Lessons Still not Learned

This month has seen two reports on the history of human rights abuses in Afghanistan: “Blood Stained Hands” by Human Rights Watch (see my earlier post), and now “Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 1978-2001” by the Afghanistan Justice Project. The AJP report is probably the most comprehensive of its kind, describing the violations committed from the Soviet invasion to the US invasion, and beyond. It is probably one of the most important reports on Afghanistan to come out in a long time, particularly for its final four pages (of 168), “Lessons Not Yet Learned,” which place current and past US actions in their proper context.

The AJP is staffed by “primarily Afghan volunteers and legal experts,” with an advisory committee that “includes international and Afghan human rights experts, academics and journalists with long experience in Afghanistan.”

The AJP shows its integrity by going outside the nominal scope of their investigation (1978 to 2001) and covering the 2002-2005 period, placing the crimes of the US and its allies in the “war on terror” in the context of almost 30 years of violations. According to the report,

U.S. forces have committed grave abuses many of the them of the same sort used by their counterparts in the communist, mujahidin and Taliban regimes that preceded them, crude and brutal methods of torture that have sometimes led to death, and the use of secret detention facilities that facilitate torture; and unacknowledged detentions that are tantamount to “disappearances.”

In its treatment of prisoners, the AJP report emphasizes, “the U.S. has replicated some of the same practices that characterized the PDPA and Soviet regime it opposed in the 1980s, as well as some of the brutal tactics employed by the feuding commanders during the early 1990s.”

The AJP concludes:

In replicating the same patterns of abuse that have marked the different phases of the conflict in Afghanistan, and allying themselves for the sake of political expediency with local commanders who have done the same, U.S. forces have jeopardized prospects for establishing a stable and accountable institutions in Afghanistan, have undermined the security of the Afghan people (as well as their own), and have reinforced a pattern of impunity that undermines the legitimacy of the political process.

This will unfortunately probably get the report ignored in the US media. The report acknowledges that Washington is not exactly interested in full disclosure:

the U.S. has been strenuous in its opposition to any investigations to uncover the truth about violations and war crimes past or present in Afghanistan.. In early 2005, the U.S. blocked the renewal of the U.N. Independent Expert’s mandate in Afghanistan because of his repeated efforts to gain access to detention facilities in Afghanistan.

In an earlier post, I reviewed the circumstances surrounding the sacking of UN Independent expert Cherif Bassiouni, as well as his report describing violations committed by US forces

Thus far the only US media outlet that has covered the report’s critique of US actions is the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press ignores the US part, saying only that the report “accuses dozens of officials” in the current Afghan government as well as “Karzai’s former defense minister, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” but doesn’t mention that they both received substantial US aid in the past.

By not counting the United States government among the guilty, this ensures that the lessons remain “not yet learned.”

Overthrowing Uzbekistan?

We may be seeing the seeds of another “revolution” in a post-Soviet state, courtesy of the US State Department.

In what the Boston Globe calls walking the “diplomatic tightrope,” US officials have agreed to consider asylum requests for refugees from Uzbekistan fleeing after the violent crackdown in Andijan in May. Uzbekistan has been an important ally of the US because it allows the use of one of the first US airbases in Central Asia, and because the US renders its terrorist “suspects” to the country’s torturers for interrogation and detention (New York Times). If it decides to validate asylum cases, Washington would be openly working against the govermnent of president Islam Karimov, not to mention publicly admitting that the crackdown contained human rights violations and political persecution.

While the State Department’s human rights reports have been relatively truthful on the atrocious record of Karimov, the US government in general was rather kind to the despot awarding him military aid and apologist rhetoric for his services. Until recently, the State Department’s Background Notes on Uzbekistan called the country “a strong supporter of US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the global war against terror….[The US] values Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region.” (Reference to the earlier version of the notes can be found in Asia Times.) Now, the notes (updated July) assert:

U.S.-Uzbek relations have flourished in recent years but have become strained over the Uzbek’s actions in Andijan in 2005…The tumultuous events in Andijan in 2005 and the subsequent U.S. condemnation of President Karimov’s actions render the future relationship between the nations uncertain. In June 2005, Karimov refused U.S. demands for a formal investigation of the Andijan massacre, exacerbating the divide between the two nations. To maintain strong relations, the United States urges greater reform in Uzbekistan to promote long-term stability and prosperity. Registration of independent political parties and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be an important step.

The State Department calling US-Uzbek relations “strained” is more than just an attempt to assuage human rights and congressional critics of Bush’s cozy relationship with Karimov. The revised State Department language reflects a new reality. Karimov has recently said he might “evict” the US from its base at Karshi-Khanabad (ISN Security Watch), and has been showing unusual closeness with regional powers Russia and China (see earlier post). Russia is most openly offering its unconditional support to the Karimov regime, saying that outsiders should avoid “any one-sided assessment [of the Andijan events] which has only political considerations” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Russian president Vladimir Putin furthermore agreed with Karimov that the Andijan uprisings were staged from “specially prepared bases in Afghanistan.” Karimov asserted that the demonstrations were “prepared in headquarters and centers where there are people who have carried out operations like this before on the territory of both CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and other states.” In other words, the US fomented the demonstrations, like it did in the Ukraine (the Guardian) and Kyrgyzstan (Wikinews).

There is more than just alarmist talk in these accusations. It may not be the case that the US fomented the demonstrations in Andijan, but the State Department has made it clear that “long term stability and prosperity” can only be maintained in the country if “Registration of independent political parties and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs)” takes place. It’s not obvious if this is a threat, or just an assessment, but it looks like a little of both. According to the Washington Post,

The administration hopes to reach out to Karimov by month’s end to stress the importance of the U.S.-Uzbek strategic partnership — which has blossomed since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — while urging the authoritarian government to make a stark political choice so it does not meet the fate of the three other former Soviet republics [Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia], U.S. officials say.

“We hope one last push will get Karimov to see that repression leads to instability and the only way out is to embrace freedom. Otherwise, he’s on a descending spiral,” said a senior U.S. official involved with Central Asian policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy.

This echoes an analysis in Jane’s Intelligence Review (RFE/RL) that “Uzbekistan is now spiraling irretrievably towards violent regime change.”

It is quite possible that the US government is seriously considering supporting the anti-government movement in Uzbekistan, or has done so already, and is using this as a bargaining chip with Karimov. Washington is certainly warning Karimov that unless he does as he is told, the US will do nothing to stop an inevitable regime change.

London Attacks Renew Imperial Solidarity

In addition to being contemptible acts of violence, the London subway/bus attacks that killed at least 50 and wounded over 700 were also perfect opportunities for global imperial powers to set aside their differences and renew their solidarity.

According to a FOX news report on the bombings,

Jamie Rubin, a former foreign affairs specialist under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told FOX News from London that the attack may recreate some of the unity of world leaders that was seen right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

“For now, some of that sense of solidarity that is in the War on Terror … is restored,” Rubin said. “The political sense of solidarity has been lost a bit and I think, ironically, this tragedy may restore it.”

The US has not yet taken the opportunity to use the blasts as justification for its occupation of Iraq, but has come close. For example, Condoleeza Rice’s claim that in Iraq “the terrorists are finally being confronted” leads to a roundabout justification by way of London:

…Iraq has become a central front in the war on terrorism. But let’s remember that if indeed extremism is to blame for what is going on in London, it is a part of a long line now of attacks that come out of an ideology of hatred that led people to fly airplanes into buildings. And that means that we’re dealing with a region of the world, the Middle East, that is not normal. It’s not normal for people to strap suicide belts on themselves and kill other innocent people. It’s not normal for people to fly airplanes into buildings.

We have to deal with the circumstances that are producing this ideology of hatred and with the ideology itself, and that’s the Middle East. And that is the link to Iraq…

It’s rare to hear such unadulterated colonial-type speech from a US official. Rice makes it seem as if the US is involved in a sort of early 20th century psychosurgery. The Middle East is “a region of the world…that is not normal” but the US is there to make it normal, thus removing by lobotomy “the circumstances that are producing this ideology of hatred.”(The full interview with Rice by BBC News is worth reading.)

Hoping that we make no efforts to learn the real reasons why anyone would want to commit violence against Western civilians, Rice repeats the old canard, “the terrorists are after our way of life.” Terrorism is explained as the act of insane monsters from an “abnormal” part of the world.

Similarly, UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke said (BBC news),

The fact is that the people who make these kind of attacks are about destroying the very essence of our society: our democracy, our media, our multicultural society and so on. That’s not about Iraq or any other particular foreign policy issue, it’s about a fundamentalist attack on the way we live our lives.

This is at odds with the note claiming responsibility for the attacks, signed by the “Secret Organization — al Qaida in Europe” The note, extracted in der Spiegel, demands that “all countries pull their troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Only time will tell if the letter’s claim is verified, but analysts already agree that the attacks have many hallmarks of past Al Qaeda-style operations (Washington Post; Reuters), thus making it likely that the goal is indeed rolling back the US/UK presence in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world, not an “attack on the way we live our lives.” That is, unless one includes subjugating and controlling much of the oil-producing world part of the “way we live our lives.”

Regional Powers Challenge US in Central Asia

Just before G8 leaders met in Scotland to make themselves feel good about relieving African debt, and engage in handwringing on terrorism, two of the G8 countries (Russia and China) were busy snubbing another (the United States).

At the latest meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kyrgysztan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), the growing US military presence in Central Asia has been seriously called into question. As quoted in an Associated Press article, a declaration of the five presidents reads:

We support and will support the international coalition, which is carrying out an antiterror campaign in Afghanistan, and we have taken note of the progress made in the effort to stabilize the situation. As the active military phase in the antiterror operation in Afghanistan is nearing completion, the SCO would like the coalition’s members to decide on the deadline for the use of the temporary infrastructure and for their military contingents’ presence in those countries.

According to the AP, “A Kremlin foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said the group had not demanded an immediate withdrawal. But he added it was ‘important for the SCO members to know when the [US] troops will go home.’ ”

Indian officials who were present at the meeting told The Hindu newspaper that the push to get US troops out came mainly from Russia, but was backed enthusiastically by China and Uzbekistan.

Apparently Uzbekistan’s leader is less than happy with US lukewarm support for his suppression of the Andijan uprising in June, which killed up to 750 civilians. He also agrees with Russia that Washington is trying to destabilize his and other former Soviet governments. Three days after the SCO declaration, Uzbekistan complained that the US was not living up to its commitments in the country, asking the US to consider withdrawing from military bases in the country. The Uzbek government also suggested the US might start paying overdue takeoff and landing fees for the use of its airfields.

For the first time the SCO meeting included representatives of other regional powers India, Pakistan, and Iran as observers. If a true power bloc develops between these nations, it could even squeeze the US out of the region, or at least sharply constrain its activities.

Further Reading

HRW Casts Lot with RAWA

Human Rights Watch has done some commendable work on Afghanistan, and they continue it with the report “Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity,” published on July 7.

The report begins:

Afghanistan has suffered from over two decades of war. This is the typical opening of most reports, articles, and speeches written about Afghanistan today. The statement, usually used to help explain the country’s post-Taliban challenges, is repeated so frequently that it has become a cliché. Yet few efforts have been made to study the history itself and its significance for Afghanistan’s current situation. More remarkable, despite the fact the two-decade period was marked by widespread human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the statement is rarely followed by suggestions that perpetrators of past crimes, most of whom are still alive, should be brought to justice. Afghanistan’s past is often invoked, but rarely addressed.

The report covers the period April 1992 through March 1993, the first year after the US-backed Mujahideen took over Kabul from the Soviet puppet Najibullah and began their war for power. There is a section on The Complicity of Other Countries, which focuses on the seven countries (US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, UK, Iran) whose governments financed, trained, aided, and abetted the carnage. These countries “have an obligation to help Afghanistan rebuild and help it face its past. An important way to do so would be to forcefully and publicly press for justice for past crimes and support Afghan justice-building efforts.”

According to the HRW report, “[M]ost Afghans want these factional commanders and officials involved in this fighting to be held accountable for the crimes committed during this period—along with those involved in Soviet-era and Taliban-era abuses. ” From the report’s Introduction:

Many of the main commanders and political faction leaders implicated in the crimes detailed in this report are now officials in the Afghan government—serving in high level positions in the police, military, intelligence services, and even as advisors to President Hamid Karzai. Others may be actively seeking such positions. Many Afghans, and Kabulis in particular, believe that these leaders’ history of abuse makes them unsuitable to hold such positions.

We agree…

The report puts HRW squarely in the company of the Afghan women’s organization RAWA, which has been calling for justice for the Mujahideen and other crimnals for at least a decade, but whose calls were largely ignored by the world media. Every year they hold at least one demonstration in Pakistan on this subject. Their April 28 demonstration this year was accompanied by a statement that read:

…the Jehadi criminals, whose savagery still continues to torment the soul of our people and the legacy of their thug war has remained intact, which left behind severe destruction in every nook and corner of this country, particularly in Kabul city. Instead of being put on trial, they are appointed to key government posts. This is an unforgivable insult to the lives of thousands of innocent people killed by the fundamentalists.

RAWA criticizes president Hamid Karzai for

praising and whitewashing the ‘Northern Alliance’ criminals such as Sayyaf, Rabbani, Dustom, Ismail Khan, Qanooni, Anwari, Khalili and alike…These men deserve to be put on trial for being the most misogynist, anti-civilization oppressors….Mr. Karzai needs to bear in mind that he and his shaky government has no right to forgive such traitors, and unleash them to commit any vice and crime.

And the Western media intelligently glosses over the heart-breaking realities by portraying a calm and peaceful image of Afghanistan. But the conditions are so catastrophic that even some American sources fear the hard consequences.

The Western media do not come under fire from the HRW report, although in my mind the real reason the history is not known (and the current disaster will be poorly understood) is that the media follow Washington’s lead when it comes to covering Afghanistan. Reasons given by HRW for the ignorance of 1992-1996 Mujahideen crimes range from US elections, the Yugoslavia wars, and the LA Riots. This doesn’t explain why the Taliban takeover in 1996 got lots of coverage, even though it was another election year. And the LA riots don’t explain it, since they did not last 4 years (the span of the Mujahideen wars). The US media were indeed diverted to the Yugoslavia wars, but it was a conscious decision. The New York Times’s reporter covering Afghanistan was explicitly moved to Yugoslavia. We have to ask, why was it decided that Yugoslavia, a country whose warring factions were not affiliated to the US government, was considered more important than Afghanistan, where US-supplied factions were tearing the capital apart? This HRW doesn’t address.