Interview in Seven Oaks Magazine

In November 2006, Derrick O’ Keefe interviewed Bleeding Afghanistan authors, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls.

Direct link to interview.

An interview with the authors of Bleeding Afghanistan, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls
November 2, 2006
Derrick O’Keefe

Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are co-authors of an important new book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. The product of extensive research including a 2005 trip to Afghanistan, as well as years of work with Afghan women’s organizations, Bleeding Afghanistan is a significant contribution to our knowledge of the recent history of that war-torn country.

Derrick O’Keefe of Seven Oaks interviewed the authors in advance of their book launch events in Vancouver and Victoria this weekend, November 3-4.

Derrick O’Keefe: Could you explain the “propaganda of silence” around Afghanistan in the United States? Here in Canada, for instance, we find the propaganda machine to justify the military intervention working pretty much around the clock on the issue of Afghanistan.

Sonali Kolhatkar:
What we found in doing research for this book, and just in general doing solidarity work over the past six years, was that the United States media has basically worked in lockstep with the government. When it has been convenient for the U.S. government, they have given a lot of coverage to Afghanistan. Particularly when the Taliban is our enemy they have gone to great lengths to demonize the Taliban. Before the Taliban were defeated, they did a lot of coverage of women’s oppression, and after the defeat they covered how women were freed. So they have provided a lot of propaganda material for the U.S. government when it has been convenient.

Then when the fighting has gotten bad, or when U.S. policies have been exposed, we see a near silence in the media. And this goes back to the 1980s and 90s, not just in the past six years or so.

James Ingalls: Essentially, as Sonali said, the media worked in service to the U.S. government. In the period of the early 1990s, the United States had backed a radical fundamentalist rebel movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. When the Soviets were finally kicked out of power by this movement, the radical fundamentalist commanders that the U.S. had backed starting turning their weapons on each other, trying to gain control over Kabul, the capital, which would give them control of the country. When that happened, after the Soviets pulled out, the U.S. media pulled out.

So essentially the U.S. media stopped covering Afghanistan at a time when the results of U.S. policy would have been embarrassing to continue to pay attention to, because the factions that we had supported during the 1980s were using U.S. weapons, and money, and the clout that they had put together to essentially destroy life for people in Kabul. Up to 50,000 people were killed during the 1992 to 1996 period. This was a result of U.S. policy, and the U.S. media stopped covering Afghanistan during that period. It was no longer an issue. Afghanistan was no longer a problem worth concerning ourselves about since the “Evil Empire” was no longer involved, and since the U.S. sponsored groups were now destroying the country instead of fighting an anti-occupation rebellion.

O’Keefe: How does the media factor in to the creation of the image of President Karzai and the “democratic” parliament? I believe in your book you estimate that 60% of the parliamentary officials have links to, or are themselves, warlords.

Ingalls: Many of the people who made it into parliament are former warlords or commanders, or fundamentalist clerics. Many of them had become powerful because of U.S. backing in the 1980s, or were brought back to power to fight the Taliban after 9/11. So a lot of them had regained their strength because of U.S. policy. So we found that during the parliamentary elections there were a lot of problems, ranging from the fact that very few people actually voted – about 50%, compared to the presidential elections where closer to 75% of people voted. We also found that there was a lot of intimidation during the voting process. People were threatened to not vote for independent candidates or against candidates that the warlords were supporting. And, also, independent candidates themselves were threatened. So we have reports of women who were phoned anonymously, “Don’t run, you know what will happen to you if you run.” People were basically too scared to not let these former warlords back into power.

Kolhatkar: As we describe in the book, these men, warlords, commanders or former commanders, many of them are part of militias and they are probably the most feared leaders in Afghanistan. When we were in Afghanistan last year and interviewed people, what we found was that most people, the majority of people, hate these men. They destroyed Afghanistan so much after the Soviets left that they are hated, they are feared. There was a survey done several years ago by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that showed a majority of Afghans consider themselves victims of war crimes at the hands of these men, and they want justice for these war crimes. We were told over and over again, that these men’s hands are soaked in the blood of the Afghan people. This led us to the title of our book, Bleeding Afghanistan. Not only were we looking at the blood on the hands of the warlords, but of course on our hands as well.

O’Keefe: There is, or at least there was, a sentiment amongst the broadly defined liberal-left that the Iraq war was bad, but that the Afghanistan war was a somehow noble under-taking, a good war. I found the description, in your book, of the background of the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, helpful in debunking this distinction. Could you describe a little bit about Khalilzad, whom I guess has now in fact been transferred over to Iraq?

Ingalls: That’s a good point because the same guy, Khalilzad, is now involved in the “bad war”, Iraq. He basically has no problem working with people whose interests are against those of the majority of people in order to achieve U.S. goals.

Kolhatkar: Zalmay Khalilzad is the highest-ranking Muslim in the Bush administration’s cabinet, and he’s one of the original signers to the Project for a New American Century. He was basically able to be that token brown person in the Bush cabinet, who was going to legitimize Bush’s operations in Afghanistan. He was the puppet master, with Karzai as the puppet. I mean it is very, very clear that while Zalmay Khalilzad was in Afghanistan, he was the one who was most directly carrying out U.S. policies on the ground and Karzai was doing his bidding. He was known as the person who was really in charge in Afghanistan, and Karzai really owes him his power.

And now that he has been transferred to Iraq, basically this man, who did the United States’ bidding and compromised with the fundamentalists against the interests of the Afghan people, is now doing similar things in Iraq given the different conditions there. He was also a former advisor for Unocal, which is an important point to note.

O’Keefe: In terms of the ongoing war, obviously people in Canada have a particular interest in what is taking place in Kandahar. The recently released Senlis Council Report included quite a condemnation at least of the tactics being employed by the counter-insurgency. What are your thoughts on this, and also of the Senlis Council’s description of the so-called insurgents as a “neo-Taliban”?

Kolhatkar: Well, I think it is so difficult to know what is really going on in that part of the country, primarily because there is very little media coverage. The Senlis Council Report is one of the most authoritative right now because they basically had researchers there on the ground for months gathering data. It is the only thing that we can rely on at this point unless something more detailed or more recent comes along. We don’t think it’s too far out of the realm of reality to describe it as a neo-Taliban.

Ingalls: Yes, I think that makes a lot of sense. We’re reading a lot, for instance even from General Richards, who is the British general in charge, nominally, of the NATO forces in Afghanistan. He is saying, we think that 10% of the people outright support the Taliban or whatever this insurgency is, about 20% support Karzai, and the other 70% are basically trying to decide who is going to win, and whoever wins they are going to back. This is General Richards saying this. He is well aware that 70% of people see these two forces as equal and opposing forces and all they want is an end to the war and to have normal lives, which they can’t have as long as these two factions are fighting each other.

It looks like, since the insurgency is Afghans – I mean most of them are Afghans – when NATO goes in and kills people it’s much more likely that you’re going to get people rising up against NATO, deciding to join this insurgency, than you’re going to get people rising up against the insurgency. NATO has basically had five years to kind of prove itself and it has done very little for Afghanistan.

Overall, I think the ordinary people of Afghanistan have always been caught between two forces, if you sort of simplify things and put them in perspective. That is, the two opposing forces of western imperialism, whether Soviet, British, U.S. or NATO, and religious fundamentalism, whether it’s been the mujahideen, the Taliban, or al-Qaeda forces. And ordinary people, by and large, reject both these extreme forces but they are caught in the middle. And when one side may offer them relief from the other, they’ll take it, because they are trying to survive. I think it’s very important for us to understand that.

It’s important for us also to not romanticize the resistance, equally as important as it is for us not to think that NATO and the U.S. are in there to save the Afghan people. The Afghan people are capable of saving themselves, but they need food and water, they need a way to be able to survive. They know how to rebuild their country, if only they were given a chance. And the West should pay them reparations. In particular, the United States should pay them reparations for all the destruction we have sponsored there.

O’Keefe: Having both been to Afghanistan, and being in the United States where the question of troops in Afghanistan is not so much on the radar even of the anti-war movement, what’s your perspective on the demand for Canada to get its troops out of Afghanistan?

Ingalls: I think it is a good demand, it is important. In general, we have been calling for a more nuanced approach in terms of foreign troops. We think that there should be foreign troops in Afghanistan as peacekeepers only, not doing combat operations. If Canada decides basically the only two options are stay in and continue the combat or get out, the best choice is to get out. That would really send a strong message to Bush and to the rest of the world.

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