Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on June 13, 2007
by James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar
Editor: John Feffer
With primary election season in full swing, Democratic Party candidates have begun trying to distinguish themselves from each other and from the Republicans. The Iraq War has been one such dividing issue. Liberal groups like MoveOn.org praised both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for “showing real leadership” because they “stood up and did the right thing” by voting against the recent Iraq/Afghanistan war-funding bill. The main fight in Congress over the bill was whether or not to include a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
But the issue of Afghanistan was not on the table. Neither the version Clinton and Obama supported nor the one they rejected had any stipulations on the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Both versions continued funding for the operation as is.
Indeed, the top tier of candidates with a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination expresses depressingly similar perspectives on the first front in the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” To them, Afghanistan is the “good war.” These supposedly anti-war men and women seem to have serious concerns with what is going on in Iraq, but they have no problem with our conduct of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, they want to enhance it. Barack Obama has said that the Iraq war has “distracted” us from Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton says she is “encouraged by the progress in Afghanistan, but the country is tottering” and needs more troops to “finish off the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” There is talk of moving troops out of Iraq and putting them in Afghanistan. This implies that our troops are doing awful things in Iraq but are doing good things in Afghanistan and therefore deserve support.
In fact, U.S. and NATO troops are doing the same things in both countries: bombing civilian areas, invading villages, rounding up people without evidence, torturing detainees, causing deaths in custody, and shooting into crowds. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering the civilians that they are supposed to be protecting, and turning the local population against them,” says Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
When it comes to war, most U.S. politicians are concerned not with whether a particular policy benefits the Iraqi or Afghan people but how successful the operation is from a strategic perspective, whether it improves U.S. global status and assets, and whether they can use it to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Thus, many Democrats criticize Bush’s war on Iraq as a distraction from the real war in Afghanistan. In reality, both major U.S. parties will probably nominate pro-war candidates whose only difference on military issues is which country represents the best recipient of American firepower, and which people it makes more sense to terrorize and kill: Afghans or Iraqis.
Progress for War Criminals
Life in Afghanistan did improve in the first year or so after coalition forces removed the Taliban. Voting for president in October 2004 and for parliament in September 2005, Afghans picked their own leaders for the first time in decades. But most of those who ended up in the government, both through elections and through appointments, were already powerful. They had money to run campaigns and hire bodyguards, and they possessed the firepower to intimidate the population. Most of them were also major U.S. allies; many were warlords with histories of war crimes. Hamid Karzai, the man chosen by the Bush administration to become president, was one of the few U.S.-backed leaders who was not a warlord. For this reason, he actually won the popular vote by a landslide. But his subsequent embrace of the warlords and his failure to bring promised improvements to the basic infrastructure of his country have made him almost universally reviled by Afghans.
Contrary to Senator Clinton’s talk of “progress in Afghanistan,” the life of the average Afghan has gone from bad to worse under American stewardship. Amid the re-entrenchment of abusive power brokers in Afghanistan, the people have little security, no jobs, and poor access to health care or a decent education. About 90% of Afghans do not have access to clean drinking water or electricity. Growing anti-U.S. and anti-Afghan-government protests, and numerous surveys show that the people see their lives as getting worse. According to a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based on interviews with over 1,000 Afghans, Afghanistan has stagnated or slipped backward on four out of five key development categories from 2005 to 2006.
The only improvement came in the category of “economic conditions.” As usual with mainstream assessments of the economy, the main concern is with the amount of money changing hands not the wellbeing of the average person. Afghanistan’s economy is certainly booming by the standard criterion: the GDP has doubled since 2001 as investment in the risky (but profitable) country has gone through the roof. But, according to the CSIS report, “these benefits have not translated into sufficient employment and income generating activities for the ordinary citizen.” Even when money is available, much of it is siphoned into the coffers of warlords and corrupt politicians. Since 2001, the warlords have evicted hundreds of poor residents to “make way for a ‘new Afghanistan’ of palatial homes—scores of four- and five-story mansions boasting gold-painted marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows flanking grand wooden doors.” Other signs of an economic boom that does not reach ordinary Afghans are the new Coke bottling plant and five-star hotel that have opened in Kabul.
In many ways, U.S. policies have brought Afghanistan back to the age of the Taliban. Since the parliamentary elections, warlords have used their positions to become even more powerful. In July 2006, Karzai’s cabinet approved the proposal to reinstate the Taliban’s feared Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In a more far-reaching move, the parliament on January 31, 2007 passed an amnesty bill that states, “all those political and belligerent sides who were involved one way or the other during the 2 1/2 decades of war will not be prosecuted legally and judicially.” This bill is so broad it even forgives the Taliban of war crimes. Supporters of the amnesty bill claim that it is “an attempt to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghan society.” This is reminiscent of former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s excuse that encouraging warlords to enter government was a way toward peace.
The amnesty bill is in distinct opposition to the aspirations of the Afghan people. In an important 2005 survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 69% of Afghans identified either themselves or immediate family members as direct victims of human rights violations perpetrated by the warlords in parliament and their ilk; 61% rejected amnesty for such crimes. In fact, 76% felt instead that bringing war criminals to justice would “increase stability and bring security” to their country.
Freedom of Speech Curtailed
The only member of parliament who openly echoes these sentiments is Malalai Joya, a 28-year old representative from Farah province. Joya is extremely popular for her well-known criticisms of fellow MPs on the parliament floor, but she has consequently received threats of death and rape, and has survived four assassination attempts. For a particularly scathing attack in which she unfavorably compared the parliament to a zoo, the warlord-dominated assembly invoked a little-known parliamentary rule on May 21 that bars members from “insulting” one another and suspended Joya from her post. In response, hundreds of Afghans have been demonstrating in cities across the country demanding her reinstatement. Human Rights Watch said the suspension of Joya “sets back democracy and rights” in Afghanistan, and that her “comments don’t warrant the punishment she received.” Members of the European parliament and Canada’s New Democratic Party also condemned the parliamentary move. Distinguished by their silence on this issue are both the Bush administration and the “anti-war” Democrats in Congress.
Joya is not the only one silenced by the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The parliament is reportedly considering amendments to the country’s media law that “could undo many of the gains made since the fall of the Taliban.” The current law is thought to be “the most liberal in the region,” at least on paper. These amendments are a continuation of systematic attacks on press freedom over the past few years. In particular, Karzai’s National Security Directorate circulated a memo to Afghan media last June, which stated that “the media must ban or restrict broadcasting those materials which deteriorate the morale of the public, cause security problems, and which are against the public interest.” Among the 18 actions to be banned are “publication of provocative articles which are against the Mujahideen [holy warriors] and call them ‘warlords’” and “Negative propaganda, interviews and reports which are provocative or slanderous and which are against the presence (in Afghanistan) of the international coalition forces and ISAF.”
Given the terrible reality of Afghan life, if journalists were to follow these edicts they would have little to report.
Choosing Military Solutions
Despite the the claims of the administration and most presidential candidates, military action cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan as even those implementing the policies admit. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates says of both Iraq and Afghanistan, “these conflicts cannot…be won purel y by military action.” NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says, “It is my strong opinion that the final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one.”
“The final answer in Afghanistan is,” Scheffer continues, “reconstruction, development, and nation-building.” Gates agrees that what is needed is “to help build a government and an economy that serves the interests of the people.” But the United States is not eager to take on that role. “I would urge others to step forward with assistance to Afghanistan in the areas of governance, reconstruction, and counternarcotics,” says Gates.
Most Americans do not realize that there are approximately 49,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about one-third the number in Iraq. Of those troops, 28,000 are from the United States: 15,000 operate under NATO and 13,000 are part of the Pentagon’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The U.S.-NATO dichotomy is misleading, however, because the largest contingent of NATO troops is from the United States (the second-largest contingent from the UK is much smaller, only 7,700 soldiers). In addition, the military head of NATO operations, U.S. General Dan K. McNeill, is also the chief of OEF. In other words, America dominates all foreign troop operations in Afghanistan.
For Washington the goal of these deployments is limited to ending sanctuary for “terrorists” who might attack U.S. and allied assets, which include Karzai’s government. But the overwhelming reliance on force has created more people willing to commit terrorism against the United States. Today, Afghanistan is plagued by a new insurgency funded by the remnants of the Taliban and drug lords and fueled by a new hatred of Americans and other foreigners.
Three recent examples illustrate what seems to be an inflexible US military strategy: when confronted by any perceived threat, respond with overwhelming force. Inevitably, this leads to heavy civilian casualties.
On May 8, 2007 in the village of Sarban Qala, U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with Afghan National Army troops were reportedly “under heavy attack by Taliban militants” and called in air strikes to “destroy…three compounds and an underground tunnel network.” The air strikes killed 21 civilians, according to the governor of Helmand province and the district chief. An Afghan official stated, “some Taliban were also killed.” In this example, the civilian casualties may have been a byproduct of a real battle between U.S. forces and insurgents, and hence the result of negligence.
In late April 2007, in a village in Zerkoh valley in Herat province, the U.S. military claimed that American forces “came under heavy fire from insurgents…and called in air strikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.” But villagers insisted there were no Taliban in the village. According to The New York Times, “the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials.” The U.S. air strikes were actually a response to the defiance of villagers who had been harassed on two previous occasions by foreign troops. One farmer said, “when the Americans came without permission—and they came more than once and disturbed the people—they searched the houses, and the second time they arrested people, and the third time the people got angry and fought them.” The U.S. strikes killed about 60 civilians, almost half of which were women and children, and displaced over 1600. So in this case, the air strikes targeted villagers who had taken up arms in response to previous U.S. aggression. As a result, the U.S. forces created an insurgency in a village where there was none.
In Nangarhar province in March 2007, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-filled car near a U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces convoy, wounding one soldier. According to military officials, this was part of “a complex ambush involving enemy small-arms fire from several directions,” whereupon U.S. soldiers returned fire and civilians were killed and wounded in the crossfire. An investigation by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission determined that this was a lie. “U.S. forces claimed that the suicide attack was part of a complex ambush…but…all witnesses and Afghan government officials interviewed uniformly denied that any attack beyond the initial [suicide car] took place.” The report describes what seemed to be random shooting by the U.S. soldiers into the surrounding crowd of Afghans. Then, as the soldiers resumed their journey, the report continues, “During the next 16 kilometers, the convoy in several locations opened fire on civilians traveling by foot or in vehicles, causing further deaths and injuries.” In all, 19 people were killed and 50 wounded. In this third example, U.S. troops were in no danger after an initial suicide bomb.
Col. John Nicholson, a commander in eastern Afghanistan, said of civilian death, “regrettably it does happen, because this is war, but we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.” The facts speak otherwise. Of all the NATO countries, the Americans are reputed for aggressive behavior. According to The New York Times, “many of the most serious episodes of civilian deaths have involved United States counterterrorism and Special Operations forces that operate separately from the NATO command.”
In some cases U.S. officials actively thwart outside scrutiny. On at least one occasion, Western troops deliberately prevented media from uncovering both their criminal actions and their false justifications. After the Nangarhar incident, U.S. troops returned to the area and removed all bullet shells and cartridges. They prevented Afghan National Police units from accessing the site until they were finished. In addition, seven journalists reported having their equipment confiscated or being forced to delete pictures and videos they had taken. A U.S. Marine told one cameraman to “delete the photographs or we will delete you.”
According to Human Rights Watch, there were “at least 230” civilian deaths in Afghanistan attributable to U.S. or NATO actions in 2006. The count will probably be much higher for 2007 (the three examples given here already add up to 100). Even so, the 2006 figure is probably an underestimate, given that U.S. and NATO officials claim many thousands of “Taliban insurgents” and “suspected Taliban” were also killed. In two of the examples above, officials masked the number of civilians killed by mislabeling the dead as “Taliban.”
Cracks in NATO
The growing number of civilian deaths are “threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance,” according to The New York Times. At a May 9 meeting in Brussels, the NATO secretary general met with the North Atlantic Council, the organization’s governing body, and had “intense discussion” on the subject. But “the conversation was less about how to reduce casualties,” reported the Times, “than about how to explain them to European governments.” To most officials, the criminality and injustice of the civilian deaths alone are not enough to condemn them. But when they undermine the support base at home or in the host country, and threaten the crucial “winning hearts and minds” portion of NATO’s counterinsurgency campaign, they become a strategic problem.
The Americans themselves seem to be slowly reconsidering their tactics. In an unusual move, Col. Nicholson made what seemed like a very sincere apology to the families of the people killed in the Nangarhar incident. In particular, he admitted that the Americans “killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” and asked for the people’s forgiveness, paying the families $2000 each. Such apologies and payments, regardless of how paltry or insulting, reflect a desperate desire to rebuild America’s image with the Afghan people.
Perhaps the newfound difficulty in understanding civilian deaths in Washington and Brussels has something to do with the increasing number of anti-U.S. and anti-Karzai demonstrations all over Afghanistan. Thousands “stormed a government district headquarters” in Shindand near a large American base, to protest the killings in the Zerkoh valley incident. On the other side of the country around the same time, about 2000 students blocked the highway from Kabul to Pakistan for four continuous days to protest a second killing of innocents in Nangarhar province at the end of April. People burning George W. Bush in effigy and calling for Karzai’s resignation is an obvious sign that Operation Enduring Freedom is not winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans.
Opening for Anti-War Movement
Afghanistan’s dire situation today is a direct result of U.S. policies over the past six years. The best time to change those policies would have been early on, in 2002 before the warlords were legitimized and before Operation Enduring Freedom became standard military procedure. Still, the failures of NATO’s destructive tactics and the growing, non-Taliban, grassroots resistance in Afghanistan may provide another opening for the U.S. anti-war movement to force a change in policy.
Unfortunately, the movement has been pitifully silent on Afghanistan, especially since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is true even though Afghanistan has one-third the number of foreign troops as Iraq, the bulk of which are American (nearly 60%), and the Americans are the worst perpetrators of violence. In contrast, the movements in Europe and Canada are outraged by the conduct of their militaries and force their governments daily to justify their continued presence in Afghanistan. In Canada, for example, which only has about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, anti-war coalitions have organized demonstrations and petitioned the government to withdraw their soldiers. Canadian public opposition is so high that Afghanistan is regularly debated on the Parliament floor. For example, members of the New Democratic Party have sponsored a motion “calling for the immediate…withdrawal of our troops from the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.” The American anti-war movement, on the other hand, has left it to the Democrats to be the only anti-Bush voice on Afghanistan. Thus the U.S. public is presented with only two options: send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, or (at best) reduce the number of troops in Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan. This is truly a failure of the American left.
Ideally, the U.S. antiwar movement should work in solidarity with Afghans attempting to meet their needs. Based on published polls and our own interviews with people in Afghanistan, most Afghans want primarily two things. They want security and justice, which translates into foreign troop withdrawal, warlord disarmament, and war crimes tribunals. And they want assistance to rebuild infrastructure and meet basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and jobs.
Many Americans who were moved by the plight of the Afghan people before September 11 wanted to support efforts to overthrow the Taliban and rebuild the country. The U.S. government responded by bombing the country and replacing the Taliban with equally rapacious warlords. The silence of the progressive movement on Afghanistan leaves unchallenged the claim that U.S. actions liberated the people and brought a new era of democracy. Unlike our Canadian and European counterparts, who have called for an immediate troop withdrawal, we have not made any solid demands of our government.
As a first step, Americans of conscience ought to join activists in other NATO countries to call for an immediate end to Operation Enduring Freedom and a withdrawal of combat troops.
Unfortunately a withdrawal of troops, while necessary, will not solve all the problems of the Afghan people. The immediate result will be a military power vacuum. Recall the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Soviet troops ended their occupation of Afghanistan. The power vacuum allowed U.S.-sponsored warlords to plunge the country into the worst violence in its recent history. If the power vacuum is filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force to help the country transition toward stability, a repeat of that violence might be avoided. In tandem, it will be necessary to fully fund the social and economic programs that Afghans desire. Ideally, the money should be unconditional. And it should come from countries that have played the most destructive role in Afghanistan, such as the United States. Anything less reveals a callous indifference to the victims of our country’s forgotten war in Afghanistan, and is an abrogation of our fundamental responsibility as Americans.
James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are the co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based nonprofit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They are also the co-authors of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, published in 2006 by Seven Stories Press.