by Bill Berkowitz
April 19, 2003
It's only a few days after "liberation," and the news out of Iraq is not encouraging:
According to the Associated Press, "looters and arsonists ransacked and gutted Iraq's National Library, leaving a smoldering shell Tuesday of precious books turned to ash and a nation's intellectual legacy gone up in smoke." The New York Times has reported there are signs of the rise of warlords in the city. On Tuesday, April 15, ABC News Online reported that at least 10 people were killed and 100 wounded by U.S. troops in Mosul during a demonstration near the local government offices in a central square against "the city's new governor, Mashaan al-Juburi, as he was making a pro-US speech." The same day, AFP reported that "US forces [have]... tried to stop the media from covering... anti-American protests by Iraqis outside a hotel [in Baghdad] housing a US operations base." Hundreds of protesters blocked U.S. Marines from entering the City Hall in Kut where, the AP reported, "a radical anti-American Shiite cleric" had declared he was "in control" of the city. Finally, as was the case with Afghanistan, Pentagon officials say that it is not their responsibility to account for the number of dead civilians.
The other day, I warned a friend I was going to write something about the current situation in Afghanistan. He was puzzled: "Why go there?" he asked. "That's beating a dead horse." He might be right. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that some of the mistakes the Bush Administration has made in postwar Afghanistan will be repeated tenfold as America begins the who-knows-how-long process to stability and peace in Iraq. So, with all due apologies to any animal rights supporters reading this, I am going to beat that dead horse one more time. (Rest assured: No animals were hurt in the preparation of this column.)
One of the more attention-grabbing features of these concluding days of the military phase of our Iraq invasion is the number of references now being made by the media to the situation in Afghanistan. All of a sudden, after months of benign neglect, the mainstream media is taking another look at what the American public has perceived as a "great victory" -- the "liberation" of Afghanistan. I'm not going to be a smartass and ask whether remember Afghanistan. I'm sure you do. But, whether you fall into the do or do not remember camp, I'm here to tell you that Afghanistan, the little country the U.S. bombed to smithereens about a year and a half ago, is a rip-roaring mess.
Afghanistan was the first of what the neoconservatives running President Bush's foreign policy hope will be a series of twenty-first century Middle East-directed "demonstration projects." The military action in Afghanistan continues as I write. Thus far, some 3,000 to 4,000 innocent civilians have been killed, according to the count still being compiled by University of New Hampshire Professor, Marc Herold.
According to an AP report, the Coalition Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force has provided a whopping $13 million to Afghanistan -- an infinitesimal figure against the $80 billion requested by the Bush Administration for the Iraq invasion. Capt. Trish Morris, a spokesperson for the Coalition, said the money has been spent on "hundreds of schools and clinics and bridges and wells all over Afghanistan."
Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and return with me now to a place the Bush Administration would rather you pay no attention at all: Afghanistan 2003.
* U.S. Military Actions: An early-April Reuters report paints a grim picture of new U.S. military actions in the country: "The U.S. military launched a new operation on Tuesday against suspected hideouts of Taliban militants in the southern province of Helmand." This is the second time in less than four months that U.S.-led forces have gone to the province. Nearly two-dozen helicopter gunships and about 70 military and non-military vehicles are currently engaged in the operation.
In February, reports Reuters' Mirwais Afghan, the U.S. "targeted the mountainous region of Baghran, where locals say dozens of villagers where killed in U.S. bombardments. The U.S. military insists only one civilian was wounded." Some 11,500 U.S. and coalition forces are based in various parts of Afghanistan.
* The Karzai Government: In February, when Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai -- sometimes known as the Mayor of Kabul -- visited Washington to ask President Bush for aid for his war-torn country, he was basically told to take a hike. Although the administration had promised millions for rebuilding the country, when the president submitted his 2003 budget there was no money included for Afghanistan. Congress did come up with $295 million, which Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Salon wasn't nearly enough. There are reports that there will be money for Afghanistan included in the 2004 budget.
* The status of women: Here is an excerpt from a report by Judith Huber, a journalist with the Zurich-based weekly Wochenzeitung: "Taiba... is an Afghan woman currently working in Kabul as a midwife for the relief organisation Terre des hommes. She visits women who are forbidden to leave their homes, even when pregnant or in labor. She recently began wearing the burka again, and for a good reason: slogans on walls throughout Kabul urge women to appear in public only when completely covered. It is hard to say who is behind these messages, signed by 'Afghanistan's mojahedin.' Taiba does not know: it could be a neighbour, or the armed soldiers on every street corner, or the government's official security forces, made up of former anti-Soviet resistance fighters -- the mojahedin.
"In Kabul and across the country the limited freedoms granted to women after the fall of the Taliban are being contested anew. The government… pays lip service to the demands of Western financiers, who forced the government to improve the status of Afghan women. But ultraconservatives inside the government have also sought to impose accepted standards of proper behavior. Last summer the ministry of Islamic education, which replaced the Taliban's infamous ministry for the promotion of virtue and suppression of vice, began reminding women about the national official dress code, based on Islamic values. Ministry officials approach women in public who, in their eyes, are improperly dressed. They pressure them to respect the code: this means wearing head scarves and long dark coats or skirts to cover the entire body, including wrists and ankles. Make-up is forbidden."
* Human Rights: In early March, Amnesty International issued a report documenting that the Afghan police was using torture in its interrogations. "Not only are police unable to guarantee the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, some members of the police are themselves involved in committing human rights violations," the group said in a statement on rebuilding the country's police force."
* Drugs: According to a U.S. State Department report distributed in Kabul in early March, Afghanistan has overtaken Burma to become the world's leading producer of heroin. "The size of the opium harvest in 2002 makes Afghanistan the world's leading opium producer," the report said. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report said the area of land used to cultivate opium poppies reached 30,750 hectares, compared with 1,685 hectares in 2001.
That's right folks, the drugs coming into your town may have "Made in Afghanistan" stamped all over it. I'm not sure if this translates into, "Shooting smack supports the Karzai government," but you get my drift.
In February, Hamid Karzai pleaded with a Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to "forget us if Iraq happens." His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who represents the government in southern Kandahar, told an AP reporter in early April: "It's like I am seeing the same movie twice and no one is trying to fix the problem. What was promised to Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing... There have been no significant changes for people." Ahmed Karzai says he doesn't "know what to say to people anymore."
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory declaring the whole country, including Kabul, to be dangerous. "The security threat to all American citizens in Afghanistan remains high. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist Al-Qaida network, and other groups hostile to the government, as well as criminal elements, remain active." In addition, visitors risk "land mines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other bombs."
As the Bush Administration turns its attention to post-invasion Iraq, America's corporate elite is gearing up for a huge pre-holiday shopping bonanza. Fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S. are readying their armies of compassion for a massive field trip to Iraq: A recent report pointed out that the Southern Baptist Convention, a big-time supporter of slaughtering Iraqis in the name of liberation, claims it has some 25,000 trained evangelists ready to enter the country. "That would [mean] a heart change would go on in that part of the world," Mark Liederbach of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary explained in a recent speech to the SBC. "That's what we need to be praying for. That's how a Christian wages spiritual warfare."
So what does the current chaotic situation in Afghanistan have to do with Iraq? One of the rules for living of baseball immortal Satchel Paige was "Don't look back; someone might be gaining on you." In this case, as the Bush Administration's neoconservative gang embarks on nation-building in Iraq, it dares not look back at Afghanistan. If it did, it would find that the "liberated" Afghanistan is a mess, and there are few signs things will be improving in the near future. In the coming months, the situation in Iraq will likely be a lot worse.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.