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Afghanistan: The misery Washington left behind

January 31, 2003 | Page 11

NICOLE COLSON looks at the wreckage of a country left behind after the U.S. war on Afghanistan.

LATE LAST year, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer boasted that: "[I]f you take a look at Afghanistan…they certainly are more free and more democratic than before." Who does he think he's kidding?

"Far from emerging as a stable democracy," Human Rights Watch concluded in a recent report, "Afghanistan remains a fractured, undemocratic collection of 'fiefdoms' in which warlords are free to intimidate, extort and repress local populations, while almost completely denying basic freedoms."

The U.S. war on Afghanistan in 2001 was justified as a response to the September 11 attacks--and a blow against the tyranny of Afghanistan's Taliban government. But among the thousands of Afghans who died under U.S. bombs, few had anything to do with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And if most people in the U.S. knew the truth about the thugs and murderers who came to power after the Taliban, it would turn their stomachs.

In most parts of the "new" Afghanistan, security and local government has been entrusted to warlords who have human rights records just as revolting as the worst commanders under the Taliban.

And the U.S. government bears direct responsibility for this. They have promoted killers like Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls a force of several thousand troops and huge areas of land around Sheberghan--and who is being investigated by the United Nations (UN) for war crimes.

"What has changed in Afghanistan?" one person said in an interview with Human Rights Watch last year. "All our hopes are crushed. We are completely disappointed. Look: all the same warlords are in power as before. Fundamentalism has come into power, and every day, they strengthen their power."

But according to Army Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, the commander in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. military will continue to work with Afghan warlords--because they provide "stability and security."

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is suffering through a growing refugee crisis, a harsh winter and shortages of food. An estimated 700,000 people are internally displaced--many of whom are in danger of both starving and freezing to death.

In the first two weeks of December alone, at least 41 children died of severe cold at camps for Afghan refugees on the border with Pakistan. Haji Abdul Ghani, of the Pakistan-based Edhi Welfare Trust, told Reuters in December that as many as 1,200 children--most below the age of eight--are in danger of dying, just around the southern Afghan town of Spin Boldak.

Washington's "liberation" of Afghanistan in 2001 is only the latest chapter in a long story of betrayal. Throughout the 1980s, as part of its Cold War against the former USSR, the U.S. pumped money to Afghan fighters fighting a brutal Soviet military occupation.

Washington deliberately backed Islamic fundamentalist organizations rather than secular or nationalist groups. The idea, according to the U.S., was that the Islamists would provide "stability" in Afghanistan--and help U.S. oil interests control lucrative reserves located around the region.

Once the USSR was chased out in 1989, the U.S. promptly cut off aid to the country, leaving it, as the Economist magazine put it, "awash with weapons, warlords and extreme religious zealotry."

The Taliban emerged from Islamist schools along the Pakistan border--funded partly by the U.S., via Saudi Arabia, and with training from the CIA. "When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996," antiwar journalist John Pilger writes, "Washington said nothing. Why? Because Taliban leaders were soon on their way to Houston, Texas, to be entertained by executives of the oil company, Unocal."

Lack of democracy? Brutal oppression of women? Not a problem, according to one U.S. State Department official--who told reporters that there was "nothing objectionable" about the Taliban coming to power.

Today, the brutal rulers of the Taliban are gone, but Washington's enthusiasm for the murderous warlords that followed them shows that it never cared at all about ordinary Afghans.

Have Afghan women been liberated?

"MANY PEOPLE outside the country believe that Afghan women and girls have had their rights restored. It's just not true." That's the conclusion of Human Rights Watch official Zama Coursen-Neff, the co-author of a report released in December detailing the abysmal situation for Afghanistan's women since their "liberation" at the hands of the U.S. military.

According to the report, in many parts of the country, the situation is as bad--or in some cases, worse--since the fall of the Taliban. "Women and girls are still being abused, harassed and threatened all over Afghanistan, often by government troops and officials," Coursen-Neff told Reuters in December.

During the U.S. war, the Bush administration claimed that its victory would liberate women from the oppression they suffered under the Taliban. But they didn't mention the records of their allies--like Northern Alliance warlord Ismail Khan, who has been responsible for forcing women back into burqas in the region of Herat. Khan's forces have apparently set up both a religious police and a "youth police" to haul women and girls to hospitals for gynecological examinations--for the purpose of "chastity checks."

"Only the doors to the schools are open," said one Herati woman quoted in the Human Rights Watch report. "Everything else is restricted." Health care for women in Afghanistan continues to rank among the worst in the world--with more Afghan women dying during childbirth than any other country except Sierra Leone.

"Outside the capital, Kabul, and large, once-cosmopolitan cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, parents continue to sell their daughters to future husbands, women are not allowed to run shops, and when they go to a restaurant, they must eat separately from men," reported the San Francisco Chronicle. "Even in Kabul, where women travel by car more than by donkey, they are more likely to squat in the trunk than to sit comfortably inside the car like men."

In November, the Afghan Supreme Court actually dismissed a female judge--for not wearing an Islamic headscarf when she and 14 other female government officials met with George W. Bush and Laura Bush as part of a celebration of the "liberation" of Afghan women!

Although some women and girls have been able to go back to school or work, many are still cut off from any independence. In late October, several girls' schools in and around Kabul were attacked with rockets and grenades. At least a dozen more have been burned to the ground in arson attacks in the months since women were "liberated" in Afghanistan.

And in a gruesome development, recent reports suggest that young Afghan women are increasingly so desperate to escape arranged marriages that they turn to self-immolation--setting themselves on fire. According to the Los Angeles Times, an average of three young women each week are brought to the regional hospital in Herat after setting themselves ablaze. Hospital staff say that the typical victim is 14 to 20 years old and is trying to escape a marriage arranged by her father--often to an older man who has another wife and children.

For those who don't commit suicide, a bleak future awaits. In September, a woman named Nargiz told the San Francisco Chronicle that, though she used to be a schoolteacher, she now doesn't work, shares a house with her husband's other wife, shuns male strangers and hides her face under a burqa whenever she leaves her husband's compound.

"Now, in the new, liberated Afghanistan, Nargiz speaks more timidly," reported the Chronicle. "'Life is good,' she says, looking shyly at the carpet on the floor. 'I am used to my burqa now.'"

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