“We’ve come to
think of Afghanistan … as a sort of a backwater, as old news. But the war is
still going on there. There’s the same pattern as in Iraq”
- Seymour Hersh interview with Amy Davidson, 04/05/04.
Afghanistan has been devastated by the US military and neglected by the antiwar movement. I am writing to appeal antiwar activists to seriously incorporate Afghanistan into their work.
The US’s war in Afghanistan was clearly fought to maintain imperial credibility after the 9-11 attacks and to provide a stepping-stone to Iraq. And yet, I was saddened that activists in the US and other countries did not rise up in significant numbers to resist the Afghanistan war which began on October 7th 2001. While I was heartened with the rising up of millions against the Iraq war in 2003, the situation in Afghanistan continued to be sidelined by activists in the recent demonstrations against occupation on March 20th 2004.
It is much easier to be against the blatantly illegal Iraq war, as so many high-profile political figures are doing these days: there was no connection to Al Qaeda in Iraq (prior to the war), no weapons of mass destruction, plenty of oily reasons, plenty of lies from the Bush administration, and so on. But Afghanistan was another situation. How could we argue that the US should not bomb a country that was harboring terrorists who attacked innocent U.S. civilians? Perhaps activists have avoided Afghanistan because of its obvious links to Al Qaeda and the tempting promise by Bush to deliver freedom for the most oppressed women in the world.
At the recent high-profile 9-11 Commission hearings Democrats and Republicans played the contest of "who was tougher on terrorism.” Unfortunately, this amounted to proving who was capable of invading Afghanistan the earliest. No mention was made of the devastating effects of the US bombing which resulted in the deaths of many more innocent Afghans than innocent Americans on 9-11 (bombs are still dropping and killing civilians). No mention was made of the use of internationally condemned cluster bombs whose legacy is itself terrorist. But most importantly, no mention was made of the US’s own role in creating conditions for terrorism in Afghanistan over two decades ago, for which the Afghan people have been paying dearly.
It is crucial for antiwar activists to know the history of the US in Afghanistan historical parallels with today’s operations are striking and the consequences are predictable and devastating. In the late 1970s, the US CIA began funding and fueling extremist, misogynist factions in Afghanistan against a Soviet invasion. Thousands of Arab and extremist religious fighters were imported to the region to join the “jihad”, laying the groundwork for Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s legacy. After ten years of occupation, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan while weapons and cash continued to flow from the US to the “Mujahedeen” warriors into the early 1990s. The period that followed was the bloodiest era in Afghanistan, during which tens of thousands of Afghans were killed by the Mujahedeen with US supplied weapons the Mujahedeen fought one another for power killing any civilians in their path and raping women. In fact, the 1996 takeover by the Taliban was in part easy because the Afghan population were desperately ready for a change in their leadership. What the United States has done today in Afghanistan is topple the hated Taliban and replace them with the equally hated and feared Mujahedeen warlords of old who simply regrouped under the title of “Northern Alliance”.
A recent Pentagon-sanctioned report by Retired Army Colonel Hy Rothstein concluded that the current U.S. war had given "warlordism, banditry and opium production a new lease on life” and “imposed additional, avoidable humanitarian and stability costs on Afghanistan”. The United States is repeating its devastating tactics in Afghanistan and once more causing the Afghan people great harm.
Under the US’s watch, Afghanistan has once more reclaimed its title of the world’s largest drug producer, responsible for 75 per cent of the world's opium and 80 per cent of the heroin sold in Europe. The US is accusing the Taliban of using the drug trade to finance their insurgency since being overthrown. But in fact the US’s friends are the drug producers. Jack Blum, an expert in International Finance Crime testified to the House of Representatives recently saying, "The revenue of poppies is essential for the warlords supporting the United States," in their fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, US prosecutors are investigating the recently ousted Haitian President Aristide’s connection to cocaine and touting a campaign of drug trafficking as a reason why Haiti is better off without Aristide.
Afghan women in particular are paying the greatest price for US policies. Their emancipation was upheld as one reason for going to war but two years later, they are as shackled by the same warlords and the same hunger and insecurity as they were before and during the Taliban’s reign. For some women, particularly in cities and villages outside the relatively safer Kabul, things are worse. For example, tens of women in the Western Afghan province of Herat have been committing suicide by self-immolation.
So what can antiwar activists do?
Firstly, stay as informed about the US’s role in Afghanistan as you can and demand the media cover Afghanistan. As a member of the alternative media (Pacifica), I have noticed more coverage in the mainstream media of Afghanistan than in the alternative media: this is shameful. Demand coverage of Afghanistan from your local community radio station, alternative political magazine, or favorite online news source.
Secondly, look to Afghans themselves for what they want for their country. For example, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) who I work in solidarity with and who are on the forefront of anti-fundamentalist and anti-imperialist work, have been calling for a United Nations intervention and peace keeping forces for years. They have asked sensibly, for the disarmament of warlords who rule the countryside with impunity and foreign backing. Today the government of Japan is funding a UN disarmament program in Afghanistan. Antiwar activists can demand that the U.S. foot the bill for the entire program after all we will simply be disarming the very men we armed who have inflicted terrorism on the Afghan people.
Thirdly, demand that the U.S. spend proportionately as much on humanitarian aid in Afghanistan as it does in other conflict situations. A RAND Corporation study revealed that “Kosovo, for example, has a population of about 2 million, while Afghanistan has a population of 23 million. But Kosovo received several times more American and European assistance per capita to recover from 13 weeks of conflict than Afghanistan has received to rebuild from 20 years of civil war”. While Afghanistan and Iraq have roughly the same area and population, in general, Afghanistan is decades behind Iraq in standards of living. For example, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 47 years compared to Iraq’s 68 years. Literacy for men is nearly half as much in Afghanistan as in Iraq, while women are 3 times less literate in Afghanistan than in Iraq. These effects are directly linked to decades of US fueled war which has set Afghan progress back by tens of years.
Fourthly, no matter who is in power, remind them that you are watching their policies in Afghanistan, just as you are watching their policies in Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, Colombia, and everywhere else the US empire reigns. Demand that your local antiwar group, or the large mobilizing groups you work with, include Afghanistan in their literature and signs. Demand that every time an antiwar rally is held, there are prominent speakers who address Afghanistan.
And finally, show sensitivity and respect to the people of Afghanistan by not exploiting their victim-hood. There are far too many books and movies depicting Afghans and particularly Afghan women as mute, blue burka-clad figures who are helpless. These images are convenient reminders of our superiority and do not empower Afghans in their fight against the US’s war machine.
The Afghan people have been used and betrayed by the United States too often. They are a brave people with a history of anti-imperialism. But they are tired and they are dying. And they are about to be used once more: during the November 2004 Presidential elections. With the embarrassment of Bush’s policies in Iraq, Afghanistan will be held up as the success story of the “war on terror”. Afghan elections, conveniently timed two months before Bush’s re-election bid, will be a model for U.S.-sponsored democracy in the “Muslim world.”
US actions in Afghanistan are not failures or mistakes, but crimes. Antiwar activists must see through the veneer of “democracy” and “success” and judge Bush’s actions in Afghanistan as what they are: criminal. They are the result of deliberate policy crafted by the Bush administration, which is simply following in the footsteps of Clinton (who first courted the Taliban in an effort to get a pipeline deal and then bombed Afghanistan in), Bush Sr. (who allowed the Mujahedeen to destroy Afghanistan with US-supplied weapons), Reagan (who openly embraced the misogynist, fundamentalist Mujahedeen) and Carter (who began the initial covert operations in the late 1970s).
Empire is being built on the backs of Afghans and it is up to us as antiwar activists to recognize it and address it.
Respectfully and in solidarity,
Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily morning public affairs program with KPFK, Pacifica Radio, in Los Angeles. She is also the Co-Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that works in solidarity with Afghan women on humanitarian and political work. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Articles by Sonali Kolhatkar