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.