The Other Quagmire: An interview with Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar remembers Afghanistan, even if the rest of us don’t
Thursday, May 17, 2007 – 3:00 pm

Remember Afghanistan? The Taliban? Hamid Karzai? That weird game Afghans play involving a goat carcass? Of course not. If the Iraq War is our latest Vietnam, then Dubya’s Afghanistan adventure is our Philippine-American War: a major incursion that became a quagmire no one talks about.

One of the few media figures who bother to pay attention is Sonali Kolhatkar, host of KPFK-FM 90.7’s popular Uprising morning show. She’s involved with various Afghan charities and is the author, along with her husband, of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. Kolhatkar will talk about the book and show slides from her visits this Saturday at the Centro Cultural de México. But first, she talked to the Weekly.

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Give us a summary of your book in 25 words without using the word “imperialism.”

The book traces the history of U.S. policy in Afghanistan from the 1970s to today, its effects on ordinary people, particularly women, and their resistance and resilience to war and fundamentalism.

You went to Afghanistan in 2005. How was the situation then, and has it changed for better or worse?

When I went in 2005, Afghans had just finished voting in the presidential elections and there was a lot of optimism. However, there was still overwhelming poverty and unemployment, and most people admitted that “liberation” was a Bush fantasy. While Afghans were surprisingly candid about what they saw as American double standards in defeating one set of terrorist fundamentalists by bringing back another set of terrorist fundamentalists, they were still hopeful the world community would pay some attention to them. Since then, that optimism has evaporated as the Taliban are stronger, warlords dominate the government and the U.S./NATO forces continue to kill civilians. It’s a much more dangerous country now.

Are you optimistic about Afghanistan’s future?

Not really. Firstly, the U.S. doesn’t seem to want to change its trajectory of sponsoring fundamentalism and war in Afghanistan; secondly, American people just don’t give enough of a damn about Afghanistan to pressure the U.S. government to change. Ordinary Afghans are, as usual, caught between the twin forces of fundamentalism (U.S.-sponsored and otherwise) and war. Still, what’s hopeful is how incredible the nonviolent resistance on the ground is. Ordinary people are doing their best to survive and be defiant. They have organized peaceful demonstrations burning effigies of Bush and started schools for girls despite the dangers. If their efforts are supported internationally, perhaps there is a small measure of hope.

Your show Uprising covers an array of topics, yet it seems Afghanistan is the cause closest to your heart. Why?

I was actually involved in Afghanistan solidarity work about two years before I began my work at Pacifica Radio. It all started when I got a chain e-mail about the Taliban oppression of Afghan women. I did a Web search and found RAWA—the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Despite their sectarian sounding name, they are an incredible group of women whose ideals are based on democracy and human rights. I wrote to them and asked if I could help. Myself and a couple of friends started a nonprofit, the Afghan Women’s Mission, to fund RAWA’s social and political projects in 2000. Six years later, my partner Jim Ingalls and I published the book. We’re still deeply involved with supporting RAWA as volunteers.

Do you think the United States had the right to invade Afghanistan in 2001?

Not at all. It had just about as much right in 2001 as the Soviet Union had to invade Afghanistan in 1979. If the U.S. was really interested in defeating the Taliban before the tragedy of 9/11, Clinton and Bush would’ve pressured their allies and weapons buyers—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE [United Arab Emirates]—to stop supporting the Taliban.

Earlier this year, Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya said the United States “pushed us from the frying pan into the fire.” Do you agree with that statement?

Yes, I do. The Taliban is stronger today than it was in 2001, even if they don’t control as much territory. The Northern Alliance warlords and druglords have government power and legitimacy, which they didn’t have in 2001. It took barely a month for the U.S. to defeat the Taliban in 2001. Yet today, the Taliban are carrying out suicide attacks—an unheard-of phenomenon before 2005—and are gaining popularity because they don’t kill as many civilians as the U.S.

At this point, what’s the United States’ responsibility to the Afghan people?

The U.S. needs to disarm its warlord allies—these men should be considered proxy U.S. soldiers on the ground who are terrorizing the population. The U.S. should divert far more funds into Afghan-led reconstruction projects than the military effort. And I’m talking about grants to local groups here, not corporate subsidies or paying foreign aid workers. The U.S should then pressure its allies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to stop tacitly supporting the Taliban.

And then, the U.S. should get the hell out of Afghanistan. The U.S. should also support Afghan-led efforts to criminally prosecute the warlords and Taliban for past crimes in the interest of healing and reconciliation. If these things are done, there will theoretically be some space for Afghan civil society to grow, exercise their democratic rights, and reject the armed fundamentalists.

Why do you think the media and American public pays so little attention to Afghanistan?

They’re too busy thinking about Iraq, which is understandable. There are more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and only about 20,000 in Afghanistan. We’ve killed far more Iraqis than Afghans. Also, I think that, sadly, most Americans subconsciously think of Afghanistan as “the good war”—a myth that Jim and I try to dispel in our book. So there is a tendency among most Americans that we need to get our troops out of Iraq so we can focus them on Afghanistan. But this is very shortsighted—the same military blunders in Iraq have been committed in Afghanistan, and the Afghan war is as unjust as the Iraq war.

What should the United States do about Al-Qaeda?

What hasn’t the U.S. done about Al-Qaeda?! Our actions have only strengthened the group and helped get them more recruits. We’ve made this organization far more important than it ever was. If the U.S. were to improve its policies in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other Muslim and Arab countries, Al-Qaeda would have no reason to scream bloody jihad. That’s the only long-term permanent solution. Any other solution involves brute force, and that will only lead to more anger, more recruits, more terrorism.

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Comments (5 comments)

Dear accept my honesty and dedicate special salamoona to the personal of rawa and special to those who are publishing this comments.i have readed above comment which you have talked about iraq and afghanistan warload while focused on afghanistan was more than iraq.
i want to give some important message to you that nowadays american’s want to concentrate on to afghanistan issue because afghanistan have a strategic situtation in asia while as many people saying that afghanistan is the heart of central asia.
american’s know that they dont have near country with iraq to to targeted it because only iran near to iraq so afghanistan also have a huge border with iran if america want to control iraq from afghanistan i 100% say that they will control it from afghaisntan as well and there are afghanistan have also border with pakistan so american’s and NATO want to opreration in waziristan therefore they wnat to out there forcese from iraq and give full concentrate to afghanistan and from there they put soldiers in waziristan.

Gullajan "Ahmadzai" / February 28th, 2008, 5:06 am / #

Dear Sonali and Jaames. Thank You for what You are doing. It inspires us. Yesterday around 2 000 stockholmers protested against the visit om Condoleezza Rice, one of the “brains” behind the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not an accident that many of the involved (Khalilzad, Karzai, Rice etc) come from the oil industry, where Afghanistan is supposed to play a minor role as transit country and therefore is allowed by the occupants to sink into the narco-quagmire.
On june 7-8th there will be a huge peace congress on Afghanistan in Hannover, Germany. All friends of Afghanistan get there. Unite! Be inspired by the many courageous americans. Like Jesse Ventura in Larry King show:
“I want someone I can respect. I want someone who will understand that going to war is really a simple decision. You know how simple it should be, Larry? A war is justified if you’re willing to send your son. If you’re not willing to send your son, then how do you send someone else’s? See, our problem with this current war in Iraq is that we’re being governed by the chicken hawks.”

stefan lindgren / May 29th, 2008, 11:08 pm / #

Yeah I remember Afghanistan, the Taliban, Hamid Karzai and Buzkashi (NOT some “weird” game Afghans play involving a goat carcass!) I remember a lot more than that though cause I refuse to have a selective memory to serve any ideological agenda. I remember December of 1979, yeah remember that Sonali? Or did you conveniently forget about decade long Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the 2.5 million Afghans killed by the Soviets? How can you so conveniently forget to stress the significance of that decade of death, war and destruction that lead us to where we are at today? Afghanistan’s pain and suffering did not start with the Taliban or after 9/11. I also remember the Khalqis, Parchamis, Sholais and RAWA’s Maoist roots. Just like I remember the radicals and extremists funded and trained by the ISI through CIA support and who became today’s terrorists. 180+ innocent civilians from my family were rounded up and executed overnight by Afghan communists before the Soviets invaded. I will not forget that. I will also not forget the first day Hekmatyar’s rockets fell on the city of Kabul and its civilians, our windows shattering and our neighbors screaming in agony cause they got hit.

See the thing is Sonali, unlike the American right wing corporate run mainstream media AND unlike the left wing communist run so-called independent media in this country, I REMEMBER IT ALL. And I will speak as much TRUTH as I know in my lifetime about it.

I also have some questions for you, in the name of freedom of speech and holding the press and journalists accountable, I would like you to answer them for me.

Why does MalalaI Joya not mention anything about 2.5 million dead during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan?

Why does she fail to call out former communist criminals sitting next to the former mujahideen criminals in the same corrupt Kabul government?

Why does RAWA deny it’s Maoist roots and launch smearing campaigns against other Afghan women leaders like Seema Samar?

You acknowledge the building resistance against the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan while labeling the resistance against the Soviets as simply purchased by CIA money. What makes you think that the resistance against the Soviets was any less real or valid?

Don’t you realize that if the people of Afghanistan are rising up now after 30 years of war, suffering, devastation and death, that we would not have risen up then?

I saw the resistance emerge as a young child and grew up seeing it get corrupted along the way by the ISI, CIA, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, France, etc. Where were you during this time?

I saw my uncle shot in the head when I was 5 in our house by an undercover communist agent. How many family members have you lost due to war in your lifetime?

Fatima Mojaddidy / July 31st, 2008, 3:47 pm / #

I think US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in unreported/suppressed ever-increasing civilian casualties in both countries. Recently, the NATO troops have inflicted heavy losses on innocent civilians. It has resulted in deep anger on majority of the neutral population. If Cheney and Bush think that military annihilation is the only solution for America’s geopolitical stranglehold on someonelse’s backyard then they are dead wrong. They should think twice before they leap. In reality they have already leaped into uncertainty.Only time will say if they have gutted themselves in a raging inferno or not. The Russians found out soon that they had hit a quicksand aided by US stingers and the CIA-ISI-backed barbarian Taliban in the 80s. The quagmire was to deadly for the Russians to feel optimistic. The irony is that the CIA-ISI created mutant chimera Taliban is now America’s biggest enemy. Americans and Karzai should look for honorable exit before the ghosts of hanged Najibullah haunt them in their nightmares.

With a deteriorating global political scenario in the backdrop of a unilateral forcefully US-corpofascism imposed pseudodemocracy or military-backed fascist juntas in many countries the US is now the least trusted or respected country it used to be. The corpofascists are so powerful that they have even been able to buy off and silence a once balanced media that that didn’t hesitate to point out major flaws in US foreign policy.

It would be wrong for the NATO alliance to believe that Russia will now sit still to let events unfold on it’s own. The Russian penetration into Georgia is just the beginning of more to follow.

America’s adventurism and megalomaniac global designs will prove too costly for the overstretched US economy to bear. The US should remember that other emerging economies too have strategic interests to acquire global resources worldwide. And hey too won’t hesitate t use force like the Americans to do so.

Rupali Shornali Pothocharini / September 1st, 2008, 10:36 am / #

In response to Fatima Mojaddidy:

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is a very important part of Afghan history, one which James and I include in our book. Indeed, it is a crucial part of the history we document because it is the Cold War in essence, fought on Afghan soil. Our book and our activism naturally focuses more on current US policy for two reasons: We are American and want to hold US policy makers accountable – we have little power over the Russian government. And secondly, the current situation is one where we can actually affect change, wouldn’t you agree? The Soviet occupation is now over, to be replaced by a US/NATO occupation. One cannot change the past but one can attempt to affect the present and the future.

As for Malalai Joya – in my conversations with her, she often talks about the Soviet occupation – after all, she herself became a refugee, along with her whole family, and, like you, lost family members to the Soviet atrocities.

The same is true for a majority of RAWA members, who choose to live in Afghanistan and carry on a struggle for peace and human rights instead of living comfortably in other countries like the US, etc. Many of them and their families became refugees in Pakistan or Iran during the Soviet occupation. Many lost family members too. They cannot and do not deny the horrors of the Soviet era.

RAWA was among the first political groups that organized against the Soviet occupation – they participated in the nation-wide jihad against the Soviets too. Meena, their founder, was murdered by Hekmatyar’s men, in cahoots with the Khad. So, I don’t think you can accuse RAWA of being pro-Soviet. They have paid for their opposition to the Soviets with the blood of their leader.

There are admittedly many leftist organizations in the US who try to paint the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as a good thing – these are organizations trapped in some sectarian fantasy of Soviet-style socialism as a panacea for the world’s ills. I have personally debated many of them and do not subscribe to their views.


Sonali Kolhatkar

admin / September 14th, 2008, 4:12 pm / #

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