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16 Years of War: Trump Joins Obama & Bush in Using SOTU to Hail “Progress” in Afghan War

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On Tuesday night, President Trump became the third president in a row to attempt to put a positive spin on the war in Afghanistan—the longest war in U.S. history. Five years earlier, President Barack Obama predicted at his 2013 State of the Union that the war would soon be over. And back in 2006, President George W. Bush used his State of the Union to praise Afghanistan for building a “new democracy.” More than 16 years after the U.S. War in Afghanistan began, the country remains in a state of crisis. On Saturday, more than 100 people died in Kabul when an ambulance packed with explosives blew up. Then, on Monday, Islamic State militants carried out an early-morning attack on a military academy in the western outskirts of the capital of Kabul, killing at least 11 troops and wounding 16. We speak to investigative reporter May Jeong in Kabul. Her most recent piece for The Intercept is titled “Losing Sight: A 4-Year-Old Girl Was the Sole Survivor of a U.S. Drone Strike in Afghanistan. Then She Disappeared.”

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Tuesday night, President Trump became the third president in a row to attempt to put a positive spin on the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our warriors in Afghanistan have new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.

AMY GOODMAN: Five years earlier, President Barack Obama predicted at his 2013 State of the Union that the war would soon be over.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight I can announce that over the next year another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.

AMY GOODMAN: And back in 2005 [sic], President George W. Bush used his State of the Union—I think it was 2006—to praise Afghanistan for building a, quote, “new democracy.”

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We remain on the offensive in Afghanistan, where a fine president and a National Assembly are fighting terror while building the institutions of a new democracy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, more than 16 years after the U.S. War in Afghanistan began, the country remains in a state of crisis. On Saturday, more than 100 people died in Kabul when an ambulance packed with explosives blew up. Then, on Monday, Islamic State militants carried out an early-morning attack on a military academy in the western outskirts of the capital of Kabul, killing at least 11 troops and wounding 16.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Kabul, Afghanistan, where we’re joined by investigative reporter May Jeong. Her most recent piece for The Intercept is titled “Losing Sight: A 4-Year-Old Girl Was the Sole Survivor of a U.S. Drone Strike in Afghanistan. Then She Disappeared.” May Jeong is also a Logan nonfiction fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

May, it’s great to have you with us, joining us from Kabul. First, respond to this incredibly bloody week in Afghanistan, in the “Ring of Steel” in Kabul.

MAY JEONG: Yes, as you, Amy, and Nermeen mentioned, it’s been a terrible, terrible winter, really, for Afghanistan. Just before coming on air, I was talking to my colleagues about the bloodbath that has been, you know, Kabul for the past couple weeks. Apart from the massive attack, the MoI—on the MoI Road, the Ministry of Interior Road, and the military academy, there’s also been the Intercontinental Hotel that has been attacked. In a nearby city, in Jalalabad, Save the Children office, an NGO there, was attacked, as well. And there’s a real sense of a crescendoing of violence.

And there’s real helplessness among the people about the lack of options that are, you know, provided for them, and also a massive grievance and resentment. Today, there was a protest in front of the embassy in Pakistan here in Kabul, organized by civil society members who wanted to, you know, protest the absence of, lack of action on part of the Afghan government, which is exactly the thing—the message that the Taliban was hoping to send. You know, these spectacular attacks, they are, in a way—they could be pure disasters, in a way, for the insurgent group. Most of the people who die are civilians. But they do this because the message that they want to send to the public is telling them that your government cannot protect you. It’s this—it’s become this sick popularity contest almost between the Afghan state and various insurgent groups—the Taliban, ISIS, Haqqani network, you know, being among the big ones.

But the other—the other note that you detect among the people here is that for foreigners watching from abroad, this week seems very bloody, but this kind of atrocity happens on a daily basis in provinces that we have no access to, never mind the fact that the war has been ongoing—the NATO war, as we call it here, has been ongoing for 17 years. And even before that, there’s been the civil war, the Russian, you know, Soviet occupation. And yeah, I mean, people here have been living with this kind of conflict. Sorry, there’s a—speaking of which, a NATO helicopter overhead, so you might not be able to hear me. But it’s been a continuation of conflict in various iterations.

And with that has come various coping mechanisms, one of which is humor. And so, my colleague and I were talking about how at this protest earlier, people who had—you know, they were meant to have been burning the flag of Pakistan, which can be confused with the national flag of Nigeria. And so there were—some protesters were mistakenly burning a Nigerian flag. And, you know, there was a rare respite, from this sort of a moment of unexpected humor. But that’s what people do here to get by, because, otherwise, taking everything—really internalizing everything that happens, I think, is—you know, that way lies insanity for a lot of people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, May, you talked about the fact that this protest that took place in Kabul took place outside the Pakistani Embassy and that protesters were burning the Pakistani flag. Can you talk about the role of Pakistan, the Pakistani state and military intelligence services, in Afghanistan, in particular their relationship to two of the three groups that you mentioned, insurgent groups, the Taliban and the Haqqani network?

MAY JEONG: Of course. It’s widely established now that the Taliban and the Haqqani network have their safe havens in Pakistan, which is the way that they’ve been managed—they’ve managed to operate, consolidate their power and also, you know, arrange for funding streams. And it’s a very contentious, controversial topic here. President Ashraf Ghani, when he first came to power in late 2014, used a lot of his political power—political capital, pardon me, to try to negotiate peace by going straight to Islamabad. But that did not—that didn’t amount to anything. But the reason why he did that was because he, you know, like the head of state before him, understood that if you want to have a peace settlement with the Taliban, it’s not just that particular insurgent group—pardon me—that you are dealing with, it’s all these other stakeholders of the conflict that are at play, you know?

We often talk about the war in Afghanistan as a proxy war. Who are the—you know, who are the proxies? Afghanistan and Pakistan. Who are their backers? I mean, the obvious one for the Afghan government right now is, you know, the American government. And on the other side, for the Taliban, it is the government of Pakistan. And President Donald Trump has been making a lot of public statements about how he wants to cut funding to force the Pakistan state to, you know, force them into submission. But, I mean, the American policy towards Pakistan—I mean, of course, and also Afghanistan—has been very inconsistent. And so it’s no wonder that the actors don’t respond to these incentive structures that are presented to them—

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk—

MAY JEONG: —because it’s unclear for them how long this will last.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the U.S. role. You just did a very important piece called “Losing Sight: A 4-Year-Old Girl Was the Sole Survivor of a U.S. Drone Strike in Afghanistan. Then She Disappeared.” Talk about this story and its significance for what the U.S. is doing there.

MAY JEONG: I think the important thing to know about—note about this story is that it’s about a specific drone strike, just one of them, one of many. There’s been hundreds and hundreds over the course of, you know, the duration of the war here.

This particular strike happened in September of 2013. There was a family traveling in a pickup truck from Asadabad, which is the provincial capital of Kunar province. Kunar province is to east of Kabul. That’s where Lone Survivor was shot, you know, for audiences who might be aware of that, or Restrepo, as well, the documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. And from Asadabad, they set off midday, and they were on their way to Gambir province, which is in the Pech Valley, which is where a majority of the family members were from. And along the way, this truck was hit by what the American military calls the precision strike, and everyone died, except for a 4-year-old girl, who was then taken to a hospal—hospital, pardon me, in another town called Jalalabad and then to a French Role 3 hospital in Kabul, the military hospital here.

She came to prominence among—in the Afghan local media initially, because President Karzai, who was the head of state at the time, who had been, you know, increasingly growing vocal about his anger and discontent at the preponderance of civilian casualties incurred by NATO, the foreign troops, went to go see her. And then, in successive remarks publicly he had, he would sort of often evoke her as one of the many reasons why he did not want to sign this thing called the bilateral securities agreement. This is the—the BSA is the memorandum of understanding that allows for foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan. And the negotiation for the BSA was ongoing at the time, in 2013, and then onwards into 2014. And when he was often asked about his recalcitrance for signing the agreement, he would mention this girl, Aisha, as well as many other, you know, instances of wedding parties being bombed, houses being bombed, mothers and fathers taking their children to school being bombed—I mean, the countless attacks that have happened on civilians during the war here.

And my investigation really tried to bore into what happens to just one of them and the human cost of this policy that we call “clean.” I mean, we have all these, you know, words, like it being a “precision strike,” or it’s—the drones are meant to be the “saner” option to the bloodiness of ground battle. But really, as I mention in the piece, we don’t—at times, we don’t even know who we kill.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, May, a lot of people suggest, though, that U.S. and other NATO ground troops are necessary in Afghanistan to maintain a modicum of security. A BBC study found yesterday, which was just published yesterday—found that the Taliban are now operative in 70 percent of the country, which is, of course, far more than was the case in 2014. So, could you respond to that? I mean, do you think, despite these casualties, the girl Aisha, whom you mention, that a U.S. presence is necessary in Afghanistan, as some suggest?

MAY JEONG: Absolutely not. The places where people suffer the most are in contested areas, where there’s still battle between government forces and various insurgent groups. You mentioned that 70 percent of the country is under Taliban control. Areas that are very safely with one side or the other are not being fought over, therefore there is no, you know, active battle there. I think that’s something that we often forget. You know, over the past 17 years, there’s been a lot of money that’s been spent on, you know, gender initiatives and promoting women’s rights and children’s rights and capacity-building exercises and all this stuff. And that’s all very good, but I think what people often forget is that even before we can get to the part of being enlightened or empowered or whatever, most Afghans, you know, their primary desire is to live and not to die. And for that to happen, the war needs to end.

And why is the war continuing? The war continues because there’s no understanding of the fact that we are in a stalemate and both sides are suffering. Both sides cling onto this delusional fiction that a military victory is possible. And President Trump is still talking about the fact that—he still subscribes to this insane logic that what we actually need to do is to advance the war so that we negotiate from an advantage. I mean, what is the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And as you, Amy, earlier mentioned, the State of the Union speeches are tragic for the fact that, you know, they’re just iterations of the one that’s come before, when it comes to Afghanistan. Nothing has changed. So what makes us think that this mini-surge that President Trump has allowed General Mattis to go ahead with, that’s going to make any difference, when, under President Obama, we had 140,000 soldiers in country, and that didn’t change anything?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to lose the satellite in a minute, but I wanted to ask you about this meeting President Trump had with members of the U.N. Security Council, rejecting the idea of peace talks with the Taliban. What is your assessment of this?

MAY JEONG: It’s a real shame. It saddens me, personally, deeply. There’s a certain momentum that’s been built with these peace talks. I mean, the fact that we have a—whatever you feel about the Taliban, I mean, I think we can all agree that having dialogue is a good thing. And, you know, a lot of resources have been spent trying to get people onto the negotiating table. And for a head of state of a major country that is a big player in the war to come out saying—you know, denouncing the whole process really takes back the prospects for peace by many, many years. I mean, people don’t talk—

AMY GOODMAN: We just lost the satellite, but that’s May Jeong, who’s an investigative reporter based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her most recent piece, we’ll link to at The intercept, called “Losing Sight: A 4-Year-Old Girl Was the Sole Survivor of a U.S. Drone Strike in Afghanistan. Then She Disappeared.”

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a new book is out. It’s called Lost Connections. We’ll look at the issue of antidepressants, depression and the best treatments for a very common malady. Stay with us.

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