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BY ROBERT GREENWALD
Brave New Films, 2009
Rethink Afghanistan is an ambitious six-part documentary by Robert Greenwald, who has previously made films about the Iraq war and other topics. It offers testimonies from officials, NGO-type groups in the US and Afghanistan, and interviews with Afghanis. The film analyzes six topics to try to debunk current myths and rhetoric about the US-led occupation: troops, Pakistan, the cost of war, civilian casualties, Afghan women, and security.
The troops segment makes the claim that sending in more and more troops will not stop the war and only creates more hostility. The Pakistan segment addresses the movement of various actors across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the realities of the US-supported Pakistani government. With the cost of war, we see how our tax dollars are being misspent in Afghanistan, with no oversight. In the military, we called this fraud, waste, and abuse. Here at home, we suffer from this mismanagement in the form of financial crises, home foreclosures, and lack of health care and education.
Civilian casualties are vastly higher than those of combatants in war, especially now that we don’t meet on a battlefield but have it out in a town square. This section reiterates the notion that hostility towards the US is growing not due to our mere presence, but specifically due to attacks on the civilian population. We see people protesting air strikes. The bombings not only kill thousands of civilians, but force survivors into IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps. We are shown the horrible state that families live in inside the camp in Kabul. Some of the children and elderly interviewed died as a result of the dismal conditions.
Then we look at the myth of US forces liberating the women of Afghanistan. We learn from the Afghan Women’s Mission about how the US funded the mujahedeen through the 1980s, eroding women’s rights. The film also gives voice to groups like RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan). We see how the oppression of women has in fact worsened with the presence of US forces—how women have tried to return to school but have been burned with acid for it, for example. Rape and other violence are always on the rise for women in a war zone. So now, not only do they suffer from the misogyny of the Taliban, but also face home invasions and bombings as well.
The segment on security opens with a former CIA operative stating that the idea that this war is keeping America safe is “bullshit.” Ultimately, the film concludes that the answer to security threats is not to invade and occupy other countries.
As a US Air Force veteran who was in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, my main problem with this film is that it doesn’t contain much of an analysis of racism in its critique of the “Global War on Terror.” It doesn’t really mention how the word ‘terrorist’ itself is used so often in the media to depict Muslims, media like Fox News, which is frequently watched by soldiers ad nauseam in the chow halls on bases in the US and abroad. We are told there are terrorists everywhere in the Middle East and South Asia. This is racism, and in military tactics, it is distancing.
First there is the distance of dehumanization: seeing your enemy as less than you. Then, the distance of righteousness: they are less than us or savage or whatever, so we are right for killing them. Finally there is physical distance: UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), long-range weapons and bombs, or Apache helicopter attacks. All of these work together to excuse killing human beings in the minds of soldiers and civilians alike.
I worry that this film doesn’t do enough to fully challenge the myth that Muslims are terrorists. There are superfluous clips of Afghan and other Muslim people involved in shootings and bombings, not to mention stealing, lying, etc. There is a mystification of the mountain-dwelling Pashtun tribes in the same way that the media often does around Native Americans. While it is trying to challenge some racist assumptions, I fear that some elements in this film may play into a more subtle racism along the lines of, “Look at these poor savage people, they can’t get along with each other, they don’t know how to treat women, they’re helpless victims, they need oversight, and they need the white man’s help.” I can’t recall any part that spoke affirmatively about self-determination for the Afghan people. However, I am glad the film breaks the myth that we are liberating women.
Some of the points in the movie are very well made. More troops do equal more hostility. I saw this during my second deployment in Afghanistan, which was 2003 to 2004. I had never been in a rocket attack or been shot at in Afghanistan during my previous deployment, but experienced a few incidents the second time around. I’m glad the film shows the hidden costs of war, in the form of returning vets who need care for PTSD and other trauma and wounds. They also could have discussed veterans who aren’t receiving or are denied care, and how that spirals into alcohol, drugs, violence, and very high suicide rates.
For those US citizens who think there’s a chance they might actually be liberating the poor Afghans, or who think all women would be better off in Western settings, or for those who want to challenge all that—this video is definitely for you! Screenings and local organizing are being supported through rethinkafghanistan.com. Rethink Afghanistan sets out to challenge pro-war ideas and arguments with what it reveals.