I’ll always remember a scene from my second day in Afghanistan, when 16-year-old Abdulhai asked me a question, in English. “Is this your first time in a backward country?” I could see at the time that his comment was spoken from a place of genuine frustration with trash-infested rivers, crumbling buildings, dust-choked air, and the way masses of starving unemployed people are forced to live in tents or under bridges. Still, it is a sad fact that many of the young Afghans I met have a tendency to view themselves in this way: as a “tribal people” in the grasp of a “warrior culture.”
Those are some of the sound bites the media throws around to explain for us Afghanistan’s natural slant toward decline and ruin. In such a perfect storm, it is easy for the public to miss the real and concrete roles that invading armies and manipulated markets have played in this physical and human destruction.
In September, Abdulhai and his community brother Ali might have been describing these contemporary features of everyday Afghan life directly to audiences across several U.S. states. They were invited to join with the “Caravan for Peace”, led by the Mexican grassroots organization MPJD (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity). I say “might have been” because despite petitions from thousands of people, the U.S. embassy in Kabul rejected their visa request. Now that they’ve made another appeal, they received appointment dates that fall a week after the caravan is scheduled to end. As of today, the embassy has refused to expedite the interview dates despite a request from seven Congresspersons that they do so.
During my stay in Afghanistan, I went to talk to students at a women’s high school run by USAID (Agency for International Development). A few years ago, six of this school’s students were granted visas to travel for three months on a multistate tour of the United States. These teenage women were of similar age and background as Ali and Abdulhai— it’s likely they had no parcels of land registered in their name and no large bank account, either. Yet USAID apparently had no problem bringing the three of them over.
Not so for a caravan tour designed to challenge the myth of the forward-thinking U.S. government – a government that spreads its ‘forward-ness’ all over the globe. In particular, the MPJD has been highlighting the U.S. military puppetry going on in Mexico in the most recent phase of the so-called War on Drugs. In other words, the caravan has been airing out the U.S. government’s backwards polka-dot underwear for a few weeks now. Was the U.S. embassy blind to all that linen blowing in the breeze? Will the U.S. public become accustomed to seeing the patterns? Let’s showcase a couple more of the designs in their collection…
The 2009 U.S.-backed military overthrow of the elected government in Honduras resulted in a zealously selective legal system. While democracy activists endured a brutal crackdown, violent crime and drug trafficking were far less widely punished provided the perpetrators were working in league with the country’s major industries: biodiesel, gold mining, and tourism construction.
Today, dangerous criminals and drug kingpins continue to operate untouched; this hands-off policy is fixed firmly in place even within the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa.
A leaked State Department cable from March 19, 2004 revealed that the Honduran Air Force (HAF) had been recording the flight tracks of drug planes landing on property of the country’s richest person, biodiesel tycoon Miguel Facussé. The cable calls it “the third time in the last fifteen months that drug traffickers have been linked to this property owned by Mr. Facussé.”
Despite incriminating documents, the U.S. government took no corrective action in the case. Furthermore, a September 8, 2009 cable reveals that then-ambassador Hugo Llorens invited Facussé for lunch to ask for political advice. At no point was he asked to account for the suspicious movements occurring on his property.
In contrast, on May 11, 2011, a helicopter belonging to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) saw fit to fire on a small river boat it observed while flying over the Ahuas rainforest, suspecting it might have drugs aboard. Instead it was filled with local residents traveling between towns, four of whom are now dead – including a pregnant woman – and another four of whom are badly wounded. One of the wounded may need both legs amputated due to her bullet wounds. The survivors escaped only by jumping into the river. The DEA denies any liability or responsibility to the victims and their families. The agency is also in possession of a surveillance video of the incident, which it refuses to release.
Whether the DEA likes it or not, what already have been released are the diplomatic cables that affirm the gross injustice of their selective investigations and selective enforcement. By definition, none of these investigations and rash actions ever seems to match up with all of the evidence readily available.
After the fallout from the leaked cables, ambassador Llorens resigned and then spent about a year teaching in the United States before accepting a de-facto promotion to “Assistant Chief of Mission” in Kabul, Afghanistan. In fact, he now presides over the same office that makes the decision on visas.
Afghanistan has long been the world’s main source of opium, and since 2010, it is also the leading supplier of marijuana. The more profoundly undemocratic features of the Afghan government only exacerbate the problem. A constitution written in Washington, DC and a president chosen in Bonn, Germany (and ratified in elections widely regarded as stolen) were not what most Afghans might have initially expected from a military operation that was first called “Infinite Justice” and later, “Enduring Freedom”.
This is not a system in which ordinary people feel they can survive by sharing their ideas and efforts, devoting themselves to peaceful and productive activity, such as cultivating worthwhile crops to feed Afghans. Instead, the grinding insecurity and the complete lack of public accountability feed incentives for growing opium and processing it into heroin for a relatively easy profit.
Not only are the institutions inherently permissive of drugs and corruption, but sometimes the U.S.-backed Afghan government takes the concrete step of putting drug smugglers into high office. This is fairly simple, logistically, considering the Afghan president gets to hand-select unelected governors for each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
One particularly gruesome example comes from the western province of Farah, where President Karzai’s interior ministry wanted to appoint a man named Yousif Baghlani. Many of the elders in Farah knew this man to be Bashir Baghlani, a murderous partner of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious heroin king and warlord from the country’s east. The Kabul government had changed the name in order to dampen public outrage after failed attempts to appoint him in other provinces. The people in Farah communicated their contempt for this man to the interior ministry, but ultimately the ministry chose their own loyalist over these objections.
One day while I was in Kabul, I met a young man from one of the eastern provinces that is an opium center where Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami militants are currently active. He told me that it is common knowledge back home that much of the opium gets transported out of the region by aircraft. If this is the case, the U.S. embassy must know about it, but will they take any action on that evidence?
Last May, Hamid Karzai came to the NATO summit in Chicago and spoke of how Afghanistan needs more help in order to improve its institutions, so that it “is no longer a burden on the shoulders of the international community.” Within hours, the media had come up with another catchy phrase to describe the country: “World’s Burden”. But Afghans bear a much heavier burden when subjected to the weight of corrupt governments and unjust, invasive foreign influence.
Hondurans and Afghans could make far greater strides towards real freedom— including women’s rights— if they were allowed to make space for actual democracy in their own communities. In Honduras, I have visited townspeople whose homes and possessions were completely destroyed by political repression. They organized to pool their remaining money in order to take care of the immediate needs of the most vulnerable, such as getting milk for pregnant mothers.
Another scene I won’t forget from Afghanistan is when I attempted to help Ali, one of the teens rejected for a visa, with a math problem. Despite the fact that I hold a college degree in the subject, Ali is the one who eventually taught me the written long-hand formula for finding a square root. In an age of calculators, the math curriculum in the United States must have discarded this “backwards” problem-solving method long before I took 6th grade math.
What if the old ways of solving problems are still workable in the present day? What if the past provides us with the resourcefulness, the ingenuity, the one insightful puzzle piece necessary in deriving the formula to a brand new path to achieve peaceful relations among local and global neighbors?
Right now we don’t understand the puzzle of how to stop dominating and exploiting the world. Governments don’t know how to treat drug addiction at home as an illness, to allow people abroad the means of living full lives without participation in the drug trade. We should not discount the lessons we might learn from meeting people with different, but not inferior, experiences and backgrounds. This is how we could stop walking “forward” with blinders on.