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2009-03-26

Afghans Urge Obama to Send Aid, Not Troops, to Afghanistan

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Pratap Chatterjee, award-winning investigative journalist, managing editor of CorpWatch, and author of Iraq, Inc. His latest book is called Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War.

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President Obama is expected to unveil a revised Afghanistan strategy Friday that will focus on expanding and improving the Afghan national police force. The revised policy is also expected to send more US troops to counter the Taliban’s expanding influence in the southern part of the country. We speak with Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch, who recently traveled to Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama is expected to unveil a revised Afghanistan strategy Friday that will focus on expanding and improving the Afghan national police force. The Afghan police have been the target of recent attacks, and insurgents killed nine police officers and injured six in the southern and central parts of the country Thursday. Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told a security conference in Brussels last Saturday that the President’s new plan would address the widespread perception that the police are, quote, “the weak link in the security chain.”

President Obama’s revised Afghanistan policy is also expected to send more troops to counter the Taliban’s expanding influence in the southern part of the country, which, the New York Times reports, is made possible by direct support for the Taliban by operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.

Investigative journalist and CorpWatch managing editor Pratap Chatterjee traveled recently to Afghanistan and asked a number of Afghans what they would like to see from the new American president. Here is a short report.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: One of the top priorities for President Barack Obama is how to tackle the growing power of the Taliban and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. CorpWatch and KPFA met with a number of Afghans, from students to parliamentarians, to ask them what they think the new president should do.

    Sitting in his darkened flat during a power cut, Mir Ahmed Joyenda, a member of the Afghan parliament, made several recommendations for the new president.

    MIR AHMED JOYENDA: First of all, they should build Afghan army, for Afghan army to have a Afghan strong army to be able to defend the country. Second was, they should not plan attacks by B-52 or Chinook or pilot-less planes. They should let Afghan guards — they should have coordination with the Afghan army for any military operation they are doing. Thirdly, they should change their policy on the economic development of Afghanistan. He should focus — the people should understand — they should, probably should — it should be tangible for the people to have the change in their lives for Afghanistan.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: The Obama administration plan to increase troop levels in Afghanistan is destined for failure, says Tariq Osman, a former Taliban official.

    TARIQ OSMAN: The Afghan will never accept a military presence of any country, even if that’s Saudi Arabia, if that’s US. And based on that reason, increasing troops will not give them anything rather than more problems and more challenges. I think if he takes action on this, this will be another mistake by US.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Some parliamentarians are even calling for negotiations with the Taliban, like Faisal al-Zeki [phon.], a Northern Alliance member of the Afghan parliament.

    FAISAL AL-ZEKI: A proverb in Persian, which says [Persian proverb]. It means that when it is still possible to untie a knot by your fingers, do not do it by your teeth. So this means that whenever it’s possible to solve a problem through negotiating, you don’t have to fight.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Students at the American University in Kabul say that they hope that the new administration will fulfill Obama’s campaign slogan of change by making a clean break with all the Bush administration’s policies.

    AFGHAN STUDENT: Mr. Obama says a change, we need. And he’s right. We need it in Afghanistan also.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Students agreed that Joyenda’s recommendation to train the local military should be top priority. Abdul Hakim Maruban [phon.], a business student at the American University in Kabul.

    ABDUL HAKIM MARUBAN: I would request Obama to change the strategy of — their strategy that they’re employing in Afghanistan, and they should send the troops that they could train the Afghan military, not the foreign military, because we are happy [inaudible] like they can do capacity building for them. In many places, the foreign troops go, hit the Taliban and then go back. The foreign military cannot control that place, because they are very few. They just go for the missions, and so there is no one to control that place then.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Shakila [phon.], a student from the Wardak province at the American University in Kabul, said that she liked Obama’s campaign promise to increase non-military aid for basic needs like education.

    SHAKILA: I like Obama’s idea about the non-military assistance to Afghanistan. I think we need to focus on the educational system.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: This plea for non-military aid for Afghans was echoed by ordinary citizens, such as this barber in Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw district.

    AFGHAN BARBER: [translated] The next president of the United States, Barack Obama — he’s the one, right? — I think he should provide more aid to Afghanistan, more assistance to Afghanistan. He should not forget Afghanistan. He shouldn’t just say things now that he’s the President of the United States and leave the job incomplete in Afghanistan.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Obama has asked for $75 billion for the war in Afghanistan and Iraq in his 2009 budget. Whether any of this money will trickle down to ordinary citizens in the remote rural provinces of Afghanistan, who still lack basic services like water and electricity, remains to be seen.

    For CorpWatch and KPFA, I’m Pratap Chatterjee with Ronald Nobu Sakamoto in Kabul.

AMY GOODMAN: Pratap Chatterjee is also the author of the new book Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War. In a recent article for CorpWatch, Chatterjee analyzes President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and asks who will win the contracts to train the Afghan police and soldiers.

Well, Pratap Chatterjee joins us now here in our firehouse studio to answer that question and more. Welcome, Pratap. It’s great to have you with us.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: That analysis of what President Obama is about to unveil?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, the strategy is supposed to be released tomorrow, Friday, or early next week before he heads to Brussels for the NATO summit. And in that, he’s expected to say that they’re going to ramp up the number of soldiers and police to 400,000, doubling that.

And one of their problems — there have been GAO reports for the last five years, and each year they come up with the same answer to the police and the army, in effect. In fact, there was a 2008 report that said, after spending $10 billion, zero percent of Afghan police were actually capable, but three percent were able to do maneuvers with the US.

So they’ve actually launched a new strategy called "Focused District Development," which involves DynCorp, which is this company from Virginia, taking the police out of their districts for eight weeks’ training. The entire district trains with DynCorp, and then they get reinserted. Now, supposedly, the success rate has risen from zero to three percent to 19 percent. So they have asked — the Pentagon has asked to ramp up this civilian police training strategy and introduce a lot more, you know, civilian trainers throughout Afghanistan.

The trouble with that is they haven’t even been able to get the number of police trainers they need in the first place. And the kind of police trainers they’re hiring, a lot of them are people — you know, they’re people with beat cop experience, you know, from Kansas or Washington. And a lot of the DynCorp’s police trainers I’ve met in places like Iraq, not in Afghanistan, say that they are overwhelmed. They’re not really prepared to train people to fight a civil war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Pratap, on this particular trip, what parts of the country were you able to visit? And also, what was your sense, in terms of the general population, how it’s viewing this extended and continued US and foreign occupation?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, I went to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, where the Buddhas were blown up, and I went to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. And I was actually revisiting this. I had been there seven years before, right after the fall of the Taliban. And, of course, I went to Kabul.

And my sense was that people — as in the previous video, people are very interested in seeing local security being, you know, bolstered. They would like to see much more power in the hands of local people, because, as the students were saying, when the Americans come in and they start bombing people and then they leave, the mess is left for the Afghans to clean up. So, people — a lot of people actually would like to see a foreign presence, they would like to see a multilateral presence, but they would like to see it support the local capacity. And that’s what they feel like doesn’t exist. And the trouble with Americans coming in and having their own strategy is — and bombing people in Pakistan or on the border is that, in fact, it defeats sometimes, you know, what might happen locally.

AMY GOODMAN: Pratap, I wanted to go with you to Bamiyan here, this piece that you have done in central Afghanistan, once home to the iconic Buddha statues, to look at how life has changed for the people of the region since the US-led invasion in 2001. Pratap files this report.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Afghanistan is world famous for the giant statues of Buddha that were carved into hillsides behind me centuries ago. In 2001, the Taliban blew these statues up. Since they were asked seven years ago, UNESCO has poured millions of dollars into preserving the architectural heritage of this area. Yet the surrounding community lacks electricity, potable water, and has just one proper hospital.

    CorpWatch and KPFA traveled by land on the Parwan road to the remote interior Bamiyan province to investigate what had happened to the ethnic Hazara refugee community. We found that after hundreds of Hazara villages in the surrounding communities were killed by the Taliban in the late 1990s and buried in mass graves, thousands fled to other parts of the country and even as far away as Iran to avoid persecution.

    Today, many have returned, but as Shawali, a peasant who had hidden in Ghazni, explains, they still live a very hard life in villages like Samarra, because of the lack of any reconstruction projects to provide them with basic services like clean water and electricity.

    SHAWALI: [translated] As you can see with my hands, these hands are completely hardened and chapped, different than yours. When the Taliban invaded Bamiyan, my son and I fled during the night to Ghazni. The Taliban destroyed our house and everything we owned. My son and I labored hard, pulling big carts full of timber in heavy loads until we could earn enough money to return back to Bamiyan and work the land, growing wheat. I’m injured from years of heavy manual labor, but I still have to work hard. Otherwise, we would starve. But we still don’t own the land. It’s still owned by somebody else.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: In Dragon Valley and in other parts of Bamiyan, many Hazara who had fled to Iran have returned to live a hand-to-mouth existence. Khadija and Najiba, two women from Khawlan, explained that the government has not helped them.

    KHADIJA: [translated] We were happy in Iran. It was good. The weather was warm. We had a good life there. But it was still someone else’s country. When the government told us we had to go back home, we wanted to return to start a new life. But they haven’t helped us at all. They told us they were going to give us wood, supplies and doors, but they’ve given us nothing, no help whatsoever.

    NAJIBA: [translated] The government hasn’t done anything for us. They just say they will. They just came by once, gave us some water, some clothes, but that’s it. They haven’t done anything for us.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: While the women cook and men look for manual labor on construction sites, even children have to work weaving carpets for their families to survive. Abdul Karim, the father of these two children, explains that he returns from the town empty-handed most of the time.

    ABDUL KARIM: We have nothing. No work, no electricity, no help from the government or NGOs. I’m not happy with my life here. As you have seen, everything was destroyed. Right now, our situation is so terrible, so of course I have no hope for the future.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: We returned from Bamiyan to Kabul to ask Mir Ahmed Joyenda, a member of the Afghan parliament, why there was no electricity or potable water in Bamiyan. As luck would have it, Joyenda faced the same dilemma the day we visited him at his home, where we interviewed him by the light of a kerosene lamp.

    MIR AHMED JOYENDA: You see, we are in the city of Kabul. As a member of the parliament of Afghanistan, I’m sitting in front of you, but I don’t have electricity in my house. What do you think of the rural areas, or the poor areas of the Kabul City and other parts of the country?

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: This is despite billions spent in development aid in Afghanistan by the United Nations and international development agencies. We asked the deputy minister for electricity and water, Wali Shairzay, why there was such little progress.

    WALI SHAIRZAY: Most people call Afghanistan a post-conflict nation, “post-conflict.” It’s like other countries that have had conflicts. My terminology is a little bit different. I call it “post-devastation.” I would bring advisers and sit down these projects for the donors to understand what is the need, like a patient speaking of the problems the patient has: where it’s hurting and when it started and how bad the pain is, and this and that. Unfortunately, this patient in here, Afghanistan, could not speak what are my problems. And you have to find out what is the problem and then have to bring the prior diagnoses and prior medication.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Yet the deputy minister’s words rang counter to what we had heard from Dr. Gulam Mohammad Nadir, the chief medical officer of Bamiyan’s only hospital, who told us that he could change the basic sanitation in local villages, dramatically reducing health problems and saving lives, with just one $10 million demonstration grant.

    DR. GULAM MOHAMMAD NADIR: [translated] If we receive that kind of funding that you mention, we could spend it on creating a healthy public water supply. I believe having clean water is the most essential aspect to human health and to prevent diseases. At the very least, we need to educate the people about how important it is to have proper sanitation, clean water supply, and how they can protect themselves from waterborne diseases.

    PRATAP CHATTERJEE: We later discovered that $10 million was a huge sum of money in Bamiyan, the sum total in aid spent in the province over the first three years by the US Agency for International Development after the defeat of the Taliban. The money spent in the entire province of Bamiyan is less than one percent of the billion dollars allocated to Afghanistan over the same time period. Most of the money went to places like Kandahar, where the Taliban is very active, or to Helmand to combat the opium drug lords. But because Bamiyan has neither opium nor Taliban, it has been ignored by the US government. The only hope for Bamiyan is a handful of wealthy tourists who journey here to see the site of the exploded Buddhas.

    For CorpWatch and KPFA, I’m Pratap Chatterjee with Ronald Nobu Sakamoto in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, and we’ll be back with Pratap Chatterjee. We’ll also be joined by Gareth Porter to talk about both Afghanistan and Iraq in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

Our guest here in studio in New York is Pratap Chatterjee, the award-winning investigative journalist and managing editor of CorpWatch, author of — well, his latest book is Halliburton’s Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Well, Pratap, one of the things, as President Obama looks to ramp up the US involvement in Afghanistan, there’s still a lot of misconception in terms of the nature of the resistance there, that, my guess, most Americans see it as a unified resistance. Your sense from your travels there about the nature of the groupings of the various guerrilla organizations that are fighting the US?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE:

Well, it’s very fractured. There are a lot of different groups, and one of the best examples is actually a journalist by the name of Nir Rosen, who embedded with the Taliban and traveled to visit them, but on his way there got kidnapped by a different group of the Taliban. And they actually had to get, you know, requests from different groups to get him released. And this has happened to a number of people, is — there are fiefdoms in each of the different areas. Whether you go to Wardak province or Logar province or, you know, down to Khost, you’re going to find different people who control different sections, and sometimes they talk to each other, and sometimes they don’t. Now, they are unified in their hatred of the US troops, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they actually agree with each other. And so, it can be very problematic dealing with them, even, you know, as journalists, trying to — you know, I haven’t embedded there, but I know other people who have.

AMY GOODMAN:

Tell us who Bruce Riedel is.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE:

Bruce Riedel is the man who’s in charge of Obama’s Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy. He’s drawing up the new strategy that will be unveiled tomorrow or Monday, when Obama heads to Brussels. He’s actually a twenty-nine-year veteran of the CIA. He was in Langley mostly. He’s an analyst, and he came into this world as an analyst —- rather, not into this world, but -—

JUAN GONZALEZ:

His career.

AMY GOODMAN:

He wasn’t born — a born analyst?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE:

He started his career when Sadat was assassinated, and he was asked to investigate the Jihadis. And so, he looked into Zawahiri and people like this. And this was going back a couple of decades. And he has continued to follow that. He is now actually at the Brookings Institution, and he’s on loan to the National Security Council, where his job is coming up with this new strategy.

Now, he is somebody who really believes in a unified Taliban and al-Qaeda and believes you need to be able to target them. So this policy of, you know, drone attacks and all this stuff are the kinds of things that he is very interested in. His policy will be unveiled. You know, it’s partly — Richard Holbrooke just came back, Mike Mullen, all these other people are feeding into the strategy that they will unveil, but it’s been leaking all over the place. I mean, we’ve been reading, you know, parts of it, you know, in The Guardian and the New York Times and places like that.

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