Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls
Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are co-directors of the U.S. based, non-profit organization, The Afghan Women’s Mission, which supports Afghan women fighting for democracy in their country. A major component of that effort is educating the American people regarding the history of our involvement in Afghanistan, in the hopes of influencing our foreign policy. Bleeding Afghanistan was written for that purpose.
A growing number of Americans are aware that our involvement in Afghanistan dates back to the 1980’s, when the Soviet Union occupied the country. The Soviet Union had been our primary adversary for decades and by financially supporting those who would fight their occupation of Afghanistan, we were also helping to bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union itself.
We funneled this aid through Pakistan to seven resistance groups, representing varying degrees of Islamic fundamentalism. These resistance groups were known collectively as the Mujahideen, today as the warlords or Northern Alliance. While they were effective in driving out the Soviets, they did not enjoy broad support among the Afghan people. Their rise to power in the post-Soviet era was a disaster for Afghanistan, where fully 70% of the population favored the return of the exiled king, Zahir Shah, to lead the country’s interim government.
The Mujahideen proved to be violent and misogynist leaders. Thousands of dissidents and intellectuals were disappeared and progress by women’s rights activists was set back decades. They were so brutal, in fact, that in 1996, when they were overthrown by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist organization of Pashtuns* from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the majority of people welcomed the change. Their optimism was short-lived, however, as the Taliban proved to be as violent and misogynist as their processors.
Al-Queda, the anti-American terrorist organization, which grew out of the resistance movement of the 1980’s, became more powerful in the late 1990’s. They were allowed to reside in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan during that time period, while planning the 9/11 attacks. The United States, in retaliation, attacked Afghanistan, deposing the Taliban, and the warlords or Northern Alliance (formerly the Mujahideen) returned to power. Despite much press to the contrary, this did not represent a return to democracy nor the liberation of women. And the cultivation of poppies, for the production of heroin, has become a booming industry, since 2001.
In 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban, the United Nations Development Program Office in Kabul ranked Afghanistan as 173rd in their index of 178 nations, with regard to such measures as health, literacy, employment, and lifespan. The president, Hamid Karzai, is one of the few prominent Pashtuns who favors U.S. interests and is widely regarded as an American puppet. He travels with American bodyguards and his government is full of warlords.
Why did we embark upon war in Afghanistan in 2001 and what do we gain by our continued presence? Although some have contended that we were motivated by oil, Kolhatkar and Ingalls believe that initially our purpose was something far simpler – a projection of power. Afghanistan was marginal to U.S. interests prior to 9/11. The Bush Administration had been focused on Iraq. However, Afghanistan presented the United States with a perfect opportunity to “wreak vengeance and rebuild its tarnished reputation,” given bin Laden’s connection with the Taliban, the Taliban’s atrocious human rights record, and the fact that the country was an easy military target, Now, however, it would appear that some U.S. planners are taking a broader view of the region, with the oil and gas pipeline being built across Afghanistan and the pipeline through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Black Sea. It is helpful to U.S. business interests to have a friendly government in Kabul and military bases in resource rich Central Asia .
Kolhatkar and Ingalls are deeply concerned about the bi-partisan American enthusiasm for continued war in Afghanistan, particularly because the United States continues to lack any clear strategy. They believe that stability must begin with a government that the Afghan people can support. They have several recommendations which include ending the U.S. occupation, expanding the international security forces and strengthening the Afghan National Army; supporting secular, democratic Afghan groups, while disarming the warlords; paying reparations in order to rebuild the physical infrastructure; and increasing and improving media coverage.
Independent journalist, Nir Rosen, who was recently in Afghanistan, embedded with the Taliban, laments the fact that this sort of policy was not enacted in the fall of 2001. He writes of his observations in “How We Lost the War We Won,” in the October 30th issue of Rolling Stone Magazine.
He describes Kabul as the Afghan equivalent of the Green Zone in Baghdad. A half hour from the city, the resurgent Taliban and the Americans are engaged in armed conflict. Beyond that, the Taliban retains control of most of the country. The situation has deteriorated so badly that it is difficult to imagine an American military victory. A surge in American forces invariably means that more civilians will be killed, resulting in increased anti-American feeling among the population.
He sees al-Queda, an organization with very little success before or after the 9/11 attacks, as relatively unimportant, while recognizing the enormous power of the Taliban. He believes that negotiating with the Taliban is, at this time, is the only approach in Afghanistan. He says that they have grown more pragmatic, and have softened their stance on women, now saying that they should have both educational and employment opportunities. He also sees them as evolving into an organization defined by Pashtun nationalism.
Rosen says these things not as someone who approves of or respects the Taliban. Far from it. He just realizes how powerful they have become and that it may be impossible to defeat them militarily. Above all, he thinks, the United States should re-evaluate their entire approach to the Middle East. Simply killing people is not working. We need to seriously examine why Muslims are so angry with America and take their concerns seriously.
Kolhatkar and Ingalls wrote their book over a year ago, and it would be interesting to hear what they think of Rosen’s assessment. Had we been better informed in 2001 and implemented the sort of recommendations in Bleeding Afghanistan at that time, we would not be in the situation we are in today. The book is a strong argument for not mindlessly embracing war, without any idea of either strategy or consequences.
* Note: Who are the Pashtuns? They are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are also a large ethnic group within Pakistan. In fact, this division between the two countries is a vestige of British colonialism. In the 19th century, the borders were drawn to split Afghan Pashtuns from Pashtuns living in British-occupied India (now Pakistan). This was intentional to create a fractured structure that was easily divided and subject to foreign influence. “Captain K. W. Wade wrote in 1837, ‘Whilst distributed into several states, the Afghans are, in my opinion, more likely to subserve the views and interests of the British Government.’” p. 118 Kolthatkar and Ingalls.
The British followed a similar strategy at the end of WWI. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, they drew borders of new countries to divide people, which is why the Kurds are split between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.