Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

Perfect Girls, Starving DaughtersCourtney Martin’s new book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” addresses a topic that affects every single one of us, female or male, young or old, brown or white, rich or poor. It is a book about the physical, and, more importantly, mental effects of our obsession with being thin. Going beyond the usual reasons of how society influences our behavior, Martin candidly, and at times, poetically, explores the hidden world of our deepest, darkest, desires to be perfect. While the book focuses primarily on young women, it applies equally to those of us women in our thirties and older, as well as men who are increasingly adopting dangerous eating habits themselves or are surrounded by women they love who are anorexic/bulimic or on the verge.

“Perfect girls” are intelligent, high-achieving, often athletic, and effortlessly thin – or so they would like to seem. But inside each perfect girl is a starving daughter who is aching to fill a void inside herself, who binges and purges with regularity, or who counts every calorie and skips meals toward starvation. This analysis by Martin aims at a particularly vulnerable place for every single one of us. We all know the psyche of the perfect girl and the starving daughter. We have either been there ourselves or are surrounded by people who have. Refreshingly in her book Courtney Martin reveals her own past struggles with being on the verge of an eating disorder.

The only rational reason for wanting to lose weight, says Martin, is for health reasons. Yet, the drastic measures many women (and increasingly men) take to lose weight are anything but healthy. Yo-yo dieting strains the heart, over-exercising ruins the joints, constant starving and malnutrition worsens the immune system, bingeing and purging causes gastro-intestinal problems, anorexia while pregnant increases the chances of birth defects, and so on.

On the other hand, eating sensibly, while occasionally indulging in a glass of wine, or a slice of chocolate cake is far more healthy. A regular and reasonable exercise regimen of 3-5 hours a week improves the immune system, maintains a healthy heart, etc, etc. But, it may not be enough to make those among us who are naturally heavy, appear skinny. So our image-conscious, skinny-obsessed society condemns us to perceptions of laziness, ill-health, and avarice. When in fact it is likely the other way around. Worse, our society rewards the emaciated, the bony, and the unrealistically proportioned among us. Hence, it rewards starvation, body obsession, and ultimately, ill-health.

But who among us has not observed our thick waistlines in the mirror and balked in disgust? Who among us has not skipped a meal as a result of that disgust? And who among us, after feeling starved for a few days, has not broken down and consumed a pint of ice cream or a package of cookies? The only ones among us who are effortlessly thin are those who are genetically pre-programmed to be so. They are the lucky ones whose DNA has hit the jackpot in our thin-rewarding-era. No matter what or how much this small minority eats, they remain skinny. The rest of us pretend we are really naturally skinny people trapped in the bodies of outwardly normal people. We want our battles with weight, when they are successful, to seem effortless, as though we too are among those pre-programmed by our DNA to be thin and thus powerful. But eventually we have to face our truths and our bodies as they are. And we have to love ourselves as we are.

But it is SO damn hard when everywhere around us women are pictured on billboards as stick figures coveted by all, filled not with flesh, but power. These emaciated women, whose thighs are the size of my upper arms, are physically waif-like, but appear omnipotent. And if the women in the magazines and on billboards are not really as skinny as they are supposed to be, a little creative Photo-shopping will do the trick! Such images must make even the models and actresses themselves unable to live up to their air-brushed selves. And if they can’t who can?

One of the most disturbing things Martin reveals near the end of her book is the increasing prevalence of pro-Anorexia and pro-Bulimia websites run by and for young women looking for positive affirmation of their endless pursuit of skinniness. The sites are short-handedly called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia.” Imagine if alcoholics began posting to one another about the pleasures of their addictions, happy to have found a community of like-minded drunks!

Three times a week I sweat away at a local gym, lifting weights, dancing on steps, struggling to lose my pregnancy weight. I often notice the bodies of two of my instructors in particular – women taut with muscle but also fleshy. They teach up to 4 classes a day at various local gyms. I envy their bodies but then realize that I would have to match their grueling exercise routines in order to get where they are – and these two women are not even skinny enough for MTV or Cosmo! And then I wonder – what would their bodies look like if they didn’t work as exercise instructors, spending 3-4 hours, 5-6 days a week, working out? Perhaps they would look like mine.

And if I spent all that time working out, I would have little time left in the day to play with my son, cook a creative meal, enjoy eating it with my husband, read books like Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and, of course, write blogs like this. I would spend more time worrying about my appearance than enjoying my brief time on this earth. I would waste away striving for a perfection that is illusory and more painful than it is worth. No thanks.

I highly recommend Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters to parents of young girls who may have started to become self-conscious about their growing bellies and hips, friends of “perfect girls” who seem to be disappearing in front of their eyes, and anyone who has ever personally struggled with their weight.

For more information about Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and its author, Courtney Martin, visit www.courtneyemartin.com.

NOTE: I interviewed Courtney about her book when it first came out in hard cover last year. Read/listen to the interview here.

Stick With the Taliban?

bush bin ladenThis morning I was a guest on a Grit TV with Laura Flanders, alongside a number of other Afghanistan experts – we were discussing the proposed increase in US troops in that country and Flanders (who, by the way, is one of my favorite radio/TV hosts!) asked the question, “Is this the right war?” as many Americans across the political spectrum often proclaim. I said what I’ve said publicly before: that a military solution to Afghanistan is not the answer, that US/NATO troops are doing more harm than good, that Afghans have turned against the occupation, and that the occupation should end. I added several more details to what should happen instead but you can get all the gory details by watching the show here.

And then tonight I received a cute little email, I’m assuming in response to the interview, which I’ve pasted below:

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Stick with the Taliban.
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:29:36 -0500
From: Go Isolationist!!!!! (mike@whydowesupporttheworld.com)

Since you are so incensed at the US killing civilians, then why are you here in the US? You seem to have liked life when the Taliban Ruled in Afghanistan, correct? We are just looking for the head ring guy Bin Laden. You bring us him, and we\’ll leave your country and you can welcome the Taliban back with open arms. Is that a deal?

——————–
REMOTE IP : 75.45.166.228
DATE/TIME : 2008-09-11 10:29:36

It always makes me smile to receive such messages – they speak for themselves. It affirms my increasing suspicion that those who blindly support war and in fact, well, not so bright.

But maybe I should humor Mike. So Mike, if you manage to read this, perhaps you could respond to the following questions that struck me while reading your email:

Q. Is the US searching for bin Laden or defeating the Taliban? Because you see those are two separate goals and bin Laden sure must be one smart guy to elude so many US troops for so long.

Q. How does killing thousands of civilians, including women and children, help us get closer to finding bin Laden?

Q. If the US hates bin Laden so much, why did the CIA work with him in the 1980s to help recruit jihadi fighters to Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation?

Q. If the US hates the Taliban so much, why did we not speak up when three of our key allies and weapons buyers recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan in 1996 (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.)?

Q. What if the Taliban offered bin Laden to Bush and he turned them down?

Q. Why do you assume I’m from Afghanistan?

Thanks Mike!

The Ignorance and Selfishness of Drilling

gas guzzlerWith the chorus of “Drill baby, drill,” emanating from the halls of the Republican National Convention, Republicans (and to a lesser extent, Democrats) have latched onto what they consider an important election-era economic issue that will draw American votes.

And, as this Pew Research poll shows, they are correct in assuming the utter selfishness and ignorance of Americans.

As a society we seem to balk at the increased price of gas far more than that of milk and vegetables. Our gas guzzling tanks are more precious than food on the table.

So when Karl Rove and his proteges capitalize on such sentiments by announcing oil drilling as a way to lower prices at the pump, Americans rejoice.

polar bearsAnd we stick McCain-Palin signs on our front lawns blissful at the prospect of saving a few hundred dollars a year, some day in the distant future, when all the polar bears and glaciers are gone, when our wallets are empty and our stomachs growling, but our oil executives are fat and rich and our cars purring and gleaming.

First of all, drilling will not lower oil prices – not for a VERY long time. Who says so? The US government. Really. According to the Energy Information Administration, which releases official energy statistics from the government, offshore oil drilling “would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.” Read the whole report here.

Secondly, what we lose as a result of this drilling is far too precious and irreversible. The Natural Resources Defense Council, in an excellent report on the impact of oil drilling on the environment, urges us to rethink this madness: Drilling for oil could seriously damage our oceans, coastal communities and marine life.

Reflections on the RNC (And, A Resolution to Blog More Frequently)

stepford wivesI recently returned from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota where I was part of a Pacifica Radio nightly live broadcast. While there it hit me time and again, that I felt completely out of touch with the type of Americans that identify as Republicans. Waiting in line to get into the convention hall, I was surrounded by perfectly coiffured white women in shades of pink, white, and powder blue, teetering on impossibly high heels, and smiling broadly. They sported brightly colored buttons, some with flashing lights, supporting McCain for President. I wondered: Do these folks really support brutal wars? Do they really deny global warming? Do they really want to endlessly consume oil and make corporations rich? Do they really not care about the destruction of the planet? Or the lives of soldiers (forget Iraqis and Afghans – I didn’t even go there)?

I kept being reminded of the film, The Stepford Wives. Maybe all these people are really fake robots, programmed to accept the status quo in favor of the wealthy and elite. Then I realized, no – they are the wealthy and elite.

Obama Intends to Swap One Failed War for Another

Published on Friday, February 29, 2008 by CommonDreams.org

by Sonali Kolhatkar

Lately, in spite of my better judgment, I’ve found myself inflicted with a major case of “Obamania.” I cannot help but be excited at the prospect of a brilliant, younger-than-average, black president who could unite this polarized country against the failed policies of George W Bush. But each time I get optimistic that we are finally on the verge of entering a saner era, Obama makes a terribly foolish statement about the US occupation of Afghanistan.

His latest quip is a prime example: in retaliating against McCain’s attacks on his position on the Iraq war, Obama responded: “I intend to bring [the Iraq war] to an end so that we can actually start going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan like we should have been doing in the first place.”

He simply wants to swap one failed war for another: out of Iraq and into Afghanistan.

Obama, who openly says he is a “strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan,” is counting on American ignorance of the fact that since 2001 we have carried out a smaller scale version of the Iraq war in Afghanistan. In fact, in some respects Afghanistan was the testing ground for Iraq. Broaden the war in Afghanistan and you simply export the Iraq debacle to the middle of Asia.

While the scale of the two operations are vastly different, US policies in Afghanistan have shown eerily similar results to Iraq. After what seemed to be a brief period of positive change in the post-Taliban era, Afghanistan has plunged into despair once more. There has been a huge jump in suicide bombings, greater political power for fundamentalist forces, increased oppression of women, an unprecedented boom in opium production, and greater civilian deaths at US/NATO hands.

If Obama intends on pursuing a more constructive policy in Afghanistan than the current one, I’m all for it. Having studied the war in Afghanistan from its inception, I can make several recommendations including: generous funding of indigenous grassroots health, educational, and employment efforts; disarmament of US-backed criminal warlords and a war crimes tribunal to help national healing; protection of journalists and independent members of Parliament, especially women; viable and lucrative alternatives to poppy farming for local poor farmers; and of course the most important one of all: an immediate withdrawal of US/NATO combat troops with a corresponding increase in transitional UN peace-keeping forces (to remain in the country for purely security purposes until a democratic Afghanistan is ready to kick them out too).

These recommendations are not sure-fire but stand a good chance at actually helping ordinary Afghans, ending the reign of impunity enjoyed by the warlords, undermining any base of popular support enjoyed by the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda, and driving fewer people to resort to suicide bombings as a way to end a foreign occupation. Best of all, they can give real democracy a chance – the best antidote to terrorism.

Obama has not suggested any of these types of policies. He has not come even close. Instead he wants to take “the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan” by increasing the troop presence – a change that is already taking place under the Bush administration (3,200 additional troops are headed to Afghanistan this summer).

I’m not saying Americans should not vote for Obama (assuming he ends up winning the Democratic nomination). On the contrary, he and the movement that supports him represents perhaps the most viable hope of ending the Iraq war on the horizon today. What I am suggesting is that Obama’s antiwar supporters ought to be prepared for the sleight-of-hand war-swapping he has planned. They can do that best by starting right now, to hold Obama accountable for his extremely mis-guided position on Afghanistan. They can do that by guiding him firmly toward the more constructive goal of ending that war too, which in the long term will do far more to actually end terrorism.

Sonali Kolhatkar is host of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program and co-Director of Afghan Women’s Mission. She is co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories, 2006).
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Go See Persepolis!

PersepolisI didn’t think Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age-in-Iran memoir could be much improved by animating it, but having just seen the Oscar-nominated film Persepolis, I realize I was wrong. I described it to a friend interested in viewing it thus: a black-and-white, animated film in French with English subtitles about a young girl growing up in revolutionary Iran. That description sets up a number of obstacles to a mainstream American audience. But Persepolis is absolutely worth watching. About 10 minutes into the film, you forget it’s black and white, you forget it’s animated, and you forget it’s in French. Satrapi’s story is honest and authentic, personal and political, all at once.

The type of story Marjane Satrapi’s weaves about her life is too often told by Western storytellers who can’t help but exoticize, trivialize, and patronize readers in the telling. So many things about her experience reminded me of my own: figuring out how to be a “normal” kid in a fundamentalist culture, grappling with the alienation of being a foreigner, suffering the pain of separation from one’s family at a young age. So, when I first came across part 1 of Satrapi’s deeply moving graphic novel about her early years, I read it in one sitting. I read part 2 in the book store before I could even finish paying for it.

The women in Persepolis, like the storyteller, are strong-willed, real women who struggle for their rights heroically. Satrapi’s relationship with her smart-talking grandmother is central to the film. Her grandmother teaches her to believe in herself, scolds her when she is selfish, and reminds her to take a principled stand in all things. It’s an image of Iranian women we rarely see in Western media.

The simple lines of her pen convey volumes about family, society, war, and religion and are a testament to her artistry, both as a story teller, and a graphic artist. It would almost have been too easy to make a traditional film based on her books, complete with actors and location shoots. In translating her graphic novels into an animated film, she chooses to keep her story in a realm that is one step away from reality: just like our own memories.

Enemies of Happiness (Film Review)

Enemies of HappinessEnemies of Happiness is not The Beauty Academy of Kabul. It is not about a Western woman traveling to a war-torn country to save brown women. It is about an Afghan woman, Malalai Joya, who has chosen to risk her life to fight for her own people.

Eva Mulvad’s award-winning film opens with footage of Joya’s dramatic public denunciation of the criminal warlords who dominated the 2004 loya jirga (constitutional convention) in Afghanistan. This was the fateful moment when ordinary Afghans discovered their most dedicated spokesperson—a twenty-six-year-old woman who was willing to risk her life to give voice to her people. It was also the moment that cast Joya into international fame, and into the crosshairs of the most notorious Afghan criminals—the “enemies of happiness.”

The loya jirga incident was the impetus for Joya’s bid for a parliamentary seat, and her election campaign is the focus of the rest of the film. It is Joya’s unconventional method of winning over the voters of rural Farah Province that makes this film utterly fascinating.

Joya does give an inspiring campaign speech or two to women who have never voted and cannot read or write. But the poor residents of Farah are more impressed by her dedication to solving the myriad social and political problems that plague their society. A drug addict who abuses his wife and threatens to leave his family receives a stern lecture from Joya. A warlord who is intent on forcibly marrying a young girl is reported by the girl’s family to the police at Joya’s urging.

Enemies of HappinessAnother reason why her people love and trust her is that she is quite literally one of them. Eva Mulvad’s skillful and unobtrusive camera work captures the impoverished lifestyle that is unfamiliar to Joya’s Western supporters. We see her cooking a modest meal, squatting on her haunches as she washes her clothes, and sleeping within a ramshackle hut. Mulvad’s decision to forgo a narrator gives the film a rare intimacy and authenticity. Malalai and other Afghans speak for themselves, allowing the film to avoid the paternalism that affects most Western-made documentaries about “Third World” nations.

Throughout the campaign Joya remains stoic, knowing that if elected, her intent to expose the warlords will bring her even closer to death. Many Afghans have been brutally murdered for doing and saying far less. But in one meeting with a close friend, the immense gravity of her actions becomes apparent and she breaks down, begging Mulvad to turn the camera off.

Enemies of Happiness leaves off where Malalai Joya’s contentious career in Parliament begins. The film’s only flaw is that its triumphant ending obscures the greater danger that lies ahead: in May 2007, Joya was suspended for “insulting” her fellow MPs and ordered to face a court of law.

Still, this remarkable story of how one woman has risked everything for her people is devastatingly compelling. It is a lesson in deep democracy that elected representatives in the United States could stand to learn.

—Sonali Kolhatkar

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2007-08 issue of make/shift magazine (www.makeshiftmag.com).

Find out more about the film at www.enemiesofhappiness.com, and about Malalai Joya at www.malalaijoya.com

Ending the “Good War”

Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on June 13, 2007

by James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar
Editor: John Feffer

With primary election season in full swing, Democratic Party candidates have begun trying to distinguish themselves from each other and from the Republicans. The Iraq War has been one such dividing issue. Liberal groups like MoveOn.org praised both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for “showing real leadership” because they “stood up and did the right thing” by voting against the recent Iraq/Afghanistan war-funding bill. The main fight in Congress over the bill was whether or not to include a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But the issue of Afghanistan was not on the table. Neither the version Clinton and Obama supported nor the one they rejected had any stipulations on the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Both versions continued funding for the operation as is.

Indeed, the top tier of candidates with a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination expresses depressingly similar perspectives on the first front in the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” To them, Afghanistan is the “good war.” These supposedly anti-war men and women seem to have serious concerns with what is going on in Iraq, but they have no problem with our conduct of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, they want to enhance it. Barack Obama has said that the Iraq war has “distracted” us from Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton says she is “encouraged by the progress in Afghanistan, but the country is tottering” and needs more troops to “finish off the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” There is talk of moving troops out of Iraq and putting them in Afghanistan. This implies that our troops are doing awful things in Iraq but are doing good things in Afghanistan and therefore deserve support.

In fact, U.S. and NATO troops are doing the same things in both countries: bombing civilian areas, invading villages, rounding up people without evidence, torturing detainees, causing deaths in custody, and shooting into crowds. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering the civilians that they are supposed to be protecting, and turning the local population against them,” says Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

When it comes to war, most U.S. politicians are concerned not with whether a particular policy benefits the Iraqi or Afghan people but how successful the operation is from a strategic perspective, whether it improves U.S. global status and assets, and whether they can use it to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Thus, many Democrats criticize Bush’s war on Iraq as a distraction from the real war in Afghanistan. In reality, both major U.S. parties will probably nominate pro-war candidates whose only difference on military issues is which country represents the best recipient of American firepower, and which people it makes more sense to terrorize and kill: Afghans or Iraqis.

Progress for War Criminals

Life in Afghanistan did improve in the first year or so after coalition forces removed the Taliban. Voting for president in October 2004 and for parliament in September 2005, Afghans picked their own leaders for the first time in decades. But most of those who ended up in the government, both through elections and through appointments, were already powerful. They had money to run campaigns and hire bodyguards, and they possessed the firepower to intimidate the population. Most of them were also major U.S. allies; many were warlords with histories of war crimes. Hamid Karzai, the man chosen by the Bush administration to become president, was one of the few U.S.-backed leaders who was not a warlord. For this reason, he actually won the popular vote by a landslide. But his subsequent embrace of the warlords and his failure to bring promised improvements to the basic infrastructure of his country have made him almost universally reviled by Afghans.

Contrary to Senator Clinton’s talk of “progress in Afghanistan,” the life of the average Afghan has gone from bad to worse under American stewardship. Amid the re-entrenchment of abusive power brokers in Afghanistan, the people have little security, no jobs, and poor access to health care or a decent education. About 90% of Afghans do not have access to clean drinking water or electricity. Growing anti-U.S. and anti-Afghan-government protests, and numerous surveys show that the people see their lives as getting worse. According to a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based on interviews with over 1,000 Afghans, Afghanistan has stagnated or slipped backward on four out of five key development categories from 2005 to 2006.

The only improvement came in the category of “economic conditions.” As usual with mainstream assessments of the economy, the main concern is with the amount of money changing hands not the wellbeing of the average person. Afghanistan’s economy is certainly booming by the standard criterion: the GDP has doubled since 2001 as investment in the risky (but profitable) country has gone through the roof. But, according to the CSIS report, “these benefits have not translated into sufficient employment and income generating activities for the ordinary citizen.” Even when money is available, much of it is siphoned into the coffers of warlords and corrupt politicians. Since 2001, the warlords have evicted hundreds of poor residents to “make way for a ‘new Afghanistan’ of palatial homes—scores of four- and five-story mansions boasting gold-painted marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows flanking grand wooden doors.” Other signs of an economic boom that does not reach ordinary Afghans are the new Coke bottling plant and five-star hotel that have opened in Kabul.

In many ways, U.S. policies have brought Afghanistan back to the age of the Taliban. Since the parliamentary elections, warlords have used their positions to become even more powerful. In July 2006, Karzai’s cabinet approved the proposal to reinstate the Taliban’s feared Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In a more far-reaching move, the parliament on January 31, 2007 passed an amnesty bill that states, “all those political and belligerent sides who were involved one way or the other during the 2 1/2 decades of war will not be prosecuted legally and judicially.” This bill is so broad it even forgives the Taliban of war crimes. Supporters of the amnesty bill claim that it is “an attempt to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghan society.” This is reminiscent of former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s excuse that encouraging warlords to enter government was a way toward peace.

The amnesty bill is in distinct opposition to the aspirations of the Afghan people. In an important 2005 survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 69% of Afghans identified either themselves or immediate family members as direct victims of human rights violations perpetrated by the warlords in parliament and their ilk; 61% rejected amnesty for such crimes. In fact, 76% felt instead that bringing war criminals to justice would “increase stability and bring security” to their country.

Freedom of Speech Curtailed

The only member of parliament who openly echoes these sentiments is Malalai Joya, a 28-year old representative from Farah province. Joya is extremely popular for her well-known criticisms of fellow MPs on the parliament floor, but she has consequently received threats of death and rape, and has survived four assassination attempts. For a particularly scathing attack in which she unfavorably compared the parliament to a zoo, the warlord-dominated assembly invoked a little-known parliamentary rule on May 21 that bars members from “insulting” one another and suspended Joya from her post. In response, hundreds of Afghans have been demonstrating in cities across the country demanding her reinstatement. Human Rights Watch said the suspension of Joya “sets back democracy and rights” in Afghanistan, and that her “comments don’t warrant the punishment she received.” Members of the European parliament and Canada’s New Democratic Party also condemned the parliamentary move. Distinguished by their silence on this issue are both the Bush administration and the “anti-war” Democrats in Congress.

Joya is not the only one silenced by the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The parliament is reportedly considering amendments to the country’s media law that “could undo many of the gains made since the fall of the Taliban.” The current law is thought to be “the most liberal in the region,” at least on paper. These amendments are a continuation of systematic attacks on press freedom over the past few years. In particular, Karzai’s National Security Directorate circulated a memo to Afghan media last June, which stated that “the media must ban or restrict broadcasting those materials which deteriorate the morale of the public, cause security problems, and which are against the public interest.” Among the 18 actions to be banned are “publication of provocative articles which are against the Mujahideen [holy warriors] and call them ‘warlords’” and “Negative propaganda, interviews and reports which are provocative or slanderous and which are against the presence (in Afghanistan) of the international coalition forces and ISAF.”

Given the terrible reality of Afghan life, if journalists were to follow these edicts they would have little to report.

Choosing Military Solutions

Despite the the claims of the administration and most presidential candidates, military action cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan as even those implementing the policies admit. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates says of both Iraq and Afghanistan, “these conflicts cannot…be won purel y by military action.” NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says, “It is my strong opinion that the final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one.”

“The final answer in Afghanistan is,” Scheffer continues, “reconstruction, development, and nation-building.” Gates agrees that what is needed is “to help build a government and an economy that serves the interests of the people.” But the United States is not eager to take on that role. “I would urge others to step forward with assistance to Afghanistan in the areas of governance, reconstruction, and counternarcotics,” says Gates.

Most Americans do not realize that there are approximately 49,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about one-third the number in Iraq. Of those troops, 28,000 are from the United States: 15,000 operate under NATO and 13,000 are part of the Pentagon’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The U.S.-NATO dichotomy is misleading, however, because the largest contingent of NATO troops is from the United States (the second-largest contingent from the UK is much smaller, only 7,700 soldiers). In addition, the military head of NATO operations, U.S. General Dan K. McNeill, is also the chief of OEF. In other words, America dominates all foreign troop operations in Afghanistan.

For Washington the goal of these deployments is limited to ending sanctuary for “terrorists” who might attack U.S. and allied assets, which include Karzai’s government. But the overwhelming reliance on force has created more people willing to commit terrorism against the United States. Today, Afghanistan is plagued by a new insurgency funded by the remnants of the Taliban and drug lords and fueled by a new hatred of Americans and other foreigners.

Three recent examples illustrate what seems to be an inflexible US military strategy: when confronted by any perceived threat, respond with overwhelming force. Inevitably, this leads to heavy civilian casualties.

On May 8, 2007 in the village of Sarban Qala, U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with Afghan National Army troops were reportedly “under heavy attack by Taliban militants” and called in air strikes to “destroy…three compounds and an underground tunnel network.” The air strikes killed 21 civilians, according to the governor of Helmand province and the district chief. An Afghan official stated, “some Taliban were also killed.” In this example, the civilian casualties may have been a byproduct of a real battle between U.S. forces and insurgents, and hence the result of negligence.

In late April 2007, in a village in Zerkoh valley in Herat province, the U.S. military claimed that American forces “came under heavy fire from insurgents…and called in air strikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.” But villagers insisted there were no Taliban in the village. According to The New York Times, “the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials.” The U.S. air strikes were actually a response to the defiance of villagers who had been harassed on two previous occasions by foreign troops. One farmer said, “when the Americans came without permission—and they came more than once and disturbed the people—they searched the houses, and the second time they arrested people, and the third time the people got angry and fought them.” The U.S. strikes killed about 60 civilians, almost half of which were women and children, and displaced over 1600. So in this case, the air strikes targeted villagers who had taken up arms in response to previous U.S. aggression. As a result, the U.S. forces created an insurgency in a village where there was none.

In Nangarhar province in March 2007, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-filled car near a U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces convoy, wounding one soldier. According to military officials, this was part of “a complex ambush involving enemy small-arms fire from several directions,” whereupon U.S. soldiers returned fire and civilians were killed and wounded in the crossfire. An investigation by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission determined that this was a lie. “U.S. forces claimed that the suicide attack was part of a complex ambush…but…all witnesses and Afghan government officials interviewed uniformly denied that any attack beyond the initial [suicide car] took place.” The report describes what seemed to be random shooting by the U.S. soldiers into the surrounding crowd of Afghans. Then, as the soldiers resumed their journey, the report continues, “During the next 16 kilometers, the convoy in several locations opened fire on civilians traveling by foot or in vehicles, causing further deaths and injuries.” In all, 19 people were killed and 50 wounded. In this third example, U.S. troops were in no danger after an initial suicide bomb.

Col. John Nicholson, a commander in eastern Afghanistan, said of civilian death, “regrettably it does happen, because this is war, but we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.” The facts speak otherwise. Of all the NATO countries, the Americans are reputed for aggressive behavior. According to The New York Times, “many of the most serious episodes of civilian deaths have involved United States counterterrorism and Special Operations forces that operate separately from the NATO command.”

In some cases U.S. officials actively thwart outside scrutiny. On at least one occasion, Western troops deliberately prevented media from uncovering both their criminal actions and their false justifications. After the Nangarhar incident, U.S. troops returned to the area and removed all bullet shells and cartridges. They prevented Afghan National Police units from accessing the site until they were finished. In addition, seven journalists reported having their equipment confiscated or being forced to delete pictures and videos they had taken. A U.S. Marine told one cameraman to “delete the photographs or we will delete you.”

According to Human Rights Watch, there were “at least 230” civilian deaths in Afghanistan attributable to U.S. or NATO actions in 2006. The count will probably be much higher for 2007 (the three examples given here already add up to 100). Even so, the 2006 figure is probably an underestimate, given that U.S. and NATO officials claim many thousands of “Taliban insurgents” and “suspected Taliban” were also killed. In two of the examples above, officials masked the number of civilians killed by mislabeling the dead as “Taliban.”

Cracks in NATO

The growing number of civilian deaths are “threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance,” according to The New York Times. At a May 9 meeting in Brussels, the NATO secretary general met with the North Atlantic Council, the organization’s governing body, and had “intense discussion” on the subject. But “the conversation was less about how to reduce casualties,” reported the Times, “than about how to explain them to European governments.” To most officials, the criminality and injustice of the civilian deaths alone are not enough to condemn them. But when they undermine the support base at home or in the host country, and threaten the crucial “winning hearts and minds” portion of NATO’s counterinsurgency campaign, they become a strategic problem.

The Americans themselves seem to be slowly reconsidering their tactics. In an unusual move, Col. Nicholson made what seemed like a very sincere apology to the families of the people killed in the Nangarhar incident. In particular, he admitted that the Americans “killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” and asked for the people’s forgiveness, paying the families $2000 each. Such apologies and payments, regardless of how paltry or insulting, reflect a desperate desire to rebuild America’s image with the Afghan people.

Perhaps the newfound difficulty in understanding civilian deaths in Washington and Brussels has something to do with the increasing number of anti-U.S. and anti-Karzai demonstrations all over Afghanistan. Thousands “stormed a government district headquarters” in Shindand near a large American base, to protest the killings in the Zerkoh valley incident. On the other side of the country around the same time, about 2000 students blocked the highway from Kabul to Pakistan for four continuous days to protest a second killing of innocents in Nangarhar province at the end of April. People burning George W. Bush in effigy and calling for Karzai’s resignation is an obvious sign that Operation Enduring Freedom is not winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans.

Opening for Anti-War Movement

Afghanistan’s dire situation today is a direct result of U.S. policies over the past six years. The best time to change those policies would have been early on, in 2002 before the warlords were legitimized and before Operation Enduring Freedom became standard military procedure. Still, the failures of NATO’s destructive tactics and the growing, non-Taliban, grassroots resistance in Afghanistan may provide another opening for the U.S. anti-war movement to force a change in policy.

Unfortunately, the movement has been pitifully silent on Afghanistan, especially since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is true even though Afghanistan has one-third the number of foreign troops as Iraq, the bulk of which are American (nearly 60%), and the Americans are the worst perpetrators of violence. In contrast, the movements in Europe and Canada are outraged by the conduct of their militaries and force their governments daily to justify their continued presence in Afghanistan. In Canada, for example, which only has about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, anti-war coalitions have organized demonstrations and petitioned the government to withdraw their soldiers. Canadian public opposition is so high that Afghanistan is regularly debated on the Parliament floor. For example, members of the New Democratic Party have sponsored a motion “calling for the immediate…withdrawal of our troops from the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.” The American anti-war movement, on the other hand, has left it to the Democrats to be the only anti-Bush voice on Afghanistan. Thus the U.S. public is presented with only two options: send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, or (at best) reduce the number of troops in Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan. This is truly a failure of the American left.

Ideally, the U.S. antiwar movement should work in solidarity with Afghans attempting to meet their needs. Based on published polls and our own interviews with people in Afghanistan, most Afghans want primarily two things. They want security and justice, which translates into foreign troop withdrawal, warlord disarmament, and war crimes tribunals. And they want assistance to rebuild infrastructure and meet basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and jobs.

Many Americans who were moved by the plight of the Afghan people before September 11 wanted to support efforts to overthrow the Taliban and rebuild the country. The U.S. government responded by bombing the country and replacing the Taliban with equally rapacious warlords. The silence of the progressive movement on Afghanistan leaves unchallenged the claim that U.S. actions liberated the people and brought a new era of democracy. Unlike our Canadian and European counterparts, who have called for an immediate troop withdrawal, we have not made any solid demands of our government.

As a first step, Americans of conscience ought to join activists in other NATO countries to call for an immediate end to Operation Enduring Freedom and a withdrawal of combat troops.

Unfortunately a withdrawal of troops, while necessary, will not solve all the problems of the Afghan people. The immediate result will be a military power vacuum. Recall the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Soviet troops ended their occupation of Afghanistan. The power vacuum allowed U.S.-sponsored warlords to plunge the country into the worst violence in its recent history. If the power vacuum is filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force to help the country transition toward stability, a repeat of that violence might be avoided. In tandem, it will be necessary to fully fund the social and economic programs that Afghans desire. Ideally, the money should be unconditional. And it should come from countries that have played the most destructive role in Afghanistan, such as the United States. Anything less reveals a callous indifference to the victims of our country’s forgotten war in Afghanistan, and is an abrogation of our fundamental responsibility as Americans.

 

James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are the co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based nonprofit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They are also the co-authors of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, published in 2006 by Seven Stories Press.

We Just Moved! Site Under Construction

politicalconScience.net and SonaliAndJim.net are merging and moving to a new web host. Now both Sonali and Jim will be blogging on the same site, LoveAndSubversion.net. Pardon our mess as we get organized.

A note on the name. Originally we thought up “Love and Subversion” for our band, but we haven’t written or recorded music in about five years. Sonali started a new career and the both of us put a lot of time into our book that came out last year. Now with our first child on the way, it doesn’t look as if music-making is on the horizon. But we decided “Love and Subversion” both still drive our activities (or should when we get selfish and/or complacent). Plus it has a nice “online newsmagazine” feel to it.