The Truth About Afghanistan
by Nicole Colson
Review, April 2003
After the supposed liberation of Afghanistan
in 2001 at the hands of the U.S. military and their warlord proxies,
the Bush administration gloated over their quick ousting of the
Taliban. The U.S. had, according to the Bush administration, placed
the country squarely back on the path of democracy and freed it
from the oppressive fundamentalism of the Taliban regime. As White
House spokesman Ari Fleischer boasted in October: "[I]f you
take a look at Afghanistan...under the loya jirga and the helping
hand the United States and others are providing in the rebuilding
of Afghanistan they certainly are more free and more democratic
The idea that the U.S. was fighting a
legitimate war in Afghanistan was not limited to the U.S. government.
Nothing prompted more calls to support the Afghan war-even from
progressive and liberal camps-than the idea that the Bush administration's
war would not only deter "terrorism," but it would also
free the long-suffering women of the country.
As the Bush administration prepared to
go to war in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, the
liberal Nation editorialized that "There is a real threat
of further attacks, so...action designed to hunt down members
of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who
collaborate with it is appropriate." Nation editorial board
member Richard Falk went on to write that the war in Afghanistan
is "the first truly just war since World War II." Nor
did the Nation stand alone as a left supporter of the U.S. war.
Many other liberals called on Washington to prosecute a "just
war" in Afghanistan, including Robert Kuttner, who declared
in the American Prospect that only the far left could believe
the war was not reasonable.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has recently
written scathing reports exposing the current horrors in Afghanistan,
skirted both sides of the issue at the time, arguing that although
war was unfortunate, a war carried out under the auspices and
guidelines of the international community could ultimately have
the beneficial conclusion of liberating Afghan women and restoring
democracy. The collapse of the Taliban regime, they said, was
"an opportunity for positive change."
At the time, the International Socialist
Review argued differently. The ISR argued that the war was about
the U.S. using September 11 as an opportunity to expand its geostrategic
power in the region: "Any serious antiwar movement has to
proceed from the starting point that it must oppose this war-
not offer up suggestions to Bush and Co. about how to fight it
more cleanly. Anyone concerned with ending terrorism should be
concerned with ending the terrorism of the U.S. and its allies
raining death and destruction on one of the poorest countries
on earth," not advising it on how to build a kinder-gentler
More than one year later, our analysis
has been confirmed. The "new" Afghanistan looks eerily
like the old Afghanistan. Factional violence from rival warlords
erupts continuously, and in cities outside of the capital of Kabul,
there are real questions about who actually runs the government.
In Kabul itself, the U.S. puppet president Hamid Karzai remains
an impotent ruler at best- the object of assassination attempts
guarded by a coterie of U.S. bodyguards. Ethnic violence, far
from disappearing, has increased in many rural areas, particularly
against Pashtuns. Women throughout Afghanistan remain draped in
blue burqas. The promises of independence and freedom remain elusive
for the most oppressed members of Afghan society. Assurances from
the West about helping the country rebuild have proven hollow.
The U.S. in particular has been slow to deliver economic and reconstruction
aid-abandoning the Afghan people once again to the poverty, misery
and instability it helped to create.
The civilian cost
"No military in the history of war
has done more to protect the innocent than we have in Afghanistan,"
Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa,
Florida, told a reporter last December. Predictably, the opposite
is true. As many as 3,666 people, according to research by University
of New Hampshire Professor Marc Herold, were killed by U.S. bombs.
According to HRW, the U.S. military indiscriminately dropped cluster
bombs on populated areas. HRW found that the U.S. military dropped
close to 250,000 duster bomblets that killed or injured scores
of civilians, especially children, both during and after they
were initially released. Using the Pentagon's own (conservative)
"dud" rate of 5 percent, that leaves more than 12,400
what HRW calls "de facto landmines"
strewn across the country. As of November 2002, the International
Committee of the Red Cross had linked 127 civilian casualties
to cluster bomb duds. An astonishing 69 percent of these casualties
Beyond the alleged bombing "mistakes"
of the U.S. military, there's also evidence that U.S. forces may
have participated in-and almost certainly have known about-the
massacre of thousands of prisoners of war following the capture
of the city of Kunduz in November 2001 by troops of Northern Alliance
warlord, and U.S. ally, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. According
to witnesses, after Kunduz fell, surrendering soldiers were blindfolded,
sometimes handcuffed and then beaten-before being crammed 200
or 300 at a time into metal shipping containers with no air holes
and no water. The containers were then driven by dozens of trucks
across the desert to Sheberghan prison, near Mazar-e-Sharif-a
24-hour trip. As many as 5,000 may have suffocated along the way.
As the allegations came to light last year, even Newsweek was
forced to ask the question, "Does the United States have
any responsibility for the atrocities of its allies?"
The war is not over
Today, despite the massive fire power
and show of force that the U.S. military brought to bear on Afghanistan
during the war, there is renewed fighting between U.S. and fundamentalist
forces that appear to be regrouping into small guerrilla units.
In January and February, for example, U.S. and coalition forces
were engaged in the heaviest fighting in the country since "Operation
Anaconda" of March 2002. In late January, 18 rebels, possibly
Taliban fighters, were reportedly killed by U.S. troops in combat
Assassinations and bombings have also
continued to escalate in the new Afghanistan. In the first weeks
of 2003, two separate bus bombings near Kandahar killed at least
24 people. Assassination attempts of government officials are
also on the rise, including the February 24 wounding of a police
chief working near Kandahar and the February 26 killing of Habibullah
Jan, a district administrator in Nimroz province in Afghanistan.
Today, Taliban leaders as well as former
mujahedeen leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-a man armed and
funded by the U.S. during the 1980s war against the Soviets-are
operating within the country. They are reportedly responsible
for circulating pamphlets declaring a jihad, or holy war, against
U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as against Afghans working
with the U.S.-backed government.
Civilians are still being targeted by
the U.S. military. In early February, for example, U.S. military
spokesmen claimed that rebel forces had been spotted in the area
of Baghran Valley, and that in response, a Danish F-16 dropped
a 500 pound bomb, while U.S. bombers dropped 2,000-pound "smart"
bombs. In this incident, however, the Afghan government says that
17 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed. "The
people came crying, saying their relatives had died or were missing,"
said Haji Mohammad Wali, a spokesman for the government of Helmand
province. The bombing of civilians was so outrageous that government
officials were reduced to pleading with coalition forces to cease
bombing, at least during the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha. "In
general, the government prefers they shouldn't bomb in respect
of Eid days, unless it is very necessary," Karzai spokesman
Tayab Jawad said. "The government has asked them to avoid
bombing during this time."
Since the fighting is still going on,
and the Afghan government is reduced to pleading with the U.S.
to stop killing innocent civilians, doesn't it beg the question:
How liberated is Afghanistan, really?
With Washington's sights set squarely
on Iraq, the answer is one the Bush administration might like
to ignore. But, as HRW commented in October 2002, "Far from
emerging as a stable democracy, Afghanistan remains a fractured,
undemocratic collection of 'fiefdoms' in which warlords are free
to intimidate, extort and repress local populations, while almost
completely denying basic freedoms.""
Warlords in control-backed by the U.S.
In most parts of the country, security
and local governance has been entrusted, with the approval of
the U.S., to regional warlords. Many of these men have human rights
records just as revolting as the worst commanders under the Taliban.
Things are so bad that in December a turf war broke out between
rival groups in the west of the country, killing at least 13 people.
A U.S. B-52 bombed the battle zone when U.S. special forces posted
close to the Iranian border were caught up in the clash.
That hasn't stopped the U.S. military
from backing men like Dostum, the Uzbek commander responsible
for the atrocities cited above. Likewise, the U.S. remains friendly
towards Ismail Khan-the warlord who controls the western city
of Herat and its surrounding areas. "The international community
says it wants to reduce the power of the warlords and bring law
and order back to Afghanistan," said John Sifton of HRW.
"But in Herat, it has done exactly the opposite. The friend
of the international community in western Afghanistan is an enemy
of human rights."
Human Rights Watch has documented dozens
of instances in which Khan personally ordered politically motivated
arrests and beatings. Victims of Khan's forces describe beatings
with thorny branches, sticks, cables and rifle butts. Some say
that they were hanged upside down, whipped or subjected to electric
Still, none of that would appear to be
a problem for Washington. As Sifton said, "The United States
and Iran have a great deal of influence over Ismail Khan. They
put him where he is today." In fact, Khan received U.S. Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Herat on April 29, 2002. Rumsfeld
later publicly commented about his meeting with Khan: "It's
helpful for me to meet the players, to get a sense of them and
to hear from them what they're thinking publicly and privately....
[Khan's] an appealing person. He's thoughtful, measured and self-confident."
This "appealing" man has forced
tens of thousands of Pashtuns to flee western Afghanistan to Kandahar,
Iran and Pakistan in the last nine months in order to escape ethnic
persecution from the forces of Khan and other warlords. The prisons
in Herat are now full of Khan's political enemies. "What
has changed in Afghanistan?" one Herati resident asked HRW
in September. "All our hopes are crushed. We are completely
disappointed. Look: all the same warlords are in power as before.
Fundamentalism has come into power, and every day they strengthen
But don't look for the U.S. to pull the
reins in on the monsters that they helped create. According to
Army Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, the American commander in
charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has
no problem working closely with Afghan warlords. "For the
near term," said McNeill, "these regional leaders-while
they might appear unsavory to some, and some accuse them of having
sordid pasts-they are providing a degree of security and stability
out and away from Kabul."
U.S. support of Afghanistan's thugs and
butchers follows "the same logic that led American forces,
in the early days of the Afghan war, to cooperate with-and, according
to recent revelations, pay large sums of money to-some decidedly
unsavory characters: better they be allies than enemies,"
and, according to the New York Times.
At the same time, the tacit approval of
the U.S. for warlords like Dostum and Khan has served to further
undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai-himself handpicked
by Washington to run Afghanistan, and installed as a result of
backdoor U.S. dealings at the country's loya jirga election last
year. Karzai has so little power outside of the country's capital
of Kabul that he is reportedly referred to as the "mayor
of Kabul." It's one reason why, according to the UN Afghanistan
is once again the world's largest opium producer-something that
came about because of "the total collapse of law and order
in the autumn of 2001," the very time that the U.S. claimed
to be restoring stability to the shattered country.
The liberation lie
More than a year later, the promise of
liberation for Afghan women has failed to materialize. As HRW
official Zama Coursen-Neff, put it, "Many people outside
the country believe that Afghan women and girls have had their
rights restored. It's just not true."
The warlords that the U.S. military continues
to tacitly support in Afghanistan subscribe to many of the exact
same proscriptions against women's rights as the Taliban before
them. In many parts of the country the situation is as bad, and
in some cases worse for women since the fall of the Taliban and
the so-called liberation of the country at the hands of the U.S.
military. "Women and girls are still being abused, harassed
and threatened all over Afghanistan, often by government troops
and officials,'' said Coursen-Neff.
According to HRW, around the western city
of Herat, Ismail Khan and his troops have been responsible for
forcing women back into their burqas. Worse, Khan's forces have
apparently set up both a religious police and a youth police to
haul women and girls to hospitals for gynecological examinations
for the purpose of "chastity checks." As one Herati
woman told HRW, "Only the doors to the schools are open.
Everything else is restricted."
Although some women and girls have been
able to go back to school or work, many are still cut off from
any independence. In late October, several girls' schools in and
around Kabul were attacked with rockets and grenades-and at least
a dozen more have been burned to the ground in arson attacks in
the months since women were liberated in Afghanistan. In January,
even the doors to the schools began to close once again, as new
rules on female education in Herat were announced prohibiting
men from teaching women or girls in private educational courses,
and upholding strict gender segregation in all schools. With a
severe shortage of female teachers, the new rules will result
in the inability of most girls in the region to receive an education.
Women are still little more than chattel
in many areas of the country. "Outside the capital, Kabul,
and large, once-cosmopolitan cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, parents
continue to sell their daughters to future husbands, women are
not allowed to run shops, and when they go to a restaurant, they
must eat separately from men," reported the San Francisco
Chronicle. "Even in Kabul, where women travel by car more
than by donkey, they are more likely to squat in the trunk than
to sit comfortably inside the car like men."
Things are so bad for women, in fact,
that in November the Afghan Supreme Court actually dismissed a
female judge for not wearing an Islamic headscarf when she and
14 other female government officials met with George W. and Laura
Bush as part of a celebration of the liberation of Afghan women.
Around the same time, the Taliban's "Police for the Protection
of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" reportedly had begun
once again to patrol some remote districts of southern Afghanistan-beating
and threatening women for showing their faces in public. The systematic
rape of women-particularly of Pashtun women in the southern regions
of the country-has also become a common occurrence.
Recent reports suggest that young Afghan
women are so desperate to escape arranged marriages that they
are turning to self-immolation-setting themselves on fire. Reports
suggest that an average of three young women each week are brought
to the regional hospital in Herat after setting themselves on
fire. Hospital staff say that the typical victim is 14 to 20 years
old and is trying to escape a marriage arranged by her father.
Often, the marriage is to an older man who has another wife and
children-like, for example, the 14-year-old who arrived at the
hospital in early November in critical condition with only her
palms unscorched. She had been given in marriage to a 60-year-old
married man with grown children. "It's like the girls are
animals being sold," commented Dr. Saleha Hekamt, a female
surgeon at the hospital.
For those who don't commit suicide, a
bleak future often awaits-just as bleak as they would have faced
under the command of the Taliban. Nargiz, for example, was forced
into an arranged marriage after her husband, Mahbuhhullah, bought
her from her parents last year for $ 12,000. In September, Nargiz
told a reporter that-although she was once a schoolteacher living
in an urban town-she has resigned herself to not working, to sharing
a house with Mahhuhhullah's other wife, Najiba. The once vibrant
and outgoing woman has learned, she says, to shun male strangers
and to hide her face under a burqa whenever she leaves her husband's
compound. "Life is good," she told a reporter, "I
am used to my burqa now."
Women all across the country are facing
a similar, grim situation. Despite repeated promises of Western
aid, for example, recent reports suggest that health care for
women in Afghanistan continues to be some of the worst in the
world, with more Afghan women dying during childbirth than any
other country on earth except Sierra Leone.
The country is in the midst of a growing
refugee crisis, a harsh winter, a three-year drought and a food
shortage. Afghanistan still has an estimated 700,000 internally
displaced people-many of whom are in danger of both starving and
freezing to death. Two million refugees returned to the country
in 2002, with another 1.5 million expected in 2003-placing enormous
additional strain on already overburdened resources. According
to a recent survey by the UN environmental program, the country
remains environmentally devastated by decades of war, with more
than half of the water supply of Kabul going to waste, and more
than half of the forests in three provinces having been destroyed
over the past 25 years. As many as 88 percent of people living
in urban areas lack access to safe drinking water.
The report admits that decades of war
have led to the "collapse of local and national governance,
destroyed infrastructure, hindered agricultural activity and driven
people into cities already lacking the most basic public amenities."
In one factory in Kabul, UN workers "found children working
without protection from toxic chemicals and sleeping at machines,
or in factory alcoves, between their 12-hour shifts."
In the first two weeks of December alone,
at least 41 children died of severe cold at camps for Afghan refugees
on the border with Pakistan. Haji Abdul Ghani, of the Pakistan-based
Edhi Welfare Trust, told reporters that as many as 1,200 children-most
under the age of eight-were in danger of dying from squalid living
conditions and cold camps around the southern Afghan town of Spin
These desperate conditions aren't just
limited to Afghanistan's rural areas. In November, hundreds of
students in Kabul clashed with police in two days of violent demonstrations
because of a lack of food and electricity in their dormitory.
Authorities later blamed officials' graft as the cause of the
deplorable conditions, but that didn't stop police from firing
on the crowd, killing four students and injuring dozens more.
"I sent him to Kabul to study, and instead he was killed,"
said Qazi Abdul Hakim, whose son Rahim was among the dead. "Not
by the communists or the Taliban, but by the police of a "democracy."
The bitter conditions experienced by ordinary
people in Afghanistan are likely to get worse in the coming months
as well. The Bush administration-after making rhetorical promises
for a "Marshall Plan"-did not even request a single
dime of money for humanitarian or reconstruction projects in Afghanistan
in the latest budget. Congress subsequently stepped in to find
$300 million, but experts say that this is a drop in the bucket
of what will be needed to make any real impact in the country.
Comparing this to the more than $5 billion in U.S. economic and
military aid delivered to Israel each year, the picture that emerges
is one of a country and people tossed aside once again by the
most powerful government on earth.
Of the $1.8 billion in foreign aid that
was promised to Afghanistan by the international community in
2002, only $600 million had been delivered by September-a fraction
of what will be necessary to actually rebuild the country. Worse,
little of the money that has come in has actually gone to improving
the lives of ordinary Afghans. As one reporter commented in December:
Much of the money seems to have gone
toward gleaming new offices and air-conditioned jeeps for the
1,025 United Nations agencies and international aid groups that
have taken over many of the villas in the Wazir Akbar Khan suburb
where Osama bin Laden's Arab acolytes used to dwell.
Some Afghans have gotten jobs as translators
and drivers-and some are getting rich by charging outrageous rents-but
for most people the 'U.N. Effect' has been an overload of an at
best sporadic electricity supply and a rise in living costs. In
fact, the Aschiana school, a highly regarded program for street
children, is likely to lose its building. The landlord can earn
far more in rent from a foreign aid organization that wants to
convert it into a staff guesthouse.'
Hamid Karzai himself recently was reduced
to begging the U.S. not to abandon Afghanistan. "Don't forget
us if Iraq happens," Karzai implored the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee on February 26. "If you reduce the attention because
of Iraq...and if you leave the whole thing to us to fight again,
it will be repeating the mistake the United States made during
the Soviet occupation."
As Washington turns its eyes toward Iraq,
the lawlessness and desperation in Afghanistan has become so apparent
that journalist Robert Fisk was moved to compare the situation
in the country today to the situation in the country one year
after the Soviet invasion.
It's a sign of just how seriously America's
mission in Afghanistan is collapsing that the majestically conservative
Wall Street Journal, normally a beacon of imperial and Israeli
policy in the Middle East and Southwest Asia-has devoted a long
and intriguing article to the American retreat, though of course
that's not what the paper calls it.
"Soldiers still confront an invisible
enemy," is the title of Marc Kaufman's first-class investigation,
a headline almost identical to one which appeared over a Fisk
story a year or so after Russia's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-80.
The soldiers in my dispatch, of course, were Russian. Indeed,
just as I recall the Soviet officer who told us all at Bagram
air base that the "mujahedin terrorism remnants" were
all that was left of the West's conspiracy against peace-loving
(and Communist) Afghans, so I observed the American spokesmen-yes,
at the very same Bagram air base-who today cheerfully assert that
al Qaeda "remnants" are all that are left of bin Laden's
A smash-and-grab for oil and imperialism
Although Afghanistan itself lacks oil
resources, oil companies and Washington have long viewed Afghanistan
as a potential conduit for transporting the estimated $4 trillion
worth of Central Asia's oil reserves out of the region. Unocal
Corp., in particular, has long sought a pipeline from Turkmenistan
through Afghanistan and into Pakistan. In the past this has been
impossible due to the lack of a stable central government in Afghanistan.
However, once Karzai-himself a former
Unocal consultant-became president of the new Afghanistan, a pipeline
deal was once again suddenly in the works. On December 31, 2001,
Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed by the Bush administration as the
special envoy to Afghanistan. Khalilzad was Unocal's chief consultant
on the Afghan pipeline project in the 1990s, and wasted no time
in helping to arrange a tentative deal in May 2002 for a $2 billion
pipeline to bring gas from;Central Asia to the subcontinent. The
deal was officially signed on December 27, 2002, by Karzai, Pakistani
Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali and Turkmen President Saparmurat
Niyazov, with Karzai assuring reporters that the "security
situation" in Afghanistan would not be a barrier to protecting
a pipeline. On December 2, Khalilzad was appointed to be the "Special
Envoy and Ambassador at Large for Free Iraqis," a job in
which he will help make "preparations" for a post-Saddam
Aside from the material prize of Caspian
Sea oil, Washington's "war on terror" and, specifically,
the war in Afghanistan has served a larger purpose. While oil
itself is attractive for U.S. business interests, the larger prize
for Washington is an ability to dominate the region militarily
and politically (as evidenced, in part, by the fact that the U.S.
has seized the opportunity to increase its military presence in
Central Asia, establishing a string of military bases throughout
the region).35 As Asia Times writer Pepe Escobar commented last
year: "Oil and gas are not the U.S.'s ultimate aim. It's
about control.. . If the U.S. controls the energy resources of
its rivals-Europe, Japan, China and other nations aspiring to
be more independent-they win."
The Bush administration's claims to have
liberated the people of Afghanistan are a lie-a lie that they
will try to use again and again as they take their "war on
terror" on the road to Iraq, the Philippines and wherever
else. As Bush once again trumpets tired rhetoric about bringing
"democracy" to the Middle East through war with Iraq,
we should ask, "Have U.S. bombs brought democracy to Afghanistan?"
When Democrats and Republicans talk of protecting human rights,
we should point out the human rights of Afghans that are being
violated on a daily basis. When pundits and politicians scoff
that this is not a war for oil or profit, we should remind people
that Washington's only tangible result from war so far has been
the deal for an oil pipeline.
Ultimately, this is not a war for liberation,
it is a war for domination and imperialism-and the dismal condition
of Afghanistan shows the catastrophic potential awaiting the population
of Iraq, and any other country that the Bush administration decides
to target down the road. Now is precisely the time that the left
should seize upon the catastrophic consequences of the U.S. war
in Afghanistan in order to build the antiwar movement-and particularly
the anti-imperialist wing of that movement-even stronger.
Nicole Colson is a reporter for Socialist