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Afghan Civilians Bear the Brunt of Taliban Violence and US, NATO Bombings

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As violence escalates in Afghanistan, both Barack Obama and John McCain support sending more troops. “Both of them are wrong,” says Sonali Kolhatkar, host of Uprising on Pacifica radio station KPFK and co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan. “You really cannot solve the situation in Afghanistan by throwing more troops at it, because over the last several years tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan have not managed to do anything other than worsen the war.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 24, 2008The Forgotten War: Sonali Kolhatkar on Why Afghanistan is “Just as Bad as Iraq”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: NATO has denied a report in the French newspaper Le Monde that ten French soldiers killed in Afghanistan earlier this week died as a result of friendly fire from allied planes. A NATO spokeswoman said Thursday that Le Monde’s claims were “completely unfounded.”

The Le Monde report had quoted French soldiers who had survived the Taliban ambush. The soldiers told the newspaper that NATO planes arrived four hours after the ambush and accidentally hit French troops.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited survivors in Kabul earlier this week and vowed to continue the fight against terrorism. He said no regrets about the sending of 700 additional troops to Afghanistan, despite the soldiers’ deaths.

At a memorial service in France Thursday, Sarkozy justified maintaining the French presence in Afghanistan.

    PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: [translated] We do not have the right to give up on our values. We do not have the right to let the barbarians triumph, because a defeat at the other end of the world will be paid by defeat here on the territory of the French Republic.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now from Burbank, California by Sonali Kolhatkar. She’s the host of Uprising on Pacifica radio station KPFK and co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. 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.

Sonali Kolhatkar, welcome to Democracy Now!

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Thank you, Amy and Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: The situation right now in Afghanistan?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, it’s getting worse, in a nutshell. Basically, if you want to look at how things have changed over the past few years, you can simply look at how the Afghan people themselves have changed their minds about the US occupation. Just in 2005, there was almost a 70 percent approval rating of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, because Afghans thought maybe things would get better if the foreign troops were present and they could be a buffer to the fundamentalist forces. In 2007, just a year ago, that approval rating was down to 40 percent, and I believe it’s probably a lot lower right now.

I mean, basically, what’s happening is, Afghan people are caught between a variety of forces, ordinary Afghans. They’re caught, on the one hand, between the forces of the Taliban, who are increasing in number and strength — if you just look at the way in which they launched these recent attacks against the French, at the same time, they had a series of suicide bombers going to attack a US base in a geographically separate location. This means they can launch, you know, simultaneous attacks at the same time in different areas. This means they’re very strong. And, of course, US and NATO forces are attacking, and they’re killing civilians. So far, 2,500 people have been killed in Afghanistan since January, about half of them civilians. So, Afghan people are feeling the brunt of that very seriously, because attacks against forces are up, and attacks from forces are up, so the violence is really escalating.

Then, on the other hand, you have this other aspect that’s rarely covered by the US media, certainly never mentioned by government officials here, which is that the Afghan central government, created and installed essentially by the United States, is really devastating the people of Afghanistan. There’s rampant corruption. They’re sucking away the aid. They’re completely oppressing people. They’re attacking journalists. Women are being imprisoned in greater numbers than ever before, for the crime of escaping from home or having, quote-unquote, “sexual relations” — “illegal sexual relations.” Most of these women are simply victims of rape. And so, you have all of these forces that are converging upon the Afghan people from different directions, and life for the ordinary — average ordinary Afghan has gone from bad to so much worse in a very short period of time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things that the Bush administration repeatedly pointed to was the supposed liberation of the women of Afghanistan as a result of the US invasion and the replacement of the Taliban. What is your sense of what is actually going on at the grassroots level with women in Afghanistan?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, there’s several aspects. You know, on one hand, you have to look at how Afghan women are affected on a day-to-day level. Day-to-day level, of course, they’re suffering the terrible effects of grinding poverty. There’s hardly, you know, food and water and employment. Only ten percent of Afghans have electricity. So Afghan women are suffering the same thing that all Afghans are suffering in terms of poverty and all of the things that go along with that.

On top of that, of course, they face increasing fundamentalist forces from the government and from the “insurgency,” quote-unquote, the Taliban, to — you know, in terms of repressive Islamist-type decrees. You know, they have to increasingly worry about Sharia law, or strict interpretations, rather, of Sharia law. And then they face a very fundamentalist judiciary that was installed by our puppet president, Hamid Karzai.

And then, politically, you know, Afghan women enjoy political equality with men in their constitution. It’s enshrined in their new constitution, which is, of course, a wonderful thing, but the constitution is just a piece of paper. If you look at what happens on the ground, politically speaking, women who are in parliament, if they speak up, are completely attacked. And the best example of that is a woman I know that has been interviewed on Democracy Now! before, Malalai Joya, the young social worker from Farah province who has very bravely spoken out against warlordism in the parliament and, you know, has really been the voice of the people. For speaking out, she has been banned from parliament and has yet to be reinstated. She faces an Islamic court. And that’s the price that women pay politically for speaking out. It’s OK for women to be in government, as long as they shut up and stay quiet. But if they exercise their rights, they get attacked.

I mean, that’s basically what women are facing in Afghanistan, not that much better than what they were facing under the Taliban. Certainly they can legally wear whatever they want to wear, but oppression and freedom is a lot more about wearing or not being able to wear a burqa.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar, the resignation of the General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan — Pakistan has long been funding through its ISI, the intelligence services, and actually from US money — billions have been lost — but working with the Taliban. Can you talk about that relationship and the significance of the resignation of Musharraf?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, Musharraf’s resignation is interesting, because it basically, I think, is a symbol. It’s a symptom of how untenable the situation has become. And the relationship between, of course, Pakistan and Afghanistan is one significant part of why Musharraf resigned. His government and its support for — and his — and the ISI’s support for the Taliban over the years has become something that is pretty much intolerable both at home, but also by the US government.

And really, what’s happening in terms of if you’re looking at Afghanistan, is the Taliban are able to organize simply by crossing the border into Pakistan. And you can’t fight an insurgency if they’re free to go and organize and recruit and do whatever they need to do. In fact, of course, you can’t really fight an insurgency with pure military power anyway, but that’s another story.

And so, where Pakistan is concerned, I think the main significance of Musharraf resigning is it now opens up a political vacuum in Pakistan, where the Pakistani government has to decide what to do about the problem of the Taliban. Do they want the Taliban to be — you know, to have an organizing base in their country, which of course increases the instability in Pakistan itself and certainly worsens the situation in Afghanistan? It’s up to Pakistan to crack down on its borders, if they want to. It’s up to Pakistan to decide what to do with the Taliban.

But it’s also more complex than that. The Taliban are Pashtun people. A lot of Pakistanis are Pashtun. The Pashtun population was cut in half by the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, on purpose, to destabilize that region, of course, if you go back in history. And so, you can’t really separate the Taliban from Pakistan, either. It’s a problem that I’m not sure has a clear answer. But really, it’s up to the new Pakistani government to decide what to do with the mess that essentially Musharraf created. Also, you know, of course, Musharraf has been Washington’s man, so they really have to decide what to do now in the vacuum left behind by him.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The heroin trade, it’s been exploding since the occupation of Afghanistan. Why, in your sense, is thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, yet the trade continues to explode in size?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, you have to go back and see what has happened over the past several years. When the Taliban were defeated in late 2001, the United States and the UN at the time, which was then replaced by NATO, had an opportunity to, you know, make things right, if you will, in terms of what was happening on the ground, in terms of poppy production, because the Taliban had done a good job for them. The Taliban had already banned opium production. And if you had gone — if the US had gone from that point onwards, in terms of giving farmers an alternative to poppy production, an alternative that could feed their families, we wouldn’t be at the place we were today.

But the United States chose to work with local Afghan warlords, commanders, militia leaders, all of whom were either drug traffickers themselves or working with drug traffickers, and turned a blind eye, in many cases, to opium production. The poppy production flourished in the last several years under US occupation and now is out of control and now is very much funding the insurgency, very much funding the Taliban and their war.

So, the Taliban has an organizing base in Pakistan. They’ve got a stable source of funding with the opium production — excuse me. And for every civilian killed or every Taliban fighter killed, there will be ten more disgruntled, angry people to join their place. You can’t blame them, if you look at it from their perspective. So, Taliban has all these things going for them. And the US and NATO and Obama actually thinks that they can defeat them militarily, which, in my opinion, is completely ludicrous and shortsighted.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the candidates, as we move into the Democratic and Republican conventions. Senator Obama has repeatedly called Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan the, quote, “central front in the war on terror.” He raised this again during his speech Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We should not keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq. We should not keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, while Americans struggle in a sluggish economy. Ending the war will allow us to invest in America, to strengthen our military and to finish the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. That is the central front in the war on terrorism.

    For years, I have called for more resources and more troops to finish the fight in Afghanistan. With his overwhelming focus on Iraq, Senator McCain argued that we could just — and I quote — “muddle through” in Afghanistan, and only came around to supporting my call for more troops last month.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McCain has also brought up sending troop reinforcements to Afghanistan. This is an excerpt of his speech at a town hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico last month.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Senator Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades. Thanks to the success of the surge, these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them.

AMY GOODMAN: The leading presidential candidates. Sonali Kolhatkar, John McCain and Senator Obama, what do you make of their approaches? Is there really a difference, ultimately?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, that’s a really good question. It’s so interesting to hear them try to distinguish themselves from each other. I mean, basically, in a nutshell, McCain thinks that the war in Afghanistan is going well, and so we should send more troops. Obama thinks the war in Afhganistan is going badly, so we should send more troops.

Obviously, both of them are wrong.

I mean, if you just look at what McCain is saying, that Iraq is an example for how we can actually win in Afghanistan? I don’t think I even have to qualify that to your listeners and viewers.

But let’s look at what Obama is saying. Obama is saying that Afghanistan is a frontline in the war on terror, we should be sending more troops there. You know, if he were to simply listen to, for example, what the RAND Corporation, not by any means a liberal think tank — what the RAND Corporation has said about using a military solution in Afghanistan — RAND just recently did a study about the situation in Afghanistan, and according to this institution, the military force is “too blunt,” in their words, an instrument to use in this war, that really the United States should not be using military force, that it has only something like a seven percent chance of success. If anything, they say that the US’s military footprint should be a very light one, if at all. So, if Obama is listening to RAND, he would not be saying what he’s saying.

And it’s true. You really can’t solve the situation in Afghanistan by just throwing more troops at it, because over the last several years, tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan have not done — have not managed to do anything other than worsen the war. So, basically what the logic is, is that the war is going terribly; the more troops we have, the worse it’s getting; so let’s throw more troops to it? The predictable outcome of this policy — and, you know, I would love to get just half-a-minute of airtime with Obama and tell him — the predictable outcome of his policy is that you throw more troops at Afghanistan, and the war is just going to get worse. The violence is just going to escalate. It’s not going to ramp down.

How can you just — what is he planning to do? Kill every last terrorist? And then he’s somehow going to win the war? What’s the plan here? He doesn’t even have a strategy. He isn’t even looking at the central government. He is not looking at the corruption of the warlords. He is not looking at Hamid Karzai and what he has failed to do. He’s not looking at how ordinary Afghans are struggling. He is not looking at the fact that the Taliban are actually becoming more and more popular, while the troops are becoming less and less popular.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sonali, I’d like to ask you —-

SONALI KOLHATKAR: What does that mean? And Obama really needs to know.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sonali, one last question. Iran, the impact of the continuing US occupation of Afghanistan on Iran? Obviously, Afghanistan borders with Iran. And the -— your sense is, the United States is also continuing to use the occupation as a means of threatening or being able to encircle Iran?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, certainly, what Afghanistan gives to the United States, particularly under the Bush administration, which has not been as interested in oil pipeline routes as it has been in military bases, it gives, of course, as you said, a launching pad, and it enables the United States to encircle Iran.

When I was in Afghanistan a few years ago, we drove past a military base that used to be just a local airport near the border with Iran, and our driver told us, “Oh, yes. Last month, US troops came and took over the space. And if they attack Iran, everyone knows that they’re going to probably do it from here, as one of the places.”

McCain has said that he would like to see the military bases in Afghanistan become permanent. And this is very important, because geopolitically Afghanistan is crucial to the United States. Never before, since — until 2001, has the United States had military bases in the heart of Central Asia, in Russia’s backyard, in China’s backyard, and certainly, of course, in Iran’s backyard. This is going to be something that the US will make use of in the future, unless, of course, the American people stand up and say, “Get out of Afghanistan,” which is what I think we should do.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar, thank you very much for joining us, host of Pacific radio KPFK’s morning show called Uprising. She is co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.

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