Bush’s ‘Policy Shift’ in Afghanistan: Domination, “Relevance”, and Re-Election

Published on commondreams.org, October 14, 2003

A UN Security Council delegation is visiting Afghanistan from now until 8 November, reportedly to decide on the proposed expansion of the International Security Assistance Force from the capital Kabul to the rest of the country. A NATO agreement to expand the force is part of an effort by the US and European powers to enhance their image internationally. On the NATO side, the operation is seen as a way to give the organization a reason to exist; on the US side, it enhances its power in Central Asia at the expense of the United Nations. When ISAF was a UN operation, Russia and China, NATO’s major competitors, as well as other non-NATO countries, had influence in Afghanistan. Now a non-Russian and Chinese force controlled by the US and Europe is taking over a country in the backyard of Russia and China.

NATO officials say the expansion of the ISAF will bring more “relevance” to the organization. From the point of view of the US leadership, NATO being more relevant means it works more in conjunction with US goals. From the point of view of some European leaders, there may be the wistful desire to regain lost imperial glory. In any case, the significance of expanding NATO to Asia is not lost on the regional non-NATO powers Russia, China, India, and Iran.

For Afghans, any form of ISAF expansion is certainly better than leaving things the way they are, but most aid agencies agree that it is too little, too late. The situation in the countryside has been allowed to worsen for the past year and a half. The aid agency CARE just released a study showing that since September 2002, armed attacks against the assistance community have gone from 1 a month to 1 every 2 days. The expanded ISAF is expected to look a lot like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that the US, Britain, New Zealand, and now Germany, have been operating. These are not positioned to enhance security, rather they provide services that NGOs are already providing. It’s been admitted that the ultimate goal of PRTs is to improve the Afghan people’s opinion of the central government, and by extension the US campaign in Afghanistan.

This is linked to the Bush administration’s stated “policy shift” towards both Iraq and Afghanistan. The goals are short term and intended to benefit the administration more than the people of either Iraq or Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the concrete goal is to get Hamid Karzai elected next June in the first public elections in the history of the country. Finally, the Bush administration knows that its own chances of election next November depend critically on the US public perception of Bush’s handling of the “War on Terrorism” in Afghanistan and the search for “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. Recent opinion polls clearly show that for the first time since September 11 2001 more people are critical than not of Bush’s approach to international issues.

The same is true of Afghans: frequent protests in Kabul against the US presence, although rarely covered in the US press, show the Afghan people becoming more and more critical of what is increasingly seen as an American occupation of their own country. One villager told Reuters about the behavior of US troops: “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 of the Taliban against them.” Many Afghans consider the US occupation of Iraq to be equivalent to what has happened to their country. US puppet Karzai “supported the operation in Iraq because we want exactly the same thing for the Iraqi people,” but this view is probably not shared by most Afghans. The Revolutionary Association of the women of Afghanistan (RAWA) held a demonstration last February in Islamabad, Pakistan against the impending invasion of Iraq. Their statement released at the time clearly drew the connections between the US operations in both countries. On the other end of the political spectrum, Taliban and other militant groups are tapping into the anger and desperation felt by Afghans against the imperial behavior of the US and the awareness that the same is going on in Iraq. The result is an upsurge of violence: CARE reports that from June to August 2002 there were twice as many armed attacks outside Kabul as inside the city; from June to August 2003, the ratio was 7 to 1.

The US State Department’s propaganda engine has been working in overdrive to save us from such shocking statistics. From January to July of his year, the DOS has released 12 fact sheets describing the government’s generosity and “successes” in Afghanistan. (The same period in 2002 yielded only 4 such documents.) The DOS often boasts that the US is the “largest single donor” to Afghanistan, but they ignore the fact that the US is the richest country in the world. As a percentage of GDP, US humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan is less generous than that of seven other countries.

The US does spend a lot more than anybody else on military operations in Afghanistan. In the current proposed $12.2 billion “aid” package (part of the $87 billion Iraq/Afghanistan package), 90% is intended for the US military. Even the $1.2 billion “reconstruction” portion of the Afghan aid has $400 million, or 30% going to supporting the Afghan National Army and the national police. In other words, the goal of the aid is to enhance the military bargaining power of president Karzai with respect to the warlords (most of whom have also received support from the US), and improve his chances of election in June. The rest of the money is an attempt to accelerate real reconstruction in select areas, again to improve Karzai’s chances of election. It is important for the Bush administration to have the Afghan people ratify Karzai’s presidency and the continued presence of the US in their country.

James Ingalls (ingalls@ipac.caltech.edu) is a founding director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a nonprofit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. He is also a Staff Scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

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