US Out of Afghanistan?

Recently, Sonali Kolhatkar and I visited Afghanistan for a short ten-day trip. We visited Kabul, Herat, and Farah, and saw many of the projects of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who we work with as directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission. The views of a lot of people we talked to reinforced our own analysis from the perspective of the US. I wanted to mention one item that contrasted with our expectation.

All Afghans that we talked to had plenty of bad things to say about the US, including the bombing, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the past support of Mujahideen. At the same time, we were surprised to find that everyone thought foreign troops were necessary to ensure that the country didn’t slide back into civil war. People are really scared of warlords. Non-Afghan commentators have implied that warlords draw their power from the people, but we couldn’t find anybody that supports them. It’s not so much people prefer being occupied, humiliated, and tortured. They are just relieved that warlord armies are not running rampant like they did in the early 90s. Even the most radical Afghans we talked to consider foreign troops a necessary evil until the warlords go. (I think everybody would prefer a UN troop presence to the current US/NATO, but that’s not going to happen given the talk of permanent US bases.)

The precursor to foreign troop departure has got to be some kind of disarmament. But, is a foreign-run disarmament program just another kind of imperialism? Not in the long run, when you realize:

  1. Foreigners (especially the US, but also Russia, Iran, Pakistan and others) are responsible for the warlords being armed in the first place, having given them arms by the truckload (way back in the 80s to fight the Soviets and then through the 90s and after 9/11 to fight the Taliban);
  2. If the US weakened the warlords, they’d be precipitating their own departure. I can guarantee that, if there wasn’t the warlord problem a lot fewer Afghans would support the US presence.

So, what can someone in the US do to promote this outcome?

First, support the secular anti-fundamentalist democratic alternative in Afghanistan, people who share our goals. This includes groups like RAWA and people like Malalai Joya, a 25-year old woman who spoke out at last year’s Constitutional meeting against the warlords, many of whom were sitting in the front row. Parliamentary elections in the fall will give a lot of independent candidates a chance for office. Having more such people in the government will strengthen it against both the warlords and US domination.

Second, encourage the US to withdraw its support for warlords and to fund more fully the disarmament program (officially “Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration,” or DDR), which was supposed to be done by June 2005 but has really only just begun.

Third, encourage support for an Afghan reconciliation/justice process, such as disscussed in the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s “Call for Justice.”

Then, call for “US OUT OF AFGHANISTAN!”

(based on discussions with sonali)

Will the real Taliban stand up?

It looks like the Bush administration’s claims to have eliminated the Taliban threat in Afghanistan were a bit premature. An attack on the mayor’s office in Kandahar and a foiled car bomb in Herat represent “an increase in militant activity in the south and east” (BBC) of the country and show that the Taliban are still alive and kicking.

But that isn’t the bad news. The bad news is that even if the movement of “religio-fascists” whose members call themselves Taliban was completely obliterated, the alternative presented to the Afghan people by the United States is not much better. A “local religious scholar” in Badakhshan province just had a woman stoned to death for adultery, something which brought gasps of horror in the West when the Taliban did it. And those who might say that this is confined to a few backward local districts should think about Fazl-e Hadi Shinwari. Shinwari, US-backed Chief Justice of the Afghan Supreme Court, has made very clear that the punishment for adultery is death by stoning. Fundamentalist fanatics and warlords still populate much of the central and provincial governments, often on the advice of the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. He praised President Hamid Karzai’s choice to work with fundamentalists as “wise…this co-optation in exchange for cooperation on critical issues is a reasonable option”.

Then of course there are the US troops. While their footprint in Afghanistan is a lot smaller than that in Iraq (18,000 vs 150,000 troops), for those in contact with US forces, the interaction is just as painful. The difference between the US and the Taliban is that the US can eliminate its international critics. One such critic is Cherif Bassiouni. the UN’s “independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan,” who submitted to the the recent meeting of the UN Commission for Human Rights a report on human rights abuses in the country. Bassiouni’s report described

continuing violations including: repressive acts by factional commanders; arbitrary arrest and other violations by State security forces, including intelligence entities; unregulated activities of private security contractors; severe threats to human rights posed by the expanding illegal drug industry; sub-standard conditions in prisons; egregious violations of women s rights by the State…; and arbitrary arrest, illegal detentions and abuses committed by the United States-led Coalition forces.of prisoners by the US military. [emphasis added]

In the category of US military abuses of prisoners, Bassiouni included:

forced entry into homes, arrest and detention of nationals and foreigners without legal authority or judicial review,…, forced nudity, hooding and sensory deprivation, sleep and food deprivation, forced squatting and standing for long periods of time in stress positions, sexual abuse, beatings, torture, and use of force resulting in death.

Some of US actions “fall under the internationally accepted definition of torture.” The US troops, according to Bassiouni, “undermine the national project of establishing a legal basis for the use of force.” Anybody who knows about the history of Afghanistan over the past 25 years will appreciate the difficulty of that project. Bassiouni’s conclusion: “the Coalition forces’ practice of placing themselves above and beyond the reach of the law must come to an end.”

The US response? Our delegate to the Human Rights Commission pressured the UN to fire Bassiouni. Well, actually, he advised the UN to eliminate the independent expert’s post, because “the human-rights situation in Afghanistan is no longer troubling enough to require it,” as reported by wire services. So an execution by stoning does not count as “troubling.” The UN, given an ultimatum by its paymaster, had no choice but to get rid of Bassiouni’s post. The US delegate, without responding to the charges levied by the report, went on to attack Bassiouni, accusing him of “grandstanding ‘to bolster his résumé’.” I can think of a lot less “courageous” ways for a UN official to fill his CV than criticizing the US.


The Appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad to Iraq: Not About Oil

Published on ZNet on April 10th, 2005

Zalmay Khalilzad, currently George W. Bush’s special envoy and US ambassador to Afghanistan, will be transferred as ambassador to Iraq pending Senate confirmation. Contrary to popular belief on the left, the transfer has little to do with his being a past consultant for the oil company UNOCAL. A Village Voice blog by Jarrett Murphy (“Iraq Envoy’s Got Oil On His Resume”) makes the case that mainstream reportage on Khalilzad$(Bs (Bappointment ignored his UNOCAL employment$(Oas(B if the oil connection explained something about Khalilzad$(Bs (Bappointment. In a much more detailed piece, Larry Everest (“Zalmay Khalilzad: Empire Builder Moves to Iraq,” Revolutionary Worker #1273, April 3 2005), delves deeply into Khalilzad$(Bs (Bhistory. He brings up the oil connection too, but only as a secondary point to demonstrate Khalilzad$(Bs (Bwillingness to work with the fundamentalist and fascist Taliban. Everest makes the more important point that Khalilzad is a founding member of the Project for a New American Century and a major thinker in the neoconservative movement. In other words, a long-term aggressive quest for US hegemony motivates his every move. Still, Everest doesn’t really explain how those long-term goals might be achieved under Khalilzad, or what made Bush pick him. Everest states, “Khalilzad’s nomination…highlights both the centrality of Iraq to [the Bush] agenda and the US imperialists’ determination to press forward with their global plans.” That is, picking Khalilzad, a man who has helped define the neocon agenda, means Washington is standing firm on its current approach. This is certainly true, but there’s more to it than that. Power, conquest, and oil may fill his dreams, but his ideological bent was probably only a small part of the reason for Khalilzad$(Bs (Bappointment. Replacing outgoing ambassador John Negroponte with Khalilzad may represent a last-ditch attempt to deal with a rapidly evolving Iraq that is out of US control.

Zalmay Khalilzad has skills, which he demonstrated in Afghanistan, that make him an ideal choice to achieve US objectives in Iraq. First, he is smart enough to devise his own plans and carry them out to Bush satisfaction. In 2000 when the Taliban were still in power, over a year before he became special envoy to Afghanistan, Khalilzad wrote his own job description. His Washington Monthly piece with Daniel Byman reads in part, “The Clinton administration should appoint a high-level envoy for Afghanistan who can coordinate overall US policy. The envoy must have sufficient stature and access to ensure that he or she is taken seriously in foreign capitals and by local militias. Equally important, the special envoy must be able to shape Afghanistan policy within US bureaucracies.” He knew the complex dynamics of the situation and his article included a plan to remake Afghanistan into a more US-friendly state. After the post-9/11 decision was made to implement “regime change,” Khalilzad, by then a member of Condoleeza Rice’s National Security Council, was the only one around with a scheme already in writing.

Secondly, Khalilzad is a skilled diplomat, unlike previous post-Saddam US ambassadors to Iraq. The Financial Times (Apr 7, 2005) asserts that Khalilzad will bring a “penchant for political negotiation and Middle Eastern-style intrigue” to his Iraq post, and this has a kernel of truth to it. With the new Iraqi goverrnment forming along sectarian lines, taking advantage of the divisions and manipulating the outcome so that it benefits the US will require a good diplomat who appears conciliatory and engaging. To US policy makers, Khalilzad$(Bs (BAfghan heritage is probably considered an additional asset for such work, since he is $(Cfr(Bom the region$(D a(Bnd a Muslim. Could Washington be opting for subtlety and cleverness in managing its occupation of Iraq? Possibly. At any rate, Khalilzad would certainly use a different approach than the “heavy-handed style” of Bremer or the “behind the scenes approach” of Negroponte (FT).

Thirdly, and most frighteningly, Khalilzad knows how to work with fundamentalists, to compromise with them and convince them that their interests (anti-progressive, pro-state control of private life) are shared by the United States. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad worked under the Reagan administration to support Islamist armed factions to fight the occupying Soviet Union. Later, he urged the US under Clinton to “reengage” with Afghanistan under the Taliban. In the four post-Taliban “nation-building” exercises he has ensured that Northern Alliance warlords and other fundamentalists have been legitimized as cabinet ministers, court officials, and regional governors, and their wishes for religion-based government enshrined in the Constitution. Many of these men have a history just as bad as or worse than the Taliban. By giving them positions of power, Khalilzad has ignored the wishes of the majority of Afghans who would rather see them on trial (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, “A Call for Justice” ). In addition, it was Khalilzad$(Bs (Bidea for the Karzai government to offer amnesty to the Taliban. Khalilzad calls this practice $(Cco(B-optation in exchange for cooperation.$(D T(Bhe Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) calls it a $(Ctr(Beasonable alliance against our nation.$(D

(BZalmay Khalilzad has never threatened fundamentalismÂ$(Bs (Bhold on Afghan politics. Among the most sorry to see Khalilzad leave his country is ultra-conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazil Hady Shinwari, the former head of a Pakistani madrassah (religious school), who Khalilzad helped to power. In an open letter to President Bush, Shinwari pleaded against Khalilzad$(Bs (Breassignment, saying Afghanistan needed the ambassador “now more than ever,” because “no one else can work as he has been doing.” A Taliban member in all but name, Shinwari has declared that adulterers should be stoned to death, the hands of thieves amputated, and consumers of alcohol given 80 lashes. He has attempted to ban women from singing or dancing in public and declared that, “women should observe Islamic veiling, meaning that they should cover their whole body apart from their faces and hands.” When the editors of a newspaper criticized him, Shinwari closed it down and had the editors arrested for “blasphemy.”

Khalilzad may have been chosen for Iraq precisely because he has a history of bringing fundamentalists on board and using their presence to US advantage. What this means for the people of Iraq is that things may get even worse. Fundamentalists are at the forefront of the anti-US movement in Iraq, and Shi$(Bit(Be Islamist Ibrahim Al-Jaafari was just appointed prime minister, the most powerful post in the government. Al-Jaafari$(Bs (Bwish to implement Islamic law may set back the clock for women’s rights and other secular advances by half a century (see the New Standard and referenced articles ). Based on his behavior in Afghanistan, Khalilzad as ambassador would at best ignore such changes; but more likely he would quietly encourage them as a way to gain the confidence of Al-Jaafari and other fundamentalist power brokers. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad used the people$(Bs (Bfear of US-backed warlords to both justify the US military presence and get the Afghan people to vote for the moderate Hamid Karzai, a US puppet. It is possible that Khalilzad may try to do something similar in Iraq. That is, with one hand build up the Islamists until they are seen as more of a threat to the Iraqi people than the US military; with the other strengthen the US position with more moderate elements and justify its continued occupation.

Zalmay Khalilzad$(Bs (Btransfer from Afghanistan to Iraq is not merely a sign that the Bush administration will continue imposing US imperial domination on Iraqis or that the US still wants to control Iraqi oil–this was already obvious. Not only is Khalilzad ideologically similar to the rest of the neocons crafting US policy in Iraq, he actually has a chance of accomplishing US objectives. Unlike the other US ambassadors to Iraq he has diplomatic skills and can use a faction-ridden situation to best US advantage. Furthermore, with powerful Islamists in the Iraqi government and Islamist groups leading the anti-US charge, KhalilzadÂ$(Bs (Bhistory of using fundamentalists to bring about a US-designed framework is just what Washington needs right now in Baghdad. As in Afghanistan, KhalilzadÂ$(Bs (Btactics could have frightening consequences for the Iraqi people.

James Ingalls ( ) is a co-director of the Afghan Women$(Bs (BMission (, a US-based nonprofit that works in solidarity with RAWA ( ). He is also a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology.

Forgetting Afghanistan Again

Posted on April 2, 2005, Printed on April 14, 2005,

In the past two years the US media have drastically reduced their coverage of Afghanistan. According to the American Journalism Review only three news organizations–Newsweek, Associated Press and The Washington Post–have full-time reporters stationed in Kabul. What little is published focuses mostly on feel-good stories, superficial change and unopposed reportage of the Bush administration’s claims.

Take Laura Bush’s recent visit to Afghanistan. The news media immediately turned toward the still-struggling Central Asian country. But despite a slight increase in media coverage thanks to Mrs. Bush, not a single news article dared to question her empty talk of solidarity with Afghan women. For example, the Associated Press’s Deb Riechmann mentioned Laura Bush’s meeting with “Afghan women freed from Taliban repression.” Reichmann simply ignored their new oppressor–U.S.-backed warlords. Mrs. Bush cited the progress made on girls’ education–a statement made very often by the State Department and George W. Bush himself. The U.S. media failed to remind the public that the U.N. recently concluded Afghanistan’s education system is the “worst in the world.”

This behavior on the part of the U.S. media is not new. In the early 1990s, the worst atrocities by mujahadeen fighters (including some members of the current government) resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees in a four year period in Kabul alone. During that time, media coverage dropped drastically. In the late 1990s, when the Taliban were implementing their oppressive laws, the media largely ignored it. In 2000, when tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were trapped in horrific conditions in refugee camps in the Pakistani side of the border, the same pattern of silence continued. Only when the Buddha statues of Bamiyan were blown up, or the attacks of 9/11 took place was Afghanistan worth focusing on.

Why don’t the media today examine Afghanistan and Bush’s claims of “freedom and democracy”? True, most Afghans have embraced wholeheartedly the promise of choosing their own leaders through an electoral system, despite having certain aspects of democracy imposed on them by a foreign country. But the power of undemocratic warlords has stifled the aspirations of Afghan people. When I visited Afghanistan a month ago, I spoke with independent pro-democracy political activists like Malalai Joya, who is forced to conduct her work underground. Fearing attacks by warlords, they use false names and travel in disguise or with bodyguards. I met journalists who are risking their lives to report the crimes of the warlords in the face of government threats.

A majority of Afghans voted for Hamid Karzai, even though he is clearly a U.S. puppet. They did so because he promised never to compromise with warlords. But after his election, Karzai appointed the former governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, a fundamentalist misogynist warlord, as Minister of Energy. Karzai recently appointed a known war criminal, Abdul Rashid Dostum, as the National Army Chief of Staff. These moves were praised by U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as “wise,” even though the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s recent survey revealed a deep desire among Afghans across the country for justice for past war crimes committed by the likes of Khan and Dostum. The Afghans I met were eager to see the warlords disarmed, and prosecuted, not rewarded with government positions.

Aside from its “democratic development,” the Bush administration refuses to mention serious life-and-death issues plaguing Afghanistan. Obediently following suit, the U.S. media do not cover the struggle for survival. In the 2004 National Human Development Report for Afghanistan, conducted by the United Nations, the country ranked 173 out of 178 countries in terms of human development. Only five countries, all in sub-Saharan Africa, were worse off: Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone. Refugees, whose (sometimes forced) return was loudly praised by the Bush administration as evidence of Afghan freedom, are now homeless in their own country and have turned parts of Kabul into squatters’ camps. They have no homes and little to no training, employment opportunities, or health care. Maternal mortality, especially in the provinces where the majority of Afghans live, is among the highest in the world, just as it was before 9/11 when the media were ignoring Afghanistan. Education–most vocally cited by the Bush administration as a measure of the success of U.S. policy in Afghanistan–is deemed the “worst in the world” by the UN. Outside Kabul there are dismally few educational opportunities for Afghan girls and women. In the cities, I was told that most schools have a curriculum limited to Islamic studies.

Most women are still wearing the burqa (veil), or hijab, in Afghanistan. This is admittedly far too simplistic a measure of women’s oppression, but it was exploited by the Bush administration and the media after 9/11 to visualize the brutality of the Taliban against women. Likewise, the discarding of the burqa after the fall of the Taliban was widely used by the media to showcase women’s “liberation.” Today in the cities and provinces outside Kabul, most women dress exactly as they did under the Taliban’s rule. Nasreen, an 18-year-old returned refugee living in Heart, told me she does not want to wear her hijab, but is afraid of attracting too much attention in an atmosphere that is still hostile to women.

There is an obvious pattern here: before 9/11 the media did not deem Afghanistan and its myriad problems (most of which were initiated by U.S. policies in the ’80s and ’90s) worth covering. After 9/11, when it was convenient for the Bush administration to highlight mass oppression and poverty as justifications for war, the media complied. Now, despite continued mass oppression and poverty, Bush and Rice have informed us that Afghanistan has been “saved” by our military intervention and installation of “democracy” and so it no longer needs our attention. The media continue to comply with government wishes.

The very people that Americans compassionately and generously supported after 9/11 are suffering once more because of a lack of attention and interest. Donations toward life-saving projects like hospitals, clinics, schools and training centers, have plummeted. Armed militias led by US-backed warlords have replaced the Taliban, financing their armies through heroin sales. In the short term, this compliance has had tangible consequences for the people of Afghanistan. In the long term, the lack of media coverage of the rise of these armed groups could once again have horrible and shocking consequences, like the attacks of 9/11.

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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