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Sharon Smith

Afghanistan’s rigged

(July 2002)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 24, July–August 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THROUGHOUT AFGHANISTAN’S loya jirga, or grand tribal council, held in June, the U.S. media focused attention on the raucous debates between delegates and the smattering of women who took to the microphones to demand women’s rights. The loya jirga, it seemed, represented a showering of democracy made possible by the U.S. bombs that drove out the Taliban–a validation of the first phase of the war on terrorism.

But closer examination (a practice the U.S. media avoids at all costs) reveals that the loya jirga was merely a public relations exercise on behalf of an illegitimate government and the illegitimate war that put it in power.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn, for example, that interim leader Hamid Karzai announced his own election as president before the vote had actually taken place, to the dismay of many delegates. Karzai apparently confused the backroom horse-trading with the public relations stunt on the assembly floor.

Minister of Women’s Affairs Sima Samar–ceremoniously introduced by George W. Bush during January’s State of the Union address as a symbol of U.S. commitment to women’s rights in Afghanistan–was unceremoniously dumped from her post after fundamentalists circulated a petition denouncing her as “Afghanistan’s Salman Rushdie.” “This is a rubber stamp,” said Samar of the backroom dealings. “Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones.”

The atmosphere of intimidation was so severe that, after one delegate gave a speech in favor of women’s rights, armed fundamentalists paid a visit to his home and threatened him. He was not allowed to return to the white tent housing the gathering. On June 17, half the delegates walked out to protest the undemocratic nature of the proceedings.

Even calling the loya jirga elections valid is a stretch. As Gary Leupp wrote in CounterPunch, “The warlords currently enjoying U.S. support largely determined the selection of delegates.” Those warlords are the warring thugs from the Northern Alliance, who have continued to consolidate their power through rape and murder since the fall of the Taliban, while the U.S. looks the other way.

As the Boston Globe reported in February, “The ouster of the Taliban by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance did not stop the use of rape as a way to demoralize and dominate. But what has changed since the fall of the Taliban is the identity of the victims, now mostly Pashtun families and displaced people living in camps, the losers following the defeat of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.”

Eight delegates elected to the loya jirga were murdered in May amid a general rise in political violence and intimidation by warlords guarding their own fiefdoms. “When election observers entered the city of Gardez, the local commander fired rockets at them,” noted one United Nations election observer. Karzai used a rumored plot to overthrow his government–as yet unconfirmed–as an excuse to round up 700 of his political opponents in the weeks before the loya jirga.

And throughout the loya jirga proceedings, U.S. State Dept. envoy Zalmay Khalilizad–a former Unocal oil executive–worked hand in glove with Karzai and the Northern Alliance to manipulate the votes behind the scenes. When a groundswell of support emerged to elect former king Zahir Shah as head of state, Khalilizad delayed the start of the proceedings for nearly two days while the king was strong-armed into withdrawing his name from consideration.

Interim Defense Minster Mohammed Fahim threatened to withdraw all the Northern Alliance delegates unless the former king backed out. Fahim–who placed his troops on alert to underscore the seriousness of this threat–was later named defense minister and deputy president. After Karzai, wrote Peter Symonds in Arabia Online, “The remaining posts were chosen to pay off various militia groups that were instrumental in the U.S. military operation to topple the former Taliban regime–in particular, the Northern Alliance.”

Fahim himself will retain sole authority over the powerful national defense commission, which includes such notorious warlords as Ismail Khan, Rahsid Dostum, Atta Mohammed, and Gul Agha–who collectively unleashed a reign of terror on Afghanistan’s population while battling for political domination between 1992 and 1996.

Karzai also announced that conservative Islamist Fazul Hadi Shinwari will be returned to his post as Afghanistan’s chief justice. Shinwari has made clear that he intends to enforce a strict interpretation of Sharia law, continuing to allow maximum sentences such as stoning for adultery and cutting off hands for thievery. But “we’re softer than” the Taliban, he explained recently. Rather than executing women who run away from their husbands, Shinwari said, “We put them in prison for three to four months.”

Through blackmail, bribery, and military force, the U.S. has determined the political landscape of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Most of the $4.5 billion of aid promised to Afghanistan in January by rich donors, including the U.S., was held back pending the desired outcome at the loya jirga.

And since last winter, U.S. troops have roamed the countryside as the amiable companions of various warlord gangs, whose loyalty it bought with money and weapons. The CIA made payments as high as $100,000 or more to individual warlords, in a country where the average monthly income is just $1.20.

“Afghanistan’s warlords are stronger today than they were 10 days ago before the loya jirga started,” argued Vikram Parekh of Human Rights Watch on June 20. An expansion of peacekeeping troops under U.S. control beyond Kabul, as many have proposed, would not loosen the hold of the warlords. The return to warlord rule did not happen despite U.S. intervention but because of it.

In an article entitled, “Afghanistan gets U.S.-Sscripted government,” the British-based newspaper The Friday Times commented, “From all indications, nothing has gone against the pre-loya jirga script prepared by the United States ... They [the warlords] are all in the cabinet. Their role has in fact been sanctified.”

The thousands of Afghan civilians killed by U.S. bombs since Oct. 7 are further evidence that peacekeeping is not on the list of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.

And U.S. bombing continues, while the civilian death toll continues to rise. An overnight bombing raid on July 1 over the central province of Uruzgan killed or wounded 170 attending a wedding party, according to local reports.

Afghanistan remains one of the most mine- and unexploded ordinance-infested countries in the world today, according to International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross has even issued a warning to Afghan children, not to play with the unexploded yellow cannisters of cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. throughout last winter–which many children mistake for little toys. Each month, more than 100 Afghans are killed or wounded by landmines and unexploded ordnance, 70 percent of them civilians.

Large numbers of Afghans remain at risk for starvation, facing indifference from the U.S., which still pours the vast bulk of aid money into its military operations. While the World Food Program estimates that more than half the Afghan population is in need of emergency food aid, foreign donors have delivered only 57 percent of the food it requested.

A U.S. Agency for International Development report has estimated that the proportion of Afghanistan’s population existing in “diet security”–that is, out of danger of starvation–has dropped from almost 60 percent in 2000 to only 9 percent today.

“In the capital Kabul, poverty is so severe that many families have begun turning their children over to orphanages, desperately hoping that they will provide the necessary food and shelter,” wrote James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar of the Afghan Women’s Mission. “Numerous reports describe villagers selling their daughters in exchange for a few bags of wheat.”

And the desperation of poverty has led to a resurgence of poppy production, which was virtually wiped out under the Taliban. Impoverished Afghan farmers can earn 10 times more profit from an acre of opium than from an acre of wheat. Under the watchful eye of the U.S., Afghanistan has once again emerged as the world’s leading producer of heroin, which is derived from opium.

As Leupp argues, “Global oppressors can’t build nations that deliver justice to their citizens.” This is logic worth keeping in mind as the U.S. plans its next “regime change,” in the next phase of its war on terrorism, against Iraq. When it comes to inflicting mass destruction, the U.S. is second to none.

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