The Other "Good" War: Afghanistan One Year Later
To this day, few are willing to criticize the war in Afghanistan. In fact, some self-proclaimed spokespeople for the antiwar movement have recently suggested that the "left" -- which is to say the peace movement, the global justice movement and most of the progressive grassroots activists in the country -- still handicaps itself by its opposition to that war. The official story remains that, whatever has come after, the war on Afghanistan remains the one shining success in the "war on terrorism."
One year later (the bombing started on Oct. 7, 2001), many of the results are in, and it's time for a critical look at some of those "successes."
The war increased the threat of terrorism. According to the June 16 New York Times, "Classified investigations of the al-Qaeda threat now under way at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States ... Instead, the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area."
Further, middle-level al-Qaeda operatives used the opportunity to strengthen contacts with other Islamist groups in the region, thus increasing the pool from which future terrorists will be drawn. The war allowed them to draw other Islamist groups, hitherto focused on domestic political questions, into the world of terrorist networks committed to attacks on the United States. According to one official, "Al Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps. What we're seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come."
The war did not result in the apprehension of Osama bin Laden or others high in the al-Qaeda network, who could possibly have been extradited, had the United States agreed to offer evidence to the Taliban. According to reports in the British press (Daily Telegraph, Oct. 4, 2001), an extradition deal had been worked out, only to be quashed at the last minute by Pakistan's dictator Pervez Musharraf, presumably at the behest of the White House.
Many innocents were killed. Initial concerns about civilian casualties were generally dismissed amid claims that the bombing of Afghanistan was the most restrained and precise in history. In fact, as in other recent U.S. bombing campaigns, the initial narrow targeting was broadened as air defense was destroyed.
As the small store of pre-determined targets was exhausted, the country was divided into "kill boxes" where pilots were to attack "targets of opportunity." A policy of cavalierly attacking military or supposed military targets in the heart of heavily populated areas was part of the reason that, at a conservative estimate by the Project for Defense Alternatives, the Afghanistan war killed at least four times as many civilians per bomb as were killed in the war on Yugoslavia. Although it is difficult to estimating civilian casualties from the bombing (largely because the U.S. government refuses to do a study), all serious estimates conclude that more than 1,000 died.
These concerns quickly gave way to the much graver threat of disruption of humanitarian aid. More than 7 million Afghans were directly dependent for survival on aid, which was disrupted for September, October and part of November, first by the threat of bombing and then by the bombing. The precipitous collapse of the Taliban in mid-November meant that the United States stopped bombing most of the country, so that aid deliveries by international organizations were rapidly restored, narrowly averting a catastrophe.
The United States installed a puppet regime, throwing democracy out the window. The "loya jirga," or grand council, that selected the current interim government of Afghanistan, was peopled from the start with delegates selected by the U.S., mostly representatives of the regional warlords, with a small sprinkling of Afghan expatriates and "technocrats" to give it some aura of respectability. Representatives from the 1.5-million-strong Watan Party, successor to the PDPA (which ruled Afghanistan until 1992), were not allowed into the jirga.
According to Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, delegates to the loya jirga, "We delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process. A small group of Northern Alliance chieftains decided everything behind closed doors."
Since former monarch Zahir Shah, the most popular candidate for interim president, was unsuitable for U.S. interests, "the entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government," they said. At that point, most delegates, aware that the U.S.-backed warlords held all the military power and fearing for their lives, silently went along.
Perhaps the high point was the sudden declaration by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (former consultant with Unocal) that Zahir Shah was stepping down -- something that the octogenarian former king was apparently unable to say for himself. After that, the confirmation of the United States's handpicked candidate Hamid Karzai (former consultant with Unocal) was swift and sure.
The U.S. has shown little concern for the rights of women in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the expressed commitment to building infrastructure for women's education and health care, both shamefully neglected under the Taliban, the Bush administration has been so stingy as to block $134 million in Afghan humanitarian aid, citing domestic economic problems (the money is less than 50 cents per American). Of that, $2.5 million was for the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Ritu Sharma, president of the advocacy group Women's Edge, described that $2.5 million, earmarked to build women's centers across Afghanistan, as a "question of life or death for the ministry and Afghan women." So far, the United States has contributed a mere $120,000 to it -- about one-tenth the cost of a single cruise missile.
The U.S. has done little to alleviate the extreme humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, let alone to rebuild the country. To take one index, U.S. contributions through UNICEF for Afghanistan have been less than a third of those from Japan. At the Tokyo conference on reconstruction of Afghanistan in January 2002, a mere $4.5 billion was pledged, $300 million of it from the United States -- not nearly enough to address Afghanistan's needs.
Driven largely by the perceived lack of concern from the U.S. government, donor countries have in fact not even followed through on these minuscule pledges. So shamefully negligent has the United States been in fixing its mess that today, as winter approaches, 6 million Afghans -- a larger number than before Sept. 11, 2001 -- are once again on the brink, dependent on humanitarian aid to get through the next months.
On every test of justice and of pragmatism, the war on Afghanistan fails. Worse, every one of these aspects, from an increased threat of terrorism to large numbers of civilian deaths to installation of a U.S.-controlled puppet regime is due to play out again in the war on Iraq. In fact, though it has been little noted, the sanctions regime has made Iraqis dependent on centralized, government-distributed food to survive and relief agencies have already expressed their concerns about the potential for a humanitarian crisis once war starts.
We, and the Iraqi people, can do without any more "successes" in the war on terrorism.
Rahul Mahajan is the Green Party candidate for governor of Texas and a member of the Nowar Collective. He is the author of "The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism."