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Afghanistan: Lies, Near Lies, and Horrible Truths

By: 
Pranjal Tiwari
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

At the recent conference in Bonn, the Afghan envoy for the UN Secretary General, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned the estimated 700,000-strong private armies that still exist inside Afghanistan: “This is a message...to all those, whoever they may be, inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan, who see their interest in the continuation of the problem, rather than in its solution, that they had better reconsider their position.” But behind this gloss of an Afghanistan “liberated” by US violence, a recent, important Human Rights Watch (HRW) report described the present-day situation in the country as an “enduring system of ‘fiefdoms’…reinforced by the policies of the US and other international actors.” This report, and other brave accounts, document both how, and partly why, vast regions of the country are now in the hands of heavily-armed warlords—the same US allies of Northern Alliance fame. In October 2001, Vijay Prashad wrote that “it now appears that the Trojan horse for US imperialism will be the Northern Alliance.” The HRW report also states clearly that, as part of their strategy against the Taliban, the US and others “reestablished” a system of “endemic military feudalism,” centred around the strengthening of various warlords (similar to feudal landowners with massive private armies, though somewhat more complex). Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, this relationship has been solidified, the warlords’ continued power being useful in the fulfillment of US aims in the region. Very broadly speaking, three main centers of this feudal power exist in Afghanistan today. Central Afghanistan, including Kabul, are in the hands of the Jamiat-i-Islami commanders. The Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostam and his forces control the north of the country, while the west of the country is mostly ruled by the ethnic-Tajik warlord Ismail Khan. As late as October 2002, these, Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords, were still receiving “cash, weapons, uniforms, and communications equipment” from the US and its coalition partners. Although, like Brahimi, the US-appointed government of Hamid Karzai has publicly declared its opposition to “warlordism,” these backstage realities of American support for the restored feudal powers speak both to Karzai’s immediate irrelevance, as well as his dependence on the US for any shred of legitimacy. One may remember that the warlords were widely seen as the victors of the loya jirga, the very same “national assembly” that picked Karzai as President. To quote an Afghan woman activist’s reaction to that assembly: “This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?.” Local autocrats The restored power of warlords has had predictably nightmarish consequences for the general population. According to the report, Afghanistan’s US-backed local autocrats are guilty of tremendous human rights abuses such as “summary executions… killing scores of civilians, targeting ethnic minorities,” and in some cases have specifically “used their forces to re-implement Taliban-era social restrictions on women and girls”—a sad comment on one of the more publicized “war-aims” of the Bush administration. Asked about the crimes of one warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostam, a US officer recently returned from Afghanistan told The Independent: “Dostam is totally culpable and the US believes he’s guilty but he’s our guy and so we won’t say so.” In other words, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” In another, more specific report from Human Rights Watch (the disturbingly titled “All Our Hopes Have Been Crushed”), the regime of another US-supported warlord, Ismail Khan is detailed. Described as “an appealing person” by Donald Rumsfeld, Ismail Khan is the self-styled “Emir of Heart,” and has been a commanding figure in the strategic region of western Afghanistan—which borders Iran and Turkmenistan—for some time. Khan’s long history includes positions as a captain in the Afghan army and leader of the US-backed mujahideen force throughout the 1980s. He assumed power in Herat around 1992 after the Soviet-backed regime crumbled, and was supported by Iran in his bid to establish a private fiefdom in western Afghanistan. His regime at this time was notorious for rampant corruption and violence. In 1995, Herat was captured as Taliban forces swept through Afghanistan, and in 1997 Khan was himself captured. He escaped from his prison in Kandahar in 2000, and in late 2001, was an integral part of the “Northern Alliance” forces supported by the US. During this period, as detailed in the HRW documents, “Coalition forces gave him substantial financial and military support…Weapons, radios, satellite telephones, and cash. He also received assistance from Iranian military sources.” With such international support, Khan’s forces soon recaptured Herat and its neighbouring areas. As mentioned above, he is still the main power in western Afghanistan today, and still receives substantial international support, having been recently described by ABC News as the “US-backed governor of Heart.” Many sources note that both US and Iranian forces currently have a military presence in the area under Khan’s control. Shindand, the site for a strategic airbase, lies within Herat, and the Washington Post recently reported that US military officers meet with Ismail Khan “once or twice a week.” Lt. Gen. Daniel McNeill, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, personally met with the warlord twice in the summer of 2002. Bombing the Khans The Emir and his US-backing were once again in international headlines on Dec. 1, 2002, after a particularly fierce battle of his long-standing conflict with the ethnic Pashtun warlord Amanullah Khan. Reports of what exactly transpired are sketchy, but the fighting ended with about 20 people dead, and involved a bombing raid by American aircraft. B-52 bombers, for the first time in five months, dropped seven 2,000 pound laser-guided “smart” bombs in the vicinity of the fighting. Specific details are limited, with both warlords blaming each other. Col. Roger King, an American military spokesperson in Afghanistan, has said that the air strike was called after US Special Forces troops were fired upon by “one of the Khans.” For its own part, the Center for Defense Information (CDI) is quite clear about what happened: “a group of armed Afghans patrolling near a US air base at Shindand started shooting at another group of armed Afghans, killing at least 11. In response, US troops called in B-52 bombers…The incident started when Pashtun commander Amanullah Khan’s forces attacked positions held by Herat governor Ismail Khan and advanced toward Shindand, before they were forced back to their positions.” The CDI’s assessment, then, seems simply to be that American bombers fended off an attack on a “US-backed governor” by a rival warlord. Its report seems to state quite clearly that the US is directly involved in an factional conflict between members of its “Northern Alliance” proxy army. In any case, the documented evidence of American support for specific warlords has already refuted the claims of neutrality by the US military. Whatever the details of this particular incident may turn out to be, there has never been such a thing as a neutral bomb. And given the current evidence and historical record, this is particularly so for bombs dropped by an American plane in present-day Afghanistan. Herat already knows something about American bombs, its land is still littered with hundreds of unexploded cluster bomblets from the most recent US campaign of violence. The fighting between Ismail and Amanullah Khan, now featuring more American bombs, continues to cause scores of deaths, and has displaced thousands from their homes. The everyday situation for people within the Emir’s territories is also grim, as “he…has now embraced a more conservative vision of Islam. He has announced and ordered restrictive social prohibitions while adopting retrogressive Taliban-era laws and policies.” As the bombs fell in Herat on this particular occasion, Hamid Karzai was in Bonn with Brahimi, at the anniversary conference for “Afghan stability and reconstruction.” One must be careful in considering such titles and declarations. Many times they are not quite lies, but carry out their pronouncements in the most cynical manner, according to the needs of power. Referring to the loya jirga, for example, US State Dept. officials had, at one point, stressed the need for “working with Afghanistan’s own indigenous authorities to help reconstruct and rebuild the institutions that are so important to Afghan people.” They have certainly done that in one, twisted, sense. About the Author Pranjal Tiwari is a journalist and NGO worker in Hong Kong.