Afghanistan, the other war

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. … We will work to help Afghanistan to develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world’s demand for drugs.”
President George W. Bush, speaking at Virginia Military Institute, April 17, 2002

In the weeks after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration called on the extreme fundamentalist Taliban, which then ruled Afghanistan, to hand over Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, or face U.S. military action. In early October, U.S. forces began air strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban installations in Afghanistan. In early November, the first U.S. ground troops landed at Bagram Air Base in northern Afghanistan.

U.S. forces quickly captured the capital city, Kabul, with the aid of the so-called Northern Alliance, warlord-led mujahedin bands that had been organized by the CIA in the 1980s to bring down a Soviet-supported national-democratic government. The United States then sought to cobble together a regime that could bridge the country’s regional, ethnic and tribal divides while doing Washington’s bidding.

Five and a half years later, despite many historical and cultural differences, it’s easy to see parallels with today’s Iraq, including how a U.S. military invasion and occupation has only made things worse for the people.

After U.S.-controlled presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005, and years of power struggles at various levels, Afghanistan still has no stable national government. The country’s nominal president, Hamid Karzai, is often called “the mayor of Kabul” by Afghans because he has not been able to consolidate his power much beyond the capital.

Much of the north and west of the country is controlled by various warlords including top players in the Northern Alliance. Increasing parts of the south and east are again menaced by a resurgent Taliban, which is gaining some popular support because of the national government’s rampant corruption and inability to better people’s lives.

“The western media talks about democracy and the liberation of Afghanistan, but the U.S. and its allies are engaged in the warlordization, criminalization and drug-lordization of our wounded land,” Afghani woman parliamentarian Malalai Joya told an audience at the University of California in Los Angeles last month. Joya added that over 80 percent of the seats in Parliament are occupied by “fundamentalist warlords.”

Scraping the bottom

The UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan says the country has the world’s fourth lowest living standards and the third worst record of gender disparities.

Life expectancy is around 42 years, per capita GDP is less than $200, and literacy is under 30 percent (and far lower among women), while infant mortality is among the world’s highest. One in four children dies before the age of five, mostly from preventable causes. Diseases like polio and tuberculosis are rampant, hitting women and children especially hard.

Unemployment is about 40 percent, with many more working seasonally or just a few hours a week. Joblessness and turmoil have led millions to migrate to neighboring Iran and Pakistan, some of whom are now being forced by their host countries to return home.

Less than half the school-age children, and less than one-third of girls, are enrolled in school, with big disparities in education between urban and rural areas.

World’s opium producer

Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world’s opium, and money from exporting it makes up at least a third of GDP. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says last year’s crop was nearly half again as much as that in 2005. Though poppies are cultivated in all parts of the country, the prime growing areas are in the south, the site of the biggest clashes between U.S. and NATO forces and Taliban-led bands.

While for a time during its rule in the late 90s, the Taliban banned poppy cultivation, the extremist organization now derives substantial income from taxing opium farmers in areas it controls, and reportedly cooperates with and assists drug traffickers. As in other parts of the world, many farmers grow the illicit crop because they get no help to produce legal crops. In some places raw opium even serves as a makeshift currency. Corrupt provincial and even high-ranking national government officials aid traffickers in exporting their product, enriching themselves in return.

The military scene

The killing of a senior Taliban military commander, Mullah Dadullah, in southern Helmand Province earlier this month during a U.S.-led operation has sparked anticipation of a new wave of Taliban attacks especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

In an ominous new development, such attacks are reaching farther north. In late April, Taliban fighters attacked a district just 45 miles from Kabul. The Taliban has increasingly adopted tactics familiar in the Iraq war, including car bombs, suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.

Two foreign military forces, totaling close to 50,000 troops, are active in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom has about 13,000 troops including over 10,000 from the U.S., while a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), now led by a U.S. general, has some 37,000 soldiers including about 14,000 from the U.S. Both are helping to train Afghan soldiers.

In its first role outside Europe, NATO took over the ISAF in August 2003. Initially active mostly near Kabul, the ISAF has expanded its operations in the north and west, and now conducts combat missions against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the south and east.

Outrage is escalating among Afghans over the growing civilian death toll during U.S. and NATO-led military operations. Many deaths have occurred during air strikes; others when military forces have raided villages.

Deaths of over 130 Afghan civilians in such attacks have been officially acknowledged so far this year, and far more are believed to have died. Researcher Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire found that during the five years after the U.S. invasion, over 4,600 non-combatant civilians were killed in bombing and strafing attacks on suspected Taliban sites.

Charges of torture at U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan are widespread. Abusive interrogation techniques of so-called terrorists have even led to death. “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a recent documentary, centers on the torture and death of a young Afghan taxi driver who was falsely accused of being a terrorist in 2002.

The Senlis Council, an international think tank working on development and counternarcotics policy, warned earlier this spring that “U.S. policies in Afghanistan have recreated the safe haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy.”

Women and children

One of the best indicators of a society’s functioning is the status of women and children. The plight of both in today’s Afghanistan is abysmal.

While the country’s new constitution proclaims equal rights for women and guarantees their representation in Parliament, “the reality is the constitution is not being implemented for women in different parts of the country,” Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told “Democracy Now” on May 14.

While many urban women have access to education and jobs, she said, women especially in rural areas still face the kinds of repression characteristic of the Taliban, including domestic violence and honor killings.

In a recent interview with Ms. magazine, Samar pointed to continuing “forced marriages, child marriages, restrictions on movement, job discrimination, and child abduction and trafficking.”

When women do go to the police, “they are treated as criminals, not as victims,” Samar said, adding, “The women who run away from abusive male family members end up in jail or are killed by a family member” who is then immune from prosecution for this “honor” killing.

Though women are in Parliament, no women are among the president’s advisers, and only one is in the cabinet, Samar said. “If women are not part of decision-making, decisions will be made by men who do not understand women’s problems, and those men will never address these problems.”

Earlier this year, the UN’s IRIN news service illustrated the intersection between the opium-riddled economy and the plight of women as it described the suicide of a local women’s council member in the southern province of Helmand. “Like many other women in Helmand,” IRIN said, Nasima’s family gave her away to a drug smuggler who already had a wife and four children to settle a drug debt. “Nasima was enduring a bitter life in the family,” the head of the women’s council said. “The family members and her husband considered her an extra burden.”

The violence Nasima endured is not unusual; some 95 percent of Afghan women experience frequent violence at home.

Though Afghanistan has signed the UN Convention on Children’s Rights, which bans child labor, vast numbers of children work to help their families survive.

Earlier this month, IRIN told the story of 7-year-old Rahatullah, who works 12 hours a day at a brick factory with his father and 12-year-old brother. “I feel constant pain in my back and legs. We have long working hours and sometimes I feel very sleepy,” Rahatullah said.

Abdul Mohammad, who works at a factory with his two daughters, ages eight and 10, told IRIN that even working 20 hours, he earns only about $4, and cannot feed his family without his daughters’ help. “I feel very uncomfortable about this,” he said.

Corporations ‘R’ Us

Another parallel with Iraq is involvement of politically connected corporations like Kellogg, Brown & Root, DynCorp, Blackwater and The Louis Berger Group in construction, road-building and security. In “Afghanistan, Inc.: A CorpWatch Investigative Report,” the watchdog group points out that massive open-ended contracts are being granted without corporate bidding to these firms. They then pocket millions, hiring Afghan workers for $5 a day while paying their engineers and consultants up to $1,000 a day.

As an example, CorpWatch cites the disastrously shoddy construction on a “model” health clinic built by The Berger Group with USAID funds near Kabul: “The ceiling had rotted away in patches; the plumbing, when it worked, leaked and shuddered; the chimney, made of flimsy metal, threatened to set the roof on fire; the sinks had no running water; and the place smelled of sewage.”

Oil matters

Oil’s role in Iraq is well known; its role in Afghanistan perhaps less so. In “From Afghanistan to Iraq: Connecting the Dots with Oil,” posted to AlterNet in February, Richard W. Behan tells how, as with Iraq, a U.S. military attack was being planned well before Sept. 11, 2001.

The backstory has to do with Washington’s wish to control oil in the Caspian Basin after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the struggle between an Argentinean company and the U.S. oil firm Unocal to win rights to a pipeline across Afghanistan.

As negotiations stalled with the then-Taliban government in early 2001, the Bush administration began to put the word out to Afghanistan’s neighbors that a military strike could occur. Then came Sept. 11 and the U.S invasion.

The first post-invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan was Unocal executive John Maresca. The second was Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan émigré, former Unocal consultant and former adviser to the State Department on building the mujahedin apparatus that brought down the national-democratic government.

Past and future

As in Iraq, it is difficult to predict Afghanistan’s future. But the U.S. and NATO occupation is certainly not helping the Afghan people build a healthy economy and society with decent paying jobs, housing, health care and education, and progress toward democracy, ending the oppression of women, and overcoming ethnic and regional fragmentation.

Under the monarchy in the 1960s and ’70s, and especially under the People’s Democratic Party government in the 1980s, progress was made. It was tragically cut short when the national-democratic government fell to the mujahedin. When the U.S. and NATO are forced to end the occupation, the seeds of progress are waiting to sprout again, watered by peaceful development aid of the type the United Nations and its associated agencies can provide.


In the late 1970s and early 80s, Marilyn Bechtel edited the bimonthly magazine New World Review. She visited Afghanistan in 1980 and 1981.