Review in Z Magazine

Z coverBleeding Afghanistan
Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence

By Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls
Seven Stories Press, 2006, 315 pp.

Review by Gabriel San Roman

Published in Z Magazine, November 2006

In the five years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan under the guise of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” Afghans have indeed endured. According to a new report issued by the Senlis Council, a security and development think tank, the Taliban, ousted in 2001, has effectively regained military control in nearly half of Afghanistan. The expanding frontline of the resurgent Taliban has deteriorated the national security situation to a point where it is worse than it had been in 2001. Furthermore, a severe hunger crisis continues while one out of every four children is not expected to live past five years of age. Counter-narcotics has proven to be a failure as well. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan has become the source of over 90 percent of the world’s poppy supply.

Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, a new book co-authored by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, analyzes the motives and failures of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, past and present. The authors, who are co-directors of the U.S.-based Afghan Women’s Mission, hope that Bleeding Afghanistan proves to be an antidote to the “propaganda of silence,” that contributes to the plaguing miseries of Afghanistan.

The latest war on Afghanistan, launched in 2001, was framed as retaliation for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. There was no worldwide collective protest to war as there was leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some progressives regrettably abandoned their critical faculties and saw the political repression of the Taliban as so severe that U.S. intervention could help in the case of Afghanistan. Believing such, however, betrays the lessons of history.

Bleeding Afghanistan is partitioned into three sections: historical context, regime change and its consequences, and rhetoric versus reality. Seeing a necessity to cultivate historical consciousness in order to contextualize current events, Kolhatkar and Ingalls illustrate the history of U.S. intervention in the first chapter of their book. Historical amnesia, especially concerning the role played by the United States during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s, allows members of the Bush administration, many of whom are recycled Reaganites, to make grandiose claims without much public scrutiny or historically based suspicions.

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan provided the U.S. an opportunity to engage with its enemy in a proxy war. Taking place in what would be the last phases of the Cold War, the U.S. funded the mujahideen and foreign jihadists who were among the most antidemocratic and fundamentalist elements of resistance to the occupation. After the Soviets withdrew their forces in 1989, the United States considered its main objective accomplished. The authors argue that by funding the mujahideen and thus empowering them, and by displaying a subsequent lack of interest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the U.S. bears responsibility, in part, for the horrific civil war that followed. Between 1992 and 1996 many of the same warlords who were funded by the U.S. in the 1980s vied for control of Afghanistan, costing the lives of up to 45,000 civilians. Kolhatkar and Ingalls conclude that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan over the last two decades has been self-serving and neglectful of its effects on the lives of Afghans.

On the question of democracy, the authors stress that the popular will of the Afghan people was subverted in favor of the virtual imposition of Hamid Karzai. The much touted Loya Jirga where Karzai was appointed as “transitional president” was a practice in manipulation. If the popular will of the Afghan people had been allowed to prevail, ex-monarch Zahir Shah would have been the favored choice. The authors continue their critique of “client democracy” in Afghanistan by noting the appointment to government positions of many regional warlords with dismal human rights records. Furthermore, the interviews of Afghan people featured in this section of the book underscore the desire for real democracy; a desire that is sadly being ignored.

In the last section the authors criticize both liberals and conservatives for their use of women’s oppression in Afghanistan as a propagandistic tool to justify the occupation. Kolhatkar and Ingalls stress the history of the U.S. backing misogynist warlords, past and present, and its general ambivalence towards women’s suffering in Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks and prior to the Taliban regime, are reasons to be suspicious. Furthermore, the existence of outspoken and autonomous women’s movements in Afghanistan is equally ignored due to the problem they present to the “racist and sexist” logic of the U.S. occupation of so-called “liberation.” The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan and parliamentarian Malalai Joya are profiled in the book as counterweights to the rhetoric of the Bush administration vis-vis women.

In terms of the media’s propaganda of silence, the authors present various charts that note the peaks and subsequent drops in newspaper articles concerning Afghanistan. Major U.S. newspapers are demonstrated to be most guilty of silence during the carnage of the mujahideen takeover in the first half of the 1990s. The most troubling finding is the return to media silence following the aftermath of the U.S. invasion.

Bleeding Afghanistan is an impressive achievement. One of the most endearing aspects of the book is the opportunity the authors provide for Afghans to speak for themselves. Kolhatkar and Ingalls traveled to Afghanistan in February 2005 to conduct extensive interviews and witness firsthand the effects of the U.S. occupation.

The book is not without shortcomings, however. The section on historical context could have benefited from a broader scope. More investigation into the history of British colonialism, which preceded the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, might have proven to be very informative to the reader in much the same manner as it has been for the current war in Iraq.

Nevertheless, as noted before, Bleeding Afghanistan is exhaustively researched. Its comprehensive and highly analytical focus makes it a necessary read as Afghanistan, sadly, continues to bleed.

Gabriel San Roman is a freelance journalist and co-producer of “Uprising,” a daily radio show on KPFK Pacifica. All author royalties from Bleeding Afghanistan will be donated to the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to social and political projects in Afghanistan.

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