“Saving” Afghan Women

Published online at Znet and various publications

As I got ready to be interviewed by Helen Caldicott, the famous Helen Caldicott, activist and feminist, I remarked to my fellow interviewee how exited I was to be speaking with one of my heroes. I had heard Helen on the radio and read articles about her and her brave campaigns to fight nuclear weapons and environmental degradation. Helen was late but it didn’t matter — I was elated about being interviewed by her. About forty five minutes after we were suppose to begin, we finally did. She began by asking me about my work with the Afghan Women’s Mission and Afghan women’s rights. Despite my nervousness, I answered calmly, but Helen wouldn’t let me finish my sentences. She kept asking me to talk about why Afghan men treated women in the way they did. I tried to talk about the US empowerment of misogynist fundamentalists in Afghanistan and how US support had raised a generation of men who abused the power of their guns on women. But she angled for another answer and kept pushing me to try to read her mind and tell her what she wanted to hear. Thrown off balance by her aggressive questioning, I finally gave up and she proceeded to tell me all about female genital mutilation which the Feminist Majority had apparently told her, took place among Afghan women. Aghast at this information, which in my years of carefully studying the issue of Afghan women’s rights, I had never come across, I mumbled that it was not something I was aware of. The interview ended as I took the headphones off and walked out, angry and frustrated with Helen ranting about the barbarity of women’s vaginas being sewn up and that Afghan men did not want women to be able to have orgasms.

I raced over to my computer to do some research. Could I have been wrong? Was FGM really prevalent among Afghan women? I couldn’t imagine it. I had known of it happening to women in some African countries. Surely I would have heard of it happening in a country geographically and culturally close to my home country of India, a country I had studied closely?

Well it turns out Ms. Caldicott was wrong. Female Genital Mutilation is not practiced in Afghanistan. I learned two lessons from my experience: 1) No pedestal is well deserved: greatness is an overrated perception, and, 2) Feminists like Helen Caldicott and the Feminist Majority, approach the women of the Global South with short sighted preconceptions of feminism and their superiority. Helen Caldicott, was more interested in exploring the fascinating desire of Afghan men to treat women like dirt, than in examining those forces (most often Western male dominated governments) that have fostered misogynist religious extremism at the expense of women’s rights.

It is easy to condemn the “barbaric” men of Afghanistan and pity the helpless women of Afghanistan. It is this very logic that drives the Feminist Majority’s “Gender Apartheid” campaign for Afghan women. Far more interested in portraying Afghan women as mute creatures covered from head to toe, the Feminist Majority aggressively promotes itself and it’s campaign by selling small squares of mesh cloth, similar to the mesh through which Afghan women can look outside when wearing the traditional Afghan burqa. The post card on which the .swatch of mesh is sold says, “Wear a symbol of remembrance for Afghan women”, as if they are already extinct. An alternative could have been “Celebrate the Resistance of Afghan Women” with a pin of a hand folded into a fist, to acknowledge the very real struggle that Afghan women wage every day, particularly the women of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who are at the forefront of that struggle. Interestingly enough, 50% of all proceeds go toward helping Feminist Majority in promoting their campaign on “Gender Apartheid” in Afghanistan.

On almost every image of Afghan women in the Western mainstream and even alternative media, images of shapeless blue clad forms of Afghan women covered with the burqa, dominate (Amnesty International’s poster of Afghan women, the cover of Cheryl Bernard’s new book on RAWA, etc.). We all know and understand the reactions which the image of the burqa brings, particularly to Western women and feminists. That horror mixed with fear and ugly fascination like knowing the site of a bloody car wreck will make you want to retch but you do it anyway. Whose purpose does this serve? How “effective” would the Feminist Majority’s campaign be if they made it known that Afghan women were actively fighting back and simply needed money and moral support, not instructions? It if for this reason, I have gathered, that the Feminist Majority is not interested in working with RAWA “RAWA is too independent and politicized. What good is it to flaunt images of Afghan women marching militantly with fists in the air, carrying banners about freedom, democracy and secular government? Those women wouldn’t need saving as much as the burqa clad women seem to. We may realize that groups such as the Feminist Majority are not necessary to tell Afghan women how to help themselves from their oppression. We may gather that Afghan women are perfectly capable of helping themselves if only our governments would stop arming and empowering the most violent sections of society. After all, it was the US CIA which armed and trained the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1970s, even back then famous for mutilating women with acid for failing to cover themselves up. Hekmatyar was known by the CIA for being a “fascist”. Where is the criticism of the CIA’s barbarity in Helen Caldicott’s remarks on Afghan women?

It is not just white women feminists in the US who seek to control the message of women’s movements in the Global South. This March, I excitedly obtained the endorsement of the board of the Afghan Women’s Mission for the Global Women’s Strike which happens each year on International Women’s Day. This was a three-year movement spanning tens of countries where women walked out of their homes and jobs to demand equal pay and compensation for child rearing among other things. This year’s theme was “Invest in Caring, not Killing” and, appropriately, the strike was dedicated to condemning the US War in Afghanistan. The local organizer, Margaret Prescod, was initially pleased that the Afghan Women’s Mission was signing on. However, Prescod and the main organizers of the strike who resided in England, objected to the language of our flyer only two days before the planned march in downtown Los Angeles. The main message on the front of the flyer was a condemnation of fundamentalism and an indictment of the US support for it, embedded in a quote by a RAWA member. It included the following sentence: “We welcome the combat against terrorism. In fact, this combat should have started years ago in terms of preventing incidents like September 11. But this combat against terrorism cannot be won by bombing this or that country. It should be a campaign to stop any country that sells arms or supports financially the fundamentalists’ movements or fundamentalist regimes”. Undoubtedly the bombing of Afghanistan was and is a large concern to the Afghan Women’ Mission and RAWA in whose support we work (AWM and RAWA have both released public statements condemning the bombing), but fundamentalism and the very real terrorism of the Taliban and Northern Alliance is a large part of the on-going problem that Afghan women live with every day, that kills them every day, before and after the bombing. Perturbed that our anti-war message was not clear enough, the organizers of the strike threatened to not allow AWM’s endorsement. This coalition of women was condemning the bombing while demanding equal pay and compensation for child rearing but could not fathom or appreciate that some women on the other side of the world had slightly different problems. Afghan Women’s Mission ultimately participated in the march while leaving our flyer largely intact.

RAWA has also faced some consternation from the progressive left. Upset at RAWA’s criticism of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, groups like the International Action Center, a.k.a. the Workers World Party, have silently ignored RAWA’s contribution. A friend at the Worker’s World Party claimed some years ago how she had seen pictures of Afghan women being beaten by Afghan fundamentalists in the 1970s and was so relieved when the Soviet Union went in to save them. Sounds similar to George Bush’s claim to have “saved Afghan women”. If one examines the various propaganda methods used to justify invasion of Afghanistan in past decades, a similar pattern emerges: saving Afghan women has been cited by the Russian, the US backed Mujahadeen fundamentalist war lords as well as the Taliban (!). In fact, the entire US war against Afghans has been made more palatable to Americans who were told by the President that it was those Afghan women we were going to be saving by bombing. First Lady Laura Bush developed a sudden interest in Afghan women’s rights and began spouting Feminist Majority-like rhetoric. George Bush claimed that we had saved Afghan women from oppression as he showed off his poster child, Sima Samar, the new head of the Women’s Affairs Department in Afghanistan. And the US State Department used RAWA’s images from their website without their permission, in their propagandist leaflets that were scattered over Afghanistan, to justify the bombing.

Of course, it’s not just women in the US who have exploited or misunderstood RAWA’s message. At a recent anti-war forum, I spoke alongside well known activist and writer Michael Parenti, who claimed that the Soviet Union was invited into Afghanistan in 1979, that it didn’t really invade. After I contradicted him in my speech, citing that the vast majority of the Afghan population were fairly united against the foreign domination and imperialist motives of the Soviet Union, Michael angrily asked me after the talk why RAWA does not concede to some of the good that the Russians did in Afghanistan. Wow. Do we ever dwell on the good that the US may have done in Vietnam? How could he ask this of a group whose leader was brutally assassinated by a Russian KGB operative in collaboration with an Afghan Mujahadeen, for being outspoken against the occupation and fighting for women’s rights?

Today, as the US sponsored government in Afghanistan which legitimizes the same Afghan fundamentalist war lords supported by the US throughout the 1980s, gets ready to convene a government, over a thousand Afghan refugee women have applied for a scant number of seats reserved for them in the Afghan grand assembly! Clearly Afghan women are tirelessly struggling. in the face of a fundamentalist tilted government which has already promised Islamic Sharia law, misogynist in its formulation, even before the assembly has met.

From Helen Caldicott to Michael Parenti, isn’t it imperative and a little bit obvious that when we speak of Afghan women and their rights, we must listen carefully to what they themselves have to say about it? As the admirable struggles of women of color, particularly in the Global South, come to the knowledge of the West, we must remind ourselves of the validity of their views and hopes, over our perceptions of what they should say and do, how they should dress and whether or not their oppression stems from being able to have an orgasm.

By Any Standards, This is a War Against Afghans

Published online at Znet Online and Commondreams.org on 12th December, 2001

The bombing of Afghanistan by the United States is being reported in the press as “The War Against Terrorism”. That war was never initiated by ordinary Afghans whom we are reportedly saving from terrorism (and yes, they are certainly the victims of Taliban and Mujahadeen terrorism). Even American citizens were not included via their congressional representatives, to decide if the US should initiate a war in Afghanistan. It was an executive decision, made with only the justification that it was a War Against Evil, a War Against Terrorism. Let’s call it what it is, not a War Against Terrorism, but a War Against Afghans.

Let me explain why this is a more appropriate title. More and more reports are coming out each day about “errant” bombs destroying whole villages full of Afghans. As early as October 22nd, reports of US bombing whole villages, were surfacing. Human Rights Watch reported that the village of Chowkar Karez, 40 km north of Kandhahar was bombed at night by US planes. According to that report, “Many of the people in the village … ran out of their homes, afraid that the bombs would fall on the homes. All witnesses stated that aircraft then returned to the area and began firing from guns.” – they were bombed and then gunned down.

When asked to respond to this report, the Pentagon spokesperson said on November 2nd, “The people there are dead because we wanted them dead”. These people had nothing to do with the Taliban or Al Qaeda – the ruins of the leveled village revealed nothing of military value. This pattern continues with the one difference – Pentagon officials have taken to completely denying the existence of Afghan civilians.

The British media recently published an eye witness report of the village of Kama Ado being destroyed by US bombs in which at least 40 people were killed. When asked to respond, a Pentagon spokesperson vehemently said it simply didn’t happen. He said “Nothing Happened” – those were the exact words (The Independent). We are told “nothing happened” when evidence of the war’s real victims is presented. Afghan civilians do not even have the distinction of being called co-lateral damage anymore – they are now non-existent, simply standing in the way of our war.

On December 5th we heard – once more in the British press – “For the fourth consecutive night, American warplanes targeting al-Qa’ida fighters in the White Mountains also bombed nearby villages, killing and injuring unknown numbers and forcing thousands to flee to the regional capital, Jalalabad.” (The Independent). There is not enough room to details all the reports of Afghan deaths from bombs here. And you can be sure that we do not hear about all of them given the restrictions on the press in Afghanistan.

Every day thousands are forced to leave their homes in at least three major cities: Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandhahar, and become refugees for fear of their lives. A refugee who left Kandahar said of the victims of US bombing: “There are a lot of casualties, they are martyrs, and they are mostly civilians,” (Christian Science Monitor). If the West can claim responsibility for the joy of the citizens liberated from the Taliban in Kabul, then it must also admit responsibility for the misery of the civilians fleeing the bombs into dismal refugee camps in southern Afghanistan.

One American government adviser, Richard Perle, said of US responsibility “I don’t think any outside power has a responsibility in Afghanistan. People have to take responsibility for their own destiny” – as though the people whose villages had been leveled should have known better, anyway, than to live in downtown Kandahar or Jalalabad or Kama Ado or Chowkar Karez. Would we have held those who were killed in the World Trade Center responsible for their fates? Of course not. Then why are Afghans responsible for the bombs dropping on them, for the starvation inflicted on them?

Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin reported back from her recent trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan: “Everywhere we went, both in Afghanistan and in the external refugee camps, we met people who lost loved ones or were injured by US bombs… Little is known about the actual numbers of innocent civilians killed. The US says the casualties are few. Afghans we spoke with said there are probably thousands of dead.”

Sadly, this War Against Afghans is very much in line with the US’s historical role in Afghanistan. In the 1970s, the US hired seven different political parties of fundamentalist men called Mujahadeen. These were extremists hired by the CIA during the Cold War, to “draw the Soviet’s into the Afghan trap” as expressed by former National Security Advisor for Carter, Zbignew Brzezinsky. The CIA empowered the mujahadeen, many of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance, with billions of dollars of weapons, including American made Stinger missiles, knowing well their fundamentalist and misogynist nature. Using these weapons and sophisticated training in the art of terror, these men successfully drove out the Soviets, but also waged a terrible war on their own people. Their fight for power over Afghanistan initiated a blood bath in the early 1990s before the Taliban took over, during the so-called Civil War. 45,000 innocent Afghans were killed in Kabul alone between 1992-1996, by men who now comprise the Northern Alliance, with guns and training bought and paid for by the United States. I think President Bush said it best: “If you feed a terrorist or fund a terrorist, you’re a terrorist” (The Guardian).

The pursuit of destruction in Afghanistan continues with the bombing campaign. There are reports of the US intention to invade Afghanistan months before September 11th 2001. The CIA had been in Afghanistan for three years before Sept 11th as reported by the New York Times. As BBC reported on September 18th, Niaz Naik, a former Pakistani Foreign Secretary, was told by senior American officials in mid-July “that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October”. For ordinary Afghans, the bombing campaign was the worst thing that could have happened.

On the one hand they were living under the most fundamentalist regime in recent history, who were legalizing their oppression especially for women, not to mention the hideous accompanying disasters such as landmine infestation, eradication of agriculture, a terrible drought, a destruction of infrastructure from previous wars, and the largest refugee population in the world. And now on the other hand, they have to contend with the most powerful country in the world waging a war against them.

But the War Against Afghans has an additional dimension to accompany the bombing from above: starvation from below. Several weeks ago, international humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam International made a public plea to the United States to pause the bombing in order to allow food supplies to be taken into Afghanistan while winter drew ever closer. UNICEF had estimated that an additional 100,000 Afghan children would die of starvation and cold this winter because of the effects of the bombing. The response of the US government was stubborn refusal to let little things like civilian deaths come in the way of their “War on Terrorism”. Soon afterward, Red Cross warehouses storing food and other supplies were “inadvertently” bombed, not once but twice, a week apart. Twice.

When five countries (including Britain and Canada) recently offered to send multinational troops to Afghanistan to provide security to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghans, the only thing that stood in their way was the US government. Not Taliban, not the Northern Alliance, but the US government who claims that these troops could interefere in their military campaign in Afghanistan. It seems that Afghans and their rumbling empty bellies are too much of a nuisance in our War Against Terrorism. Instead of at least providing the troops needed themselves, the US unbelievably declared that it would not provide security and not allow anyone else to do so either. So there is now food and other aid on the ground but the US is ensuring that it doesn’t reach Afghans – some how feeding innocent hungry people interferes with our efforts to target terrorism.

Conclusion: the military operation which we are told is saving Afghans from the Taliban, is more important than saving Afghans. One of the leaflets being scattered over Afghanistan by the United States, says “We do not want to take over your nation; we want to give it back to its rightful owners, the people of Afghanistan.” Am I the only one who sees the gruesome hypocrisy of this operation? If deliberate starvation from below and deadly bombings from above is not pure terror, I don’t know what is. Somehow this strategy will give back Afghans their nation.

To add to the US War Against Afghans, Afghans are seeing a new terrible stage of the conflict developing with the re-gaining of control by the Northern Alliance. Having worked with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), I had the privelege of being educated about the Afghan situation by people who experienced daily the realities of fundamentalist dominated life. RAWA warns us consistently of the crimes committed by those who now comprise the Northern Alliance, contrary to what we read about in the US media. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have detailed their crimes, especially in regard to women’s rights (see HRW report “Crisis of Impunity”). In Northern Alliance controlled territory, women had little access to education, little access to decent jobs, and were treated very similarly to women under the Taliban (New York Times). This is in addition to the earlier mentioned record of tens of thousands of civilian murders during the civil war, which accompanied rapes, and forced marriages which drove women to mass suicide and depression. Recently, the Northern Alliance prevented a march by women in Kabul, apparently because they couldn’t provide security, a hollow claim.

Of 30 members of the cabinet of the new so-called government in Afghanistan, which came out of closed-door talks in Bonn, Germany, 18 are affiliated with the Northern Alliance, which bodes ill for democratic forces in Afghanistan. How can a group responsible for death and destruction, rape and women’s oppression before, during and after the civil war, espousing similar ideologies as the Taliban, be taken seriously as a step toward peace in Afghanistan? They simply joined forces to fight off the Taliban but are an ever-defecting set of men who opportunistically lust for power. Even now, while the whole world is watching them, they are resorting to power grabs, dividing up the country into slices and encouraging lawlessness, looting and pillaging. Anuradha Chenoy said on December 7th in the Times of India “If the terms of peace are written by the very people who wrote the terms of war and who have been indicted for war crimes and gender abuse, then for many in Afghanistan, war will continue under the cloak of an unjust peace”. How ironic that the Taliban were initially welcomed in Afghanistan by the majority of the Afghan people because they were seen as an alternative to these groups the UN and US are now presenting as leaders in a new Afghan government.

The Northern Alliance representatives in Bonn may appear to be a highly sophisticated set of men dressed smartly in dark suits and red ties. The token women appear happy and smiling. In this war, they have all gotten what they always wanted. Benjamin says, as part of her report back from Afghanistan, “While it is a positive development that several women were asked to participate in the Bonn talks on the transition government, the women were selected by the male delegates in a completely undemocratic fashion. We met many women who felt that several of the women delegates were selected primarily due to family connections. Women’s groups that have been on the forefront of defending women’s rights under the reign of the Taliban were not invited.”

Such groups include the women of RAWA who have had over 2 decades of experience in community building, educating, organizing, who are pro-democracy, pro-women’s rights, and non-violent. There is no scarcity of experienced, able women to help run the country. It is not that ordinary Afghans are not ready for women to run the country – General Suhaila Siddiqui who is heading the interim Dept of Public Health, is being warmly received (despite her connections with the past Afghan pro-Soviet government of Najibullah). She too is affiliated with the Northern Alliance ofcourse.

By any international definition, the men comprising the Northern Alliance are guilty of war crimes. Their illegitimacy in a majority representation in the delegation at Bonn makes a mockery of international law. Let us not forget that these negotiations happened in the context of the US’s active bombing campaign. Ordinary Afghans suffer the consequences of the bombs and deliberate starvation, while powerful Afghans with dirty pasts are put forward to represent their government. In fact, the chairman of this new government, Hamad Karzai, was once working for the Mujahadeen and then closely working with the Taliban before defecting back.

There is little hope left for ordinary Afghans to regain their dignity and their nation. In a recent interview with a local channel, the reporter asked me what the US should do to end the suffering of Afghans. My response was “What has the US not done to ensure that Afghans suffer?” His retort, the standard one, was “well what was done was in the past. We make mistakes and it’s no use crying over spilt milk, what can we do now?”

If what’s in the past does not deserve accountability, why are we lamenting the fact that thousands of innocent Americans were killed in terrorist attacks? Is that not in the past? Yes it is, but it is a horrible crime that must be accounted for, whose perpetrators must be brought to trial. By the same standards – and here I make the leap that the same standards be applied to Americans as to others – the US’s crimes, past and present, in Afghanistan, must be accounted for and addressed.

What can we do about it now? Stunningly simple in it’s logic but fully within our power to do so: end the War Against Afghans. Stop bombing them, stop facitlitating their starvation, stop promoting criminals in the interim government. Why is that so difficult?

“Oh, but there will be a power vacuum now if the US just leaves”, said the same reporter. Well, it was quite convenient that the US created a situation where their bombs would be an adequate replacement for peace and democracy in Afghanistan. There is an alternative which groups like RAWA have proposed for years and which has been completely ignored – the intervention of a UN peace keeping force – one which will disarm all the armed factions in Afghanistan and set the stage, as it did in East Timor (no thanks to the US which was actively selling arms to Indonesia to continue their massacres of Timorese) a few years ago. Afghans who are not armed, Afghan women and the elderly, freedom-loving Afghans, need to be actively playing a role in rebuilding their country and lifting it from the ashes of foreign sponsored destruction. They need the help of the United Nations for that. But I’m being idealistic here, am I not? Madeliene Albright said “we will act multi-laterally when we can, and uni-laterally when we must”. This reflects the US’s position toward the UN and while we may harbor hopes of a UN-sponsored peace, it is not likely they will play out because of the active efforts of the US to thwart international law and UN legitimacy. There are solutions to ending this conflict. They involve changing the very nature of US intervention and engagement in the world. In the mean time, let’s listen to what Afghans are saying to us: On December 4th, Tribal and village leaders near Jalalabad, in a signed declaration said “Our demand to the United States Government and it’s coalition: stop the bombing in the name of humanity”. (New York Times).

Let’s end this War Against Afghans.

“Humanitarian Impulses” and the Bombing of Afghanistan

Published online at Znet (www.zmag.org) in October, 2001

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Columnist George Melloan called the current bombing campaign over Afghanistan a “humane war” in which “the US is subjecting targets…to bomb and missile attack while at the same time dropping food and medicine.” This combination “reflects the humanitarian impulses that so often guide the Western democracies.”(1) Judged in terms of the consequences of its policies, the impulses that guide the US government can hardly be considered “humanitarian.”

Before September 11, Afghanistan was considered to be “on the verge of a medical emergency.”(2) “In most aspects, Afghanistan is worse off than almost any country in the world,” says the director of the UN Human Development Report Office. The US government bears a heavy responsibility for the condition of Afghanistan, but for simplicity let us confine ourselves only to events that took place after September 11. Based on the threat of US attacks, aid agencies immediately withdrew their international staff from Afghanistan. Then, Pakistan agreed to “full cooperation” with Washington’s request to “virtually shut down its border with Afghanistan.”(3) The results for humanitarian work were devastating. With 3-4 million people relying on food aid, and stocks for only 1-2 weeks remaining, “the threat of American-led military attacks turn[ed] [the] long-running misery” of Afghans “into a potential catastrophe.”(4) After the bombing began on 7 October, any remaining aid convoys were curtailed dramatically, since “truck drivers are…unwilling to take to the roads to deliver goods…because of fear of US-led bombing or attacks by one or another of the factions.”(5)

Stephanie Bunker of the UN complained that “the missile strikes make our job harder to do,” mentioning a “six week race against winter,” after which it will be extremely difficult to get aid into the country.(6) According to UNICEF, “as many as 100,000 more children will die…this winter unless food reaches them…in the next six weeks.” Two million people do not have enough food to last the winter, and 500,000 of them will be unreachable after snow begins to fall in mid November. “It is evident now that we cannot, in reasonable safety, get food to hungry Afghan people,” said Oxfam director Barbara Stocking. The only solution, according to a joint press release by Oxfam International, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tear Fund and ActionAid, is to suspend air strikes. UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson agreed: “we must have a pause in order to enable huge humanitarian access.” The Pentagon disagrees. “There are clearly potential downsides to pausing,” says a senior defense official.(7)

The airdrops of food and medicine that accompany the bombing, Melloan’s showpiece of the “humanitarian impulses” of the West, are condemned by most aid agencies working inside Afghanistan. In general, aid workers agree that airdrops are “expensive, dangerous, and difficult to monitor,” and “are a last resort.”(8) Even with sharp cutbacks in the number of food convoys entering Afghanistan, trucks have still been delivering more food than the airdrops. “The US airdrop is not the only, nor the most significant supply chain at this time,” says the general director of MSF-Holland.(9) The UN special rapporteur on the right to food urges that distribution be supervised on the ground: “I must condemn with the last ounce of energy this [US airdrop] operation…it is totally catastrophic for humanitarian aid.” MSF concluded the airdrops were “aimed mainly to have the bombings accepted by public opinion.” Oxfam called them “more PR than a well prepared aid effort.” Indeed, “the target appeared to be not only Afghans, but also the public in other Muslim countries.”(10) James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor for President Clinton, admitted that “Afghanistan has been in a humanitarian crisis for a long time, but we haven’t worried about it much until now. All of a sudden it’s a major rationale for the air strikes.”

By insisting on bombing Afghanistan, the US government is consigning hundreds of thousands of Afghans to death by starvation, extreme cold, and treatable diseases, far more than may die due to the bombings themselves. If the bombing is not halted soon, US policy will have not humanitarian, but genocidal consequences.

The author is on the board of directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and is a staff scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

Terror Attacks: New To Us, Not to Afghans

Published online at Znet (www.zmag.org) in September, 2001

Like a subliminal “Wanted” poster, TV newscasts flash images of the destroyed Twin Towers, followed at longer intervals by the face of Osama bin Laden. The disclaimer that we still have no idea who is responsible for the brutal attacks in Manhattan, Washington, and Pittsburgh seems weak in comparison with this visual “evidence”. Unlikely to be accorded anything approaching due process, the suspect of the decade will probably find his interests under violent attack by the US and NATO within the next few days. It is too much to hope for no civilian casualties, as GW Bush fulfils his promise to “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them,” implying that the people of Afghanistan will soon be subjected to aerial bombardment. The US will likely “validate…the logic of terrorism” (Human Rights Watch), following the dictum that violence and terror are the proper responses to violence and terror.

Michael Sheehan, the State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator, has made a big deal about a “geographic shift” in terrorist activity from the Middle East to South Asia. Sheehan attributes the shift to the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s: “This war destroyed the government and civil society of Afghanistan, at the same time bringing arms, fighters from around the world, and narcotics traffickers to the region.” Sheehan eliminates any trace of human involvement–“this war” brought arms, fighters, and narco-traffickers to Afghanistan, destroying civil society. What Washington tends to conveniently ignore is that bin Laden and the rest of the extremist terrorists empowered to fight in Afghanistan were taught “the logic of terrorism” by our own Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA assembled a terror network that remains a cause of misery worldwide. CIA Director William Casey called it “the kind of thing we should be doing.” According to standard sources, aid to extremist groups in Afghanistan was a response to the Soviet invasion. The truth is that President Carter gave the green light for covert support to the Mujaheddin six months _before_ the December 1979 invasion. In the words of then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a major architect of Carter’s policy, they were “drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap.” The US supported seven fundamentalist extremist groups throughout the 1980s and into the early 90s with cash, sophisticated weapons, and training to the tune of $5 billion–according to official figures. The secret Black Budget of the CIA reportedly quadrupled to $36 billion per year when Reagan became president in 1980, and some of this money went to support secret operations in Afghanistan. Some of the earliest training exercises took place inside the US, including rifle shooting at the High Rock gun club in Naugtuck, Connecticut. More technical training took place at the CIA’s Camp Peary, nicknamed “The Farm,” northeast of Williamsburg, Virginia. Among the topics covered by training sessions were surveillance and countersurveillance, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and paramilitary operations.

Around the same time, a source of private funding was sought for the war. Osama bin Laden, a man with “impeccable Saudi credentials” (his father’s construction company had just been awarded a contract to rebuild and restore the holy sites in Mecca and Medina) was given “free rein in Afghanistan” by the CIA. Using his share of his family’s business empire, he built training camps and airplane landing strips, and carved underground bunkers in the mountains of Afghanistan, all with Washington’s approval. Just across the border, bin Laden’s base in Pakistan was the Binoori mosque in Karachi. The prayer leader at this mosque was one Mullah Mohammed Omar, now “supreme leader” of the Taliban.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Mujaheddin groups began turning their US-supplied weapons on each other, and on the civilian population of Afghanistan. In 1990, the CIA began supplying the Mujaheddin directly, rather than using Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service as a conduit. According to then chief of ISI’s Afghanistan branch, Mohammad Youssaf, the CIA’s aim was to “play on differences between the various factions and their commanders,” in an effort to “curb the power” of the factions and make way for an unknown “Transition Regime,” perhaps the Taliban.

The CIA’s propping up of the fundamentalist terrorists in Afghanistan began to show its consequences during this period. The first victims were the people of Afghanistan. The group getting the most US aid, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, began rocket shelling Kabul. A close friend of bin Laden, Hekmatyar was understood by his benefactors to be “a nut, an extremist, and a very violent man” (US ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Neumann). In the 1970s he gained notoriety for throwing acid on the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. Journalist Michael Griffin writes of Kabul under Hekmatyar’s onslaught: “no city since the end of the Second World War – except Sarajevo – had suffered the same ferocity of jugular violence as Kabul from 1992 to 1996. Sarajevo was almost a side-show by comparison and, at least, it wasn’t forgotten.” From 1990-1994 45,000 civilians were killed, 300,000 had fled to Pakistan, and Kabul was “turned into a rubble resembling Dresden after the fire-bombing.” Most Afghans are now without livelihood, reduced to begging from international aid agencies. They currently live under the fascistic Taliban, who keep bin Laden safe.

Terrorists trained and armed by the CIA to fight in Afghanistan have since been implicated in attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, and in US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed hundreds of people. These efforts pale in comparison to the recent destruction in Manhattan, Washington, and Pittsburgh. Ifproven guilty in fair trial, bin Laden should certainly be held accountable. But the Afghan people, no strangers to the terrorism of bin Laden and his friends, should not be made to pay further for the consequences of our actions. It was our officials who originally unleashed these forces of destruction on Afghanistan. Perhaps the faces of Zbigniew Brzezinski, William Casey, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan should be on the TV screen too, next to Osama bin Laden’s and the empty holes in the ground where twin towers stood.

The author is on the Board of Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and is a Staff Scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

Smart Sanctions on Afghanistan: The Real Target is Peace, as Afghans Suffer

Published in Z Magazine on 31st December 2000

One-Sided Arms Embargo
The United Nations Security Council voted on 19 December to intensify the existing sanctions against the Taliban militia that currently rules Afghanistan. The goal of the sanctions, according to United States Ambassador to the UN, Nancy Soderberg, is “convincing the Taliban leadership to turn over the terrorist that we seek.” The terrorist is Osama bin Laden, the Saudi businessman wanted by the US in connection with the bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and now suspected of plotting the 12 October attack on the USS Cole. The UN resolution was initiated by the US and Russia, and was co-sponsored by India, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It passed, 13-0, with China and Malaysia dissenting, but abstaining. Ambassador Soderberg hailed the Council vote as a “strong stand against terrorism and for the maintenance of international peace and security.” The Canadian ambassador said he voted for the resolution “because of the strong anti-terrorist message it sent.” The ambassador from the Netherlands explained that, “it was important that the Council should send a political signal and send it with one voice.”(1)

In addition to reinforcing the October 1999 Security Council ban on flights and closure of offices of Ariana, the national airline of Afghanistan, the current sanctions introduce an arms embargo against the Taliban. Unlike many other sanctions regimes, these “smart” sanctions were supposedly calculated to not affect the dire humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. When asked if the people of Afghanistan would suffer, Ambassador Soderberg dismissed the suggestion. “These sanctions, we have very specifically targeted to not have an impact on the humanitarian situation on the ground.”

It is true that the wording of the resolution is targeted only at the Taliban, and does not literally impose hardships on ordinary Afghans. In fact, the resolution seems to do what should have been done for years to the Taliban–eliminate their ability to wage war and to produce and sell opium. Unfortunately, the Taliban are not the only armed militia in Afghanistan. Their adversaries, the “United Front,” fundamentalist extremists and terrorists in their own right, are as guilty as the Taliban of war crimes, from the bombardment of residential areas to summary executions and ethnic cleansing. To cut off weapons flows to the Taliban and not to the United Front legitimizes the behavior of the latter group, and ignores the plight of their victims. Human Rights Watch argued in a letter to the Security Council prior to the vote, “it is particularly unfortunate that the present discussion is limited to the Taliban’s role in harboring Osama bin Laden…and does not directly address the grave abuses that continue to be perpetrated against the country’s own civilian population…[by] all warring factions.” (2)

Other Issues are Left to Others
In Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 20 November report to the UN General Assembly and Security Council, he lamented that,

the tendency persists to see Afghanistan as a series of compartmentalized problems, be they narcotics, terrorism or refugees, and to seek to solve them in isolation rather than through a comprehensive approach. It is to be hoped that the Security Council … resolutions and decisions … will be … taken in the context of, rather than being a substitute for, a comprehensive strategy to bring about a lasting solution to the Afghan conflict.

(3)
The new sanctions show the contempt in which the Security Council must have held Annan’s words. Indeed, Soderberg saw no problem with a compartmentalized approach, admitting that the sanctions constitute, “a single-purpose resolution aimed at terrorism. The other issues [we leave] to others.”

“Other issues” left to others include diplomacy and humanitarian aid. According to Annan the sanctions are “not going to facilitate peace efforts, nor our humanitarian work.” It is significant that the sanctions were imposed only one month after Annan’s Personal Representative, Francesc Vendrell, had obtained the first ever written commitment by both the Taliban and the United Front, “to seek a political settlement through an uninterrupted process of negotiations under United Nations auspices.” (Annan) The Economist predicted that Vendrell’s “tenuous effort at peace-broking…is likely to be an early casualty” of the sanctions (4). Indeed the Taliban immediately shut down the UN mission in Afghanistan and exited from the negotiations. Sergei Lavrov, the current President of the Security Council, somehow excused this by blaming the Taliban for promising “on many occasions to begin the negotiating process, and each time…[breaking] their word.” Thus, the Security Council has effectively rendered United Nations negotiators as untrustworthy as the Taliban.

The Economist also predicted that another “casualty of the American and Russian plan to get tougher with the Taliban…is likely to be the UN’s own humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.” The Chinese ambassador abstained from voting because Afghanistan is “facing a serious humanitarian situation,” and the sanctions “would undoubtedly make that situation even worse.” The situation is indeed grave. Kofi Annan summarizes: “The accumulated and direct effects of conflict, compounded by extreme poverty and profound underdevelopment, contribute to a situation that has resulted in Afghans being amongst those who are least able to enjoy their rights, including the right to life.” According to a 1997 UNICEF study, children in Afghanistan are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than those in other South Asian countries, and Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization has declared Afghanistan to be one of the three hungriest countries in the world. Around 70% of Afghans are undernourished–this is more than twice the pre-war figure from 1979. During 1999 and 2000, at least 140,000 Afghans have been displaced internally due to armed conflict. Afghans in Pakistan, Iran, and other nations have constituted the largest single refugee group in the world since 1979. Nearly 50,000 new refugees have fled to Pakistan since September alone, although the numbers have dwindled after the border was closed on 7 November.

Millions of Afghans depend critically on international humanitarian organizations for much of their food, health care, and shelter needs. These organizations are unanimous in their opposition to the new sanctions. Oxfam warned that the resolution, “threatens to deepen this already desperate humanitarian crisis.” Eight French aid groups, including Action Against Famine, Medecins du Monde, and International Medical Aid, have sent a letter to French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, expressing fears that the sanctions “will worsen the humanitarian situation” in Afghanistan. The UN Coordinator for Afghanistan Erick de Mul complained that, “The ability of ordinary Afghans to withstand any kind of deterioration in their situation after twenty years of war is extremely limited, and seemingly innocuous actions can have a serious impact on the lives of millions of people.”

A report published on 8 December by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Vulnerability and Humanitarian Implications of UN Security Council Sanctions in Afghanistan,” studied the effects of the earlier 1999 sanctions on the people of Afghanistan. The report found that, “the direct impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is limited but tangible.” In particular, the ban on Ariana flights has “cut the main supply link” between the Indira Gandhi Paediatric Hospital in Kabul and the outside world. The hospital was built and equipped in 1968 by the Indian government, who donated medicines and medical equipment until just before the sanctions took effect. Because of the war, malnutrition, and drought, the hospital continues to operate at full capacity, but under less than optimum conditions. The report notes that, “Sanctions have contributed to a deterioration of the standard of care provided in the hospital. The loss of the airlink seems to have constrained the hospital from restocking with essential drugs from its previous main supplier. Children’s families are being asked to purchase medicines themselves at a time of economic crisis, when the majority of the Kabul population barely has the means to obtain food, let alone medicine.” Before the sanctions were imposed, an estimated 10% of the medicines used in the hospital were bought by patients. Now 50% of the medicines must be bought from the bazaar, and the rest must be donated by aid agencies. The new sanctions, with their more stringent bans on Ariana flights, are sure to make life even more difficult. (5)

Sanctions as Weapons
Clearly, the sanctions will not improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. But why cause increased hardships just to take a “strong stand against terrorism”? The US government has shown in the past that it is not above letting innocent civilians suffer to make a point. In Iraq, sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 1990 are “the most comprehensive, total sanctions that have ever been imposed.” Since then, it is estimated that over 1 million people have died as a direct result, because of the lack of proper nourishment, health care, and sanitation. Most of the deaths are of children. A 1999 UNICEF study found that children under five are dying at over twice the rate they were 10 years ago. While most of the world condemns this policy, and two UN Coordinators for Iraq in a row have resigned, it is maintained by the US and Britain, who as Permanent Members have veto power over all new resolutions of the Security Council. When asked in 1996 about the deliberate harm inflicted upon innocent Iraqis, then-Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright said, “we think the price is worth it.”

Another example is Cuba, where unilateral sanctions by the US have been in place for over 40 years, and are still being intensified. In 1997, the American Association for World Health attributed “malnutrition, poor water quality, the denial of access to medical equipment” to the sanctions, calling them “the deliberate blockading of the Cuban population’s access to food and medicine.” A Harvard professor wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “the Cuban and Iraqi instances make it abundantly clear that economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health.”(6)

Sanctions are the weapon of choice for the United States. Between 1945 and 1993, of 116 cases of sanctions used, 80% were initiated by the US alone. (Mark Sommers, “Sanctions are Becoming ‘Weapon of Choice’,” Christian Science Monitor, 3 August 1993) The countries sanctioned unilaterally by the US represent over 40% of the world’s population. Before 1990 the US operated outside of the UN Security Council, mainly because of the threat of a Soviet Union veto. In fact, in its first 45 years, the Security Council had only imposed sanctions twice: against the white-supremacist settler regime in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1966, and against apartheid South Africa in 1977. These sanctions regimes were generally considered a success, which is unusual. Both the US and Britain were against the South Africa sanctions for over 10 years, until an international grassroots campaign forced them to vote in favor of a Security Council resolution. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington and London seem to have lost their fear of using the Security Council to impose sanctions. In the last decade, twelve countries have been subjected to Security Council sanctions: Iraq in 1990; Yugoslavia in 1991; Libya, Somalia, and Liberia in 1992; Haiti and Angola in 1993; Rwanda in 1994; Sudan and Burundi in 1996; Sierra Leone in 1997; and Afghanistan in 1999. Almost all of these countries are impoverished and war-torn Third World countries. (7)

Sanctions are rarely “successful,” by any reasonable definition of success. “Even the most optimistic” of commentators “point to only about a third of all sanctions having even ‘partial’ success, while others…have come up with a 5 per cent success rate, and a dismal 2 per cent success rate for sanctions against ‘authoritarian regimes.'”(8) Since the Taliban certainly qualify as an “authoritarian regime,” this has ominous implications for the people of Afghanistan.

Military “Solutions”
Of course, sanctions are not the only weapon the United States may bring into play against Afghanistan. With the largest military arsenal in the world, the US is more fond than most nations of using “conventional” weapons (literally) to send messages to the people of the Third World. In the last ten years, four of the twelve countries sanctioned by the UN Security Council have also been bombed by Washington (Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan), and two have experienced a major military action (Somalia, Haiti), led by the US. Afghanistan and Sudan were both subjected to cruise missile attacks in 1998 as a “response” to the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings attributed to Osama bin Laden. The missile attacks were meant to show, in the words of Defense Secretary William Cohen, that “There will be no sanctuary for terrorists and no limit to our resolve to defend American citizens and our interests, our ideals of democracy and law against these cowardly attacks.” It is interesting that the embassy bombings are “cowardly attacks,” while the cruise missile “responses” that, in the case of Sudan, targeted the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant and eliminated one half of the medicine production for that poor country, are considered acts of “defense.”

In a 20 October 2000 interview for the Afghan version of the “Voice of America” radio program, Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering said, “human rights remains…an important pillar of our approach…We do not support any side or any faction in Afghanistan. We believe that the only solution to the continuing problem is through a negotiating process, not through military action.”(9) He unintentionally revealed important truths about US foreign policy. The interview happened eight days after the bombing of the USS Cole, when government representatives were making no secret about planning a “very severe military response” against Afghanistan. “We are going to find out who’s responsible, get the US public behind the response, and that response will be very, very heavy,” said a “US Navy official.”(10) A US diplomat in Washington told the Far East Economic Review, “We are determined to make life very, very difficult for the Taliban in every field–political, economic, military, and in terms of their foreign relations–unless they hand over bin Laden.”(11) How do we interpret the seeming contradiction with Pickering’s words? By realizing that there is no contradiction. Pickering was probably telling the truth when he said he believed the only solution was through negotiations, not through military action; any sane human being would agree. The sanctions, and the planned “military response” are “not crafted to end the country’s civil war or to succor its distressed population.” Rather, their sole purpose is “to apply pressure on the Taliban in a manner reflecting the lowest common denominator of narrow, short-term Russian and US obsessions.”(12)

The US Government: A Friend of the Afghan People?
American diplomats like to portray themselves as friends of the Afghan people. In a nostalgic moment, Pickering said “those of us who have known Afghanistan over a long period of time feel particularly close to the people of Afghanistan…To be estranged from them because a government stands between us and the people of Afghanistan is a source of great sorrow for us. We would like to see that change, and we hope it would. That, of course, remains something that the people of Afghanistan must decide for themselves.”(13) Pickering doesn’t describe how one might enable the Afghan people to make such decisions, given that Taliban rule is accompanied by a “high level of repression,” according to the UN OCHA report. The expectation that the people should influence Taliban policy is close to a fantasy, considering that “There is a lack of democratic accountability at all levels” of government, and there are no “avenues for advancing any popular demands regarding the implications of sanctions or regarding policy in dealing with the international community on sanctions.”(14)

US proponents of the sanctions have boasted of their country’s monetary aid for drought and hunger relief, supposedly showing their sensitivity to the crisis and their good will towards Afghans. Ambassador Soderberg noted that “We are the biggest donor to Afghanistan, with our aid this year to the Afghan people totaling $113 million dollars.” Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering echoed her comments: “we are the largest supplier of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. It went up last year from $70 to $100 million.” Being the richest country in the world, the United States would be expected to contribute the most money to help Afghans. But the US has given less as a fraction of its total wealth (GDP) than six other countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, and Finland). As a fraction of GDP, Sweden’s donation was four times more generous than that of the US! The UN Consolidated Appeal for Afghanistan has been consistently underfunded, and the year 2000 was no exception. Despite the large US contribution, the 2000 Appeal received less than 53% of what was needed, and many Afghans remain without basic services. If the US had shown the generosity of Sweden, the Appeal would have been more than fully funded.

What is worse, current US aid to Afghanistan is little more than 10% of the yearly sum doled out during the 1980s to support the Afghan Mujaheddin. Lauded as “freedom fighters” and “courageous rebels,” the Mujaheddin consisted of seven ruthless groups of men armed by the CIA and trained by Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence directorate (ISI) to fight the occupying army of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the Mujaheddin warlords began fighting each other for rule of Afghanistan, devastating Kabul and other cities. Tens of thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees were the result of the 1992-1994 battles. Before the Taliban even arrived in 1995, entire neighborhoods in Kabul looked “like Hamburg or Dresden after World War II bombing raids,”(15) because of the Mujahed onslaught. US military aid to the Mujaheddin was maintained at $700 million per year from 1987 until around 1992, during the worst atrocities, showing the extent to which the US government cared about Afghans.

Taking a Strong Stand Against Terrorism

…the international community must stand firm against terrorism. And with this important action today, the Security Council sends an unequivocal message to the Taliban: end your support for terrorism.

Nancy Soderberg, US Ambassador to the UN, 19 December 2000

Much is made in recent reports about the “geographic shift in terrorist activity” from the Middle East to South Asia, specifically Afghanistan and Pakistan. Counterterrorism Coordinator for the US State Department Michael Sheehan, attributes this shift to a “regional instability” that has roots in the war against the Soviet Union. “This war destroyed the government and civil society of Afghanistan, at the same time bringing arms, fighters from around the world, and narcotics traffickers to the region.”(16) It is interesting how Sheehan eliminates any trace of human involvement–it is “this war,” not human beings, that brought “arms, fighters…, and narcotics traffickers” to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A more honest account, that of ABC correspondent John Cooley, reminds us that, “many billion dollars to fund [the war] came from the United States, the Saudi treasury, and finally as the conflict was winding down, from the resources of financiers like the Saudi construction tycoon Usama bin Laden [sic]…” Now “the most wanted terrorist in the world,” bin Laden had been an American ally in the war to oust the Soviets!

The increased drug production that Sheehan mentions was an expected consequence of US intervention, not a surprise result of “this war.” Apparently, “the CIA and its allies … tolerated the rise of the biggest drug empires ever seen east of the giant Colombian cocaine cartels” because they “regarded drug revenues as an important way to finance the war…”(17) According to a US State Department estimate, Afghanistan’s opium production was up to 900 tons by 1993, more than twice that of Iran and Pakistan combined. Writing in 1994, before the Taliban took power, Alfred McCoy predicted that “the Afghan crop will soon exceed Southeast Asia’s, and nearly double the supply of heroin for the world market,” which indeed happened in 1998. The reason was not mysterious: “a mix [of] superpower confrontation and local ethnic conflict … facilitated formation of drug networks that can continue to grow.”(18)

Sheehan describes the context of the rise to power of the Taliban. “The Soviet withdrawal left a power vacuum, leaving the country in the hands of warring groups of mujahidin [sic] … Many of the current leaders of Afghanistan came of age in training camps designed to create a generation of combatants to fight wars inside and outside Afghanistan. Eventually, the Taliban, a radical group with a world-view informed by the experience of war, gained power over much of the country.” Sheehan’s version of events ignores the fact that the training camps, located in Afghanistan and Pakistan, were set up originally by the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI to train the Mujaheddin. When the Mujaheddin factions began to fight each other, the ISI formed the Taliban, which they intended “would be even more repugnant and unacceptable to the West and Russia than … Khomeini’s successors in Iran.” (19)

By focusing on Osama bin Laden, drugs, and the terrorist associations of the Taliban, the US government effectively blocks discussion of its own considerable role in decimating Afghan society. The new sanctions do nothing to diminish that role. It is unlikely that the Taliban will accept the Security Council ultimatum and hand over bin Laden. It is also unlikely that the sanctions will hurt the Taliban significantly. The real victims, as always, will be the Afghan people.

The Spark of Afghan Civil Society
Although Kofi Annan was pleased that the Taliban and the United Front had finally agreed to talk, he was well aware that “the shaping of Afghanistan’s future cannot be left solely to those who brandish weapons…Any lasting settlement must also involve the participation of non-belligerent Afghans, from both inside and outside Afghanistan.”(20) Despite the fact that the Taliban offer “no avenues for advancing any popular demands,” nonviolent political organizations do exist. One such group, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has been active since 1977. Founded to promote women’s rights, a revolutionary notion in a strongly patriarchal society, RAWA is needed now more than ever. Under the rule of the fundamentalist Mujaheddin, and now the Taliban, Afghanistan has become a “prison for women.” The Taliban are notorious for meting out “the harshest punishments systematically inflicted since Europe of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition.”(21) The most draconian laws sharply constrain women’s behavior and dress. RAWA’s home-based classes in literacy and nursing for girls and women inside Afghanistan are banned by the Taliban, but they are still carried out in secret.

RAWA was forced to refocus its priorities when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. In an interview on Pacifica radio in June, RAWA member Sehar Saba explained that, “we cannot struggle only for women’s rights until we have our national independence…we should struggle first for our country and for the whole people.” To that end, RAWA is one of the few Afghan women’s groups that offer a political message. Regarding sanctions, a statement published on their web site admonishes, “UN sanctions on the Taliban will not solve the problems of Afghanistan.” They suggest instead that the UN impose sanctions on the governments that are “directly influencing the internal affairs of Afghanistan,” providing military and financial support to either the United Front or the Taliban. In RAWA’s view, both the Taliban and the Mujaheddin/United Front are “war criminals,” and “it is the proper time for the US and other countries that have fostered these fundamentalist parties to apologize to the Afghan people and take steps toward healing old wounds.”(22)

The new Security Council sanctions on Afghanistan have dashed hopes for a negotiated end to the war between the Taliban and the United Front, and they will make an already dire humanitarian crisis worse. By insisting on a “single-purpose resolution aimed at terrorism,” the UN Security Council, led by the US and Russia, has focused attention on a narrowly-defined subset of the problems facing the people of Afghanistan. In so doing, it has diverted attention from both countries’ responsibility for creating the crisis in the first place. More efforts should be made to listen to organizations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan and other nonviolent Afghan groups. If there is a solution to this crisis, it is through empowering the Afghan people to regain their voice.

James Ingalls is a Staff Scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, California Institute of Technology. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission (http://www.afghanwomensmission.org).

REFERENCES

1. UN Press Release SC/6979, 19 Dec 2000.

2. Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Ban Weapons To All Warring Factions,” 15 December 2000; See http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/12/afghanban1215.htm

3. Annan, K., The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, 20 November 2000

4. The Economist, 16 Dec 2000.

5. Office of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan, Vulnerability and Humanitarian Implications of UN Security Council Sanctions in Afghanistan, December 2000

6. Bossuyt, M., The Adverse Consequences of Economic Sanctions on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, 21 June 2000, and references therein.

7. Paul, J.A. and Akhtar, S., Sanctions: An Analysis, 1998

8. Bossuyt, op cit, note 6

9. US Department of State, Pickering: Military Means Cannot Gain Peace in Afghanistan, 30 June 2000.

10. UPI, 20 Nov 2000

11. Rashid, A., “The Hard Road To Revenge,” Far East Economic Review, 7 December 2000

12. Editorial, “Off-Target Sanctions”, Boston Globe, 26 December 2000

13.US Department of State, Op cit., note 9.

14.Office of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan, Op cit., note 5.

15. Burns, J., “With Kabul Largely in Ruins, Afghans Get Respite From War”, New York Times, 20 February 1995

16. Sheehan, M., Testimony Before House International Relations Committee, 12 July 2000; http://www.usembassy.org.uk/terror117.html

17. Cooley, J., Unholy Wars, 1999, (London: Pluto Press), pp 5, 129

18. McCoy, A., 1994, “Opium History Up To 1858 A.D.”; website http://www.opioids.com/opium/history/. See also his The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, 1991, (Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill & Co.)

19. Cooley, Op cit, note 17, p 145, quoting an unnamed source.

20. Annan, Op cit, note 3

21. Cooley, Op cit, note 17, p 3

22. Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); website http://www.rawa.org

Is this What Democracy Looks Like? Welcome to the Police State

A commentary on this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, with a focus on the demonstrations that took place outside the convention written on 19th September 2000


LAPD excercising their weapons. Photo Credit: Independent Media Center, Los Angeles.

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) came to Los Angeles this past August and brought with it thousands of Democratic party delegates, thousands of activists, and thousands of police. If you followed the news about the DNC, chances are you may have missed the latter two groups of people – most of the media played their roles obediently, and dutifully covered what each speaker said on the floor of the Staples Center, knowing that speeches were written and rehearsed well in advance, knowing that everything that took place was pre-ordained and given the blessing of the Democratic PR machine before being staged for the benefit of the rest of the world.

However, while Al Gore’s coronation ceremony took place during the elaborate 4-day ritual within the secure confines of the Staples arena, thousands of citizens got trampled on by LAPD horses and shot at with rubber bullets and lead-shot-filled bean bags from LAPD guns. Wait a minute, did I say shot at with rubber bullets and bean-bags? Yes, you read right. It may not have been the live ammunition used by cops in the 1960s, but the spirit of police and government repression of the 60s was alive and well on the streets of Los Angeles in the year 2000. Several times during the week of protest police outnumbered protestors and often placed themselves between the protestors and the very people the protestors wanted to reach out to – the public by-standers. Once a person had decided to join the march, he or she could not leave it until the march was over. LAPD tried very hard to minimize the presence of dissenters on the streets in the months leading up to the convention by denying permits, preventing rallies on Pershing Square (a central open area in downtown LA, historically important for expressing first amendment rights), and declaring fenced-in “protest pits” which could be used for only 50 minutes at a time. With the help of a federal judge these tactics were thrown out as being unconstitutional and the right to express dissent prevailed. LAPD responded to this perceived infringement on their turf by tightening the reins on the activist events so hard that it seemed as if each march was encased by a thick lining of blue-clad militia carrying guns and other equipment intended to repress and control while patrol helicopters circled above menacingly.

Despite the police-state atmosphere the marches were an incredible expression of solidarity and resistance against the present two-party duopoly that dominates major decision-making in the United States and world. Having progressed many steps from the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization last November, the LA marches contained widely diverse citizens in its ranks. There were older folks who had seen the 60s come and go, younger students who had never known such power could exist in thousands unifying, immigrants and labor unions, Black and Latino Americans, disabled people and high school youth, religious ministers and working mothers, gay and lesbian activists and more.

One of the things that struck me was that most of the activists in the fore front of organizing were women – women of color, lesbian women and even grandmothers. Another thing that jumped out at me as indicative of the power of this movement was the incorporation of art in political expression. The creative energy of protestors was fueled by careful creation of hundreds of papier mache puppets – some up to 10 feet in size – street theater and music, all of which played an important role in the activities. The main puppet, crafted by protestors at the “convergence center” (a four story run-down building rented by activists as a gathering place for preparation before and during the convention) was the Goddess of Democracy. Well aware of a criticism that activists only pointed out flaws and never suggested solutions, the Goddess of Democracy was intended to express both, ills and answers. Her enormous benign face and hands perched atop a giant red skirt on which were painted thousands of faces of people of every color, size and shape (hand painted on by the hundreds of activists that filed in and out of the convergence center the week before the convention began).


The Goddess of Democracy Photo: Courtesy of David Hanks/Global Exchange

Each morning during the convention people presented a skit at Pershing square which involved displaying props representing the ills in today’s society. These included the state of the prison industrial complex and the world-record-breaking 2 million Americans behind bars, most incarcerated for non-violent crimes, the racism of that system and the corrupt law enforcement system that accompanies it, poverty and sweatshops in LA, the bloated defense budget, the poor state of public schools, the growing income gap, the monopoly of corporate kingdoms in everyday human life, and more. Following this, the Goddess of Democracy was displayed during a song and dance after which activists brought out hand painted signs in the shapes of puzzle pieces which represented their vision for the solutions to these problems. Solutions included empowering youth, allowing third party candidates to run for office fairly alongside the Demolican and Republicratic parties, campaign finance reform, citizen oversight of law enforcement, improving schools instead of building more expensive weapons, improving health by ending privitization of health care, etc, etc. The images were the most powerful visual expressions of progressive political solutions that I had ever seen. It turns out that the LAPD thought likewise for the puppets were targeted by them during the demonstrations (in Philadelphia the Philly police successfully confiscated all puppets before they were even used). At the end of the first days demonstrations, LAPD surrounded and confiscated the puppets outside of the Staples Center for no apparent reason. After much ruckus and chanting of “Free the Puppets”, LAPD returned them to avoid a scene.

Apart from the morning puppet processions, each day was filled with marches describing a huge multitude of issues organized by a vast array of networks, coalitions and other grass-roots organizations which included the Direct Action Network, the Southern California Fair Trade Network, the International Action Center, the Bus Riders Union, the East Timor Action Network, Billionaires for Bush (yes, it’s a joke), Global Exchange, the International Socialist Organization, International Black Women for Wages for Housework, Campaign to end the Death Penalty, some local chapters of Amnesty International, Amazon Watch, the Los Angeles Green Party, Queers for Racial and Economic Justice, several union locals such as PACE, ACORN, etc and more. The press often complained that there were too many issues for them to disentangle. Perhaps if the activists had bee dictated to by a leader about what should have been said and done so as to present a clear, well-rehearsed political protest for the purpose of easy reporting, we would have had “better” coverage of our distilled issues. The fact that there were so many issues expressed in the marches – and these were not narrow, special-interest issues – they included police brutality, racism, the genocide of Iraqis, the occupation of Puerto Rico, the faile so-called drug war, homelessness, the exploitation of sweatshop labor, the corporatization of human needs, the selling off of politicians, the list is long and serious – the fact that there were so many issues ought to have clued the press in on how timely and necessary these demonstrations were and that they are an indication of deep dissatisfaction among those majority of citizens that aren’t seeing the fruits of a supposedly civilized and prosperous nation. While I would commend some media outlets such as LA Times and Channel 2 on providing pretty balanced coverage, I would say to the rest – sorry folks, well-rehearsed, “politically-correct” staged plays by the two parties were clean and easy to report. But real democracy is messy and cannot be compartmentalized into one neat little sound bite. What the corporate media lacked in depth of coverage, an ad-hoc collective of activist-journalists calling themselves the Independent Media Center, made up for with intense minute-by-minute street coverage using an impressive combination of radio, video, print, photographic and web media with a focus on the protestors rather than delegates.

In addition to the marches there were also a number of parallel conferences that took place, organized by activists, to provide the intellectual fodder for progressive political dialogue. These included the Shadow Convention, the Homeless Convention, the North American Anarchist Conference, the People’s Convention and countless teach-ins, lectures, presentations and workshops. While I was able to attend only a fraction of these, I was impressed by the variety of exchanges that were occurring in such a short span of time. It is obvious that the current explosion of political dissent has been brewing for a while and was long overdue.

In the end, several hundred activists were arrested and many more were shot at and injured by the police. And we heard corporate reporters and delegates sigh in relief at a week of activities (planned for over a year) that had been carried out with little disruption thanks to the well-coordinated repression of the LAPD. No one attributed the relative calm to the reserve of the thousands of people who demonstrated peacefully. Al Gore was crowned king and no one inside the Halls of the Staples Center had to face the ugly reality of thousands of disgruntled citizens on the streets except when making their way from the Convention to their hotel rooms. Perhaps they can ignore the cry for real democratic change for now. But then again, it has only been ten months since Seattle.

The Real Constituency of Government

Published on 16th July 2000 on the D2KLA website, in preparation for the mobilization against the Democratic National Convention

Why are so many people organizing protests during the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles? Isn’t the Democratic Party supposed to be a left-wing party? Not according to columnist Jim Hightower: “Both national parties now exist as wholly-owned subsidiaries of corporate America, selling two brands of the same corporate agenda.” The major complaint shared by all the organizations involved in protesting the Democratic National Convention is that moneyed interests, not those of democracy and justice, are the prime forces to which both Democrats and Republicans succumb. This rings true when one considers the LA City Council’s stated eagerness to please “downtown merchants” when they voted to deny the Convention protesters an official permit to use Pershing Square, a public park in the middle of a business district.

Meaningful Participation, but for whom?

The Democratic Party Convention will be a tremendous boon to Los Angeles businesses. Convention organizers and city officials estimate that the Convention will bring $135 million to business. All infrastructure needs of the Convention will be served by lucrative contracts to local and other businesses. In addition, the 35,000 official Convention visitors, including 5,000 delegates and 15,000 journalists, will have to be housed, groomed, and fed, and their shopping and entertainment whims will need fulfilment. The Convention Committee is taking seriously their job of attracting first-rate contracts. A 90-page “Convention Vendor Directory” is available from the official Convention web site (http://www.dems2000.com/), which lists firms in fields ranging from construction to graphic design to security. The Committee has formed a Business Development Department, “to engage the local business community and keep it apprised of convention-related opportunities and vendor contracts.” The Committee considers itself, “committed to promoting the meaningful participation of local companies in the business opportunities to be generated by the Convention.” “Meaningful participation” by activists and labor is, however, not on the agenda.

Bailing out the Convention

Who pays for this bonanza for “downtown merchants,” which Convention organizers describe as, “giving back” to the Los Angeles community? The money for the Convention comes from a number of sources, including corporate sponsors such as AT&T, the “official web hosting and Internet services provider for the Convention.” AT&T has donated $1 million in communications equipment, services, and cash, to both the Democratic and Republican Conventions. Holly Bailey of the Center for Responsive Politics asserts that it is AT&T’s need for Congressional approval of its merger with MediaOne, rather than civic duty, that fuels this largesse. Originally, $35 million of the projected $58 million cost of the DNC was intended to be paid for by private donors. Democratic National Committee Chair Joe Andrew boasted that, “the citizens of California will get the benefit and not the burden” of having the Convention. Entertainment mogul David Geffen, insurance and construction magnate Eli Broad, and Ron Burkle, chairman of “Ralph’s” and other supermarket chains, had taken it upon themselves to raise most of the money. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, has personally raised over $6 million for the Convention, including $1 million of his own money. But private donations still ran short of costs, even factoring in the $13 million convention subsidy from the Federal Election Commission, given to both parties, and the $10 million in transportation and police costs which Los Angeles city officials promised to donate.

On 23 June the Los Angeles City Council agreed to “bail out” the Convention Committee, approving a $4 million public subsidy. The deciding vote came from Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, “a frequent antagonist in the Council,” who agreed to the payment on three conditions: (1) that Riordan and other donors who had pledged million-dollar letters of credit to the Convention pay up, (2) that public protests be allowed in Pershing Square, and (3) that members of the Police Department meet with an ad hoc Council committee before and during the Convention, “to avoid any [police] overreaction to the protests.” After “warnings and complaints from the police and downtown merchants,” the City Council voted 12 to 1 (Goldberg was the only no vote) to nullify their decision, backtracking on allowing Pershing Square protests, as well as the $4 million gift. After heavy lobbying by Riordan, the LA City Council voted two weeks ago to reinstate $2 million to “the cash-strapped convention host committee,” and voted back the remaining $2 million, to be paid after the Convention if the budget is still in arrears. The subsidy would have been denied, were it not for the vote of Councilman Mike Feuer. He switched his vote, saying, “We have to keep our promises … Once the … convention planners for the DNC were relying on that action, I think one shouldn’t undo it … a city can’t function that way.” No comment was given on how a city can function after the Council rescinded its promise to protesters, perhaps because they cannot offer $135 million in profits to “downtown merchants.”

Labor quieted by “friends”

In siding with business, the Mayor and City Council are acceding to the same interests that caused Governor Gray Davis, Al Gore’s California campain chief, to get a court order preventing transit workers from going on strike during the Convention. The Governor reasoned that a strike would “disproportionately affect the poor,” who wouldn’t be able to get to work, but perhaps a more important consideration for politicians is that the strike would deny the LA business district $1.5 million per day in expected profits. Davis also neglected to mention that the Convention organizers were counting on a $4 million gift from the public to pay for the more than 300 buses to get the delegates to and from their hotels. It might cause an embarrassment if the bus drivers didn’t show up for work.

The injunction against a transit worker strike is one of many tactics which city and state officials are using to prevent labor unrest during the DNC. Approximately 300,000 worker contracts in the LA area are up for renewal this summer, including those of concession workers and engineers at the Staples Center arena, where the Convention will be held. Many labor unions have already announced plans to strike downtown during the DNC. In order to keep Staples Center workers from joining in, a “peace agreement” has been worked out between labor officials and Democratic Party officials. According to the New York Times, “the involvement of Staples Center workers [in strikes] would have been an embarrassment for Democrats, who consider themselves a friend of labor.” Unfortunately, Democrat Gray Davis’s obtaining a court injunction to stop transit workers from striking is not considered an “embarrasment” to his own status as a “friend of labor.”

Riordan’s warning

In a 13 July Op-Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Mayor Richard Riordan justifies the Council decision to deny protest permits, warning protestors not to “disrupt our city.” Citing concern for the “safety of our residents, our visitors and our businesses, as well as the reputation of our city,” the Mayor cautions, “it is important that city leaders not play into the hands of anarchists. We must not handcuff police …” An ironic metaphor, for of course it will be the police who, he tells us, will use “a strategy of restraint and containment” against demonstrators who get out of line.

Labeling as “anarchists” those demonstrators against whom “the police will have to be tough,” betrays more than a lack of understanding of political theory. It displays a lack of appreciation for the tremendous political scope of the more than 70 groups involved in the protest movement. Riordan advertises the main website for the protest organizers (http://www.d2kla.org), urging readers to observe for themselves how the “anarchists” disseminate “their methods of malice.” Has Riordan seen the website? It is doubtful, since if he did he would find that the groups endorsing the protest range from radical environmental organizations like Earth First!, to community organizations like the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, to political parties like the International Socialist Organization and the South Central Green Party. These groups are to the left of the political spectrum, to be sure, but many of them would cringe to be called “anarchist.” According to the web site, “D2K NETWORK is composed of groups and individuals working to coordinate and support events and nonviolent protests during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles,” hardly a malicious credo.

A travesty against the Constitution?

Many critics rightfully denounce the City Council’s decision to deny demonstrations in Pershing Square as a denial of First Amendment rights. But it is dangerous to imagine that at some enlightened time in US history the situation for those critical of powerful institutions and people was any different. It was not. The framers of the Constitution were themselves (white) men of privilege, who brooked little challenge to that privilege. Most were lawyers, most were wealthy and owned land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping. Half of them had money loaned out at interest. The majority of them were well aware of the need to preserve that privilege, and tried to justify it. Alexander Hamilton, aide to George Washington and member of the Constitutional Convention, wrote:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; … [but] it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.

During the framing of the Constitution, the fifty-five men “conducted their sessions in complete secrecy with armed sentinels posted outside convention doors,” in a manner similar to the affairs of modern global financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. (Indeed, many people are aware of some continuity between the DNC protesters and the groups that were so vocal in criticizing the WTO at Seattle last November, and the World Bank/IMF in Washington in April.) In the founding years of the United States, many Americans were not happy with the Constitution. Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 was an uprising by mainly poor farmers, who resented among other things the strict property requirements for voting in the new government. After public criticism of the original Constitution, the amendments known as the Bill of Rights were passed by the first Congress.

The Bill of Rights: often ignored in practice

On paper, the Bill of Rights was an impressive document that granted unprecedented freedoms to US citizens. Unfortunately, as historian Howard Zinn writes, “What was not made clear … was the shakiness of anyone’s liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.” In 1798, just seven years after the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, was passed, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which mandated prison for those who expressed sentiments that were “false, scandalous, and malicious against the government, Congress, or the President, with intent to defame them, bring them into disrepute, or excite popular hatreds against them.” Surely this was against the First Amendment, yet the law was passed, and enforced for two years.

Similarly, in 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which imposed prison sentences of up to twenty years for “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military,” controverting the Thirteenth Amendment, which stated that “involuntary servitude” was outlawed in the United States. When Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate for president, criticized US policy in World War I, saying, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder,” he was arrested for violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in prison.

In his op-ed piece, Mayor Riordan mentions Martin Luther King Jr. He cautions that like King, the DNC protesters “must be prepared to pay stiff fines and face arrest and jail,” if they engage in civil disobedience. It is understandable that Riordan might want to maintain “order” in Los Angeles, so as to please the constituency that counts. Perhaps he is just playing a role, but the protesters also have a role to play, highlighted many times by Dr. King himself. In 1963, when King was in prison in Birmingham, Alabama for participating in nonviolent civil disobedience, he wrote, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” In practice, the Bill of Rights cannot be taken for granted; it must be fought for.

Why the West Loves Vladmir Putin

A political analysis of Russia’s recent involvement in Chechnya and the reaction of West, written on 27th March 2000

“there are terrorists who kidnap innocent people by the hundreds and keep them in cellars, torture and execute them… Bandits of this kind — are they any better than Nazi criminals?”

—- Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

“Russian forces went on a killing spree in the Aldi district of Grozny, shooting at least sixty-two and possibly many more civilians who were waiting in the street and their yards for soldiers to check their documents. These were entirely preventable deaths, not unavoidable casualties of war. They were acts of murder, plain and simple…And most disturbing of all, there is no evidence that the killing spree has stopped.”

—- Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher

Russia’s presidential elections are over. With most of the vote counted, Vladimir Putin has so far accumulated more than the 50% needed to clinch the Presidency of Russia. Many Western leaders are treating this news with relief. A News Analysis piece in today’s New York Times by correspondent Michael R. Gordon is entitled, “Washington Bites its Nails as Russian Votes are Tallied.” Writing from Russia, Gordon explains why he thinks “The Clinton Administration has a lot riding on a Putin victory.” For one thing, “Mr. Putin and his top aides have talked about overhauling the tax code, protecting the rights of shareholders, phasing out subsidies to money-losing enterprises and tackling politically dicey issues such as establishing the right to own land.” Such talk of economic reforms has so impressed US officials that “Clinton administration officials are already discusing” ways to reward Putin’s efforts to help out foreign investors. Suggestions include, “expanding assistance by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, rescheduling Russian debt and having the United States Export-Import Bank step up its efforts to encourage investment in Russia.”

Unfortunately, things are not entirely rosy for US policy makers, because, “There is also Chechnya.” Putin’s war is making it difficult for administration officials to wholeheartedly embrace him in public. What of Chechnya? In Gordon’s words, “The brutal war has been temporarily pushed out of the news by the Russian election, but it is still raging.”

Extensive investigations by Human Rights Watch continue to reveal a pattern of brutal terror in Chechnya, including war crimes, carried out by the Russian forces. Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher, made it clear that the targets of Russia’s Chechnya campaign were not simply the rebels. In March 1 testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bouckaert called attention to the Russian forces, who “indiscriminately and disproportionately bombed and shelled civilian objects, causing heavy civilian casualties,” in violation of the Geneva Convention which limits attacks to combatants. “The bombing campaign has turned many parts of Chechnya to a wasteland: even the most experienced war reporters I have spoken to told me they have never seen anything in their careers like the destruction of the capital Grozny.” Human Rights watch has documented at least three large-scale massacres by Russian forces in Chechen villages. And there is a tremendous refugee crisis. More than 200,000 Chechens have fled the fighting into neighboring Ingushetia, which has a population of only 300,000.

Bouckaert concluded his testimony by urging the US to call for a suspension of World Bank and International Monetary Fund loan payments pending to Russia. He proposed that “the creation of a Commission of Inquiry should be a prominent item for discussion at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting, and the U.S. must insist on a discussion of the Chechen conflict at the U.N. Security Council, because the conflict in Chechnya has major implications for international peace and security.” (See the Human Rights Watch web site for more information; http://www.hrw.org/hrw/campaigns/russia/chechnya/).

The Senate was shocked by Boukaert’s testimony. Jesse Helms said, “I am ashamed of our government and its comments made in defense of Russia.” But the US has done practically nothing to stop the assault. To some, criticism of Putin’s campaign in Chechnya is considered “skepticism” (“Some Skeptics See Iron Hand in Putin’s Glove”, NYT, 2 Mar 2000).

The US State Department seems to share this point of view. “Instead of using its relationship with Russia to bring an end to the abuses in Chechnya, the Clinton administration has focused on cementing its relationship with acting President Putin, the prime architect of the abusive campaign in Chechnya,” Bouckaert lamented. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Russia for a conference on the Middle East in early February, and was “encouraged” by her long talk with Putin (“A 3-Hour Talk With Putin Leaves Albright Encouraged”, NYT, 3 Feb 2000). She may have warned Putin, but not of loan suspensions or the formation of a Commission of Inquiry. “We did not mince words, either of us, on Chechnya…I said to him…that he’s riding a tiger.” These are not words of anger, excoriating a war criminal. Rather, Albright was warning Putin, for his own sake, to be careful of the political consequences of his war. She also appeared frustrated that the US was powerless to stop the war, “I do not think we are any closer to a political solution in Chechnya.” Today’s New York Times news analysis of the Russian vote reiterates this seeming frustration: “The West has denounced the indiscriminate attacks against civilians [in Chechnya] but has been careful not to link the issue with the question of assistance from the monetary fund or other policy objectives.”

This is strange, since last year Albright did make strong statements regarding foreign aid to Russia after allegations in August that over $4.2 billion had been laundered out of Russia by organized crime. “We have made clear that we will not support further multilateral assistance to Russia unless fully adequate safeguards are in place. President Yeltsin’s Government needs at last to make fighting corruption a priority.” (“Albright Warns the Russians to Battle Corruption, Or Else”, NYT, 17 Sep 1999). Why is the US suddenly careful about making “Or Else” statements to Russia when it comes to the army’s conduct in Chechnya?

Albright’s stance mirrors that of major business interests in the West, which says that so long as Russia’s climate for foreign investment is “transparent” and stable, other issues, such as human rights, are of negligible importance. In a speech to the US-Russia Business Council in April 1998, Michael Camdessus, then Managing Director of the IMF, enunciated the importance of investors. He stressed the need for economic growth in Russia to “gain strength without financial disruption caused by loss of investor confidence,” which requires “firm resolution, commitment, and implementation on the government side, which has not always been there in the past.”

The Clinton administration considers Vladimir Putin “a man we can do business with.” Perhaps it believes that Putin has the “firm resolution” and “commitment” necessary to enact policies which will restore “investor confidence.” “Mr. Putin has regularly argued that foreign investment is essential to economic growth…Western business interests praise his recognition…of the importance of free trade and open markets” (NYT, 22 Mar 2000). His 1997 dissertation from the Mining Institute of St Petersburg was entitled, “Strategic Planning of the Renewal of the Minerals – Raw Materials Base of the Region in Conditions of the Formation of Market Relations.” The title may be obscure, but those who have read the thesis, such as Professor Mikhail Mednikov of St. Petersburg Technical University, one of Putin’s examiners, recognize that “It’s a paper written by a market-oriented person.” (Incidentally, the Mining Institute refuses to allow reporters to view the manuscript, therefore few people outside Putin’s examining committee have read it.) Putin has many times shown himself to be on the side of foreign investors, and not just in words. He worked for six years as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of Moscow, where his job was to attract foreign investment to the port city of St. Petersburg. By 1993, Putin managed to create 6,000 joint ventures with foreign companies, half of Russia’s total at the time.

In an interview with Ted Koppel which aired last Friday night, Putin made clear his continued support for investors. He proclaimed the first priorities of his goverment, if elected. “First, we will focus on guaranteeing the full rights of owners and investors. The right of ownership must become a priority in Russia. We will strive to make the position of the state crystal clear in its legislation. We will need to make the state strong enough to guarantee implementation of these rights. And finally, we will do our best to ensure equal opportunity for all the participants of the market.”

It would seem that Secretary Albright’s threat to Boris Yeltsin’s government was taken to heart when Yeltsin picked Putin as his acting successor. Many criticize Putin’s history as a KGB agent, his apologetics for the Stalin era purges, his defense of the KGB, and his continued glossing over of the Russian assault of Chechnya. But it is likely that, so long as he promotes the interests of business, Putin’s “authoritarian streak” will not be questioned by Western leaders. Indeed, it may come to their aid — Putin said he will use friends from his days as a KGB agent, and as director of its successor agency the FSB, to help root out corruption and money laundering, which to him is only “a passing phase” (NYT, 24 March 2000).

On February 5, three days after Madeleine Albright left Moscow, the Aldi district of Grozny saw a glimpse of Putin’s authoritarianism. At least sixty-two civilians waiting in the streets to have their papers checked were shot down by Russian security forces. So far no threats to withold foreign aid have been forthcoming. Instead, Washington “bites its nails” waiting for Putin to be elected, as “the Russian longing for a strong hand” is used in the media as a metaphor for Washington’s own longing for the same.

Proposition 21: Further Degrading a Flawed System

Published in the California Tech on March 3rd 2000

What is Proposition 21?

Proposition 21 is the “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Initiative” on the ballot for California this March. This 25 page initiative details new laws that are all aimed at Californian teenagers between the ages of 14-16, specifically to allow teenagers charges with crimes to be treated as adults within the legal system. It also expands the targeting of “gangs” and increases penalties for felonies. Despite it’s “tough on crime” appeal to Californians, Proposition 21 is a dangerous initiative which would further degrade a flawed justice system.

Top 10 Reasons Why YOU Should Vote NO on Proposition 21

10. Proposition 21 could increase your taxes. The California Department of Corrections estimated that this initiative requires 22,000 new prison spaces over the next 30 years at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. The Initiative provides no resources to pay for these prisons, and the burden will ultimately be borne by taxpayers.

9. Proposition 21 has been undemocratic from its inception. This initiative has NOT been the result of grass-roots campaigning. Rather it has been bankrolled and sponsored by former Governor Pete Wilson who spent $1 million (from a remaining presidential campaign fund) on professional signature gatherers to qualify this Initiative after the state legislature rejected his initial juvenile crime package.

8. Proposition 21 pledges more jails than schools. 20 years ago California pledged to be a leader in public education but today it is ranked 41 out of 50 states in education spending. Since 1984, the state has added 21 prisons and only one university campus, and is the #1 state in prison spending in the country.

7. Proposition 21 strengthens an out-of-control incarceration rampage. In February 2000, the prison population of the United States reached 2 million (more than any country in the world). While US prisoners comprise 25% of the world’s prison population, Americans comprise only 4.5% of the world. Proposition 21 is in the spirit of California’s existing draconian Three Strikes Law which requires citizens to serve life sentences upon their third conviction, most of which are non-violent offenses, better addressed by rehabilitation.

6. Proposition 21 will strengthen the corporate-sponsored prison labor industry. In addition to state-owned enterprises, private corporations have begun taking advantage of the low-production costs of prison labor. “Currently more than 90,000 state and federal convicts work in a variety of public and private enterprises while serving time.” (Washington Times, April 96). Those private corporations include Boeing, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood, etc,who hire a non-unionized work force for a tiny fraction of normal wages. It is no surprise then than some of the sources of funding for Proposition 21 include huge corporations like Chevron, Union Oil, TransAmerica, etc (California Online Voter Guide) in whose interests it is to expand cost-cutting prison labor by increasing the prison population.

5. Proposition 21 will destroy the lives of convicted Californian youth. If Proposition 21 passes, 14 year-olds will be tried as adults subject to the death penalty and sent to adult prisons where youth are 5 times more likely to be raped and 8 times more likely to commit suicide than adults. Proposition 21 will eradicate due process for juveniles and weaken confidentiality rules making it more difficult for reformed juveniles to acquire jobs after serving prison sentences.

4. Proposition 21 gives police more power. Proposition 21 requires youth to be tried in adult courts if the prosecutor CHARGES the youngster with certain crimes and prosecutors will rely on the police to determine those charges. Proposition 21 will extend the three-strikes law, grossly expand wiretapping rights, and allow police units such as the corruption-ridden LAPD CRASH unit to identify any group of youth from the same ethnic background and wearing similar clothing to be labeled a “gang” (This definition will not extend to mostly white college campuses such as Caltech).

3. Proposition 21 will support an already racist justice system. 2/3 of the two million imprisoned Americans are black or latino Americans who comprise less than 1/4 of the US population. If this is not enough evidence that the justice system has a racist bias, a recent Color of Justice study in California shows that after transfer to the adult system, black youth are 18.4 times more likely, Asian youth are 4.5 times more likely, and Latino youth are 7.3 times more likely than white youth to be sentenced by an adult court for similar crimes.

2. Proposition 21 just isn’t necessary. Crimes by minors in California declined 30% over the last decade and 7% in 1998 alone, while adult offenses dropped by 6% in 1998. Yet news reporting of crime stories has steadily gone up. For example, while homicides declined by 13 % between 1990 and 1995, on the network news during the same period, coverage of murders increased by 326 % (Center for Media and Public Affairs).

1. Proposition 21 is relying on Californians to blindly vote yes. The Proposition 21 initiative is one of the longest ever proposed. Its framers are confident that Californians will not read through the tedious details and will blindly vote yes. Exercise your democratic powers and send a message to the likes of ex-governor Wilson that you don’t believe in creating a future of hopelessness to California’s youth. Vote NO on Proposition 21!

Should Scientists Support Hi-Tech Warfare?

by Jim Ingalls with members of the Caltech Progressive Coalition on 24th January 2000

“…From now on institutions for learning and research will more and more have to be supported by grants from the state… Is it at all reasonable that the distribution of the funds… should be entrusted to the military? To this question every prudent person will answer: ‘No!’ ” -Albert Einstein, 1947

Last Friday President Bill Clinton visited our campus to announce the fiscal year (FY) 2001 science and technology budget. Caltech has been ranked the top undergraduate educational institution in the United States, and is one of the most competitive centers of science and technology research in the world, so Clinton’s science budget affects many of us directly. As you may have noticed, when the representative of US political leadership addresses its technical leadership on science and technology research, he stresses the positive side of his program. It is important to acknowledge also the destructive uses of science and technology research.

The “ivory tower” insulates us from many of the consequences of our work, so perhaps we don’t realize that yearly, 81% of the research conducted at Caltech is publicly funded, and that 24% of such funding comes from either the Department of Defense (DOD) or the Department of Energy (DOE), and may be used for military purposes. For example, Caltech is a member of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, which oversees the DOE-sponsored $19 million Center for Simulating Dynamic Responses of Materials. Scientists and engineers who receive funding from this Center are creating a “virtual shock physics laboratory” whose main goal is to simulate the detonation of high explosives. Fully 40% of all applied science research at Caltech is paid for directly by the DOD.

But Caltech is not unusual in its pursuit of military-financed research. Although President Clinton proudly announced a $227 million increase in US funding for nanotechnology research and a $605 million increase in funding for information technology research, he did not mention that 18% and 21% of these increases, respectively, will be provided by the DOD. In 1998, the Clinton Administration boasted of its commitment to civilian research and development (R&D), which at $170 billion over 5 years was at its highest level ever. Yet 50% of the total US R&D budget is still for defense research. More imortantly, even though the total defense R&D spending has been declining since its post World War II peak in 1987, for the past four fiscal years (1997-2000), the destructive program entitled “weapons activities” has had its funding increased $525 million (36%), at the expense of programs like “environmental restoration and waste management,” which has been cut by $90 million (45%) during the same period. In constant dollars, the defense R&D budget is only a few percentage points below its second-highest postwar peak of 1967, when the Indochina Wars were in full swing.

This military focus parallels the overall spending profile of the US Government. In FY 2000, the only Cabinet-level US department to get an (inflation-adjusted) funding increase over the previous year was the DOD (an increase of 12%). President Clinton signed the Defense Authorization Act on 15 October 1999, allocating $289 billion for the military. While total international military spending decreases, US military spending increases. The US military budget is more than 5 times that of Russia, and it is more than 19 times the combined spending of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan (the Pentagon’s “7 most likely adversaries”). Furthermore, the US is the world’s largest arms exporter, supplying 36% of the world’s arms deliveries during the period 1989-1998. The consequences are devastating. For instance, decades of US arms sales to Indonesia enabled that country to illegally and brutally occupy the territory of East Timor. Twenty four years of domination and hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared Timorese later, and finally East Timor is an independent state, no thanks to US weapons.

We can speak dispassionately of “stress wave propagation in an elastomer binder,” but perhaps some day Caltech’s “virtual shock physics laboratory” will be used to study shrapnel propagation in human skin, such as occurred during the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia. More than 1,100 cluster bombs, “the most savage weapons of modern warfare,” according to BBC Correspondent John Simpson, were dropped on Kosovo and Serbia by the US last spring. Condemned by international humanitarian organizations (they violate the Geneva convention because of their indiscriminate nature), when cluster bombs explode they send 200,000 “bomblets” of shrapnel over a wide radius. Cluster bombs have a 5-30% failure to detonate rate. Lodged in the ground, unexploded bombs act as landmines. In the first month after the NATO airstrikes, about 150 Kosovars were killed or injured by “land mines or unexploded ordnance,” including cluster bomb fragments. In the Persian Gulf, over 1,200 Kuwaitis were killed in the same fashion, and they weren’t even the “enemy”! Ironically, the Clinton Administration withdrew from the 1997 international negotiations to ban landmines.

The results of US military spending permeate the international landscape. No human being is untouched by the US military apparatus. Perhaps the most painful exposure is being had in Iraq, where since the December 1998 “Desert Fox” operation, the US and allies have flown a total of 28,000 sorties and expended over 1,800 bombs and missiles in strikes against 450 separate targets in Iraq. Current contingency operations in Iraq are estimated to entail annual costs of about $1 billion. And on the ground, the deadliest “weapons of mass destruction” have proven to be the economic sanctions insisted on by the US, which are crippling Iraq’s social infrastructure.

Scientists are rewarded financially when their research supports military goals, but to expect such work not to be harnessed for destructive purposes is either ignorance or insincerity. Shouldn’t the responsibility of scientists for the consequences of their work extend beyond their wallets? US scientists ushered in the nuclear era, and now the US is one of the few countries which refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. According to opponents of the treaty, “nuclear deterrence” is more important than peace and safety. At any rate DOE’s nuclear weapons programs and scientists continue to be funded. In fact, between 1997 and 2000, DOE “atomic energy defense activities” research has not incurred a loss of funding; to the contrary, over the past four years it has received a boost of $440 million (18%) from the government.

Is it healthy that a nation which faces no credible military threat should continue to allocate half of its research funds for military purposes? As scientists we are accustomed to thinking, “I only do basic science” or, “I’m just doing what I’m told,” but what is the difference between passive acceptance and active participation when the consequences are the same? Recall Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who was horrified by the violent uses of his invention and later dedicated his royalties to a foundation for peace. Are scientists like Nobel, Einstein, and Caltech’s own Linus Pauling doomed to extinction?