The True Nature of the War in Afghanistan
In her book, A Woman among Warlords, Malalai Joya speaks out on the real purpose of the United States’ occupation, and the war’s disastrous consequences
The Afghanistan war is not the good war we should have fought instead of Iraq. It is not about making us safer from terrorism. It is not about suffocating the rising tide of Islamic extremism. It is not about spreading women’s rights. And it is certainly not about exporting democracy. The war is a part of the grand chess game being played out by the United States and its rivals in what state planners have long regarded as “the most strategically important area in the world”— the Middle East. In A Woman Among Warlords, the Extraordinary Story of an Afghan who Dared to Raise Her Voice, Malalai Joya—a young Afghan who has served in Parliament, stood up to the warlords and faced countless assassination attempts while heroically leading the struggle for her country’s freedom— describes in graphic detail the true nature of the war, and the disastrous consequences it has wrought.
“The real purpose” of the occupation, she writes, “is for the United States and its allies to establish permanent bases to serve their strategic aims.” Joya explains that “Central Asia is a key strategic region, and the United States wants to have a permanent military presence there to counteract China’s influence in particular.” Furthermore, “Central Asia is also very rich in oil and natural gas resources. One of the reasons that NATO wants to stay in Afghanistan is to ensure that the West has better access to these riches.” For example, “it was recently announced that a pipeline is to be built from the Caspian Sea, through Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and then on to Pakistan and India. The West does not want these resources flowing through Iran or Russia.” Finally, “Afghanistan has many other untapped natural resources,” such as “massive deposits of copper,” “iron,” and “other metals in Eastern Afghanistan.”
These factors make the US government’s official version of the war absurd. We are not trying to create a democracy or defeat the Taliban. On the contrary, in accordance with centuries of American foreign policy, our government is merely trying to install a compliant regime and pacify the country enough to maintain “stability.” The Obama administration clearly has no intention to completely pull out our troops for many years. In fact, it was recently revealed that the new withdrawal date won’t come till at least 2024.
Joya says, “To our people, the idea that the United States, with all its military might, technology, and power, could not have already defeated these small medieval-minded groups [the Taliban, etc.]—assuming that was the real American war aim—is like a bad joke. Instead it looks like they are playing a game of cat-and-mouse in order to justify keeping their military in Afghanistan.” In truth, “the superpower is using and occupying our country as part of a big chess game. They would prefer to keep the situation unstable so they can stay there indefinitely.”
The United States will support anyone that does its bidding. This explains why Rumsfeld chose to follow “the warlord strategy” in the first place. He and other war-makers understand very well whom they have aligned themselves with. When Afghanistan drafted its post-US invasion Constitution (which was put together behind closed doors and states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred provisions of Islam”), members of the new Parliament present included, among many unsavory examples, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, “the person who first invited international terrorist Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan during the 1980’s.” According to Joya, Sayyaf “also trained and mentored Khalid Sheik Mohammed.”
She explains that “in Afghanistan ordinary citizens know Sayyaf all too well because his forces rampaged and massacred thousands in Kabul during the early 1990’s. A U.N. report on a February 1993 massacre in west Kabul claims that Sayyaf told his men, ‘don’t leave anyone alive—kill all of them.” Another warlord who is a member of Parliament and attended the drafting of the Constitution was Siddiq Chakari, who “famously justified the destruction of Kabul on the grounds that the city had become ‘un-Islamic’ during the Soviet puppet years, and so needed to be leveled and rebuilt as an Islamic city.”
When Joya debated Chakari on television years later, she declared that he should be prosecuted for war crimes. Chakari’s response was extremely revealing. He said, “instead of awarding us medals of honor like Ronald Regan, you want to prosecute us.” The shocking truth is that America gave rise to the religious extremism which plagues the region today. “As recently as the 1970’s,” writes Joya, “the extremists who now have so much power to implement anti-woman policies—with their misinterpretations of Islam to justify them—were marginal figures. The notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, was a totally discredited force in those days, known for having led attacks on unveiled women at the University of Kabul that included burning these women with acid. It was the United States, Pakistan, and Iran’s arming of these forces during the 1980’s—Hekmatyar was one of their favorites during this period—that helped unleash the religious fascism that has plagued Afghanistan for the past three decades.”
America’s role in the rise of Jihad is decisive. “It is hard to fathom the pivotal role the United States played in nourishing a violent, fundamentalist mentality in generations of young Afghans. But starting in the 1980’s, the U.S. government spent more than $50 million to publish textbooks through the University of Nebraska that promoted a fanatic, militaristic agenda… It taught children to count using ‘illustrations of tanks, missiles and landmines.’ The books were shipped into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to fuel a jihad against the Soviets, but… they made up the core curriculum in the Afghan school system long after the Soviets had been defeated. ‘Even the Taliban used the American-produced books…’ And after the Taliban was gone, USAID continued to send the textbooks into Afghanistan, where fundamentalists still use them to teach a violent brand of Islam.”
Indeed, America’s connection to militant Islam in Afghanistan has continued through the present. After arming and training these vicious groups during the 80’s and leaving the country to rot at the hands of the monsters they created during the early 90’s, America supported the Taliban. That’s right. Joya says “for years the United States had courted the Taliban, ignoring their cruelties while trying to make deals with them on behalf of the oil company Unocal for an energy pipeline project through Afghanistan.” Furthermore, “as recently as May 2001, the United States gave the Taliban $43 million as a reward for controlling the poppy crop,” turning a blind eye to “what was happening in the terrorist training camps along the Pakistan border.”
And today, the United States continues to support the Taliban, which has some members in Afghanistan’s Parliament, according to Joya. The key is empowering those deemed “our Taliban,” or “the good Taliban,” i.e., those who serve American interests. Joya explains that the current Afghan government “is not only a photocopy of the Taliban, but some of the prominent figures from that former regime have been recycled and repackaged and now hold positions of power.”
This offers valuable insight into why American commanders have been trying to negotiate with the Taliban. According to Joya, in March 2008 “NATO helicopters dropped three large containers full of food, arms, and ammunitions to a Taliban commander in the Arghandab district of Zabul Province,” raising “many questions among Afghan people about possible hidden contacts with the Taliban.” She adds that “people in Farah have seen similar contacts between U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Taliban commanders.” “It seems clear,” she asserts, “that the U.S. government simply wants any gang in Afghanistan that will obey its directions.” The elements of the Taliban that continue to fight the occupation have been gaining power, slaughtering countless civilians and exacerbating Afghanistan’s problems. In the words of Mullah Omar, they are “feeling very secure.”
More important, the Karzai regime, which “could not function without funding from the United States and its allies” according to Joya, has ruled as brutally as the Taliban during the 90’s. “It is impossible to tell the difference between those who call themselves Taliban and those who hold all the power in Kabul today. The latter dress up like democrats, only to hide their Taliban mentality.” In 2007 they passed the Reconciliation Draft Law, granting them immunity for the war crimes they committed during the past 30 years.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is miserable, arguably worse than under the Taliban. Joya writes that “according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) 70 percent of Afghans—eighteen million people—live on less than two dollars per day and suffer from acute food insecurity.” She adds that the unemployment rate is between 60 and 90 percent! In addition, “infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world.” It’s so awful that “every twenty-eight minutes an Afghan woman dies during childbirth. Badakhshan Province has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world—6,500 deaths out of every 100,000 live births, 123 times higher than in the United States.” Among those who do survive, many mothers must sell their babies for food. Life expectancy for all Afghans is a mere 45 years, and 80 percent of women are illiterate.
There is no education system, save for fundamentalist brainwashing. “In early December 2008, an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) survey showed that only 5 percent of girls and 11 percent of boys could pursue their education all the way to the twelfth grade.” The mere act of going to school is extremely dangerous: “in November 2008, eight girls were splashed with acid while on their way to school, in an attack by men on a motorcycle in Kandahar.”
More broadly, life for children is horrible. Joya writes that “according to the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs, and Disabled, more than six million children in the country face problems such as smuggling, abduction, child labor and lack of education. Due to severe poverty, many children have to leave school to work at hard labor to help their parents make a living. In a study released by AIHRC, 60 percent of families surveyed stated that almost half their children were involved in some kind of labor.” According to Joya, “abduction and sexual violence against children have become epidemic in recent years.” All this has prompted Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, to remark, “I can’t think of any country in the world where children suffer more than in Afghanistan.”
And there is no judicial authority to which victims can appeal, for Afghanistan is a land ruled by brute force. As of early 2008, “70 percent of Afghanistan was lawless. The Afghan government has control of only 30 percent of the country, and where the Taliban and local warlords hold power there is no rule of law.” Overall, Joya says Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report 2008 lists Afghanistan 172nd out of 180 countries in terms of corruption, and the United Nations reports that “a staggering $100-$250 million is paid in bribes every year in Afghanistan,” which is “equivalent to half the national development budget for 2006.” And Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have stolen billions, according to Joya.
Afghanistan is now “fertile ground for narcotrafficking,” with heroin production skyrocketing 4,000 percent since 2001, according to the International Monetary Fund. Joya says that “of the total world supply of opium, the raw material for heroin, 93 percent comes from Afghanistan today.” Adding to the horror, “when the small farmers’ poppy crops fail, they are often forced to pay back loans by selling their daughters—known as ‘opium brides’—into marriage to the warlords and opium lords.” The opium trade has also bankrolled the Taliban, providing them with $500 million in 2008 alone.
Once again, the misery stems directly from the United States. “Opium is the Cold War’s gift to Afghanistan,” Joya writes. “Along with supporting the Mujahideen during the anti-Russian resistance, the CIA started to promote the cultivation of poppies in Afghanistan and Pakistan border areas. There are allegations that in 1981 President Reagan approved a covert program to weaken Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan by addicting them to illegal drugs. There have been reports of CIA agents directly involved in the heroin trade, and abundant evidence that CIA-supported Mujahideen rebels trafficked in drugs, often receiving weapons and sending opium back along the same supply lines. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is one of the biggest drug lords in the region, is said to be using his old CIA-generated trafficking network to fund the current insurgency.”
Joya says NATO will not tackle the trafficking crisis, and “in January 2007 Karzai appointed Izatullah Wasifi, a convicted drug dealer who spent almost four years in a Nevada state prison after being arrested for trying to sell heroin to an undercover police officer, as Afghanistan’s anti-corruption chief.”
Perhaps worst of all, is the treatment of women. They feel the brutality and utter lawlessness most. Their predicament is at least as bad as it was under the Taliban’s rule, as Joya repeats throughout her book. They have no rights. They cannot drive a car. They generally cannot walk outside unless they are accompanied by a male relative and clad in a burqa. The law is designed to conspire against them, as Karzai has made it legal for men to rape their wives.
Joya says “the position of women is the same now as it was under the Taliban. In some respects, the situation is worse, with higher rates of suicide and abduction, and total impunity in cases of rape.” She offers some shocking statistics: “a survey by the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) found that violence affects 80 percent of Afghan women,” much of which is domestic abuse. Furthermore, “between 60 and 80 percent of marriages remain forced, with young girls being sold and traded like commodities.”
She claims that “women in my country suffer from the highest rates of depression in the world,” and “25 percent of Afghan women face sexual violence.” Rape brings double shame upon the victim, who is often disowned or even killed by her family because of the irreparable stain on her honor. There are also 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan according to Joya, and prostitution is on the rise. Many women resort to suicide, largely self-immolation, to escape the misery. In the first half of 2007, 250 women killed themselves. And the notorious “vice and virtue squad” from the Taliban era is back in action, reinforcing medieval policies.
All this makes a mockery of the well-coordinated propaganda campaign by the mass media about how America seeks to restore women’s rights. Propagandists point to the fact that Joya and other women serve in Parliament as evidence of plurality. But what they fail to discuss is that all the women are mere puppets of the warlords, and Joya was kicked out of Parliament and continues to face assassination attempts for calling the warlords what they are—criminals.
The infamous Time magazine cover showing a woman whose face is mutilated, bearing the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?” serves as a perfect illustration. As Joya points out, “what wasn’t acknowledged was that this atrocity happened while the United States occupies Afghanistan.” In general, Joya feels the Western media has grossly misrepresented the conflict by presenting the false narrative championed by the US government and downplaying or neglecting to report civilian casualties. In particular, she implores people to “tune out FOX News.”
In Afghanistan there is no such thing as free speech or freedom of the press. In 2007 one journalist was originally sentenced to death and ultimately 23 years in prison for downloading an article critical of Islam and circulating it to his friends. According to Joya “the attacks on reporters have come both from the Taliban and the warlords and from government officials. Zakia Zaki, a great women’s rights activist and reporter” was “gunned down in her home.” Most journalists must resort to self-censorship to survive. “Mentioning any warlord by name will cause problems and even bring death threats,” and if you write critically about the crimes committed by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a celebrated hero in the West but a menace to the people of Afghanistan, “the next day you will be tortured or killed by the Northern Alliance warlords.”
The war continues to be a disaster in every way imaginable. Under Obama matters have gotten worse. As Joya explains, the idea of fighting a war against terrorism is ridiculous. Terror is a tactic. You cannot fight a tactic. The only real option is to address the root causes of militant extremism. Not surprisingly, the war in Afghanistan, like the broader war on terror, has made America and the world far more dangerous and much more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. American airstrikes have slaughtered well over 7,000 civilians, according to Joya. In multiple instances NATO forces have accidentally bombed buildings where a wedding was taking place, killing many children and striking the bride. US military spokespeople often deny the attacks even took place, and when they admit such bombings have occurred they usually misrepresent the true death toll and write the victims off as “terrorists.” After one massacre, people took to the streets in protest, only to be silenced by US-trained Afghani forces.
The violence and hatred has exacerbated ethnic tribal tensions, and Joya warns that if matters continue on the current course, the entire region may totally destabilize and descend into complete anarchy. She admonishes that this may also be the outcome of drone strikes in Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.
According to Joya and others, we are currently spending $100 million a day and stand to waste over $2 trillion more in the coming years on the occupation of Afghanistan. We cannot permit our government to continue this war. It is a disaster for everyone but corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) that make billions off the suffering. Matters can hardly get worse for the people of Afghanistan, who have resisted empire for centuries and need our support in their struggle for independence from foreign intervention and the Taliban. America cannot afford this disgraceful occupation, especially when over 20% of the population is unemployed or underemployed and our infrastructure is crumbling.
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