As the Bush administration moves from one global “hot spot” to another, news of Afghanistan, the administration’s first professed military success story, is largely eclipsed by reports of these new ventures. July’s cogent and sobering 101 page Human Rights Watch report, Killing You Is A Very Easy Thing For Us, describing abuses to peace, security and human rights in Southeastern Afghanistan, seems to have been a mere blip on our radar screen.
The State Department’s updated travel advisory for Afghanistan, also released in July, was largely ignored despite its clear statement that peace, stability and security are non-existent in the country we claim to have liberated. Reports from regional press of increased Taliban and Al Qaeda activities and deaths in Afghanistan are just barely mentioned in U.S. media, even as humanitarian aid organizations have had to cease work in some of the neediest parts of Afghanistan.
Of the 87 billion dollars that President Bush just requested from Congress, only 800 million is allocated to Afghan reconstruction. This, even with the yet unfulfilled summer pledge of one billion dollars, is nothing compared to the need, the amount spent to bomb it, and the amount currently being spent in Iraq.
In an eerie repeat of the late 1980s / early 1990s, when the first Gulf War followed on the heels of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and marked the West’s shift of attention from Afghanistan to Iraq and elsewhere, our attention has again largely swung from Afghanistan to Iraq, Iran, North Korea & Liberia. Like impatient TV viewers, we are a nation channel surfing through foreign policy, not pausing to see one program to its end before we start another.
Having recently returned from a month in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, where millions of Afghan refugees still fear returning to their homeland, it is clear to me that our program of U.S. foreign policy there is not turning out well. Everything I saw mirrors the Human Right Watch report: crime is on the rise and criminal warlords are terrorizing people countrywide; voices in favor of freedom, democracy and human rights, such as RAWA and nascent democratic political parties, are being kept underground through threats, arrest, and violence; harassment, intimidation, kidnapping, and rape make many girls and women fearful to leave their homes, thus rendering them unable to take advantage of the ostensible freedom to attend work or school; governmental office workers and teachers haven’t been paid for months; rebuilding is first and foremost benefiting warlords, elites, foreign firms and NGOs; the newly drafted constitution has yet to be released to the public thus making the promised public comment period a fraud; and armed factional fighting between warlords continues to undermine security as well as any hope for free and fair elections. The handover of ISAF command to NATO will change little if, despite the repeated requests of Afghans themselves, US resistance continues to keep the 5000 person force insufficiently small and limited to Kabul alone.
It is true that there are thousands of potential and real “hot spots” across the world and information available 24/7. Many of us limit this data overload by attending only to issues whose cause or effect we can trace directly to our lives. Leaving aside the blatant egocentricity of this form of filtering, there is an inherent fallacy in thinking that Afghanistan doesn’t matter to our lives — a fallacy fostered by the 7000 miles of geographic distance and the appealing myth of “successful liberation”.
But Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis and its future consequences are inextricably linked to the US. Even if we are too far away or too ill informed to see this clearly, the people of Afghanistan know it too well. That’s why every Afghan I talked with asked: “Why has the US, which was able to remove the Taliban from power in a month, and which is still clearly pulling the all strings in Afghanistan today, returned to power the same criminal fundamentalists and warlords who destroyed and terrorized the country to such an extent the last time they ruled that the Taliban were initially welcomed as liberators? Why doesn’t the US understand that this is the recipe for another September 11? Why won’t the US learn from its past mistakes?”
There is a Persian saying that many Afghans apply to the current situation: “The saddlebags are new, but the donkeys remain the same.” Afghans I spoke with see the US as holding the reigns of the same old warlord’s donkeys while those new saddle bags fill with opium, weapons and human rights abuses. It is not just the Afghan people that need to fear those donkeys and their loads. As September 11th showed us, we are all part of this global village and the provisions of those donkeys will impact our lives too. It is not too late for the US to turn those donkeys around, hand their reigns to an expanded peace keeping force and truly democratic Afghans and ensure that the Taliban’s defeat results in real liberation, peace and democracy. But to do so we need to convince the U.S. administration and U.S. citizens to stop channel surfing, listen to the Afghan people themselves, and commit to following through on this program until it does indeed have a successful ending.
Anne E. Brodsky is the author of With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. (Routledge, 2003) and Associate Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).