Back to home page
ISR Issue 52, MarchApril 2007
R E V I E W S
The “good occupation”
Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls
Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence
Seven Stories Press, 2006
304 pages $19
Review by NICOLE COLSON
WHILE OPPOSITION to the Iraq war continues to grow, the other U.S. occupation—in Afghanistan—is still considered by many to be the “good occupation.” Indeed, the argument from many conservatives and liberals alike is that the cardinal sin of the Bush administration in invading Iraq was to divert resources and attention from the real “ground zero” of the war on terror in the “failed state” of Afghanistan.
This point has been driven home as prominent Democrats, including Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who have called for a troop “surge” in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly signaled a willingness to consider it.
Amid these calls for more war, Kolhatkar and Ingalls, co-directors of the non-profit Afghan Women’s Mission, make an important contribution with a book that shows how U.S. intervention helped make Afghanistan a failed state in the first place.
Bleeding Afghanistan focuses in particular on U.S. attempts over the past three decades to arm, fund, and prop up various warring factions in order to serve U.S political and business interests in the region.
With the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, Afghanistan became a battlefield for a proxy war between the U.S. and USSR. For its part, the U.S. government—first with the Carter administration, then through Reagan—supported fundamentalist Afghan rebel groups based in Pakistan. “The amount of U.S. and Saudi assistance to these groups started at around $30 million in 1980,” write Kolhatkar and Ingalls, “and increased to over $1 billion per year in 1986–89.”
The U.S. chose to ignore progressive and secular forces. Instead, support went to fundamentalist groups that were not only anticommunist, but anti-nationalist as well—because nationalist movements were seen as a threat to U.S. interests.
U.S. clients also had a reputation for ruthlessness. This included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received the most U.S. aid, and was known for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. “The CIA admitted to his ‘vicious’ and ‘fascist’ tendencies, but perhaps because of these tendencies he was expected to be the most effective against the Soviets,” the authors write.
By the time the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the toll of the U.S.-and Soviet-sponsored fighting had reached 1.5 million dead, 5 million disabled, and another 5 million refugees.
With the country in ruins, and little U.S. aid coming in for reconstruction, the early and mid-1990s again saw an escalation of violence and the brutal repression of women’s rights, as various factions, including Hekmatyar and other formerly U.S.-sponsored warlords, fought each other for power.
The Taliban arose against this backdrop. Yet far from condemning the Taliban for human rights abuses when it first captured the city of Kabul in 1996, the State Department under Bill Clinton
instructed the Islamabad Embassy on “Dealing with the Taliban.” The administration wanted to engage the new Taliban “interim government at an early stage to: demonstrate…willingness to deal with them as the new authorities in Kabul; seek information about their plans, programs, and policies; and express [U.S. Government] views on areas of key concern to us—stability, human rights, narcotics and terrorism.”And, it would seem, business. Indeed, the Clinton administration initially viewed the Taliban as a potentially “stabilizing” force that could pave the way for the progress of such projects as the building of a natural gas and oil pipelines for U.S.-based UNOCAL.
If the people of Afghanistan had little reason to trust U.S. motives for intervention in their country prior to September 11, the U.S. invasion and occupation itself have since shattered any ideas that the U.S. would bestow liberation. Kolhatkar and Ingalls detail an extensive list of crimes carried out during and following the war, including the abuse and murder of detainees, extraordinary rendition, and (once again) collaboration with some of the county’s most notorious warlords, including the forces of the Northern Alliance.
Moreover, promises of a new “democratic” Afghanistan have been consciously thwarted, with the U.S. engineering the election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai—a U.S.-friendly puppet who is widely considered to be all-but-powerless outside of the capital city of Kabul, and who has been forced to concede key positions of power to warlords.
Kolhatkar and Ingalls are at their best in puncturing the claims made by liberal apologists of the occupation—that, whatever else, at least the U.S. invasion would have the effect of “liberating” oppressed Afghan women from the tyranny of the Taliban. In a refreshingly blunt chapter titled “‘Liberation’ Rhetoric and Burqa Obsessions,” the authors note that, “What is rarely heard in current feminist discourse hijacked by the U.S. government and uncritically joined by most Western feminist organizations is a more complex analysis of the effects of U.S. policies on women’s rights in the first place, as well as Afghan women’s own militant resistance to fundamentalism.”
It comes as somewhat of a surprise, then, that having spent nearly the entire book detailing the effects of U.S. policies on ordinary Afghans, the authors refuse to call for the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. presence from the country. While they admit that “the U.S. government has always acted in its own self-interest in Afghanistan,” they conclude that the
occupation of all foreign troops should end, but only after disarmament is complete and Afghans feel safe in their own country. We recommend that the United States end its futile “war on terror,” stop backing any and all warlords armed militias, and those with violent backgrounds in Afghanistan, and instead focus on taking back the weapons provided over decades [authors’ emphasis]. Such a passage, coming after more than 250 pages’ worth of information about U.S. crimes in Afghanistan, reads at best like wishful thinking, and at worst, as a call for U.S. troops to militarily “disarm” various factions—an almost certain invitation to more violence and bloodshed.
Certainly there is much the U.S. government owes the people of Afghanistan, including a massive campaign of no-strings-attached reparations for decades of destruction. But as the most of Bleeding Afghanistan shows, U.S. meddling—political, financial, and most importantly, military—has never been a benefit for ordinary Afghans. There is no reason to believe that it can or will be in the future.