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Enforcing insecurity in Afghanistan


The following is an excerpt from “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence” (Seven Stories, 2006) by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls.

Once touted as a success in the “War on Terror,” Afghanistan has now deteriorated into increasing violence with the return of warlords, a flourishing drug trade, and ongoing women’s oppression. Additionally, us/NATO bombing raids still claim civilian lives and their brutal “hunt and kill” tactics have ironically resulted in a resurgence of the Taliban. Despite the NATO takeover of “security operations” this summer, Western troops in Afghanistan are more unpopular than ever and per soldier are just as likely to be killed as in Iraq.

But this descent into violence is a predictable outcome of deliberate U.S. policies over the past five years. As we explain in our new book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories), the U.S. refused to allow UN peacekeeping troops to stabilize Afghanistan outside Kabul, and instead allowed their old allies, the Northern Alliance and other warlords, to regain power and resume their oppression.

This, in combination with U.S. military policy, has actually increased insecurity and made the Taliban once more a palatable alternative for many Afghans. However, despite the resurgence of the Taliban, “many Afghans [still] cite regional warlords as the greatest source of insecurity (Human Rights Watch).”

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The following is an excerpt from Bleeding Afghanistan, Chapter 3: Replacing One Brutal Regime With Another

The U.S. ensured that its warlord partners were spared the glare of international oversight by working to restrict international peacekeepers to Kabul for more than two years after the fall of the Taliban. This had the effect of entrenching warlords in rural Afghanistan, where the overwhelming majority of Afghans reside. The New York Times,

As warlords have carved out chunks of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, the lawlessness that gave rise to the strict Islamic movement in the mid-1990’s has begun to spread, once again, across this country. The United States-led military campaign… has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.

As a result of the November 2001 Bonn Conference, the United Nations established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in December 2001 to “assist the newly established Afghan Transitional Authority create a secure environment in and around Kabul and support the reconstruction of Afghanistan.” At first, “the Northern Alliance and the Bush administration balked” at the idea of peacekeepers: the Alliance because they wanted to be the only armed force in the country; the U.S. because Washington hated working with international troops it could not control. Yunus Qanooni, the Northern Alliance representative at Bonn, said, “We prefer that security is looked after by Afghan forces themselves … there is [already] complete security in Kabul.” In the end it was decided that the ISAF would consist of about 5,000 troops from nineteen countries led by Britain, and would report to U.S. General Tommy Franks.

But their mandate would be limited: the troops would be confined to Kabul, already the most secure part of the country. While ISAF forces would be restricted to the capital, U.S. forces would engage in a hunt for al-Qa’eda and bin Laden in the provinces. The ISAF was “noteworthy for what it will not do,” that is, keep the peace outside of the capital, “where many Afghans live in a lawless no-man’s-land largely cut off from international aid.” Compared with other postconflict environments, the international troop contingent in Afghanistan is pathetically small. For example, Bosnia, which is 13 percent of Afghanistan by population (and eight percent of Afghanistan by area), has 18,000 NATO peacekeepers. To achieve the same ratio of forces to population as in Bosnia, Afghanistan would require about 134,000 troops.

It was the opinion of many Afghans, aid workers, U.S. advocacy groups like the Feminist Majority, UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and even Hamid Karzai himself, that the ISAF should have been expanded throughout Afghanistan. William J. Durch, codirector of the Project on the Future of Peace Operations, argued that Afghanistan needed a minimum of 18,500 international peacekeepers deployed throughout the country.

At his last news conference before retiring, Francesc Vendrell, the second-in-command for the United Nations office in Afghanistan, asserted that the ISAF contingent should consist of “perhaps as many as 35,000 soldiers” and be spread throughout the country. Vendrell “concluded that a much larger foreign troop presence could be the crucial factor in creating stability and curbing the lawlessness.” Such a move early on might have undermined the power of local and regional warlords before they fully entered the military vacuum left by the Taliban, but this didn’t happen.

The U.S. response to the idea of ISAF expansion was that American troops were not available for peacekeeping and since no other country had offered the troops or the money to do it, it was not worth considering. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked, “If it’s appropriate to put in more forces for war-fighting tasks, the United States will do that [but] there are plenty of countries on the face of the earth who can supply peacekeepers.” When asked if he thought international troops should be used to bring peace and security to Afghanistan outside of Kabul, Rumsfeld said, “There’s one school of thought that thinks that’s a desirable thing to do. Another school of thought, which is where my brain is, is that why put all the time and money and effort in that?” To then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, U.S. troops were already bringing security. “The security of Afghanistan will best be obtained as a result of the United States having eliminated the al-Qa’eda and the Taliban and their ability to create insecurity.” Besides the fact that usmilitary operations were probably never going to eliminate al-Qa’eda or the Taliban, Fleischer’s point ignores the major ongoing cause of instability in the country, the U.S.-backed warlords.

One thing is certain: having warlord armies as the only non-U.S. forces in the bulk of Afghanistan ensures little international accountability for U.S. troop operations in the countryside. ISAF expansion would have interfered with the U.S. hunt for al-Qa’eda and bin Laden. According to Al Ahram Weekly columnist Fahmi Howeidi, the “primary function of [ISAF] is to divert attention away from the military operations being conducted by U.S. forces in the Afghan countryside. In fact, as much as the hands of the international force are tied in Kabul, the Americans have a free hand elsewhere.” The absence of peacekeeping troops, deliberately maintained by the Bush administration, ensured that the United States, rather than an international body, had control over most of Afghanistan.

The official U.S. policy on Afghanistan’s security, according to Rumsfeld, was “helping [Afghans] develop a national army so that they can look out for themselves over time.” Since developing a national army and police force in a country flush with weapons and decimated by war is a time- and money-consuming effort, Rumsfeld privately “wondered why they couldn’t just let the Afghan warlords create an army.” In some areas of the country, this is indeed what has happened. While the national army is still in its infancy, local and regional warlords, many of whose private militias are well funded by drug revenues, easily filled the military vacuum left by the Taliban.

Rumsfeld denied that security was even a problem, saying in 2002, “We keep reading today that the situation in Afghanistan is difficult and that the security situation is supposedly deteriorating. Most of the comments, I suspect, are coming from people who are well-intentioned but may not be current with what’s taking place on the ground, or may be looking at one particular portion of the country.”

The people he is referring to, those “not current” with the situation on the ground, include hundreds of Afghans and international aid workers interviewed by the Center for Economic and Social Rights a few months earlier. According to CESR’s report, “People generally felt that the only hope for a sustainable peace was international intervention aimed at disarming warlords and maintaining security. Without exception, the interviewees favored extending international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul.” In a public opinion survey of Afghans conducted by the Asia Foundation in 2004, Afghans cited security as the “greatest national concern” over all other factors. In our own discussions with Noorani, the editor of the independent weekly newspaper Rozgaran in Kabul, he said that ISAF expansion would be “very good for our people. . . . ISAF forces are welcomed by people more than U.S. troops because people think the U.S. has biased policies in Afghanistan-also the security would be better.”

On May 6, 2003, 300 Afghans held the first anti-U.S. demonstration in Kabul; lack of security was one of the main topics. The protesters “included government employees and university students” who “complained of growing insecurity, slow post-war reconstruction and delay in payment of state salaries by Hamid Karzai’s U.S.-backed government,” according to Reuters. One student chanted, “We don’t want the Brits and the Americans!… We want security. They have failed to bring it to U.S. and we want them out!” The protest was organized by the “prominent Afghan philosopher” Sediq Afghan, well known for his vocal denunciations of illegitimate governments in Kabul. The U.S. was not in good company: Sediq had in the past organized demonstrations against “the communist regime of the 1980s, the Mujahideen governments that replaced it, and also the Taliban.”

Interestingly, Rumsfeld’s assertions about the security of Afghanistan could easily be refuted by the Bush administration’s own State Department. In a relatively inaccessible location of the department’s Web site, Afghanistan has been the subject of an ongoing travel warning for U.S. citizens. The latest bulletin (updated January 2006) warns:

The ability of Afghan authorities to maintain order and ensure the security of citizens and visitors is limited. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist al-Qa’eda network, and other groups hostile to the government, remain active. U.S.-led military operations continue. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, is unsafe due to military operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and kidnapping. The security environment remains volatile and unpredictable.

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NATO took over ISAF operations from the United Nations in 2005 and eventually expanded to the rest of the country. Unfortunately instead of peacekeeping, the bulk of ISAF now engages in combat operations alongside the us. Kabul remains the safest city in Afghanistan, an example of what could have been possible for the entire country.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright: Seven Stories Press, 2006.

Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are the authors of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. They are also the co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that works with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). >

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