Image: Afghan woman and children, from the village of Dudarek, wait for a humanitarian aid hand out, angled towards women in the area, to begin, in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Nov. 2, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jennifer Cohen/Released)
Editor’s note: October 7 is the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the US war on Afghanistan.
17 Years of War and Occupation in Afghanistan:
What Has Been Achieved?
by Janine Solanki, from Fire This Time, October 2018
On September 25, 2018, an airstrike in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan killed three people, a 45-year old woman and two teenage girls. “They martyred three women. My son, who is a university student in economics faculty, and my daughter, Atifa, are wounded — they are in a serious condition in the hospital currently,” said Sher Mohammed, a teacher in the village school and husband of the woman killed in the attack. “They destroyed my life.”
This is an account from just one of the increasingly frequent airstrikes carried out by American forces and more recently also the Afghan Air Force. The weekend before, 21 civilians were killed in two airstrikes, reported by the United Nations (UN). On September 25 the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported an airstrike hit the house of a teacher in Kapisa province the week before, killing nine members of the same family. The reports go on and on, reflecting the 52% increase of deaths from airstrikes in the first six months of 2018, compared to the same period as 2017. The UN also reported that women and children make up more than half of all aerial-attack civilian casualties.
These grim statistics are not from the “peak years” of the war on Afghanistan – they current and ongoing, after 17 years of war and occupation.
Rewind to where it began
On October 7, 2001, the U.S. government invaded Afghanistan touting the claim that their war on Afghanistan was a “war on terror” prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The fact is the U.S. had long vied for control over Afghanistan, and 9/11 just provided a convenient excuse to bang the drums of war. For centuries Afghanistan’s strategic location has been a target for foreign powers wanting to gain economic and military control of the region. The repeated need for Afghans to defend their territory has given Afghanistan the reputation of “the graveyard of empires” – a warning that the U.S. has not heeded.
Although the governments of the U.S., Canada and other imperialist allies used nice-sounding excuses such as “liberating women” and “promoting democracy” to convince their populations to support this war, the fact is that Afghanistan has already proved it doesn’t need Western involvement to achieve these goals. The U.S. is responsible for the downfall of these progress previously made in Afghanistan. One might be surprised to learn how Afghan women first had the right to vote in 1919 – one year before women in the U.S. achieved this right! By the 1970’s – 80’s women in Afghanistan were experiencing new advances in their rights and their roles in society. Even former U.S. President George W. Bush noted in December 2001,
“Before the Taliban came, women played an incredibly important part of [Afghan] society. Seventy percent of the nation’s teachers were women. Half of the government workers in Afghanistan were women, and forty percent of the doctors in the capital of Kabul were women. The Taliban destroyed that progress.”
However, the Taliban didn’t appear out of anywhere – they grew out of the remnants of the Mujahadeen, a group of fighters whom the U.S. sponsored and trained to fight the Soviet Union during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. This story is far too familiar, as today countries in the region face the threat of terrorist groups such as Daesh (also known as ISIS) after years of U.S. funding and arming of so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria. During the 1980’s, U.S. covert operations went from funding, arming and training, to even indoctrination via school books. The Washington Post reported in 2002 how
“in the twilight of the Cold War, the United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation. The primers, which were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school’s system’s core curriculum. Even the Taliban used the American-produced books…”
U.S. ambitions in Afghanistan are much bigger than one country and are part of a long-range strategy to gain hegemony of the region, opening a new era of war and occupation. In a March 2007 interview by Democracy Now with former U.S. General Wesley Clark, he recounted being shown a memo by another general at the Pentagon, shortly after the bombing of Afghanistan began. He recalled that the memo “describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” During the early days of the war in Afghanistan, plans for the next targets in this new era of war and occupation were already underway. Today, we see Iraq occupied by the U.S. for 15 years, Libya in the chaos following a NATO war, Syria in the turmoil of seven years of U.S. covert and overt war, increased U.S. military involvement throughout Africa, Saudi-led, the U.S.-backed war on Yemen, and sanctions and threats against Iran. The infamous memo was far too accurate. The impetus for this war drive has been the desire of imperialist countries to save their failing capitalist economies with the band-aid fix of new markets, resources and cheap labour, and competition with the growing world powers of Russia and China. The price has been the lives of people in these oppressed nations.
War, war and more war
The initial invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, by the United States was initially supported by the UK and Canada, followed by more imperialist countries allying with the U.S. In 2003, when the U.S. launched its brutal invasion of Iraq, and imperialist “division of labour” took place. The occupation of Afghanistan then came under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This NATO occupation was the largest in its history, with more than 130,000 troops from 51 countries at its height. This included about 100,000 U.S. troops at its peak in 2011.
Throughout the years there have been numerous extensions that have made “end date” something of a cruel joke. Troop levels have gone up and down, and are currently on the rise. On June 13, 2017, U.S. President Trump announced that 4000 additional U.S. troops would be deployed to Afghanistan, joined by 3000 additional forces promised by NATO. This brings the total troop number to nearly 20,000 in Afghanistan.
The hidden number though, is how many “private military contractors” are on the ground in Afghanistan. These private military companies are essentially mercenary soldiers for hire, facing little to no accountability. One of the largest and most infamous companies, formerly called Blackwater, made headlines when it was responsible for the massacre of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Blackwater received contracts of more than $2billion from the U.S. for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, reported by the Financial Times on August 7, 2017. The company has since changed its name numerous times, currently operating as Academi, which has proposed to operate in Afghanistan, which the U.S. government is considering. Already there are currently 26,922 U.S. Department of Defense contractors in Afghanistan, as per a 2018 U.S. Department of Defense report titled Contractor Support of U.S. Operations in the USCENTCOM Area Of Responsibility.
Alongside this shady, privatized method that the U.S. is using to carry out the war in Afghanistan, another way the U.S. government has kept the details of the war hidden is by the increased use of drone warfare. A weapon of choice under the Obama administration, this “hidden war” takes the eyes of the American public away from the war zone, when a U.S. soldier can drive to work in the morning, remotely fly a drone and launch airstrikes from an office, and be home for dinner. Since the Bureau of Investigative Journalism started recording the U.S. drone war in 2015, in Afghanistan there have been at least 4130 confirmed strikes, killing a reported 3923 to 5279 people. These are Afghan people going about their day when a drone quietly appears and remotely takes away their lives.
While these drone attacks have continued under the Trump administration, he has chosen decidedly louder weapons to make sure that from Afghanistan to the U.S., everyone knows the war in Afghanistan is not over. On April 13, 2017, the U.S. military dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), nicknamed the “mother of all bombs” for its extraordinary, 21,600-pound force. This show of force came at a $170,000 price tag. More recently, on September 27, 2018, a new, $115 million F-35B stealth aircraft made its combat debut in Afghanistan, dropping more than $40,000 worth of bombs on a mined weapons cache.
While these one-day snapshots offer a glimpse into the financial cost of the war on Afghanistan, 17 years of war certainly adds up. The Cost of Wars Project at Brown University has estimated that the war in Afghanistan has cost the U.S. roughly $2 trillion. However, this number balloons when adding spending by the Department of Veteran Affairs, and the interest incurred on money that the U.S. has borrowed to fund this war. As of 2018, the Pentagon has noted that the war in Afghanistan costs U.S. taxpayers $45 billion per year. These numbers are just considering the cost to U.S. taxpayers. North of the border, Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan cost taxpayers in Canada at least $18 billion.
The amount of money spent to occupy, bomb and destroy a country is even more appalling when you consider that 32 million Americans are without health insurance, and a June 2018 UN report found that about 20 million Americans live in “extreme poverty.” The war on Afghanistan is also a war on poor and working people in the U.S., whose government justifies funding a war machine but claims do not have enough money to take care of its own people.
It is not just U.S. civilians feeling the pinch, but soldiers returning from war who may face physical wounds or mental health issues after experiencing the inhuman effects of war. After being used up as pawns in a war for the U.S. capitalist ruling class profit, U.S. veterans face rates of suicide that are 1.5 times greater than non-veteran adults, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs in a 2016 report. Not only have 2413 U.S. soldiers come back from Afghanistan in body bags, according to the casualties casualty tracking website. In 2016, about 20 current or former U.S. service members died by suicide each day, as noted by Veterans Affairs spokesperson Curtis Cashour. In Canada, while 158 soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, an additional 59 Canadian soldiers died by suicide as reported by the Globe and Mail from Canadian military statistics in 2015.
What do 17 years of war look like for Afghanistan?
After 17 years, trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops, where does this leave the Afghan people?
Between October 2001 and July 2016, 31,419 Afghan civilians were documented as killed by the Costs of War report of Watson Institute, Brown University. This doesn’t count U.S., coalition, Afghan military, Taliban, journalist or aid worker deaths. Considering this number, one must also remember just how difficult tracking the death count is in Afghanistan. In 2002, U.S. Army General Tommy Franks famously told reporters “we don’t do body counts.” The U.S. military forces couldn’t care to count how many Afghan people they killed. Much of the data for casualty counting comes from UNAMA, which only began documenting civilian casualties in 2009, and only tracks incidents that have been investigated by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
Year after year new grim records is broken. 2017 saw a 23% rise in the number of women killed, and a 9% increase in children killed compared to the year before, as per UNAMA. 2018 has the highest civilian deaths on record, with 1,692 civilians killed by June 30, 2018, according to the UN. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program also shows the number of battle deaths in Afghanistan will likely surpass 20,000 in 2018 – also breaking the record over 17 years.
The impact of war on Afghanistan goes far beyond those killed from airstrikes, checkpoint shootings and night raids. Those surviving the war in Afghanistan are struggling to do so.
A 2017 World Bank report found that poverty is on the rise, increasing from 36% in 2011-12 to 39% in 2013-14. As a result, 1.3 million more Afghans are facing poverty. According to the World Food Programme, around 33% of Afghans are food insecure (around 9.3 million people), and around 3.4 million of them are severely food insecure.
Poverty and food insecurity are directly related to the lack of employment available in Afghanistan. The World Bank reported that 4 out of 5 jobs that were created between 2007-08 and 2011-12 were lost by 2013-14 in the rural service sector. The World Bank lists Afghanistan’s employment rate at only 41% in 2016-17. These statistics translate to a stark reality for Afghan people, as a September 30, 2018 interview by Al Jazeera with an Afghan citizen explains. “Right now if Taliban or ISIS came here with a truck offering work, all of us would go with them, all of us. That’s because we don’t have money and we need to eat.”
The effects of war can be seen most dramatically in the scope of women and children – the populations that the governments of the U.S., Canada and their allies claimed to be protecting when this war began.
However, according to UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a baby, a child or a mother.
UNAMA reported that from 2015 to 2016, casualties among children increased by 24%. More than 1 million of Afghanistan’s children suffer from acute malnutrition, an increase of more than 40% since January 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and reported by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in May 2017.
In a situation where surviving is the top priority, school falls to the wayside. In 2016 Human Rights Watch reported at least a quarter of Afghan children between the ages 5 and 14 to work for a living or to help their families, often in hazardous working conditions. This, along with the lack of security and lack of schools and teachers, has to lead to nearly half of children aged 7 to 17 years old (or 3.7 million children) missing out on school, as per a UNICEF report from June 3, 2018.
With many war widows who have lost their husbands and bread-winners to the war, female-headed households are almost 50% more likely to be severely food insecure than other households in Afghanistan, according to a 2015 World Food Programme report. The last 17 years have been full of reports of women turning to prostitution out of desperation to feed their families and survive. The promised liberation of women has instead been that women are in a more precarious situation. Poverty has resulted in an increase of child brides and the trafficking of vulnerable women, and consequently, women turning to suicide to escape their situations. Particularly horrific has been the cases of self-immolation by women, who have set fire to themselves to attempt suicide.
Within Afghanistan’s collapsed health care system, women are also suffering the most from the lack of care, especially before, during and after childbirth. A 2014 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) report found that 4 out of 5 Afghans said they did not use their closest public clinic because they believed the quality of services and availability of staff was so poor. According to a 2016 report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 9 million Afghans are without access to basic health services. While some reports have boasted improvements to Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rates, on January 30, 2017, the Guardian reported that previously unpublished studies by the Afghan Government found an average level of maternal deaths between 800 and 1,200 for every 100,000 live births. The article also reported the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) found as many as 1,800 maternal deaths a year in the remote Afghan province of Ghor. Nine out of 11 provinces had higher death rates than the number normally used by donors.
Aid organizations that run much of Afghanistan’s health services are having the withdraw due to the lack of security. One example is from October 3rd, 2015, when repeated and continuous U.S. airstrikes on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed more than 42 innocent people, mainly patients and staff. Under International Humanitarian Law hospitals in conflict zones are protected spaces, and an MSF statement denouncing the attack noted that the hospital was well-known and the GPS coordinates had been regularly shared with coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials.
What about reconstruction?
Despite billions of dollars spent on reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan, this has not equalled jobs for Afghan people, or even a real improvement to infrastructure. On the contrary, reconstruction has gone hand in hand with corruption.
A young member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) outlined the link between occupation forces and corruption in Afghanistan, at a women’s rights conference in Karachi, Pakistan in 2016. “The U.S. used women’s rights as an excuse to invade my country Afghanistan and continues to kill innocent women and children and conduct their terrifying drone attacks and chilling night raids in all parts of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s current government, Parliament, and judiciary are all occupied at highest positions by criminals, heinous fundamentalists and warlords implicated in grave war crimes, and enjoy the unconditional backing of western powers”.
As the speaker noted, the U.S. again employed the strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” During the initial days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. funded and armed the Northern Alliance, a group of militias that, like the Taliban, grew out of the Mujaheddin, to help overthrow the Taliban. These Northern Alliance leaders, with the support of the U.S., became ministers and governors in the new, U.S.-puppet government in Afghanistan. April 1, 2015, Washington Post article does a fine job of outlining the various characters of the Northern Alliance and their nefarious connections, and the power they now hold. For example – Atta Mohammad Noor, a senior commander for the Northern Alliance. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s U.S.-installed former President, appointed him as the governor of Balkh province. The Washington Post reports “He ruled the northern region with an iron fist, leading to accusations of widespread looting and mass executions. With his warlord legacy tucked in, he has now transformed himself into an ultra-rich businessman.”
Besides supporting and enabling the rise of corrupt warlords to political power, how did the U.S. government contribute to corruption in Afghanistan? Through cash, of course. An October 2016 report by the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) detailed how billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent in Afghanistan were funneled into the hands of corrupt elites and warlords. “While corruption in Afghanistan predates 2001, it has become far more serious and widespread since then,” noted John Sopko, head of SIGAR. “The result [of US/NATO intervention] in Afghanistan was systemic corruption – pervasive and entrenched, affecting the courts, the army and police, banking and other critical sectors.”
A 2010 report to the U.S. House of Representatives titled “Warlord, Inc.” found that
“the Department of Defense designed a contract that put responsibility for the security of vital U.S. supplies on contractors and their unaccountable security providers. This arrangement has fueled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others.”
“Reconstruction” in Afghanistan has meant the U.S. government is holding on to its occupation with the language of corruption. The “success” of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are the massive U.S. embassy in Kabul, military bases and luxury hotels, and roads and infrastructure to support it. The promised schools, health care facilities, and roads to help farmers make their harvests profitable, are not the priority.
Opium Production, A tragedy for Afghanistan and the World
Another evidence of corruption is in opium production. In the 1990’s, the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance gained control in Afghanistan and with it came the rise of opium production. In 2000, the Taliban ordered an end to opium production, and by 2001, opium production dropped by 90%. However, under U.S. occupation opium production quickly grew again. By 2015, Afghanistan supplied 90% of the world’s opium, much of it is refined into heroin.
Could this happen without U.S. involvement? An entire article could be written on U.S. connections to the drug trade in Afghanistan, and many other U.S. military operations throughout history. One major player was Ahmad Wali Karzai (brother of former President Karzai), who was Chairman of the Kandahar Provincial Council from 2005 until his death in 2011. Described in the New Yorker as the “Afghan Godfather” he was the biggest drug dealer of not just Afghanistan, but the region. The whole time, he was on the payroll of the CIA.
The rise of opium has had a tragic effect on the Afghan population. UN reported the use of opium as “a kind of self-medication against the hardships of life.” By 2015, they reported the number of addicts in the country had soared to 3 million — an astonishing 12 percent of the populace — with heroin being increasingly used. Though addiction traditionally was limited to men, women are increasingly becoming addicted, as well as children who are given opium to quiet them when medication and food are not available.
U.S./NATO Out of Afganistan!
With 17 years of U.S. and NATO occupation of Afghanistan, preceded by decades of war which involved the U.S. covertly training and arming the Taliban, it is no wonder that Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest number of refugees. At 2.6 million refugees, this is 10% of the country’s population according to UNHCR data from 2016. Additionally, about 2 million Afghans are internally displaced. Many refugees returned to Afghanistan early into the U.S. occupation hoping for more stability, and still, others were forced by their host countries to return. Of those who returned to Afghanistan after living as refugees abroad, 72% of those surveyed were displaced twice and many three times, according to a January 2018 report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). In 2017, on average, 1,200 Afghans were forced to flee every single day.
This article has barely scratched at the surface of how every aspect of life for the Afghan people has been dominated and dictated by foreign occupation. The chance for Afghanistan’s social and intellectual progress, including the advance of women’s rights, are stiffed under the basic need to survive. The political and economic structures of Afghanistan cannot move without being directed by the imperialist occupation that holds Afghanistan in a tight grip.
As Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary elections on October 20, which have been delayed for three years, it is with zero legitimacy and without the expectation that this election will be different than previous ones that have had no real impact on the lives of Afghan people. Another reason why these elections are a farce is that much of the country isn’t even under government control.
While the war and occupation have destroyed the lives of Afghan people, it hasn’t been a success for occupation forces. While a situation of permanent occupation mean Afghanistan is a permanent base for U.S. forces, the U.S. doesn’t have anywhere near the hold on the country that it requires. A July 2018 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) cited NATO’s Resolute Support as tallying only 56.3% of Afghanistan’s districts as under government control or influence. A full 30 percent of districts, were reported as contested territory, meaning they were “controlled by neither the Afghan government nor the insurgency.” In reality, the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan only has control of the capital Kabul.
The fact is that the Taliban have gained strength in Afghanistan because, in a country that has for centuries fought to the tooth against attempts at foreign domination, any Afghan wanting to fight the occupation sees the Taliban as the most viable fighting force. The situation has forced the U.S. into talks with the Taliban, as 17 years of the most advanced military in the world is no match for a people that simply want foreign occupiers out. On the U.S. government talks with the Taliban, September 14, 2018, Voice of America (VOA) news report quoted Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official in Kabul who remains in regular contact with Taliban leaders. “U.S. wants the Taliban to accept at least two military bases, Bagram and Shorabak. The Taliban are not willing to accept it.” Muzhda added that Taliban leaders are unwilling to accept anything more than a nominal number of troops required to secure the U.S. diplomatic mission. In short, no more foreign occupation.
What way forward for Afghanistan?
After 17 years of U.S. and NATO occupation, preceded by decades of war, Afghanistan’s problems will not be solved overnight. However, the only people with the real interest to solve Afghanistan’s problems are the Afghan people themselves. As discussed earlier in this article, in the brief periods without foreign involvement, Afghanistan progressed socially and politically. The best chance Afghanistan can have is one where their self-determination is respected, and the interests of the Afghan people can function free of foreign domination.
No to War and Occupation in Afghanistan!
Yes to Self-Determination for people of Afghanistan!
All foreign troops out of Afghanistan!
Follow Janine on Twitter: @janinesolanki