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Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence

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This weekend marks the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. In recent months the Taliban has seized control of entire regions of the country. The security situation has worsened as suicide bombings are up 600 percent this year. Opium and poppy cultivation are at record highs. NATO forces are suffering their highest casualty rate in five years. We speak with Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, authors of the new book, “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence.” [includes rush transcript]

This weekend marks the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Fifty cruise missiles were launched from submarines in the Arabian Sea. B52 and B2 Stealth bombers began air strikes. The Pentagon called the attack Operation Enduring Freedom. The invasion came less than a month after 9/11. Among the Bush administration’s goals were the capture of Osama Bin Laden and the dismantling of the Taliban.

Five years later, neither objective has been realized. In recent months the Taliban has seized control of entire regions of the country. The security situation has worsened as suicide bombings are up 600 percent this year. Opium and poppy cultivation are at record highs. NATO forces are suffering their highest casualty rate in five years. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has now reached about 20,000 — the highest number of U.S. forces in the country since the invasion. Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to hold hundreds of prisoners without charge at Bagram airbase.

We speak with the co-authors of the book,* “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence.” Sonali is host of the popular Pacifica Radio Show, Uprising. Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are also co-directors of the * Afghan Women’s Mission. They traveled to Afghanistan last year to witness firsthand the results of U.S policy there and to understand how ordinary Afghans felt about the war.

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

AMY GOODMAN: My next guests are the authors of the book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are also co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission. They traveled to Afghanistan last year to witness firsthand the results of U.S. policy there and to understand how ordinary Afghans felt about the war. Sonali and Jim join us from Los Angeles. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. And, of course, Sonali is also the host of the popular Pacifica Radio program Uprising on KPFK in Los Angeles. Sonali, let’s begin with you. Let’s go back five years. What has happened since that time, and the reasons that were given for the attack on Afghanistan?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Yes, Amy. The reasons, of course, were that 9/11 had just happened. It was less than a month after September 11th, 2001 that the United States launched its attack, its so-called Operation Enduring Freedom, on Afghanistan, dropping bombs and basically going in, saying that they were going to liberate the people and particularly liberate the women of Afghanistan. You know, thousands of people were killed in the bombings alone. Untold numbers were killed, probably due to starvation. And the Taliban was defeated.

And what the U.S. did in those five years was that it refused to allow the expansion of peacekeeping troops from Kabul to the rest of the country, saying that it would interfere with the so-called hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda, and it re-empowered these misogynist and fundamentalist warlords in the northern part of the country and allowed them to take part in government.

Now, certainly on paper, women are more equal to men than they were before, but in practical terms, very little has actually changed in Afghanistan for women. There’s increased sexual and domestic violence against women. Women parliamentarians are harassed and threatened.

And now, with its operations in the southern part of the country being extremely aggressive, targeting Afghans, rounding them up, brutalizing them, torturing them, the U.S. has actually created much more resentment against it than it needed to. There was actually some goodwill that the Afghan people had. The Afghans were willing to tolerate some foreign presence in Afghanistan in order to see if the Taliban or the warlords would be really defeated, would be purged from their country. The U.S. has squandered that goodwill with its brutal tactics in Afghanistan. And now, the Taliban, or some version of the Taliban, the neo-Taliban, as they’re being called, are back in the south. And so, Afghanistan is actually worse off than it was just a couple of years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Ingalls, this week the NATO forces took over in Afghanistan. What exactly does that mean?

JAMES INGALLS: Yeah, well, what that means, essentially, is that there are — we have more troops in Afghanistan from more countries, operating under the same U.S. generals that have always been running the show. The U.S. continues to run the combat operations in Afghanistan. Nominally the NATO operation is under a British general right now, but the so-called security operations of NATO are being run by Major General Benjamin Freakley, who is a U.S. general. He’s what they’re calling a dual-hatted general, who has one hat, he works for NATO, and the other hat, he works for Operation Enduring Freedom. So the combat operations are still being run with a U.S.-style approach under a U.S. general. In fact, the overall NATO operation is going to be taken over by another U.S. general in February. So it’s all a continuous flow from what’s been going on since 2001. The only change is now there are more troops from more countries.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. is still in control of Bagram Air Base?

JAMES INGALLS: U.S. is still in control of Bagram Air Base.

AMY GOODMAN: Where the prison is.

JAMES INGALLS: Yes, that’s right. And the U.S. is still in control of combat operations.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are our guests. We’ll come back to them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jim Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar. They are the authors of the book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Sonali is also the host of the KPFK radio program Uprising every weekday morning in Los Angeles. They’re speaking to us from Los Angeles. Sonali, can you talk about the position of Republicans and Democrats here in this country on Afghanistan today and also the current visit of the president, Hamid Karzai, to the United States?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Sure. Now, it’s very interesting to see the kind of debate that goes on in the United States over this issue. You know, Amy, we were just in Canada, where there is a very big debate going on among Canadians about the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. There’s only 2,300 Canadian troops there. And there’s actually a party, the New Democratic Party in Canada, which has based its platform on a pullout of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

Coming here to the United States again, it was really interesting to see the kind of debate that exists. On the one hand, Democrats are saying, look — particularly Senator Kerry and Bill Clinton are saying — “The real fight is in Afghanistan. The just war, the war that we’re supposed to be fighting against terrorism, is actually in Afghanistan. We need to put more troops there, because things aren’t going so well.” And the Republicans are saying, “Things are going very well in Afghanistan. It was the first stop in the war on terror. It’s been our success story. We need to put more troops there. But it’s going very, very well.” And that’s the extent of the debate we’re seeing between Republicans and Democrats. Both of them agree that more troops have to go into Afghanistan, and they sort of disagree on whether it’s going well or not.

But if you look at what’s been happening in Afghanistan over the past few years regarding troops, the more the number of troops in Afghanistan over the past few years, the greater the instability, the greater the violence, not only from the side of U.S. forces, western forces, in general, but then the reaction from Afghans. And so, as a whole, the country is actually less safe.

And I think even the antiwar movement in this country is not quite sure about Afghanistan. I know Neil Young, for example, who has put out this antiwar album, recently said, you know, “We shouldn’t be in Iraq. Afghanistan is where we’re supposed to be.” And it’s really bizarre for us, who have been studying the situation for a long time, who see the similarities with Afghanistan and Iraq, to hear people cast Afghanistan as a so-called just war. It’s really a shame.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of the leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, saying that Taliban should be included in the government, that they’re popular, what is their popularity and your response to Frist’s statement?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Maybe Jim should answer that one.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sonali Kolhatkar, as well as Jim Ingalls. And together, they’ve written the book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Jim?

JAMES INGALLS: Yeah, Amy. This really illustrates the scope of our debate we have, which — the debate is over which warlord armies to support in the U.S.: the Northern Alliance warlords that we brought back to power to topple the Taliban or the Taliban. So it’s the question of one or the other. It’s never a question of what do the Afghan people want.

And the popularity of the Taliban now is rising, because of U.S. actions. And some analysts are essentially saying that the Taliban, the original Taliban, no longer exist in Afghanistan, as they used to be. What’s happening is a new wave of anti-U.S. sentiment is fomenting in Afghanistan, because of U.S. actions; because of the bombings; because of the torture, the death in custodies that are so well-known; because of U.S. actions in Iraq. New soldiers, new foot soldiers are rising from out of the population, because the people feel like they’re occupied by a foreign force unjustly.

70% of the population in southern and eastern Afghanistan is on the fence. They basically — they’re waiting to see who wins the war — NATO or the Taliban — before they decide who they’re going to back. And that’s a very telling statistic. It basically equates — it says that in the eyes of the population, NATO, the U.S.-run operation and the Taliban are more or less the same thing. So we’ve become the new warlords in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of drugs, Jim? The issue of heroin, of poppy?

JAMES INGALLS: Poppies. Most people are very poor, and they basically need — they’ve turned to growing poppies to survive. And Afghanistan has now become the largest supplier of opium to the world. 87% of the world’s supply comes from Afghanistan. And that’s mainly because of poor farmers need to make a living. That’s the only way they can make a living, not necessarily them that’s making the profits. Most of the profits are going to middlemen, who are selling the drugs on the world market. So the poor farmers of Afghanistan are basically caught with very little choice but to grow poppies. The Taliban are taking advantage of that and are actually looking better in the eyes of some people, because they’re allowing people to grow poppies, whereas the U.S. is seen as an anti-drug, anti-poppy force.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar, the issue of the Provincial Women’s Affairs minister, who was recently killed in Afghanistan, can you talk more about what is happening to women there? I mean, I think about Laura Bush, giving the first First Lady radio address Saturday, a year or two ago, talking about how women are gaining their rights in Afghanistan.

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Yeah, you know, we write about this in our book. We have a chapter in our book that really goes into the kind of liberation rhetoric that was used after 9/11. You know, after 9/11, the Bush administration suddenly became a feminist administration. You know, it was bizarre to see George W. Bush and Laura Bush, which, of course, compared to the Taliban, ultra-Republicans and conservatives, do appear feminist, right? But it was really bizarre to see them jump on this bandwagon to liberate Afghan women. And it was a deliberate ploy. It was a way to get well-meaning Americans on the side of this war, to justify, you know: not only are we going to get revenge for 9/11, we’re going to free the women.

And what happened? What happened was that they basically assumed that by defeating the Taliban, Afghan women were going to somehow automatically be freed. Now, in the last five years or so, Afghan women in the west have been burning themselves to death. There have been dozens of women who have been burning themselves to death. Women, like the woman who was just killed in Afghanistan, have been paying the price. They have been attacked by the fundamentalists, who are basically seeing them as collaborating with the Americans or collaborating with the U.S.-run central government in Afghanistan.

Things for women are okay in Kabul, in terms of freedom to wear what they want to wear, a little more access to employment and healthcare, etc., but you step outside Kabul, as we did a year ago when we traveled, and it feels like the country is still under Taliban control. There’s still a fundamentalist reign of terror in Afghanistan that Afghan women are caught between. There’s a climate of fear, much of it because of these U.S.-backed warlords in the north.

And what’s happening to Afghan women is that, before the Taliban, during the Taliban and after the Taliban, they are suffering from a lifespan of 45 years, the highest maternal mortality and infant mortality rates in the world today. Afghanistan is the hungriest country. So in addition to the attacks from misogynist fundamentalists, being caught between, you know, the U.S. forces and these fundamentalists, they’re also starving to death. And this is important. There are hardly any schools. Schools are being burnt down in various parts of the country. Just this year alone, dozens of schools were burned down, and hundreds more shut down — these are girls’ schools — shut down because of fear.

So women still have no access to the very fundamental rights that they were struggling for under the Taliban. And Bush tries to convince us that they’ve somehow been liberated. We have to see through this, and we have to remind ourselves that if we cared about Afghan women five years ago, why have we forgotten? Why have we stopped caring today?

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali, what do you think has to happen right now in Afghanistan?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: I think what has to happen is the U.S. and NATO forces absolutely have to stop their aggressive tactics. They’re trying to convince the American people that they’re fighting this so-called war on terror. And what are they doing? They’re basically hunting down, they’re rounding people up, ordinary people. They’re killing them. They’re calling them Taliban. They’re saying these are suspected Taliban. And that’s really creating a lot of anger and fear and strengthening fundamentalist forces. So the U.S. and NATO have to stop their aggressive tactics, preferably leave Afghanistan.

Now, that doesn’t mean we must just walk away from Afghanistan. We, as a people, have a responsibility. You know, our hands are soaked in the blood of the Afghan people. This was a refrain we heard often in Afghanistan. And the Afghan people want international peacekeepers, real peacekeepers, like the kind that were in Kabul under the United Nations for the first few years. Today, Kabul is the safest city in the country. International peacekeepers to the rest of the country is what’s needed in Afghanistan, not the war fighters.

Accompanying that, we must have disarmament. We must have reparations for the — you know, all the dollars we spent destroying Afghanistan, we must pay them back dollar-for-dollar in helping rebuild their country, so that there’s a space for them to breathe, so that there’s a space for them to take back their country and actually exercise democracy. The Afghan people want democracy. They say if it’s good enough for you people in the West, it’s good enough for us. And they really desperately want that, because they need to be freed from these twin evils of western imperialism and religious fundamentalism, and it’s usually western imperialism that has actually created and fueled religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls. Their book is called Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, speaking to us from Los Angeles.

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