Interference by the U.S. in the internal affairs of Afghanistan has been a tragic chapter in our nation’s history.
Over three decades ago, there were social movements in Afghanistan to improve the standard of living of its people, to provide greater equality for women, and there was a functioning, if imperfect, democracy. However the U.S., using subversion, weapons, and money was able, as the leader of coalition of nations, to stop progress in these areas of human welfare.
In fact, the gains that had already been made were actually reversed. By 2010 the economic and social status of Afghans has been set back generations; women’s status has deteriorated to such an extent that the prevalence of self-immolation has increased among discouraged women, and there is no democracy now, with the U.S. making major decisions as an occupying power.
With President Obama’s recently announced military buildup, our nation’s leaders are on the verge of doing the virtually impossible — making the situation even worse. But the most cataclysmic aspect of this chronology of events is that the U.S. and the world are less safe, since the image of the U.S. in the world is that of the leading military power attacking possibly the poorest nation on earth.
Afghanistan in the late 1970s was a predominantly poor, rural, and moderate Muslim nation. Although they were second class citizens, women were allowed to unveil and had the right to vote. From 1933-1978 women started to enter the workforce and become teachers, nurses, and even politicians. They worked to end illiteracy and forced marriages. Most of these advances were in Kabul, the most modern and populous city in Afghanistan, while in most of the rural areas women were treated as property.
In the 1970s Afghanistan also had serious economic problems, one of which the concentration of ownership of most of the land in the hands of tribal and religious leaders (mullahs). Only 3% of the rural population owned 75% of the land.
Labor unions were legalized, a minimum wage and a progressive income tax were established, and a separation of church and state was adopted.
Then, in the latter years of that decade various progressive and communist groups struggled over how to modernize Afghanistan and resolve these inequities. Unfortunately, their efforts to introduce changes involved a degree of coercion and violence directed mainly toward those living in areas outside of Kabul where the vast majority of the population lived in mountainous, rural and tribal areas where there was an exceptionally high rate of illiteracy. Steps to redistribute land were initiated but were met by objections from those who had monopoly ownership of land.
It was the revolutionary government’s granting of new rights to women that pushed orthodox Muslim men in the Pashtun villages of eastern Afghanistan to pick up their guns. Even though some of those changes had been made only on paper, some said that they were being made too quickly.
According to these opponents, the government said their women had to attend meetings and that their children had to go to school. Since they believed that these changes threatened their religion, they were convinced that they had to fight. So an opposition movement started at that point which became known as the Mujahideen, an alliance of conservative Islamic groups.
By the spring of 1979, rebellion had spread to most of the country’s 29 provinces. On March 24, a garrison of soldiers in Herat killed a group of Soviet advisers (and their families) who had ordered Afghan troops to fire on anti-government demonstrators. From this point, the regime was no longer merely isolated from peasants in the countryside, but divided by open hostility from an overwhelming majority of all the people.
The government’s secret police and a repressive civilian police force went into action across Afghanistan, and army troops were sent into the countryside to subdue "feudal villagers".
The situation was very grave in Afghanistan at that point, but the U.S. was destined to make it much worse. The initial conflict might have been resolved far short of a civil war if the U.S. had refrained from fostering the uprising. Even if the struggle had progressed to a civil war, the nation might eventually have recovered and moved ahead. Civil wars are disastrous for nations, but after great pain and suffering they can eventually overcome this setback, as the U.S. did after its civil war.
The following is an account of how the U.S. laid the groundwork for its encouragement of the uprising and the enormous support that it gave later for the ongoing revolt that would lead to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began in the 1950s and 1960s. The CIA used impressive bribes and threats to support this growing opposition to the progressive changes, and it also recruited Afghan students in the U.S. to act as agents for them when they returned home. During this period at least one president of the Afghanistan Students Association (ASA), Zia H. Noorzay, was working with the CIA in the U.S. and later became president of the Afghanistan state treasury. One of the Afghan students whom Noorzay and the CIA tried in vain to recruit, Abdul Latif Hotaki, declared in 1967 that a good number of the key officials in the Afghanistan government who studied in the U.S. "are either CIA-trained or indoctrinated."
According to Roger Morris, National Security Council staff member, the CIA started to offer covert backing to Islamic radicals as early as 1973-1974.
Subsequently, various other U.S. officials would also indicate their willingness to sacrifice the welfare of the Afghan people in the interest of the American goal of worldwide domination.
In August 1979, four months before the Soviet attack, a classified State Department Report stated: "the United States larger interests …would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan."
According to one senior official, "The question here was whether it was morally acceptable that, in order to keep the Soviets off balance, which was the reason for the operation, it was permissible to use other lives for our geopolitical interests." Carter’s CIA director Stansfield Turner answered the question: "I decided I could live with that."
Judging by examples of U.S. interferences since World War II, it appears that replies similar to that of Turner may have been given with similar genocide-like results.
In 1998 Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Carter, came clean and admitted that indeed the U.S. had helped bring about the Soviet invasion. Le Nouvel Observateur in Paris in its January 15-21 issue carried the account of an interview with him in which he was asked if he had played a role in providing intelligence to the Mujahideen before the Soviets invaded. His reply was as follows:
"Yes, according to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec. 1979. But the reality secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."
The Soviet Union at that time bordered Afghanistan on the north and had various ties with Afghanistan over the years. Those areas are now the nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since these areas had large Muslim populations, when the Afghanistan civil war started the Soviet Union feared that the revolt could spread to within its own borders. Since they were not able to convince the factions of the communist government in Afghanistan to resolve their difference and go more slowly in their modernization program the Soviets invaded in December 1979 to quell the uprising.
To counter the Soviets, the U.S. deliberately chose to give most of its support to the most extreme groups. A disproportionate share of U.S. arms went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a particularly fanatical fundamentalist and woman-hater. According to journalist Tim Weiner, "[Hekmatyar’s] followers first gained attention by throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. CIA and State Department officials I have spoken with call him ‘scary’, ‘vicious’, a ‘fascist’, definite dictatorship material."
The Mujahideen, while in power, killed or forced into exile most progressive-minded people, especially those suspected of being socialist or Marxist. Thus, the prospects of any progressive secular form of government in Afghanistan were eventually undermined. This continued after the Soviets left. Edmund McWilliams was sent to Afghanistan in 1989 as a semi-independent analyst of U.S. policy regarding the Afghan jihad. He discovered that as the Soviets left, Hekmatyar in alliance with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other groups, moved to eliminate his rivals, kidnapping and murdering Afghan opposition members.
The U.S. was quick to provide weapons to the Mujahideen. By February 1980, the Washington Post reported that they were receiving arms coming from the U.S. government.
The CIA purchased, mainly from China’s government, grenade launchers, mines and SA-7 light anti-aircraft weapons and then arranged for shipment to Pakistan. The amounts were significant — 10,000 tons of arms and ammunition in 1983 which rose to 65,000 tons annually by 1987, according to Mohammad Yousaf, the Pakistani general who supervised the covert war from 1983-87.
Milton Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986-1989 who was responsible for arming the Mujahideen, commented, "The U.S. was fighting the Soviets to the last Afghan."
In October 1984, CIA director William Casey, who wanted to keep abreast of the CIA operation in Afghanistan, went by plane to the military air base south of Islamabad, Pakistan. Helicopters lifted Casey to three secret training camps near the Afghan border, where he watched Mujahideen training.
Pakistani officers also traveled to the U.S., for training on the Stinger missile launcher in June, 1986, and then set up a secret Stinger training facility. Between 1986 and 1989, the U.S. provided the Mujahideen with more than 1,000 of these state-of-the-art, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launchers which by some accounts prevented a Soviet victory. Stinger missiles were able to destroy low-flying Soviet planes which forced them to fly at higher altitudes, thereby curtailing the damage they could cause. By 1987 a "ceaseless stream" of CIA and Pentagon officials were visiting the ISI.
During the war with the Soviets, the Mujahideen, with U.S. and Saudi Arabia financial help, augmented the size of its military by securing additional recruits in two ways. First, fundamentalist Islamic religious schools for boys called madrassas were established in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Often they came from refugee camps and were orphans of the war.
Although the subject matter of the schools was largely fundamentalist in content, structured to develop a fervor to expel the Soviets, the poverty-stricken families often had no other way to provide their boys with an education.
The prospective students usually had not learned any farming or other skills from their fathers, nor did they have other job opportunities. They were only trained for fighting in wars and how to handle guns. Besides that, food, shelter, and military training were provided at no cost. Some boys who were as young as 13 or 14 saw a future stint in the military as a steady source of income. On several occasions madrassas were closed down so that all the students could join the troops on the battlefront.
The other source of additional recruits for the Mujahideen was from a variety of nations around the world with sizeable fundamentalist Muslim populations. These were males who wanted to fight the "godless Russians," and some them expected to be martyrs in a holy war.
According to Central Asia specialist and journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book Taliban:
"Between 1982 and 1992 some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujahideen. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassas that Zia’s military government began to fund in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad."
"As for the Mujahideen that this conflict created, they took on a life of their own, and have now spread throughout the Muslim world and are apparently in cells everywhere," says John Ryan, senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg. "About 5,000 of them were brought into Bosnia to fight the Serbs – even Osama bin Laden may have visited Bosnian president Izetbegovic in 1992. The Mujahideen later helped the Kosovo Albanians. "
In 1989 the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan and left behind 1.5 million dead Afghans and 14,000 of its own dead.
But then a new war started, this time between the Mujahideen and the Afghan government. It lasted for three years, until the government was defeated in 1992. After that, the competing armies within the Mujahideen fought among themselves to control Kabul, using stockpiles of weapons that had been provided by the U.S. to fight the Soviets. About 50,000 people were killed and much of the city was left in shambles.
Even today, little of Kabul has been reconstructed. Hundreds of thousands of people were driven into squalid refugee camps, and millions of exiles were blocked from returning.
While the Mujahideen were in power there was a severe erosion of women’s rights. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was set up to control women’s dress codes and the length of men’s beards. Rape was a common tool of war for the fundamentalists. As one man said "young women who did not want to be raped by these zealots threw themselves off the top floors of tall buildings and preferred death to rape…Many families who had daughters didn’t want fundamentalists to rape them. So when the fundamentalists attacked their homes, they would kill their own daughters, because it was better for them to die than to be raped by these criminals."
Despite all of this brutality, women were still allowed to work, and get an education under the Mujahideen government. In fact, before the Taliban later took over Kabul, about half of the working population were women who were employed as teachers, doctors, as well as in other professional occupations.
For the next four years there was a war between the Mujahideen and the Taliban with the latter emerging victorious in 1996. Many Afghans welcomed them, since they believed that they would end the corruption of the Mujahideen. But as fundamentalist Muslims, their policies were similar to those of the Mujahideen.
A virtual war was declared on women under the Taliban, which had no basis in Islamic law. They were not allowed to participate in the work force or even have doctors treat them (without a male relative present), and girls were forbidden to go to school. They were forbidden to work or leave the house without a male escort, and were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, even covering their eyes. Women who were doctors and teachers before, suddenly were forced to be beggars and even prostitutes in order to feed their families.
Trying to understand the mindset that allows such injustices to take place is not an easy undertaking. But one thing is obvious, as I have mentioned earlier in this article: the U.S. was the main force that created the conditions that allowed the Mujahideen and the Taliban to come to power because of the support it gave 20 to 30 years ago to the most violent and anti-democratic forces within Afghanistan who ruled ruthlessly, eradicating educated progressive leaders, driving others into exile, and corrupting the minds of many of its young males.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001 the U.S. reacted by attacking Afghanistan, although none of the those who hijacked the planes in those attacks were Afghans.. The rationale given for the U.S. air attacks on Afghanistan was that the training of the hijackers was done by al-Qaeda in camps in Afghanistan. Although this retaliatory bombing supposedly achieved the stated goal of the U.S. government, it was decided to invade anyway and is still there eight years later. The Taliban was replaced by the Northern Alliance and now there is an Afghan government which is the surrogate of the U.S.
What do the Afghan people have to show now over 30 years after the Soviet invasion in the areas of democracy, women’s rights and economic and social progress? Nothing! In fact the Afghan people are worse off now. And the future of Afghans at the hands of the U.S. probably is horrendous.
Democracy has been undermined in Afghanistan, because many of the progressive leaders were either killed or forced into exile by warlords supported by the U.S. during and after the war with the Soviets. This new government has been formed in an undemocratic process promoted by the U.S. and now consists of some of the warlords who were deposed by the Taliban.
Today the ordinary Afghan is caught between three forces: the U.S., the Taliban, and the puppet government composed of former members of the Mujahideen whom many Afghans would like to have tried as war criminals. Also, the Upper House of Parliament is not a democratic institution, its members being appointed by the President. Furthermore, the Afghan constitution, although it proclaims equality for men and women, is secondary to the supremacy of Islamic law, which can be used to squash dissent and human rights, including the rights of women.
Furthermore, it is ludicrous to contend that a nation that is occupied by a foreign power is allowed to make the important decisions. In short, when the U.S. occupiers say "Jump!" the Afghan government replies "How high?"
Malalai Joya, a young Afghan woman who was elected to the Lower House of Parliament and who was later barred from that body because of her criticism of some of its members, has estimated that up to 60% of the deputies in the Lower House are directly or indirectly connected to current and past human rights abuses.
Under the newly established government in 2001, women were allowed to once again work and go to school. Nevertheless, the abuse of women continues, since the government is too weak to enforce many of the laws, especially in the rural areas.
According to Human Rights Watch, "The law gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands. It grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers. It requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying "blood money" to a girl who was injured when he raped her."
According to Joya:
"Women’s conditions in some cities have slightly improved since the Taliban regime. But if we compare it with the era before the rule of the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, it has not changed much. Afghan women had more rights in the 1960s to 1980s than today. Rapes, abductions, murders, forced marriages, and violence are increasing at an alarming rate never seen before in our history. Women commit self-immolation to escape their miseries, and the rate of self-immolations is climbing in many of the provinces. Afghanistan still faces a women’s rights catastrophe."
The economic and social welfare status of Afghans today due to U.S. intervention that started over 30 years ago is abysmal. The U.S. is not the only culpable nation; Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also played major roles in this deterioration.
The Afghan people are in dire straits. They lost about one and a half million people in their war with the Soviet Union, according to Rashid, and tens of thousands more have died in civil wars. In addition 600,000 have been wounded. About one in ten Afghans is disabled, mostly due to the wars and landmines. Their life life expectancy is about 43 years.
Many Americans explain this internal strife in Afghanistan by saying that "they have always been fighting among themselves." But the truth is that America has been more or less behind most of the violence, as this article demonstrates.
Since the U.S. started its bombing in 2001 an estimated 7,309 Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S.-led forces as of June 20, 2008, according to an estimate made by University of New Hampshire Professor Mark Herold. Those who died after impact of an explosive are not counted.
Although more than 3.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homes in the past six years, several million still live in Pakistan and Iran. About 132,000 people are internally displaced as a result of drought, violence and instability. Furthermore, there are reportedly about 400,000 orphans in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan suffers from an unemployment rate of 40% and most of those who have jobs earn only meager wages. Many youth joined the Mujahideen or Taliban in order to receive some food, shelter and income. The average educational level of Afghans is 1.7 years of schooling, which severely limits their job opportunities. As many as 18 million Afghans still live on less than $2 a day.
Even today the Afghan people are confronted by many dangers. On their land there are still about 10 million mines which cause loss of life and limbs and reduces the amount of land available for farming.
An estimated seven million people remain susceptible to hunger throughout the country, and Afghanistan is also prone to natural disasters as well as a high risk of diseases.
Afghanistan needs economic development aid, health care, and educational assistance — not bombs.
U.S. officials talk about nation-building in Afghanistan. But what they neglect to say is that the U.S. has actually done just the opposite: it has fostered the destruction of much of that nation and now poses a clear and imminent danger to what remains of the rest of that beleaguered country.