With very little fanfare and barely any major news coverage, U.S. Army units have begun leaving Afghanistan. The drawdown signals the wrapping up of what became—officially at least—the United States’ longest war. A few thousand American troops will stay indefinitely. And, says “Reena,” a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan worse off than when the Taliban was in power. This should come as no surprise, given that for decades the U.S. has refused to back anyone other than corrupt and criminal elements.
For RAWA to assert that Afghanistan is worse off today is quite serious. The underground Afghan women’s group was vocal in denouncing Taliban atrocities in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, it was RAWA’s video of an Afghan woman being publicly executed by a Taliban soldier in Kabul Stadium that replayed endlessly on U.S. television news in the days after the 9/11 attacks. RAWA is the oldest political organization of women in Afghanistan, so it is not surprising that its members’ predictions of disaster resulting from U.S. policies have come true. For example, in 2001 RAWAwarned the international community and the U.S. against empowering the Northern Alliance warlords, saying, “The NA will horribly intensify the ethnic and religious conflicts and will never refrain to fan the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to remain in power.” Just three years later, Human Rights Watch released a reportdocumenting horrific abuses by the Northern Alliance warlords in the Afghan government. Those abuses have continued unabated, alongside U.S. ground operations and Taliban attacks, for the past 13 years.
In an interview on “Uprising,” Reena—who like most Afghans uses only a single name, and like all RAWA members employs a pseudonym for security purposes—told me, “[A]s we have said for the last 13 years, this war could not bring freedom and prosperity and a better life for the people of Afghanistan. And now as the U.S. has left, it has made the situation of Afghanistan much worse than it was in 2001.”
Earlier this year Afghans elected a new president, Ashraf Ghani, who took office just weeks ago. In one of his first official acts, Ghani, a former World Bank official, signed a long-awaited security agreement with the United States
Ghani took over from Hamid Karzai, a two-term president who was dogged by accusations of corruption and who refused to sign the agreement with the U.S. But Ghani’s own election was marred by so much evidence of fraud that he was forced to share power with his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, whom Ghani named Afghanistan’s first chief executive officer, a newly created role akin to a prime minister. Abdullah is a key Northern Alliance figure who threw in his lot with war criminals during the civil war from 1992 to 1996. Even more controversially, Ghani named as his first vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, whom Ghani himselfreferred to as “a known killer” some years ago.Dostum has been strongly implicated in the mass killing of 2,000 Taliban soldiers in 2001, among other war crimes.Still, Ghani is being hailed by many as the best hope for Afghanistan. In an essay in Counterpunch, Ralph Nader referred to him as the “one person in the world most suited to govern the turbulent land of Afghanistan.” Reena acceded, “There is no doubt that Ashraf Ghani has some personal achievements. Especially in the eyes of the Western media.” By this she means that Ghani is a champion of neoliberal policies. As Ghani states at the outset in a TED talk that he gave, he sees capitalism and democracy as being hand in hand. In addition, he announced soon after being sworn in as president that his intentions for Afghanistan’s economic transformation were centered on exploiting its rich mineral reserves—an approach consistent with extraction-based economic models favored by the U.S.
In signing the security agreement with the U.S., Ghani cited “shared dangers and shared interests” of the U.S. and Afghanistan. The agreement, among other things, enshrines the presence of about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But, according to Reena, “it is not just about these troops. It is about the bases they have [built] and the biggest embassy they have built in Afghanistan which shows that they are here to stay,” and which can allow the U.S. to “use this region very strategically for its military purposes.”
“The way we see it,” said Reena, “he is one of those people who will serve U.S. interests above the interests of our country. Our country is basically occupied at the moment. Democracy or elections or an independent government really does not make any sense.”
She explained, “If you look at his right- and left-hand people, they are the same warlords, the same killers and criminals that we have time and again called for the prosecution of. They are war criminals who have to be put on trial in international courts for the crimes they have committed in Afghanistan.”
If one traces U.S. policy back all the way to 1979, the Northern Alliance and to an extent the Taliban can rightly be viewed as direct outcomes of the American program of funding and training jihadists against the Soviet occupying army. The U.S. has insisted on cycling various figures in and out of positions of government power in Afghanistan since then, despite constant evidence of their criminal deeds. Still, Reena was dismayed that Western media and most Westerners are ignorant of how the U.S. government has worked closely with warlords such as Dostum who she says “are no different than the Taliban” and in fact “are actually worse than the Taliban.” From the very beginning of the 2001 war, when many of the same warlords were selected to participate in Afghanistan’s fledgling government at the December 2001 Bonn Conference in Germany, Reena knew that “our country was going to be destroyed all over again.”
She added, “Not only do our people view this as a failure, it is probably the biggest treason any country has done to Afghanistan in its history.” The only other period in Afghanistan’s recent history that comes close to the destruction wrought under the 13-year U.S. war was the 10-year-long Soviet occupation, from 1979 to 1989. But Reena contends that the American occupation was worse. She told me, “If we compare these two eras, obviously the Soviets killed thousands of intellectuals and have had maybe the biggest role in depriving Afghanistan of progressive thinkers and national patriotic leaders that Afghanistan so badly needs today. But if we look at their agenda, it is nothing compared to what the U.S. has done in the past 13 years.”
Today, Afghanistan is struggling along no better than in 2001. While some rights are enshrined in the constitution, in practice women still suffer severe abuses, including rape and murder. Maternal mortality and child mortality rates remain among the highest in the world. Poverty is still grindingly high. Drug production and addiction rates are worse than before. One quick indicator is the United Nations Human Development Index, which has remained virtually unchanged over a decade: In 2004, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 countries for which data was available; today it ranks 175 out of 187countries.
While ordinary Afghans struggle to survive, President Ghani has promised peace talks with the Taliban. Many U.S. analysts, too, believe that bringing the Taliban into power is the only way forward for peace. Reena responded to this approach by saying: “The U.S. has already brought fundamentalists into power who are much worse than the Taliban. … Not much is going to change if the Taliban are officially brought into power.”
She added, “If you look at Afghanistan today, the north is officially under the control of the government. But they have their own militias who commit countless crimes against people every day. Their crimes are widespread.” So if the Taliban, who control the south, share power in the government, she said, “The situation will deteriorate in any case” all over the country.
How can ordinary Afghans take back their nation? Reena lamented, “Our country has been demolished. There is no nation in the world that can survive three decades of war and still be able to resist foreign occupation or to actually fight for their rights and for the betterment of their country.” She concluded, “Our people need to be united. They have to break the barriers of the divisions that the U.S. occupation has brought upon Afghanistan. They need to fight the foreign occupiers. Afghanistan has a glorious history of driving out foreigners whenever they have tried to take over Afghanistan. This is the only way.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is co-director of theAfghan Women’s Mission, a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that has worked in solidarity with RAWA since 2000