Afghanistan Is On The Brink Of Another Disaster


The garden was overgrown, the roses scrawny after a day of Kandahar heat, the dust in our eyes, noses, mouth, fingernails. But the message was straightforward. “This is a secret war,” the Special Forces man told me. “And this is a dirty war. You don’t know what is happening.” And of course, we are not supposed to know. In a “war against terror”, journalists are supposed to keep silent and rely on the good guys to sort out the bad guys without worrying too much about human rights.

How many human rights did the mass killers of 11 September allow their victims? You are either with us or against us. Whose side are you on? But the man in the garden was worried. He was not an American. He was one of the “coalition allies”, as the Americans like to call the patsies who have trotted after them into the Afghan midden. “The Americans don’t know what to do here now,” he went on. “Their morale in Afghanistan is going downhill – though there’s no problem with the generals running things in Tampa. They’re still gung-ho. But here the soldiers know things haven’t gone right, that things aren’t working. Even their interrogations went wrong”. Brutally so, it seems.

In the early weeks of this year, the Americans raided two Afghan villages, killed 10 policemen belonging to the US-supported government of Hamid Karzai and started mistreating the survivors. American reporters – in a rare show of mouse-like courage amid the self-censorship of their usual reporting – quoted the prisoners as saying they had been beaten by US troops. According to Western officials in Kandahar, the US troops “gave the prisoners a thrashing”.

Things have since changed. The American forces in Afghanistan, it seems, now leave the beatings to their Afghan allies, especially members of the so-called Afghan Special Forces, a Washington-supported group of thugs who are based in the former Khad secret police torture centre in Kabul. “It’s the Afghan Special Forces who beat the Pashtun prisoners for information now – not the Americans,” the Western military man told me. “But the CIA are there during the beatings, so the Americans are culpable, they let it happen.”

This is just how the Americans began in Vietnam. They went in squeaky clean with advisers, there were some incidents of “termination with extreme prejudice”, after which it was the Vietnamese intelligence boys who did the torture.

The same with the Russians. When their soldiers poured across the border in 1979, they quickly left it to their Afghan allies in the Parcham and Khad secret police to carry out the “serious” interrogations. And if this is what the Americans are now up to in Afghanistan, what is happening to their prisoners at Guantanamo? Or, for that matter, at Bagram, the airbase north of Kabul to which all prisoners in Kandahar are now sent for investigation if local interrogators believe their captives have more to say.

Of course, it’s possible to take a step back from this dark and sinister corner of America’s Afghan adventure. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s defeat humanitarian workers have achieved some little miracles. Unicef reports 486 female teachers at work in the five south-western provinces of the country with 16,674 girls now at school. Only in Uruzgan, where the Taliban were strongest, has not a single female teacher been employed. UN officials can boast that in these same, poverty-belt provinces, polio has now been almost eradicated.

The UN was fighting polio before the Taliban collapsed, and the drugs whose production the Taliban banned are now back on the market. The poppy fields are growing in Helmand province again, and in Uruzgan local warlords are trying to avoid government control in order to cultivate their own new poppy production centres. In Kabul, where two government ministers have been murdered in seven months, President Karzai is now protected – at his own request – by American bodyguards. And you don’t have to be a political analyst to know what kind of message this sends to Afghans.

Kabul is alive with the kind of rumours that can never be substantiated but that stick in the mind, just as the dust of Kandahar stays in the throat and on the lips of all who go there. “The British forces were right to leave,” a British humanitarian worker announced over dinner in Kabul one night.

“They realised that the Americans had no real interest in returning this country to law and order. They knew that the Americans were going to fail. So they got out as soon as they could. The Americans say they want peace and stability. So why don’t they let Isaf (the international force in Kabul) move into the other big cities of Afghanistan? Why do they let their friendly warlords persecute the rest of the country?”

Far more disturbing are persistent reports from northern Afghanistan of the massacre of thousands of Pashtuns after the slaughter at General Dostum’s Qal-i-Jangi fort last November. These mass murders, according to a humanitarian worker I have known for two decades – he played a brave role in preventing killings in Lebanon in 1982 – went on into December with the full knowledge of the Americans. But the US did nothing about it, any more than they did about the 600 Pakistani prisoners at Shirbagan, some of whom are still dying of starvation and ill-treatment at the hands of their Northern Alliance captors.

“There are mass graves all across the north, and the Americans, who know about this, have said nothing,” my old friend said. “The British intelligence people knew this, too. And the British have said nothing.”

There are those in Kabul who suspect that the Americans are now in Afghanistan for secondary reasons: to operate in and out of Pakistan, rather than in Afghanistan itself. “They’ve had plenty of muck-ups in Afghanistan and they could not base thousands of their soldiers in Pakistan,” a Western officer in Kabul said. “They’re safer here, and now they can go in and out of Pakistan and keep the pressure on Musharraf from here – and on the Iranians too.”

Last week, The Independent revealed that FBI officers have been seizing Arabs from their homes in Pakistan and bringing them across the border to Afghanistan for interrogation at Bagram.

It was the Special Forces man in the south who saw things a little more globally. “Perhaps the Americans can start withdrawing if there’s another war – if they go to war in Iraq. But the US can’t handle two wars at the same time. They would be overstretched.” So to end America’s “war against terror” in Afghanistan – a war that has left the drug-dealers of the Northern Alliance in disproportionate control of the Afghan government, many al-Qa’ida men on the loose and absolutely no peace in the country – we have to have another war in Iraq.

As if the Israeli-Palestine conflict is not enough. But when Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense, can identify only a “so-called” Israeli-occupied territory on the West Bank – the occupation troops there presumably being mistaken by the Pentagon as Swiss or Burmese soldiers – there’s not much point in taking a reality check in Washington.

The truth is that Afghanistan is on the brink of another disaster. Pakistan is now slipping into the very anarchy of which its opposition warned. And the Palestinian-Israeli war is now out of control. So we really need a war in Iraq, don’t we?

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