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Will the U.S. War in Afghanistan Ever End? A Discussion with Kathy Kelly & Jodi Vittori

Web ExclusiveAugust 04, 2017
Media Options

As civilian deaths reach a new high in Afghanistan and the U.S. escalates its air war, we speak to two longtime observers of the war in Afghanistan: peace activist Kathy Kelly of of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and Jodi Vittori, senior policy adviser for Global Witness on Afghanistan policy.

Watch Part 1 || Trump Considers Prolonging Afghan War to Secure $1 Trillion in Untapped Mineral Deposits

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our look at the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. NBC News is reporting, during a recent meeting on Afghan strategy, President Trump suggested Army General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, be fired for not winning the war. Trump said, quote, “We aren’t winning. We are losing,” unquote.

This comes as The New York Times reports that Trump may have found a reason to prolong the war. The New York Times reports, quote, “President Trump, searching for a reason to keep the United States in Afghanistan after 16 years of war, has latched on to a prospect that tantalized previous administrations: Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, which his advisers and Afghan officials have told him could be profitably extracted by Western companies.”

The Times goes on to report, “Stephen [A.] Feinberg, a billionaire financier who is informally advising Mr. Trump on Afghanistan, is also looking into ways to exploit the country’s minerals, according to a person who has briefed him. [Mr.] Feinberg owns a large military contracting firm, DynCorp International, which could play a role in guarding mines—a major concern, given [that] some of Afghanistan’s richest deposits are in areas controlled by the Taliban.

“In 2010, American officials estimated [that] Afghanistan had untapped mineral deposits worth nearly $1 trillion, an estimate that was widely disputed at the time and has certainly fallen since, given the eroding price of commodities. But the $1 trillion figure is circulating again inside the White House, according to officials, who said it had caught the attention of Mr. Trump.”

That’s from an article in The New York Times written by Mark Landler and James Risen, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare. She has made many trips to Afghanistan, including one earlier this year. She’s twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. And we’re joined by Jodi Vittori, who served in the military for more than two decades. She’s now a senior policy adviser for Global Witness on Afghanistan policy. Jodi spent 20 years in the military, where she served in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places.

Jodi Vittori, your concern, working with Global Witness, about what the Trump administration is now looking at, a kind of—looking for a reason to expand the war in Afghanistan—in this case, minerals?

JODI VITTORI: Yes. It actually appears that it was Afghan President Ghani who suggested that to President Trump. Prior, President Ghani had pushed away from large-scale exploitation of Afghan’s mining resources because those resources are largely captured by the Taliban, by other militia groups in the country, various warlords and corrupt officials. And there—and it has been well reported. The Afghan government itself, in 2013, only made about $20 million overall in mining revenue. Ironically, that’s about as much as, in 2014, the Taliban alone took in on just lapis, just one particular semiprecious stone in Afghanistan—lapis—at the time. So it gives you an idea of the disparity in who is making the money off of mining in Afghanistan nowadays.

Bringing in a large private security company to then further exploit those minerals is highly problematic on a number of levels. One is just the role of private security companies themselves. In Afghanistan, they have a very troubled background. As a matter of fact, in 2010, the United States put in a task force, called Task Force Spotlight, specifically to try to clean up the mess that prior private security companies had made in Afghanistan. Allowing DynCorp to come in and try to secure an area that the United States and the Afghan government together have not been able to secure, that is currently contested, and some of which is under Taliban control, is highly troubling and, frankly, completely impractical.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the other minerals are, this vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan?

JODI VITTORI: Sure. It’s just an amazing geologic wealth, everything from emeralds and rubies and lapis lazuli to natural gas to some amounts of oil, a great deal of marble, a tremendous amount of copper and iron ore, as well. Some of the largest untapped resources in the world of copper and iron ore are also there. None of these have been exploited over the years, with the exception of some oil and natural gas, under the—when the Soviets had occupied the area. It’s just because it’s been too insecure of an environment for the last 40 years. They’re not—many of them aren’t even completely mapped. There’s been some aerial estimates. There’s been a few on-the-ground estimates. We’re not even completely sure how much is there. But we do know it is very vast reserves.

AMY GOODMAN: Very interestingly, at the end of The New York Times piece, they go back to something that President Trump said towards the beginning of his brief tenure so far as president of the United States. It was when he was speaking to employees of the CIA. The president said the United States had erred in withdrawing troops from Iraq without holding on to its oil. Mr. Trump declared, “The old expression, 'To the victor belong the spoils,' you remember?” he said. Jodi Vittori, I mean, you served in the military, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, for over 20 years. Your response to “To the victor go the spoils”?

JODI VITTORI: Obviously, this is very troubling, as a former military member. This is not the ethical values that we train our military members to go out and try to take other people’s natural resources, to exploit them, to deny them to the local populace, or the amount of violence that would be required to take those minerals or that oil. It’s just really, frankly, almost a return to 19th century sort of neocolonialism, the British East India Company. I mean, this isn’t—this is 2017, and yet we’re talking about policies that really seem to reflect Britain in the 19th century. It’s deeply, deeply troubling that that would even be a possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, we’re speaking to you in Minneapolis. You live in Chicago, but you’re at a peace conference there. The idea that this could be used to continue to prolong the longest war in U.S. history, and what you think the U.S. should be doing right now?

KATHY KELLY: Well, it’s so helpful to hear Jodi mention the British East India Company as something in the 19th century that might seem parallel to what President Trump has in mind. You know, the British East India Company was responsible to a monarch, a king.

And at what point would we expect that the United States public could be enjoined in some kind of a discussion over whether or not to prolong this war? Many people across the United States could be forgiven if they’ve forgotten that the United States is even present in Afghanistan. It’s not something that’s been raised in legislative discussions.

And it seems to me that the idea of victory having been accomplished in Iraq is a cruel and a laughable perspective. Iraq is a country that’s been tossed into chaos and upheaval after the United States had invaded, imposed 13 years of economic sanctions and invaded again.

And we certainly can’t talk about victory in Afghanistan. If the United States were to continue to be in the service of the kind of corruption that has overcome Afghanistan since the United States has invaded in 2001, then I think we could expect that some people will make vast amounts of profits. But it’s not going to benefit ordinary Afghans.

You know, President Trump was complaining on NBC News that he doesn’t get sufficient advice. He turned to U.S. former soldiers in Afghanistan and felt that their advice was superior to what he’s been getting from some of the maybe highly paid consultants. But it seems to me that they do get the advice of John Sopko, the special inspector general on Afghan reconstruction. Four times a year, year after year, a very worthwhile report is filed. And do they read those reports? Are they aware about the delineation of how much corruption and how much involvement the United States has already had in practices that have decimated the infrastructure in Afghanistan, made it impossible for ordinary people to survive, and contributed toward the displacement of millions of people there?

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times article was headlined “Trump Finds Reason for the U.S. to Remain in Afghanistan: Minerals.” After it was published, attorney Chase Madar tweeted, “Almost funny how we occasionally have to reverse engineer a 'national interest' for our longest war.” Jodi Vittori, your response?

JODI VITTORI: It really reflects, I think, the current administration and the difficulties of trying to get Afghanistan even on the agenda. If you remember, in the campaign, Afghanistan was almost never brought up during the campaign. And the president has almost never mentioned Afghanistan. So that’s why many think that the Afghan president, President Ghani, suggested that.

But it’s—I would argue that a strategy like the one put out by DynCorp is actually a national security threat in itself. When you—not only would groups like DynCorp have to go in and take that location or those locations, which the United States and Afghan forces have not been able to do, but if they can’t do that, they’ve got to essentially pay off the various warring parties that control that area, which would mean paying off groups like the Taliban and various warlords, which should be highly problematic to American citizens and certainly would be highly problematic to American soldiers. No American soldier wants to be fighting or—or, God forbid, a mother receives a letter from—because of a dead soldier, that says, “Well, the soldier died because of weapons bought by money that the DynCorp corporation, through possible intermediaries, had paid to the Taliban or to various warlords.” So, it is a very, very difficult situation. I would argue it’s a national security issue when it comes to the possibilities of either trying to divert from supporting the Afghan government to supporting an American corporation to steal minerals and then the possibility of additional financial resources from that going to these various warring parties that the American troops are fighting against.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times also reported that Steve Bannon, the senior adviser or strategist for President Trump, and Jared Kushner asked Erik Prince, the head of the former company Blackwater, that became Academi, and Stephen Feinberg of DynCorp to develop proposals to rely on contractors instead of American troops in Afghanistan. Kathy Kelly, can you talk about the significance of Erik Prince, a—sounds like a close, behind-the-scenes adviser to President Trump? In fact, I think he was with Donald Trump on election night, who also happens to be the brother of Betsy DeVos, the extremely conservative education secretary. Can you talk about his role in helping to advise on future Afghanistan policy, not to mention Mr. Feinberg of DynCorp?

KATHY KELLY: Well, it seems like their interests have everything to do with profits that would accrue to people who have almost no care or concern for what would be happening to average ordinary Afghan people. For President Trump to turn to people who have developed mercenary armies and who have already been brought before the courts in the case of Erik Prince and his former group, Blackwater, because of violations of human rights—and there are other allegations that have perhaps not even been pursued in the courts, but Amnesty International has had a long list of violations of human rights that have been related to these special operations groups that are under the control of big major companies. To turn to them and not to be asking for advice from people on the ground, for instance, who have been active with United Nations agencies or people who have at least some semblance of commitment to ordinary Afghans is, I think, typical of Donald Trump, but it’s something that we have to hope people in the U.S. Congress, in the U.S. media will begin to flag as something that, as Jodi has mentioned, actually endangers security for people in the United States, and certainly for the U.S. military, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jodi Vittori, as a longtime member of the U.S. military, for over two decades, can you talk about the privatization of war?

JODI VITTORI: Well, certainly, private security companies nowadays have a—will have a role in anything that goes on in Afghanistan or anywhere, because the reality is that the United States military relies on them, for example, for a lot of logistical support, to get equipment in and out of the country, also to do things like gate guard duties and so on.

But that’s a vastly different issue than actually allowing these groups, like those run by Erik Prince—even though he doesn’t run Blackwater anymore, he still runs a company called Frontier Services, which is a—has a lot of Chinese capital invested in it and is headquartered out of Hong Kong, that’s involved in African oil and other logistics work there—or looking at DynCorp to actually try to take and hold specific territory specifically for the purpose of pulling minerals out for the U.S. consumption or the U.S. profit for a corporation. So, that’s a vastly different area.

So there will be private security company issues there, and that would always be part of the discussion, because, as you see in warfare, often there are more private security contractors, when it comes to that logistics and intelligence support and so on, than you actually have soldiers on the ground. And actually, that often increases as the number of soldiers decreases. So, those issues will be on the table. And frankly, DynCorp will probably be there, because they have managed to be in every major contracting issue or every major operation since the 1950s, I believe.

But to actually—that’s different than actually have them provide policy advice and a plan that, not surprisingly, puts contractors front and center and, not surprisingly, would provide, you know, potentially some profits to DynCorp. And the same goes with Erik Prince, who is an even more troubling character. And The Intercept has reported that there’s even some possible FBI investigations against him for issues such as money laundering. So, even more—even more difficult to understand why that would be one of your primary advisers in a situation such as this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jodi Vittori, what do you think should happen in Afghanistan today?

JODI VITTORI: The primary areas where Global Witness would like to see work is really to focus on a couple of issues. One is the role of governance and accountability and transparency, overall, in Afghanistan, but particularly in the mining and extractive industry sector—you know, oil, gas and mining—because, as I mentioned, there is a great deal of mining going on. Very little is heading into the Afghan treasury. Very little of it is monitored at all by the government. But it goes into the pockets of a large number of nefarious characters. So, having the U.S. focus on actually improving governance in the country.

Secondly, as it comes to a larger strategy, we would like to see the United States, as part of that strategy, look at how those areas that do have economic sustainable uses, including mining areas, how those could actually be safeguarded with vetted troops, specially trained troops, that keep it out of the hands not only of the Taliban, but also out of the hands of various warlords and militias, and so that the—those mining areas can actually be under the control of the Afghan government, under Afghan law, with associated human rights, environmental and social laws associated with it actually enforced in those areas, and where revenue actually goes into the Afghan treasury, and that is then transparently put into a budgeting process for the development of the country, rather than where the moneys tends to go to now, which is in the profits of various warlords and such.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think U.S. troops should leave?

JODI VITTORI: At this time, I don’t think that’s probably a good idea. Global Witness does not take a position on U.S. troops, I should note, nor would it ever take a position on U.S. troops.

But one of the issues that everyone does face is that pretty much everyone acknowledges that if the United States pulls out, the Ghani administration will fall. And if you play kind of the mental mind game of what does that look like when his administration is gone, and you run through the different alternatives of what comes next, all of them are pretty frightening, whether it be the Taliban who would take over, which is not a high likelihood, but they did manage to do it before, and that was obviously a terrible possibility we would like not to see happen again, or whether it’s some sort of strongman warlord who has been heavily invested in the corruption and conflict already in the country, is a great—any of these major warlords would be a—someone who’s pushed the country into this situation already, taking over, or whether the country just divides up into a whole bunch of warring fiefdoms, each supported by their various international power, whether that be Russia, Pakistan, Iran, China or whatever. All of those are deeply troubling. So it’s one of those situations where there’s really not a good way forward. There’s just some really less bad—less—there are some really worse ways to go forward. And I think anything that allows the Taliban—the Ghani government to collapse is highly problematic.

Instead, we need to look at how do we build a government that’s transparent and accountable to its citizens, that protects human rights, that protects the democracy that’s supposed to be enshrined in their constitution, and starts to build a resilient society that can stand on its own in the long term.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, do you think U.S. troops should leave?

KATHY KELLY: Yes, I do. I think that, in many ways, the governance of Afghanistan has already collapsed. The government of Afghanistan isn’t able to provide for people protection. They’re not able to provide jobs. They’re not able to provide environmental security. The groundwater in Kabul right now is said to be at risk of high contamination.

The United States is one among many warlords right now. It’s certainly the heaviest-armed and the warlord with the most access to funding. But it’s not the case that the United States has been shoring up some kind of governance that’s been advantageous to people in Afghanistan. If it were, I think the United States wouldn’t be so interested in mineral wealth as interested in restoring the agricultural infrastructure of Afghanistan. It’s a country that needs to be able to feed its people, not be sending them down into the dungeons of mines to work as serfs. And to restore that agricultural infrastructure would require reseeding the orchards, cleaning out the irrigation systems, replenishing the flocks. And those are things that could be done. It would require weaning people off of the opium trade. But the Taliban showed that that was possible, when they first came into power after 2001.

So, I believe that the United States could try to seek the assistance of somebody like Alfred McCoy, who has done great research with a large team of people at the University of Wisconsin in the past regarding other situations where the United States collaborated with drug runners and warlords. And he has also already done considerable investigation in Afghanistan. They know how—I mean, they’ve got the skills and the abilities to help people in Afghanistan change their infrastructure so that it emphasizes agriculture and production of food and creation of clean water systems.

AMY GOODMAN: Jodi, I wanted to read from a recent Guardian piece. “The number of civilian deaths in the Afghan war has reached a record high, continuing an almost unbroken trend of nearly a decade of rising casualties.

“The number of deaths of women and children grew especially fast, primarily due to the Taliban’s use of homemade bombs, which caused 40% of civilian casualties in the first six months of 2017, according to UN figures released on Monday.”

And during the month of June, the U.S. carried out 389 airstrikes, the highest monthly total in five years. Two weeks ago, the U.N. said the number of civilian deaths in the Afghan War has reached a record high. What about this? Can this possibly increase security for the people of Afghanistan or any sense that the U.S. is there to help the civilian population?

JODI VITTORI: Well, I think—and, again, Global Witness doesn’t take a position itself on U.S. troops in Afghanistan or not. But there—I think this sort of discussion we’re having today about minerals and so forth really points to the fact that the United States has not put the emphasis on governance since really it came into Afghanistan itself. It’s always taken a strategy called security first, which is this idea that we’ll get enough security, and then we’ll deal with governance later. But, of course, as we know in these situations, it’s the lack of security, it’s the role of warlords and corrupt officials and money laundering and the opiates in the country and other criminal activity that is fostering that very insecurity. If you’re running merely a [security] first program, you’re never going to get to a place where you get to governance. You’ve got to really run governance and security at the same time. And this is where the United States has really lacked.

I would really like to see this current administration, if it’s really serious about what to do with Afghanistan, really get together a diverse group of experts on Afghanistan, the Afghan citizens themselves, the Afghan government together, to really talk about how do we do a governance program in parallel with the security program, and what needs to improve on security, as well, at the same time. I don’t think we’ve really had that discussion yet of how do we do both at the same time. We’ve treated governance as kind of an afterthought and something we throw a little bit of money and some programs at. But really making that the focus, not only governance capacity building, which is itself important, but also governance as far as how do we incentivize those reformers within the government, and how do we marginalize or disincentivize those who have a strong incentive to continue the war, to continue the corruption, who right now have very, very powerful places both within and outside of the government. We really haven’t had that discussion yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, I want to give you the last word, as you sit in Minneapolis at this peace conference. What people there are saying as a path to move forward, and where you feel the peace movement is today in the United States? There’s a lot said about the Trump administration and where it’s going, but what about this movement of resistance? How strong do you feel it is?

KATHY KELLY: Well, I think we have something to learn from what’s happening in the United Kingdom right now, where Jeremy Corbyn is starting to galvanize people. And his long history as a clear antiwar activist and somebody who challenged the military has surprised people in the United Kingdom, but gained a great deal of support. I hope that people who have said, “Oh, well, you can’t bring antiwar discussions into campaigning efforts or into the movements to try to work on our environment or to improve the terrible disparities in terms of economic inequities in our country”—I think that these discussions should be coming together, something like what Jodi has just suggested should be happening with regard to people who are focused on Afghanistan. But I think that the United States should never assume the posture that we somehow are the responsible people to effectively lead another country. Afghanistan is not our country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare, has made many trips to Afghanistan, including this year, has twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. And Jodi Vittori served in the U.S. military for over two decades, now senior policy adviser for Global Witness on Afghanistan policy.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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Trump Considers Prolonging Afghan War to Secure $1 Trillion in Untapped Mineral Deposits

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