. to Give $1.6 Billion to Speed Up Afghan Reconstruction Projects,” U.S. Department of State, November 10, 2003.
23. Masuda Sultan, “Afghan Constitution a Partial Victory for Women” Women’s E News (www.womensenews.org), January 14, 2004.
24. Meena Nanji, ” Democracy in Afghanistan? An Authoritarian State Is In The Process Of Construction,” Z net online (www.zmag.org), February 23, 2004.
25. “Afghan Elections: The Great Gamble,” Report by Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, November 2003.
26. Scott McDonald, ” Blue thumbs and ID cards mark Afghan voter drive,” Reuters, February 19, 2004.
27. “Massouda Jalal sets precedent for Afghan women,” Agence France-Presse, January 26, 2004.
28. U.S. Department of State Press Conference of U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, Kabul, Afghanistan, January 8, 2003.
29. Margaret Coker, “Bush adviser spearheads aid effort for Afghan women,” Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service, February 29, 2004.
30. “U.S. Commitment to Afghan Women: The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council,” Statement by the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues, January, 2004.
31. Coker , op. cit.
32. Brooke Williams, “Windfalls of War: University of Nebraska at Omaha,” The Center for Public Integrity.
33. Secretary Colin L. Powell, “Afghan Women,” Remarks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Washington, DC, November 19, 2001.
34. Shafiullah Noorzadah, ” Militia men give up their arms,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting, February 18, 2004.
35. Powell, op. cit.

Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at www.irc-online.org) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at www.ips-dc.org). ©2004. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Sonali Kolhatkar, “Afghan Women Continue to Fend for Themselves,” Foreign Policy In Focus (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, March 2004).
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Writer: Sonali Kolhatkar
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