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Taliban Country: Afghanistan 3 1/2 Years After the U.S. Invasion

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We talk to Sonali Kolhatkar, co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission and filmmaker, Carmela Baranowska who was embedded with 800 U.S. Marines in one of the most remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan. She made a film called Taliban Country which is a disturbing expose of American actions in that country. [includes rush transcript]

Earlier this week, First Lady Laura Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Mrs. Bush was surrounded by heavy security and spent a total of six hours on the ground. She met with women training to be teachers at Kabul University, U.S troops at Bagram Air Base and President Hamid Karzai.

Mrs. Bush, a former teacher and librarian, thanked the troops for ousting the Taliban. She said “thanks to you, millions of little girls are going to school in this country, little girls who were denied an education just three years ago.” Mrs. Bush also announced plans for the U.S to build an American University of Afghanistan and an International School of Afghanistan for children to receive a western style education. Though President Bush often cites the country as a symbol of success and on the road to democracy, he has has never been to Afghanistan.

We are joined in studio by the co-Director of the Afghan Women”s Mission, Sonali Kolhatkar. Sonali recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. We are also joined in our New York Studio by filmmaker, Carmela Baranowska. In June of 2004, Carmela was embedded with eight hundred US Marines in one of the most remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan. She made a film called Taliban Country which is a disturbing expose of American actions in that country. Here are a few excerpts from the film

  • Sonali Kolhatkar, host of the popular Pacifica Radio Show, Uprising on KPFK. She is also co director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a group that works in solidarity with Afghans to help improve health and educational facilities for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
  • Carmela Baranowska, an award-winning film maker of “Taliban Country.” She has just completed a 12-city tour of the US screening her film and addressing audiences on East, Midwest, South and West coasts.
  • “Taliban Country”, excepts from Carmela Baranowska’s new film.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined here in Los Angeles in the studio by the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission. She is the host of Pacifica station KPFK’s morning show “Uprising.” Sonali Kolhatkar joins us. Sonali recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Thanks, Amy, good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Its great to have you with us. Can you talk about this surprise trip of the First Lady, Laura Bush?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: You know, Laura Bush used Afghan women to help launch her husband’s war right after the 9/11 attacks in late 2001, and this was a time when the Bush administration’s operation in Afghanistan needed a little bit of a boost. Karen Hughes is back on the team. She was the initiator of the whole marketability of Afghan women, if you will, to promote the Bush administration’s liberation, so-called liberation of Afghan women. So she went back, completely surprise visit, and she took with her $21 million for a school in Afghanistan highlighting all of these superficial positive changes. Of course, what we didn’t hear is that at the same time the U.S. spent about $83 million upgrading its military bases in Afghanistan, and really that’s the U.S.'s main goal. They want to be in Afghanistan for the long haul. It's a very convenient, very strategic military area for them where they can have their bases, and they’re spending much more, of course, on military operations than they do on humanitarian projects.

AMY GOODMAN: What about where women stand now? I mean, it is often raised. They can go to school. Her point. Many point of the administration. Girls are being liberated. Women in Afghanistan.

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Right. We hear the thing about, you know, that fact about five million girls are now going to school. It is wonderful. When I was in Afghanistan, I noticed that in Kabul, certainly schools were open, women were walking around fairly openly with not as much fear. Outside of Kabul, where 80% of Afghans reside, totally different situation. There are no schools. I visited the Farah province, which is a very isolated, remote province in western Afghanistan and there were no schools except for the one school that Afghan Women’s Mission is funding that is administered by our allies, the members of RAWA. Aside from that one school for girls, there are no schools in the region. And so we hear all of these very superficial things about how great Afghan women are, you know, the progress they’re making. The U.N. just released a report recently on Afghanistan where they described Afghanistan’s education system as, quote, “the worst in the world.” And, you know, we never hear that. Our media, when they covered Laura Bush’s trip, will not mention, will not do their homework, and will not mention these facts.

AMY GOODMAN: What about warlords?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Warlords is the most important problem in Afghanistan today. Everybody I met talked about how they were really happy the Taliban was gone, and then they said, well, now we’ve got these warlords who are ideologically the same as the Taliban. They’re just less organized. And the U.S. has backed these warlords, some of them since the '70s in the fight against the Soviets, and they empowered them at a time when the Afghan people just did not want them around. Instead of undermining them, Hamid Karzai has actually put them into positions of power. Ismail Khan, is now the Minister of Energy and he is an extremely fundamentalist warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the war criminal whose forces were implicated in the massacre of Taliban soldiers, remember that documentary, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death? Well, his forces were the men implicated in that massacre of thousands of Taliban. He is now the Army Chief of Staff and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, called Karzai's moves “wise.” So, the Afghan people are extremely dismayed, because they voted for Karzai on the platform that he would not compromise with warlords. Their hopes are being dashed, and the warlords, I think its important for us to understand, give the United States an extremely good excuse to stay in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are tolerating foreign troops, because they see them as an antidote to the warlords. So the U.S. continues to allow warlords to flourish, empowers them, pushes the Karzai government to keep them in power, because it means that the U.S. can stay there for the long haul.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar is the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission. We are also joined in our New York studio by filmmaker Carmela Baranowska. In June 2004 Carmela was embedded with 800 U.S. Marines in one of the most remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan. She made a film called Taliban Country, which is a disturbing expose of American actions in Afghanistan. Here is a few excerpts of the film.

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: In the next village, Lieutenant Colonel Khan believes he’s found an important lead in his search for the Taliban.

SOLDIER: [inaudible] the Taliban leader’s compound. The guy that we captured just a few moments ago is a known Taliban leader in this area. We’ve been looking for him for the last three years. So that was a good find.

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: Where did you find him?

SOLDIER: He was sleeping in a field with a loaded weapon.

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: As the sweeps wind down for the day, Lieutenant Colonel Khan makes a joke about the surrounding opium poppy fields with a militia leader who calls himself the minister for agriculture.

LT. COLONEL KHAN: Tell him he’s doing a very lousy job. I don’t see any agriculture.

TRANSLATOR: He says if I didn’t take any action of my agriculture because I am too busy fighting.

LT. COLONEL KHAN: Tell him that we need to get rid of the Taliban and al Qaeda here and improve the security of this nation and then we can have more agriculture and water.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Taliban Country by filmmaker Carmela Baranowska. Here is another clip from the film.

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: It’s a few weeks later and I decide to head back independently to the same area of central Afghanistan without the presence of the Marines and the militia. I want to find out the real story behind the American and militia operations. I travel Afghan style with a driver, translator and two armed policemen. They’re brief is to safeguard us from roadside robbers, but we all realize that there is no real protection against the Taliban. After six hours we’re back in the village of Mossazai. At the forward operating base the Marines processed and tagged the 35 villagers. This man, Wali Mohammad was arrested by the U.S. Marines Force Recon Unit, their forward operating intelligence unit. He spent three nights in detention.

WALI MOHAMMAD: When they took us away from here, this is what happened to us. They made us stand like this. They fingered us, beat us, humiliated us. There was no food. My legs gave way. We were asking desperately for food. There was nothing. They gave us water, but spilled it over our mouths, noses and eyes. They shoveled snuff up our nostrils and into our eyes. They told us not to look at them. This type of cruelty has never been done to us or seen by us. We have never seen this type of cruelty.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the film Taliban Country. It is by Carmela Baranowska. She is an Australian filmmaker and joins us in the Firehouse studio in New York. Carmela, can you talk about this extraordinary experience that you had embedded with the troops looking at Afghanistan?

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: Well, for three weeks I was embedded with U.S. Marines in one of the most remote and dangerous parts of central Afghanistan. And while it was very interesting and I was really the only person there last year who spent that period of time embedded with them, I, you know, I felt this kind of certain uneasiness. I felt that there were more questions that I wanted answered. I felt that they were only wanting to show me certain things. So I decided to go back independently. And the film is really interesting because it’s the only independent eyewitness account in these U.S. military areas from the all of last year. And I would also warrant from this year there is no independent eyewitness testimony coming out from journalists in Afghanistan. And that’s a real problem.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think, Carmela, is the most important issue that has to be highlighted and understood about Afghanistan.

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: Well, from the perspective of the film, you know, I do believe that there must be transparency. There must be military, you know, investigations that are revealed to the public. Because, don’t forget that the U.S. military’s own detention practices, its own investigation into what went on, into what is going on in Afghanistan, was supposed to have been released in June. Now, I was in that area a couple of weeks later, and it seemed to me that because there is no transparency, there is no release of documents, there is no accountability, that the human rights abuses continue and there is impunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar, what about U.S. forces in Afghanistan, NATO forces in Afghanistan.

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, NATO had been in Afghanistan for the past year under the International Security Assistance Force’s framework. Basically they’ve been providing security in Kabul. Only 5,000 troops. Since the Taliban fell there have been foreign troops in Kabul, which is why Kabul is safer than the rest of the country. These folks are basically providing a sort of antidote to the warlords. And Afghan people, including Karzai, had been begging for international forces, preferably under the U.N. to be expanded throughout Afghanistan and the U.S. had been resisting that because it would somehow interfere with their operation in the provinces. Basically, the U.S. wanted to be able to act in the provinces alone with no oversight and with impunity if it felt like it. Now, however, NATO forces are slowly expanding into other provinces, but they’re operating in what are called “provincial reconstruction teams,” where basically they do aid work and they provide supposedly security for building wells and schools, and the aid community is really upset about this because it undermines their impartiality. That’s why Doctors Without Borders left Afghanistan last year after a number of their workers were killed. Doctors Without Borders had been in Afghanistan for over 24 years when the worst of the worst atrocities were happening. Now it’s become too dangerous for them to work in the provinces.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Zalmay Khalilzad?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Khalilzad is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and he is basically the guy who is running the show in Afghanistan. He’s the one who makes the decisions. He’s the one who has done the backroom dealing, ensuring that warlords are in power. He has been saying that we —

AMY GOODMAN: He’s Afghan himself?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: He’s Afghan born, but he’s a U.S. citizen. And he says, 'Look, we need justice. That's fine, but we first must have peace before we can have justice.’ And Karzai just parrots that, and he’s a man — when I talk to Afghans, I ask them, 'Well, what do you think Khalilzad is doing? Do you think he is acting in the interest of the Afghan people?' And uniformly the Afghan people were like, 'No, we know that this man is acting in the interest of the United States, and we understand this. We just wish that he would just stop influencing our government so much.' So he is really running the show.

AMY GOODMAN: He is a former Unocal consultant?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: This is a man who was formerly a consultant for Unocal, and I am not sure necessarily whether that plays a big role right now. Certainly there is, you know, there was the whole incident with the Unocal Company wanting to do a pipeline, oil and gas pipeline, through Afghanistan, and trying to make a deal with the Taliban when Clinton was in power. That’s not necessarily on the table right now, and even if it were, it’s not as major a project as the military bases. But Khalilzad is one of the original founders of the Project for a New American Century. He’s a neo-con at heart, and he is part and parcel of the Bush Administration’s core group.

AMY GOODMAN: May he be the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: He has been tipped off. But it’s not clear whether its going to happen for sure. I think one thing that we should learn as antiwar activists is take a look at what he’s done in Afghanistan and that’s what’s going to be in store for Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Sonali Kolhatkar. Your website?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Yeah, our website is And I encourage people to go to our website. They can write to the media on our website and urge them to cover Afghanistan, cover it accurately and cover it more often.

AMY GOODMAN: And Carmela Baranowska, I want to thank you for being with us in New York, where Taliban Country can be seen here. Your website?

CARMELA BARANOWSKA: The website is You can view the film online, and just very quickly what I would also really like to, you know, try to push for, and I know that the A.C.L.U. is really trying to release the military documents dealing with Taliban Country and looking at the three military investigations that have resulted because of the film, and also the battalion commander, very interesting, Pakistani-American Lt. Colonel Asad Khan was fired, and he’s now left the Marine Corps as a result of the film. So I really urge your listeners and viewers to visit the website and to, you know, discuss with colleagues and friends the situation in Afghanistan. Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Carmela Baranowska and also Sonali Kolhatkar.

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