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17 October 2001
"We are going to unleash Hell on them." Senator Bob Torrecelli, in a press interview at Ground Zero on 9-12.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and so began 22 years of devastating war. 10 years of occupation and war have been followed by 12 years of civil war - including 5 years of reactionary "government" by the thugs of the Taliban. Before 9-11, these factors, on top of the worst drought in decades, had already created one of the worst humanitarian situations in the world within Afghanistan. Now, with the disruption of relief efforts caused by ongoing U.S. military actions, and given the imminent arrival of winter, we are facing an unfolding catastrophe of unthinkable proportions. Without exaggeration, this is the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen since the end of World War II. Dire warnings abound from UN and NGO agencies on the scene in the region. On September 19th, Dominic Nutt, an emergency officer with the relief organization Christian Aid, was quoted in the Guardian as saying, "It's as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people. We can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths."
America's role in this disaster is a matter of open record, and our responsibilities here are very clear. When communist leader Babrak Karmal took power in Afghanistan after a coup in 1978, the United States chose to get involved. The U.S. intervened by providing money, arms, intelligence and training to groups of Mujahadeen, or "Islamic" fighters. Many, including Osama bin Laden, came to Afghanistan from other countries in the Muslim world. As with U.S. counterinsurgency programs in Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua, among other countries, this aid was intended to destabilize Afghanistan's government, and prevent any successful challenge to U.S. economic hegemony from developing in the Global South. Former National Security Advisor Zbignew Brzezinski has said that the U.S. also hoped that aid to the Mujahadeen would help incite the USSR to invade Afghanistan, drawing them into a "trap." After the Soviet's did invade, our support for the Mujahadeen grew into the largest U.S. covert action program since World War II, as we funneled billions of dollars of military aid, including thousands of tons of weaponry, into the country throughout the 1980s.
In a 1998 interview with the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur, Brzezinski insisted on the righteousness of this support, saying, "What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?" Yet the Soviet invasion, lasting from 1979-1989, resulted in the destruction of half the villages of Afghanistan, over 1 million civilian deaths, and over 6 million refugees. Since 1980, Afghanistan has had the world's largest, recorded, refugee population. Today, over 3.5 million Afghanis remain refugees, and over 1 million are still internally displaced within Afghanistan. What has been more important to the history of those people? After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan, but the weapons we supplied, and the people we trained, were still around. In addition to bin Laden, our friends in the 1980s included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, currently in exile in Iran, then a leading heroin druglord and head of the most fanatical Mujahadeen faction. As "Prime Minister," Hekmatyar destroyed most of Kabul in 1993 with a food blockade and sustained rocket attacks aimed at toppling his rivals. At least 50 thousand civilians were killed. In 1994, the Taliban, or "Students," emerged as a law and order movement led by rural clerics, including current leader Mohammad Omar. From 1994-1996 the U.S. sided with the Taliban, and provided indirect aid through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This helped the Taliban to consolidate control over 90% of the country and establish one of the most repressive governments in recent world history. Remnants of the losing factions of Mujahadeen and other opponents of the Taliban formed the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of warlords, many of them with human rights records fully as disgusting as Hekmatyar and the Taliban. Human Rights Watch and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) report that leaders in the Northern Alliance - including Abdul Rashid Dostum, head of the Junbish militia; Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, head of Ittihad-i Islami; Haji Muhammad Muhaqqiq, a senior commander in Hizb-i Wahdat; and Abdul Malik Pahlawan, a former senior Junbish commander - have all engaged in ethnic cleansing, lootings, mass rapes, and summary executions.
Right now we are faced with the disgusting absurdity of the world's greatest superpower waging war against one of the world's poorest and most suffering nations, and in so doing befriending (or re-friending) thugs morally indistinguishable from those they are opposing. Expediency has never been more cynical, nor its moral exigency ever so immediate. Far from "Enduring Freedom," Afghanistan is enduring a tremendous humanitarian disaster stemming in no small part from former U.S. actions and inactions. Decades of war have left much of the country in absolute, and dangerous, ruin. The Soviets laid hundreds of thousands of anti- personnel mines, and unexploded shells literally litter the countryside - still killing dozens every month. Childhood mortality is already the fourth worst in the world, and life expectancy for adults is only 43 years. As many as 7 million people may be on the brink of imminent starvation. Even before firing a single shot, U.S.-Taliban belligerencies had already disrupted critical aid programs, sending perhaps hundreds of thousands of new refugees fleeing to the borders. U.S. bombings, accidental or otherwise, of international demining and aid offices in Kabul threaten to end all international efforts to help the Afghani people. Additionally, on Sept. 16, the New York Times reported that "Washington has also demanded [from Pakistan] a cutoff of fuel supplies, ...and the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population." Seen in this light, criticism of U.S. "humanitarian food drops," by organizations such as the Nobel Peace Prize winning Doctors Without Borders, makes much more sense. In a statement released on October 8th, Doctors Without Borders said the U.S. operation wasn't "in any way a humanitarian aid operation, but more a military propaganda operation, destined to make international opinion accept the U.S.- led military operation."
The United States hasn't learned anything from over 20 years of U.S. and Soviet failures in Afghanistan. The issues aren't about geopolitics or the art of realpolitik; these artifices only matter in terms of the real people they help or hurt. The propaganda value of pretend efforts to relieve civilian suffering is totally lost on everyone outside of America's borders - because the propaganda is so manifestly false. Will anyone other than CNN's Christiane Amanpour honestly believe that cutting off all international food aid for 7 million starving people in Afghanistan through threats and war doesn't deliberately put those people in direct danger of mass destruction? Is there any chance the rest of the world will ever be convinced that U.S. plans to airdrop 2 million rations represent a realistic attempt to deal with this catastrophe? Even if every one of those rations reached a human being, they only represent enough food for less than one third of the people for one day out of an entire winter.
What new outrages will be born from the hell we are unleashing on Afghanistan? Unless the United States immediately ends this military campaign, and joins in a truly massive, international attempt to plan, stock, and immediately enact a widespread and viable relief operation throughout Afghanistan, truly sickening numbers of human beings are going to die.
If we let this catastrophe happen, what will we say to the survivors when they come after us, as they must? Will we make up excuses that ring hollow even in our own ears as we test them out today? Or will we look to the ruin of Afghanistan that we have already helped create, and to the ruin of the World Trade Towers born from that creation, and say with absolute certainty - Abyssus Abyssum invocat: Hell calls Hell.